Heart of the Western Lakes

Greg French explains his relationship with Tasmania’s unique trout-hunting wilderness.

The Western Lakes — long revered by trout fishing connoisseurs — can be broadly defined as the area extending west from Great Lake to the tiers overlooking Lake St Clair and the Mersey valley, incorporating the Nineteen Lagoons, Chudleigh Lakes and the Walls of Jerusalem National Park. Strange as it may seem, the name has not yet been officially recognised, though it is widely used in angling literature and official management plans, even on public signage. The Western Lakes is wild, pristine and unlike any other high-country wilderness anywhere in the world. The landscapes — stark but inspiring — incorporate stunted eucalypt forests, vast moors and snowgrass floodplains. Best of all, they are bejewelled with a thousand crystal-clear lakes and tarns. Access to the waters beyond road-ends requires an enticing amount of self-reliance, yet every lake is easily accessible to people of modest fitness. All you need is a free spirit. In addition to its wilderness values, the region is uniquely well-suited to locating and stalking individual trout. Beginners can be reasonably sure of early success, especially if they are accompanied by an experienced mentor, but the fishing is extraordinarily diverse and provides enough challenges to outlast a lifetime. Indeed, challenge is the essential attraction. Early Days I first visited the Western Lakes in 1979, aged 17. Driving my dilapidated Mazda 800 from Great Lake past the ranger station at Liawenee, past the Augusta Dam, I ended up at road’s end: Lake Ada. The wild moors and bizarre vegetation — cushion plants, pineapple grass, pencil pines — had me utterly entranced. In those days I was a novice spin fisher, and I remember being frustrated by all the trout I could see but not catch. At the end of a long, fruitless day I met the ranger himself, Val Dell, who advised me to take up fly fishing (easier said than done). He also told me how, just a year or so earlier, the place was lawless. Since then he’d hardened the main Hydro-built tracks and been busy policing illegal off-road use. Environmental conditions had improved dramatically. The urge to explore overwhelmed me. I extracted my Tasmaps, and Val pointed out the only other 2WD access, which led up from the Mersey valley to the northern fringes of the Western Lakes at Lake Mackenzie, another Hydro development. What really caught my imagination, though, were the vast tracts of wilderness between here and there, and south-west to the Lyell Highway. The only other walking track marked on my map led from the northern town of Western Creek, south to Lake Nameless (east of Mackenzie), where a black square indicated a hut. There were no guidebooks in those days and I had no way of knowing if I would find trout, but what the heck. My map reading skills were close to zero, and stepping out of my car I was annoyed to discover that the road-end lay in tall forest at the foot of the Western Tiers. Hours later I was more annoyed to discover that the hut was merely a pile of moss-covered rubble. The weather was bad too, but at least I caught a fish or two (the first on a deadline baited with a wattle grub). The only other walking track marked on any contemporary map led uphill from Lake Rowallan to the upper Mersey lakes. En route, I was disappointed to discover that there were no fish in lakes Loane or Adelaide, though a passing fisherman advised me to move on to Meston where, he said, there were rainbows. (Frustrations on this trip provided the inspiration for my first guidebook, published in 1984). After Meston, so it seemed, getting to new waters would necessarily involve a lot of off-track exploration. An expedition from Augusta to Mackenzie seemed logical, especially since I’d heard rumours of a 4WD route to the Julian Lakes. It never occurred to me that the route might cross the middle of the Augusta lakebed, so I walked along an uncharted track from the western end of the impoundment. It petered out at Tin Hut Lake (unnamed on my map). Given that I couldn’t read contours and had never navigated by compass I should probably have turned back, but I somehow managed to find my way by following river courses. I was lucky that the blue lines on my old maps were accurate. After thoroughly exploring the high moors, I eventually headed south-west of Ada beyond the Great Pine Tier, where the trees were thicker and the lakes deeper. In the mid-1980s, my mate Ric and I aimed for Lake Malbena, as far as it was possible to be from any road or walking track. On arrival, we glimpsed a tiny old hut on Halls Island. Imagine the sense of adventure when, acting on a hunch, we pulled apart a large cairn and unearthed a chest containing an inflatable raft. Unique fishing I always saw plenty of fish, and assumed the benefit of polarised glasses to be overstated, until a gun angler I met at Blue Peaks took me under his wing and showed me the error of my ways. Equally revolutionary, this man suggested I stop using lures and start stalking individual fish with cockroaches and wattle grubs. Now that I was trout hunting I quickly aspired to fly fishing, and began packing a fly rod along with my spinning rod. But I had no one to teach me how to cast and lacked the confidence to make a clean transition. Crunch time came during a massive spinner hatch on Lake Naomi. After the hundredth trout ignored my cockroach, I resolved to leave my spinning rod at camp and, come what may, spend the rest of the day practising real fishing. Hours later, despite some pretty woeful casting, my artificial Black Spinner somehow landed directly in front of a big cruiser. Even now, I savour every heart-stopping moment of that slow-motion rise and wide-mouthed take. I was addicted. It didn’t take long to realise that the Western Lakes, though often superficially similar to one another, were unique amongst themselves. Some were very deep, others were wadeable all over. Some featured bare-silt flats, others were rocky bottomed. Some had pin-rush marshes, others had expansive beds of isoetes or filamentous weed. Some were connected by permanent streams, others remained isolated in all but the biggest floods. And the trout? Some waters supported good stocks of small fish, others supported much smaller stocks of huge fish. Feeding behaviours were diverse too. Depending upon where we ended up, and at what time of year, we might find the trout smashing schools of baitfish, leaping high out of the water for mayfly spinners, waving their tails in the air while nosing out scud. Sometimes we could engage in flats-style wade-polaroiding, other times we had to spot from high banks. It took multiple visits over multiple seasons to get a real feel for how each lake worked, but the more effort we put in, the greater our rewards. What could be better? SELF-RELIANCE The first night Ric and I stayed at the Malbena hut I discovered a copy of Fly-fisher in Tasmania on a small, overladen bookshelf. As if by divine providence, it fell open in the middle of a chapter on the Western Lakes: ‘There is something other than the fishing which draws you back; perhaps the remoteness and feeling of treading unknown paths like that of the explorer, or maybe the weird landscape which, notwithstanding its desolation, seems to whisper a soft message of beauty.’ David Scholes, like me, fretted about the prospect of the Western Lakes losing its wildness: ‘the angler may [still] thrill at the fishing [but] something will be lost forever.’ Back then I thought mechanical access would likely be precipitated by Hydro industrialisation (Meston had already been surveyed) and logging (foresters were measuring the growth rates of eucalypts at Olive Lagoon). Aware that advocacy equals protection, I wondered how I could get everyone to share my passion for the area. To give my writing more gravitas I began travelling abroad, and the more I travelled, the more I realised that big tracts of easily accessible wilderness were extraordinarily rare, and getting rarer. The Western Lakes wilderness, I now know, offers the most easily accessible self-reliant camping in the world, and also the best trout hunting. Nowhere else can so many different waters be so easily accessed on foot by myriad routes. Nowhere else is the terrain so flat and easy to traverse. Nowhere are the trout so completely wild and wily. There aren’t even any bears or other predatory animals — only wallabies, platypuses, echidnas and wombats. (Did I mention the snakes?) Management plans In 1989 the Department of Parks Wildlife and Heritage realised that the recent World Heritage listing of the Western Lakes presented new challenges for management and planning. Accordingly it engaged Dr Robert Sloane (then Commissioner of Inland Fisheries, later founder and editor of FlyLife) to prepare a comprehensive plan for the future management of trout fishing in the region, taking full account of the overriding necessity to protect and conserve World Heritage values. Rob invited me to help him draw up the plan. It was a memorable year, and a labour of love for both of us. Part of our field work involved mapping the distribution of trout (our fly rods proved to be the most effective sampling tools) and native fish, enabling us to fill-in the last few gaps in our collective knowledge. Another part of our work was to record the history of the region, so I had the privilege of interviewing track builders and hut owners, including Liz McQuilken, daughter of Reg Hall, builder of the Malbena hut. (For much of our most remote work, we actually based ourselves in Reg’s hut.) Ultimately Rob and I came to formalise many placenames commonly used by anglers. We even invented a few ourselves, notably for lakes in the Malbena area: Cuppa Lake, Chigah Lake and Burrow Lagoon. After that, I worked as a summer ranger in the Western Lakes before representing Tourism Tasmania on a committee reviewing options for sustainable bushwalking. Intense work and play in the remote Western Lakes resulted in many passionate and surreal stories, the best of which ended up forming the backbone of my first work of literary nonfiction, Frog Call (2002). Protection When I first began writing about the Western Lakes I was like a young lover, so full of enthusiasm I just had to tell everyone about it. This romantic attitude persisted while lobbying for the area to be properly reserved ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’ But after the area was listed as World Heritage, threats continued and I was forced to become combative. I had to oppose people who wanted to dismantle the historic huts, oppose people who wanted to restrict public access, oppose people who wanted to demonise trout fishing. By the time I began working with Rob, I’d come to understand that nothing is sacrosanct and that all conservation battles are perpetual. World Heritage listing, I realised, would only offer protection for as long as there was enough support in the community to maintain that protection. Continuing to write was one way to keep promoting the area. But how much more information could be disclosed before undermining the very thing people valued most: the thrill of independent discovery? In the end I chose not to pinpoint special waters — trophy lakes, for example — but to offer recipes so that anglers could discover them for themselves. Guiding was another way to introduce potential advocates to the area. But by making things too easy I would no longer be encouraging people to be adventurous, only to be pampered. The Western Lakes, I’ve always stressed, need to be visited on foot, and you need to camp in a tent or historic hut. Over the years I introduced many friends to my most cherished waters, and to each other. I only regret one such introduction, which morphed from a simple lease transfer to assist in preserving and maintaining Reg Hall’s hut at Lake Malbena to a proposal for helicopter fly-outs and luxury accommodation, culminating in the government’s privatisation of the entire 10 hectare Halls Island. It is important to understand that the Western Lakes is not a thousand separate fisheries, but one discrete fishery. An attack on any portion is an attack on the whole, and an attack on the heart is likely to be mortal. When we walk from a trailhead we all want to feel that we are headed deeper into wilderness, not towards helipads and development. Fly fishers understand this more than anyone, which is why opposition to privatising and taming the Western Lakes has always transcended political allegiances. Currently I rank the Western Lakes amongst the five best fisheries in the world, and as the best wilderness fishery. Make access and fishing easy, and the Western Lakes becomes just another ordinary place like dozens of other ordinary places worldwide.

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