High Times On The Goulburn

 A rippping nor’easter makes you second-guess your hat selection as the brim starts flapping in the breeze. The warm fragrance of dry grass, dust and manure hit your nose like an uppercut from Lennox Lewis. But the river below looks full, fast and cold. Perfect! 

There aren’t many Australian tailrace fisheries like Victoria’s Goulburn River below Eildon. Some, like the Mitta Mitta or the Swampy Plains, have a similar feel. But the Goulburn has a battle-scarred edge. A distance
of just 130 km separates Melbourne, the country’s second largest city, from its well-trodden banks. With this amount of almost daily angling pressure, the fish have all become extremely street-wise. If trout in the South Island of NZ can see you coming from 30 metres, these things can see you from the car park.

Summer is ‘big water’ time on the Goulburn. Every litre of water released into it from Lake Eildon is worth money, and this governs how the river flows. It’s one of the big players in the Murray-Darling irrigation scheme, as well as being used for power generation and drinking. Angling will always be well down the list. But as custodians of its fish, its bugs and the stones that keep it all together, anglers will always be there to keep tabs on what’s going on. We know it better than anyone. 

At the highest levels of the season, it becomes a swirling mass of green water spilling out into freshly filled backwaters. The rafting folk are smiling. Cows drink without getting their legs muddy. And tucked away under the bank or right on the edges, and in amongst the tangled mess of willows and tree roots, are feeding trout. 

Cow Suit Man

When the Goulburn is running high (3000 to 8000 megalitres), there are two radically different environments where you’ll find good quantities of trout. The first involves those open, often steep banks of the river where the fish are mere centimetres from the edge and cattle have trampled it to a dusty, lumpy pulp. The second is right in the middle of the willow trees, where it’s dark, deep and often spookily quiet.

On the open banks, where a straight up-and-down cast can be made (or a little on the side to help lower your profile) I like to cast first and ask questions later. A fish cruising along the bank in a suitable direction should always command some action. As the saying goes, he who hesitates is lost. 

Just be sure that you can get your fly far enough ahead of the fish that it won’t be spooked by the line. The fish are often only just off the bank, so letting the line fall across the grass and dirt—the ‘cross-country cast’—is the way forward here. You must be prepared and able to think quickly. Sight your fish, place the cast across everything and anything between you and your fly’s destination, and wait for the trout to come slurping. It’s easy!

Well, not really, but that’s how it should be. Casting across crapola on the ground has its drawbacks. Striking on a fish to be greeted with a bouquet of fresh cow dung twanging off the taut line is not fly-fishing’s finest experience. But whatever, you should always get the fly to the fish first. Follow the textbook ‘wait/get into position/take one or two sighting shots to find where best to position the fly/wait again’ routine, and the fish might not come back. Or if it does, it’s a really good chance to see you. If it patrols a regular path, chances are it’s got a pretty good idea what the bank normally looks like. Unless you’ve turned up in a Black Angus cow costume, you’ll likely see its posture and swim speed change on the next lap. Your brilliantly-devised ‘grass in the hat’ camouflage has been blown! 

Once, while straddling a barbed-wire fence, I spotted a fish only 20 feet away. Without hesitation I unhooked my fly—a #12 tungsten bead-head with half-budgie indicator in tow, from fishing earlier—and started casting. I took two massive rips of line from the reel to get the distance as my other foot came over the fence. The barbed wire grabbed my boot and my fat arse, and I hit the ground with the momentum of a cargo ship.

Dust rose around me. With a sound between a crack and a splat, my rod slapped the dry dirt and a very moist cowpat. The fly, still in the atmospheric re-entry phase, punched the water so hard it left a void the size of a fist in the surface. The fish just went “what the hell was that? Oh sweet, another nymph!” and raced over to pick it up off the bottom. Totally amazed, I struck while still lying on the ground. The rest, as they say, is on the hard drive. It was one of those one-in-a-thousand fish that leave you shaking your head, showing how silly and yet how focused trout can become.

How It’s Done Boy

Hanging around in the dark shadows of the willows and peering into the darkened abyss isn’t everyone’s cup of vampire tea. But if you sit long enough in an unlikely-looking spot, you’ll be amazed at how many fish are in the main so-called irrigation channel. And a few of them are good—really good.

This gives you the chance to play Robin Hood, or at least one of his Merry Men, and resort to the bow-and-arrow cast. Hiding in the trees and firing this cast out is probably the only way you’ll get connected. You’ll get connected to the trees. You’ll get connected to the grass on the bank. You’ll get connected to your fingers. But at times of near perfection, you’ll also get connected to some trout. 

It’s tough work just to get into position to make a bow-and-arrow cast, let alone produce the right stuff when the chips are down. This is where you throw away everything I just said about the open banks, and take your time and get into position. There’s way too much tree to be casting willy-nilly here!

Two of the best I’ve had the privilege to fish with in these tight confines are backwater specialists Lionel Coombs and Stuart Rees. They have provided a wealth of knowledge and some of the most exciting and fastest captures I’ve ever seen, using the bow-and-arrow cast to great effect. 

Once, Stu and I were inching our way around a steep bank downstream from The Breakaway, with only a goat track to walk on, when he stopped. Field note: if someone stops, everyone stops. No scratching, no picking of noses, no fidgeting, no nothing. Just STOP!

With thigh and calf muscles of steel, Stu painstakingly lowered himself to a crouch, all the while moving his rod in a methodically slow dance through the willow branches. He took his fly from the keeper ring and in one slow movement, plinked it on to the surface. 

A large nose appeared from the blackness, followed by an audible gulp. Stu lifted his rod straight up and into the willow branches, with almost enough speed and force to molecularly morph graphite and willow together, followed by one very solid strip of line. Knowing he had a space little larger than a coffee table to work with, Stu saw his chance. Without hesitation, he slid skilfully on his backside down the 60-degree dirt bank with net in hand. Okay—actually, he lost footing, slipped down the bank and was heading straight for the Black Hole Of Death when a tree root stopped the proceedings. By then his old Sage II RPL 890 was folded back over his head like one of those multi-piece fibreglass $2 Shop tent poles, but his net hit the drink with a purposeful whoosh and there he stood, with the fish.

“That’s how you do it boy,” he said. I remember those words well because despite the catastrophic aspects, it was such a display of real-world fishing skill. The fact that the fly was placed in exactly the right spot without hesitation on the first go, the fact that at the time Stu was fatter than Ronald McDonald’s purple mate Grimace, yet moved like a 60 kg Ninja, and the fact that once hooked the fish was in the bag in less than five seconds, instead of ripping into the sticks and getting away. 

The willows will make and break you every time you venture into them, but what you can learn from sitting and watching is everything you need to know about trout. Whether you cast to them or not, whether you get the chance to do anything before you spook them or not, doesn’t really matter. The fact that you went in and sat down and watched is itself a gift worth repeating.

Your Sword

It’s always nice to land a good trout on a light rod. But how do you stop a rampaging trout from tying you up in the willows when you’re holding onto the equivalent of a half-cooked piece of linguini? Take two rods? Sounds good, but it’s a massive pain in the butt. I’ve left my ‘other’ rod leaning on a tree all day and driven home with it still there—trust me, take only one rod.

When you’re casting just a shortish line, you need it to load the rod quickly and you need that leader to roll out positively. To achieve this you might need to adjust yourself, your gear or both. Probably the best all-rounder I’ve found for this purpose is a 9 foot 5-weight. On the open banks it allows me to go up one or two line weights for super-fast loading and positive leader roll-outs. In the sticks, its length gives me 15′ or so of castable (bow-and-arrow style) reach. Shorter rods don’t. If you find yourself wishing your rod was three feet shorter, you might want to consider moving back three feet instead. And the nine-footer gives me just enough poke to hold onto a reasonable fish until I give it the ‘Rees Treatment’.

Leaders are always a point of concern for me. I like the pre-made, knotless tapered variety. But because you’ll be going from open banks to willowed banks, and upright casts to bow-and-arrow casts, you’ll more than likely need a little hand with your roll-outs.

This is not long leader country at all. Sometimes you’re so close to the fish that you can almost spit further than you need to cast. In the willows, you want your fly to be as close to the taper as possible so it will unroll with a bow-and-arrow cast. If the leader has too long a tip section, the kinetic energy of the cast will dissipate as it runs down the flat mono, and there’ll be some bunching or piling over and around the fly. Out on the open stuff, provided you’ve cast so that most of your leader is on the bank, the length of its tip section really doesn’t matter. So a leader with a shortened tip will suit both situations. A standard store-bought 9′ leader has 3′ of tip, 4′ of taper and 2′ of butt. I cut one foot off the tip straight up.

The flies you use for this type of fishing should be a little bit about what’s around on the wing, a little about what someone else told you to use and a whole lot about confidence. Like almost every fishing situation, it’s more about the presentation than what you’re presenting. 

The Goulburn is a hard nut to crack and it doesn’t easily give up its tasty kernels. The situations I’ve discussed are just two of many. From the Kosciusko mayfly hatches to the recently-developed willow grub fishery, this river tells a different story every time you fish it. The water is not ours and never will be, but what we can hope for in the future is some recognition of anglers as water users, and a more fish-friendly deal on its flows. 

From FlyLife Issue 73