Freshwater, Trout

Snakes alive! Back country streams heat up

Fishing the small back-country streams is amazing, it’s one of my favourite forms of this sport.  I love wading through gin clear water with nothing but a spin rod in one hand, a small box of lures tucked into a shirt pocket and a backpack. There is a strong sense of adventure heading out to some of these rivers and the feeling of remoteness is sometimes enough to convince you that you might be the first person to ever go there.

The scene confronting us on this particular occasion was stunning with a perfect silhouette of trees on the water.  The forest on the ridges here was dry and harsh, scorched by weeks of wind and 30+ degree days.  It was another unseasonably hot November day and so the water was cool and refreshing.  The river teamed with insects and was alive with the chorus of small insectivorous birds.  In a landscape like this, the river attracts more than its fair share of life, drawn to the complete food web on offer.  From predator to prey, it’s all here.  But as we journeyed our way up the river, we finally lost our nerve.  The risk of a third snake bite in these remote waters had just overwhelmed our desire to tangle with another pan-sized rainbow trout.

The rules of engagement
Rules of engagement

It was a relaxed start to the weekend. There would be no getting up at 5am to have the first line in the water at dawn.  Instead my mate Penno picked me up around 8am and we went to the local cafe to grab a couple of coffees. As we waited for our hipster friend to work his magic on the coffee machine, I shot off to the supermarket for a couple of cold ales.  These would be liquid gold in a few hours time – a reward for climbing out of the steep gorges and back to the car.  It was also a day for celebration.  Not only had Penno recently had his second child, but it was his birthday and the promise of a few hours strolling up a river might be a small respite from the responsibility of raising children.  With coffees in hand we started the drive out of the city and to the river.

For all of the negative press that the nation’s capital receives, one of the really great things about living in Canberra is the traffic – or lack of it.  In around 30 minutes we felt like we were a world away.  The phone reception had dropped out and we didn’t see another soul.  As we drove deeper into the forest and the temperature steadily started to climb, so too did the anticipation – it was time to go fishing.

We kitted up with light spin rods, sturdy boots and plenty of suncream.  There would be no need for waders today, the water was far from frigid.  I was armed with my trusty suspending Rapala (in trout colours) and Penno had the classic Celta spinner.  These two lures have probably accounted for more trout in this country than all of the rest combined so I felt confident we had the bases covered.

A beautiful stretch of back country river
A beautiful stretch of back country river

As we descended on the river we made a bee-line for a deep bend.  From previous experience we know this spot holds fish.  I flicked the lure into the shadows on the far corner and starting the retrieve, the small minnow made its seductive waggle into the depths.  Crunch! It stopped half way and the shiny flanks of a rainbow trout shimmered under the water as it struggled against the line.  The fish took to the sky and the lure came free and landed just a few metres from my feet.  “Good start” we mused and began our journey up the river.  It was soon after this that we were stopped in our tracks by a large red-bellied black snake that casually swam across the river in front of us.  He stopped on a snag for a few moments as I fumbled for my camera.

A fairly large red-bellied black snake posing on a snag
A red-bellied black snake

That’s OK. Red-bellied black snakes are fairly timid creatures are don’t generally attack anglers.  We decided to let it be and chalk it up as one of those ‘nature moments’.  We continued on our way, our minds returning to the fishing.  The river level was really low, a reflection of the hot and dry conditions of late.  Rocks that formed perfect ambush spots on previous trips were nearly completely sticking up out of the water.   By now the sun was high, the water clear and there were few shadows.  If we were to find some fish, we needed to find the deeper holes.

Ankle deep water wasn't going to produce the fish
Ankle deep water made for easy wading but very few fish

We waded up the river chatting and catching up on life.  There were long stretches of shallow water before we finally came to something that looked fishy.  We stood at the back of this likely looking pool and summed up our options.  Where would the fish be holding and why? I have often found in these small streams that you only get one cast to hook the fish.  Land the lure too far from the holding spot and all you might succeed in doing is drawing the fish out for a look, whereby it will spook and disappear under a rock.  The best casts are long, landing in the white water or the head of the pool.  The most productive retrieves are as slow as the current allows while still maintaining action on the lure, giving the chasing fish the longest time possible to catch up and strike.  We pinpointed the spot, Penno had a flick, and three rainbow trout came out for a look.  Then in an instant they took off.  Damn.

Action shot!
Action shot – casting to the head of a deeper pool

As the morning progressed we found the deeper pools and some deeper rapids held fish. We could see them. Occasionally, with a well placed cast one would connect with the lure. They weren’t huge fish, generally in the 25-30cm range, but they were good fun.

It was while navigating around one these deeper pools, that we had another ‘nature moment’.  Hidden amongst the thick shrubs and tea-tree, curled up in a sedge was a large brown snake.  Penno had come within a few inches of stepping on it (note shorts and bare legs) and did very well not to squeal like his new born baby.  Brown snakes are not as timid as blacks, and are more likely, albeit still rarely, to strike out.  I was slightly ahead at this point, wading up the middle of the river.  The snake was now between us.  If it had chased Penno, he would have struggled to move faster than a crawl, the forest was dense, tangled and thick.  If the snake had headed out into the water, I was in up to my waist and couldn’t have moved any faster if I tried.  It was a moment where we both felt totally vulnerable, unable to move and at least an hour to the nearest medical attention should the worst case eventuate.  We gave it a wide berth and didn’t worry about trying to take a photo.  The decision was unanimous – it was time to get the heck out of there and head back.

We strolled back downstream towards the car with a new alertness and awareness of our surroundings.  Could there be a snake in that tussock grass? Basking on that fallen log? We were now hyper-aware (see scared sh!tless) of our surroundings.  We passed the long stretches of ankle deep water and past the ambush rock.  We had seen fish moving down the river as we traveled up it, so the deep river bend nearest the car would be worth another cast for fish that hadn’t seen a lure today. Of course, as the famous saying goes –  trouble comes in threes. So as we approached the first pool again another black snake swam out into the river.  This time it was heading straight for me.  I lifted the rod high above my head and slapped it down on the water … twice. The snake changed direction and I resumed breathing.

Third strike and we're out
Third strike and we’re out

Unaware of what was happening around the bend, Penno hooked up to another feisty little trout on the Celta.  It was all happening.  We met up again a little further down the river and continued casting into the deep water.  Every few moments a fish would rise to take an insect off the surface.  A dry fly would have been a handy weapon right now.  Unable to provoke a response from the fish on lures we retired back to the car for that cold ale.  It helped us to relax after a nerve racking couple of hours.

So as the water warms this summer and the insect activity increases in the back country streams, so too does the frog activity.  And the bird activity. And the fish activity. And of course the snake activity.  One step a few inches further and we might have not have been laughing about how we close we came to a snake bite today.  Next time it might be wise to pack a snake bandage, long trousers, gaiters and even a personal locator beacon.  If for no other reason than getting bitten by a snake at this time of year might mean missing out on the hottest fishing action!

Happy (& safe) fishing!


Graham Fifield


Disclaimer: Rapala are sometimes nice enough to give me stuff. Which is cool. In return I am sometimes nice enough to mention their products – if I like them. It’s only a casual relationship so I am under no obligation to do so. I don’t mention products I don’t like or don’t think are suited to our local fisheries.

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6 thoughts on “Snakes alive! Back country streams heat up

  1. C’mon fellas no complaining about snakes if your going to wear bare legs out in to the bush! Better off wearing some loose quick dry pants with gaitors over the top. The pants get wet when wading and keep you cooler than shorts.

  2. Thanks Trout Bum. For the record I WAS wearing some loose quick dry pants with gaitors over the top. Penno on the other hand … I reckon he’ll have the gaitors on next time

  3. Just trying to keep the balance on this site between the ‘Flick’ and the ‘Fly’ Tim. She’s getting a bit lop-sided 🙂

  4. Safest place to be is in the water. Snakes can’t strike of the surface of the water. So if a snake is swimming towards just gently fend him off with your rod tip and steer him away.

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