Keeping Melbourne’s Secrets

For the angler, is there any anticipation quite like being taken to a secret spot? We all want to cast over the classics at least once — the Tongariro and Mataura, Macquarie and MacLaughlin, the Itchen and Test, the Traun and la Risle. But I think even more than that we want the unknown, the waters untouched and unspoiled, because a fishing truism we all believe in, is that the less frequented a water is, the better the fishing must be. If angling really is a perpetual series of occasions for hope (Buchan), perhaps the finding and keeping of secrets is all about that anticipation, that delightful delaying of gratification. Where are they? And what secrets do they hold? The Snake, the East Gippsland River, Conways Creek, The Finding… I’ve wondered about them all. I was given Stalking Trout (Les Hill and Graeme Marshall) while in school and it stayed on my shelf among the textbooks well into university days. Again and again I looked at its pictures of monster trout and read about The Dream River… ‘Can you picture the most perfect trout stream of all — the one you dream about? I can, and the truth of the matter is that it does exist. I know such a place.’ When you’re young, any water can seem like a secret spot and these memories are an investment that always appreciates. For me this was the west branch of the Kiewa and I remember being taken there in early secondary school. We would drive at dawn from home up the valley towards the snow, cross over to the next watershed and down into town, then turn to an unmarked street that soon became a dirt track. The track climbed into the scrub and after a while a bone-dry riverbed could be seen down below. And then we were there… a small dam with a diversion tunnel into the hillside, a clear freestone river above it, the crackle of dry grass and sticks as we walked from the car, sharp eucalypt scent, that peculiarly Australian Alps paradox of cold air and burning sun, cold water on my legs… and trout coming up to the fly in every likely spot. I know now this place was always fairly well known even back then, it’s even been openly written about a couple of times in FlyLife. The memory still holds a special place and it remains in the imagination a repository of that Tolkienesque desire for a time when there was more green and fewer people. The art of disinformation The lengths we go to. Secrecy, euphemisms, and outright untruths. To the dedicated seeker of waters unknown these are all met with a poker face. I’ve nodded sagely when told a big brown pictured in his spawning colours was caught in mid spring, and have made mental note of the rocks and trees in the photo which don’t match a story’s purported location. These things pique the curiosity and fire the imagination. Snake stories… ha!… nothing is more sure to get me interested than someone trying to put me off. Though I do respect the old school effort and find the regional variations in these stories fascinating. Crocodiles, bears, drunken gamekeepers, angry ranchers all set the secret spot sensors ringing. If you just can’t manage to keep quiet (don’t we all crave an audience for a success?) then the thing that will make me genuinely think twice is crazy locals — isolationists, NRA members, cultists — you get the idea, but like all good presentations it’s about not letting on that you’re trying to deceive. Perhaps a better approach is the gentle talking down of a water — it looks okay but water quality has gone down a bit — and being sure to only show pictures of undersize trout. Or maybe saying that the secret is well and truly out and the club guys have been giving it a hammering. Why do we do it then? Why is this so instantly recognisable and so alluring to all anglers? I don’t think Nietzsche was an angler though he often used fish as a metaphor. His ‘there is nothing we like to communicate to others so much as the seal of secrecy… together with what lies underneath’ could have been a direct observation of a gathering of anglers. And this is the reason few places remain secret for long. We all like talking about it too much. I think of this often on my home waters close to Melbourne. Most of its direct catchments have parts that have survived, despite the increasing urbanisation. But they are so commonplace and the fishing so unremarkable they have almost become secret again though they are out in plain sight. Perhaps their ordinariness is what has spared them. To be honest to those seekers out there, these waters have fairly marginal trout habitat now and will only give up their secrets to the dedicated because it’s more about when and how than where. And if you find delighting in the commonplace difficult, it’ll end a disappointing exercise as there are no 10-pounders here, and a ‘double’ can mean either 2 pounds or a 2 fish morning. Paradise Lost They called it Paradise I don’t know why You call someplace paradise Kiss it goodbye Don Henley in the Eagles’ song The Last Resort perhaps best summed the despair felt at loss of nature’s beauty… that once too many people know about a place it will be overrun and fished out. So that for us now, the seeking of the Sublime in the wild has a strong element of seeing the fragility of nature before men, and in fear of its loss. Our Kiwi kin have been wrestling with this dilemma for a while now. Once, years ago, I was on a stream I thought my own when I saw a footprint on the bank. Crusoe’s terror fell on me in an instant and I kept looking over my shoulder and couldn’t concentrate on the water for the rest of the day. I hadn’t really thought deep down that this water was only known to me, after all, I’d read about it years ago in old forgotten books, which are still a wonderful source of information, though on the mainland sadly it’s not always true that waters that once held trout will do so today. I’ve had a number of places quite close to Melbourne where I’ve been able to seek that intimate solitude we all crave through fly fishing, and by now I’ve found evidence of other anglers on them all — the footprint, bent grass, a fly stuck in a tree — even though I’m fairly sure I’ve not given them away by careless parking or a loose word. And I’m still conflicted when it comes to talking about these places. There’s a curious dance that unfolds when you realise another angler shares your secret. I’ve had everything from the delight of finding a kindred spirit, to outright anger on social media platforms, to a mutual unspoken acknowledgement to keep it quiet. But I think we keep longing for that moment of discovery of something new, perhaps even more so in this shrinking world overloaded with information and transportation options. Seneca may have been right that there is no delight in owning anything unshared (thanks Jack Howell’s The Lovely Reed) but you can only share a secret with someone to whom it is unknown. Maybe we need secret spots; we need to believe the doorway is still open. Rex Hunt was taken to ‘The River Behind the Hill’ on one of his shows in the ’90s and I still remember his wondering look as he said, “I never knew this was here.”

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