Little Pine Exposed

Rob Sloane provides a contemporary take on a traditional Tasmanian lake.

If there is one iconic lake that epitomizes everything that is great about Tasmanian fly fishing, it has to be Little Pine Lagoon — a wild, self-sustaining brown trout fishery that has stood the test of time. The name has become synonymous with ‘untouchable’ tailing fish and exceptional summer mayfly hatches. The lagoons along the Little Pine River were known to hold good fish (and still do further upstream into the Western Lakes) even before the low dam was constructed in 1954 to divert water via Monpeelyata Canal into Lake Echo, flooding this shallow 220 ha river basin. Fast-forward to the present day and Little Pine Lagoon has hosted World, Commonwealth and National championships and earned the respect of fly fishers from near and far. Reserved for fly fishing only and with wild browns still maintaining a healthy size and condition, the only significant management intervention over the years has involved keeping water levels sufficiently high through the summer holiday period and some timely land acquisition to retain public access around the foreshore. Along the way, the fishery has seen its seasonal ups and downs in terms of water quality and catch rate, variously blamed on swans, boats and the damned weather. Regardless, many an angler has wandered its banks and drifted its waves and gone home with a good bag of prime, red-fleshed trout, often lauded as the best eating fish in the highlands. ATTRIBUTES Little Pine is an easy day trip venue from the North or South. Via Great Lake it is sealed road nearly all the way, so no bother if you are towing a boat. It’s easy launching and easy walking, and the wading is okay if you avoid the silty patches. There is no great need to wade in up to your armpits — the fish will come to you. Being a water diversion rather than storage, Little Pine has a narrow operating range and is shallow throughout with deeper water towards the dam and along the central river bed and original lagoon basins. Adopted names including the Cricket Pitch, Tailers Shore, Grassy Promenade and Untouchables Shore are descriptive of the environment and the fishing. On a bad day Little Pine is a godforsaken hole, exposed and inhospitable. On a good day it’s Paradise, delivering unmatched sight fishing within a few strides of the car. When it’s firing, the Pine can be easy to love and hard to leave — there must be worse sins than delaying the family Christmas dinner! In summer Little Pine is big sky country: open, windswept, stark and bright. At 1000 metres and set amidst scrubby moorland, it cops wind from all directions. Like the Western Lakes, battling and enduring the elements is part of the grand drama and is fundamental to the challenge. This raw reality protects Little Pine from over fishing and makes those rare special moments even more delightful. HIGHLIGHTS After the high water wet-fly fishing typical of early season in the highlands, the tailing fish at Little Pine become focused on tiny amphipods throughout the weedy shallows. These scud-feeding fish can become totally preoccupied, particularly during October and November, and deserving of their ‘untouchables’ label. It’s all about stealth, hoodwinkers and pinpoint presentations (see FL#78,#79). Dawn and dusk are the easiest times to trick one or two, and although the fish continue to tail in broad daylight they just get harder to catch. This is a challenge, no doubt, but that’s what fly fishing should be about, and in large measure is responsible for the Pine’s legendary status. From early December to late March the mayfly hatch is the talk of the highlands (see FL#29). For the duns it’s best to be on the water from 11 until 4, but prime time usually falls between 12 and 3 depending on wind, cloud, sun and temperature. The spinners can provide entertainment much earlier and later in the day, whenever it’s calm and mild. The dun hatch is fickle and often quite localised at the Pine so it pays to watch the gulls and swallows and to look for slashes out in the waves. If you are in the wrong corner when the duns are hatching the birds will soon tell you, as will boat movement on a busy day. Interpreting rise-forms to discern feeding mode and direction is fundamental to success. Speed in then delivering the fly is vital. Short, sharp and precise casting is the order of the day. You just have to learn to deal with the wind. It might seem counterintuitive but the sheltered shore is often not the best, as the duns blow out rather than in, and the fish do likewise. And be alert for a switch from nymphs to duns to spinners being taken, with the hatch phase dictating your fly selection and approach. Little Pine is not noted as a polaroiding venue, but whenever the water isn’t too badly stirred up it can provide some memorable bank and boat polaroiding. The mottled, weedy substrate makes it hard to spot fish hugging the bottom but it is easy enough to track them between rises. I like to fish the flats near the river mouth, and the Cricket Pitch would be my all time favourite. But don’t overlook the accessible Road Shore for a quick look and an easy fish if you are passing, especially if the breeze is blowing in and along. Or take a daypack, cross below the dam and head along the western shore as far as your legs will carry you. Little Pine’s productivity (and fragility) as a fishery relates to dense weed beds right across its length and breadth. Keeping fish up, out of the weeds, rodeo style, is a definite priority here. Inevitably you’ll hook some better, prime condition 3 or even 4 lb fish that are hard to stop, so you can expect to do some ‘gardening’ from time to time. The weed can be a problem if you’re fishing two flies as I like to do when the duns are up, so I don’t fish too light — 5 lb Maxima on dries, and 4 lb minimum on smaller flies for early morning tailers. DAY TRIP To illustrate this little tribute I was short of contemporary material other than photos of old blokes with dogs in boats. I soon discovered that the keen young Tassie photographers of today are happy to backpack into the Western Lakes but give accessible waters like Little Pine a wide berth on the way. Is Little Pine now viewed as some sort of relic from a golden age of fly fishing — a retirement fishery for has-beens? Are names like Scholes, Gilmour, Jetson, Peck, Beck and even Sloane now echoes of a distant past? Do the young punks know what they are missing? Perhaps the Ashes being broadcast on radio the day I coerced Libby into taking some pictures was prophetic. I say coerced deliberately as her memories of this magical (me talking) place are clouded by March flies, tiger snakes, sun burn, frost bite, gale-force winds and endless hours spent waiting for some mythical hatch. Let’s just say it has never been one of her favourites. But the vows do say, for better or for worse. The day chosen was Sunday 17 December 2017. The plan, to leave home at 9-ish and drive up there for an 11 o’clock start. Based on a boat-day earlier in the week I was anticipating at least some duns at 2 o’clock and the forecast was for light winds and temperatures in the low twenties. Ideal, though I would normally avoid the weekend rush. Great Lake was flat calm when we drove past (a little late) and the Pine looked a picture on our approach. When we pulled up at the parking/camping area in front of the shacks I could see fish rising already. A familiar face, gearing up beside the only other car, delayed my preparations with entomological chitchat until he headed down to the water and off around the Cricket Pitch boundary shore. A well-grassed and flooded cricket pitch isn’t a bad description. We strolled straight from the car to the water and I took aim at the nearest riser. Roll cameras! Action! Within half an hour, allowing for a bit of tangle time, I had missed two smaller fish (I went to the optometrist next day for a new script) and soon hooked a bigger one, having barely wet my ankles. There were spinners and duns on the water and all around us in the air. It was on! After an hour or so we had finished morning tea, taken more than enough photos and I was now sandwiched between two elderly gents, presumably from the nearby shacks, both keen to share my success (Little Pine can be like that). They both hooked fish soon enough and so did someone in the distance at deep fine leg. Time to move. MEMORY LANE It is always hard to leave rising fish, but a short drive offered a change in scenery along the Road Shore and a trip down memory lane. This is where I first fished the Pine in the early 70s. My introduction came at the invitation of Brian ‘Snake’ Viney, a family friend and excellent angler. It was early January and the hatch was on. I was in my mid-teens and still relatively new to fly fishing. One thing I do remember about Snake’s Holden ute is the smell of the fish bag looped over the tow bar to avoid stinking out the vehicle. A bag like that was a badge of honour in those days. No fish was safe. As promised, the hatch commenced at 12 o’clock, give or take 5 minutes, and fish started slashing out in the waves. Snake crossed the riverbed and waded out into the middle (the lake dropped very low in summer back then) and I fished knee deep along the shore. The trout in close proved easy pickings and a big Rob’s Dry did the trick, no problems. I’d never experienced anything quite like it down in the Bronte system. I was hooked. All I needed was a driver’s licence. In later years, when I was based at Liawenee, visits to the Pine were frequent. Flexible working hours meant late starts after the ‘dawn patrol’ and extended lunch breaks at mayfly time whenever the duns were up. Let’s be honest, I haunted the place — morning, noon and night. No pubs, no lodges, no mobiles, no newfangled boats, and even the shacks at Miena were sparsely populated before the Mainland invasion. BORROWED TIME Back to the future and we enjoyed lunch by the car, with me keeping one eye on the water and Libby ever mindful of the snakes. By now the breeze was quartering on-shore and stiff and cool enough to disperse the swarming spinners. An old geezer clad in waders wandered out from his campervan, dog by his side, to give us the low-down — camped here all week, bugger all fish, strong westerlies, not keen to fish blind. “There were plenty of trout on spinners at the Cricket Pitch half an hour ago,” I responded, “and we saw several anglers take good fish.” A shrug of his shoulders and he wandered off to get his fly rod before wading out from the shore near his van. The wind had clearly slowed things down, but I was refusing to head home before dun time, 2 o’clock. The depth was perfect along the Road Shore. Deep enough for fish to come right in along the grassy bank. By wading out a little I was able to polaroid back in towards the shore and to cover the odd riser whenever the wind lulled momentarily. At around 2-ish a few duns started to appear and, more by sound than by sight, I was able to track down the occasional fish in the shore-wash. By now I’d lost the photographer and was on borrowed time, but from the car she saw me hooked into a frisky trout and reluctantly came back out to take more shots. The next fish splashed around even more, but there was no response from the car so I knew my promise of a quick final session was wearing thin. The campervan remained silent too, waders slung over a bush to dry under the annex. Some people just can’t be saved. It was barely 2:30 and we were back on the road, a coffee at Bothwell, and home before 5 p.m. Three hours fishing, several fish released, two nice ones kept for our Christmas table and a bunch of photos in the bag. We had seen five other anglers on the shores, and no more than four boats out drifting the lake. All old fogeys, mostly with dogs. It was Sunday. Prime time. Perfect weather. Where were the weekend crowds? Woods Lake? Penstock Lagoon? Whatever was trending elsewhere in the highlands must have been extraordinary to beat the fishing we had just experienced.

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