Simply The Best

Feature Article from FlyLife Magazine Issue 95

My favourite home water in England has always been Chew Valley Lake, close to Bristol. Though a good 2½-hour drive to get there, and despite the fact that I had at least ten lakes and reservoirs I could fish ‘loch style’ closer to home, Chew was always my go-to choice. The reason was simple — its depth. I am a massive floating line fan and love to fish dry flies more than anything else, and at Chew the average water depth is only 14 feet. This means a lot of top-water activity, a lot of bugs and a lot of surface feeding fish.

Plenty of other lakes and reservoirs have great dry fly and floating line action throughout the year, but when conditions deteriorate and fish go deep, it is a lot less fun having to put on a sinking line to try to get flies down in 30 feet of water to find a fish, so I have always called Chew Valley my favourite top-water fishery.

This all changed on a recent trip to Australia, and in particular when I travelled down south to attend the Tasmanian Fly Fishing Expo. Ahead of the expo I was invited to fish some of the Central Highlands lakes. As Australian readers will already know, this area is home to a prodigious number of waters — some shallow enough to wade the whole lake, some needing boats, some with stocked trout, some with wild trout and some with relocated trout.

I was a guest of the Inland Fisheries Service, which seems to be a pretty switched on and savvy government organization, tasked with looking after the fisheries in Tasmania. This isn’t the place to go into the many reasons why this organization impressed me, but having passionate and extremely competent fly fishers, who live and breathe the sport, actually running the trout fisheries should give you a clue as to at least one reason.

The pick of the lakes that we fished was undoubtedly Woods Lake; a lake created by damming the Lake River in 1965, and with a self-sustaining population of brown trout that spawn in the Upper Lake River, providing a very healthy stock of wild fish with a good average size of around 1 kg. Covering nearly 3,000 acres when full, the lake offers a great mix of open water, flooded trees, marshes and weed beds. Most importantly though, is the depth, or lack thereof. With an average depth of only a few feet, and the very deepest water of around 14 feet (by the dam), this lake has incredible weed growth, supporting an unimaginable number of nymphs.

Woods Lake is about a 1½-hour drive from Launceston, and just past its more famous and larger brother, Arthurs Lake. The last leg of the journey is along a dirt road, so the drive in can be a little rough, with a four-wheel-drive vehicle being almost a requirement to get there. Though you can certainly fish this lake from the shore, it is best fished out of a boat. And there is no better way of fly fishing a lake like this, than the traditional ‘loch style’ technique – drifting downwind with a drogue attached to the middle of the boat behind the anglers to slow the drift. Fly fishing this way requires a little more skill than when anchored up, or trolling, but the ability to cover lots of water with only the wind as your power is intoxicating, and it is my favourite way of fly fishing on lakes.

Woods Lake opens in early August each year and closes in late April, but the pick of the months to fish are from mid November to mid January. By all accounts there are incredible hatches of duns and great falls of spinners at this time of year, and the trout are very active and riding high in the water looking for the adults. If you like dry fly fishing to rising fish on a lake, you can’t get much better than this lake at this time of year.

My day on Woods was in early November, and a touch too soon in the season for the incredible hatches I had been told about. Joining me on the lake were John Diggle and Chris Wisniewski from the Inland Fisheries Service, along with staff member and Australian fly fishing champion Christopher Bassano. Also in the group were legendary Aussie caster, instructor and author Peter Morse, journalist Leighton Adem and photographer/videographer Brad Harris. The day was dry and mostly overcast, relatively cool and with a decent westerly breeze. With the stiff wind in mind, our first plan was to hit the lee western shore and escape the chill. This area is shallow, with a gentle gradient, lots of weed and strap-weed beds and a ton of submerged and flooded trees. The Upper Lake River flows into the lake here, and with a maximum depth of around 6 feet it was the perfect spot to start looking for fish.

As no trout were rising, our initial rig was to fish a floating line with a team of nymphs and concentrate on fishing around the gaps in the strap-weed beds — casting nymphs into these gaps and working them slowly back. This technique was unbelievably effective and we were soon into a lot of fish — mostly brown trout in the 750 gm to 1 kg size, with beautiful golden flanks and big spots.

In deeper parts of the lake a Midge-Tip or clear intermediate line with a similar team of small nymphs would be equally deadly, but in this shallow bay a floating line was all we needed. Takes were generally quite soft, with the trout preferring a retrieve with lots of pauses and stops, and numerous fish took the fly on the drop.

We fished this way until midday and then took a fabulous lunch ashore in the grasses on the western shore. As we were enjoying our break we started to see the first of the duns coming off, and pretty soon a few trout started rising. That was all I needed, so before we headed back out again after lunch I had rigged up with a team of dry flies and was ready for the visual addiction that is dry fly fishing on a lake.

The buzz of dry fly fishing is to watch a fish feeding on the surface, working its way up a windlane or bubble-line towards you and then anticipating its path, to cast your dry flies across the trout’s nose. You then wait for the fish to come on to, and eat your dry fly. This is a game of observation, casting skill and steel nerves. Expecting and knowing that a trout is about to eat your fly makes most anglers snatch the hook-set and miss most fish, or even break off on them. A slow but confident lift is all that is needed, and almost invariably you’ll find the fish perfectly hooked in the side of the mouth, if you can restrain yourself this way.

Another fantastic way of fishing a floating line and flies on the surface is the traditional old ‘loch style’, or ‘dibbling’. With this technique you set up a floating line with a team of three flies, with the one closest to the fly line (called the ‘bob’ fly) being a really bushy and buoyant fly. Flies like the Dabbler, the Bibio and the Kate McLaren are fantastic examples of bob flies that should be in everyone’s box.

This method involves making really short casts and pulling no more than one or two strips of line before lifting the rod tip and skating/skittering/twitching the bob fly over the surface towards you. The wake caused by this action draws fish to the surface, and out of the blue, you’ll see a big head engulf the bob fly. Trout will also follow the bob fly up and then turn and take the following flies behind it. In a decent wave, this can be a devastating technique.

The best part of the day for me was yet to come. In the last hour we headed to the windy southern shore to find bubble lines and slicks and set our boat to drift parallel to these lanes. With few fish rising, we rigged up with a traditional loch style outfit with a Dabbler on the top dropper and two smaller flies behind. Casting short lines into each bubble line and dibbling the fly back towards us produced the most frenetic action of the day, with fish coming up to the flies one cast out of three. I lost count of how many fish we caught in that short hour. It was an incredible experience, and one of the best days I have ever had on the water. Not only were the fish coming up to the surface so we had the visual cues of the eat, but these were large, wild brown trout, free-feeding and beautiful, and not the stocked rainbows that were my frequent quarry on Chew.

We never did get the hatch that Woods Lake is famous for, but we were close — the fish were looking and ready for the dun hatch, and therefore swimming near the surface. This can only happen in a shallow lake with a prodigious food supply, and there aren’t many better in the world than Woods Lake.

At the end of the day when we all met back at the pub for a few beers and started talking up our fishing stories, I was staggered to hear that everyone else said the fishing was no more than “OK”— too cold, too windy, and they’d all seen better days on the water. Of course, that is the advantage of being a local and being able to fish this lake in ideal conditions, but having enjoyed truly one of the best fly fishing days in my life, I was left wondering how on earth I could miss my plane home and stay until the really good fishing had started!