A month or so ago a good friend of mine started talking about a walk into the wild. ‘How far is it?’, I inquired. ‘Only 45ks…you’ll survive’, was her response. I’ve only done a few overnight walks in the past, and a three night hike with two full days of walking was inevitably going to test the mind and body.
One of my key motivations for committing to the walk was, of course, fishing. I started studying the maps and looking at google earth and it became clear that there was a multitude of creeks, streams and the beautiful Tooma river to look forward to. In the end, it was these water courses that kept me plodding along, eager to see the next bend, pool or riffle.
The walk starts at the Tooma Reservoir, high in the Kosciuzko National Park. We decided to drop our bags at the start and do a car drop at the finish, so we drove a few kilometres up the road and left the car. The first four kilometres was lovely. Despite being on the road, we didn’t see a car. Without the packs, it was a great way to ease into the walk. One of the first things I noticed was the huge volume of insects, with grasshoppers, flies, ants, gnats, moths, butterflies and crickets all making their presence known.
The first leg of the walk was only 7 kilometres, which included the extra four we’d done for the car drop. The destination was Paton’s hut, a charming little structure overlooking some heathland. The heath dropped away towards the upper reaches of the dam, and looked truly spectacular in the golden afternoon light.
We set up camp and I asked Rache if she’d mind if I went for a look at the creek, which according to my map was only 300 metres down the track. I eagerly setup the flyrod and raced off down the hill, feeling as sure-footed as a mountain goat without the weight of the pack on my back. On reaching the creek, I figured that it was probably too small to hold much in the way of fish, but decided to have a swoff anyway. ‘Swoffing’ is probably not the word to use on this kind of water: it’s more a question of getting close enough to the stream so that you can literally drop the fly on the water.
On my first cast, which was actually downstream, I had a vigorous strike on the Royal Wulff. Heart racing, and feeling pretty excited, I continued up the tiny creek, and realised it was simply filthy with little trout. I was spooking quite a few, but had a few more strikes, but unfortunately didn’t hook one. Nonetheless, I was feeling pretty pleased that there were so many fish around, and they were clearly hungry. I retired to the campsite and poured myself some 1976 Wyndham Estate port, the ‘Edmund Barton’ of the prime minister’s series four pack I picked up at a garage sale for peanuts. Not a bad way to end the first day.
Day two and I was up early, and after cooking ourselves a special treat of bacon and tomato wraps, we were packed up and ready to hit the trail. Day two was to be the most challenging day in terms of walking, but for me, definitely the most rewarding. We eventually came across another tiny little creek running through a small valley. You could literally step over this one. The creek was hidden by tussocks and sphagnum, but was just big enough so that I could drop the fly on the water. First pool and a little rainbow came out and inhaled the fly. It wasn’t much of a match for the 6 weight, and I pulled it bankside to admire it’s dark but vivid markings.
I walked a few metres to the next bend in the creek and pulled out another, then another. These fish were tiny little gems: the 20cm fish I started with was evidently the ‘bridge troll’. Despite my growing endearment with these little fish, I struck a bit hard on the next one and it went flying through the air and landed about 10 metres behind me. I raced over and picked it up, put it back into the stream, and it swam of quickly.
A few more kilometres down the track and I caught my first glimpse of the Tooma River, snaking through the treeless valley below. My pace quickened, and before long I was fording the river, full of anticipation. I had a few casts at the ford, and it was nice to feel the rod load up and shoot some tight loops up into the riffles. Unfortunately, the fish in this river weren’t so easy to find, and I didn’t have any luck. The track followed the Tooma river for another few kilometres before we headed off the fire trail up towards Pretty Plain. The going through this section was incredibly tough; probably the longest 6 kilometres of my life. Each step was a struggle through the tussock and sphagnum; little did we know that there was a small track only 50 metres towards the edge of the valley.
Fording the river again, I had a few casts into a shallow riffle, and pulled my first little fish out of the Tooma River, another rainbow of about 20cm. It was immensely satisfying to get this fish on a dry fly (still on the Royal Wulff), and it spurred me on to keep walking towards our destination. Eventually the Tooma snaked off into a ravine and we left it, moving slowly and sometimes painfully across Pretty Plain and up towards Bull’s Head Creek. This is when the fishing got really exciting for me. It was a perfect stream – small, but with some large, deeper pools, riffles and runs. Every likely spot held a fish, and I had to move quickly to keep up with my non fishing companions. I tried to make every presentation count, and amassed about 10, maybe 15 fish, the biggest being about 25cm, over a kilometre or so of creek. I had to pack the rod away at one point, as there was a thunderous roar in the clouds, and I was mindful that I was waving around a very effective lightning conductor in the middle of an exposed plain. It was probably this weather that had the fish going silly – the hoppers were going bananas and there were a few hatches of mayflies and spinners. Despite the physical toll, it was the fishing that kept me going, and despite running out of water a few kilometres from the camp and still carrying about 15kgs, I was having the time of my life.
We eventually reached Pretty Plain hut, which was rebuilt after the 2003 bushfires. I was completely stuffed and after cooking dinner and having another nip of port, I hit the hay and slept. At some stage during the night, I awoke to a calamitous crash, which boomed through the valley: a tree fall. It was to be one of two that we heard. Amazing things to hear, and something I’d love to see (although not too close). I figured it must be a fairly common occurrence up there. There are a million dead trees from the bushfires, and they all have to come down eventually. There was also evidence of ‘treeslides’, where whole sides of the moutains had fallen away. It’s amazing how fire can change the dynamics of an environment, even after 11 years.
I woke up feeling fairly rested, although a little sore, and packed up quickly, eager to get started and survive the backtracking across Pretty Plain before it got too hot. As I was waiting for the others to pack up, I decided to head back down to Bull’s Head creek and have a few casts. The fish were a bit slower than the previous afternoon, and I managed to hook two – one that was a good fish – although lost them both. I had kept a few fish for dinner from the previous day and had done a stomach check. The fish were chock full of grashoppers and yabbies. For some reason, I persisted with the Royall Wulff for the entire trip…I figured if it ain’t broke, then why fix it?
Anyway, we managed to find the ‘track’ on the way back across Pretty Plain, which made the going far easier, and even stopped for a bit of a swim in the icy cold Tooma. We eventually got back to Dargal’s fire trail and headed off towards our destination for night three, which was to be Wheeler’s Hut. We followed Dargal’s trail until it met up with Hell Hole Creek trail, then left the track to make a beeline for Wheeler’s. The going through the heath was pretty tough, and with the ants and the heat I was starting to wonder if heading off the trail was such a good idea. After about a kilometre we found the Tooma river again, and forded to head down to a ravine. It looked pretty impassable, to be honest, but it was just slow going, and after some serious bushbashing and some rock-scaling I was through the other side.
The others had decided to have another swim, so I thought it was a perfect opportunity for some quality solo fishing time. Once I was a distance down the river, and through the worst of the thick scrub, I found a deep pool with a shallow run coming into it. I had a few casts, and was about to give up, when a gust of wind came through and I was able to shoot the line right up into the shallows at the top of the run. This elicited a violent strike, and after a second or two I knew I was onto a decent fish. It swam around in the shallow, flowing water for a few more seconds, before tearing past me, into the deep pool below me. It mist have jumped about four times, but I eventually cradled it with my hand and flicked it up onto the bank. This was a much better fish of around 35 cm and somewhere around 2lb.
I continued downstream, which is always difficult as unless you walk in big arcs around the river, you’re always spooking fish. I had a few more strikes but couldn’t hook up. I decided to fish some slow water while waiting for the others, and wasn’t really paying attention when I looked back towards my fly, only to see that it had been replaced with a big swirl. Striking, I ended up with line over my shoulders and in the grass behind me. It pays to pay attention when flyfishing!
The others eventually met me and we studied the maps for a while, trying to decide on the best course through to Wheeler’s hut. We decided to head back away from the hut to meet up with another fire trail, which would eventually take us to the hut. This was a great decision in the end, as despite the fact that we were only about 2km from the hut (as the crow flies), it would have been hard going through the heath, scrub, tussock and sphagnum. We’d also seen a few copperhead snakes along the river, which had most people treading fairly carefully and slowly.
After about 4ks of walking on the trail we finally came to Wheeler’s hut, and it was immediately apparent why many people describe it as ‘their favourite’. It is the quintessential Snowy Mountains hut, and the stories of ‘Wingy’ Wheeler, a one armed cattleman who could ride a horse, crack a whip and smoke a cigarette at the same time, seemed very believable. As the sun set, casting a purple glow over Mount Jagungal in the distance, a rainbow formed over the hills, and it seemed like the perfect last night of our little adventure. I finished the increasingly delicious port, and watched the kaleidoscope of colours fade to black as we sat around, marveling at the beauty around us.
I was feeling a bit sore in the morning and was putting some bandaids on my feet and jokingly remarked to Nathan that it wasn’t my feet I was worried about, it was my heart. Apparently we had some fairly big hills to conquer on that final day. Nath started making up country songs with part of the chorus being ‘you can’t put a bandaid on your heart’, and we had a good chuckle and were in good spirits as we set off. I doubt old ‘Wingy’ Wheeler would have been singing anything like that.
After some serious slogging up a seemingly never-ending mountain, we made it up to Snakey Plain, which is a stunning little fen high up in the saddle of the mountains. I doubted there would be trout up here, but had a cast in the creek and was amazed to see some tiny little fish shoot out and start attacking the fly. These fish were fingerlings, but would eagerly attack the fly over and over again in the hope of nibbling off a ‘leg’ or eventually drowning it. I didn’t hook one, but it was fun anyway, and amazing to see just how successful these little trout are at colonising some of these high-country waterways.
We continued on and ended up coming down the western side of the mountains, which was a beautiful contrast to the tall forests on the eastern slopes. I had been studying the map and was convinced we’d come across Pearces creek, which appeared to be of a decent size and was quite close to the dam itself. We never found Pearces creek, and before long, started hearing vehicles in the distance, then closer, and then I actually saw one through the trees. I was convinced we still had a few kilometres to go, but in a few hundred metres we had made it back to the road.
A walk like this is special because it’s an experience that keeps on giving. I can’t help but feel a sense of achievement for having committed to it, prepared for it, and done it. It was never really hard, but there were times when I would have been happy to stop walking, sit down, and set up camp right where I was. It’s also special in terms of having seen a part of the world that only a small number of people ever get to see. It’s so isolated, beautiful, rugged, diverse; all useful words, but nothing can really describe it in its entirety.
Walking in remote places is one thing, but fishing in them, is to me, a whole different experience. As anglers, we’re incredibly lucky to experience things that many other people aren’t fortunate enough to see, be it a rocky headland, an isolated beach or some interesting wildlife encounter. But when you combine fishing with being in such a beautiful and remote environment, it really feels like the pinnacle of one’s connection with nature.