Hoppers in the Valley

Paul Barnes fishes Victoria’s Rubicon River in the heat of summer

The temperature is already sweltering as I step out of the air-conditioned car after an early morning drive from the outskirts of Melbourne. The forecast predicts a maximum of 42 degrees in the valley and there is a statewide total fire ban. With every step taken I worry about treading on a snake in the knee-high grass and tussocks. Neoprene socks are pulled up high, protecting the shins from a possible strike, as it’s too hot to wear waders. Only last week a friend stood on a brown snake in the same area. Fortunately, the outcome was positive for both of them. “You must be keen,” a local farmer chuffs as he steps out of his car to open a gate. After asking politely for permission to cut across his field, saving a further 10-minute walk, the thumbs-up is given. By this time the temperature has soared to the mid 30s and the sweat can be felt dripping from the brim of my hat. So why am I doing this again? That’s right, hoppers. They’re everywhere in this long dry grass and the trout love them. It makes for some of the best dry fly fishing in the valley. Many people talk about heading to Eucumbene or Jindabyne during summer for the hopper action, but the Rubicon River is in its best form during these months, and better still, it’s within a day trip from the capital city. After walking for close to an hour, I approach the first bank. The river cuts into the field where dry grass gives way to a vertical drop into the river. It’s here where a miscalculated jump from a hopper ends up as a meal for an eagerly awaiting brown. Finding refuge in the shade of a nearby tree, I open the fly box and the pondering begins. I select the Commonwealth Hopper and tie it to my 4X tippet. Creeping to the edge of the bank, I purposefully chase a few terrestrials into the water while being cautious not to spook any fish, and wait for the sound of a trout below, slashing at a hopper and giving its location away. I hear the splash, followed by another. I move into position and realise that a bow-and-arrow cast will be needed to prevent spooking the fish. The line shoots out and lands perfectly, no more than 30 cm from the bank. A slight pause, the fly is taken, and the strike is successful. I run from the cover of the tree out to where I can guide the fish from the snags and control its movement. After fighting the fish for several moments, my next dilemma is negotiating a landing zone. The high vertical drop provides a challenge, as the water in most places along this edge is too deep for wading. Finally, I sight a small underwater shelf and ungracefully slide down the bank and onto the muddy step that engulfs my boots. A beautifully coloured brown is landed and quickly released before I contemplate climbing back up the crumbling bank. Crouching down, I cool myself off in the river for a few minutes before noticing a small tree root that provides the perfect handle to pull myself back up. For me, this is fishing at its best, and despite the extreme heat and the associated hazards, the trout more than make up for it. WHEN IT BEGINS From mid-December until late February, hoppers are abundant in the Goulburn Valley, if not in plague proportions, and they provide a staple diet for trout during the summer months. Most of the fish caught are well conditioned as a result of gorging themselves on protein-rich hoppers. Trout will even brave rising water temperatures to gain an easy meal, as by mid-January, the Rubicon water can already hit the 20 degree mark. This is often noted when fighting fish, as when the summer drags on, trout can become lethargic and a quick release is essential. However, when the first frosts of autumn set in, the hoppers soon disappear and the hopper fishing on the lower Rubicon deteriorates rapidly. In peak season, it’s not uncommon to land anywhere between 15 and 20 trout during a full day’s fishing on the Rubicon, with most ranging between 1 and 3 lb; although, the majority of fish are usually busted off in the snags or mistimed on the strike, keeping you eager to return. However, this type of fishing is not for everyone, as a lot of ground is often covered when searching for these fish. After checking the Fitbit at the end of the day, anything registering less than 10 kilometres is a light session. HOPPER PATTERNS Every angler I’ve met on the Rubicon has their own favourite hopper pattern, and I am yet to come across anyone using the same fly as me. It is important to select a pattern in which you have confidence, as with every drift you must anticipate that a fish will strike. In my experience, four patterns stand out. Firstly, I will toss-up between either the Miss Knobby X or the Commonwealth Hopper. The other two patterns are the Morrish (usually in tan and brown), and the More or Less Hopper (in gold and tan with orange legs). I will usually opt for the latter two flies in waters that were fished with the other patterns more recently, or if things are just quiet. I have learnt that it pays to regularly rotate hopper patterns. You may land a few fish on one pattern during the first hour or so, and then all of a sudden things shut down. However, after changing patterns, the fish are back striking again. I have also noticed that if you return a few days later to a backwater or edge where you dropped or missed a fish, using a different fly will increase your chances. Likewise, if fishing the same water the following day, I will often begin with a different pattern. Another thing I’ve recently begun doing is crushing the barb. Not only does this benefit the fish, it also preserves your fly. I’m yet to find a down side with barbless hooks. People say that you lose fish if the line becomes slack, but isn’t that why we say ‘tight lines’. If a fish creates slack line, then it has genuinely won the battle and perhaps deserves the honour of escaping the net. RUBICON TACTICS During summer, the Rubicon River receives an absolute hammering, particularly the mid to upper reaches. However, if you are prepared to walk, the stretches near where it meets the Goulburn River are far less crowded and very rewarding. Better still, these reaches are more suited to fly fishing than bait or lure, as the water is filled with snags. This also happens to be where the hoppers are in abundance. Many fly fishers pride themselves on fishing the water thoroughly and would scoff at the comment made earlier about the distance I cover during a typical session. However, I prefer to fish the edges that look more inviting for the eager trout awaiting hoppers, and skip runs where you may do better with a Stimulator or attractor pattern. Sure, I may miss several fish along the way, but by investing more time on ‘quality’ hopper runs, the numbers usually stack up, especially when you begin fishing the river regularly and know where these edges are. So what makes a run more inviting on the Rubicon? I look for areas with steep vertical banks that usually drop anywhere from 1 to 2 metres. This is where hoppers can easily end up in the water after a wayward jump. Trout will usually be lying very close to the bank (20–40 cm) and not sighted until they rise. Often they are so close that you can’t risk spooking the fish by peering over the edge or making repeated false casts. What I tend to do is either a bow-and-arrow cast, or use a small flick to send the fly over the edge. Sometimes my fly is out of view, so I listen for the take rather than watch it. It’s also important to keep the fly close to the bank, and I mean really close. On one occasion a fish was rising only centimetres from the bank. After several drifts with the fly 40–50 cm from the bank, I decided on one last shot, but this time placed the fly only 10–20 cm from the bank and this made all the difference. Don’t ask why the fish refused to move 20 centimetres to take the fly on the first few drifts, but I have since learnt that this is often the case. Perhaps trout realise the limitations of how far a hopper can jump — if it lands too far out, it can’t be a hopper! HOPPER TACKLE Although the upper Rubicon is a beautiful freestone river to fish with a 2/3-weight rod during summer, fishing the lower stretches is at times a complete contrast. Here a 4 or 5-weight, 9-foot rod is ideal, as it provides enough power to manoeuvre the fish as they head for one of the many snags that lurk beneath the discoloured water. I only ever use a 5-weight in this river, and there have been times where I have felt that the rod was at breaking point, particularly when a fired-up brown decides to power into a snag in an undercut bank, directly below where you are standing. As for leaders, I prefer a 9 to 12 foot, 4X or 3X, as anything less will most likely leave you with a broken heart should you hook that season-best fish. In this section of the river, you can’t follow fish downstream due to the snags and willows that block the path. Another important consideration is the hook. There is absolutely no point having 3X or 4X tippet should the hook not withstand the pressure that the line is capable of enduring prior to breaking. There have been far too many occasions when I have lost fish, only to notice that the hook had flattened out. As a result, I now tie all my flies on stronger hooks. If unsure of your hooks, test them out! If the hook holds up and the 6 lb tippet breaks, that is exactly what you can expect, and your drag can be set accordingly. So next time the mercury is pushing 40°C, stock up on hoppers, don the camel back, ditch the waders, pull up those neoprene socks and prepare yourself for a long hard walk though dry grassy fields looking for vertical banks. You may just find a few decent trout lurking below.

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