Sydney Stopover

Simon Chu tastes freedom in the Snowy Mountains

I was pretty excited to be heading back to New Zealand after three years in the US. A three-month visit to family, friends, and multiple backcountry piscatorial adventures awaited. But travelling in a pandemic world has many ups and downs. I flew on a plane with 330 empty seats, and getting through airport security and customs has never been easier. Conversely, Covid restrictions and paperwork can be challenging and both NZ and Australia have strict quarantine restrictions at the border.
At the time of writing, the world is looking on with envy at the almost normal lifestyle that has been maintained down here. With this in mind I confidently flew into Sydney airport from the US to transit onward to Aotearoa.
Unfortunately fate dealt a hand, with my 30-hour transit lengthening into a full 14-day quarantine, and my window of opportunity to enter NZ before April also vanished due to border restrictions. To make the best of a poor situation, I connected with good friends living in Sydney and a plan was hatched for my return to the outside world before having to fly back to the US.
After a health check and confirmation of tracing details with the NSW police, I was finally out of my hotel home of the past two weeks. I’ve done a few trips with Josh Hutchins in the past, and a wee hike in the hills of backcountry New South Wales promised stunning scenery and beautiful buttery brown trout. I was excited and ready for my first Australian mainland trout adventure.
An overnight stop for Murray cod and my first night sleeping in a swag was an iconic Australian way to spend time out of Sydney and quarantine. My first treat was to throw large surface poppers at structure, seeking to entice a native goodoo. No love from the local fish population bar a couple of monstrous swirls, but with the casting arm warmed up I was ready for the rest of the week’s adventure.
As a Kiwi living in the US, I’ve been missing some of the simple things. A flat white, a meat pie and our night sky. Seeing the Southern Cross was like coming home, and a meal at a local corner pub felt equally iconic. It was good to be out and about in the Antipodes!
Meeting Josh’s guiding team in Tumut was a treat, and after a planning session over a local brew and some shopping for food at Woolies, we were almost ready. The next day on the drive in, I enjoyed seeing many of the animals that make Australia unique — kangaroos, wombats, platypus and even a wild dog were company through the week. I was grateful not to see a snake, although Josh did, and I don’t know if he noticed me trailing behind and letting him walk first through all the long grass after he’d mentioned it!
The devastating effects of the wild fires were evident, but it was remarkable how nature was recovering. As we drove into the National Park, the blackened stumps reminded me of the very sparse hair on my scalp. I marvelled at the exposed contours of the land — it certainly wasn’t the flat Outback, or the prolific beach vistas I normally associate with Australia. It was wonderful ‘big country’, and as we climbed I learnt we would be starting at almost 3000 feet and hiking down 1200 into one of the alpine valley floors to fish.
On our first day we shouldered heavy packs and spent time exploring in and around where the track crossed the river. It could have been New Zealand. The river and scenery might easily have been mistaken for one of the streams in the South Island — steep hills and clear water, pretty brown trout that were receptive to our dry flies, and enough long, fly-grabbing grass to catch errant back casts. It was the perfect tonic for my recent quarantine and a completely different feeling of isolation!
The browns were wild. Heavy foot-falls would put rising fish down, but a well-placed Royal Wulff enticed bright half- to one-pounders to hand, and that first day we saw several much larger fish too. We had to be extra stealthy walking along a riverbank lined with high grass and deep little holes. Wearing a good pair of hiking or wading boots is critical, and I followed Josh’s advice to wear long pants for snakes. The pants and long sleeve shirts also helped immensely with the March flies, which kept us constant company and provided inspiration for the fly that accounted for our largest trout.
Heading downstream next morning we hiked high and sidled the hilltops. Last year’s fires made the going a lot easier than it would have been wading through tea tree and snow gums. The views were amazing and the wildflowers were nothing short of spectacular.
Setting up camp we were excited about the two days fishing ahead. As I’d recently come from grizzly bear country it was nice not to have to worry about 700-pound camp visitors. It was good to have a water filter too, and I highly recommend this to anyone heading for the hills. We had blue-sky weather and refilled our water bottles regularly. Although we were pretty remote and high up, the track did cross the river in several spots above us, and it pays not to risk drinking from such backcountry streams.
The wind in New Zealand is a constant, and to make me feel more at home, a strong, albeit warm wind kept us honest over the course of the next two days. On the first, we fished downstream with small streamers, as this is a great windy day tactic.
Josh constantly changed his leader length and size of tippet (from 5X with a dry fly to 3X for stripping a small Woolly Bugger) ensuring no weaknesses in his systems.
We covered plenty of ground and landed several nice fish, the highlight being the last two of the day on dry flies. A wee beauty had been marked on our downstream hike and Josh nailed him with a well-placed dry on our way back to camp.
The next day we headed upstream. On each pool and corner we drew comparisons with other trips we’d taken and routinely marvelled at how incredible it was that this opportunity lay only four hours by car from Sydney. This time of a global pandemic and border closures has led us to seek adventures closer to home, and opened our eyes to what has always been nearby but not on our daily radar. I know many people who would fly around the world for the experience I enjoyed this day in the Snowies, and I could not express my gratitude enough to Josh for showing it to me.
We caught larger fish this day and the dry-fly takes were slow, matching the pace of the deeper pools where we found them. Managing line wasn’t the easiest, however, and a couple of times we had refusals because of this. The brown trout were stunning — several were beautifully spotted, with the vitality and brightness that only healthy fish have. I did manage a bruiser on the blowfly pattern though — older, scarred, and with a face only his mother would love.
It was so good to see a wild stream fishery recovering after the fires — the different year-classes of trout and the numbers were encouraging. It was also pleasing to note a prolific stonefly hatch while we were there, and the number of grasshoppers.
After a solid last day fishing with packs on, it was time for the hike out. Needless to say I was very grateful to see our vehicle, as hiking uphill is never for the faint hearted. Thankfully my good friend had thought of everything and the most incredible meal awaited us at ‘Three Blue Ducks’ in Tumut — after several days of freeze-dried food and muesli bars, it was heavenly.
A global pandemic has changed our normal. We have to protect community health and as a result our ability to travel is in a constant state of flux. Exploring local waters may not have rated on our bucket lists compared to the allure of foreign destinations, but sharing a slice of fishing heaven with a great friend, and enjoying the sun on my face, is a life tonic I would be happy to drink from every day. If I have to isolate for 14 days each time and stopover in Sydney…
so be it.

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