Highlights on the Goulburn

Hindsight, they say, is a wonderful thing. In this respect we all have 20/20 vision. Knowledge and wisdom are acquired from experience, and experience is useless unless we learn from it.

After fishing the Goulburn River for more years than I care to admit, I am able to provide anecdotes and stories that give a structure for understanding how this brilliant river works In the space of a year a few of these will be the highlights of your sea son. Here are a few I have had myself.

Army Grubs

Army grubs first begin appearing early January-these caterpillars are grey/olive with mottled sides. Soon fly fishers notice them in stomach contents and every time a good fish is recorded in the journal kept on the counter of our small fly fishing shop and Guide Centre at Thornton, a stomach analysis is done and kept in a jar of Methylated Spirits while we work out what is going on. Caterpillars (army grubs) are a pest of the grass seed crops that are planted on the riverbanks.

They are called ‘Army Grubs’, because of their habit of ‘marching’ or moving on a front until they reach an obstacle like a river. We first recognised them on about the fifth of January ’95 so it will be worth looking for them to recur about the same time again in ’96, depending on the weather. This is a good method of predicting.

How to fish them is experience and memory. Marching army grubs have the habit of scaling every object by arching their back and reaching out with the head to feel around. If there is only space then they simply release their grip and fall to the ground and continue. This means that when they reach the river they crawl out on a blade of grass or twig, feel out into space by extending their bodies and nodding their head and then dropping with a ‘plop’ on the water.

The grubs are shocked when they hit the cold water and coil into a hard round ball as they react, but they only drift a few metres before uncurling to full length, giving a weak struggling wiggle.

There was a rise. There was another. Two fish were rising steadily and there was no doubt they were taking grubs. I had nothing in the box even remotely like a grey green caterpillar, but a quick strip of an olive Matuka gave me an elongated green body roughly the size. Unfortunately it wasn’t likely to float, so much dressing and false casting was needed to keep it anywhere near the top. It drifted past the first trout a couple of centimetres below the surface. Nothing.

More drying and casting and the same thing again. Nothing. On the third cast I allowed it to drift downstream to where the second fish had been rising and as I raised the rod to pick up I was solidly into a fish that walked on the surface tail first for a metre much to my shock. Learning from this, after putting back a fat little brown about half a kilo, I moved upstream to where I could actually see the riser.

A nice fish of about a kilo was rising to every caterpillar that was drifting past. Sighting upstream I could see the dimple plops of grubs going in, so I thought that despite being pressed for time I would have an hour of fantastic fishing. Twenty minutes later and countless refusals, I had put him down. At no time was he going to take a sunken fly. The heavy hook of the Matuka had beaten me.

The next few days were bliss with many fly fishers taking advantage of the fact that the army grubs were ‘on’, if were prepared to walk and look for the places where they were falling in the river.

It didn’t take long at the tying bench to develop a range of caterpillar patterns- the best one proved to be olive chenille with a twist of deer hair for flotation clipped and trimmed. A tiny hackle a front from a ginger Metz cape and were ready to test it out. It worked like a gem and soon it became a feature daily report. It is now carried in our boxes from Christmas day onwards, ready for that moment when the river runs high, the days are hot and ‘army’ comes marching by.

Hopper Season

The second entry of note that typifies months of the fishing on the Goulburn through January and February is hopper season. It begins in late December when small immature ‘hoppers swarm around the edges of the high flowing river. Paddocks with cattle in them are best.

Fish seem untroubled by stock on the banks hut a human shadow or profile on the sky will spook them fast! Trout love to hear the splat of a ‘hopper on the surface. They peel off the stony bottom and come up looking for the hapless ‘hopper. As the hot north wind blows from the centre of the Australian continent down across the southern states and the dry grass crackles in the heat, locust hopper converge on the green strip that is the edge of the Goulburn. Damp and cold is the ‘hoppers enemy, they become lethargic and die. Hot and dry is the grasshopper’s delight. Flying in clouds they clatter out over the river, banking and turning in the wind, losing altitude as they struggle against the wind to make it back.

While they are at their peak in January and February most can make it, except for one or two that hit the water with a ‘splot’ and drift helplessly downstream alongside the hank, kicking and struggling until that big dark shape rises up underneath them, and in a second is gone leaving only a swirl and spreading rings to show where he has been.

Grasshopper feeders are as selective and consistent as those that sip baetis or blue winged olives. When God created deer hair he put it on a deer so it would grow and be nourished in order to be ready for the ‘hopper season. This is its primary purpose. Australia was introduced to deer hair flies in the late 1950s when a fly called a ‘Missoulin Spook’ appeared. This huge deer hair fly was closely followed by the ‘Muddler Minnow, which had a clipped deer hair head.

Using the Muddler as a grasshopper was only a short step and then tying our own version with grasshopper wings, head and legs with a yellow chenille body saw them in wide use by the early 1960s.

Various patterns have emerged since but the original Knobby hopper’, still ranks as one of the best flies for the Goulburn in summer. Tie them big and put them down with a plop. Most ‘hopper ties hear little resemblance to the big locust hoppers that inhabits the green fringes of the Goulburn as it runs hard and high, clear and deep. There are many ‘hopper patterns and they continually develop as new materials provide foam bodies and plastic wings hut the deer hair ‘Knobby’ with its low but unsinkable buoyancy places its part way through the surface.

Dun Flotillas

The third notable event that occurs on the Goulburn in the spring and autumn is the huge hatch of duns. These large immature mayflies hatch from their nymphal shucks and emerge on the water’s surface where their ungainly wings flutter as they crawl out through the surface skin. Like hundreds of sail boats they float down the runs, awkwardly taking flight only to crash-land a metre or so away. Pale and creamy in colour they are the duns of the orange and red and black spinners.

The fish prefer these dons to the mature adults and once the rise is on they will settle down to slurp the duns with gusto. Like the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race, a flotilla of upright little sails drift down the bubble line only to he sipped off the surface by active little fish, or sucked under with a dimple rise by a monster lurking hard against the bank.

They start in November and continue on until the higher levels of the irrigation season in later December when the water levels rise and become colder despite summer temperatures. These duns are always present on the Goulburn but the halcyon days for them are in spring. After the summer irrigation season is over and the levels fall, the duns appear again in vast clouds. There is the end of March through to April to look forward to. From the Pondage through to Alexandra, the dun hatch offers an exciting time with the greatest concentration being between Thornton and the Breakaway. These times are brief but the fishing is equal to anywhere in the world and this is rightly ranked with the caddis hatch on the Shannon Rise, the Green Drakes on the Madison in Montana or the Iron Blue duns of the English chalk streams.

Sedges provide some really exciting fishing as they entice the trout to reveal their position in the run. The mature sedge or ‘Grannom Moth’ is a large pale brown fluttering insect with two pronounced antennae. They have the habit of ‘dipping’ on the water. This happens twice. Once when they are hatching, when they fly upstream for about a metre only to crash with a flutter on the surface, drift hack, and then take off again.

This behaviour continues fluttering further and further upstream until they achieve full flight. The second stage is when they are egg laying. They dip down onto the water over a fast run and appear to bounce themselves up and down on the surface. Closer examination reveals a bright green egg sac attached to their rear from which eggs are deposited into the water by this action. These grannoms send the fish crazy by this activity. They take them as they hatch, as they skate along trying to take off, and as they are egg laying.

A quiet trout may be lying on station minding his own business when one of these grannoms will start his activities directly overhead. You can almost hear him grinding his teeth, rolling his eyes and trembling his lip until he can stand it no longer and makes a wild slashing snap at this tantalising insect. They incite rainbows of about half a kilo that have developed the knack of jumping clear of the water to snap them in mid air. Goulburn fly fishers love it when the grannoms are on. They stalk the fast runs watching for the slashing risers as well as fishing blind across the likely lies. Using a large March brown on a size 10 or 12, they plop it down like the behaviour of the natural. Tied with partridge hackle the big March brown or Hardies Favourite can be improved with a green ball of dubbing at the bend of the hook.

Despite the sedge having wings that fold down flat the March Brown appears to be fluttering still at least that must be what the trout think because they take them with a ‘chomp’. Often methods develop that work well despite not being strictly according to theory. It is better to build on and further explore things that work rather than stick with a theory that doesn’t produce a thing. The skating caddis is a good case in point. The elk hair caddis is an excellent pattern to take fish that are on caddis, but it works much better if it is placed beyond the rise and dragged into their line of vision before allowing the drift to continue across the rising fish. A drifted only fly will hardly take a fish, whereas a skated fly will more likely induce a strike. By the way, an elk hair caddis tied large with a green dubbing ball on the tail doubles as a grannom moth too.

Polarising and Poking Around

Clear high water allows you to use polarising sunglasses to see into the Goulburn to depths of two metres or more. This quality is unique as the Goulburn is a tail water that delivers water from the bottom of Lake Eildon where sediment has long since settled. When the Murray Darling basin demands irrigation water in the height of summer, the Goulburn flows at its peak. As the river rises up the banks to meet this demand the fish follow. Poking into flooded backwaters and drains they seek out drowned insects and grubs.

Hot, dry weather brings out the gum beetles as they emerge from the pastures and around the bases of the red gum trees that line banks. The air fairly hums with beetles as the cock open their wing cases and buzz around the trees in swarms. Awkwardly they crash into each other or obstructions that see them fall into the water only to buzz in vibrating circles until they are washed downstream under the willows and along the high banks.

Gum beetles, tiny little iridescent blue beetles, soldier beetles with bright yellow abdomens and thoraxes with a steel grey glistening helmet and coat, Scarabs and dung beetles, Christmas beetles and tea-tree beetles, all share the same fate, to be washed into a corner or backwater.

Here is where the fun starts. Occupying this rich ecological niche where food is concentrated, is the typical Goulburn trout. While the babies race around jumping in the fast runs and the kilo fish hang in the glides and bubble lines, the bigger fish plus cruise a beat in these backwaters. Lazily they drift through the still water, with an occasional twitch of the tail to propel them slowly, or hang motionless under the bank, their gills the only movement to give them away, until a beetle, suspended on a greased leader and tied with peacock hurl, drifts ever so slowly into their window. The heart pounds and the adrenalin rises, even before he has noticed the fly. This ‘window fishing’, or ‘aquarium fishing’, is a Goulburn delight that requires stealth and eye ball contact with the fish. You must not pound the bank as the slightest bump is transferred to the water. Shadows and profiles must be positioned so that none hit the water.

Fishing can be in pairs with one calling the shots from a vantage point with only a nose and the polarising sunglasses over the bank.

Cast for cast leaders are tangled or flies are hung up when shot at the metre square opening that is not overgrown. Finally when one gets a cast in, the philosophy is, ‘Get ’em on first and worry about getting them out later,’ Inhaling the size 14 beetle by expanding his gills, he hangs motionless as, ‘He’s got it,’ causes the caster to raise the rod and set the hook. Pandemonium.

The Goulburn is a glorious river. Big and fast at its peak in summer, low and clear in autumn, brilliant in spring. These brief episodes are only a taste of what the Goulburn has to offer. Beetles, caddis, stonefly, and countless others continue to provide great sport as they hatch and develop and the fish find them.