Shooting from the Hip

Mark Cloutier revives an old rod for a short game

It must have been around 1978 when I headed into the Compleat Angler store in McKillop Street, Melbourne. A big day out for a 16-year-old lad on a mission to buy his first ‘high end’ fly rod. Mum was trusting and had written out a blank cheque — all I had to do was find the right fly rod, fill in the numbers and cross it ‘not negotiable’. I think it was old Jack Kelly who picked out the rod for me, a Hardy Jet 6/7-weight that cost $56. The only security I was asked to provide was to find my name and address in the White Pages, a simple task for simpler times. Once Jack was satisfied that I wasn’t dodgy, I filled out the cheque, received the rod, and I was on my way home. Sweet. The Hardy fly rod was impressive and certainly a big jump from my old $8 Olympic tomato stake. The fibreglass rod had a light ‘feel’ that by today’s standards would be considered soft and floppy. When cast, the entire motion and transfer of energy was felt from ‘shoulder to fly’. You weren’t just casting the tip, but the whole rod, and it had a soul that seemed to connect me to the water whenever I fished it. I caught hundreds of trout with it, maybe even thousands, and then I fell for the marketing mumbo jumbo and, when I could afford graphite, went with it and retired my beautiful, well-worn Hardy. LET THERE BE LIGHT My fishing was beginning to change too, and that had a lot to do with the polaroiding chapter in Rob Sloane’s groundbreaking book The Truth About Trout. When I read that book my approach to fly fishing changed overnight. Sight fishing became an addiction. The trouble with sight fishing (polaroiding) is that you need good light and clear water. What do you do when that combination of light and water doesn’t eventuate? There are plenty of other options for sight fishing — tailing fish in the shallows, trout rising to aquatic or terrestrial insects, minnow feeders etc. But for me it was polaroiding the edges, or looking off the bow of a boat, or ambushing fish off a high bank, that offered the greatest reward — which, after all, is why we fly fish in the first place. It’s the reward versus effort equation that makes fly fishing so compelling. Spotting a trout before making a cast dominated how I fished, but waiting around for perfect weather became problematic — there just weren’t many good days that lined up with free time. I had no choice but to start to fish in, what I would now call, marginal light. Not that it was a conscious decision; it just happened gradually through osmosis. I figured if I had an hour or two of good light in a fishing session, I’d be in with a chance of catching a trout the way I wanted to. MARGINAL MAYHEM The forecast was uncertain so I headed to a water known as the Lily Pads Lagoon. There wasn’t much sun, my shadow was fuzzy and dull, and the lake was tainted by the tannic runoff from a connecting marsh. The first trout I saw, I basically trod on. I hate it when I do that, knowing it was a wasted opportunity on a marginal day. Looking for shadows on the beach really wasn’t working. Every time I saw a fish I was on top of it, most I’m sure would have spooked before I ever noticed. I jumped the connecting gutter and walked the bank, looking for edges, undercuts and weed patches. The sun was in and out, and as annoying as a blinking fluorescent tube. Just when the cloud parted and a hundred metres of bank lit up, the water would turn opaque as another shadow flicked the switch. I saw a really lovely trout poking about the bank, but it was almost at my feet, making the shot with a foot of fly line out of the tip rather ugly. It spooked. Grrrr… And the day more or less followed this pattern until early afternoon, when there was more sun than cloud, and I ambushed a really special brown along an undercut bank. It fought hard before being netted and released. The light didn’t last long, so I called it a day but decided to head to another lagoon for one last cameo. I should have done better, and felt a little underdone. When I reached the lagoon the light was all but gone. I walked the bank regardless and focused on the sandy patches, hoping to glimpse a shape. The complex lake bottom of weed and rubble made it just too difficult to identify the critical fish indicators — shape, colour, movement and position. In the top corner of the lagoon I saw a whopper, but again I was on top of it and made a crude shot with barely any line through the top guide. When I fluffed another cast at a good trout, I headed home defeated. The drive back to the shack gave me plenty of time to think about my day. I was happy with the nice brown I’d caught — often it’s only a one or two fish lake anyway — and I had my chances. Given that I’d had the water to myself suggested that there were probably better options, but I fish the way I like to, because I can, if that makes sense? Yet, something gnawed at me — was there anything I could have done better? Maybe a shorter leader and overloaded rod would give me a ‘Quick Draw McGraw’ shoot from the hip style. Under the conditions, I saw the trout late, and I needed to quicken my response. Like many anglers who underperform, I blamed my gear and the weather! And then I fell for some more marketing mumbo jumbo — I concluded that I needed one of those new (old) fibreglass fly rods. WHAT’S OLD IS NEW Another epiphany: why not resurrect my old Hardy? That would be kind of cool, and I could try out my short game theory without spending a small fortune. The problem was I couldn’t find the rod and figured I must have sold it at one of our garage sales years before. However, when I cleaned out the old garden shed under our deck, I found a rod tube and in it was the Hardy, but the reel seat had perished. As it turned out that was easily fixed, after a visit to see Alex Green at Spot On Fishing in Hobart. My old rod had a new life. The forecast was iffy, a fifty-fifty day that was probably good for lowland mayflies, yet I headed to the ‘high country’. A marginal day often sees me looking for new water or experimenting; it’s the kind of day that mostly draws blanks, but every now and then I trick a big fish living in a puddle. I took the rod off the back seat of the ute, strung it up with a new double taper #6 line and gave it a good old wobble — and boy, was it soft! The rod was sure to load and fire at close range — just what I needed. That was only part of the equation. For the presentationists among us, the leader is probably the most essential part of our whole elaborate deception. I had played around with leaders during the Covid lockdown, mostly because I needed something fishy to do. I re-read Morsie’s piece ‘From Line to Leader’ in FL#79 and started rolling my own, which I did enjoy doing. It’s all about thirds and doesn’t need over complicating — butt one third, taper one third and tippet one third. I even started using a tippet ring (with my eyesight). I wanted an overall length of no more than nine feet, preferably a little less, which is around 90 cm for each third, including a little extra for knots. The fly I chose was my new favourite, the Girdle Bug, which is a perfect sight-fishing wet fly. THE SHORT GAME Walking the bank with the sun in and out was pleasant, albeit difficult, yet I felt confident and ready to shoot from the hip if a trout came my way. It was slow going, not just from a fishing perspective, but I wasn’t going to see much if I was running laps of the lagoon. The substrate was a complex mix of silt, weed and rubble. In other words, with poor light, everything was complicated. However, when the sun popped out, I did see a big fish against the caramel coloured lagoon bottom, but I was already on top of it. The short leader helped as I didn’t need to manage lots of excess line, and the double taper loaded the rod nicely. When I fired out my wobbly-legged fly, it plopped down, rang the dinner bell, and settled on the bottom quickly. The trout was aware of it as soon as the fly touched down, swanking over to it, tilting slightly. ‘One, two, three’ I counted, then lifted, and whoa it was pandemonium with the trout busting up the shallows, splashing mud and water all over my glasses and then blasting off into the reeds that filled most of the lagoon. My tippet was running at five pounds, and I wondered if it would hold. The old Hardy wobbled, bucked, looped and shuddered, taking every aggressive lunge the trout made. The rod was alive, and together we got the trout into the net where it kicked before settling. That was pretty good, I thought to myself. I walked the lagoon, setting up ambush points, but never saw another trout before heading back to the shack. By the time I reached the canal crossing at Bronte Lagoon, the sun was out, and the lake was up. It looked fantastic. I still had waders on and thought I should have a quick sortie along the timbered shore. Blending into the trees, I stealthily walked the bank and peered into the shaded lake edge. It took a while, but I found a fish feeding in the shallows where the waves rolled in and stirred things up a tad. I flipped out the Girdle Bug but the trout didn’t react, so I changed to a stick caddis whilst keeping an eye on the trout. I greased the leader up past the tippet ring so that only 30 cm of tippet remained untouched, then flipped out the fly and the trout swam over. When I saw the ‘wink’, I tightened up and let the rod do its dance again. It was a cracking fish. My old Hardy has confirmed that what’s old is new again. Its forte is the short game, when the sight fishing is marginal and the trout are rarely more than one or two rod-lengths away. It loads very quickly, a foot of line is enough, and with a short leader gives me the feeling that I’m always ready, always alert, so when a trout pops up out of nowhere I can present the fly in one precise movement. My old Hardy has been given a new lease of life and is now what I would call a specialist rod, repurposed into a short game fly rod after four decades of hibernation. Its imperfections and age give it history. This rod has a story to tell, and it isn’t finished yet.

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