From garden worm to Woolly Worm Presented from Issue 93 by Peter Broomhall
The little pistol grip fishing rod complete with its Abumatic closed face spinning reel rests neatly in the crook of a forked stick that has been pushed into muddy ground slowly being inundated by the rising river waters. Soon the rod tip gives a slight bounce, a pause and then a more urgent bounce was noticed. The loop of line near the reel is pulled out from under the stick and soon line is peeling out through the guides. This action on the rod and line quickly brings the teenage angler to attention. He knows that another fat Mersey River brown trout has succumbed to his earthworm bait that had been cast into the flooded river backwater only minutes earlier. Given plenty of time to completely swallow the worm the trout is then hooked, quickly played and then unceremoniously dragged from the water. This trout is quickly despatched and then added to the string of others hanging from a nearby willow tree branch.
Fast forward this scene to the present, a mere blink in time of around 25 years, the same angler crouches at the very same flooded river backwater this time with fly rod in hand waiting for signs of actively feeding trout, either a swirl, boil or a tip of a fin cutting through the still surface. Once sighted the angler quickly gets into position to present his rabbit fur fly in front of the fish and then eagerly awaits signs of a take. A subtle boil in the vicinity of the sunken fly or a simple straightening of the leader are the usual visual indicators that he is looking for. Once an acceptance of his offering is confirmed there is a firm lift of the rod and the trout is hooked. Another fine Mersey brown is played and then slid up onto the wet grass. A difference this time is that the glistening trout is quickly admired, the fly removed from its jaw and then slipped back into the cold late winter water and freedom.
So begins another trout season!!
The scenes described above have been repeated innumerable times over the period of my fishing days. The gradual transition from fishing baits and lures to fly fishing began in my late teens. It was in these formative years that I really learned how to find and catch the elusive trout. Many hours spent on the banks of my home river, the Mersey, patiently waiting for a bite provided invaluable insights into the habits of the wily river dwelling brown trout. These were lessons never forgotten.
Much of my time away from the riverbank was spent reading the writings and works of one the forefathers of Tasmanian fly fishing, David Scholes. His eloquent words were able to easily transport me to the rivers and lakes that he frequented. The pools, runs and backwaters on famous northern river basins such as the Macquarie and Break O’ Day were as familiar to me then as my own little backwater on the Mersey was even though I had not actually set foot on their hallowed banks. Back then it was his stories about chasing flood water feeding trout on these rivers that I could really relate to and it was these words that set me on the path to becoming a fly fisher.
Early season flood water fishing Late July the thoughts and prayers of most trout fisherman are for some heavy rainfall leading up to the first Saturday in August. For many the ideal way to bring in the new trout season would have to be waiting patiently at dawn beside a flooded river backwater or lake margin watching for a trout to reveal its whereabouts. Unfortunately nature doesn’t always work to Eastern Standard Time so quite often we have to wait a few weeks for the perfect conditions for this type of fishing but in most years there are quite a few opportunities that present themselves in the period spanning from early August to late September.
During late winter to early spring any heavy rainfall in the catchment areas and middle reaches of my two favourite rivers for this type of fishing, the Mersey and Leven, usually results in swollen levels further downstream. The MerseyLea and Gunns Plains sections on these rivers have many areas suitable to look for flooded backwaters. Low lying marshy depressions in open paddocks, farmers drainage ditches and side creeks all create the required conditions for trout looking to seek refuge from the strong flows of the main river at flood time and they also contain the bonus of vast quantities of food such as worms, slugs, grubs, frogs and the like being flushed out by the rising water. It is in these areas the trout will gorge themselves on the available food supply while the high waters last. The main attribute to look for in these areas is a good entry and exit connection to the main river. Deep channels at the entrance to a “light globe” shaped backwater are absolutely ideal.
Slowly rising and sustained high river levels create the very best conditions to find feeding trout. The major or destructive flash floods such as we experienced last year rarely result in really good fishing in the main rivers. The rapidly rising water seems to keep the trout in their lairs and not willing to venture out too far. Rapidly dropping water levels also make it difficult to find the trout as they will depart the shallows edges to ensure that they do not get stranded in ponds disconnected from the river.
The use of technology in the current age takes a lot of guess work out of finding the perfect river levels. Many rivers have their levels trended and are accessible on the internet. The Bureau of Meteorology website (www.bom.gov.au) is useful as it has current river levels, rainfall data, and radar images available at your fingertips. A quick view will be able to tell you whether the river at your favourite spot is rising or falling.
It also pays to have a few areas picked out that flood at different river heights. That way you can move quickly to the next section if you find the river too high or low.
Almost all major river systems will have areas that provide reliable flood water fishing opportunities. Apart from the ones already mentioned, the Meander, South Esk, Macquarie and Lake Rivers have well documented fishing of this ilk. Add to these rivers like the Ringarooma, Flowerdale, Gawler etc.. and you have a multitude of options available when the rains come.
High Water on the Lakes
There a few distinct types of flooded margin fishing on the highland lakes.
Firstly there is the slowly rising water level on the large hydro lakes such as Great Lake, Arthurs, Echo and King William. This condition is created by a wet winter and spring and hopefully more water flowing in to the lake than the hydro need to take out for power generation. Some sensational fishing can be found when the lake levels gradually inundate marsh areas and grassy shores previously left high and dry for long periods of time, sometimes years or as in the case of Great Lake in the late 90’s, decades! The trout will soon follow the rising water levels up over the new ground gorging themselves on the worms and grubs being flushed out by the water. An added bonus is when small ponds and soaks get inundated by the rising water. These small waters will often have an abundant population of water snails and various crustaceans that had been segregated from the marauding trout for a long time. The fish will really target these areas so if you can find them the action will not be too far away.
Specific areas on these large lakes are many and varied. The black silt shores on Great Lake, the Northern marshes on Lake Echo, the Cowpaddock bay area on Arthurs and any of the extensive Lake King William mud flats are all well worth a look when the waters are rising.
Then there is the fishing opportunities created on the smaller waters by locally heavy rainfalls. Highland lakes such as Little Pine Lagoon, Gunns and Little Lakes , Pine Tier Lagoon, Lake Fergus, Lake Augusta and the Nineteen Lagoons rise extremely quickly given the right conditions. The trout in these smaller storages seem to know that the elevated levels and associated access to a different food source will be relatively short lived and generally react accordingly. The fishing can be fast and furious if you are lucky to be in the right spot at the right time. It can be a problem deciding which trout to cast at these times. Certainly a nice problem to have though you would no doubt agree! When targeting the smaller lakes the timing is crucial, the peak fishing can occur over a period as short as a few hours.
As with the rivers the use of technology makes it much easier these days to predict good fishing on the lakes. As well as the various weather sites on the internet for rainfall figures, up to date lake levels are available on the hydro website (www.hydro.com. au/water/lake-levels). Some of these levels are also trended which makes it easy to predict when that lake is going to reach that magic height!
The best of the fishing in the highlands is often a little later than the lowland rivers and streams. Although it is possible to experience good fishing in August in the lake country, if you decide not to brave the cold conditions much more reliable fishing is found from early September onwards.
Ideal weather conditions will be an overcast day, light winds with maybe a few passing showers. These conditions will sometimes keep the trout feeding throughout the day and relatively easy to spot. Heavy rain and strong winds make the subtle swirls and boils of the worming trout difficult to see. A perfect example was a quick trip early last season up to the Leven River at Gunns Plains after work. Upon arrival I found the river at a perfect level for backwater fishing but pouring rain made it all but impossible to see any feeding trout. I stood on the edge of my favourite backwater for half an hour or so waiting and then almost left without taking the fly from the keeper ring but a sudden abatement in the rain left the surface of the water glassy.
Now easily visible were no less than half a dozen trout actively feeding within a casts length in front of me. The tiny swirls and boils had been made invisible by the downpour. Quite a few of these trout were successfully targeted before the others were sent scurrying out by the commotion.
Bright sunny days often confine the best of the fishing to the few short hours around daybreak and dusk. Those that have fished in these conditions know that these peak periods are all too brief and you just run out of time. If I had to make a choice on which end of the day to fish I would select dawn every time. Although the sun peaking over the horizon can slow down the fishing, if the food supply is great enough you just never know!
Backwater and margin feeding trout will usually follow a distinct beat or path. Trout very quickly tune into the areas that contain the most food and will return to the same areas almost like clockwork. This makes it quite easy to set up an ambush to catch them. As mentioned before, keep a close eye on the water for swirls, underwater boils, bow waves, etc.... These are the usual indicators that will alert you to the presence of feeding trout in your chosen spot. Sometimes when they are feeding really aggressively the trout will show tails, fins and even entire backs out of the water as they wriggle through the grass trying to eat as much food as possible while the levels are high.
Trout caught at this time frequently exhibit greatly distended bellies and commonly disgorge masses of worms and the like while you are unhooking them.
Birds and other wildlife can also be good indicators of the abundance of food in the backwaters and flooded margins. Ducks, crows, grey cranes and even seagulls will patrol the edges also taking advantage of the easy pickings on offer at flood time. Another regular visitor to the flooded river backwaters is the platypus. These amazing animals are sometimes the first to arrive in the ponds. What fisherman doesn’t like to share his spot with them and if the fishing is slow just observing them going about their business is worth the trip alone.
To target these trout the angler needs to be able to adapt quickly to changing conditions and feeding habits. My first option is to try and ascertain the likely movements of the trout and leave the fly in its path or beat. Imparting little or no movement to the fly once the trout has detected it quite often results in a take. Watch for leader movement or swirls in the vicinity of the fly. If this method is not proving successful a steady strip will sometimes do the trick. In short be prepared to vary the retrieve rates to find what is working on the day.
As you would have ascertained by the tone of this article my distinct preference is for sight fishing for the trout but there are of course times when this cannot be achieved. It can be quite easy to leave the river without having a cast if you are only a few minutes from home but it is an entirely different proposition if a drive of a few hours has been undertaken to get to the lakes. So it pays to have a fall back plan.
Blind fishing or targeting the likely areas can be an effective fall back if the trout are not showing themselves. Working wet flys along gutters and around structure such as flooded vegetation can result in heavy bags of early season trout. Sometimes the flooded areas can be deep enough so that the fish are feeding without disturbing the surface so it pays to put a few casts across them.
Fly rods ranging in weight from 2 up to 7 weight are suitable for this type of fishing. If fishing in windy conditions, which is so often the case in Tassie the higher weight rods are in order, especially so if fishing with bulky flies.
As the vast majority of flood fishing is in shallow water floating fly lines in a weight forward configuration are all that is required. A lot of the fishing will be close up so a line that loads the rod with minimal line out is recommended. Some “overweight” the rod, eg go up a line size or two, to achieve this purpose. Accurate casting is the recipe for success.
Long leaders are not essential with the standard 9 footers a good choice. I prefer to use Maxima Ultragreen tippet material in either 5 or 6 lb breaking strain. Ultra-light tippet material is not required and in fact can be a decided handicap as the flooded areas generally contain lots of drowned vegetation which can catch the leader regularly. The next trout to bury itself in a drowned kerosene bush after hookup won’t be the first, or last!
The Flies Early season flood time fishing is usually the domain of the wet fly. Although dry flys can be effectively used at times, especially if critters such as Spiders and bugs are being flooded out by the rising water, the vast majority of the food available to the trout at this time of year is under the surface.
My favourite fly for flooded backwater and margin fishing is the Rabbit Fur Fly in either black or natural brown/grey colours. This fly seems to be able to imitate a wide variety of the common food sources that trout look for at flood time. Quite often trout will pick this fly up from the bottom without any movement having to be imparted to it.
Other reliable flys are the Woolly Bugger, Woolly Worm, Yeti, Montana Nymph and Matuka’s (and their variants). Black or dark coloured flies with a maybe a little red, yellow or orange in the makeup are typical.
Another fly that has gained some popularity in recent times is the chenille based ‘earthworm’ pattern. As the name suggests this simple fly is a very good imitation of the humble garden worm or scrub worm that floodwater trout so love to eat.
Although the conditions in the first few months of the new season can often be wet and cold, the floodwater feeders give us the first real chance of sight fishing to wild Tasmanian brown trout. My advice is to do a little research and then pack your rain coat and beanie in the car and get out there amongst them.