Presented from Issue 111, August 2014
Three effective river techniques for early season success
The trout season opening is upon us again. This time of year nowadays is, for me, a real quandary. I know that the really reliable fishing of spring is still weeks if not months away, but ever since I started trout fishing all those years ago I have looked forward to the first Saturday in August with a real hunger. The night before for me was always like Christmas Eve, I couldn’t wait to see what ‘gifts’ the river would bring each year.
While this boyish enthusiasm has worn off slightly over the years the opening day of the new season still holds a certain magic for me personally right to this very day. Most opening days early in my trout fishing journey were generally spent either casting lures if the local river was clear or soaking a humble garden worm if flooded waters were found. Both methods were particularly successful ways of targeting the fish in the early part of the trout season, and no doubt still would be now. Simple lures like silver Wonder Wobblers (spoons for those too young to remember them) and green and gold devons were all that was needed to fill the bottom of the fishing bag on most trips if the weather was suitable.
Since taking up fly fishing full time in my early twenties the early season river trout became somewhat of an enigma. The often fast flowing icy cold water was rarely conducive to sight fishing for the resident browns and migratory sea runners and very little time was devoted to working out the rivers secrets. The trout would be generally lying deep in the frigid water and for me — trying to counter the extra drag created by trying to control the thicker fly line in the fast water was extremely frustrating to say the least.
Trips to flowing waters in August and early September each year were generally confined to chasing worming trout in flooded backwaters whenever these conditions eventuated and therefore the vast majority of my late winter and early spring forays were spent on the lowland still waters such as local farm dams or the larger waters such as Four Springs Lake.
Of course the obvious was right in front of me all the time and river trout that could be caught regularly on lures could also be successfully targeted on fly tackle. The answer was fishing across and down the flowing water with wet flies or deep nymphing. The hardest part of the lure fishing scenario to imitate with the fly is the flash and movement which draws the fish to the imitation. This action is of course built into the lure during manufacture which makes it quite easy to fish. The challenge for the fly fisher is make the fly behave similarly. Once I stared to work out how to fish these waters the confidence started to build and now the rivers are the preferred starting point for the new season again no matter what the conditions.
So, for fly fishers considering hitting the rivers in the early part of the season the question is what tactics should be employed and where should I go?
Clear water tactics
The methods that I would employ if high but clear river waters are encountered in the first weeks of the new season is by either fishing wet flies using an across and downstream presentation or by upstream indicator nymphing tactics. Both tactics can work particularly well given suitable conditions at any stage of the year but are particularly useful if there is no obvious surface feeding action occurring as is the norm early on.
1. Across and down wets
The vital part of this particular style of wet fly fishing is in the description. Wet flies are cast diagonally across and swung downstream. The major difference in this technique being the angler will normally work downstream instead of the traditional upstream style associated with dry fly and nymph fishing. Areas to target are slicked areas in patches of otherwise fast broken water. These disruptions, generally caused by large rocks or logs are areas that trout will frequent and therefore the challenge for the fly fisher is to get their fly into these zones at the correct depth and without drag.
Maintaining drag free drifts and keeping constant contact with the fly is probably the major obstacle to overcome with this style of fishing. A good rule of thumb is that the faster the water the more downstream angle is required. Slow water casts can be virtually straight across and then mends are made to keep the fly travelling across the current at around the same speed that it is moving downstream. Every effort should be made to swing the fly across any likely holding lies, remembering that trout holding in fast water invariably face upstream. Once the fly has swung back across and is directly downstream from your position let it hang for a few seconds before recasting. This pause is also vital as trout sometimes follow a moving fly for some distance before deciding to eat it or not. The pause can often be enough to convince a reluctant trout to open its mouth. Lengthen casts a few feet at a time until all the water is covered and then take a few steps downstream and start again.
A multitude of wet fly patterns can be utilised for the across and down technique with my personal favourite being the woolley bugger style of fly. A range of weights in your fly pattern is also handy to ensure that the full water column is covered. Fly weighted with either lead wire underbodies and/or bead heads are standard. In most Tasmanian rivers a floating line is all that is required to cover most situations but sink tip lines are also a useful addition when we really need to plumb the depths.
Easy right !!
Well probably easier said than done but with a little practice this style can be mastered relatively quickly.
2. Upstream nymphing (Indicator)
Early in the season most river trout will be laying deep in the current mainly feeding on immature nymphs, crustaceans, water snails and creatures of similar ilk. Rises are rare at this time of year so the angler needs to get his imitations down to the fish. An effective way of doing this is to fish heavily weighted nymphs under an indicator.
A team of nymphs which for me is usually two flies, are tied onto a standard 9’ leader. Approx 6 foot up from the top fly an indicator, usually a bunch of sheep’s wool is half hitched to the leader. My preference is to run a heavily weighted fly, ie tungsten beaded, on top with a lighter fly trailing a few foot below attached off the bend of the top fly.
Variants of Pheasant Tail and Hares Ear nymphs are typical for this sort of fishing with the good old Woolley Bugger also worth a spot especially early in the season. A variety of colours in the beads is also useful with copper, gold and black nickel featured heavily in my nymph box.
Medium to fast runs are ideal for this technique. Similar to the across and down fishing described earlier, areas of slicked water amongst the broken water in the ripples are the spots to target. Anglers need to cast upstream of any likely lies so that the flies reach the targeted depth before the get to the prime spot. Anglers should treat the indicator as they would a dry fly and mend line during the drift to ensure a drag free presentation. A close eye must be kept on the indicator at all times so that any unnaturally movements, such as abrupt stops, sideways movements, and sinking can be reacted to immediately. Some of these movements can be caused by the fly touching the bottom but sometimes it is a trout. All possible takes should be met with a sudden lift of the rod as you just never know.
3. River floods
Most local river anglers generally do a rain dance in the week leading up to the trout season opener. Heavy rains high in the river catchments result in rising water levels and in turn flooded backwaters and ditches particularly in the lower reaches of river systems. These freshly flooded areas provide a veritable larder for the trout looking to stack on condition after a long hard winter. Worms, grubs, slugs, frogs and a host of other creatures are flushed out by the rising waters and instantly become a viable food source for the trout.
If conditions are conducive trout fishers should look for flooded areas with little or no current running through them and also with a good deep connection back to the main river. Rising or stable water heights are ideal and visibly feeding trout can often be found in these areas given suitable conditions. Keep an eye out for swirls, tips of fins and tails, bow waves or even in some situations whole backs out of the water. Fly fishers should cast to these disturbances as quick as possible trying to pick the trout’s direction of travel, which can be difficult at times. Flies should be placed just ahead of the trout so that the sunken imitation is at or near the bottom when he arrives. The fish will often just pick the fly up without having to move it but if it goes unnoticed a quick strip will result in a response on most occasions.
Mornings and evenings are generally the best bet to find these fish but overcast rainy days will often keep the trout in the backwaters all day long.
The trout will begin to retreat back to the main river as soon as levels start to drop so timing is crucial for his sort of fishing.
Your usual river gear will suffice in these circumstances with the typical 3, 4 and 5 weights ideal for the task. Slightly heavier tippets are the go in the combination of murky waters restricting the fishes vision and flooded vegetation which creates some hazards when trying to land a feisty trout.
Fly selection for the flooded waters are again the usual suspects with variants of Woolley Buggers and Rabbit Fur flies gaining a position of prominence in my early season fly box.
Almost all of the major Tasmanian river systems will have suitable areas to deploy the techniques described above with the Macquarie, Meander and South Esk rivers in the north, the Mersey and Leven rivers in the north west sector and the mighty Derwent and its tributaries in the south the pick of the waters
The lower reaches of the local systems are generally where most of my own early endeavours are concentrated, especially in the case of across and down wet fly and indicator nymphing techniques. The smoother gradient results in a nice mix of runs, ripples and glides on the Mersey, Leven and Forth rivers where all the above tactics can be tried. A nice bonus here is the presence of the migratory sea run brown trout. These hard fighting silvery fish certainly let you know when you have hooked one…
For the flood water feeders the Merseylea section of the Mersey River and the Gunns Plains section of the Leven provide a multitude of options if water levels are suitable. In these locations there are a myriad of side creeks, farmers ditches, depressions and boggy marsh areas that provide perfect opportunities for early seasons forays.
Many of the Tasmanian river systems now have designated angler access areas provided. These areas are sign posted and almost all are equipped with stiles to provide easy access to the water. A reminder to all that are using these areas please obey all signs and if unsure of the access please ask permission before entering private land.
The Tasmanian rivers and streams are a greatly underutilised resource for anglers — particularly early in the season. It is quite rare to see another fly fisher on the rivers in the first few months before the insect hatches commence. Hopefully the tips and techniques that I have described above will encourage a few others to sample what can be marvellous fishing on offer early on.
Grab your raincoat and beanie and I will see you out on the water.