Monaro Masterclass

David Anderson shares some tactical observations from behind the camera

Motionless, and both carefully concealed beside a short, narrow and shallow pool on the Maclaughlin River, Micah Adams and Andy Caves have become a singular trout-hunting machine. It’s mid-afternoon early in the summer of 2019 and recent rains and rumours of good fish have brought us back to the Monaro after a couple of very lean seasons. A solid fish, the first we have seen after checking all the likely water on a long walk downstream, is doing a very slow and indifferent lap, up and down the pool. It’s a bit weedy and the water is clear with no discernible flow. Andy, taking his turn as spotter from a shaded position overlooking the water, regularly sings out its exact location to Micah, who’s low in the grass and shaded by a tree at the tail of the pool, some 20 metres away. After what could have been 10 minutes or a full hour — I couldn’t really tell because I was hardly breathing — Andy calls out ‘cast’ and Micah deftly flicks a #12 Blue Quill a couple of metres out in front of the fish. My heart sinks as the brown wafts right by with complete arrogance, and what might be the weekend’s only opportunity to get the all important fish-in-hand photographs, along with my next cheque from FlyLife, goes begging. Micah, who hasn’t so much as flinched, twitches the fly — just the smallest of movements — and the fish, now fully a metre past and facing the opposite direction, turns with astonishing speed and hoovers it down. In one motion Micah sets the hook, rises out of the grass and follows as the fish tears off upstream leaving a bow- wave. The Scott G-series 4-weight easily takes the strain as I start counting my chickens again. Once to hand, it’s a beautiful, buttery and golden Monaro brown trout; one of several for the afternoon that they carefully stalk, hook, land and release — a masterclass in Monaro sight-fishing. UPS & DOWNS At that moment, and in the company of such skilled anglers on these hallowed waters, you could easily get the impression that the Monaro region of New South Wales has the best sight- fishing for big trout on mainland Australia. Yet the day before, in almost identical weather and conditions, on another equally famous river nearby, we didn’t see any fish, and even blind casting to the most obvious pockets raised no gold. The day before was even worse. Sure, one day can change every-thing, but through the previous couple of seasons, as far as I could tell, the only thing the Monaro was really famous for was arguments on social media as to why it was fishing so poorly. Cormorants, over-fishing, under-stocking, cranky land-owners, a turf war between guides — there was even a hashtag #dontguidethemonaro doing the rounds briefly with the suggestion that large guided groups of well-heeled city anglers were cleaning the place out every weekend. Obviously, though social media can be completely trusted as a source of information, I also reached out to New South Wales senior inland fisheries manager Cameron Westaway for an update on angler numbers and any reasons for the decline in catches. In his words: ‘After a couple of good seasons, reports start coming in of 4 to 6 pound brown trout, which in turn brings out the anglers. However, numbers are nothing like the heydays of the ’70s and ’80s… ‘The key challenge is clearly climate change. The Monaro doesn’t have much shade and can be a rain-shadow area in extended dry periods. Having said that, when you get the rainfall and cooler summers then it always produces quality fish, so it’s far from all bad news… ‘The Monaro Acclimatisation Society is working closely with DPI on the stocking program, and with local landholders on some habitat projects to increase shading in key areas. There have been good rains since the horrors of 2019, and the 2021/22 season could be a cracker.’ Knowing that Cameron is a very measured man, I’ll take ‘could be a cracker’ as ‘will be a cracker’ and, assuming you’re getting the same message, here are some things I’ve learned watching some of Australia’s best fly anglers fish this water. TEAMWORK Both Micah and Andy are hunters in every sense of the word, and approach trout as though they’re stalking a trophy buck. They are first and foremost a team, taking turns as spotter and angler, with a careful, methodical approach to the pools. The spotter always leads, and after carefully getting into a position that has both a good view of the water and is well concealed, he will advise the angler of the best position to make a cast, and then, assuming a fish is spotted, start issuing details of its location. The angler, who may not have a good view of the fish, relies totally on the spotter. There’s no blind casting, no testing the water and no movement with these two until the call is made to cast. Once his fly is on the water, Micah’s world stops as he becomes hyper- focused on the reaction of the fish. If there’s no immediate response to the fly, it’s given a slight twitch, and if it’s still ignored, it’s left motionless until the fish is far enough away not to spook. Then the whole process starts again. For flies, Micah fishes strictly dries even if there’s no surface activity. His first out of the box is a Blue Quill, followed by a Black Spinner or Tassie Dun — all from Manic Tackle — and all in larger sizes — mostly #12 — to mimic the large mayflies so common on the Monaro. GOING SOLO Sight fishing as a team is unquestionably the best path to success on the Monaro, unless of course, you’re on your own. That changes the approach completely. With cameras in hand, I have followed Andrew Coombe (owner of the Alpine Angler) around the Monaro more than any other fly angler, including three trips through that difficult 2018/19 season. I have seen him succeed where I would almost certainly have failed, thanks to my almost toddler-like lack of patience. Observing Andrew fishing solo is a lesson in stealth, planning and patience. Being spotter and angler, Andrew has a very slow and measured approach to the water standing well back from the pools while carefully assessing them. In general, he also makes longer casts when fishing them, requiring controlled presentations. In his words: ‘Most of the water holding fish is slow moving and needs to be planned out thoughtfully before moving into casting range. On the banks, look for cover to hide your profile and better angles to approach the water as you move up the pool. The Monaro fish are typically cruising a beat, not holding station as they would be in faster running water, and as a result they will spook before you even see them if you are not well concealed.’ FISHING BLIND Quite unlike Micah, Andrew regularly fishes blind with a nymph unless there’s a lot of obvious surface activity. Depending on the depth of water, he will start with either a gold beadhead or unweighted black nymph, around size 12, and working from the tail he will fish methodically through to the head of the pool with long casts and very slow retrieves. ‘Once I have worked the pool slowly and methodically I will often change fly to a Woolly Bugger, making long casts down river from the head of the pool and slowly (super slow) working the fly back to my feet. A fan casting method will achieve best results in this situation.’ If that all seems counter-intuitive compared to sight fishing, know that it is equally effective if done well, and less wearing on a photographer’s nerves to watch. DO THE WORK Finally, I’ve fished with Micah Adams and Andrew Coombe around the Monaro and Snowy Mountains regions enough to know that a very long walk to get past water that the rest of us would fish, is no barrier to them, and I’ve followed them both for miles and miles while they sort out the best places to fish. If the conditions are hard, there’s no crying. They just walk further and work harder. And this really is their best advice. The Monaro punishes impatience and is no place to be lazy. Do the work; get the gold. Simple. PRACTICALITIES As the Monaro region is so large, almost entirely private property and home to more secrets and lies than a season of Desperate Housewives, I won’t risk assassination by getting into specific locations, but I will instead suggest you get the maps out and do some groundwork over a season or three. The Alpine Angler in Cooma and High Country Outfitters in Jindabyne are great places to start asking questions as well. Purchasing a top- of-the-line rod might loosen things up a bit. For any less experienced angler or one who’s too busy to do the leg work, a guide is always a good idea and, in my opinion, money well spent for the knowledge they can bring. Aside from that, find someone who knows the what, where and why of it all, pretend you like them, and get the invite. It has certainly worked for me.

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