Guides Day Off 

During the period from Christmas to Easter, the bookings come thick and fast. This is the time when most people get a holiday. Each morning a new client, a new piece of river and a new set of skills to pass on, be it polarising or high stick nymphing, everyone has different needs.

David and I run a guiding service on the Goulburn River at Thornton. As river guides, outfitters and suppliers; we provide a short-circuit for visiting fly fishers so that they can find out how to fish the river quickly, so that there valuable leisure time is maximised.

Part of this is the Drift Boat service we offer. Inflatable’s rigged with oar frames. Shortly after Easter we found a day in the appointment book that was vacant. The first one for months. I duly wrote in it, ‘Guides day off’, as neither of us had had a real day off since Christmas.

Anticipation enhances the delight of fly fishing and so it was with us.  As the day approached we thought of all the chores we had neglected. The backlog of obligations that had been mounting over the weeks and to divide our time into catch-up tasks seemed a churlish waste of good fishing time.

Conspiratorial glances and….

“Whaddya doing tommorrer?…”

“Goin Fishing”

“Me too…”

“Whaddya say we take the raft below Alexandra for a change?…”

“Ok see ya ’bout nine….”

I had studied the maps and aerial photos and I knew of some connected backwaters I wanted to explore. David must have been mining a similar vein.

Pressing through the cumbungi reeds and crack willow and like two explorers seeking the source of the Nile, we made our way onto the river. As the water became deeper we penetrated the final barrier of growth, the nose of the raft pushed out into the Goulburn. High and wide, fast and clear, the mighty Goulburn was at peak summer flow. Opposite were the high banks and open pastures of the lower Goulburn. Positioning the raft angled into the current, I drew hard on the oars and felt the inflatable keel lift and draw the boat into a rapid ferry glide across the current. As we approached the opposite bank I stood up and passed the oars to David.

“You fish first and I’ll hold you in the current opposite this bank”, he said.

Out snaked the line and the Knobby hopper landed with a plop. It sat there motionless below the bank as the back eddy slowly filled a belly in the line. ‘Clock’!, the sound of the take was an audible clunk of closing mouth in water. I set back on the rod and it went into a full arc. A good fish burst out of the water.

“Three pounds…,” said David as it crashed around.

Photographed, unhooked and released, I sat down to take over the oars.

“Your turn…,” I said smugly.

You have to squeeze every drop out of a situation like this when you hook a great fish on the first cast of the day. There is always a great deal of argey-bargey and banter about who is catching fish and who isn’t, that goes on in the raft.

Once we were in the back eddy off the main current we rowed up the river towards a tangle of snags. The polaroid’s allow you to inspect the bottom. Standing motionless in the front, David was scanning the bottom ahead, when I caught a movement to my left. Drifting off the weed bed and into the dark shadow was a huge rainbow about eight or nine pounds. I saw his spots and a glint of pink side as his pale green form melted out of sight. I told David who repeatedly passed the fly through the shadow to no avail. We made a vow to soon return to this spot and turned the boat into the fast glide to seek out the next good hopper bank around the corner.

David proceeded to catch several good fish. Then we became aware that this was a phenomenal day. Every fish in the river seemed to be up , including the leviathans. I have experienced days like this before, but they are rare, and you are indeed lucky if you happen to be there when it happens.

It must rely on a conjunction of all the factors. Water temperature, insect emergence or food supply, phases of the moon and tidal activity, barometric pressure, rising or falling or stable water level, who knows what the combination of factors are. I once read about a Maori fishing table for New Zealand that had developed from observation over the centuries. This linked cloud cover and fine days to phases of the moon and lunar calendar. First day of the full moon with cloudy sky, good fishing.

Sloan’s solunar table from America and other tables from England all claim to predict the activity of fish. The American tables were devised during the Depression as a money making exercise by someone trying to save his family from starvation. They have been sold ever since and for a fee you purchase them for your computer, suitably adjusted for all around the world. They all miss the point. Fly fishers go fishing despite all the direst warnings from the weather bureau or the least propitious signs from the entrails of dissected chickens. They go because can.

Other anglers view fly fishers with suspicion because of this. What weird rituals do they perform, what drives them to go fishing when clearly the signs say that it is pointless! When asked the eternal question, “When is the best time to go fly fishing?” I reply, “Whenever you can get away…”

This is the only way that you will be there when it happens. If it happens to you five times in a lifetime you have been blessed. After five you had better start watching yourself for the end is surely nigh.

This was such a day because the next fish turned out to be well over three and a half. He was rising in a reverse current under a big red gum. I positioned the raft and did a couple of holding strokes as David cast in his direction. He rose again, further down the bubble line. This fish was a cruiser, an omni feeder, taking anything edible as he mooched along.

David’s Knobby hopper was sitting up nicely when he rose about a metre away, but clearly headed in the right direction. ‘Slurp’, down it went and up came David’s rod with a buck as the hook went home. Under the raft he went and wild panic ensued. A bent rod pointing over the side while a jumping fish clears the water on the other. Shortly after he was subdued, photographed and released and then it started. I had retired prematurely after my first fish and now David had a bigger one, more fish and better fish to boot. My earlier gloating was rearing up to bite me. As compensation I get as big a buzz when someone else lands a beauty assisted by me, as if I had caught it myself, but this thought remained private.

Soon the fishing dropped off and long drifts elicited no response, no risers were apparent. We glanced at the watch, it was surely lunch time. “Four-thirty” said David as we munched on a chocolate bar. We hadn’t noticed the time, the concentration had been so intense.

A bit of rest and refreshment and we were into it again with renewed vigour, but the best had gone. Those few hours have passed into memory but the day had not quite finished with us yet.

We had entered a long slack section of river that was very deep and slow. Overhanging ti-tree from steep hillsides made for black bottomless holes with slow drifts circulating, marked by flecks of tiny bubble rafts.

Lazily we drifted past these corners searching with the Knobby hopper, making it plonk as it landed or bounced in off a tussock hard under the bank.

“There’s one…”

We saw the dimple rise together and David shot a long line across to the bay. A dimple followed and it seemed an eternity before he drew the rod up to a full arc. All hell broke loose as I scrambled for the camera. Under and out the other side he went, around the boat from front to back and then the acrobatics started. Coming from deep down he cart wheeled out of the water going end over end before crashing back into the deep and scorching the line through the water to repeat the jump four times, five times.

In danger of passing out from holding my breath while firing the camera in his direction, I passed David the unfolded net. David was probably practically hyperventilating from the adrenalin rush as he netted him while he still had some vigour. We try to do this so that they don’t become completely exhausted and require reviving before release. A rapid set of photos followed before the hook was extracted and the net lowered into the water. A few moments later a kick from his tail propelled him out of the net into the depths. We were shaking.

The run home to the car pick up point gave us time to reflect on the day. This last fish was in the vicinity of six pounds. Beautifully proportioned, an obvious young fish that was rapid grown to achieve a noble size. The large brown spots patterned his whole flank and under his shoulder. The best photo of the jumping fish shows an out of focus fish going out of frame about a metre out of the water. My reflexes weren’t quick enough to contend with the speed. But I do know that David treasures the shot of himself holding a magnificent brown, and the smile on his face says it all.

We had experienced a fantastic day and we know that it will be unlikely to be repeated for some time to come. It has since proven so, several returns have failed to produce such amazing results. Never the less the fishing has been good and if it was easy all the time,  we wouldn’t bother.

It is this contrast that keeps us going. Everyone has blank days now and then, and these are rewarded when we encounter a day when, rare as they are, it seems you can do no wrong. The fish glide up to your first offering and swallow it as though it is the last feed they will ever have. An endless procession of fish of all sizes are up and feeding and apart from messing up it up yourself, the opportunities are there for the taking.

On blank days you will find me with glazed eyes gazing into the distance on a raft and a river somewhere in my imagination. The memories of these few amazing days, more than compensating for the fish-less ones.

Such was the guides day off. The following day we had to front up and do it all again. Ah well, I suppose someone has to do it. Thank god we get a day off now and then.