Tackle Tinkering

 After 20 years of doing this job, and more than 40 years behind a fly rod, I would never have pictured myself on the shores of Lake Eucumbene on a coolish autumn afternoon, playing a trout and asking a fellow angler for advice on how to land it.

Rather than running out line and sticking to the script, this rainbow was horsing around in broad arcs and slashing violently at the end of each swing. And it wasn’t a big fish. Rather than help, all I got was laughter and a derisive, ‘You used to be Rob Sloane.’

To fill in a few blanks, the rod was borrowed, it was about twice as long as anything I’d used before, the drag on the reel was set to nothing, and the tippet remained an unknown quantity. ‘That’s about four-pound Shooter you’ve got there, might be three.’

‘Shooter? Is it safe to tighten the drag?’ This was rebutted with more laughter and a dismissive ‘I don’t know; do whatever you like.’

Did I mention that the ridiculously long rod, flimsy leader and droll advice belonged to my old friend Bushy? And what started as a morning catch-up over coffee at the Waterfront Cafe on the coast at Merimbula ended up as an afternoon fishing session on Lake Eucumbene.

As Bushy put it: ‘It’s only a two-hour drive. We can fish the evening. You can have a play with the rods and ask all the questions you like on the way up and back.’

LOST CAUSE
Bushy hasn’t changed. When we fished the Monaro together back in the late ’80s and ’90s he survived on cold pies and Coca-Cola. At the coffee shop we all laughed when the girls (Pam and Libby) recalled a Christmas that the Busch and Sloane families spent together at our shack at Dee Lagoon, when an infamous morning fishing session ended some time around midnight, with the fishermen only returning to the shack briefly for jumpers, a torch and a cup of tea.

Bushy reckons I’m a lost cause now. My book Watershed completely horrifies him. To Bushy a garden is somewhere for casting practice, and a house is somewhere to sleep and drop your clothes when the fishing shuts down. The spontaneous trip to Eucumbene was his way of checking me out, to see if I could be saved, the long rods just an excuse. Even over coffee I sensed him sizing me up, mentally dodging and weaving, leading and baulking, testing my defences, searching for that old sparring partner.

JUST BUSHY
But this isn’t a story about me, or about double handed rods, it’s about Bushy. He of Tackle Tinkering (the memorable FlyLife column), Rex Hunt (the TV fishing show) and Squidgies (the Shimano backed soft plastics) fame. Fishing magazines, newspapers, videos, television, expos, packaging — his swarthy face with broad nose and full moustache is all too familiar.

‘I’m big in Taiwan at the moment,’ he laughs. Apparently old Rex Hunt Show re-runs are popular there now and he’s had tourists pestering him.

You’d think he was a natural performer, a showman, but he’s not. Humble, reserved, even shy, he’s never been one to sing his own praises and he’s often done it tough, forced to make a buck.

‘I was nervous as hell the first few times I was on Rexy’s show,’ he tells me, ‘but Rex had a great producer who helped me through and must have seen some potential — because I behaved like a complete idiot and caught fish.’ Perfect for television.

Bushy, a Bairnsdale boy, claims Scottish and Danish heritage. Vikings and the sort of Scots that put heads on spikes, apparently. Kaj, pronounced Kay, a girl’s name, never suited a kid that tough. His father was some sort of trouble shooting mechanical engineer in the oil industry, travelling the world. Bushy had a lot to live up to.

‘Maybe I got into fishing so much because it was something I could do better than the old man.’ Not just his old man. Bushy could do fishing better than anybody.

A career as an outdoor education instructor was cut short by chronic fatigue. ‘I was so tough and strong back then,’ Bushy laments.

He tried commercial drop-lining for a few years, then scratched a living from tackle shop work, a bit of guiding, and later writing, before Rex Hunt came along. ‘I got the boot from the local tackle shop for spending too much time talking to the customers. A couple of months later, the shop was empty and they were begging me to come back.’

But he didn’t make a serious dollar until he joined forces with Steve Starling and Shimano to develop the Squidgies brand. There was a price to pay, which is obvious if you spend more than five minutes beside any stretch of brackish water along the coast, north or south. Every man and his dog is out doing what Bushy once had mostly to himself — no bream is safe.

Fly fishing grabbed Bushy in his teenage years. Inspired by what he’d seen in American magazines, he cobbled together some gear, tied a couple of rough flies and hitch-hiked to Omeo. Seventeen trout on his first day on the Livingstone set the scene. He’s still just as passionate about trout on fly as he ever was.

Along the way Bushy has always suffered from a mysterious form of arthritis. His mobility suffered, and he’s endured pain and discomfort — not something blokes talk about. Travelling and fishing hard for the TV cameras was tough on him, and for a while there his fishing was mainly limited to boats. Now ‘better pills’ have improved things a lot, but he still fishes as though every day might be his last.

 

BUSHY & DAVE
Talk to Bushy about fly fishing for more than five minutes and Dave Longin’s name crops up. He’s as mad as Bushy, maybe madder, and the combination has proved unstoppable. They’ve terrorised trout in the Snowy Lakes together for many a year and have the when, where and how finely tuned, with flies to match. Based on Dave’s local knowledge and Bushy’s tackle tinkering they have refined every little thing they do, with one single aim in mind: to catch fish.

Dave is the best, according to Bushy. ‘He’s a gun. The best all-species fly fisherman I’ve seen.’ No small statement, coming from him.

Dave is the type of person Bushy has always sought out, along the bays, jetties, lakes and rivers he has fished so exhaustively — observing, learning, competing, surpassing. If one gets an edge, the other follows. If one fly works better, the other adopts it, or improves it. Their intellectual property is deeply intertwined when it comes to anything to do with fly fishing — locations, techniques, equipment, flies.

Getting Dave and Bushy together next day for more coffees at the Waterfront was a bonus and a fortunate coincidence. Egging each other on, they spilled more and more details about their exploits —unpublishable secrets that would fill an entire magazine. When Dave, a security guard in full uniform with a gun and armoured van to match, says ‘don’t tell anyone’, you know he’s serious.

‘You’ll never get him to smile for a photo,’ Bushy confirms as we scroll through a million shots on his laptop next day, all conveniently filed in a single folder, all featuring Dave staggering under the weight of trout or cradling some monster jewfish dredged from beneath an estuary bridge in the dead of night. All on double-handers.

‘We just don’t use short rods anymore. We catch more fish and we have more fun doing it.’ And they’re talking everything from rising midge feeders to daytime polaroiding and nighttime mudeye feeders.

And whilst Bushy reverts to spin-tackle for all his estuary bream, perch and bass fishing (it’s his job), Dave has taken his double handers to the salt, big time.
‘The best thing Bushy ever did,’ says Dave in all seriousness, ‘was to kill off estuary fly fishing [with his soft plastics], just when it was taking off.’ Dave is happy to catch everything and anything on fly, without attracting a crowd. 

TEACH A MAN TO FISH
This whole secrecy thing is foreign to me, being a Tasmanian, but an afternoon on Eucumbene with anglers popping up and dropping in on every bay and point is a real eye opener. ‘This is nothing,’ says Bushy, ‘some days there will be a hundred anglers around here.’

Dave and Bushy both preach the amended proverb: ‘Teach a man to fish and he will be in your spot next week.’

As Bushy says, ‘I shat in my own nest with the bream, I’ve got no reason to do it with the trout. I don’t need the money. I don’t need the glory. I just want to be left alone to keep catching lots and lots of fish.’

And he does mean lots. If it’s true that 10% of anglers catch 90% of the fish, then in the Snowy Lakes at least, Dave and Bushy must account for about 80% of them!

They talk in numbers that seem hard to imagine — bream and trout — though their fishing sessions know no limits, day and night. Once a sight-fishing purist, Bushy can now ‘blind’ fish with the best of them, thanks to Dave’s knowledge of the where and when. With the long rods they can cover more water with a lot less effort. Bushy qualifies it all with ‘provided I’m getting lots of takes.’

LAPTOP TYING
Bushy’s tying set up involves a board, stored centre stage in the living room, carrying everything he ever needs. Organised chaos. He lounges back in his comfy chair, puts the board on his lap, swings a huge lamp above his head and sets to.

‘I don’t care how long it takes to tie a fly, how simple or complicated it is to tie, or how expensive the materials are, so long as when I take it out of my box and show it to a fish, it works.’ It still bugs him that even the best flies fail to work, sometimes. ‘Why is that?’ he asks without expecting an answer.

‘Take a look at these gum beetles,’ he says, ‘I reckon they’ll do the job. Here, take a heap.’ He still remembers my beetles not being quite good enough, and loads me up with a handful and all the materials needed to tie them. I know they’ll work but I tell him they’re a bit big, as a tease, and he says he’ll tie me a bunch of smaller ones.

Bushy’s Eucumbene fly boxes carry remarkably few patterns, and no real surprises, but they are all highly refined, and well regimented in rows of identical replicas. He explains what he uses when and where. Size, colour, shine and glister are important and just about every wet incorporates rabbit fur for natural movement: ‘You can’t beat it,’ he says. Hooks are critically important too, in terms of exact weight, shape, and strength: ‘No use tying a good fly on the wrong hook.’

When I souvenir a nice-looking mudeye pattern that I reckon will work at home, Bushy gets shifty. When he tells me the whole process involved in drilling, cutting, trimming and heating the foam heads to exact shape I see why — then he has to thread the hook and make slots for each rubber leg… Pam, the world’s most tolerant wife, confirms that there are a lot of kids’ thongs lying around the house with a few well-chosen holes bored out of them.

RIDICULOUS RODS
Back at Bushy’s, with the garden now overgrown (he blames Pam) we’re casting prototype double-handers on the road outside. They come out one after another, all home made, all different lengths, different weights, and rigged with different reel and line combinations.

‘This one’s the perfect action,’ he tells me, ‘but it’s too heavy to fish with.’ That bit is obvious.

‘That’s a golf club shaft at the butt, and the tip sections are made from bits from one of those thousand dollar Sages.’ He is dead serious.

‘But can’t you just buy one off the rack?’ — I have to ask the obvious question.

‘Spey, switch, double handers, call them what you like, I just haven’t cast one that does the job. I wanted to get the performance of a fast action lightweight rod, but up there,’ Bushy says, pointing skyward.

I’m getting the idea. By extending the butt, all that line speed is generated by the merest movement of two hands, and by the short travel of the bottom hand in particular. No false casts or double hauls required. The hard work all gone.

Gradually, with Dave’s help, Bushy got hold of suitable blanks and fine-tuned them to the light and fishable 4- and 5-weight, four-piece, two-handers that they use today. All hand built. All one-offs. It’s all about versatility, and maximum return for minimum casting effort. ‘You can fish all day and all night with these and never feel tired.’

I glaze over when he starts talking about the positioning of the reel seat, the placement of the stripping guide close to the cork handle, and hand-tuning the runners just to get them right.

Having their lightweight 13-footers declared ‘ridiculous’ by a bystander one day created a standing joke between them. They don’t push the concept because they don’t want to be labelled cranks, as other long-rod advocates have been in this country.

‘I’m not a fanatic. I just like this stuff. You can cast further with less effort, and still do all the close work. And you really know you’re fly fishing.’

Bushy has experimented with rods from 11 to 17 feet, but says you need around 13 feet before they really work.

‘The old blokes with their long rods had it just about right; they just didn’t have the materials to do the job properly. Now we have.’

Bushy has always been a gun caster, modelled on the Lefty Krey style. I’ve seen him sell a rod to a customer simply by walking outside and casting a new fly line right out through the runners in one go, no reel attached, for special effect.

Over dinner on our last day in Merimbula he was still sharing little tips and pointers that he’d noticed might improve my technique should I ever be tempted to pick up one of those ridiculous double handers again. He knows I want one.

FOREVER TINKERING
But it doesn’t stop at flies and rods. Everything Bushy talks about and shows me or points towards is radical in some way. That’s just the way his mind works. Through his bream fishing he’s taken to using gel-spun braid in his leader butts, he tweaks his fly lines through various cuts and splices, and coats his lines and leaders with a product intended for dressing flies. ‘Can’t beat it for keeping everything floating,’ he says, waving the bottle in front of my eyes like a magician.

‘And I’ve got to show you this new knot I’ve come up with,’ he insists. ‘Easier than a Surgeon’s and stronger than a Double Grinner. Ideal for droppers and quick leader changes.’ He demonstrates by overlapping two pieces of mono, forming a loop, then sticking a finger in and twisting the loop twice before drawing two tags through, wetting it in his mouth and pulling everything up tight. ‘Easy. I thought I’d invented it but Tedesco (Steve) found it on some Japanese website for rigging lures.’

CONE OF SILENCE
And then there’s so much I can’t talk about because of the cone of silence that still hangs above that coffee-shop table in Merimbula. I value my fingers, and my tongue.
But that was never the point. It’s not about rods or flies or secret places, or following suit. Truly great anglers are versatile, multi-skilled and innovative, never quite satisfied with anything off the shelf, and never constrained by the normal thing to do.

And if I ever say anything that suggests there’s nothing new in fly fishing again, just shoot me! Single minded, focussed, obsessed are words that come to mind.

Bushy still fishes at least 3 or 4 days a week, year round, and always has. When he’s not fishing he’s thinking about fishing, tying flies, making lures, tinkering with gear. He lives and breathes it, more than anyone I’ve ever known, and across all tackle and all species I doubt Australia has ever produced a better, or more dedicated, or more inventive fisherman.

From FlyLife Issue 81