Stillwater Focus

Jess McGlothlin is introduced to Tasmania’s lakes

The wind is picking up, turning the placid lake into a sea of white-capped waves. Heavy with oncoming rain, the air carries the earthy scent of the gum trees bordering the lake, and I nestle deeper into my jacket. What had started out as a gloriously calm morning is quickly turning into a blustery afternoon, yet I find I really don’t care. We’re still catching large, healthy brown trout — and plenty of them — and a little bad weather never hurt anyone. We’re bobbing about on Tasmania’s Four Springs Lake. Beside me, Australian competition angler Tom Jarman times a mellow yet pinpoint accurate cast with the swell. I recast my own line, and then spare a glance to the tall trees lining the shore. There are a few other boats on the lake, but as they disappear into the gust-driven mist, it’s easy to imagine we’re alone. Just a couple of anglers, a wooden skiff, and a lake full of trout. I have travelled 9,000 miles from Montana to sample these Tasmanian waters and, as rarely happens, the reality exceeds the promise. My first stop is Driftwater, a cozily crafted home-based lodge owned by Peter and Karen Brooks. The couple’s century-old homestead serves as their base of operations; both Karen and Peter guide guests and know the surrounding waters well. It’s apparent I’ve found my people when, after arriving at Driftwater and storing my bags, I emerge into the kitchen to find Karen and Tom passing around a bottle of Zap-a- Gap as they build leaders. The conversation changes from the fishing merits of the glue to its usefulness in closing wounds, and I grin. This feels like home. That night, after fishing the nearby Meander and Mersey rivers, we sit around the kitchen table, Slim Dusty playing on the speaker, and trade fishing stories from around the world. Karen and Peter had spent a year fly-fishing their way around the globe, and Tom had travel plans in the works for the coming year. It’s the universal ritual of anglers swapping tales. The next day, sitting on that rocking boat on Four Springs, I release another healthy brown trout and sit back for a pause. Tom has a well-devised system for catching these browns: a static nymph rig on the long leader, paired with a technique called ‘plonking’. Popular in fly-fishing competitions, plonking is often used in conditions when fish will shy away from a retrieved fly, so instead the angler uses slow strips with occasional pauses and rests, keeping constant contact with the flies to ensure a quick set should a take occur. One or two heavy (often tungsten) flies are placed beneath an indicator — typically a buoyant dry fly. The quiet morning at Four Springs has produced a rust-coloured mayfly hatch, providing an obvious choice for the top fly. When cast, the heavy flies land with an audible “plonk” — often drawing the interest of nearby fish, which will hopefully follow a fly’s downward trajectory and then decide to take it. Most takes will come during this sink phase, so anglers must maintain constant contact, often stripping in line using tiny figure-eight movements with the fingers. Slack line is the enemy. The technique proves out, enticing the browns to eat again and again and again. But plonking is a game best utilised in calm waters, and the game changes as the weather morphs throughout the day. At one point three nymphs are strung out on a ‘washing line’, equally spaced and resting in the top of the water column. When the weather grows truly rough, Tom ties on three streamers and uses the ‘pulling’ technique, stripping the flies through the water. We set a sea anchor — a drogue — and make our way down the lake, the wind blowing us into perfect drifts. Each technique works, as I marvel at the fish. These healthy brown trout, largely wild fish relocated from elsewhere in Tasmania since the lake was formed and opened to the public in 1999, are richly coloured and broad. The sheer number of sizeable, robust fish in the lake is a testament to the water’s suitability to support a sport fishery, and by the end of the session I can’t recall a single angling day where I’ve caught this many brown trout of this size. “The things we do for trout,” Peter laughs when we meet back at the boat ramp, wind-blown and shivering. Sometimes the fishing is so good the weather doesn’t really matter. Days later, I find myself crossing the Central Plateau Conservation Area, a craggy landscape of sub-alpine moorlands and part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (an impressive swathe of protected lands that takes up nearly 20% of the island). Lodging overnight at Thousand Lakes Lodge — once used as an expedition training facility for Antarctic Division staff — I meet up with Chris Wisniewski, a Section Manager at Inland Fisheries Service, and the Director of IFS, John Diggle. Companionable and eager to talk fishing, we trade stories for a while before pulling out a map and spreading it on the aging dining table in the lodge’s main room. It’s readily apparent where the lodge gets its name. Dotting the vast, scrubby tundra-like landscape of the high central plateau are dozens of lakes of varied shapes, sizes, and geography. Chris explains the chief draw of the highland lakes, including ‘surfing’ trout. In a manner the locals call ‘sharking’, resident brown trout ride the waves when the wind is up, looking for food in the clear water. It’s possible to see fish patrolling the waves, as predatory as the famed sharks that roam off the Australian coast. The ideal conditions to both see (called ‘polaroiding’ by the locals) and fish to the behaviour are sunny and windy — far different than most conventional angling wisdom — and both Chris and John have the images to prove the fact. The Nineteen Lagoons region, where we are, boasts no stocked fish; these are very wild browns. Predatory browns. As the wind batters the windows, the temperature dives, and snow starts to fall, we make a plan to rise well before dawn and drive to Lake Kay, a medium-sized lake with accompanying smaller lagoons. It’s the lagoons we’re interested in; where we hope to see feeding trout. The 5 a.m. wake-up call comes soon, and we dodge dozens of wallabies and one quick-footed Tasmanian devil on the way to Lake Kay. Rigging rods under black, snowy skies and bullish wind, we march over boggy highland tundra to the lake. There’s no dramatic break of dawn, rather that slow growth of light that comes during storms. Suddenly we can see where we’re walking; make out the green, alien-looking cushion plants dotting the trail, and the wind-capped waters of the lake ahead. Daylight grows stronger, and I can make out snow-capped peaks some distance across the tundra. Snow flurries move past but we’re uncaring, breath held as Chris spots a rising fish in a small pocket of quiet water. And then another. Soon there are six or more rising fish in the small, quiet corner of Lake Kay. Chris patiently casts, working with the practised accuracy of a seasoned professional, despite the swirling wind and frigid temperatures. But the fish are on their own program, feeding on something so small we can’t make it out in the dim light. Fly changes elicit no response, and we spend two hours methodically working the pod of fish as they continue rising tirelessly despite our best efforts at presenting them with flies. These are contented, tailing browns; feeding happily in the shallows. Wild fish in a wild lake, in one of the wildest landscapes I’ve experienced. Eventually my cold fingers can’t buckle my pack strap, but I don’t care. Wild places demand a price, and if a morning of shivering was the cost for hours spent on the shores of Lake Kay watching wild brown feed, it’s well worth it. Fewer than 300 international fishing licenses are sold annually in Tasmania. The many lakes, rivers, and streams dotting the island are largely the domain of locals. Tourism is an estimated $2.5 billion industry, but few of those tourists, it seems, are packing fly rods and waders. With a stunning diversity of water, a plethora of wild fish, and welcoming locals, Australia’s island state represents trout fishing as it should be. While many of the great trout waters around the globe grow crowded and overfished, it’s still readily possible to spend a day on the water in Tasmania and not see another angler. Just you and the trout, and maybe a good mate or two. As it should be.

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