The Circuit

Mark Cloutier enjoys a day-walk from Tasmania’s Lake St Clair

The light was good, my shadow sharp, and the water perfectly clear. I wanted to sight fish the first golden beach, which gleamed as though lit by an underwater florescent tube. It was still early morning and the best light comes after 9:00 a.m. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky — a rare but treasured big blue-sky day. I glanced at my watch to see it was just after eight, but realised that measuring time with a watch seemed ridiculous in this landscape. Seconds, minutes and hours were meaningless considering this lake had been carved from the rock over several millions of years. Time had stopped long ago at Lake St Clair. The trout on patrol glowed an iridescent golden brown hue, their fins touched with amber, and seemed to travel at mid depth as they searched the flat for food. There were rainbows too, slate grey and all but invisible except for their flickering shadows. A brown cruised within range, moving quickly, but I wasn’t fast enough to get the fly on target. The smaller fish were moving like little torpedoes, straight and fast, nothing like those big lazy browns that I hoped to find later in the day. St Clair teems with trout, and it wasn’t long before another shape appeared, working the edge of a small drop-off. I plopped a chunky Kelly Tag on its snout, the fish came up and eyeballed it before vanishing in a blink. The fly and leader were too much for crystal clear water and finicky trout, so I downsized to 5X tippet and went for a wee Black Spinner. The stealth road lay ahead. I had moved off the flat and onto a gravel beach where the bank gently sloped to the water’s edge. Bonsai shaped tea trees bowed away from the prevailing winds, twisted and battered from decades of wind and ice, their roots a tangle in the lakeshore washout. A fish worked up-wind in very shallow water and was busy searching, but again moving fast. This time I was ready and cast the fly ahead and let the trout come to it. A gentle sip, and when hooked, the fish exploded from the water and raced towards the depths. Small and feisty, I soon had it unhooked and on its way again. I intended to fish another smaller golden flat towards Watersmeet, then take the track uphill to Shadow Lake, and if the light was still good, try for a cameo at Forgotten Lake a short distance away. There was no time to dilly- dally, as this was an ambitious day for an old guy. SHADOW LAKE I fished out the beach at St Clair for another two smallish browns before de-togging and pulling on some hiking boots for the two-hour walk to Shadow. This is a beautiful track that follows the Hugel River for some distance, a cascading little stream full of tiny wild trout. It’s up hill and graded ‘moderate’, which means if you’re a bit old and carrying extra kilos you’ll be huffing and puffing a lot. It was the huff and puff trail for me, but I’d rather get it out of the way on the hike in than deal with it after a hardcore day of wading and fishing. At first glimpse, Shadow Lake sparkled like a cut gem. Surrounded by pencil pines, pointing to the sky like bony old fingers, you know this lake is both ancient and spiritual. I felt transient and slightly unnerved for a moment. Time is our illness, not the land’s. I followed the trail for a way before dropping down to the lake. Focused on the shallow water around the edges first, I assumed that the trout would be cruising here just like their cousins were at St Clair, but as I’ve already learnt, and re-learnt, fly fishing doesn’t work that way. The trout are predictably unpredictable. The best I can say is that I may have glimpsed a shape that came from under the shadowy water at the lake’s edge, but that was more wishful thinking than anything else. Tasmania is certainly diverse, the landscape changes quickly, adjacent lakes only a hundred metres apart can be completely different, so too the response from the trout within. I waded deeper and focused on the drop-off. I was still on the stealth road and felt that the Black Spinner was a good choice. A Stu Tripney pattern, with all the desired characteristics, it sat low in the water and I could see it thanks to the white wings supporting the fly without the need for a hackle. The breeze was perfect; I could cast into it with the gentle zephyr bringing the fly back along the edge just nicely. Casting short is much better than blasting out a long line. Simply covering lots of water with a single drift is a little oafish. Smaller drifts, precise casting and a bit of luck all help. A shape soon appeared under the fly, coming at it from the depths of the lake. There was no scrutiny from the trout as it launched from the water, its momentum taking it into the air before diving back in. I wasn’t quite ready, but struck anyway and had a chubby rainbow charging and skipping across the surface like a skimming stone. Not a large fish, but an important one to restore confidence and make me happy again. The trout had been small so far, but this is not a trophy destination. This place has so much more to it than simply trout fishing. It’s a privilege to be immersed in and surrounded by such grandness of nature. The sense of past consumes you, and it’s not hard to imagine an Aboriginal elder standing on a rock, spear in hand, surveying the water. A fish rose, then again, but it was moving diagonally away from me. I loaded the rod and shot a cast out to where I thought the next dimple might be, but the trout changed direction slightly and my fly was off-target. A lift and haul, trying to be as delicate as possible, before watching the little white tuft land, then disappear. There were fish cruising along the drop-off but they were incredibly difficult to see, as they were swimming in the depths and only coming to the surface to take an insect or the fly itself. Having a target to cast to, like the distinct edge line of the drop-off, is always enjoyable fishing. It removes the ‘blind’ in ‘blind searching’ to a degree. In fact when I need to cover water on a ‘nothing day’ I tend to imagine where fish are, and cast to a pattern rather than try to simply cover lots of water. I continued to fish the edge and picked up another small rainbow before thinking about that cameo at Forgotten. FORGOTTEN LAKE The sedge field I cut through between Shadow and Forgotten had looked a lot easier on the map. It was a tough bash and took longer than expected, but when I hit the lakeshore I was glad to see the wonderful polaroiding beach that stretched around most of the lake’s perimeter. The two lakes are not far apart, so it might have made more sense to try fishing a drop-off first, but instead I slipped into the water to fish out the beach and to work out what was going on. In fly fishing it pays to keep an open mind, and just as well, as within the first fifty or sixty metres I had seen a nice shadow flit past. The fish wasn’t spooked, but wasn’t about to chow down on a Black Spinner. In fact I don’t know what it was doing other than being chased or giving chase. I slowed my wading down, which was already slow as I was a tad weary, and stayed half way between the sedge bank and drop off, a kind of each way bet. I was tempted to hang the fly out wide, searching the drop-off while looking for shadows on the flat — an eye on each so to speak — but that can lead to tears when a fish drops in between you and the fly. What can you do other than watch the trout until it spooks and accelerates off, eye-balling you all the way into the depths? If there had been cloud about I would have tried it, but the light was still too good to get lazy. I wasn’t seeing many, in fact I had only seen the one fish, until right in along the bank, almost under the overhanging grasses, came a brown trout and a good one at that. Seeing a fish from a long way off gives the angler a much greater chance of success — it’s those last minute glimpses and quick shots that can rattle you if you’re not on your A game. The trout swam along, deviating here and there to stop and eat something. I crouched low, waited for the fish to become distracted, then, when I saw it pick up another morsel, I fired off my shot. The trout’s body language changed as it sensed the fly land and it headed towards it. Big browns don’t rush, if anything they seem to slow down, but my heart was racing as the fish inched towards the fly. Time is our enemy as we wait for the gap between fish and fly to close. Adrenaline builds, our body becomes tense like a wound up spring, and if we’re not careful all we’ll do is miss, prick or snap off our quarry. It’s okay to breathe, if you remember. The fish didn’t muck about when it finally reached the fly, as it glided up, poked its snout through the surface and ate it. I waited, just a tad, until the fish turned, and then tightened up on the brute. It may have been the gentlest strike of my life: in fact I don’t think the trout knew it was hooked for a second or two. A shudder, a roll, a run, a leap and then the fish blasted off towards the middle of the lake. I lost line as though I’d hooked a bonefish as the backing knot rattled through the guides. It’s a knot I rarely see and it made me anxious as it left the top guide. The backing was now disappearing and the fish seemed to be as strong as ever. I laid the rod to the side and palmed the reel. Mind you, the reel has a fancy drag, but old habits die hard and it never occurred to me to turn the drag dial half a notch. The fish was tiring and the line began moving my way, gradually. Having worked it in close, a last ditch leap all but exhausted the fish, which I scooped out at the first opportunity. That magnificent wild brown trout, glistening in the late afternoon light, will remain an etching in my memory for the rest of my days. I clipped off the fly and wound in, bashed my way back through the sedge field and found the trail. Stopping to swap waders for hiking boots, I glugged some water before setting off back to the rangers station. It was downhill all the way, and I was happy that it was.

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