Moods of St Clair

I have a soft-spot for St Clair Lagoon. It’s where I caught my first Tasmanian trout about 20 years ago, on one of those holidays that mainlanders have here, driving all around the state in two weeks. It was crazy. It’s far better to concentrate on one corner of the state, or better still if you’re a fisho, the centre of the state.

If it’s your first visit to Tassie, or you’re just entering the one-way street of fly fishing, then there are few better places to start than around Lake St Clair, particularly if you’re bringing family as some of your baggage.

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Lake St Clair itself is at the southern end of a massive national park, and there are fantastic walks ranging in grade from ‘zimmer-frame’ to ‘multi-day’. There’s a visitors centre, café/restaurant, accommodation and camping (with hot showers), and just 10 minutes away at Derwent Bridge there’s a tavern, more accommodation, a servo with food and coffee, and an incredible wood-carving gallery. You’re already halfway to Queenstown and Strahan for the family, with the Bronte system lakes, Pine Tier Lagoon, Lake King William (see FL#44) and some alpine tarns close by for the angler. Add Clarence Lagoon and its brookies if you’ve got a decent but scratchable 4WD.

Lake St Clair proper is vast, deep and largely inaccessible, especially from the shore where you’ll most likely be while on holiday. The southern end has beaches and backwaters that can be waded, and are appealing enough. But tucked away behind the tea-tree, just below the weir that holds the lake, is St Clair Lagoon. While I consider it to be one of the best ‘beginner’ waters in the state, with a gentle mix of still water and flowing river, it still draws me back year after year.

Don’t freak out when you first see it, like I did. I thought it had been drained! The water was just a small river going under the outlet gates, and I couldn’t see any sort of lagoon from the walkway across the low dam wall. Don’t worry, that’s normal. It only fills up early in the season. And if it is backed up against the wall, it may actually be too high to get around the eastern edge without walking through the scrub, so you may find it easier to fish the western shore, sneaking amongst the tea-tree. That’s no bad thing!

So, what’s the appeal? For one it’s picturesque, as you would expect in a national park. Two, it’s only 10 minutes drive from the campground/visitors centre with car access to both ends. Three, crystal clear water provides exceptional polaroiding from shore or wading (although it’s soft and silty in parts near the pin rushes — best to fish with a friend). Four, decent numbers of wild fish from 1 to 3 pounds are invariably in good condition.

You’ll need a National Parks pass to leave your car parked around the lagoon, and some decent waders and warm clothes are good insurance against cold mountain water and changeable weather. You can start at the northern or southern end and fish both sides, though the weir at the top can only be crossed when the lake is low. Download the relevant Anglers Access brochure from www.ifs.tas.gov.au and grab a copy of Greg French’s guidebook and you’ll have all the info you need.

EARLY SEASON
(August/October)
Water levels are often high and fish can be found tailing or midging. If the water is against the dam wall at the outlet, it will be too high to cross the lagoon further up, so pick your side. I tend to fish the eastern side in the morning, as the shade from the tall trees will extend the time that fish stay in the shallows. Overcast and drizzly weather will keep fish in close all day.

Watch and wait for swirls and tails on the edges, or try ‘hot-spot’ casting around stands of strapweed, pin-rushes and flooded bushes, or target darker patches on the bottom (likely to be Isoetes weedbeds — mayfly houses) in thigh-deep water if nothing’s showing. Try 5-seconds dead-drift in the water, strip once, wait another 5, then re-cast 2 metres away. Nymphs (any colour #12), small Woolly Buggers (#10) and Fur Flies (black, brown or natural #10) are good.

If you’re spotting rises further out, try to wade closer and cast a midge pupa (sunk) or nymph. A slow 40 cm draw with 5-second pause works for me. Wade slowly and carefully and don’t cast more than 10 metres while searching, but keep some line on the water next to you in case you see a rise further off.

EARLY SUMMER
(November/Christmas)
If levels stay up, this is a noted tadpole water, with browns tailing in the swampy edges and drains, early and late in the day. Try ambush tactics with a dark Fur Fly, only moving the fly a touch when you know the fish is close by.

With water levels returning to normal (rocks showing and water flowing near the dam wall), the fish start to look up for beetles and, more importantly, for mayfly duns and spinners. Cast emergers (#14) or beetles (#14 Red Tag or #12 Foam Beetle) to polaroided and/or rising fish, or try mayfly or damsel nymphs stripped along the edges and around rushes and strapweed. The old ‘emerger/nymph’ combo works well too for blind searching — dead drifted for 5–10 seconds at 5 metre intervals, fanned across your path.

It sometimes pays to wade parallel to shore (preferably downwind), covering everything from the very edge to deeper water. Keep a short line, as fish will magically appear under your rod tip just seconds after you’ve polaroided and failed to see anything there.

LATE SUMMER
(New Year to late February)
At levels below 3 m on the marker near the outlet, you can cross at the ‘waist’ of the lagoon, half-way up, and at other places, with care. This allows you to wade some parts of the lagoon (avoiding the soft spots and deeper holes) polaroiding fish as you go. This is great for reaching rising fish, including some solid rainbows, which may be taking anything from midges to mayflies to beetles.

Warm still days will often spark crazy fish-leaping action as they chase down hovering spinners and damselflies. I’ve noticed a weird phenomenon on these days, when all will be quiet for several minutes, then suddenly five to ten fish will leap about within 30 seconds of each other, across a wide area, and it all seems unrelated to wind or light.

Between bouts of rising they can be polaroided, tearing around at speed close to the bottom.Try to ignore the splashy ones. Pick a gentle riser and get a black parachute spinner in front of it (#14). Some days they’ll smash anything on the water, others they’ll fly right on by. Presented with the latter, tie on a nymph and strip it fairly aggressively near a working fish. In water that clear they’ll find it sooner or later. You’ll know about it when they do!

While you’re there you might as well walk up to the lake proper and check out the mayfly spinner action under and around the tea-trees at the southern end of the lake, or on the sandy beaches that fringe the road near the old pumphouse, at the end of the Lagoon track. With a bit of stealthy stalking around the rocks, logs and tea-trees you can often ambush fish right under your rod tip.

AUTUMN
(March and April)
Beetles are the staple at this time, and a warm day with an easterly is pure gold. The tall timber lining the eastern shore provides an all-you-can-eat buffet for the trout. Any beetle pattern you’ve got is the right fly to use. Polaroid, hot-spot, blind cast a team of flies — whatever you want to do will probably work.

TOUGH DAYS
Okay, so it’s not always perfect at St Clair, even in mid-summer. If it’s rubbish, just do all the things mentioned above, but don’t expect to polaroid much. I usually find myself sneaking along the banks or wading across and downwind, prospecting with a buoyant palmered Red Tag, Bob’s Bits or parachute emerger, plus a snail or nymph 60–90 cm underneath. I use the technique Robert Gott describes in FlyLife #70, covering the water quickly and thoroughly.

While many come to Tasmania seeking trophies in wild Western Lakes, there’s still plenty on offer on civilisation’s doorstep, that can more easily be slipped into a family holiday itinerary. Sure, there’ll be some tough days, but a visit to St Clair will swing the odds in your favour.

View extra images and thoughts from the author here.

From FlyLife Issue 77

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