Breaking the ice - starting the new season
To say that this winter has been wet cold and windy would be an understatement. It really harks back to the good old winters of years gone by - heaps of snow on the highlands, piercing winds that hardly pause for breath and driving rain that only stops so that it can come from a different direction. While this makes us cold and miserable, uses up all our firewood and ramps up the electricity bills as well strive to stay warm and comfortable, it is also "money in the bank" for the new trout season. We need plenty of winter rain and snow for a great summer season. Oh wondrous day, the opening of the season!
Fly fishing the highlands in August and September is often a case of optimism rather than anticipation, as the water is very cold, the weather is usually very ordinary, and the trout aren't particularly active. This early part of the season however can provide some great fishing if not spectacular, especially for those anglers with the flexibility to head for the hills at short notice. September is markedly better than August, but who can really hold out a full month before wetting a line.
There are several things to be on the lookout for in the early months that can yield some great fishing. In August the deep wet fly fishing is always reliable, the shore based wet fly searching can be rewarding and on those all too rare mild and calm days the midges will often appear. In September the fish start to get active in close to shore, usually just generally tailing and cruising about. Stick caddis feeders can be polaroided on sunny days, the midges are getting thicker in slicks and windlanes and the small stoneflies begin to hatch.
At the very start of August the water is very cold, perhaps as low as three degrees in Arthurs Lake, and a couple of degrees warmer in Bronte Lagoon and the Brady's chain of lakes. This means two things in practice - there isn't much insect activity, and the trout don't feed very often. The trout don't feed very often as they are cold blooded - their body temperature is the same as the water. This slows their metabolism down, reducing their need to intake food - hence they don't feed as often. With the water really cold they may only feed once or twice every three days or so. However they all don't feed (or not feed) at the same time, so there should be at least a few on the tooth at any one time - it is just a case of finding them!
Deep wet fly fishing
As there is little shallow water insect activity, the bulk of the trout population will be in deeper water feeding on scud, shrimps, snails and so on. These beasties are quite slow moving; dull olive creatures that love fertile weed beds. They are also down around three metres or so, so a long leader and a heavy fly, or a sink tip line is required to get down to them. The best flies are generally those that work best at slow retrieves, such as Woolly Worms, Woolly Buggers, generic scud patterns, shrimp patterns and stick caddis flies. In general the trout aren't too specific about food - they just need it in front of their noses and not moving too fast. Slow figure eight retrieves are the best option, or very careful strip and pause methods.
Hunting shores and structure
Whilst not as dependable as deep wet fly fishing, a reasonable head of fish can often be found in the mid to late afternoon on most days along rocky shores with a reasonable degree of wave action. These fish respond very well to a reasonably large wet fly moved quite quickly through the water with short and sharp strips. This technique is very much along the traditional Tasmanian wet fly style - one or two flies such as Woolly Worms, Woolly Buggers, Fur Flies, and Matuka style flies. A good weight forward floating line and a 12 foot tapered leader completes a very simple set up. The best areas to look for are where the waves are pushing along a rocky shore with some deeper water nearby. At Arthurs Lake there is a huge amount of shorelines like this, all of them are only a short boat trip from the Jonah Bay or Pump House Bay ramps. These ramps are probably the best bet early in the season as they offer sheltered launching and easy access back to the ramp if the weather blows up.
Areas that have plenty of dead timber standing up in them will hold good numbers of trout as well. The shore from Phantom Bay round to Jonah bay has some lovely structure, as does the western side of Brazendale Island opposite the Jonah Bay ramp.
Calm days in August
Calm and mild days in August aren't a rarity at all. In each weather cycle we might get one day a week where you can strip down to shirt sleeves for a few hours. On these days, especially if there is a bit of cloud cover the midges can hatch, especially in areas near stands of dead timber. Quite often the trout will rise to the midges, but thankfully don't generally require very small flies to trick them. Sizes 12 or 14 palmered Red Tag is a good stand by, as are small Adams and Bob's Bits. If we get a few days in a row of calm weather it is well worth hunting the shallow shores for early tailers or to polaroid cruising trout. These fish will usually take a small wet like a Stick Caddis, Brown Nymph or Black and Peacock suspended under a little dry, like a Brown Carrot or Red Tag. They can be spooky though, so careful handing of the boat or gentle wading is in order.
September is the start of spring on the calendar, but is rarely so in the highlands. The warmer weather generally doesn't break through until the third week or so, but leading up to that there can be some very good feature fishing, especially sight fishing in shallow water.
Spring tailing action
As the water begins to warm towards ten degrees the brown trout become increasingly interested in fossicking about in shallow water. At the lower altitudes of Bronte Lagoon, Lake King William, Tungatinah and the Lake St Clair Lagoon the fish will be in feeding well, especially on calm and overcast mornings and evenings. On shores without too much foot traffic they will often tail all day - fantastic sport indeed.
Lake King William in particular can have hordes of tailing fish in it, especially as the water level is usually well up early in the season. The tussocky shores at Bronte are legendary, particularly along the Long Shore and Hut Bay, as well as the Road Shore with the level well up. If the radial gates are shut and Bronte is full, it is worth looking along the flooded backwaters in Woodward's Canal - I have had some of my best action in this area over the years.
At Lake Sorrell the flooded drains are always worth a look - this may be the only clear water in which to fish. All the drains along the Silver Plains area, Kermodes and up into Robinson's Marsh are worth a look. Last year I heard of some great fish coming from Sorrell in these drains - no guarantees, but it may be worth a trip for old times sake if nothing else.
Top of the water loch style fishing begins to be increasingly productive as September wears on, especially in Bronte Lagoon and the shallower bays in Arthurs Lake. Drifting across the Cow Paddock with a team of flies can produce some very exciting action on the right day - generally less than ten knots of wind and some cloud cover. The best team of flies early on is a Claret Dabbler on the top fly, a Bloody Butcher in the middle, and a small Blae and Black or Watson's Fancy on the point. Alternatively a Bloody Butcher on top, a Dunkeld in the middle and a Mallard and Claret on the point will do well also. Ross Pullin at the Essential Fly Fisher has a huge range of these English loch style flies.
Dirty Harry is a wet fly technique gleaned from the English competition scene and popularised by top Australian competition angler Stuart Rees - amongst others. Dirty Harry is both a technique and a style of fly. The fly itself is based upon a black Woolly Bugger - with some subtle modifications. The fly has a black tungsten bead head, a dubbed black body, no hackle, and a long marabou tail - also black. The tail also has a healthy amount of pearly Mylar in it, and the fly also has a pearly Mylar rib - just to add to the flash!
The techniques is as follows. Tie on two Dirty Harry's, four feet apart. The line to use is a very fast sinking line, usually a Scientific Angler type IV. Cast as far out from the drifting boat as you can, let the line sink (this works best in ten foot of water) and then pull the flies in as fast as you can. Too fast isn't fast enough. Strip four very fast and long pulls, pause four seconds, four fast long pulls. At all cost hang the flies before recasting - they will eat the fly right at the boat! Most fish will take on the pause, usually after the first series of pulls. This is a vigorous method of fishing - my good friend Max Verershaka calls it aerobic fishing - you do get puffed out after a while! You do also catch heaps of well-conditioned trout, especially on the rough and cold days. One of the best spots for this technique is across Cameron's Opening and across Seven Pound Bay. Don't forget to hang the flies though.
Dry fly in September
Dry fly opportunities usually present themselves when the small stoneflies begin to hatch on warmer days. These hatch from small black nymphs that crawl up tussocks and so on to hatch. The adults then flutter out over the surface of the water to lay eggs, and this is when the brown trout get stuck into them. The rises are never as big as to mayflies, but when you haven't seen a fish rise for the best part of six months I don't think you will care! Small brown or grey dry flies will do the trick. The other insect that will have trout rising is the midge. These can be infuriating, they always seen to be so elusive at times - the best midge hatches for me have always been when I have least expected them. Look carefully in slicks on the lee side of dense stands of dead timber. As mentioned above a palmered Red Tag is a reliable fly in the smaller sizes.
Drifting general nondescript flies such as the English dries can be worthwhile for a drift or two, especially with a little movement when drifting in shallow water. As with anything this early in the season, a few fish that are sighted first or taken on a dry fly will seem very special indeed.
August and September offer Tasmanian fly fishers some very worthwhile fishing, if not as spectacular as our usual summer offerings. By being out on the water and observing the changes as the season progresses is an important part of the learning process of fly fishing, so don't be deluded into thinking that the cold weather will totally shut down the fishing - it only shuts down the anglers.
Neil Grose is a professional trout guide and author based in the Central Highlands at Rainbow Lodge.