TOHM: Fly Fishing

From a very young age I always liked fishing. I have no idea why. My parents didn’t fish, my brothers didn’t fish, but for some reason I couldn’t get enough of it. I suspect it could be that fishing was the first thing in my young life to ever truly be my own. I didn’t need anyone to help me, I got better at it on my own and I could go fishing pretty much whenever I wanted.

I grew up in Bayside, in Melbourne’s southeast. Whenever I could I would run down to the pier closest to our house, buy some pippies or pilchards from the tiny kiosk before finding my place out along the weathered, wooden structure. It was a delicate dance of finding a spot out of the wind while not upsetting the old fishermen who, after a while, would acknowledge me with a short grunt holding thick, rolled cigarettes nestled between woollen-gloved fingers.

Fast-forward to now and I can’t remember the last time I went fishing. Eleven-year-old Chris would be devastated. That’s not to say I haven’t found other hobbies; I surf (poorly), play footy for a pub (the mighty Old Bar Unicorns) and have recently discovered golf (although the jury’s out as to whether that will stand the test of time). Yet a recent question posed by a very close, older friend struck me between the eyes: what will you do if you can’t surf? I rely pretty heavily on surfing for lots of things – a pressure valve, keeping fit, connecting with mates, clearing the head, adrenaline, relaxation and just generally having a good time - so the question really scared the shit out of me.

One night in the pub, I voiced these concerns to my mate Gus, a fellow amateur fishing enthusiast After listening for a while he simply suggested “why not get a guide?”. Excellent idea. The very next day I tracked one down in northeast Victoria – Cam from River Escapes. I explained that I was keen to fish along the beautiful rivers in the region, Cam suggested we do some lake fishing as well. Perfect. We were all set.

Cam picked us up (Gus, Blake – our photographer, and I) first thing in the morning.  We were staying in my late Grandfather’s cottage at the foothills of the mountains to avoid braving the four hour drive from Melbourne at stupid ‘o clock. Gramps purchased the property using his war loan that soldiers received after World War 2 and few changes have been made since that time. It is a quaint little place built with brick and timber logs. Odd ornaments picked up from overseas travel – teaspoons and wooden carvings – adorn the walls and there is a permanent smoke shadow above the open fireplace. There is a sprawling walnut tree that threatens to take over the backyard. It was only a spindly sapling when my Grandfather died. I reckon he’d be happy with himself if he saw it now.

The morning itself was glorious. The sun was out in full force but, given the altitude, only enough to satisfyingly warm the back as opposed to burn.  The first thing that hits you is that crisp, clean mountain air that clear your head like a reset button. It is difficult to concern yourself with deadlines and profit margins with a lung full of that air. Couple that with the clear and gentle sound of the birds merrily starting out their day and we were all pretty chuffed about things.

On the road we begin to learn more about our guide for the day. Now in his 40s, Cam has been flyfishing since he was a 12-year-old growing up on the banks of the Murray River. He’s fished all over the world from Idaho to Venezuela and is currently doing fish research at Charles Sturt University.  Having lived in northeast Victoria for the last 10 years, Cam intimately knows every twist of the river. The guy is also genuinely hilarious – that golden mix of dry wit and masterful story-telling.  He’s got us in stitches with classic fishing tales and completely enthralled with accounts about defending his home (on numerous occasions) during the bushfire season.

Our first stop is some sort of a clearing, at what appears to be a very lightly used camping grand, right next to the banks of a crystal-clear river flanked by soaring gums on one side and craggy boulders on the other. It forms an impressive fortress for the fast-moving water. Despite looking so inviting in the morning sun, the water itself is almost freezing, flowing directly down from the majestic mountains above. Steam rises slowly and gracefully, whirling about one metre above the ground before disappearing entirely. Cam has chosen this spot to give us our first casting lesson.

We’ve all got that image of the lone fly fisherman, standing in the middle of a stream, fluidly drawing the rod back and forth in a motion that could only really be described as poetry. Cam instructs us to smash that image, as it’s largely for show apparently, and to instead stick to his simple steps: smooth, controlled motions. Stopping the rod at 10 and 2 on the clock. Release the line. Rod tip down. Strip line. And LIFT if we get a strike. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take very long to achieve a serviceable technique. With this new knowledge gained, and with waders strapped on (it was at this moment that I really hit peak excitement), we hit the rivers.

We arrive at a bridge. At this point Gus is casting (we take turns as we make our way upstream). The target is the shadows created by the bridge as we’re told that this is where trout can like to hide out. I’m standing next to Cam in some sort of contented reverie when our guide abruptly, out of nowhere, screams “LIFT” at a pitch that yanks me out of my daydream and almost sends me flying into the water. Gus is on. Despite a bit of initial panic, he regains his composure and lands a beautiful, albeit small, rainbow trout. Gus nets the fish, unhooks the fly and sends the fish back on its way. We are on the board.

After a few more hours of fishing the rivers – a lot of strikes (the majority of the fish lost) and even more misfired casts into the trees bordering the river - we change tactic and decide to journey to a nearby alpine lake. The hope is that insects are landing on the afternoon water causing the fish to rise to the surface. I am buzzing like a kid on Christmas as we wind our way up the mountain. Near the summit, we stop to check out the lake and it is clear that some fish are about. Not exactly a feeding frenzy as we’d hoped, but they were there.

Cam tells me to start at a certain corner of the lake where he had had some success a few weeks earlier. Almost immediately a fish breaches the surface. I make a couple of poor casts before finding the mark. I place the fly right in the path of the fish. Rod tip down, let the fly sit, LIFT! The fish jumps out of the water as I try to keep my cool. After a brief but tense fight I net a nice little brown trout stippled with those incredible brownish-gold and red colourings. It’s a great feeling. As I release the fish back into the lake I take stock of the situation. There is a silence up here that you almost wouldn’t believe. I also realize that I haven’t been thinking about anything all day except the next cast. At some point a flock of crows soar above, blackening the expansive sky for the briefest moment. I look over to Cam, who’s also watching the birds overhead. “They’re alpine crows” he tells me flatly. “Wow! Really?” I reply, nodding like an airhead. “Nah mate, they’re just crows”. Hook, line and sinker.

A big thanks to Cam from River Escapes. Do yourself a favour and hit him up (