Getting down - and getting lucky

The Central Highland lakes during the early season can be a daunting prospect. Water temperatures are low with snow, ice and freezing winds a common occurrence, all combine to make fishing the lakes a challenge to say the least.

However for the willing there is remarkably good fishing available, amongst the recovering spawned trout there is the prospect of picking up some of the "non-spawners" which remain in good condition all through winter.
The challenge for early season outings is to find the fish, and present the flies to them at the right depth and speed to induce them to take. During August, right through until December fishing close to the bottom can bring the best results. Most of the food available at this time of year is likely to be close to the bed of the lake, whether it is scud or shrimp in a weed bed, caddis amongst the rocks or drowned worms in a recently flooded area, all of these are likely to be found close to the bottom. The trick is to fish the flies at the right depth, choose a line that will get your flies down to the depth you want in a reasonable time, and the let you fish just above the weed or rocks so you don't constantly snag up. If you feel that you are at the right depth, but keep snagging because you have to fish the flies slowly, choose a fly line with a slower sink rate and adjust your sink time accordingly. With practice it is possible to fish a particular depth of water very precisely. If you are in a boat and have found the fish at say 6ft, try to set your drift for the boat along the 6ft depth gradient, rather than going in to 3ft and drifting out to 9ft. If you are fishing this way you are only going across where the fish are only momentarily, by setting the drift along that depth you will get much more opportunity by drifting along the right depth fishing to where the fish are for longer.
Fly Lines
For the early season fisherman sinking lines are, or should be a fact of life. Depending on the water depth you fish, several lines may be required to correctly cover the territory. Most manufacturers have their various types and sink rates but the following is a general guide.

Line type                Sink rate                Rec. depth
Clear Intermediate    1 to 2 i.p.s.            Top 2ft
Type III                    2 to 3 i.p.s.            2ft to 6ft
Type V                    4 to5  i.p.s.            6ft to 10ft
Type VII                    7 to 8 i.p.s.            down to 20ft
i.p.s. = inches per seconds

(The Sink Rates given are a general guide. Check individual lines for precise sink rates, as these will vary between manufacturers).

For early season fishing around the Central Highland Lakes, I would suggest the prepared fly fisherman have at least a clear intermediate and Type V sinking line to accompany their floating line. You can effectively fish slow sinking lines at depth however it takes longer to achieve the desired depth of your line, thereby reducing the effective time the flies are fishing at the required depth.

The Rig
With the exception of fishing marshes and shallows I always fish a minimum of two and most often three flies on a leader. Presenting three flies on a 15ft plus leader can take some getting used to, however it is worth the effort and the rewards will soon be apparent. If you are having difficulty with three flies reduce to two, but persist. Using multiple flies allows you to present different sizes, colours and actions in your flies, as well as enabling you to vary your retrieve effectively. An example of a typical three fly rig for early season would be a #8 Bead head woolly bugger on the point, a small brighter coloured fly in the middle #10 Invicta, and a #8 or #10 Yeti (in a different colour to the Woolly Bugger) on the top dropper. You may wish to be more imitative with one fly and add a stick caddis or nymph, such is the beauty of this style of rig. Use a weighted fly on the point as this will help anchor the team when fishing deep and hanging the flies.

How to fish
With water temperatures being low, the chances are that trout will be holding low in the water column. I like to fish Arthurs Lake in about 8 to 10ft of water early in the season,  fishing the flies close as close to the bottom as possible without snagging constantly. Cast out a long line, "count the line down" making sure you stay in contact with the flies. This is done by pointing the rod tip directly at the fly line and keeping the tip angled down towards the water, taking up slack as the line is sinking. If you are stationary taking up slack will be minimal, however if you are drifting in a boat you may need to take up quite a bit of line. Once you have counted the line down, retrieve the flies, varying your retrieve from time to time. Standard pull - pause for one retrieve, slow figure 8 the next, faster constant retrieve and so on. Don't be afraid to experiment; even mix them up on a single retrieve. As you fish the flies out "hang" them by raising the rod vertically so you can just see your top fly and let them hang in the water. Feel for any takes and watch for any unnatural movements in the hanging line, a take can occur to any of your flies at any stage in "the hang'. Strike any suspected take by flicking the wrist upwards and giving a short pull on the fly line with the line hand. After hanging the first fly, raise the line so the second fly is just visible and repeat the process, the same applies for the third fly. A good way to bring consistency to the way you fish sinking lines is to mark your fly line at about 10ft from the end with a highly visible marker such as fluoro tying silk. This way you know when you are at the end of your retrieve and you can hang your flies at the depth you want every time you fish out a cast.
Takes can come from the moment the flies hit the water, right through to the last fly being pulled out to cast again, so remember if the flies are in the water expect them to be eaten. Concentrate and be ready for takes whenever your flies are in the water.
I can't over-emphasise the importance of being in contact with your flies during wet fly fishing. A take can be little more than a slight feeling of resistance when retrieving, or an unnatural movement of the fly line, if you aren't in contact with the flies or you have loose, snaking line on the water you may miss these indications of a take and end up with an emptier bag than you deserve.
Floating lines are not entirely left in the tackle bag early in the season; they can still be used to great effect using the right techniques. A rule of thumb is fish shallower water, use weighted flies and lengthen your leader. A good place for the floating line is Little Pine Lagoon; with an average depth not exceeding 6 feet (excluding the riverbed) a floating line can be used over the entire lake. A well weighted fly on the point of a long leader will adequately reach the bottom given sufficient time to sink, once again "count the flies down'. If 10 seconds does not see you touching the bottom occasionally, count down to 15 seconds before retrieving and so on. Find the depth the fish are at and work on that depth.
Early on floaters really come into their own at dawn and dusk. Trout are forced to "look up" to make use of the poor light, silhouetting potential prey against the sky.
Great Lake fish are a classic example of this. They predate heavily on galaxia and are ready to ambush any food that stumbles past them just under the surface in low light conditions.

Using the word "striking" when trying to hook a fish is one of the worst names that could be given to this action, "setting the hook" is far and away a better term, and there is a difference as to how the two are performed.
Most of us have grown up with the action of lifting the rod tip from horizontal towards vertical when hooking a fish thereby "striking'. We did it bait fishing as kids, lure fishing  and  most people still do it fly fishing. You are basically programmed into lifting the rod every time you feel a take.
When fishing wets try to get into the habit of not lifting the rod tip to set the hook, rather when a resistance or grab is felt give a sharp pull on the line with the line hand and at the same time pull the rod back and slightly upwards towards your body while keeping the rod on a near horizontal plane.
If the rod tip is pointed in the direction of the fly line you will set the hook far more directly and with more force than lifting the rod  and making the flexible rod tip try to drive the fly home. Not only will you set the hook more effectively, if you miss the take the flies will remain in the "zone" and not be lifted up away from the spotty little devil who just mistook your fly for his lunch. If the flies stay in the zone, spotty may well grab his lunch again.

The central highlands in the early months of the season can offer plenty of good fishing from opening day onwards. There are plenty of fish to be caught, some of which are in very good condition because they didn't answer natures call to spawn.
By fishing sinking lines in the manner I have described you will not only be in the hunt during the early season, but right through the season when things are quiet near the top of the water.
- Use multiple fly rigs offering variety.
- Stay in touc h with the flies, watching and feeling for takes.
- Fish the right line for the correct depth at the right speed.
- Program yourself to "set the hook" rather than "strike'.

Joe Riley

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