Highland Reds

Mark & Sharon Cloutier fish the red spinner hatch in the Tasmanian lake country

Art is complex, often confronting, beautiful and sometimes confusing. It is universal and crosses cultural boundaries, continents and even time. David Walsh has a theory that the creativity that produces art may come down to just two very basic things: sex and death. His Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) is a testament to this. The mid-morning light, gentle and dappled, was darkening the copper-toned water along the edge of the pauciflora forest where I was sitting. Like other nearby lakes, Highland Waters is an insect factory with the mayfly hatches prolific at times. It was cool enough to still have a fleece jumper on but the day was warming nicely. Yesterday’s duns were today’s spinners and I had already seen them glinting in the shafts of cool forest light. A fish rose on the edge of the shadowy water. I got to my feet and stripped off some line, but it was a ‘oncer’ and never showed again. I wasn’t about to be distracted by this fish, and didn’t cast. There would be others once the glistening mayflies came out in force. The fish were quiet amongst the shadows so I walked out of the forest to the sedge bank, open and drenched in sunlight. A fish rose, then again, heading into the ripple. I put the fly a metre in front and, sure enough, it went under. I tightened up; the fish rocketed out of the water, pulled some line out and leapt again. I eventually brought it into the shallows, working the rod from side to side, but the fish refused to yield. I was grateful for the 4x tippet I’d decided to use at the start of the day. When its head was up I scooped the trout out, pulled the barbless fly from its tongue and tipped it out of the net, without touching the fish. SEX & DEATH The red spinner is the common name for the mayfly Atalophebia australis. The nymph is a brownish colour with lighter wing cases, while the dun is a mottled brown and pale grey with a distinct pattern of the Greek letter lambda on its upright wings — hence the adopted name, lambda dun. The spinner is brick red to orange in colour with crystal clear wings. It is a thing of beauty. Ron Thresher does a fine job of describing Tasmania’s mayflies and their habits in FlyLife #10, 11 & 12. This mayfly, which has a liking for the lowland broadwaters and lakes, has somehow found its way to this highland catchment. Maybe a quirk of nature has brought it this way, or more likely, it had been put here deliberately. Its distribution is now wide and varied, having been translocated around the state decades earlier by well meaning anglers. It may show up anywhere over the spring/summer period and again in autumn, so have some patterns of all forms of its lifecycle in your fly box. The metamorphosis of the mayfly from nymph to dun is an interesting journey, but it is the final transition from dun to spinner that had me thinking about art, in particular the sex and death bit. The only role for the final adult stage of the mayfly (the spinner), is to mate, shed its eggs, then die. The insect is primitive and ephemeral, with the adult lasting little longer than a day. This could be written as an entomological love tragedy, but insects are not romantic. This is an insect orgy, the males pouncing on not just any female, but any insect that has a close resemblance (or not) – even your fly isn’t safe! As the morning warmed I took off my jumper and stuffed into the back of my vest. The air began to hum with life and sparkle with exquisite red spinners that swayed in unison during their flight. The trout lay in wait for the feast to come. I saw a fish rise and tracked its progress through my polaroids, dropping the fly in its path. The fish simply glided over and ate it. It was going to be a rather good session. A gentle breeze came and went all morning — more of an occasional puff — ideal conditions for the spinners. Even though they are strong fliers, less wind is better than more. Sheltered lakesides can be perfect places for the spinners to swarm, mate and fall prey to the trout. Whilst calm conditions in the highlands may be rare, they do occur, particularly early and late in the day, but even a strong breeze has lulls and there are lees and pockets of still water to be found. SPINNER FEEDERS The lambda dun emerges from a ‘swim-up’ rather than ‘crawl-out’ nymph (FL#84) and produces wonderful dry fly action, some of the best of the season, but on this day it was the sparkling red spinners that had caught my attention, and the trout’s. The key is to find a feeding fish, not just a random oncer, and focus on that fish by either watching the rise forms and predicting its movement, or, better still, tracking the fish in the water and dropping the fly in its path. If a fish is on a regular beat then setting a trap is a good tactic too, particularly when they are mopping up ‘spent’ spinners. Today the fish were behaving. Their desire was simply for a well-presented fly, provided it was the right colour and size, but it needed to be delivered with speed and accuracy. Other times, when the trout prefer their meal on the wing, you might have your hands full. These fish become focused on the airborne insects, taking them in flight. It’s spectacular, frustrating, and totally addictive. In his book Trout Magic, Robert Travers describes an elaborate way to ‘dance’ a spinner tantalizingly in front of an unsuspecting trout by getting your fishing mate to tie his leader to your leader; then somehow you both lift your rods to sway the fake insect in a mesmerizing way. All this is way beyond me, and ganging up on a fish doesn’t seem fair. Leapers can be quite erratic and focused in the way they track and feed on flying spinners, zipping this way then that way. Having picked out an individual fish, deliver the fly sharply and make sure the trout knows it’s there — without spooking it. This can be difficult fishing, as you’re essentially trying to change the fish’s feeding pattern by grabbing its attention with an almost aggressive presentation. It works on damselfly feeders too. Good luck! It goes without saying that good polaroiding skills are handy, and understanding how a particular fish is feeding will help. A trout that rises twice gives up its direction, but as mentioned previously, they can be erratic. If there is a gentle breeze then you might assume a trout will feed into the ripple, but it’s not always the case. Having said that, unless I suspect otherwise I will always put the fly up-wind of a rise-form. Eventually you will find a fish going the right way. SPENT SPINNERS Having made my way to the dam wall I glimpsed a good trout that had just taken from the top. I wasn’t in position to make a cast and figured that the big brown would be on a beat, as they often cruise part of the wall before heading out deep and circling back. I waited. The fish was soon back, coming along the rock wall towards me, moving at a snail’s pace and sipping what looked to be spent spinners, probably leftovers from the night before. Barely breathing, and only moving my eyes, I let the fish slide past me, then shot out the fly. Too short. I picked up and put it a metre in front of the trout in one quick cast. It glided over and clomped the fly down. I lifted; the fish shuddered, rolled, got angry and blasted off. The next time I saw it leap there was braid hissing through the snake guides. I eventually worked the fish in closer, keeping it out of the crevices in the wall, and netted it — close enough to six pounds. Once the mayfly’s mating ritual and egg laying is over, the adults die and most end up flat on the water with their translucent wings spread wide. They are ‘spent’, and aren’t going anywhere. The trout simply hoover these insects up wherever they accumulate, often taking every single last one of them. Find the spent insects and you’ll more than likely find a sipper. Morning is a good time, as the overnight breeze often works any leftovers into slicks and pockets. Often you’ll hear the trout before you see them, as they ‘kiss’ the fly off the surface. If you find a heavily feeding fish you’re in with a show, and setting a trap is a good ploy. Watch how the fish works, predict where he is likely to rise next, and get your fly there. And please, strike slowly! I made my way to a quiet part of the lake. The light was delicate, the harsh edges of the shadows now blurred. In a mirror of water I saw a struggling mayfly, the meniscus like glue to its delicate wings. Quivering in its final death throws, it could do nothing other than succumb, and above, other spinners mated and awaited a similar fate. It was a melancholy moment in an otherwise splendid day.

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