Baw Baw

I ’m running late for dinner and somewhere between Moe and Noojee, a couple of hours’ drive east of Melbourne, when the landscape abruptly changes from the rural Australia I know and expect to an incredible forest of huge tree ferns punctuated by towering eucalypts, arrow straight with mottled white, grey and yellow trunks. As if the scene needed anything else to be perfect, there’s also glimpses of a small stream — maybe a couple of metres at its widest — weaving a blue line through the thick undergrowth of the valley floor. Surely it has trout in it? A horn blast from behind returns me to the reality that I’m crawling up the road, head half out the window like an old dog, with an angry line of cars behind me. With a wave of apology I pull over to let them pass and even cop a couple of petulant glances for my troubles, but I couldn’t care less. There’s a new Scott 2-weight on the back seat and I’m pretty sure I’ve just found the small stream of my dreams on which to swing it. Annoyingly, my phone buzzes: it’s 7:30 and there’s a message from Scott Xanthoulakis of Wilderness Fly Fishing, my guide for the next two days. He’s waiting for me at the Mt Baw Baw Alpine Resort. The kitchen takes last orders at 8 — where am I? Bugger. I’m starving and, pedal to the metal, could make it in time, but there’s probably an old muesli bar in my bag and I could do the ‘flat tyre’ thing to buy an hour or two and still get up there for a beer later? In the end, as always, hunger wins and with a last glance towards the stream of my dream’s early evening magnificence, I mash the throttle and head for the top of Mt Baw Baw. All through dinner (stuffed bacon-wrapped chicken breast and asparagus), and well into happy hour (beer), I pepper Scott with all the important questions… Browns, rainbows or both? Wet or dry? Flashy or flat? And, most importantly, what’s that stream I drove by and when can we fish it? Apparently it’s called Icy Creek, and after I see the upper reaches of the Toorongo River I will forget all about it. Sleeping is tough… EAST TANJIL The next morning we rig up at the closest stream to the resort, the East Branch of the Tanjil River, and though it’s no river this high up the mountain, trust me, you need to add it to your twig-stream bucket list. Heavily tannin stained, it flows quickly but smoothly through a sea of tree ferns and dense undergrowth over a sandy bottom that sparkles with fool’s gold. Fly fishing here requires a fair amount of claustrophobic commitment and any casting, beyond very short flicks or bow and arrow, is just not going to happen. Wading is easy enough except for the odd patch of soft sand, and there’s a lot of climbing over, around and sometimes through fallen trees. The reward for all the work is great sight fishing to all the little browns hovering over the sand banks near the deeper cover, and with deft casting, sometimes from his knees, Scott hooks plenty of them on his high-viz version of a Para Adams with bright chartreuse and orange wing. At the end of a short leader, it’s the perfect fly for the jungle and rarely refused by the fish. By lunchtime, and after what feels like kilometres but in reality is probably only a few hundred metres, we turn around and head out looking for somewhere we can stand up straight and land some bigger fish. WEST BRANCH TANJIL Further down the mountain we turn off the Baw Baw road onto an old forestry track that leads to a single campsite near the river. The track continues over a picturesque but very dilapidated wooden bridge and is walking only, but does provide us a rare and easy way out from the water back to the car. Though still in the thick sub-alpine rainforest, the West Branch of the Tanjil is bigger and faster, rockier and, thankfully, more open for casting than the East. The fish are bigger as well and, running a dry/dropper rig, Scott is soon pulling up good numbers of brown trout in the 10 to 12 inch class from the deeper runs and pools on about a 50/50 split, dry or nymph. Of course, being my first time to the Baw Baw area I want to see and photograph as much water as possible, so after a couple of hours we head further down the river through one of the many well maintained forestry tracks that criss-cross both branches of the river. At the ford on Simpsons Road the river opens up a bit more and I can see fish darting around everywhere, even as we drive across. There’s also a hatch on and regular risers in the runs through the tree ferns. Scott changes his dry from the Para Adams to a Royal X Stimulator and is soon into them in big numbers, and surprisingly, they’re all rainbows with muted colours with the exception of vivid purple and magenta cheeks. As fun as bulk rainbows are, and with the day drawing to an end, I have an unquenchable need to see the ‘dream stream’, and after a bit of pestering Scott agrees to have a look. We cross Icy Creek at the Fumina Road bridge where it’s set deeper into the valley than where I first saw it further downstream, and a tangle of blackberries awaits between the creek and us. There’s a rise and Scott fights his way down the steep bank while I get some shots from the bridge. So how was it? Well, all I will say is, I’ll be back… TOORONGO RIVER The next day, we drive further to the west of Mt Baw Baw, to the Toorongo River. It has two distinct personalities over its short course — sweet, open trout stream below the Toorongo Falls campsite and wild, steep and boulder strewn near-jungle freestone above it. From its junction with the Latrobe River just near Noojee it runs through a very pretty, narrow, mostly cleared valley with the road close by and has several easy access points at bridges. I call it sweet, because unlike the Tanjil it is free of undergrowth and offers relaxed progress upstream and easy casting. It’s perfect, low maintenance 3-weight water and busy with fish. The wild section starts at the Toorongo Falls campsite where the river, really a stream up here, gets very steep with deep, fast pools, small falls and plenty of boulder hopping up to the Amphitheatre Falls. This sort of water has always been my favourite and, as physical as it is, the Toorongo exceeds all my expectations and is now officially my new dream stream. With the 2-weight it has all the challenges of any steep mountain stream, but in rainforest surrounds that set it apart from any other trout stream in Victoria. Of course, two days is only enough time to scratch the very trouty surface of the Baw Baw area and there’s a lot left to explore including the Tyers River to the east of the resort and then countless other waters within a relatively short drive. Besides the fishing, this is a great area for family time, with endless rainforest and mountain views, four-wheel-drive tracks and a rich gold-rush history. I can also highly recommend the waterfalls loop walk in the Toorongo Falls Reserve — it’s on another level. Mt Baw Baw Alpine Resort hosts guided fly fishing trips as a package deal with accommodation and meals. Whatever the fishing is doing, the sunset views from the restaurant and bar area are worth the drive alone. Scott X runs Wilderness Flyfishing and can also be found at The Flyfisher shop in downtown Melbourne.

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