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FRESHWATER FLY-FISHING: Getting started

Fly-fishing for trout has been around a long time. Mysticism seems to surround the sport, which has more than its share of eccentrics. Some people like to portray fly-fishing as an art form, which it isn’t, and bury the reality behind a veil of technical jargon and double speak. There is also a belief that fly-fishing remains the sport of gentlemen who wear deerstalker hats, tweed jackets and wander about smoking briar pipes and imbibing themselves with claret. All of which is a load of twaddle. Most fly-fishers are normal, everyday anglers who happen to prefer to fish with flies instead of lures or bait.

Izaak Walton's book, The Compleat Angler was first published in 1653. It is still available in print today. Many people wrongly credit Walton with being a fly fisher; in fact his expertise was bait. It was his friend Charles Cotton who contributed the first chapter on fly-fishing in the 1676 edition on the book, adding to the aesthetics of fly-fishing by writing that fishing 'fine and far off is the first and Principal Rule for Trout Angling (sic)'. Cotton also wrote that: 'He that cannot kill a trout on two (hairs), deserves not the name of angler.' Ever since, fly fishers have set out to replicate this elegant approach. However, hundreds of years before The Compleat Angler was published, Roman writer Claudius Aelianus wrote of Macedonians fishing on the Astraeus River by fastening red wool and wax-coloured feathers to a hook and catching brown trout.

Nowadays, Cotton's legacy continues through the layman's perception of fly-fishing being about delicate presentations to rising trout in gin clear mountain streams. This idyllic concept fails to mention the long slogs through bush, dodging snakes or trying to keep your footing on a riverbed consisting of bowling-ball-smooth rocks.

If there is a problem with the fly, it is the addictive nature of the sport. Once you are hooked, there is no getting away. Fortunately, there are no serious health issues to encourage you to break away from what is a fine, outdoor activity.

The basic difference between fly-fishing and other methods is in the delivery system. Unlike bait fishing or spinning, in fly-fishing the weight of the line is used to cast a counterfeit offering to a fish. Two myths that need to be expunged are cost and casting. Fly-fishing is not an expensive sport to get into, and basic fly-casting is a matter of being shown how and then practising.

TACKLE

If you put in time and effort, and maybe take a few casting lessons, you will soon learn to cast well enough to present a fly in a small stream. As for the expense, it’s a bit like buying clothes where labels, not quality, dictate price.

The language of fly-fishing can be confusing to new chums looking to set themselves up, so here’s a basic run-down on an outfit and what the words used mean.

AJarvis Walker fly-fishing outfit for trout, consisting of the Blackridge series rod, reel, backing, fly line, tapered leader and tippet, offers an affordable entry to fly-fishing and provides good performance and value for money. The most popular outfit includes a six-weight fly rod and reel to suit. Fly rods are based on line weights, for example 4-weight, 5-weight, 6-weight line. The reel is little more than a centrepin, and this is filled with a Dacron or braid line backing.

Next comes the fly line, which is attached to the backing. The most common fly line is a ‘weight forward floating line’. This means the line has a taper that runs forward with most of the weight at the front of the line; and the line is designed to float.

A tapered leader is attached to the fly line with a nail knot. A tapered leader is a line that tapers in diameter and strength. Most leaders are about three metres long. They are designed to continue the taper in the fly line and help the fly ‘turn over’ during the cast. The thick end is attached to the fly line. A tippet is joined to the thin end of the tapered leader. This is a fine line, usually about one to 2.5 kilograms breaking strain and a metre or so long. This leader in turn has the fly tied to the end.

Ancillary items needed to complete setting up include waders, polarising sunglasses, a hand net, line cutters, a tapered leader and tippet material, fly box and, of course, some flies. A fly jacket is not essential, but after wearing one, you will feel incomplete without it. Over summer, many anglers prefer to wear leggings and wade in shorts and sandshoes rather than don waders. However, in early spring you will need to wear waders to keep the warmth in your legs.

FLIES

Names like Greenwell’s Glory, Woolly Bugger, Tyhappy Tickler and Tupps Indispensable sound odd but have one thing incommon: they are all trout flies. Most fly tyers are more deeply involved in entomology than normal fly-fishers. They have to be; their craft requires perfection. The flies they tie must not only look the same as the bug they are designed to imitate, but have a similar action in the water. If the trout are feeding on size 20 damsel nymphs, then that is what you must offer.

Most fly-fishers admit there are days when science goes out the window. Days when you offer up something totally irregular, a fly pattern that matches no known local bug, in a size that is much bigger than the local insect population, and you suddenly start catching trout. I mean, why do rainbow trout like their nymph flies to have gold bead heads? I can’t think of a single bug that has a gold coloured bead on its head.

Fly-fishers study the insect hatch and then match the hatch by using a similar fly. There are two basic types of flies, dry and wet.

A dry fly imitates an insect on the surface, usually one that has recently hatched and is waiting for its wings to dry so it can take off. A dry fly floats down river over a trout-feeding lane, and to present them you need to add ‘floatant’ to your leader and fly. A major difference between using dry or wet flies is that when dry fly-fishing you must set the hook. Popular dry flies include Royal Wulff, Snowflake Caddis, Adams, Elk Hair Caddis and Coch-y-bonddu.

A wet fly is a sub-surface offering that may imitate the nymphal stage of an insect, or even small fish. Retrieve these flies slowly. When the trout are hungry, you can feel them take the fly and often hook themselves. Popular wet flies include brown or black nymphs with gold bead heads, Tom Jones, Woolly Bugger, Craig’s Nighttime, Green Matuka and Mrs Simpson.

WADING

Most anglers who fish in rivers or streams end up wading. The combination of current and an uneven bottom peppered with smooth rocks can make movement difficult until you get used to it. Wading is a case of one step at a time. Before lifting your back foot to take a step forward, place your front foot firmly and securely. One way to maintain balance is to use a wading stick. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but strong enough to take your weight.

Until you feel comfortable wading, avoid stretches of fast water, particularly if above your knees. In slow water you can easily wade up to your waist and maintain your balance, but add several knots to the water flow and you can become unsteady. Some anglers wear wading boots with felt soles believing, rightly, that these offer better grip.

When learning how to fly-fish, instructional books and DVDs are helpful. However, to get a solid grounding, seek hands-on assistance. The options are to dig deep and hire the services of a fly-fishing guide for a day, or join a fly-fishing club. My experience of fly-fishers is that they are very willing to help the novice angler. It’s a good way to learn and to interact socially with like-minded fisher folk.

WET FLIES

I’ve walked streams and lakes with many different trout fishing guides over the years and can vouch for their value. All the good guides have a desire to teach. I picked up plenty of tips on techniques that can take years to learn otherwise through trial and error methods. Contrary to what some uneducated pundits think, fly-fishing is not solely about insects or insect hatches; it is also about baitfish.

From September through to December, trout in our southern rivers and lakes are often seen to be feeding on a small, translucent baitfish called smelt (Retropinna semoni) or glassies. These small, elongate fish with a silver flash spawn as new growth is appearing in pastures and along riverbanks.

An old fly fisher I met occasionally on the Barwon River near Geelong had 47 flies in his fly box, every fly exactly the same: a smelt pattern based on the Black Matuka with an extended white wing. This angler specialised in working one particular run, and was successful to the point where he caught more than 60 trout one season while anglers around him were catching carp.

Smelt,or minnow as some folk call them, school in backwaters and eddies; usually little more than small pools surrounded by cumbungi or other grasses. Procreation and survival are the nature of the game. It is a bit like gambling: the fish have to beat the odds; understandably, smelt seek shelter in numbers, never far from cover.

Another basic rule is that where there are smelt, predators will be nearby. Every now and again a smelt will stray and, helpless against the strong current, is swept down a run into the waiting jaws of a trout or redfin.

Sometimes schooling smelt are caught in the open and a trout or redfin will cut loose, forcing panic-stricken baitfish to skitter across the surface as they strive to avoid being part of the carnage.

When you see baitfish skittering about the surface it is not always smelt. It could be the fry of roach or redfin that are being hunted, which is why many seasoned fly fishers adopt the more practical position as referring to any fish fry as smelt.

Hunting smelting trout with a fly rod is about as exciting as trout fishing can get. Spot the action, sometimes see the fish and put the fly in harms way. What more could anyone ask?

Fly tier Mick Hall knows all about smelt fly patterns and how to fish them. Anyone who has walked a river with Mick will know that he can talk the talk and walk the walk. He might be a cack-handed caster, but the fly goes where he wants, including around corners when necessary.

‘When you come across trout crashing the water and see fry skittering across the surface it means the trout are using their body weight to stun them,’ Micksaid.

‘Cast the fly to the middle of the crash and retrieve it very slowly. The take is like a draw away rather than a solid hit. If you see another crash and splash close by, chances are it will be another trout drawn to the area by the action of the first trout.’

Mick’s favourite smelt patterns are the Chaser, which also works well in salt water, the Woolly Bugger, Mrs Simpson and the Lazer Minnow. He said anglers should employ a floating line with a 4.2m (14 ft) leader, including 2.7m (9ft) of 4 kilograms line and the remainder 2kg to 3kg, which is the tippet. He prefers a 3kg tippet with larger flies as it keeps the fly above the line during the cast, and this in turn helps reduce wind knots.

Another method he uses is the hang-and-retrieve technique. This works well in deeper water, say three to four metres, particularly along old riverbeds or roadways in lakes. ‘In deep water for this method I use an intermediate sinking line and a fly like a Woolly Bugger,’ Mick said. ‘The idea is to cast the fly and let it sink while keeping the rod tip about a metre above the water as you do. If the line moves forward slowly, then it is a trout but if nothing happens, give the fly four fast strips and let it sink again and then, if nothing happens, retrieve the fly normally and repeat the procedure.’

Mick said any lake with thick weed beds is a good option as the small fish hide here and the trout will be hunting nearby: ‘The last thing trout want is smelt in the weed beds so they herd the fry and then crash the school.’

A more popular method, particularly with fly fishers who prefer mountain streams, is nymphing. It is the easiest method of presenting a fly for trout. An orange indicator is attached to the leader about 35cm above a gold bead head nymph. The indicator setting is adjusted to suit water depth. The nymph is cast upstream and allowed to come back with the current along the edges of runs where the trout were likely to be taking station. Mick demonstrated how it is done on the Rubicon River near Eildon – he took less than an hour to land a dozen fish to 500g. The cast needn't be long as the rod is held out to follow the indicator as it travels downstream.

'It’s easy fishing and very visual,’ Mick explained. 'I do this because it gives people an idea of how trout take a fly and it is easy for visually impaired people to see what is happening.’ Later that day we hit the Goulburn River near Thornton and several more trout to about 1.2kg fell to the same method.

DRY FLIES

Philip Weigall, author and fly-fishing instructor, is based at the Millbrook Lakes complex at Gordon near Ballarat. He passed on a couple of important tips about fly-fishing that are worth keeping in mind, in case you don’t already know them. The first is that when fishing with a dry fly you hook the trout by sight, not feel.

Philip said ‘Many anglers make the mistake of using dry flies that they can’t see, and if you can’t see the fly you can’t hook the trout,’ which probably explains why fly-fishing instructors often opt for more visual flies like the Royal Wulff. Philip’s solution is to tie a chartreuse coloured wing to some dry flies to make them more easily seen because ‘the trout don’t seem to mind when the fly is on top of the water.’

A few years ago I fished with Philip on a private lake called Deerings that was stocked with browns and rainbows. It was an overcast day for the most part and the water had that steel, grey look that made seeing a fly difficult. When we arrived a mayfly dun hatch was well and truly underway. Fly fishers like Philip become amateur entomologists and he was specific about the duns, saying they were ‘Atalophlebia australis.’

He explained there were two hatches a year—the first from mid October to early December, the second in March. In the nymph or mudeye stage these insects crawl about the bottom of the lake and until they get the urge to move up the water column to the surface. Once at the surface these nymphs force their way through the meniscus or surface film, break free of their eco-skeleton and sit on the water, waiting for their wings to dry.

On this day, the lake surface was a floating tent city as the emerged insects drifted across the lake, drying their wings. As for the trout, they were feeding on the duns as they left their exoskeletons, this being a most vulnerable time for insects

‘They’re caught with their pants down, so to speak, and can’t escape the trout,’ said Philip who proceeded to tie a small Barry Lodge Emerger pattern to his tippet.

When trout feed on emergers, it is a sip or gulp, whereas when taking the insects off the surface the action is splashier. On that day, the dull conditions meant Philip’s only problem was keeping his fly in view. If he lost sight of the fly, chances were a trout would take it and spit it out before he had a chance to react.

Jarvis Walker recommended beginner trout outfit

Blackridge Fly Rod, 9’ 2-piece 6-weight
Blackridge Graphite Fly Reel #5-6
Blackridge 20lb Tightweave Backing 50yd
Blackridge Fly Line Pale Green WF6F
Blackridge 9’ Tapered Leaders 3X (6lb)
Rovex Fluorocarbon Leader 6lb (for tippett)