A Taste of Orange

The thought of moving can be scary. Starting afresh in a new town or city is enough to make most stay put. Friends, family, memories — they all factor into such a life-changing decision. For the fly fisher, though, there is even more on the line. Being faced with a new piscatorial puzzle to piece together is daunting to say the least, but the opportunity it creates to discover new water, catch new species and master new techniques far outweighs any unnerving reservations. So here I was, not two years after moving from Armidale to Sydney, back up in the New South Wales high country, albeit a little further south in Orange, immersed in a new community, culture and climate. After attending to the most important things in my own distorted Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — namely where the good coffee and food can be found (hint: definitely the Grocer and Co on McNamara Street) — it was time to address the next fundamental need in my life. The New Local Everyone needs a ‘local’. That place you can visit after work for a mid-week recharge or in between the seemingly never-ending taxi duties of the weekend (or so I’m told – I’m not quite there yet). When I’m finding my feet in a new place, sourcing a local fishing spot is where I always start. Although unpacked boxes leaned precariously in random towers around the house, it was finding my local haunt that took priority that first weekend in Orange. Kitchen utensils and linen aren’t that important anyway. An old hand at this process by now, I knew what to look for. The spot had to be a short and sweet commute from home, and I know it sounds obvious but I needed to know there were fish in the river. Although I’m not fazed by angling pressure, no fish is no fun. After spending that first Saturday morning downing flat whites and trying to match blue squiggly lines on Google Maps with the DPI’s stocking records, I chanced upon a stream worth field testing. Orange Rainbows Judging by the size of the stream I had found and its proximity to town, I presumed the fish numbers would be low and the fish size small. This was fortuitous, as I had been dying to dust off my little 3-weight Sage outfit and get stuck into some proper twiggin’. It was mid-afternoon when I eventually left the house — finding everything I needed from poorly labelled packing boxes wasn’t easy. As I stepped out of my car into the crisp high-country air, I was greeted with hazy, dappled light that filtered through the casuarina canopy overhead and danced and bounced its way across everything it touched. The stream was typical of a mountain headwater: its rhythm had gentleness about it, its waters melting over and around the mid-stream boulders and fallen branches furnishing its riverbed. As I walked upstream under the flight of grass parrots and kingfishers, I noticed the subtle radiating rings of a rise from the corner of my eye. Fixing my gaze now exclusively on the stream, I slowly crouched behind a gnarled old stump and began piecing the little 3-weight together entirely by feel. I was finishing fastening the reel to its seat when the velvet water parted again for the snout of a small trout, which disappeared as quickly as it had risen. I cursed under my breath for not bringing any dry flies – their box had proved difficult to find that morning — as I threaded a discreet wool indicator a few feet above a size 14 unweighted Hare and Copper. I cursed a lot louder when the first false cast placed the very same fly and indicator into a low hanging branch behind me. Typical. The second cast was on the money. The little nymph led the rise by a metre or so with the indicator wafting its way down behind. I watched as the little pinch of dyed fibres twisted and turned its way down a joggly bubble trail before its abrupt disappearance signalled me to strike a moment later. The little 3-weight resonated with deep thumping vibrations that were felt at the cork: this wasn’t the half- pounder I had seen rise moments ago! Coiled line at my feet soon made its way through nervous fingers as the fish decided to head downstream. Cursing myself for a third time that afternoon for not using a heavier leader, I stumbled out from behind my stump in an uncoordinated attempt to follow the fish and protect my vulnerable 6X tippet from the branches and mid-stream boulders I had been admiring just minutes before. The fight was as thrilling and frightening as any when an important fish is on the line, and after an uncharacteristically cool-headed approach on my behalf, the fish soon lay submissive in the shallows, encased in the black mesh of my landing net. She was a 3 lb hen in superb condition. Her colours were absurdly vivid: deep crimson splashed itself across a melange of olive, steel blue and silver. Given the time of year it was clear she was getting ready to spawn, so after the quickest of photos she was sent on her way. Over the remaining hour or so of daylight I landed another half a dozen fish. These were feisty half-to-one-pounders intent on spending more time in the air than in the water. I was sold; I had well and truly found my ‘local’. With the season closure looming, I spent every spare moment I had on that picturesque mountain stream. During that time, generous numbers of smaller fish saw my net as did a few more submarines, each as fighting fit and handsome as the last. All too soon the trout season was over, and the little waterway I was just getting to know so well was out of bounds for four long months. Green and Gold It was less than a week after the trout season had closed when an interesting report came across my desk at work. It was a health assessment of the Little River, a tributary of the Macquarie, about an hour’s drive southwest from Orange. As I flicked through the report, one sentence leapt out from its pages: the river has a high population of native fish. That had to mean Murray cod. With optimism and curiosity coursing through my veins, I launched into full detective mode (sorry boss), scoping access points and fishy-looking stretches of river. My quickened pulse soon sank into a heavy heart when Google Earth revealed a very, very dry river. Thankfully on closer inspection the river looked to offer at least a handful of seemingly nice-looking pools some ways downstream from the road crossing I was investigating. Although I was sceptical about their depth, given the overall scarcity of water in the river, the allure of the unknown was too great and my weekend plans were made. Murray cod are a gentleman’s fish. That is, they’re at their best when the morning sun is high and has had a chance to warm the water. At least that’s what I told myself at 6 a.m. as I peered through icy panes at the front-yard turned Arctic-tundra. Well that wasn’t happening. At a more bearable temperature and time I sat by the dying embers of last night’s fire preparing gear for the day ahead. I rigged my 9-weight with a medium-sized streamer and stuffed a handful of 3- to 6-inch cod flies into a fly box. As a contingency plan, I threw some Buggers and Bunnies in with the cod flies. If there’s one thing you can depend on in the Central West, it’s that you’ll always come across carp. Not knowing if the river was even deep enough to hold natives where I was heading, I figured I’d cut my losses and clean the river up a bit if things got desperate. True to form, the stretch of river nearest to the road was bone dry and I knew I had a fair hike ahead of me. I followed the riverbed downstream as it cut through a landscape of conflicting extremes, boasting signs of both flood and drought. Driftwood and other detritus adorned the branches of bankside trees, yet the wind traced intricate patterns into the river’s parched sandy bed. Blades of green grass, in fact any grass, were few and far between. Each flock of haggard sheep I came across looked like they had travelled miles between decent meals, and probably had. As dire as the land and the river that ran through it were, there was no denying the beauty of the place. It’s a look that only the Australian Outback can really pull off. I walked through the harsh yet beautiful bushland until the winding sand gully I had been following started to resemble something akin to an actual river. It was a relief to see water. First impressions were not overly optimistic though. The river varied very little in depth over hundreds of metres, almost uniformly two-to-three feet deep. Every so often an undercut bank or fallen gum provided shelter and depth to the river, but these were few and far between. It was looking as though the deep native-filled pools I had so badly wanted to be, simply did not exist. Dejected, I snipped off my 20 lb tippet and tied on some eight, followed by a size 2 Woolly Bugger. I may as well catch something while I was there. After dealing with a dozen or so carp, I spied a bulky silhouette that I guessed was their king. The assumed blubber-lips was patrolling a slightly deeper edge with an accompanying entourage of minders. I laid a cast out in front of the silhouette and started to dance the Woolly Bugger seductively across his nose. I knew I’d succeeded when hand-sized fins flared out from the considerable bulk of his body. A quizzical look spread over my face as I saw my adversary in a new light — those fins were too big for a carp, and trimmed with white… Unfortunately, the penny dropped a little too late and I was absolutely taken to the cleaners by a respectable-sized cod. My 8 lb tippet didn’t stand a chance. With veins of adrenalin and legs of jelly I shakily re-tied my 20 lb tippet and a much bigger fly. I stalked my way along the bank of a long and shallow straight, now on the lookout for something much more appealing than carp. It didn’t take long to find another shallow-water cruiser and the eagerness in which it engulfed my fly was a sure sign that it would be a very enjoyable afternoon. It seemed that the sparsity of deeper refuge meant that these Little River cod regarded the kindling-sized branches littered in the shallows as home. And, if they weren’t stationed under one of these twigs they were close by, patrolling the shallows, as I so brutally discovered. From mid-afternoon until the red winter sun crashed into the eucalypt trees behind me, I had an outstanding time with sight-cast Murray cod to 60 cm; their marbled green flanks illuminated with reverenced vibrancy under the golden rays of the retreating sun. Final Thoughts When I first told my friends that I was moving to Orange they laughed at the lack of fishing opportunities. You’ll have to take up gardening, they’d joked. Thankfully, they were wrong (about the fishing, I actually did take up gardening). The cooler months are definitely a difficult time to fish inland New South Wales, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m looking forward to the plethora of options that will come with summer. However, so far, Orange certainly hasn’t disappointed. I’m still coming to terms with the fact that I can be enjoying a great, locally-sourced breakfast and coffee in the buzzing centre of town and not 30 minutes later be stalking 2–3 lb rainbows on a river all to myself. I don’t know about you, but that’s a winner in my books.

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