Dead-Enders

Rick Stuart-Smith walks the path of fewer trout in Tasmania’s Western Lakes

This lake has trout in it! A fish is finally sighted. It is cruising very slowly, close to the bank in shallow water, and it looks bigger than usual. It is mid-afternoon on a glorious January day, and this is the first fish we have seen in the last six lakes and 18 km explored. Such a situation may sound familiar to some Western Lakes addicts, who repeatedly return to explore the remote area west of Great Lake in Tasmania’s central highlands. The whole addiction is more about searching than fishing, even though the fishing can be as good as it gets. The conundrum is that there are hundreds of lakes full of trout, offering a uniquely diverse array of sight-fishing opportunities, but experiencing the very best of it requires a somewhat irrational decision to deliberately avoid finding lots of trout. The choice Many first-time or infrequent visitors will find the fishing for polaroided, tailing and spinner-feeding trout in the Western Lakes captivating and fulfilling. There is no doubt that the unique scenery and the colourfully marked brown trout in clear shallow waters make any walk into this country a memorable experience. But most who decide to push a little further or to spend more time ‘out west’ will do their research. Immersion in the local trout bible (Trout Waters of Tasmania by Greg French) and looking too hard at the map for too long inevitably leads to a particular conscious choice: instream lake fishing — heading to lakes scattered along creek systems where numerous opportunities might be expected for fish of typical size; or dead-end searching — exploring promising tarns at the dead-end headwaters of waterways, where limited recruitment means fewer, but bigger fish. These options aren’t mutually exclusive. Many walking itineraries can in- clude a bit of both, and a common choice is to set up camp by an in-stream lake for more opportunities at dawn and dusk, regardless of plans for the day. But choosing the dead-end searching option does require dedicating the very best days and times of the day to searching lakes in which you are actually hoping there are not so many trout, and where you stand a decent chance of not seeing any at all. Dead-end searching requires a steely resolve to hook the fly in the rod guide and look straight ahead when making a beeline towards lakes chosen a priori. Any sideways glances at instream tarns along the way will likely result in the day quickly ‘lost’ to awesome fishing for 2–3 lb fish. Who would want this? The Searcher’s sacrifice Dead-end searching is a long-term commitment, and is almost always choosing the path of fewer fish. But it can hardly be considered making a sacrifice. It is partly about quality over quantity, not just in terms of fish size, but also in terms of the fishing itself. It is also about exploration and discovery. The more lakes searched, the more likely that perfect lake will be found — one that matches personal ideals for scenery and fishing. These do exist in the Western Lakes, and not even closely studying Google Earth or scanning all relevant FlyLife articles will spoil the surprises that await. Dead-end searching also provides invaluable context. Sometimes you may even be able to update your definition of extraordinary. As you can probably imagine by now, a transition from choosing in-stream options to dead-end searching seems inevitable for those who spend lots of time out west. Some signs of this transition in the afflicted may include being swamped with nostalgia when just thinking about the reflections of twisted pencil pines on the surface of a small clear tarn, with verges of sphagnum moss, cushion plants and pineapple grass. Or admiring the small white flowers and red seed pods from a sparse ground-cover of mountain rocket, when a large vase of flowers on the table back at home was not even noticed. If the feeling of spiky scoparia and alpine heath caught up in socks and protruding from the raw band of exposed, sun-burned legs between gaiters and shorts brings a smile rather than a grimace, then the transition is probably permanent. TIME & PLACE My own search has probably been much the same as for many dead-enders. Every summer has been spent keeping an eye on the weather charts, looking for the perfect high pressure systems to hover over Tasmania, bringing clear blue skies and light winds. Trip reports of not many fish caught or seen, despite perfect conditions, do not do much to impress friends and family. But every now and then a bigger than usual fish is landed and draws a little respect. Some lovely fish of 4–6 lb are frequent enough when searching lots of lakes in ideal conditions. On a few occasions, a real monster has been seen, but perhaps in an uncatchable situation. It seems like everything has to go right even just to get a shot at a really big one. Something that has particularly and repeatedly hit home is that it is not only about finding the right place, but also being there at the right time. A perfect lake might be discovered, but there may be no trout in it that year. Or there may be a monster there, but it may have cruised out from the bank minutes too late, or been missed as a cloud covered the sun at the critical moment. One example for me was spotting a thumping big fish… in a FlyLife article (FL#78). You probably spotted that one too, but I recognised the very small lake it was caught in, and had checked it out two weeks before the lucky dead-end searcher caught that big one. I did catch a great fish in that lake, but the big one must have been hiding under one of the banks at the time. So there is no substitute for spending more time out west — the more times you walk past the right lakes, the more likely you are to one day cross paths with a really big fish. The reward The sixth lake visited on the glorious January day was on this occasion, after 18 summers of Western Lakes searching, the right place and time. Climbing down into the bushes on the shoreline, I confirmed that this was a solid fish, although it was close to the bottom and the surface was ruffled by a light breeze, so it was hard to tell just how solid. The small black spinner I had tied on for the previous shallow lake was completely ignored. Should I take my eyes off the fish to change flies? Seemed like a big risk when this might be the only fish seen all day. My mate Scott ‘Dinga’ Ling was on the opposite side of the lake, so I had no choice. But it was cruising very slowly, so surely it wouldn’t go too far? Bugger! By the time I had changed to a small nymph, it had disappeared. After pushing through the bushes for 50 metres along the bank and back, I spotted it close to its original location. It must have circled around in the deeper water and was coming back on another pass by the bank. It was moving very slowly, just above the bottom, less than a metre out from the edge of the overhanging branches. It also ignored the nymph, despite another cast that appeared to be well placed. It had to have seen it though. I contemplated another fly change, but my hand was forced when that ‘one more cast before I change it’ saw the nymph caught in the branch above. My position in the bushes was perfect for seeing and intercepting the fish, but came with plenty of fly-catching foliage. This time a stick caddis was tied on quickly and carefully while maintaining the line of sight through the fly to the fish, switching focus between the knot and the fish. I had confidence in this caddis pattern, developed and tied by Dinga, after fooling a number of larger, fussier fish with it over the last few seasons. I flicked Dinga’s Stick Caddis out to the fish, which was now only a couple of metres from the rod tip. The caddis sank right on its nose, and the fish lurched slightly and rolled a little sideways as it sucked it in, as if even that was too much trouble. My careful hook-up stuck, and as the fish rose in the water column shaking its head, I only then started to appreciate its true size. I jumped into the water in case it ran sideways through the branches of the nearby pencil pine, but instead of running, it just took me for a walk along the shallows, like a dog pulling its owner along with the leash. It seemed hardly aware it was hooked up to a flimsy piece of graphite via a piece of 6 lb fluorocarbon. It eventually did run, many times offshore into deeper water, rising to the surface like a marlin at the end of each arc. Bringing it near my feet for the first time, it finally became apparent that this fish was not just the “big fish” I had pictured in my mind during all the years searching the dead-ends of the Western Lakes, and that I had wondered if I would ever catch. It was considerably bigger. After about 40 minutes I was able to grab it by the tail and cradle it in the shallows, 50 metres along the shore from where I had hooked it. Dinga and I were both in shock at the size of the thing. It was unnaturally thick and in prime condition, in a way we have never seen in a big Western Lakes fish before. A few photos later I released it, and we curiously watched as it immediately and confidently swam back down the shore, rather than out to deeper water, and resumed its slow cruise from where I had originally spotted it. Is the search over? On returning home, friends and family asked if that catch meant that my search was over, and I no longer needed to go out west. Some were probably serious, though most were tongue in cheek. Still, I expect it may be hard for others to appreciate the difference between Western Lakes searching and Western Lakes fishing. Or any other type of fishing. There are still new lakes to explore, and I know there are bigger fish out there, if that still needs to be the excuse…

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.