Mastering Millbrook

Leighton Adem learns valuable lessons at Millbrook Lakes with Mark Weigall & Craig Coltman

Twenty years ago Mark Weigall established Millbrook Lakes, a private venue near Ballarat in Victoria. Mark was guiding on public lakes at the time, but could never be sure how many fish the waters held. “If I didn’t see any, were they shut down or were the numbers of fish just low?” Building and leasing lakes provided more control and certainty around stocking and management and made it easier to teach and guide fly fishers. “A tough day just confirmed we had to try other methods.” Colleagues told Mark he was mad for taking on such a venture, but 20 years on, Millbrook now has 24 different lakes and has taught, guided or hosted over 8,000 fly fishers. While spending a day fishing with Mark and experienced guide Craig Coltman, I took the opportunity to draw on their knowledge of stillwater fly fishing. What is it about lake fishing that keeps you interested after all these years? You were still grinning like schoolboys when you hooked fish! Mark – The serenity and the challenge of your skills versus the trout; hunting without killing. Craig – Trout behaviour can change from day to day, more than any other fish I know. Just when you think you have cracked the code, they change again. It keeps me coming back. What do you notice clients find most challenging about lake fishing? Mark – Patience, and the ability to stalk a fish and cast a fly gently to where the fish is going to be — not where it was. Lakes are more challenging than rivers. In a river, fish mostly face upstream in station with less time to be fussy in faster water. On still water, trout are usually on the move and have more time to examine whatever we are offering. Craig – Efficient, accurate casting is very important. You have to be able to capitilise on your opportunities. To most novices and many intermediates, lakes can look pretty blank, not giving up their clues easily. When approaching a new piece of water, what are the key factors in finding fish? Mark – Find the most likely food source. Weed beds, structure and rocky shores. While not always the case, trout are more likely to be where the food is, not in a barren part of the lake. Craig – Observe the wind strength and direction and how it is pushing the food sources around. Combine this with underwater topography and weed beds to locate the optimum trout habitat. Is it always the same, or do the clues and fish locations change day by day? Mark – Pretty much the same, however, there are always exceptions, especially with mayflies that may hatch from fertile parts of a lake but drift over less fertile areas. Terrestrial insects can be more event-driven, such as beetle falls, and grasshoppers in summer. Craig – There are similarities. However, things can change on a daily and even hourly basis. It’s essential to observe and adjust to the conditions, while drawing on previous experience. How do you decide what fly to put on? Mark – Time of day, visual clues, insects/food sources. Match the hatch, or if no insects or smelt are evident then switch to searching with wets such as a Magoo or Woolly Bugger, or attractor dries such as a Claret Carrot. Craig – I match the fly to the fish feeding behaviour. If no behaviour can be observed, then a searching pattern such as a Green Machine or Magoo is useful. Fishing conditions were varied and you made a few changes. Are these all flies you would recommend for most lakes? Mark – Although we carry hundreds of flies, I use about 10 patterns 80% of the time. What triggered you to change flies —what were the clues? Mark – Matching the conditions. A small fine net can be helpful. It only takes a few minutes to net the shallows to see what the predominant food is. You’ll have less chance of success using a damsel nymph fly if the overwhelming food is mayfly nymphs. The trick is to do your homework and know the difference. Is it better to persist with a particular favourite, or change flies often? Mark – Sometimes trout can be buggers and are just not actively feeding. If I’m confident that I’m using a fly that imitates a food source that is common in the water, I’ll give it 15 to 30 minutes. The only real way to know if what you are using is wrong is if you see a refusal, so err on the side of persistence unless you have a reason to change. Craig – Only change when you have a refusal, or the fish change their behaviour. If the fishing is slow, you change just to be different, but this is a hit and miss approach. I am more interested in finding fish than looking for a silver bullet fly. Does size matter? Should it be a total fly pattern change, or can a change of size be just as important? Mark – Yes, size matters. There is no point in using a size 10 Paradun if the real mayfly duns are size 14. Net some and compare them. Craig – Yes, most commercially purchased flies are too large. However, they can be trimmed and thinned with clippers. If you can’t find fish, should you ‘flog’ the water, or wait and be patient, with a mindset on stalking individual fish? Mark – Whether I flog or not, depends on the day. If it’s glassy and blue sky, I try to cast at trout I can see. Alternatively, you can set a trap on a likely beat. If conditions are rough and visibility is low, I’m more inclined to flog and just cover the water. Craig – I prefer to hunt individual fish. You don’t have to be casting all the time to be fishing. What is the best approach to improving lake skills? Mark – I think studying one location allows you to build up experience in your memory bank. You arrive at a lake and can build on the knowledge you accumulated on previous visits. For example, fish were feeding on a particular shore under similar conditions, or they moved on midges at dusk, or mayfly duns at 11 a.m. I’m a bit biased, but get a guide for a day. You can then access the knowledge your guide has gathered over many years of fly fishing, and accelerate the process. Craig – You can also use a journal to jog your memory, or gain experience from other anglers — a fly club is a great way to do this. How does this knowledge transfer across different locations? Can I learn the ropes at Millbrook and then book a trip to Tassie and expect to catch fish with the same approaches? Mark – Maybe not catch fish straight away, but the approach can be very similar and the knowledge transferred and adapted readily to new locations. Refining your approach gives you a base to work from in a foreign setting. Craig – Trout behaviour is similar worldwide, but I have noticed that different places have their nuances. For example, Tasmanian river fish tend to sit in slower water than mainland fish. NZ North Island rainbows sit in the sun. If your time on lakes has taught you one thing, what would that be? Mark – Be patient. Don’t just arrive and wade out to your waist. Most of the time, 80% of the fish are in 20% of the lake, often at your feet (the margins) — that’s where the food is. Study the water. Work out what the most abundant food is, and match it. Craig – Practise your casting, and not just at long distances. It is the single most crucial thing that anglers can do to improve their catch rate. Millbrook Lakes, near Ballarat in Victoria, provides a private, catch and release fly-only fishery for brown and rainbow trout. Cabin accommodation is also available. ​Ideal for beginners or experts, with some 24 stocked lakes to fish. Tuition and guiding is available.

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