A Day on the Liffey

David Anderson answers a small-stream calling

Despite both my parents being shutterbugs, I’ve only ever seen one baby photo of myself. It’s 1965, somewhere near the Arthur River in the wilds of north-western Tasmania and I’m not quite two. In the picture I’m sitting innocently in my diaper in a mud puddle with my older sister Sharon, probably three years old at the time, standing behind me, big stick raised in hand. It’s probably fair to assume that Mom or Dad sat me in the cold puddle, handed her the stick and then made ready with the camera for the inevitable and no doubt hilarious whack that followed. It’s also probably fair to assume that my lifelong fascination with Tasmania was also struck at that moment. The other image of Tasmania that’s embedded itself between my ears is of the Liffey Falls on the Liffey River. I first saw it on a faded-to-blue poster in a Sydney outdoor shop sometime in the mid-eighties. In the photo the ‘river’ is actually just a small stream flowing over step-like falls through a beautiful ferny forest: perfect two-weight water if ever there was, and it’s an image that’s almost certainly responsible for my small-water fly- fishing bent. Sure, I have managed a couple or three trips to Tassie out of Hobart over the years and fished some very good streams like the Tyenna, and had a few classy days on lakes like Arthurs (FL#24), but these trips were always on someone else’s agenda that didn’t include tiny streams. The chance to fish the Liffey finally presented itself during a sort of guides’ day off between shooting segments for my North East Tasmania story (FL#87) when Simone Hackett and Peter Broomhall asked if there was anywhere in particular I wanted to fish. The question must have shifted some grey matter and “The Liffey!” shot out of my gob before my mind had fully caught up. After so long and being so near, it needed to be ticked off the bucket list. With an indifferent shrug, Peter drove us towards the Western Tiers. The weather looked a bit like anything could happen with some dense low clouds raking the peaks, but as much as it might be needed, it wasn’t raining. On the way, the guys stopped at a bridge — one of their secret spots — to show me a lazy river running through agricultural land, suggesting that it was very reliable, generally easy to work and busy with reasonably good sized fish. It was a medium-sized and quintessentially Tasmanian broad-stream water with a gentle flow through pretty surrounds and there were even a couple of kilo-plus rainbows steadily rising in the pool below the bridge. Okay, it was tempting, and it’s always sensible to trust your guides, but with a very old axe to grind and being so close to the dream, I suggested we keep going. If the guides were upset, they covered up brilliantly. My first view of the Liffey, from the Gulf Road out of the car window, had me reeling in excitement as it flowed crystal-clear and rocky with dense patches of native forest through steep rolling farmland in the foothills of the Central Highlands. Pulling up at the waterfall track car park only increased my excitement with the addition of dense, dripping and understandably world-class rainforest and a wide path disappearing into massive tree ferns. There were a few tourists in the car park, some in those hideously painted and graffiti adorned vans that look like participation prizes for failing art classes, but thankfully no other anglers. We had the stream to ourselves. Unfortunately, to that moment, I don’t think I had ever been more torn between fishing a stream and photographing it. It’s totally impossible to do both well at the same time and given I had two willing and capable fly fishing models on easily the best looking small stream I had ever seen, the rod stayed in the car. The stream was small at this altitude and, according to Peter, like most water in Tasmania, low from a long unseasonably dry summer, but still quite fishable to my eye. Though the water was incredibly clear, fish were not easy to spot because of the dark bottom and lack of vantage points out of the water. There was the occasional deeper pool, but mostly just very small pockets of fishable water strewn between trickles cutting in and around the football-sized rocks. Thankfully, like most streams this size, the likely spots were many and easy enough to work out and there were plenty of small fish scattered right through it. That said, it was definitely a light-gear-only proposition with almost no room to make a cast longer than twenty or thirty feet and very little room for overhead roll casts. Short, tight, side-armed casting — sometimes little more than the leader — was the norm. Our travel upstream was hard work because once in, getting out of the streambed is virtually impossible in the dense forest. At the first larger pool, long and thin with a short drop at the head, Simone made what might have been the longest cast of the day and caught the best fish of the day: a little over 12 inches of dark brown trout that couldn’t resist a Claret Scruffy. All the rest of the fish that morning were not too fussy and under eight inches. We did see one larger fish — maybe a couple of pounds — in what turned out to be the deepest water we crossed. It was tucked tight to the bank mid-pool but there was no way to get a cast over it without wading in and spooking it. Poor weather is the one thing that never features in my long held fly-fishing fantasies and eventually the rain and cold beat us off the water just short of the falls. We headed back to Launceston for a late lunch. So, after waiting thirty-and-a-bit years to cast flies over the Liffey and then not actually fishing it, what was the fishing like? Both Peter and Simone called our short day there ‘tough’ due to the low water, and Peter suggested that lower down the stream might have been better for numbers and weight. I would call it tough but fair, and in my opinion the Liffey is textbook twigwater of a kind that’s rare enough to warrant the journey, even if it didn’t flow through some of the most beautiful forest I’ve seen anywhere. If you don’t believe me it might be comforting to know that legendary Tasmanian fly fishers including Wigram, Scholes and Jetson all held the Liffey in the highest regard. It even rated a mention back in FlyLife #1 with Jan Spencer featuring as the ‘Lady of the Liffey’. With a little more flow from the wet winter we’ve had since, I bet it’s still as good as any small stream in Australia and I won’t be waiting another thirty years to fish it. David Anderson’s new book devoted to small stream fly fishing in Australia & New Zealand is now available from FlyLife’s online shop.

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