Meander Beat 4

Ben Carden shares his journey as a controller during the recent World Championships in Tasmania.

Chance meetings make for the fondest of memories. My story began in a small sports store on the main street of Deloraine in January 2019. I’d packed the ute in anticipation of a night up in the Nineteen Lagoons, and like all prudent anglers I’d thought to have one final look at the selection of flies on offer. Silently browsing the fly cases, I overheard the lilting European voice of a like-minded wanderer asking which flies worked well on the Meander at this time of year. I thought I could offer some small assistance, having landed a decent fish a day earlier, so I whipped out my phone and shared a happy snap of the fish and the fly that it ate. The young traveller was a championship angler from Finland scoping the competition waters for the 39th World Fly Fishing Championships later in the year. Santeri was his name, and he’d already fished Penstock, Woods and Little Pine, his attention now shifting to the lowland rivers. We swapped more stories of fish caught and the flies that fooled them and then he offered an invitation I couldn’t refuse: “Wanna come fish the Meander with me? I could show you how to nymph?” My arm needed no further twisting. An hour later I met Santeri just up from Barretts Bridge, already waist deep at the head of a familiar pool, the silvery flash of a wild brown pulsing on the end of his line. He expertly lifted it into an oversized landing net and I couldn’t help but smile — this was going to be a special day. I quickly skipped over the shingles to pull in behind Santeri as he effortlessly lobbed his nymphs back upstream. He obligingly stopped to tie me up a leader, attaching a couple of nymphs that he assured me fooled fish all over the world. As I began clumsily flicking upstream we chatted easily and a friendship quickly formed. I did my best to put him at ease regarding snakes. It didn’t help when a fluid black shape slithered across the river and up the bank exactly where we needed to exit. He told me ticks are the real enemy in Finland, not the bears that so many think. Then we reached a corner pool that had to hold quality fish. While I pitched my flies into the trees above, Santeri put expert casts into the head of the pool, his drifts running deep through the holding water. The indicator paused in its path and he effortlessly flicked his wrist downstream, setting the hook. The bend in his rod gave sure sign he was connected to a solid fish, so I left my rod dangling from the trees and stumbled over to observe the fight. He played the fish from the bottom of the pool, never letting it run home and not giving it the chance to turn down stream. A few minutes later he had the largest brown I have seen from the river lying spent in the folds of his net. It no longer seemed oversized. We released the bronze beauty and continued up river, punctuated by short drives to new water. Santeri landed plenty more fish and I tried to stay out of the trees. Gradually I got the hang of things and began to get some solid drifts in likely haunts. On the last stretch of water for the day I hit my first fish Euro nymph style, just down from the Meander town bridge. The sun descended behind Mother Cummings Peak and the light quickly faded. We left the river and packed down our gear. I intended to drive up to Augusta for an early start on the lakes in the morning. “I’m off to fish the Mersey tomorrow,” Santeri said, “You wanna come?” For the second time that day, my plans changed. Early next day, I met Santeri for a quick bite in town before heading out to the Mersey. Again, Santeri caught fish and I tagged along happily learning from his well-honed streamcraft. I landed a few more browns along the way and by the day’s end we had seen a good portion of the Mersey from Liena down to Kimberley. Santeri needed to head back to the airport so our adventure ended with a casual conversation suggesting I put my name down to control on the rivers at the World Champs in December. I ran the idea past my wife and sent off an email to the competition organising committee expressing my interest if volunteers were still required. Controlling 101 April arrived and so did an offer to be a controller on the Meander River. Having not previously fished competitions, I had not done this before. This information, then, was both exciting and a little daunting, particularly when I perused the FIPS-Mouche competition rules, a document that to the uninitiated seemed Biblical in its proportions. Thankfully I received the necessary training and by the time I arrived for duty in December, I was well versed in what was required. Basically, the job of a controller is to show the competitor to their beat and observe them fishing within beat boundaries during the competition. All equipment must comply with regulations: rods and leaders must meet specified lengths, and barbless flies with beads no greater than 4 mm are used. Foul hooked fish don’t count and all fish over 200 mm are measured and recorded before being released unharmed to fight another day. You need to be close enough to quickly receive a landed fish, but at a distance that does not spook fish or interfere with the angler. We were trained in basic first aid and snakebite response, and despite our underhanded comments about the chance of ever actually needing to apply a compression bandage, our mutterings were proven ill-founded when Controller Mark on Beat 11 did get hit by a tiger snake and had to spend the night in hospital for observation. Each day, controllers met at the Meander Memorial Hall for a briefing to iron out any creases from the previous day and wait for the competitors’ bus to arrive. It became a welcome morning lottery waiting to see which angler would approach as they disembarked. It was exciting to shake hands with a new international guest, jump into the ute and make our way to the beat — a full day ahead watching the best anglers in the world, all of whom were so generous with their tales and talents. Some mornings Sector Controller Grant and his right hand men Dave and Steve picked up on mishaps from the previous day. In good spirit they made us laugh, handing out ‘special gifts’ to help controllers who had experienced difficulties. There was Tony who was ‘radio challenged’ and received a string cup phone to communicate with adjacent beats. Anna received a flat packed lunch, a flat white coffee and a flattened measuring board having somehow managed to run over her own lunch and equipment the day before. We shared many laughs and enjoyed our work and I am so thankful for having had the chance to be a part of this fraternity. As each day of competition ended, we walked the steep bush track back to the ute, hoping to arrive back at the hall before the beer was gone. We enjoyed swapping stories of our day and as the week progressed, I built a treasured book of memories from my time on Beat 4. I had the pleasure of controlling Howard Croston from England who went on to be crowned World Champion. I was privileged to have Jonothan Stagg from Australia while he was leading the competition. I had Steve Brickler from Luxembourg who landed the biggest fish on the river for the week, a 491mm brown that fought hard in a fast flowing pool. I measured the very last fish of the competition when Bram Zanis from the Netherlands hit a nice brown in a back eddy on Friday with 10 seconds to spare. A bleak day of blanks salvaged as he landed one of the most satisfying fish of his competition career; the sullen frown he had worn all day instantly transformed into a broad and beaming smile. The RIVER Dance Words come to mind when you observe the best anglers in the world. Words more commonly ascribed to those who dance the polished boards of the stage or spring weightlessly on the taught floor of the gymnast’s arena. Still, these words are fitting for the expert fly angler too. Years of repetition and well-rehearsed movements have honed their techniques and muscle memory to perform a myriad of purposeful motions. They step out their choreography on a stage of slippery boulders where backdrops are ancient ravines, shimmering webs of spider’s silk and towering green hardwoods. Water funnels past in a cascade of liquid force, conspiring at all times to sweep feet from beneath. A misplaced foothold could spell an icy tumble. A lapse in concentration threatens a twisted ankle or jolted knee. As I sat and watched these anglers at the top of their game I saw marked similarities between their flowing motions and those of sportspeople from other disciplines: the poise and grace to stalk delicately against the pressing current, finding firm footholds on slimy substrate to position themselves for the perfect cast. The practised precision to propel near weightless flies upstream against a howling headwind and land them a hair’s breadth from the intended target. The balance and strength to repeatedly hold rod high through a drift while rushing water tumbles past, never letting up its pressure on thighs and knees and feet. The deft touch to effortlessly pick up nymphs with a well-timed flick of the wrist and lob them once more into another expectant drift. Flexibility, too, to ride the bumps and knocks and adjust and readjust when a foothold slips or the force of water takes your legs, twisting you into unnatural poses. Then there is the dexterity to quickly retie knots, leaders and tippets as if by feel alone, with the time pressure of a countdown clock, where every second counts and that winning fish could become connected on the very next cast. When a fish is hooked, the composure to stay in control of a hard fighting wild trout that has turned for home or broken down stream, carried on by the ceaseless surge of river water and an instinctive lust for freedom. These are the movements of the river dance that the championship angler performs with a mastery that is a pleasure to watch. It was heartening for me too, to discover that even these angling artisans occasionally experience the mishaps that for me are commonplace. That they too experience the same frustrations and mutter the same quiet curses under their breath when a line becomes tangled, a foot stumbles clumsily or a mistimed strike sees a trout headed for cover rather than the landing net. To have been given permission to observe at such an intimate distance, often an audience of one, silent and captivated in an ancient theatre of wilderness has been one of the great learning experiences of my life.

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