Anglers Rest

Benjamin Kerthe reflects on life in the Victorian High Country.

Anglers Rest is at the boundary of the Alpine National Park in Victoria, 30 km north of Omeo, which is the last chance to shop and fill up the fuel tank. It is quite remote: phone coverage is very poor, and people live off the grid. Basically, there is nothing other than a pub, a few holiday houses, a cattle station and a horse-riding business. The few permanent residents enjoy the peace and quiet of this amazing part of the country. The Blue Duck Hotel, named after a gold-mining term for a ‘white elephant’, is iconic. Numerous Melbournians drive up there on long weekends to enjoy a cold beer along the Cobungra River. My friend Noel Stringer first brought me to this hidden gem of a valley in October 2017. It is a place dear to his heart, where he has been fly fishing for twenty-odd years. We met through a fishing group on Facebook. From a virtual chat was born a true friendship that considerably influenced my Australian travels. He thought I’d enjoy this side of the country. I must admit it is very different to what you would see if you stuck to Lonely Planet. This is how I met Helen Packer, a long-time friend of Noel and owner of the trail-ride business along the Bundara River. I just stepped out of my car after a seven-hour drive and was welcomed by an old lady with black grizzled hair in a four-wheel-drive wheelchair, swearing at some very ugly, noisy chooks (I learned later that they were guinea fowls). A young backpacker quietly said, “Welcome to the mad house.” The deal Helen and I made was simple. I could stay at her place, get very well fed and fish as much as I wanted in exchange for a few hours help here and there on the farm. Home away from Home Helen’s rustic house, The Willows, is made of mudbricks, stone and wood, and surrounded by a deck. When you pass the door, delicious aromas from the oven come right to your nostrils. Everything is open: there are no walls between the kitchen, dining area and living room, where sits a big fireplace. Deer heads decorate the surrounds, along with Aboriginal paintings and artefacts. This mixing of the different parts of Australian culture makes the atmosphere of the place very convivial. In the background, Johnny Cash is playing, and those dark blues songs fit perfectly. Oh, what’s that shelf with all those familiar magazines? An almost complete collection of the FlyLife issues! Am I in heaven? It took me a couple of days to find my place in this new world. I had never been on a horse’s back before. Helen gave me accelerated riding lessons, and there I was, cantering through the bush, always with an eye on the river. The fishing was slow this early in the season, with water temperatures and levels still being influenced by the snow melt. Surrounded by the Mitta Mitta and its local tributaries (Bundara River, Cobungra River and Middle Creek), I had plenty of options to explore. I even tried the Gibbo River, which I was surprised and happy to find described by David Anderson in FlyLife #95. Euro nymphing proved to be most efficient in the cold water, with the fish feeding in the fast and deep currents. Originally, I planned on staying a fortnight before hitting the road again, but everything felt so good that I ended up staying three months. It was, after seven months travelling, the first place I was able to call home. Early in spring, with warmer temperatures, trout began to rise freely, and the dry-fly fishing became great. All sorts of waters were available to me (from tight creeks to large rivers) and they were all a delight to fish. During this first stay with Helen, the number of amazing and interesting people I met was incredible —many more than during my previous months on the road. Amongst them, the fly-fishing guide and recent FlyLife contributor, Charley May! Coming back I kept good contact with Helen during my travels around the country and promised I would come back, at least to say “G’day.” Being a traveller herself, a bush-woman full of knowledge and with a fine sense of humour, we could only get along well together. But she also had serious health issues. In October 2018, a year after I first visited the Bundara Valley, I received a message from Helen, saying she would go to Sydney for a little while, hoping for a heart transplant. My partner Anne and I were working in a pub in the south-west corner of Western Australia at this time. We left our job and drove straight to Anglers Rest. It was important to me. It took us three-and-a-half days and a lot of coffee to cross the Nullarbor and return to the high country. Before leaving for Sydney, Helen asked us if we could look after the place and help keep the business running while she was away. We agreed and promised we would stay at least until December, when Anne would fly back home to France for three weeks, and I would cross Bass Strait to Tasmania for a fishing trip (see FlyLife #97). Suddenly here I was again, living the dream, working with horses and fishing in the Australian high country. I felt I was right in the middle of a story halfway between Jim Craig (The Man from Snowy River) and Norman Maclean (A River Runs Through It). In order to earn money, Anne and I took some shifts at the local pub. Most of the patrons couldn’t imagine how Frenchies would have ended up working there. “It’s a very long story, you’d better take another drink,” I’d answer. It was pretty good for the business. On the fishing side, I started to know the area pretty well but there was still plenty to explore. I often tried to fish new waters, even though it can be hard to resist the temptation of a known section of productive stream. Some sections of the Mitta Mitta River flow several kilometres away from the road. The keen angler, willing to walk through the bush, can cast to fish which haven’t seen many flies before. It’s not New Zealand — fish growth isn’t as fast — but there are still some decent sized fish swimming out there for those who’d make the effort. I also explored the upper reaches of the Bundara River. It flows through thick bush and rugged country. The diversity of native trees is impressive, and wildlife is abundant (kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and wild brumbies, to name just a few). The easiest access is near the end of Callaghans Road, where it stops following the river. Above this point, all the way to the headwaters, you can enjoy days of fishing in true wilderness. A grasshopper pattern in summer is deadly effective (see FL#42). I found that, unless a specific hatch like olives or caddis occurs, fly choice doesn’t really matter. A stealthy approach and a good drag-free drift are way more important. The middle reaches of the Bundara flow through farmland (including Helen’s property) and comprise a succession of still pools and nice riffles. This water is pleasant to fish: access is easy and trout stocks are good. Like everywhere else, if a section of the river you want to fish flows through private property, please ask the landowner’s permission, leave all the gates as you found them and try not to disturb livestock. Nobody in this valley that I know of will deny you access: it is just courtesy. I remember a group of fly fishermen asking if they could fish on Helen’s property one day. I said there was no problem if only they would close the gates behind them. Later in the day, I found the stallion close to an open gate leading into a paddock with fifteen mares. This is the End While I was in Tasmania, Helen came back home from Sydney. She had been judged too weak to expect a heart transplant. It was around Christmas time and I was still exploring the Western Lakes, but she asked if Anne and I would come back to work for her at the end of our respective holidays. So back we went. The month of January was flat out. There were rides every day, sometimes twice or three times a day. I can still hear Helen’s voice, shouting “How come those horses aren’t saddled and ready to go yet!” Well, there was a broken fence on the stallion’s paddock and a foal escaped. A pipe was leaking, and a shelter had blown down in the wind. No matter how hard I tried, it was never enough. That’s how it always worked, but we knew it and we adopted one rule: ‘Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.’ Once school holidays were finished, the weekdays were much quieter, and I could fish a little bit more often. It had been a very hot summer. The water temperature in the Mitta went above 24°C and I had to cover some miles to find feeding fish. The good thing was they were keen on surface food. A grasshopper pattern worked very well, and there is nothing more exciting than seeing a nice 2- to 3-pound fish slowly come up and swallow your big dry fly in a small stream. Anne even got to catch her first trout, and I was proud. It was late summer, and the days were still long and warm. Hundreds of grasshoppers would take off at every footstep through the paddocks along Middle Creek. Our friend Sam was up for a few days, getting away from his busy Melbournian life. Plenty of small trout were taking our hopper imitations, and it was the perfect opportunity for Anne to have a go. Anne prefers to draw and play guitar on the riverbank, and although she would often have a cast or two, success hadn’t really come yet. This time, coached by Sam, she made a beautiful cast along a shaded grassy bank and the hopper was taken by a small but magnificent brown trout. The fight was tough, as it often is for beginners, and she almost lost the fish several times, but Sam’s ability with the landing net helped her out. We couldn’t contain our excitement. We jumped around her, screaming and celebrating, while she was smiling, contemplating her new friend. A quick shot to immortalise the moment and Anne insisted on releasing the fish herself. Anne drove Helen down to Melbourne for some routine hospital checks. She’d have to stay at the hospital longer than expected, they said, so Anne came back to the farm. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I still wonder, Helen didn’t make it home. Her heart stopped on the afternoon of the 21st of February 2019. I like to believe that it was a relief after those years of sickness and frustration. Such is life. I’m sad and upset because I lost somebody very important and dear to my heart. But isn’t it selfish: life continues for us and we will enjoy every single moment of it, until the lights go off. It’s what life is all about after all, and my main aim is to not have any regrets at the end. Catching trout in the wildest places I can find is one of the things that contribute most to my quality of life. Meeting like-minded people and sharing good moments with them is another. Vale Helen.

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