Dear Diary

Greg French puts the record straight

Ric and I had just walked into the grassy-floored amphitheatre of dolerite that shelters the tin hut at Tin Hut Lake and, being mid-morning, were mildly surprised to find two anglers packing away their tent. “Fishing hasn’t been great,” they explained. “We’re thinking we’ll leave the Nineteen Lagoons and go to Woods. You?” “Stumps and Wadleys,” said Ric. “There’ll be plenty of trout on shore,” I insisted.“They’ll be doggo, or cruising very slowly, but every now and then one will sprint a metre or so and stop dead in its tracks. Mudeye feeders.” How could I be so certain? Well, I’ve visited the area multiple times every year for more than four decades, and I’ve kept diaries. All the portents were there – early November, blue sky, warm weather. In Ripples, Runs and Risers (1988) David Scholes reckoned all anglers should keep a diary and lamented that most did not. Worse, I’ve noticed that most diarists only record the water visited, the number and weight of fish caught and the fly used. If you want to build a record that enables you to be accurately predictive you’ll have to be more imaginative than that. WHAT’S FOR DINNER? I’m a trout hunter, so my choice of venue is usually determined by what trout foods will be available. Leading up to the Wadleys trip, my diaries advised that we had the choice of peak whitebait runs on the Henty estuary, midge hatches at Lake Echo or dun activity on the Meander River. We opted for mudeye feeders at Wadleys because forty years of record taking taught me that there are only a few days each year when we could expect to see so many fish in such shallow water so close to shore. In truth, the latter twenty years of diary entries have proved more useful than the first twenty. When I first started fly fishing, I killed most fish and spent an inordinate amount of time recording everything in every trout’s gut. Over time I have greatly refined my note taking. I still record small events such as the first dun I see taken by a fish even if it’s only a one-off. But these days I’m especially mindful of the first notable hatches and the first notable rises. My friends are often surprised by how much I rely on gut samples. Yet this is how I learned that the fish in Lake Ina’s shallows were not feeding on prominent schools of juvenile galaxias, but targeting mayfly nymphs (FL#84). It’s also how I discovered that, in November, Wadleys fish favour mudeyes over damselflies. In waters with high trout numbers and low visitation, killing a fish or two won’t have any observable impact on future fishing. Otherwise, spoons are available for gut checks, which allow you to release trout unharmed. SIZE AND CONDITION Up until age 30, I was an ardent devotee of Lake Sorell. Then in 1992 I began catching too many slabby trout. Things didn’t improve over the summer, or over the next two summers. Surely this was unprecedented. Aware that memory is fickle, I consulted my diaries. My hunch proved correct, but I still couldn’t work out what was going on. Eventually the IFS linked years of low rainfall to poor recruitment. Basically the lake was carrying a disproportionate number of very old trout. This was a lightbulb moment for me. ‘Slabby’ years happen in many of the Western Lakes. Although not all waters are similarly affected in the same year, I wondered if rainfall played a part. Now, after twenty years of record taking, I can demonstrate a clear link. Some isolated headwater trophy lakes, for example, have no spawning creeks and produce fat giants in years when more populated lakes nearby are producing mostly slabs. Years can go by without any recruitment. Then comes a heavy summer flood when a few fingerlings manage to work their way up newly flooded gutters. Eventually the new fish become big enough to compete with existing trophies (which predictably lose condition) and later they begin to show up as trophies in their own right. The dynamic is slightly different in waters with different spawning opportunities, but my diaries have enabled me to predict good and bad years in a great many of the Western Lakes. WATER LEVELS Hydro Tasmania has always provided accurate records of water levels in its impoundments, and I have always cross-referenced them in my diaries. Consequently I know that wading in St Clair Lagoon is perfect when levels sit between 1.5 and 1.7 metres below full supply. I also know that the dun hatches at Arthurs Lake were at their best when levels ranged from minus 1.5 to minus 3.5 metres. River levels are important too. My records show that fishing in the Mersey below Parangana Dam improved dramatically following the mandating of environmental flows. I also know how much rain will cause the lower river to gently inundate the banks, resulting in good floodwater fishing, and how much more rain needs to fall before the fishing is blown out altogether. WATER TEMPERATURE My friends on mainland Australia have always had to worry about high water temperatures, and most carry a thermometer. If the lower reaches of a river are too hot they will head upstream in search of shade. If the water temperature of a lake is too high, they will fish deep or go to a more favourable venue. Needless to say, they have determined the critical temperatures in each water by consulting their diaries. In Tasmania the weather has historically been so benign that we have been able to use air temperatures as a proxy. David Scholes, for example, used his diaries to deduce that hatches on his beloved meadow streams peaked when the air temperature began to rise above 20OC. But Tasmania, like the rest of the world, is warming up, so I have begun to measure water temperature in places where I suspect it may make a difference. I’m not sure this is going to help me decide where to fish, but I know that in the era of climate breakdown, whatever I record will be fascinating. WIND It took me way too long to twig that wind greatly affects the availability of trout food. The first thing I (eventually) noticed was that northerly winds in summer precipitate good gum-beetle fishing. Why? Because northerlies are always warm. After that I worked out that westerlies blew duns onto eastern shores, and that northerlies stirred up spiralling plumes of trout food along south-western shores. On streams, wind was helpful for the way it blew grasshoppers onto the water. MIGRATIONS Recording trout spawning times is an obvious recommendation. For example, I know that when the rainbow- only upper Mersey lakes open to fishing at the beginning of October, it will be peak spawning time, so I hold off until late October or early November. How about aggregations of other fish? My diaries record juvenile lampreys migrating en masse down the Derwent every July, which is handy knowledge because trout feed on them with gusto. And I have recorded the shift in peak whitebait runs, so I no longer bother with the Henty River estuary in August, preferring instead to concentrate on the period from October through to the middle of December. In the Derwent estuary, I have linked mass aggregations of jack mackerel and juvenile grenadier with spectacular surface feeding by sea trout, and worked out that these events always correlate with an influx of very cold, nutrient-rich water from the Antarctic. Such events are becoming rarer as the Roaring Forties shift south and the East Australian Current intensifies. I wonder what’s changing where you fish? WEATHER My diaries predate accurate weather forecasting and record the many, many times we were caught out in storms, blizzards and floods. Consequently I know that big summer rains in the Western Lakes and elsewhere precipitate phenomenal trout activity in the extreme shallows, but only while the water is rising. I know too that the best ant falls immediately precede big sultry storm cells, and that these events are just as likely in November as February or March. These days, weather prediction is so accurate that many newcomers to fly fishing have, by choice, very little experience of uncomfortable weather. My advice is to fish whenever you can, and if you encounter foul conditions, record what happens. FLIES Sea trout on the Henty River can be extremely difficult to catch, but one trip years ago I had phenomenal success with a Sloane-style whitebait pattern. That year I ended up tying dozens of the damned things, mainly for use on other rivers, using whatever colour thread happened to be on my bobbin at the time. Returning to the Henty on the anniversary of the successful trip, I was relieved to find that the fish were as active as before. Problem was, my fly box now included patterns tied with red, black, yellow and white thread. I couldn’t for the life of me remember the colour of the original, and none of the ones I had seemed to work. I still don’t know if the colour actually mattered or if I simply lost confidence, but since then I have diligently recorded the finest details of my most successful flies. A NETWORK OF DIARISTS The more data you have the more predictive it becomes. Even though I fish a lot, my records are far from exhaustive and I rely heavily on friends to fill the gaps. As David Scholes noted, ‘The man who keeps everything he knows in his breast will know far less than the one who compares notes with his friends.’ The secret is to understand your mates’ foibles. For example, I’m aware that ‘Fred’ is prone to exaggerate his catch even more than I do, but I know he’ll be perfectly truthful about the size and timing of hatches. TEST YOUR PREDICTIONS Many fly fishers — diarists and non- diarists alike — are prone to quickly develop gut feelings that become self-fulfilling prophecies. I never catch fish in the middle of day. Perhaps that’s because you always have lunch in the middle of the day. A Red Tag is the only fly that works for me when polaroiding the Western Lakes. Well, other flies probably won’t work if you only try them as a last resort when the fishing is terrible. The hallmark of an effective diarist is an inquiring mind. If your diaries indicate that warm weather in November will precipitate early black spinner action at, say, Lake Ina, surely you should be asking yourself if, under the right conditions, the hatches might start even earlier. To discover the answer, you might have to sacrifice sure-fire October frog action at Lake Fergus, but this is the sort of sacrifice the best anglers can’t resist. STORIES I confess that I don’t particularly enjoy record keeping, and that my notes tend to be written in an ungodly rush. I’m constantly embarrassed by other diarists — the likes of Tony Sloane — who have kept beautifully written notes, often illustrated, that are delightful to peruse. Another problem is that while my Tasmanian entries are more succinct and useful than ever before, they have become boring. My overseas notes are better because they have been taken with an eye to writing stories. I knew right away that readers were going to be enchanted by the street dogs that accompanied us on our fishing trips to the rainbow trout stream that flows past the Inka ruins near Machu Picchu. I need to keep reminding myself that memorable things happen at home as well. Perhaps the reader might be interested in ‘commonplace’ occurrences. On the Wadley’s trip, Ric trod on a tiger snake, and what a hilarious sight it was, the seemingly synchronised flailing of human and reptile as viewed from the other side of Stumps Lake. And it turned out that one of the two fly fishers we spoke to on the way in used to go to high school with my son. Your diaries should record events like these — they will be a joy to read in the years to come, and perhaps writing them down will provide the inspiration you need to try your hand at a Short Cast. In any case, every angler experiences things that no one else has experienced, and such events deserve to be shared.

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