Return to the Monaro

David Anderson revisits the hallowed high plains streams of New South Wales

I assume my mate Andrew Coombe, owner of the Alpine Angler in Cooma, has lost the plot when he suggests we fish the Monaro region. Really Andrew? Does anyone still do that? The area has been off my radar longer than flared corduroy trousers, and thanks to rumours of continuing drought, everywhere else has been greener grass. Hell, I’m not even sure if I could still find the place. But the big fella is adamant and besides, Michael the store manager has done all the leg work, sussed out a couple of stretches of the Bobundara that have fished well through summer and assures me that Andrew is making sense. The Monaro, if you’ve never been or are new to fly fishing or have been living under a rock or whatever, is a large area of brown and windswept high plains that starts near Cooma and runs south almost to Bombala, and it used to be hallowed ground in Australian fly-fishing circles. Stories of big, highly selective trout in small water are, or were, very common, though I haven’t heard or read much about the Monaro streams in the last ten or more years since fishing here last. Driving from Cooma to the stream, on a slightly cold and bleak autumn morning, everything is the same old brown I recall from past trips, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much water in the paddocks and gullies. The place is surprisingly wet and the rivers look perfect. The chosen stream, like most in the area, is small in terms of volume, having only thin runs between large slow pools, some of which are very deep and nearly 50 metres long. The water is clear and looking very rich in weed growth and insect life, and luckily the weather improves rapidly as the morning goes on, lifting everyone’s mood. Stalking fish is the go here. Michael takes point with Andrew following slowly up the opposite bank looking for any movement, while I hang back with my Nikons. They are both using any streamside cover to conceal themselves and are avoiding higher ground against the sky where a silhouette might give them away. The first fish spotted, a pound plus of rainbow, gives itself away with a subtle rise, and after a couple of casts with a small beadhead nymph and slow hand twist retrieve, Andrew brings it to hand. The next fish, in a short narrow pool below one of the longer runs, is closely hugging the bank, hard to see in the weeds, and proves less fussy and again eats the gold beadhead. It’s a cracking brown around the kilo mark and according to Michael could be considered the average around here. It’s by no means the biggest though, and in the largest pool we come across a big brown of maybe 5 or 6 pounds, seen working through a circular beat over deep water off the far bank. The guys patiently watch him for a long time before getting into casting positions from opposite sides. He is not playing ball though, and just slowly and perhaps arrogantly cruises by any flies sent his way with barely a sideways glance, before eventually dissolving into the deep. I suppose they don’t get this big if they’re stupid. Later in the day we move on to the Bobundara, hoping for an afternoon rise. The water is more open and it’s a bigger stream, but still no river by Australian standards. The landscape is stark and beautiful in the afternoon light so I walk up to the bridge to get some shots while the guys string up the rods by the car. It’s a long way above the water and I spot a 3 lb brown finning lazily in the slow current of the tail-out. With jerky, unfathomable hand signals I make his position known. Michael creeps up at his usual snail’s pace, but the fish moves slowly off upstream before he even gets a line out. It doesn’t come back. Maybe he just cruised off, maybe he was spooked, or maybe he didn’t feel like photographs: whatever the reason, it’s not the last rejection on an otherwise wonderful day. Fishing the Monaro. Michael has fished the Cooma region his whole life and knows well its secrets. His fly boxes are not crowded arrangements and contain only the basic dry and nymph patterns that would cover most Australian trout water. His favourite dries include the Adams, Royal Wulff and little Klinkhamer emergers for fussy risers, and the nymphs are small, around size 14 to 16 with gold bead heads and there’s also a few unweighted patterns like Pheasant Tails, Hare & Coppers and the like. Michael suggests going out with the attitude that the fly you tied on will work if presented properly, rather than spend the day rummaging around your fly boxes looking for that one killer pattern. When the fish aren’t obviously feeding he fishes the beadheads on slow retrieves, similar to what you might expect on one of the big Snowy’s lakes, and he throws the general dries on the days they are. Hoppers can work well in the late summer as well. He’s a trout stalker by nature and watching him work is a lesson in slow and methodical trout hunting. According to Michael, rushing around the creek casting like a maniac would soon send all the unseen fish scurrying through the pools to hide under the banks, spooking all the more obvious fish as well, so it’s important to take your time. For rod and line, we fished a couple of 3-weights including a custom glass rod from Vale Creek Rodworks, built on the amazing new JP Ross Muir 5-piece blank I’ve been sent to test. It’s a unique and beautiful rod in its glowing white, semi-transparent finish, with an easy and forgiving action for relaxed casting and even more relaxed fish-fighting that’s well suited to waterways like the Bobundara. What it gives away in grunt to modern graphite it more than makes up for in feel-good and giggles, and even tiddlers bend it over backwards. If the wind kicked up, something faster and heavier in a 4-weight would probably be better suited. Whatever rod you bring, you will need accurate casting and soft presentation on the Monaro to really stand any chance of success. Fishing here isn’t easy, never has been, and though you might hear of the odd big numbers day, generally it’s about taking satisfaction in the sighting, stalking and landing of a couple of good fish as opposed to bagging out on blind-fished stockies. In foul weather, when seeing fish is difficult, I’m not sure I would bother with the Monaro, heading instead for the Eucumbene River or the like where blind fishing is a better bet. Whatever grief they may put you through, stalking and casting to these fish can be equally heart-stopping in terms of acceptance or rejection, and on its day I would rate it the best sight fishing on the mainland.

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