The lure of wind lanes
by Neil Grose
In the final throes of the season there is still a wide variety of excellent fishing available. The rivers fish well at this time of year, trout in lakes still remember to look up with regularity, and the wet fly is increasingly more reliable. But after a big season of all that, I feel the need for something more memorable, a fishing experience to dull the sharp fingers of winter, the rainbow at the end of the pot of gold.
What I am alluding to is targeting rainbow trout in the highland lakes. Vastly different in habit to our good friend the brown, we need a change of thinking from our normal attacks on the brownie to get this dynamo on the end of the line. Rather than stalking the shores with waders and woollies for browns, the rainbow is essentially a creature of open water and cool depths. As the brown trout becomes preoccupied with thoughts of spawning, the rainbows are still in top gear, and are definitely out and about. While the persistent wet fly angler can flog up a few from the depths, the real adrenalin rush comes from sight fishing, and for rainbows at the back end of the season, wind lanes are what it's all about.
Wind lanes - What are they?
For the uninitiated a wind lane is a ribbon of calm amongst ruffled water, these can stretch for many kilometres, and they act as magnets for anything trapped in the surface, all sorts of junk can be found within the confines of wind lanes. I've seen thongs, beer cans, orange peel, cigarette butts, dead birds and other detritus, as well as snakes, ducks and platypi joining the trout for the feast. Lanes are generated by wind currents funnelled by the terrain surrounding the lake. Lakes with steep sided hills will usually produce reliable wind lanes, lakes on open plains are less conducive to good slicks. Some lakes are better than others for generating good wind lanes, but more about locations later.
The best conditions
A few basic ingredients for wind lanes are required at this time of year. Kind winds that are both stable in velocity and direction, nothing shoots to pieces a wind lane more than gusty and swinging breezes. A still end to the previous day, a calm night, and a calm dawn are essential. If it blows like billy-oh all night then any food that was on the surface will have been blown to shore and not able to be pulled into a wind lane. Ideally the previous evening will have had some good insect activity, such as beetles, ants, caddis and chironomids. The best early mornings involve a steady increase in wind from dawn onwards, till a ripple about 2 to 3 inches is on the surface, a corduroy effect if you like. If the wind gets too strong the lanes can become fragmented and then dissipate. If the morning is very bright then trout will be very wary of boats getting too close. Dull mornings may give you the chance to get a little closer, but not much. Dull mornings often mean that trout stay in the lanes longer, while bright conditions can have fish leaving them as the sun gets up properly into the sky.
What to look for in a wind lane
First of all a wind lane that has trout food in it. Seems a simple thing, but often there are lanes which look like rainbow heaven, but are as barren as a desert. Move around and look in all the lanes that you may see, while one may be barren, others can teem with all sorts of goodies. The types of insects are spent midges and caddis, both will be on the water with their wings splayed out, beetles and to a seasonal extent, jassids. Ants can also feature on different days, they must taste like chocolate Tim Tams as there are not many fish that will swim past them. The slick, flat area of the lane will have these things in it, but the greatest concentration of them will be along the edges, not always, but more often than not. So as you scan the wind lane for fish, the edges are the best place to fix your concentration. If a trout moves in the flatter water, your peripheral vision should pick that up.
Seeing trout, particularly rainbows in a wind lane is not an easy thing. Rises are somewhat discreet, and indicate where the fish WAS, rather than where it will be. Rainbows will tend to move quicker that browns, often extremely fast. Browns are more methodical in wind lanes, a triangular snout snipping at the surface in regular, short intervals gives away where they are. The brown will rise four, five, or six times within a short distance, say a metre or so, while the rainbow might rise once every three metres in the same time span. While the browns" rise will be very small, the rainbow can often leave a disturbance where it surges to the next offering. Seeing fish in wind lanes is a confidence thing, at the start you struggle to see them, and one is spotted, then another, and before you know it, the beggars are everywhere.
Where is the best place for the oat
Fishing the wind lanes is essentially the domain of the boat angler, it isn't often that the shore based angler gets a look in with this style of fishing. Good boat handling techniques are the make or break of wind lane fishing. Place the boat in the right spot and you have an excellent chance to get heaps of shots at cruising fish. In the wrong place and you will put down far more than you will see. A feature that I just could not be without when guiding or fishing the lanes is an electric outboard, every one that I know who are either good guides or good anglers have one of these, and know how to use it to the best advantage. The reason for this is that the best spot for the boat will change quite regularly, an electric motor allows you to effect a change of position with minimal fuss and noise. Most of the time I set the boat to drift broadside down the edge of the wind lane with the bow of the boat perhaps a little in it. Where the trout in the lane are feeding right in the slick itself then the boat is put right in the middle. If there are not too many trout evident, then I travel bow first down the lane using the electric motor, rods at the ready. The electric also allows the angler to move backwards and forwards across lanes, or to and fro over many lanes, seeking the best spot or the occasional riser.
What are the best techniques?
There are two basic "rules" that I follow with wind lanes. If there is a huge amount of food and trout in a wind lane then I fish wet, (flies later), or not much food but a lot of trout then I fish dry. In a fifty-fifty situation then I will mostly plump for the dries, for no other reason than I prefer to fish dry if at all possible. The reasoning behind this is as follows. Where there are huge amounts of food trapped in the skim of the slick, my flies will just be a few more to the countless millions already there. By using something such as a bead head nymph I change the balance, a cherry in a plate of peas if you will. Cast in front, leading the fish by a metre or so, let it sink until the fly is near its nose, and then with a swift pulling action it should get the trouts" attention. Results should be instant, a rainbow will whack that fly like there is no tomorrow. If you are a fish eater then there probably won't be any tomorrow for it anyway. A few dries in the surface you just don't get that sort of reaction. Where there isn't much food, but the trout are obviously looking for it, then the dries are best, because the trout come to the flies with more purpose, and provided the strike is delayed by three seconds, you are well and truly in. When fishing the dries it can pay to use only one or two flies on a tapered leader, the taper will help with making fast casts to cruising fish. If you see the trout move away before they see the flies, then don't be scared to give them a pull. Not a twitch, more of a skitch, a half metre pull across the surface, to alert them that they are missing out on something.
The ability to cast three quarters of a fly line with only one false cast is instrumental to success, most shots at trout in wind lanes will be at a distance, too close and the boat will spook them. World class anglers such as Shayne Murphy and Peter Hayes catch huge amounts of wind lane feeders, all due to their ability to cast long, accurate and fast. One of Haysies casting clinics can form the basis of this skill, the old thumb on top grip with a side action just won't cut the mustard when it comes time to chase these fast feeders. A day with Peter Hayes at a casting clinic and you will come away better equipped to catch the best fish in the highlands.
Accuracy - or get it in front
The main factor which can never be stressed enough with wind lane fishing is to put the fly in front of the fish. I have never seen a trout in a wind lane turn around to take a fly that has landed behind. Many inexperienced anglers don't get the best from the wind lanes for that simple reason, the fly isn't in front. Lead the fish by three metres if you have to, but if it goes behind then forget it, it won't happen. With rainbows in wind lanes it is even more critical, they move fast, and will swim past heaps of things between eating, so accuracy is all important. With the bead head and rainbows, it has to be 1 to 1.5 metres in front of where the fish will be, not where it was. With mayfly feeders there can be some degree of leeway, but not out in the wind lanes. The importance of estimating the speed of rainbows correctly cannot be understated, these guys move fast, if you can see them in the water then getting in front is easier, but if you can't, then watch the rise forms to gauge the correct interval, then add on a bit.
It's better to be a little too far in front than a smidgen behind.
I don't think it pays to get too exited about actual patterns in the wind lanes. For dry flies I personally can't go past the pommy dries such as the carrot, bobs" bits and the bibio. Add the red tag in smaller sizes and you are about there. The important thing about the dry fly is that it's in front of the fish, the best pattern in the world isn't much use if the trout don't see it. With bead heads the same goes, include a pearly rib and a little bit of flouro green to any black, green or brown bead head and you will be well served. Don't tie them too big, size 12 and 14s are all that's needed. Tie them more complicated if you wish, but simple is best in the long run.
The wind lanes are the domain of the ten foot, fast action rod. Soft loch style rods are a bit off the pace out in the open water, quick and accurate casting and soft rods don't mix. I have just bought a custom built Sage XP ten foot six weight, and I believe it is the best rod I have ever cast. It was put together by Ross Pullin and has got wind lane magic wand written all over it. Loomis make very good wind lane rods, as are the Sage RPL+ series. As always with these high speed rods, it pays to try them with a line weight heavier than recommended, my XP performs excellently with a #7 Scientific Anglers GPX. Reels need to have a good drag mechanism when chasing wind lane rainbows, they will often peel off the whole fly line on successive runs, clunky reels can spell disaster. A good reel should be able to hold 50 metres of backing as well. The leader arrangement will change with technique, when throwing bead heads at rainbows a fast tapered leader will be far better than a level one. If you can find some with thick butts all the better, as they will turn over a couple of bead heads on a long cast easier. With dries the same applies, although a level leader and three flies will be good where trout are less forthright in their movements, and some degree of blind fishing is necessary.
There are no real secrets when it comes to finding wind lane rainbows, Great lake is probably the most reliable and has the best access. I don't think it matters where on Great Lake you go, but some of the best lanes form in Swan Bay, Tods Corner and Cramps Bay. In a light northerly a reliable lane usually forms off the Beehives and curls into Swan Bay. Christmas bay is always worth a look as well. Other renowned wind lane fisheries are Dee Lagoon and Lake Rowallan. Dee Lagoon in particular is a world class fishery, with rainbows over 4 pounds, many even larger. Beware though, the Dee is not an easy fishery, if you can catch three fish at the Dee in the lanes then you are well on the way to hero status. LakeRowallan is perhaps less known, but has the potential to deliver some excellent fishing. I remember driving past Rowallan last winter on my way for a walk into Lees Paddocks and looking incredulously at heaps of fish rising in a sensational wind lane near the road. Pity it was July. Perhaps the wind lane fishers idea of heaven would be a boat on Lake Meston, but I guess thankfully that will never happen. A disappointment in terms of wind lanes is Four Springs. Many though that it would be good at this new lake for wind lane feeders, but it doesn't seem to produce the goods.
Fly fishing in the wind lanes is by no means a method of filling the boat, experienced anglers are well aware that they are far from a sure thing. However, if conditions are right, and the fishing gods are smiling kindly, then it really is an experience that ranks as the one of the best that fly fishing can offer. It requires great skill, patience and observation, but we all know that nothing worthwhile comes easy. Maybe that is the attraction of fly fishing, the achievement of the next level. Maybe because it is the antidote to everything that is not quite so important as fishing.