The Crossover Season

Mark Cloutier looks for happier fish as winter gives way to spring in the Tasmanian highlands

The wind was swirling, not forcefully, but just enough to make it difficult to get a good drift. We were going around in circles and feeling a little daft, so I hit the ‘lecky’, hoping to catch a proper breeze or at least work out which way was up. The sun was in and out, but it was mostly a glum early spring morning. My obsession with sight fishing meant getting in close to the bank where I could search for fish in shallow water. I thought about banking the boat and walking the grass, but the drift started to work nicely and I soon noticed a fishy shape moving along at the pace of a snail. Being so early in the season I had opted for a stick caddis, and got the fly in front of the brownie just as it took something off the top. Making the shot in the moment seemed more important than matching the hatch, whatever that was, so I just bumped the stick caddis and watched the trout move over to it. Tightening at the telltale ‘wink’, I was on. The trout blasted off for the middle of the lake and got airborne twice before being netted. It was a nice start. THE BUGS The bugs seem to go in this order at the start of the season — midges, caddis, duns, spinners, damsels and terrestrials — or something like that if you wanted to map hatches along a timeline. But to be honest, it’s not that simple, because the hatches rarely fall neatly one after the other. They often overlap, with a multitude of bugs on the go at once, and therein lies the problem… what will the trout be taking and what fly should I use? Should I go with a wet, or try a dry, or should I use both? After landing the fish and getting back in shape, another brown came working up along the bank. With the sun now out more often than not, the fish was easier to see, but spooked at the stick caddis, or perhaps my presentation was a little off. I had shots at a few more fish, maybe four or five, but never got another hook-up. They couldn’t make up their minds whether to eat off the top or grub on the bottom. It became an infuriating session as I fell for swapping flies between wet and dry, and fished poorly as a result. This time of year in the Tasmanian highlands, just as things start to warm up, is what I call ‘the crossover season’ — when the change from winter to spring can send anglers balmy. Some fish will eat the dry fly with gusto, whilst others refuse it full stop. Sometimes changing fish is a better option than changing fly. The afternoon light improved, but was far from ideal. Often the trout I did see had already spooked, or were a little twitchy at best. I banked the boat and walked the shore. Bronte Lagoon was full, at least for the moment, so I headed to a favourite indent in the shoreline, which usually holds a fish. This style of sight fishing is a little more ambush-like and is fun because of the close-quarters combat — often you can see the panic in the fish’s eye if the deception works. I waited, using a tuft of tussock for cover, and sure enough, a brown soon came patrolling along the crescent-shaped bank. The trout was on a regular beat and when it next swam past it tilted over my fly, felt the sting of the hook, and went bonkers. At last a fish that would play. THE FAITH Within the week I was back in the highlands again, this time on Highland Waters. The air temperature was pushing into double digits, even predicted to touch the low teens, which was surely a good sign. A few days can be a long time when looking for hatch-driven fishing, particularly when there is some decent weather about, but the water was yet to suck up much warmth. I went for an emerger, a kind of halfway bet, but only saw one or two mayfly duns. The light was poor again, the sun a dim bauble hidden by a wall of formidable grey cloud. The first hour was still cold and I didn’t see a fish. Knowing the temperature would peak some time after 1:30 p.m., I kept the emerger on, resisting the temptation to strip wets from the boat as I drifted and sight fished, looking for risers or cruisers. Where a breeze pushes along a bank you often get small slicks just a metre or so offshore. The slicks aren’t unlike the mayfly itself, short-lived and hard to predict, but the fish seem to relish them and get in close. Very close. I tend to look for bubbles or froth running parallel to the bank where duns and other bugs can become trapped in the slop. I was on the oars, keeping the boat off the bank, when a huge trout cruised past, swam directly under the fly and went. I didn’t change the fly — I changed the fish. It took a certain level of conviction not to change the fly, but I didn’t want to get caught up again in second-guessing every fish that came by. Maybe that fish refused my fly because of the presentation, or boat noise, or something else. I also thought I might be giving the fish more credit than is due. They are trout, not judges on Master Chef. A long green-tinged shaped worked the edge, disappearing amongst a tangle of tree roots before popping out on the other side. It rose, and I got the fly out. Not a great cast, but this fish was hunting and came to the fly confidently and gulped it. I waited for the fish to turn before tightening up, and all hell broke loose as it went straight back for the tree roots. Fishing a heavy tippet (6.4 lb), I pulled the big trout off balance, changing its direction, and only then let it take line when it was safe to do so. The trout was spectacular — a shimmering golden olive colour with big black spots within white halos, each looking hand-painted. Another two fish followed before a front came through and the temperature crashed. It was beer o’clock. OUT WEST The long weekend forecast was iffy at best, but I prefer it that way early in the season when heading west of Liawenee. Perfect weather brings the crowds, whereas a howling gale and predictions of rain meant I had the chosen lake to myself. The wind was ferocious enough to give me an earache as I searched the first flat looking for shapes and smudges. I was at a higher altitude today, and on water not known for big hatches, so I went for a jet black rubber-legged stonefly (Girdle Bug), mainly because I could still see this wet fly in the clear water and the trout normally love it — except for today. By the time I reached the old fence line I hadn’t taken a fish, despite plenty of shots. I stuck with the GB because it’s a good sight fishing option when getting takes on the dry is unlikely. This approach goes against my instinct to change the pattern if I get a refusal, but the crossover is different — you need patience and faith that the fly will work eventually, if you get the presentation right. The temperature peaked after lunchtime, which can be enough to change feeding activity at this altitude. After much trial and error, I found that the fish wanted an inert presentation and I picked up several good trout on the way home. Two weeks later I was back on the same lake in the Nineteen Lagoons. The day was cloudless, the water as clear as crystal, and the fish were touchy. I was on a favourite shore where a marsh drains onto a flat, attracting fish as it empties out during late spring. A good brown was heading away from where I stood, but I was able to get the fly in front of the fish — this time a dry. The trout grabbed it, and I was on. It was my first on the dry for the season. However, the next fish refused it, so I tied a small brown nymph off the bend, which the trout gobbled on the very next cast. Sometimes the wet-dry combination is a good option. CROSSOVER FLIES Spring throws up its challenges, so too autumn, particularly when it gets late in the season. However, the real challenge is springtime and this has a lot to do with the variety of aquatic insects available through various life-cycle stages. At one time or another, during the spring burst of new life, food becomes accessible to the trout from the bottom to the surface, and in many forms, from larvae to adults. Trout have options, so do anglers. I still believe that the presentation of the fly is more important than the pattern. But we should still aim to match the hatch, at least in form and function, and to get the fly in front of the fish to force a decision. My crossover flies are nothing special, but since I tend to focus on finding fish before firing off a shot, they are less likely to be searching patterns. So, for the fish that cannot be coaxed to the surface, a stick caddis or Girdle Bug without weight are very good generic patterns. Nymphs are an obvious choice. Brown, black, green or grey in various sizes are more than just handy, but my favourite patterns are the ‘stickies’ — ones that sit right in the surface film. Patterns like the Possum Emerger, Bushy’s Emerger, Deerhair Emerger, Parachute Floating Nymph and Gary Borger’s Wet/Dry are all good flies, one no better than the other. If we get dry fly action the stickies still work, but red or black spinners, beetle patterns and smaller flies like the Griffiths Gnat are good to have in the box. The Red Tag is always a great pattern. BACK OUT WEST The following week I was back out West again. Snow had fallen mid-week and the track was slushy, but the light was good. I went straight for the Girdle Bug and walked the tussocks, searching water within a rod length of the bank. A big brown was soon at my feet, the fly dropping a metre off its snout. The brute swam over and refused it, swaggering off — same with the next fish. ‘Oh no, not this again,’ I mumbled. At times the crossover season makes no sense, and there isn’t a lot that can be done. I kept the same fly on and went looking for a happier fish.

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