I might be many things; a passionate lure fisherman, an aspiring photographer, a lover of the outdoors, a conservationist, but I’m not a fly fisherman. Before the opening of this year’s trout season I can name you exactly 3 times I have been fly fishing.
1) When I strayed into a privately owned trout farm in Tasmania about 10 years ago with the promise of ‘great trout fishing’ only to discover that this particular guide was interested only in entertaining people with a fly rod and small barbless hooks. In 60 minutes he taught me the basics of fly casting but we failed to catch a fish despite him chanting through his thick Scottish accent “c’mon ya bastard trout … take it … take it!”
2) On the Daly river in the Northern Territory where the Barra where fixated on tiny Archer fish and refused to take even the smallest lures. On this day I had the other boys ducking for cover as the fly swung in a semi-controlled manner on a crowded tinny a long way from the nearest hospital. The tale is described in more detail here
3) When Hamish was going through his Tenkara phase I was convinced to throw, well place, some bread flies for mullet. Needless to say, I didn’t catch anything on this trip either.
Which bring us right up to October 2015 and the opening of the trout season. Mish and Lee have described this great weekend here and here. But to put this in context, there were 6 blokes coming on this trip and 5 of them brought only fly rods. I’ve tried fishing lures side-by-side with flies and it doesn’t work. Inevitably the fly fisherman is looking for shallow to medium sections of the river in which to place any number of different flies past a likely ambush spot. The lure fisherman on the other hand is usually attracted to the deeper pools, where after 3 or 4 casts it is evident if there is a fish likely to attack the lure or not, and he or she wanders off in search of the next pool. So I packed away the spinning rod and embraced the challenge of the long rod. After a few casts the task-focused part of my brain kicked in and I was ready to fish all weekend for the chance of landing my first fish on a fly. Little did I know, it would be an absolute cracker.
One of the challenges of writing a blog and for the newspapers is putting yourself in the shoes of someone who is new to fishing. Instinctively we use language that is unique to fishing. We use terms like ‘snags’, ‘drop off’, ‘lightly weighted’, and slang like ‘placcy’, ‘metal slug’ and ‘walk the dog’. People who are new to the sport often get lost or confused about our meaning. So here is the experience of someone who has NO knowledge of the intricacies or language of fly fishing, but was kindly shown a few tips by mates over a weekend. I hope you enjoy and it may be of some use to you, if you plan to pick up the long rod.
Wet flies VS dry flies
Wet flies sink. Dry flies float. Pretty simple apparently. If there are fish eating things off the surface, you want to throw something that floats. If there are no fish rising to the surface, one might assume they are mooching around underwater – they are fish after all. This would be a good time for a wet fly. As I understand it, this is the basic premise of fly fishing, for trout, at least.
Fishing wet flies
We spent 90% of the weekend throwing wet flies. As a lure fisherman I didn’t mind this, it was quite similar to using sinking lures like Celtas, or diving Rapala minnows. In one of the deep pools I was practicing a ‘figure-eight’ retrieve that Brett showed me. (There is a good video here if you would like to learn this). His advice was let the fly sink near the bottom and try different retrieve speeds. The figure eight generates a constant and steady retrieve unlike a stop-start retrieve if you strip with big tugs on the line. I was learning fast! Fast forward an hour or two and I had waited for the lure, sorry fly (old habits die hard), to sink and started a slow figure 8 retrieve when there was a solid knock on the wet fly Lee had lent me. It was a black fly, I think it was designed to imitate a leech? That good knock was a bite and despite repeated casts the fish didn’t have another go. Nevertheless that was the encouragement I needed to continue, I felt one step closer to that first elusive fish.
On the second day, I found myself fixated on a small bend in the river where the combination of a large rock and a shrub broke the river’s flow. My lure fishing experience tells me this is a classic trout lie. After 5 or 6 attempts, usually involving hooking a grassy tussock behind me, I managed to get the fly upstream of the rock. As it drifted pass the rock, the line twitched. A bite! The water was flowing fast however and I couldn’t take in the slack line quickly enough to strike. I’ll have to seek some advice on what to do in this situation. Another bite but still no hook up. I wasn’t too upset, the more experienced fly fisherman in the group were finding the conditions tough as well.
Fishing dry flies
It wasn’t until the afternoon of Day 3 that we started seeing fish rising to eat insects off the surface. Immediately the mood changed and the boys were at once excited and focused on the task at hand. What insects were the fish feeding on? How big were the insects? What shape, size and colour? I have to admit I’ve never thought this hard about a lure for a trout. Usually the question is, how deep will it run and what action will it have at slow or fast retrieves relative to the river flow.
Everyone now seemed to be either sitting on a rock and just watching the river from a distance or squatting on their knees behind a grass tussock. This was also a novel experience. Apparently fishing with dry flies was the best part of fly fishing. This time it was Nick who had some tips and a spare fly for me to tie on to my borrowed rod – thanks Lee. The fly was brown… that is all I could have told you. But it was the fly that was getting the strikes, or so I was told. There was a fish rising in the pool above us. “Wait” was Nick’s advice and “watch if it has a regular beat or pattern to where it is swimming”. We waited and the fish rose again. Each time the fish rose we would cast close, but not on top, to where it had just risen. If it hadn’t risen for a while, his theory was you may as well have a fly floating on the water’s surface in the known beat. It’s probably still patrolling the river looking for an insect to eat. If it rises somewhere else while you are waiting, rip the fly off the water and place it nearer to the fish. It sounded simple enough. But we must have spooked this fish at some point because we didn’t see it again and it didn’t eat.
The final morning
As half of the boys hit the road back to Melbourne, Lee, Perrin and I hit the river. There wasn’t a breath of wind and there were a couple of fishing rising. “This one is yours” Lee said, pointing to the concentric circles bellowing from the water’s surface. I tried my best to be stealthy whilst stripping line off the reel, false casting and negotiating the grass tussocks – much easier said than done for a beginner. After a few moments it rose again 50 metres down stream. “Go get him Graz!”. I hurried down and perched behind some rocks waiting to see another glimpse of the fish. It never rose again. Then I remembered Nick’s advice; get a cast to where it was last seen or along the beat. He may have said “you can’t catch a fish with the fly in your hand”, or I may have just made that up, but either way I started false casting. The sense of anticipation and excitement was growing. This fly fishing caper was turning out to be pretty fun. But as I pushed the final cast forward towards the river … I snagged a thistle behind me. A good two to three minutes later and I was finally back to false casting, hoping the fish hadn’t spotted me as I negotiated the spines on the thistle. This time I tried to keep my casting arm higher and the fly free of the vegetation behind me. I pushed forward and the fly landed with a gentle plop under a nearby snow gum. To be honest, I was just stoked that I hadn’t hooked the thistle or the tree.
Imagine then my surprise at what happened in the next two seconds. Without even the slightest movement of the fly, a big yellow nose appeared under it, then an open mouth and then the rest of the fish as it casually swallowed the fly before turning and returning down deep. I held the line taught in my left hand and raised the rod tip with my right. Fish on!
Playing the fish
For a lure angler, playing a fish on a fly rod is a bizarre experience. For one, there is all this excess line lying on the ground at your feet. Do I need to get this back on the reel before I can play the fish properly? And if so, how, without letting the line go slack? And even if I get all the line back on the reel, does it have a drag system? In hindsight I probably should have asked these questions before the possibility of hooking a fish arose. But in all the excitement we didn’t worry about these finer details and now these questions were racing around in my head as over half a metre of brown trout started to power around the river in front of me. It all happened quite fast, but as the fish stormed off on its first run the loose line ran through my fingers and the pile at my feet was now gone. The loose fly line as it turned out, was now wrapped around a briar rose bush. Without a second thought I grabbed the line and the bush and pulled it free of the thorns. It would take several days to extract all of the bits of thorn from my hand, but there was no way I wanted to lose this fish to a tangle.
So without the distraction of line tangled around a thistle, my feet or a briar rose, I set about the task of winding in line on the fly reel. Why is the handle so darn small? It’s tiny!? It probably has something to do with not catching the fly line during casting, but it felt comically small. I gripped it and started reeling. The fish surged and the reel slipped, giving it back some line. With no previous experience to draw on, I used my right hand to palm the spool, assuming that I was the only drag system. Later Lee would chuckle as he retold the story of me using this technique which is usually reserved for much more powerful fish in coral reef or timber filled environments.
The fish was lazy and was soon wallowing on the surface. Fish in this river gorge themselves on frogs, yabbies and shrimp and there is often little or no water flow to exercise their muscles. It was quickly subdued. Then I would make another beginners mistake; retrieving so much line onto the reel that the leader and tippet knots would end up in the guides, potentially getting caught and snapping the line if the fish had suddenly made another run for it. “High stick it” Lee said, and “get all the leader knots out from the guides”. He instructed and I did what he said. The fish was in the net.
Match the hatch
What can I say. The boys made it so easy for me to catch my first fish on a fly. The told me what fly to tie on, how to present the fly and what sort of retrieve to employ. As I am learning, this is the most challenging and rewarding part of fly fishing. The brown fly, or as it was later described by Hamish, a “size 14 brown parachute dun, with a little red in the dubbing” was clearly the right fly as the fish had absolutely no hesitation in scoffing it down. Match the hatch, as the saying goes. For all of the combined wisdom, gear and tips of these lads I am grateful.
A 56cm 4.5 pound brown trout on a dry fly is as good as it gets. I think I could happily retire from fly fishing now. I’ve been fishing again since this weekend with my trusty spinning rod and enjoyed the experience immensely. But there was a small voice in the back of my heading burbling away, “what fly are you going to tie on, what are the fish likely to be feeding on, where will they be holding in the river”. As much as I tried, this little voice didn’t want to go away. After catching just one fish on a fly rod I certainly have no pretensions of calling myself a fly fisherman, but unless I can find a way to make that little voice go away, I might be forced to take up fly fishing on a more regular basis …