One More Cast

It is hard to determine what made me a fly fisher. I have early childhood memories that are mostly vague, yet there are moments of absolute clarity.

This was truly a noble creature. I listened while I gazed into the firelight as stories were told of epic battles, the infinite fighting courage, the innate cunning and intelligence of this sterling opponent. It was even claimed that the best way of capturing one was to lie on the edge and feel under the bank until you could feel a fish, then by stroking its underside it would become sufficiently paralysed to be able to be lifted from the water.

Better even than this was the story of Uncle Dick and his battle with a leviathan of three pounds that had smashed the tip of his beautifully fine split cane rod that was worth vast sums of money. It was a glory to behold this rod. Every interval bound with claret bindings and fine snake like runners on a mellow golden material called split cane. It tapered to the finest point. This rod was so special it was kept in a wooden case. It was, in fact, a form of magic wand. A tapered woven silk line and fine leaders of silk gut to which tiny brightly coloured flies could be attached, completed the outfit. The rod had been sent from England and was considered to be very valuable..

I had to wait another year before our holiday coincided with the arrival of Uncle Dick. He came in a Minnie, an Austin Seven with a canvas hood, wire spoked wheels and carrying a precious cargo of rods. The car was driven without the canvas and perspex side windows, so the wind blew in your face. It wasn’t much more than a glorified pram and even looked a bit that way. Dick was to take ‘Snow’ fishing. Every small boy with a shock of platinum white hair was referred to as ‘Snow’. I wasn’t to speak, except in whispers. We were to creep up onto a pool just on dark, so I spent the whole day willing the sun to go down so that we could start. The pool was above the bridge over the road, somewhat downstream from the farm so we set off down the dusty road in Minnie as the light was fading.

Sunset and evening is a special time. The transition from daylight to dark brings a heightened sense of awareness. The atmosphere and sky is charged with a constantly changing brilliant show of colour, which slowly fades to blackness that invokes all the senses of sound, sight and smell. Crouched on a sandbank overgrown with bracken and a spreading black wattle to cover the fading sky, we put in our baits. Soon there was a splash in the darkness and a blackfish was brought struggling to the bank. Crouched on our knees Uncle Dick pointed out tiny dimple rises that spread across the pool.

He used that rod and soon another blackfish came to the basket. In the darkness I guessed he had dragged a fly near a dimple and the fish had hooked itself. He showed me how to use a bracken fern to pass through the gills and out of the mouth to put the two fish on a stringer. I was first into the kitchen and amid amazement and admiration, the fish were paraded around. Dick knew what he had done. I was forever intoxicated by the verdant smell of river banks and soft light and brilliant colours of sunsets and the bristling senses of darkness. I was at one with nature. I was Rousseau’s proverbial ‘child of nature.’ The primitive urges of the hunt and the capture of prey had been unleashed and the sensory flood had overwhelmed me.

Later that week, after Dick had gone back to Melbourne in Minnie, I was out with Uncle Bill and Ted who were engaged in cutting bracken with their fern hooks as a task between milking. This was common practice in the farms of the Gippsland hills that had been carved out of the rainforest wilderness. Heading off downstream on the little creek, I saw some activity in a shallow section. Waves were charging up and down the pool. I practiced what I had learned from Uncle Dick and soon I was peering through the grass at my first mountain trout. He was gently finning on the current, gills pulsating and an occasional stroke of the tail to hold equilibrium in the current. I was captivated by this wild creature unaware of my presence.

Soon he was spurred into action and departed upstream creating a small bow wave as he headed off to patrol his shallow run. What happened next was inevitable, but something I now feel a bit sheepish about. Bill and Ted were called and soon two men and a small boy were in the creek with the fish. Stones were piled up to block off the run top and bottom and after a brief tussle it was hoisted out onto the grass flapping and struggling, but soon to lie still. I could hear Bill and Ted chattering away up the paddock as they rhythmically stroked at the patch of bracken. Snatches of conversation included, ‘Snow’s first mountain trout…..’

I knelt over the fish. It was everything I had believed it would be. A bar of pure silver, veiled with gold down the flanks and every scale a point of light. The Loch Leven spots of red had halos of white and the large brown spots broke down to mottled patterns across the back. Soon the jewel began to fade and despite frequent washing in the creek it had lost a great deal of its colour by the time we got home for lunch. Never the less it was rolled in flour and cooked on the spot so that everyone could taste it. The crispy edges of fins and the brown fried points of contact in the pan providing contrast to the firm white flesh. My boyhood was complete.

Living in Bendigo, far away from the deep green pastures and hills of Gippsland, was no barrier to my fishing exploits. No redfin was safe. I had a pushbike and could travel anywhere and every dam or reservoir was explored, even down to ornamental lakes in the parks. We rode miles to test a new water and it was often late when I arrived home with a damp Hessian sugar bag half full of good sized redfin.

One day I saw a fly fisherman casting off the stony bank of Spring Gully reservoir. He caught a fish about a pound and I promptly told him that it was a mountain trout. I knew about mountain trout. I waited for him to leave and quickly moved into his spot where I caught more redfin on worms, yabbies and my favourite hogback spinner, but never did I see another trout. I did see spreading rings on the water that I concluded could have been trout.

Another favourite spot for redfin was the Municipal Baths. This man made lake had wooden buildings on piles, constructed over the water that shelved from shallow to deep where a rickety ten metre diving tower tested the courage of every twelve year old boy. A jump from the tower was the rite of passage to manliness. Sooner or later we all made it.

Behind the tower was an island, overgrown with pampas grass and a bank with willows. Casting short and low, the copper hogback lures would flutter down deep and throb their way back to the bank, to be nailed hard by a big rolling strike of a redfin right next to the edge. It was at this time that a further dimension was added to my fishing. The adventure of camping out overnight for days at a time. Trips to Barham and Koondrook, Laanecoorie or south to Coliban or Lauriston, and all points between. The Loddon and Campaspie became familiar haunts and yellow belly, bream and cod fell victim along with the usual redfin.

Despite the joy and excitement of fish filled days and campfire nights, I still had persistent dreams about mountain trout. In retrospect I think that they were given this title after small native trout like galaxids that originally inhabited the streams before clearing ruined their habitat. The small trout with their tiny spots and parr blotches down their sides were thought to be mountain trout because they only existed in mountain like small streams. I don’t think that there was an adequate understanding by my uncles that these small fish were some how connected to the leviathan that had broken one of the two tips to Uncle Dick’s fly rod. There seemed to be no adequate explanation for a fish over about eight inches long. Never the less they were known to be there and they could be caught on flies.

My father was then promoted to his first branch manager’s job at a tiny township on the upper Murray called Walwa. Consisting of a butcher’s shop, a bank, a general store and a pub, the population totalled about one hundred and fifty people. We lived behind the bank in the ‘Residence.’ In truth it was a house on the intersection with the banking being conducted in the front two or three rooms. It was a short bike ride to the Murray River and the area was laced with lagoons and billabongs and smaller creeks, nothing short of paradise.

Once again I came in contact with trout. This time they were big. I witnessed dozens of fish over six of seven pounds taken from the Murray on farmers’ set lines baited with scrub worms. Usually they were brought into the butcher’s shop next door and cut into steaks to be distributed around the town. Similarly with cod, huge fish hanging on hooks to be cut up and given out to the locals. The trout were taken in the spring, their spawning urge bringing them up from Lake Hume as far as Khancoban to run up the Geehi, but alas the Khancoban Dam was soon to block their run. These huge wild fish infiltrated the waters of the Upper Murray and are the stuff of legends.

Once the Snowy Mountains scheme was completed at Murray One and Two power stations above Khancoban, the waters were tamed forever.

At twelve to fourteen years I was travelling to school thirty miles away at Corryong, on a badly corrugated dirt road that ran parallel to the river and crossed Jeremal Creek, Cudgewa Creek and Pine Mountain Creek, as well as countless other little watercourses. The Murray splits into the Swampy Plains and the Indi above Bringenbrong bridge and the Tooma river that collects the main range watershed drains into the Murray from the New South Wales side below Tintaldra.

At fourteen I caught a few of these fish on bait or a Devon but I still have vivid memories of large dark shapes lying in pools or under overhanging branches. These were not mountain trout, these were the real thing. The Geehi Wall was a mountainous track that led back to the base of Mount Kosciusko and over Dead Horse Gap to Thredbo. Dreams still haunt me when I hear their names. Leatherbarrel Creek, Bogong Creek. Murray Gates. Tom Groggin. Davies Plain.

My father’s next branch was bigger and in a less remote area of Victoria The move to Alexandra broke my heart. I was truly sad to leave the remote and wild country of the upper Murray, referred to by anyone who has been there as, “God’s own…” Within a week I was being diverted from my sorrow. The year was 1958. My trusty pushbike soon revealed a huge river very much like the rivers of the upper Murray except that it ran in reverse, high cold and clear throughout the summer and low as a trickle in winter. It was a tail water from Lake Eildon, itself a great fishery. Draining into the Goulburn river belowthe lake were some smaller streams which reminded me of the Nariel and Cudgewa creeks. They were the Rubicon and Acheron. Countless smaller streams fed into this system and I found trout everywhere. My bicycle ranged far and wide and late into the night.

When the obligations of a football match or other activities prevented daylight fishing,then I would engage in night sorties. Frogs, particularly the large green bellfrog, were everywhere. Every pond was full of tadpoles and in order to fish at night you only needed a torch. Enough frogs could be gathered off the river bank to provide for all of your needs. Frequent stomach analysis of fish showed the remains of partly digested frogs.

We fished with big ones, it was more fun waiting five or so minutes for a fish to swallow a big frog. Further more a big frog was easy to cast and untroubled by a small chromed suicide hook through the back leg, they would swim around and around a big backwater until the commotion attracted the biggest fish in the hole. Frogs were great fun and the verdant, stickiness of hot summer nights was orchestrated by the wall of sound created from thousands of frog calls. Tiny crackling to the loud ‘Bobonk!’ of the bell frogs. Fish were often found in the flooded drains and swamps, pushing through the weed in search of them. 

The only frogs left on the Goulburn today are the tiny grey tree frogs. They are the only survivors of the mystery disappearance of our frog population. I have heard all sorts of theories, to explain why our frogs have vanished. Viruses, increased UV radiation on the tadpoles from a depleted ozone layer, pesticides sprayed along the riverbank to combat blackberries, thistles and noxious weeds, climatic change in the form of different rainfall patterns, and a host of explanations of dubious scientific merit.

One thing is certain though. Without large items of protein like frogs, fish do not grow as fast or as big. This may go some way to explain the ‘good old days.’

Perceptions that fish do not grow as vigorously as in times of yore may have some merit. I arrived on the Goulburn after the second Lake Eildon Wall had been built and the famous Dome hole had been covered by the new lake. New lakes always have a period of spontaneous and rapid growth as the water absorbs the nutrients of the newly flooded ground. At the top of the food chain the trout’s growth rate is accelerated. So it was with Eildon.

I bemoan the present year round fishing and curse the unenlightened administration that makes the excuses for implementing and sustaining it. I recall an opening day when I was just a callow youth. Rolly Miller was a bit younger than I was. He wasn’t called Rolly because he was thin, so when he asked to join me on opening morning, I cautioned him that I planned to walk into Italian Gully down a very steep ridge off the Skyline Road. Rolly declared himself fit enough to have a go.

I roused my father at four thirty in the morning. He drove me around to pick up Rolly and we were delivered to the ridge top while it was still pitch dark. Loaded with all our gear we started the decline into this bush clad steep gully, wherein lay a small but virginal stream, totally inaccessible except by those crazy enough to walk in off the ridge. We hooked and lost many fish that day. All rainbows that had not fallen back into the lake after their spawning run, but that had taken up residence in the small pools to regain some weight before returning. Lake trout are often more silvery and salmon looking than occupants of rivers and streams.

Rolly and I kept nine fish that day (a bag limit is 10). We caught them in gin clear bath tub sized pools overgrown with tea tree and tree ferns that blotted out the light.

Further up the gully it was like a ladder with tiny waterfalls between pools. We would creep up and look over the edge to see these beautiful rainbows on the fin and ready to feed on our offerings. The walk out was a nightmare. Loaded with fish and our gear we dragged our feet up out of the gully on to the track and it was hours later that we finally met my father at the top of the ridge on the Skyline road.

Despite the exhaustion, we were ecstatic. Opening day had been a triumph and for fifteen year olds to be able to say we had bagged nine good fish was nothing less that brilliant. Some of these fish had been taken on my new Fenwick spinning rod but I had mounted an old fly reel with a shortened level line and a straight tip of nine pound leader. On the end of this was a cheap gaudy wet fly and I dapped through the bushes to take some of these fish. I thought I was a fly fisherman. I had read about it and I had caught fish on the fly and with the certainty of youth I declared to myself that fly fishing was easy. I could do it with a spinning rod.

In truth I was a master with a lure, a worm, a grasshopper or cricket, a mudeye or scrubby or yabby, but it was drawing a long bow to imagine I was a fly fisherman just because I had caught a fish on a fly.

About this time (1960), I visited Lake Eucumbene for the first time. I had heard it mentioned in hushed tones whenever fishermen gathered to talk. Stories about trout gorged with mountain worms who still took your bait, with the worms trailing from their mouth, proved true. To get your bait you only had to turn over the matt of floating grass on the edge of the rising water to expose the mass of worms. Later the hatch of mudeye (dragon fly larvae) was almost a freak of nature. Every floating log or stick washed up on the edge was inhabited with hundreds of the spider mudeye. The lee side of trees in the water was encrusted with layers of empty shucks of the hatched dragon flies.

The growth rate of the trout matched the food supply. As a young man, the urge to proof of potency was to kill as many fish as you could, much like the hunter bringing home enough game to feed the whole tribe. Vast quantities of trout were killed. I am sure that this is an innate and natural urge and when you are young, it is a source of great pride and incentive. The same is true of the desire to achieve a great trophy and this sometimes lasts a lifetime.

Once  St George has slain the dragon it doesn’t always follow that he can claim the maiden. Sometime he feels sorry for the dragon that once he feared and respected. It is in the battle that character is formed, not in the kill. I still keep a few fish to eat, usually fish that have been hooked in the gill and who are bleeding, or fish that have knocked themselves around badly on a rocky beach or have been mishandled prior to release.

These circumstances provide an adequate supply. The flesh of fish that are spawning or slabbed out after spawning, or stressed by drought, is just about inedible. Another reason for maintaining a closed season.

Rick Furlong was in my class at High School and cursed with the same affliction. All waking thoughts dominated by when he would next go fishing. Where to go was not a problem. The supply was limitless.

After school every night, weekends, and sometimes midweek when we could coerce a parent to provide an absence note the next day. Sometimes our gear would be smuggled to school and we would abscond down the nearest creek, returning with muddy wet shoes in school uniform. On one occasion we were hitchhiking and a car stopped to pick us up. Yes, you guessed it. The driver was the school principal. We had absconded from a sports afternoon.

So began a fishing friendship that would take us on some wild adventures into remote and inhospitable places where legendary trout abounded.

Rick and I talked long and hard about fly fishing. We consumed everything available in books and magazines, but our efforts lacked a focus denied to us by key points of knowledge through practice and application. Our gear was totally inadequate; either hollow or solid fibreglass rods designed for spinning, old bits of worn out silk fly line and no knowledge of leaders. The fish caught were rare.

Nevertheless we had gained the most valuable skill of all. We knew about trout. We could detect the slightest movement. We could see fish clearly when others could not. We could second guess the fish, picking the most productive positions of each pool. We could induce a strike on a grasshopper or a lure in a pool that appeared lifeless. We were in tune with the cycles of the seasons and what each one would bring, and it was reputed that we could catch fish in a puddle.

Many big trout fell to our efforts and countless thousands of miles were traversed up and down streams and the country side. Such was a misspent youth.

Confronted by the need to make our way in the world, Rick and I went our own ways to Melbourne only to discover that we were both in Teacher Training. At different Colleges and courses, we would arrange to meet in the city at lunchtimes or between lectures so that we could pore over the gear in Turvilles or Hartleys, even Melbourne Sports Depot had a fly fishing section then.

The fly fishing section of the sporting goods department of Myers was located just beside the steps on the ground floor in Lonsdale Street and was managed by a loud, florid faced man who confronted customers in a pompous voice if they were at all indecisive. His name was Bluey Powell.

Bluey was an engaging wit who could be cultured and charming as easily as he could be confronting. He was immensely generous and Rick and I immediately fell under his influence.

We had never been able to afford a purpose built fly rod, so our early efforts had been doomed to failure through inadequate tackle. Bluey soon put a stop to that. When we handled beautifully crafted Hardy rods and shuddered at their price tags, he saw two young men trying to survive in Melbourne on studentship allowances and he took the rods from us, placing them back in the racks. That night we were at his home planing blanks he had selected for us from his vast store of Tonkin Cane under the house, in his workshop.

Reel seats and corks were glued, ferrules fitted and a couple of nights later, the snake guides were wrapped and varnished. I still have the first cane rod I ever made. It was every bit as good as the big soft wands that Hardy made because its firm action suited Australian conditions better.

It cost a fraction of the price. Suitably armed, Rick and I were ready to join the battle. We were instant purists. Nothing would do until we could catch every rising fish we had seen in our youth and any that dared to rise in our presence from that moment onwards.

Never again did we resort to bait or lure, it was fly or die.

Bluey conducted casting classes each Saturday morning, free to anyone who cared to join him on Ringwood lake. We learned more in one morning than we thought possible. I remember the thrill of double hauling a full line for the first time. Rick and I joined him on trips to the Western District lakes and he joined us on the Goulburn and all the surrounding waters.

In a short space of time we had made the Quantum Leap.

From this point it was constant discovery. Every time we got away fishing, the learning curve became steeper. We honed our skill, improved our gear, tied our own flies, studied the sub aquatic stream life and related it to the activity of the fish.

One example was nymph fishing. Bluey had taken a massive rainbow of about eight pounds out of Lake Linlithgow before our eyes. Twitching a damsel fly nymph alongside a weed bed. There had not been a movement. He had fished it blind to a likely spot. This was the apex of the art, the pinnacle of all skill. He had produced a specimen fish that made the most imperceptible take, a tiny twitch of the leader. Bluey had struck him, holding his head up to keep him out of the weed and played him to a standstill in a small bay choked with hazards.

Within a few weeks we had taken good fish on the nymph over Goulburn gravel beds, weed choked backwaters, small creeks, lakes, in muddy and clear water and yes, even a few that weren’t seen. Fished blind to likely lies, we produced fish that make imperceptible takes on the leader. In a few short weeks we had begun to unravel a whole other method of fly fishing that seemed to have limitless possibilities.

Once our College term was over we joined the casual Christmas staff at Myers, selling fly fishing gear to beginners and experts alike. We rapidly became conversant with all the literature and technical development that was taking place. Ken Steele, a member of the Board of Directors, frequented the counter and soon accompanied us on trips to our beloved Goulburn. He would arrive in Alexandra in his Mark Ten Jaguar, transfer his gear to my rusty and shocker less FJ Holden so that we could beat our way over tracks to Brooks’ Cutting and other remote and almost impassable access points on the river.

I digress too soon because it was Rick who was first to buy a car after we had turned eighteen. Like all the things he has done in life, his first car was a statement of his appreciation of the rare and unique qualities of craftsman built designer products. Like a Pezon and Michelle Ritz Parabolic rod, Rick chose a Citroen Light Fifteen.

This car oozed charm. You could smell the Gitanes, French cigarettes with black tobacco that had an aroma that would get a sniffer dog howling. A dashboard mounted gear change in a gate to hold the lever in position, completed the ambiance. This was the sort of car that you saw on flickering newsreels driven by Vichy French collaborators during World War Two. Nevertheless it was this car that took us all over the Snowy Mountains Scheme chasing trout. Through snow and roads that would cripple a camel we took that car. It was this car that introduced us to the Wild Kid.