Wild Mountain Rainbows

The inspiration for this insane venture came after Simon-Peter Hedditch and I purchased two inflatable pontoon boats from Walmart during a trip to Florida. They were designed with hiking destinations in mind, and it didn’t take us long to realise their potential back in Australia. Those wild rainbow trout feeding out in the middle of Lake Meston, in Tasmania’s Walls of Jerusalem National Park, would finally be within reach.

Shore-based fly fishing at Meston is restricted by the heavily forested shore line, limiting fly fishers to roll casts or to poking a back cast through the branches. The northern end is the exception. A unique and very beautiful shallow sand flat extends out into the lake, providing an area to wade and punch out long casts into the deeper water. But the real attraction in carrying a boat was to reach those ‘untouchable’ gum beetle-sippers and galaxia-chasers out in the middle.

Lake Meston is 3.5 km long and 1 km wide. Its one and only stocking of rainbow trout was carried out by air in the 1950s. Their offspring have had very little angling pressure over the years. Meston and the two lakes below its outflow, Lake Youd and Junction Lake, have maintained a wild rainbow fishery thanks to the impassable waterfall below Junction Lake which has stopped brown trout from migrating any further up the Mersey River below.

We had decided to take on this mountain range via the Jackson Creek Track located at the end of the Mersey Forestry Road. This is a steep unforgiving track that is poorly marked, but more direct than the Lake Bill track a few kilometres down the road.

After a short walk along the Moses Creek Track to the bushwalkers’ registration booth, we logged our details and headed up through the Jackson Creek valley along a steep forested slope. We passed giant man-ferns and bypassed massive fallen eucalypts. On this first of many steep sections we were reduced to micro-steps, reaching for the closest tree or rock to pull our way up. To ease the pain and catch our breath, we stopped whenever we came across a log or rock that would take the 34 kg weight of our packs for a while. But our rest stops were often cut short by the armies of leeches, which crawled towards us the moment they sensed our heat and sweat.

Flicking the leeches off, we continued the climb, gaining some respite on a short downhill section and an open valley of old abandoned sawlogs. Any muscle relief was short-lived, as we started to ascend an even steeper dry rocky track up through a eucalypt forest. We were back down to low, low gear.

At the top of a ridge the track opened up onto a magical valley of sphagnum peat-land and alpine coral ferns, lit by morning sun. Skeletons of ancient pencil pines burnt in bushfires long ago left a sad reminder of what once was.

Our next descent was down through tea tree to the northern shore of Lake Myrtle, with Mount Rogoona towering over its eastern shore.

Finally, Lake Meston came into view, with flowering red waratahs adding a splash of colour in the foreground. We arrived at Lake Meston Hut after walking a punishing 8.5 kilometres in 4 hours 45 minutes. The hut is a magnificent piece of mountain history, built from native timbers by Dick Reed and his mates in 1969, and is located halfway along the western shore. When you’re cold, tired and wet, arriving at this hut is like stepping into a five-star hotel in the middle of the wilderness.

With our camping gear unloaded into the hut, we carried our boats another two kilometres to the sand flats at the northern end. This part of the lake is truly spectacular. The transparent water and yellow sands are framed perfectly by pencil pines and native forest growing right down to the water’s edge.

On this blue-sky afternoon we quickly assembled the boats and paddled them out. We used small parachute drogues to stop the boats spinning in the wind and to slow the drift to fish dry flies amongst the foam lines.

Despite the warm northerly, there wasn’t enough terrestrial food on the water to bring the rainbows up to the surface to feed. As the sun and temperature dropped, I changed to an olive damselfly nymph and began fishing down the north-eastern shore.

There were no signs of fish until 5 p.m., when one suddenly thrashed and bow-waved chasing galaxias, ten metres behind me. Lifting my line off the water, I shot a cast back over my shoulder. The fly landed a metre from the disturbance and was immediately seized. Setting the hook, I spun the boat around to face the fish. There was a lot of pull on my 4-weight as a big tail rolled at the surface before going deep.

I had the fish on the reel for about three minutes, but I was far from being in control. Then my heart sank as the line went slack. I frantically stripped in line hoping it was swimming towards me, but the hook had pulled free. By the size of the tail, that fish could have weighed anywhere between 5 and 8 pounds.

Towards evening we saw more fish hit the surface chasing galaxias, but couldn’t get any to switch onto our flies.

Next morning was another perfect blue-sky day. We had rowed the boats to the shoreline below the hut the previous day, so they were just a short ten minute walk down through the dense forest. A strong sou’westerly had the lake covered in white ribbons of foam amongst a turbulent wind chop. Our confidence that our watercraft would withstand the battering grew rapidly, and we were soon exploring different parts of the lake.

We stopped for lunch beneath the towering dolerite cliffs that climb out of the lake on the eastern shore. With the heat of the day came a sprinkle of gum beetles on the water, but not enough for us to see fish rising amongst the waves. I continued to use a stick caddis and wet beetle combination while Simon stuck with his hopper-style foam dry fly. I heard a shout, looked up to see his rod bent, and paddled over to catch the last of the fight. He had been drifting his fly in the waves and was giving it a strip to add some life, when a fish came from nowhere with its mouth wide open.

After I took some happy grip-and-grin shots, the wind eased to a gentle breeze, leaving a single wind lane running down the centre of the lake. We rowed out to see if it had gathered enough insects to attract fish up from the depths.

Looking up the wind lane, I saw a lone fish rising steadily into the wind. Typically, this rainbow was moving three times faster than any brown trout, so I paddled as fast as I could and made a hurried cast that landed short and behind. There was no time for another cast, so I left the line in the water and paddled like a madman until I was well ahead of the fish, which was still feeding without a care in the world.

Then I picked up the line and shot out a long cast to lead the fish. I watched it rise to two more gum beetles, and then to my fly. Holding back the urge to strike too soon, I allowed a long pause before setting the hook. A powerful surge of weight loading up the line put a smile on my face. I backed off the pressure as the rainbow jumped, sending shock waves back through the rod. Another jump followed before the fish went deep and I was soon fighting it straight down beneath the boat.

To reduce pack weight, I hadn’t included a landing net. Instead, I brought along a mesh and draw- string, and improvised a frame for it before leaving camp in the morning. With the fish rolling alongside the boat, the time had come to put my net to the test. The frame bent and flexed under the weight, but held together. Another healthy rainbow lay before us to admire before I slid it back into the depths. It may never see another angler.

We searched for more fish, but it became obvious that there were just not enough beetles to bring them to the surface.

On our way back to the hut shore in the fading light, we came across at least five rainbows rising to tiny caddis. They were super-spooky about the ripples given off by the boats, and ignored Simon’s foam fly. I changed to a size 16 caddis, but failed to get it in front of a fish before I had to call it a day and make my way back to the hut in darkness.

Next morning we packed up the boats and found a secluded hiding place for them amongst the thick bush and prickly scoparia, beyond the reach of any Tasmanian devils. Our boats would endure weeks of rain, frost and snow until we returned to float Meston again during the last weeks of May.

Picking a suitable weather window to hike into the wilderness is never easy in autumn. With just over two weeks before the rainbow trout season was due to end, we finally locked in a couple of days after a week of snow, wind and rain.

As expected, the river below Lake Myrtle was running high. The track was wet and covered in snow and ice. We walked the last few kilometres in darkness, with only our headlamps to pick out the track in the snow. The last steep climb down towards the hut was like hiking over an ice-skating rink. The track hadn’t seen enough sun to thaw it out over the last week.

Thankfully the hut was vacant again. We quickly made ourselves at home, taking advantage of the extra soft mattresses out of the third and fourth bunks. Next morning we anxiously un-covered our boats and removed the inflatable pontoons from the dry bag, unsure what damage they might have sustained. They were in perfect condition. We soon had them assembled and back onto the lake.

With no beetle falls or rising fish at this time of year, we knew we would have to slog it out dredging wets. We managed two small rainbows and one brightly coloured fish of around 3 pounds.

We both knew it was going to be tough targeting rainbows in a lake as deep as this, but we came away with a sense of achievement, having experienced the joy of catching Meston’s wild rainbows from our little boats, surrounded by the towering mountains and native forest of the Tasmanian highlands.

From FlyLife Issue 82