Persistence on Purrumbete

Tom Jarman targets giant trout in Western Victoria

Lake Purrumbete is a Western Victorian lake with a massive reputation for giant fish. The lake is a volcanic maar, formed by an eruption some 20,000 years ago. The unique geology of the crater ensures a constant supply of crystal clear water, filtered directly from the water table with virtually no run-off from surrounding agriculture. Lush weed beds and schools of baitfish thrive, creating the perfect environment for the lake’s resident trout and Chinook salmon to achieve extraordinary growth rates. The stories of giant trout and salmon caught over the years are legendary. Anglers travel from all over Australia for a chance at that fish of a lifetime. Conveniently, lakes in Western Victoria, including Purrumbete, begin to fish well as air and water temperatures drop, providing a welcome alternative to the rivers. But even ideal conditions don’t make these fish easy to catch, and the extraordinary depth of the lake, at over 45 metres in places, means you need to be persistent and systematic in your approach if you want to catch that trophy fish. A DAY ON PURRUMBETE On a recent trip to Lake Purrumbete I was fishing from a boat with friends. The fishing was slow — we had been on the water for seven hours and hadn’t seen a trout, just a few small redfin. This is not uncommon when targeting larger fish. The reality is, it can be a grind. In magazines or on social media you often only see the results, not the hours and hours of nothing before the fish. You generally only get a few chances or even a single take, but when it comes, it is going to be big. This day was particularly memorable for a few reasons, including the mysterious disappearance of our drone and a flat starter battery on our boat, which resulted in an embarrassing tow back to the ramp so we could replace it before returning to the water. Leaving the boat ramp alongside larger boats preparing pilchards and set with down-riggers to target salmon down deep, gave an almost seaside feel, as if we were in a coastal estuary rather than heading out on a landlocked freshwater lake. Conditions were extremely bright despite the more ideal forecast of cloud. We knew the fishing would be tough and that the fish would be deep. Time to get the sinking lines out. We’d done a number of drifts wide of the boat ramp over the weed pockets along the eastern shore — usually a productive area — but we didn’t see a fish. This is not uncommon when targeting large trout, but we persisted despite the setbacks. By 5:00 p.m., with the sun dropping lower in the sky, we were still out there pulling streamers, looking for that one chance. The wind and cloud cover was building nicely and we were on a long, wide drift heading towards Manifold Bay when it happened… WHERE TO START Purrumbete is unusual in that it’s a fishery heavily driven by fry and baitfish. It is not a lake where you see large amounts of insect activity with fish rising regularly. From autumn through until spring many of the fish you see moving will be chasing and feeding on baitfish. It is important to remember this, as baitfish can be patchy and get pushed around by current, so they often end up on windward shores and around points. In the absence of feeding trout, falling back to fishing ‘structure’ is the best option. There are abundant weed beds throughout the lake, but we want to look for weed beds with edges, pockets or holes, located on or near drop-offs and points, or with any other adjacent structure. A great example of one of these areas is the eastern shoreline of Purrumbete where there are dark gravel/sand channels between the shore and weed beds. This is a favourite location for land-based angling as the fish are accessible from the bank, and wading is easy. I also really like the shallow and weedy bay at the southern end of the lake adjacent to the boat ramp, and Manifold Bay at the northern end. Wind lanes and slicks are also worth a look. Trout are naturally drawn to these features whether looking for insect life or for baitfish looking for insect life. TECHNIQUES Pulling streamers and wet flies has been the most consistent way I’ve caught large trout in Purrumbete over the years. Firstly, it covers the most amount of water, so you are more likely to get your flies in front of more large fish over time. Secondly, large trout, especially brown trout, eat large food items, and streamers are designed to imitate exactly that. Thirdly, this is a fishery with abundant baitfish and retrieving a streamer or wet fly is one of the best presentations we can give these trout when they are feeding on them. As always when fishing streamers and wet flies, mixing up your depth and retrieve is crucial. In overcast conditions you can expect the fish to be a little higher in the water column, often in the top 6 feet of water and around the edges. An intermediate sinking line is perfect for these conditions. It gets your flies a few feet down but shouldn’t put you beneath the fish — there is nothing worse than being below trout that are looking up to feed. In bright conditions the fish will be wider and deeper. Sinking lines such as type 3, type 5 and type 7 make a big difference in these conditions. They get your flies much deeper and the fish tend to be more willing to eat your fly when they don’t have to come up to intercept it. The exception to both of these rules is when the fish are actively chasing baitfish. When this occurs you will see the fish bow-waving and often breaking the surface. This happens more often in the overcast or low light at dawn and dusk. Keeping your flies high in the water when presenting to these fish and giving your flies a lot of animation is most effective. Control over your flies and the retrieve are paramount. When you only get a handful of opportunities for the day, ensuring that you are fishing in a manner that will hook that fish when it comes is extremely important. Ensure your rod is always pointed directly at your flies. Clamping down on the line in between each strip is crucial. I like to clamp on the line with two fingers because in cold conditions the line is less likely to slip through my fingers when a take comes, which could potentially lose me a trophy trout! My stock standard retrieve consists of long draws with the odd change of pace mixed in to try to excite the fish into a take. I also like a roly-poly, or a fast figure-eight retrieve. These retrieves are valuable because you always have the line in your hand, so I find I don’t miss fish when one does take my fly. And make sure to pause when lifting your flies out of the water to recast, allowing the flies to ‘hang’. This often entices a fish that has followed the flies back to the boat, giving them a final opportunity to eat before the flies exit the water. FLY CHOICE Selecting simple flies that you have confidence in is important. I typically don’t make many fly changes on lakes such as Purrumbete, fishing ‘proven’ flies that I am confident will get eaten when I find that one big, aggressive trout. Any time that my fly is not in the water fishing, is a time when that big one could have eaten my fly, making frequent fly changes counter- productive. Black, olive and brightly coloured marabou streamers are my go-to flies. I generally prefer a small bead, however, unweighted flies are also fine as the sinking line is achieving your depth. Many of the fry and baitfish are galaxias ranging from 2 to 5 cm, so I like to keep my fly size in this range. I will generally fish two flies a rod length apart — the lake is crystal clear so I want to space my flies out as far as possible. 8 or 10 lb straight fluorocarbon is my leader and tippet of choice. I will almost always fish a Coral or Pink Streamer on the top dropper as I have found this colour just keeps catching large trout for me. I don’t know why, they just eat it. On the point, I rotate between an olive streamer like a Damsel or Shrek, and a black streamer such as a Humungous. PERSISTENCE Technique and fly choice are very important, but unless you are persistent and keep working and keep casting, your chances of succeeding are low. That one opportunity could come on any cast or any strip, so no matter how tough the fishing is, you need to keep going, as the next cast could be the one. It reminds me of Murray cod fishing in that it’s always a grind but that one take makes the whole trip. Coming from a competition fly fishing background, where numbers of fish are the focus, it has taken me a long time to adjust my mental approach and expectations to infrequent rewards. I have had so many blank days chasing large fish, but every retrieve you get closer and closer to that one big bite! BACK TO PURRUMBETE As our drift continued towards Manifold Bay the boat was in 10 metres of water drifting closer to the weed edge and up over the sloping drop-off. After seven long hours the sinking sun shone golden light across the water, and the boat chatter had quietened with the final shreds of expectation. ‘Surely it’s going to happen with this drift?’ Then my type 7 sinking line tightened to my hand, mid figure eight! I lifted and held tight for a moment before a big old brown trout with an enormous head and hooked jaw broke the surface and rolled. After such a long wait for this opportunity my heart was in my mouth, desperately trying to keep this goliath out of the weed. To my surprise, for a fish of this size the fight didn’t last long before his head slid over the top of the net and we had him. It was a beautifully worn, old brown trout that measured 67 cm in length. It had eaten the Coral Streamer that had been on my top dropper all day long. After a few photos and high-fives, we released the old buck into the water, exhilarated. With the adrenalin barely subsided, we swung the boat around to set a similar drift. It is hard to remember how many casts we made on that next drift — it was all a bit of a blur. But after what seemed like no time at all, I had counted my sinking line down, taken three long strips and pulled into what felt like a freight train heading in the other direction. The gargantuan brown trout took off around the back of the boat jumping and porpoising like I’d hooked a marlin! Playing this fish took much longer than the first as it ran and jumped then sounded deep beneath the boat. After some time I cautiously directed this beautifully conditioned female to the net. At 65 cm it was shorter than the buck, but her girth and weight were off the charts. She was probably the largest Victorian brown trout I have landed. The only fish that would have come close was an 8 lb 6 oz brown I caught in 2011 on, you guessed it, Lake Purrumbete. A size 12 Olive Damsel proved to be the undoing of this stunning fish, another tried and tested fly. So many lessons can be taken away from a day like this. Targeting and catching large fish is never easy. It takes time and, more importantly, a deliberate process of approaching the water that you can stick to and execute all day long. When the going is tough, fishing high percentage techniques, flies and water is the best way to remain confident, allowing you to fish effectively for extended periods. With large trout it is impossible to predict when your opportunity will come, but if you persist, and keep fishing your flies and remain in full control of the rod and line, when the chance does come you will be able to make the most of it.

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