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Trout Redemption

The amiable John Coles is a fishing guide around the fringes of Sydney. His reputation is second to none. But I am a piscatorial Thomas.

This creeping doubt emerges on the trip down as John seems a little tense in the car. He is on edge, I decide. My fishing buddy Scott is seasoned fly-fisherman. And when not penning funny books, I am a fishing and travel writer. We have tagged along to chronicle John’s manifold talents.

Uncertainty is tempered however when we reach John’s clandestine fishing spot in Goulburn, only a two-hour drive from Sydney. It is everything he promised. The lake is stocked with trout as fat as footballs. And the endless undulating green paddocks, cradling lush soft grasses of varying hues, are spotted with drowsy Black Angus. As we drive around the lake I wrestle a frisson of excitement. The water twitches with insects and frisky trout.

At the wheel John casually mentions he has organised a couple of strippers for us — from Scandinavia no less! Imagine our disappointment when we discover our buxom blonde bombshells from the fjords are simply new fly-line stripping devices. However, the ‘strippers’ are a hit, making it easy to store line and cast sans tangles. They are essentially plastic trays that strap onto your leg or waist with a grove of rubber spikes that snare your line, making fly-fishing a helluva lot easier as often every tenth cast or so sees your line inevitably jagged on a rock or weed, skewering your cast or coming up short of the fish. At the upmarket lakeside cabin we unpack while John prepares pea and ham soup for lunch, cooked himself. John is a gourmet of sorts. Suddenly there is much swearing and clanging. We emerge from our rooms to find him upturning the kitchen, emptying draws and wrenching open cupboards.

‘You’d think they’d have bloody spoons, at least!’ he chides gutted draws. A veritable wind-chime of spoons sits dangling on a cutlery tree on the counter. It is the only thing on the counter. We point at the spoons and wince. John, redder than a tomato in a darkroom, snatches three spoons from the tree.

Pea and ham soup and fly-fishing make poor bedfellows I think as our guide plays a pretty medley on the sphincter trumpet while we connect rods and select flies. Soon we join him for the chorus as we edge towards the water, no doubt spooking the trout. John kindly gives me some scruffy nymphs tied himself especially for the day. They look pretty rough to me. But he swears they are just the right flies for the job. Doesn’t believe in creating trophy flies to only to leave on snags. More doubt.

As I prepare my fly-line, John scoffs at my limp-wristed knots. ‘What are you going to do when you hook a five-pound brown with a knot like that?’ (My knots are crap.) He snatches my line and ties and intricate nail-less nail knot. Impressed, I cock my head and nod, as if admiring a sculpture by Henry Moore.

‘Now, there’s a knot that will never let you down,’ he says, yanking both ends as it instantly breaks. His jaw falls to his chest. With a wild look in his eye he snaps, ‘don’t write about that!’ ‘Of course not,’ I lie.

No doubt John has tied that knot a thousand times and it has never let him down until he hubristically demonstrates it to a fishing writer with a dry sense of humour. (Surely Murphy was a river guide.) Like any good fishing guide John takes his time studying the water as I make mute observations in my moleskine book. He’s still on edge I note. But the day has not hitherto fared well for our trusty guide, what with the self-inflating waders, busted knots and endless spoon jokes. A slick of sweat forms under the lid of his wide-brimmed hat as he selects the right fly for the task at hand.

John reveals that this is the exact spot to fish but Scott leaves us for another part of the water, raising one leg for an encore before waving John away with a spoon joke.

John sighs. Biting his bottom lip he scans the water for an age before spotting a rise. But it is miles out. There’s no way he can cast that distance, I think, dismissing the ever-widening rings. In an instant he shoots his line into the heart of the lake, landing his hirsute fly on the nostril of the fish. The cast is as slick as an anteater tonguing an insect. Strike! He hooks the fish before deftly landing it at my feet. I stare open-mouthed at him, at the fish, at him before he regards me with a wry smile. In my years of mediocre fishing I have never before seen it: one cast, one trout.