Monday 13 October 2014

A new season: Back in the water

Georgina Swan with a 29.5cm rainbow trout from the Upper Murray
WORDS and PHOTOS: Mike Gee

Would you believe it. We missed four trout on a spinner in 20 minutes. Not big but at least one was a keeper. They all either hopped, skipped, jumped, plopped or flopped, splish-splashing through the waters of the Indi River in the Upper Biggara Valley, on the Victoria/NSW border.

Spinner? Surely, this is a fly fishing blog. And, yes, it certainly is. But sometimes you just have to revert to the basics. To the get-down simple act of whacking a size two black Celta into a wind-smacked river, casting upstream and down across the cobbled bottom where the smart fish play hide and seek in cracks, grooves and micro ponds.

It's 4pm on the second day of the season in New South Wales, a month plus after the season opened in Victoria. And in two-and-a bit days we've seen it all. But let's backtrack a little because the story begins with people on stools.

The Snowy Mountains town of Khancoban is dominated by its pondage, the associated dam wall and spillway that controls the lake level and that of the Swampy Plain River at its base. Once a blue-collar trout river, the Swampy was at sometime in recent years downgraded to a general trout stream.

In the past we have pulled mighty fish from the foaming waters beyond the fishing exclusion zone at the base of the spillway - 70cm gleaming browns, muscular yet slim and lithe; another day a panful of 30-40cm browns; and we have missed as many more. All fell to size two and three Celtas because this little area really isn't a  fly fishing zone.

The water is large and rambunctious and moves too fast to wade for position. It is also the home of the bait fisherman. The wormers and mudeye danglers. Kids have caught the trout fishing bug on these banks and old-timers still come to have a dangle, even though their casting days are a not-too-distant memory.

On opening day, they are like freckles on lush green banks; 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 more, sitting, squatting, their stools and chairs little more than four or five metres apart. Nobody is catching anything by the time we arrive to watch. It is 12.15pm and the fish apparently haven't read it's opening day. We are later told that the take that morning is just two small fish.

To the old-timers that may matter; to the kids with the little rods and the big nets the adventure has just begun.

The Swampy Plain River running high 
It would have been a little better possibly if the Snowy Mountains Authority hadn't decided to pick opening day to start releasing water from the pondage with great gusto. Until this moment, the Swampy had been low and slow and very attractive a kilometre or so downstream for fly fishing. By 5pm it was running strong and the edges were the only place for the dedicated fly fisher.

The Swampy Plain River above
Khancoban pondage
Earlier we'd a had a two-hour session in the Swampy Plain River just above where it enters the Pondage. Lovely water - Georgina once caught a yabbie on a fly here but there was little to be found. As we left the odd small fish rose in the late afternoon sun but they obviously weren't interested in the nymphs we swung in tandem or the dry with a dropper.

Why was probably explained the next day when we went fishing the Murray in remote waters beyond Tom Groggin. This is beautiful water, curving through gorges, lush forest, shallow enough to wade the edges up and downstream for enough of a distance to keep the two of us more than occupied for hours on end. It's classic trout country. Riffles, pools, runs. And a 29.5cm rainbow trout for Georgina that gave an excellent account of itself, although it never broke the surface once.

The upper Murray beyond Tom Groggin

A perfect pan-sized specimen, an examination of its stomach contents revealed mudeyes, mudeyes and more mudeyes, little else in sight, and that despite several hatches of small brown flys that danced around the river's edges and scattered over its surface. In otherwords, the fish were probably still feeding on the bottom and had yet to look to the heavens for sustenance.

The following day we finished a stretch of the Indi where it winds through the lower Biggara Valley with little success and met two fellow fly men who had in their words "flogged" the Eucumbene River the day before for one hook-up - a four pound rainbow that eventually escaped - and one hit. They weren't alone apparently. Talk in the camping areas that night was of a river devoid of action except for two Japanese tourists who put a glow bug on the end of the line on their spinning reel and caught three fish. The fly men were indignant. Understandably so.

We retreated into the national forest where the Indi runs broad and strong but there are sections of perfect fishing water with everything a fly fisherman can want - if the river isn't running too high or hard.

Here we found our monsters - two big browns that wouldn't have been out of place in a New Zealand river. Standing 50 metres above the river we had been straining in vain to see fish. Earlier Georgina had spun some very fast - too fast for fly - water and tempted a rainbow to dash at the celta, its flanks a silver and red flash in the flat waters above a rapid.

Backwaters: The upper Indi River ... Two large fish were holding in the structure to the right on the far bank
Nearly defeated we retreated to that higher ground and looked across this water - water we know in the past has held fish - yet saw nothing but a platypus going about its business. For 10 minutes we watched but not a trout moved. We were about to turn away when by some dead branches on the far bank I saw a huge flank flash brown and silver in the sun, and another moved behind it. I shrieked to Georgina and as I did, and she looked up, a brown of perhaps five pound or more launched itself out of the water at some passing insect.

Into waders and boots I poured; we took a punt and went for one of Stu Tripney's NZ blowfly patterns which have done so much damage for us with big fish in those trout-studded islands and added a heavy black midge on the bottom. The big brown - his mate had disappeared - was patrolling the edge for perhaps 50 metres and Georgina was yelling directions as I headed out into the middle of the river. It strained at me, deceptively strong, but not enough to tip this old bloke over. For half an hour I put in long cast after long cast. plopping the fly virtually on the far bank, next to the dead branches, under structure. The brown held firm, disinterested, and eventually disappeared, unconquered. But it was enough. The addiction had taken its familiar hold and we were relieved to see such mighty fish in a river where we had seen little over the previous two years.

And when those splish-splashing smaller trout put a splendid footnote on the day we agreed it had been a grand opening venture.
A tip for a future dry fly day on the upper Murray