Western Lakes Fundamentals

For the uninitiated, Tasmania’s Western Lakes can be a hard and soul-destroying place to catch a trout. So when my nephew Billy-Mo Rist asked me to take him and a couple of his mates into the region, I was more than willing to show them the basics to get them started on what can become a lifetime passion to explore and fish this part of the world. Billy–Mo’s ‘couple of mates’ turned out to be four, all with different levels of fly fishing experience. The crew consisted of Jason Licht, Sam Walker, Scott Bent, Luke Licht and Billy-Mo. My nephew was still coming to grips with the challenges of casting a fly line, while some of the others had a few more years of experience to put them in a better position to catch trout in this demanding environment. They had already done one trip into the Chudleigh Lakes, but hadn’t come to grips with the fundamentals that so many regular visitors take for granted. For me, the Chudleigh Lakes region at the northern end of the Central Plateau (see FL#45) is an ideal starting point to experience this Western Lakes style of fly fishing. The area offers many lakes holding good populations of 2–3 lb trout — lakes such as Blue Peaks, Little Throne, Grassy, Halkyard and all the way through to Lake Nameless are perfect locations to find fish of this size. Sure, there are trophy waters nearby, but these are no place to learn the basics as opportunities are few and far between. The best time to see lots of fish in this area is on blue-sky days from December through to March. The mayfly hatches are in full swing and trout can be seen nymphing over the shallow weed beds, rising to hatching duns, or leaping out to take the adult black spinners. Fishing waters with higher numbers of fish is exactly what the newcomer needs in order to provide plenty of opportunities to develop polaroiding skills and ultimately enable them to identify those subtle underwater signs of trout that have been swimming past unnoticed. From there, it’s just a matter of making the cast — well almost! Getting started With the 2½-hour hike behind us, we set up camp at Lake Halkyard, our base for the next three nights. It was early January and the weather was warm but with a light cloud cover overhead. The cloud reflection on the water was going to limit our effective vision to only a few metres. With that said, days like this are common back here and you just need to find higher ground and look harder for longer before moving on. Splitting into three groups, we headed off to different waters. I took Billy-Mo and Luke for the day to work through the basics. As I explained to them, in the Western Lakes it is far more productive to cover a lot of water to find fish with your eyes than it is to systematically cast to every metre of water. This soon becomes apparent on a blue-sky day when you can see every rock and stick in the water along an entire shoreline and not see a single fish. As we worked our way along the shore at Lake Halkyard the wind was blowing in, pushing up small waves that opened up tiny windows through the reflection of the clouds. We hadn’t walked far when a white flash over the weedbeds caught my eye — a telltale sign that a trout had just rolled over to take something off the bottom. I pointed out the fish to Billy-Mo and to Luke, until I was sure they could see it too. By now it was quite close, slowly swimming along the bottom, three metres out from the shoreline in about a metre of water, directly below us. All right boys, who wants to catch it? They looked at each other for a moment and politely asked if I could show them how it was done. So I quickly released the size 14 parachute dun from my rod and punched the fly into the wind, landing it a metre in front of the fish. But it was so focused on the bottom that it didn’t sense the fly land, so I picked it back up and slapped the fly down in front of it again. This time it responded immediately and proceeded to slowly rise up and take the fly. I set the hook and quickly landed a beautifully marked 3 lb brown. The look of amazement on their faces was priceless, and I knew then that if they weren’t already hooked on fly fishing the Western Lakes, they were now. We walked the remaining length of the lake without seeing another fish. But that’s just what this place can be like. If there is nothing to bring the fish into the shoreline in the first place, they are going to stay out on the weed beds or sheltered under a rock until there is. Polaroiding Lessons These gin clear lakes and tarns really lend themselves to polaroiding. This style of fishing is more stalking prey like a hunter, rather than blindly searching the water in the hope that your fly covers the fish before the fly line does. I spent the next day fishing with Scott Bent and Jason Licht. With the sun just high enough to allow us to see into the water, Scott asked the most basic question: “What do you look for when you’re searching for a fish?” I thought about it for a second and replied: “I’m not looking for the whole fish; I look for anywhere the bottom of the lake appears to be moving.” I had only just finished my sentence when Scott said, “Like that out there.” He pointed out something moving, which quickly materialised into a fish. “Yep, exactly like that,” I said. From that moment, Scott and Jason began to see fish that they might have otherwise walked past. Recognising the subtle signs of anything that might be a fish, rather than actually seeing the whole fish as such, is what allows us to focus a little harder in that area, giving our brain time to filter out any surface water movement and to pick up on the movement beneath it. Once you’ve locked on to a likely fish, its presence becomes obvious and the whole fish will often come into view. I went on to explain that I’m also trying to focus on any elongate shadows or fishy looking shapes as well. More often than not, these are just shadows of rocks, edges of weedbeds or submerged sticks, but these are exactly the shapes that your eyes need to be drawn to when scanning the water for the first time. A good way to quickly distinguish a suspicious fishy shape or shadow from all the other shadows and shapes in front of you, is to point your rod tip towards it, line up with something solid on the other side of the lake, and wait to see if that fishy shape moves. These guys wasted no time putting this into practice, with their sticks and shadows soon turning into fish. And there is no better way to learn this, than to experience it yourself. The more sticks, rocks, fishy shadows and moving bottom you can train your eyes to pick up when scanning the water, the more fish you will see over time in seemingly impossible conditions. TAMING the Wind There is a common saying that fish are where you find them, and this is so true in the Western Lakes. They can be resting or feeding just about anywhere the water is deep enough to cover them. Because of this, one of your best friends other than a blue-sky is some wind. While others may curse the wind, for me it is a welcome complement to any day out West. The waves it creates make it much harder for the trout to see movement on the shoreline, and it also helps with leader and fly presentation. Flat calm days can be hard at times — give me sun and wind any day. Wind and wave action also creates subtle underwater currents, and the trout will often be found facing into the wind, giving them access to any food being carried towards them. Once you know this, it makes a lot of sense to walk into the wind whenever possible, with the sun behind, effectively approaching from the fish’s blind spot. And they can be so close to the bank that you have to step back away from the water’s edge just to make a cast. This water movement can also help to carry a wet or dry fly in a natural drift towards the fish, bringing an array of fly-tying materials to life with every pulse. Approaching the Water How to approach the water is something that’s often learned from spooking many fish over many years. As I’ve found out the hard way, it is best to stay well back from the water and below the skyline whenever possible. I always try to scan the water closest to the shoreline first, and then move in behind a large rock or some alpine scrub, before slowly peering over it and scanning the water out as far as I can. Then, and only then, do I think it is safe to stand up on top of higher ground to see even further out into the lake. Easy to say, believe me, because I still fall into the trap of stepping up to the highest point too soon, only to see my potential prize swim away before my eyes. That’s a hard lesson to re-learn when they are pushing 6 to 8 lb on some days. The other thing to know, when you do find a fish, is whether to move into position fast, or to wait. For me, if a fish is holding stationary and facing away, I have all the time in the world to work out the best presentation and approach. But when a fish swims onto me or suddenly swims into an opening amongst the vegetation or boulders, I freeze, and wait for it to swim past before moving quickly in behind it to make the cast, landing the fly to the side and behind the fish, to have it turn back to take the fly. If the trout fails to notice the fly land, and the shoreline permits, I will try to get ahead of the fish and ambush it with the fly before it swims past. It may sound basic, but if a fish is facing me, I don’t move an inch. But as soon as it is facing away or has swum behind something I move quickly to get into the best position to make a cast. A First My nephew Billy-Mo is new to this game and I have to give him full credit for persevering with the fly and leaving the spinning rod back at camp. With the high-pressure system now over us, we had warm weather and light winds. Mayfly duns were hatching and the adult black spinners were being blown onto shore. This was good news as it brought a good number of trout to within a short cast of the shoreline. By now, Billy-Mo could easily spot and track fish and it was just his casting ability that was holding him back. Luke had a few more years of experience and had already landed a beautiful fish of around 4 lb that he’d successfully spotted and caught himself. It was Billy-Mo’s turn for a little bit of luck to go his way. As we worked on his casting, trout were rising just out of his reach. Then a fish swam straight in towards us, on the search for mayflies. This was his chance. His cast went out and I took a big step back to let him do the rest. Like clockwork this brown swam straight over and sipped the parachute dun from the surface. Billy-Mo struck and he was on. With limited experience of even fighting a fish on a fly rod, he did very well to keep a tight line and stay connected. Luke did the honours with the net and there were smiles and congratulations all round. There is absolutely no better way to catch your first Western Lakes trout. PROFICIENT CASTING Any fly fishing experience, be it in these remote lakes or on the bow of a skiff, is always going to be a lot less frustrating if you’ve spent the time and made the effort to become a proficient caster. Even after 33 years I still want to be constantly improving my casting ability to give myself the best possible chance of making the cast when it really counts. High back casts, good line management, and the ability to cast a parachute spinner or dun into the wind on a 9-ft leader down to 4 lb tippet, will have you landing trout during the summer months out West like a local, in no time. If you love hiking and camping with a fly rod in a pristine alpine environment where you can literally count the spots on wild brown trout in perfectly clear water, then you will not be disappointed.

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