Drifting the Snowy Valleys

Joshua Hutchins adds drift boating to his Australian repertoire.

In 2017, a young, enthusiastic guide named Mickey joined the Aussie Fly Fisher team. Hailing from the Snowy Mountains, Michael Shanahan — aka Mickey Finn — was keen to bring his experience and ideas to the group. And one of these ideas was to run drift boat trips on the Tumut River. After regularly escaping Australian winters to fish in Montana, Mickey had been wooed by the ways of drift boating. Fishing rivers such as the Madison and Yellowstone, he’d seen the accessibility and ease that drift boating brings. I was hesitant, but as the New South Wales summers became drier and warmer, and water levels dropped each season, the year-round cold water of the Tumut’s tailwater system became more and more appealing. At the same time, Nimbo Fork Lodge, recently taken over by new owners and located on the Tumut River, contacted us to see if we’d be interested in expanding our trips. The previous owner also got in touch, offering an old trailer and raft frame from the late Mike Spry — a legend of the Swampy valley. The signs were clear; it was time for us to start drifting the Tumut. The decision became even more significant when two years later the bushfires of 2019/20, wiped out most of our prime fishing locations. One area to recover quickly was the Snowy Valleys region. Tumut river drift boating soon became our signature offering, as one of the few locations producing healthy, beautiful trout during this challenging time. Tumut Meat & Hoppers I shouldn’t have been so reluctant. Drifting made so much sense on these larger tailwaters. With limited public access and unpredictable wading options, both the Tumut and Swampy Plain rivers are ideal for the drift boat. Mickey now lives in Tumut, and after three years of watching his drift boat adventures on Instagram, we finally set aside some time to go fishing. Driving into Tumut mid-February, I was greeted with bright-green paddocks, notably pleased with their portion of rain. Amidst the crowded insect kill, I also spotted a few grasshoppers that had met their end on my windscreen somewhere between Gundagai and Tumut. That was a good sign. The weather forecast was perfect and I was confident we’d experience some of the glamour fishing Mickey had been talking about. We hit the local pub that night and hatched a plan for the days ahead. Setting out next morning we kicked off the day by throwing around some ‘meat.’ That is, (in young guide speak) casting large streamers towards the bank, hoping for a big brown trout to respond. Mickey’s housemate Henry Smith was on board to help film the action, and it didn’t take long for things to move into gear. “Josh, that back-eddy there,” Mickey yelled while rowing me into position. I waited for the right moment before lobbing my Sex-Dungeon — yes that’s the name of the fly — straight into the dark swirling water under a willow tree. No more than halfway through my first strip, a big brown trout exploded on the fly. Hooked up but going wild, his efforts soon paid off, throwing the hook on the second round of jumps. Several more follows but no more eats, and the day was beginning to warm up. Time to put away the meat and throw on a hopper. Summer on the Tumut is renowned for this. We rigged up the 5-weight and a hefty sized hopper, and continued to drift. Mickey has invented nicknames for all of his favourite banks — Bank of Destiny, Jurassic Bank, Bank to the Future. All slow-flowing and rock lined, they regularly deliver trout when carefully fished with a hopper pattern. But before I could enjoy the full tour, the first rock bank arrived and I cast into the edge. “Mend up-stream!” Mickey called, for the first of around 1000 times that week. We heard a loud ‘Gulp!’ and stood in awe as a brown ate the hopper only seconds after it landed. I set, and it was on — a beautifully marked, hefty brown trout — my first for the day and a great size by Australian river standards. As we continued drifting downstream the pattern became clear. If there was consistent flow along a river bend, lined with rocks, then a hopper-eating brown trout awaited us. Mickey said that the backwaters often hold fish too, but on that day all the fish were along the flowing banks. Some simple rules brought success. Get the hopper close to the bank; mend often to gain a good drift; when the trout eat, strike bigger and harder than you think you need to. I missed a few that day, from not striking hard enough — well that’s what Mickey said anyway. Sometimes we’d spot the large browns sitting high in the water along the banks, waiting for food. Other times they were hidden, and our strategy was to fish likely water consistently and methodically — which often paid off. Most people I know would say they prefer dry-fly over nymphing. I generally agree, but nymphing the Tumut is very effective. Sometimes it seemed too easy — short line nymphing when wading, or fishing two nymphs under an indicator from the boat. Even more surprising was the quality of the fish. Fat, hard fighting rainbows averaging 2 to 3 pounds. There are not many Australian systems still offering rainbows of that size, consistently. We ended the trip where it began — at the pub — and as usual, the beers felt particularly satisfying. We’d had three great days of fishing, which, after bushfires ravaging our state at the start of the year, seemed something to be very grateful for. And we were. The Swampy Many would have heard the name Mike Spry, known as the forefather of drift boating in the Snowy Valleys region, and particularly for his work on the Swampy Plain River in the ’80s and ’90s. A couple of weeks after my visit to the Tumut, I booked in a few more days with Mickey and Henry, making our way to the town of Khancoban. Having checked in at the Queen’s Cottage, owners Andrew and Judith Laycock were only too happy to show us the old newspaper clippings and share stories about Mike’s guiding days and his renowned School of Fly Fishing. Mike was an early columnist and keen supporter of FlyLife, advertising in every edition [a tradition continued by his son Will Spry in New Zealand]. Mike certainly created a buzz for fly fishing in the area, and appreciating this history added more significance to our own drift boating efforts. As a kid I remember driving through Khancoban with my dad and brothers as we made our way up towards Geehi Flats and the upper Swampy Plain River. Waves of nostalgia came flooding back as we drove through the area. The lower Swampy has its own beauty. Unlike the Tumut, closed in by a canopy of willows and gum trees, the Swampy is open and green with views of the Snowy Mountains in the distance. It winds its way through farmland and, much like the Tumut, varies in flow depending on releases from the dam above. Moving on to the fishing, we unloaded the boat below Khancoban Pondage Spillway and dropped a second car at the pickup point. The weather was once again perfect, though the water wasn’t as clear as expected. Recent storms had pushed dirty water and ash into the pondage, and it was taking some time to clear through. We did see trout rising, but they were sporadic and not interested in our surface offerings. We tried the usual dry/dropper combination (Mike Spry coined the name ‘Khancoban Cocktail’ for his own ever-reliable dry/nymph combo) and picked up a small fish. Eventually, after throwing around some streamers we landed a beautiful brown trout and another shortly after. Mickey had a few favourite runs in mind to try with deep nymphs, so we’d often pull over and wade through likely stretches, which produced some quality browns and rainbows. The afternoon rise was short lived, but we did manage a few eager browns. The following day was similar. Beautiful clear skies, slightly off-coloured water, and more flow. We were hoping to run into some daytime hatches, and even encounter some Kosciuszko dun feeders, but that never happened. Even in mid-March, it was a little too warm. With the fish not responding to dry flies, we again switched to nymphing and streamers. Drifting deeper into the riffled runs and tail-outs of each pool brought some results — mostly brown trout and the odd rainbow. Determined to get a bigger brown, I resorted to a Mini-Dungeon streamer and patiently plugged away, casting to the edges. Every back-eddy, every submerged rock and log — if he didn’t come, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Eventually, when the streamer landed near a fallen log, like a sprinter lunging from the blocks, a brown trout just shy of five pounds leapt onto the fly and ate it with gusto. He jumped clear of the water six times but I managed to keep him on the line. Deep purple and golden colours, strong markings with spots on the tail — a perfect Australian brown trout. Mickey and I high-fived — it was okay to do that back then — and marvelled a final time at the fish before release. Drifting is a team effort, and Mickey, working hard on the oars deserved that fish as much as I did. After earning his stripes as a wingman, it was Mickey’s turn. He grabbed the two-handed rod and began swinging wets, making his way through the run. And yes, another brown trout soon latched on. Dry fly, nymphing, streamer fishing and now swinging — the Tumut and Swampy had delivered. An iridescent sunset filled the valley as smaller trout began to rise. We drifted on to the upper Murray, resisting the urge to cast cod flies as the darkness crept in.

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