Sorry, but you do not have permission to view this content.
Matching the hatch is one of those phrases that permeates fly fishing culture the world over. It is something that is so fundamental to what we do as fly fishers, that regardless of whether we are familiar with the phrase or not, we all do it to some degree. Made popular by Ernest Schwiebert in his book of the same name, it has become the catch cry of the thinking angler, and the mere mention of it, is a short-cut to acceptance among your angling peers.
“He spoke of matching the hatch – he must know his stuff”.
So what is it?
Matching the hatch refers to the practice of determining exactly what a particular fish is eating and then selecting an appropriate fly pattern to match. It is that simple.
When a trout sees a large number of a particular insect over and over, it can ‘lock onto’ that particular bug, to the exclusion of all other food items on the water. This is what is known as selective feeding and often the reason for those occasions when a fish will not look at any fly pattern you present, much less eat it. At such times, fly fishers who are unable to ‘break the code’ of what is going on, will often end their day with few fish caught, yet having exceeded their ‘bag limit’ of frustration.
Not wanting to appear condescending, like I have all the answers, I have to say that sometimes working out what is going on, is not always so simple. Even as a guide who is on the Goulburn every single day of the season, there are times and moments of utter frustration and despair. Times when you’ve made all your best guesses and still come up short.
Why are there times when you cannot work it out?
Well for starters, there are situations when there might be a ‘complex’ hatch of several species of insects in various stages of emergence, all happening simultaneously. One session that is still fresh in the memory occurred down in the Breakaway section of the Goulburn River. It was late spring and we experienced a a situation where there were several species of caddis, both emerging pupa, as well egg laying adults; plus three species of mayfly at various stages of their life cycle. That’s pupa, nymphs, emergers, cripples, adult caddis, duns and spent spinners. And in a number of sizes and colours.
In other words a smorgasbord of options for the trout and a situation where that Russian Roulette scene in The Deer Hunter doesn’t look like bad odds at all.
When this happens it’s up to you to work it all out, knowing that you are racing the clock as the light fades quickly from the sky.
Firstly you must determine which stage of the hatch the fish are feeding on. Are they slashing from the top? Or leaping clear of the water? Are they gently rising with their snouts breaking the surface and leaving behind and air bubble? Or is it a push/swirl rise just beneath the surface where the back and and maybe tail break the surface, but not the snout? This is the first thing to determine when working out what it is they are feeding on.
Slashing from the top indicates the fish are chasing something that can get away, on or above the surface, often a caddis skittering to safety after hatching. Leaping denotes a fish which is taking insects in flight which is often a sign that spinners hovering just above the water or egg laying, are on the menu. Gently rising with snouts/beaks breaking the surface will quite often mean that small insects floating on the surface are being taken. And finally a bump or swirl just beneath the surface could indicate emergers are the go.
In the instance I’m referring to above, it was a gentle rise with the fish breaking the surface with just the tip of their snouts, that gave away the fact that insects on the surface were being taken. This is despite a multitude of insects being on the water. And it was simple. The fish were just keyed into the insect they were seeing the most of.
We could immediately dismiss the skittering caddis and emerging caddis as options. There was no aggressive take indicating the former and no tail/back breaking the surface, as per if the latter were on the menu. A quick seining of the bubble line immediately revealed three types of duns; a March Brown size 12, a Rusty size 16-18 and a Grey size 14. As it was hard to see exactly which insect was being taken two flies were chosen; a #12 March Brown pattern and a #14 Grey pattern. The fish soon showed their approval by taking the #14 grey in preference to the March Brown with not a single trout taking the larger fly. And we all changed out to the correct pattern and did quite well.
This simple application of the rules of matching the hatch, allowed us to select the correct pattern without too much fuss or wasted time. This is something that we can all do, with the benefits being immediately obvious.
So why were the fish taking the Grey dun over the others. Well we know that fish will most often lock onto the food item that is most prevalent and most easily attained. The immediate success of that pattern, told us that although a lot of insects were hatching and visible on the water, the #14 Grey pattern was probably the most prolific of them. A case could be made that a spent spinner is more easily captured by the fish, or an emerger stuck beneath the mensicus; but on this occasion the sheer number of #14 grey duns must have been such, that the fish were not interested in anything else.
In this instance, most inexperienced fly fishers would have tied on the biggest fly. The logic being that the bigger the fly the bigger the fish. While most experienced fly fishers, would have tied on the smallest fly, and with good reason I might add. As down-sizing is always a good idea when fishing to picky, rising fish. But in situations such as these, I do not hesitate to tie on two of the most likely flies and then see which, if any are eaten. If you are fishing with a mate, you can quickly test out multiple flies and quickly ascertain what is going on.
One thing that I would mention is to not be fooled by the size of the insects. Often we are deceived into tying on the larger pattern because we attribute our own logic to the fish, that is a larger meal must be more attractive and therefore likely to bring success. This is not the case. The insect that makes up the greater mass will be the food item sought by the fish. While the bigger insects may be easier to see there is often a much larger number of smaller bugs hatching at the same time, despite our brain’s tendency to focus on the bigger item. This situation is often referred to by experienced fly fishers as a ‘masking hatch’ i.e. the presence of a few larger/brighter colored insects masks the presence of more numerous but smaller/duller colored insects.
The Four Rules
The most important thing you can take from this brief outline of ‘Matching the Hatch’ are the Four Rules as we teach them. They are 1.Size, 2.Shape or Profile, 3.Colour and 4.Presentation.
Size is by far the most important of the rules and when you get this right in combination with presentation, this is usually enough to achieve success, even if shape and colour are wrong. When trying to match the hatch, grab a sample of the insect and measure it off against your imitations. We often refer to patterns in sizes e.g.. #12, #14, # 16 etc and this is a universal system. All this does is allow us to gauge the insect’s approximate size against a hook size, allowing for an accurately chosen imitation. Remember, while there may not be a big difference between a #14 and a # 16 to us, to a trout it can represent a nearly 50% increase in size. A fish locked into a prolific food item in #16, will pay scant attention to a #14 floated across his bows. A # 12 will get the proverbial single FINger salute from the fish and nary a look.
You must be reasonably close when choosing your fly size. I cannot recall how many times an incorrect pattern, in the correct size, has been eaten, while the right fly pattern,in the wrong size, is refused. Get the size right and you are in with a shot.
Shape is second on the list of rules and by this we mean the profile that the fly has. For instance, if it is a mayfly dun you must have a low riding body, prominent wing, slim abdomen and thorax. If it is a beetle you should try and mimic the round, stocky shape of the natural as well as getting it to sit in the film like the real thing. An egg-laying spinner should sit on its hackle points and tail causing it to ride high like a hovering natural and an emerging caddis pupa must hang in the resting ‘tuck’ position just like the hatching pupa.
Hook selection is important when it comes to shape. A scud or midge pupa requires the use of a curved hook to give the correct shape, a short shank will often assist when tying beetles and a larger one when representing grasshoppers and crickets. Choose hooks carefully with the desired effect in mind. The gauge of the hook is also critical when tying ultra small, dry flies that have little in the way of hackle or dressing. Think about what it is you are trying to achieve, even when you are at the vise creating your specialist ‘match the hatch’ flies.
Also important when it comes to the second rule, are ‘triggers’ that the fish are likely to key in on when targeting various insects. Duns have a definite trigger in the upright wing, something which is so obvious to anyone who has watched them drifting like so many yachts on the water. This wing dominates their profile, and hence parachute ties that mimic this feature, while still allowing a decent imprint of the body in the water’s surface, now dominate our fly boxes at mayfly time.
Caddis pupa collect air bubbles on their body during emergence, something well imitated by using sparkle yarn in the construction of pupa patterns; a very definite trigger. Rubber legs on grasshoppers, wiggling tails on damselfly nymphs, a flashback on a nymph pattern. The list goes on. Try and work out what triggers are present and imitate these in your flies.
One last point when talking of shape must be made. Although it’s arguably a part of presentation. That is, how fly behaves or sits on the water. As previously mentioned, a mayfly spinner should sit high on the water, a dun low in the film and an emerger hanging beneath the surface. Knowing how to imitate the various stages of the insects takes a little time to come to terms with fully. Reading the rise form and then knowing whether the bugs being eaten are below, in, or on the water’s surface, is most important. While too complex to be explored in this short piece, it is something to always consider.
Don’t be afraid to modify flies on the spot. A small pair of scissors allows you a lot of latitude to alter patterns to suit the situation. Something I do regularly when fishing to ant feeders and when converting duns to emergers/cripples.
The importance of colour is being constantly being debated by all fly fishers and it is perhaps only among our guiding crew that some sort of consensus has been achieved. And then, only after decades vigorous back and forth, both in the field and in the bar! While both sides have their ambassadors, each with their supporting arguments, we feel pretty safe to relegate colour to being the least important factor. Most of the time.
Just how important colour is remains to be seen (pun intended) and hopefully this will always be the case. There has to be some mystique if fly fishing is to retain all of its charm as time goes by. More often than not, getting the other three right, size, shape and presentation, will achieve the desired result.
At times though, changing colour will be the key to success. Grasshoppers are one of the insects for which colour of the pattern plays a critical role. In December the hoppers are immature and their olive/green colour is very different to later on in summertime when they are brown, tan and yelllow. We see this a lot early in the summer and switching to the exact same pattern as late summer but a hook size smaller and using olive chenille and deer, will bring success. Also with Blue Winged Olives in Autumn you will find that getting the size and shape right will often not interest the fish without the correct olive/grey dubbing for the body.
And don’t get me started on PMD’s in the Montana and Idaho. Those fish can be bitches and hey. What is it with pink? Hello trout!
While not always the case we would recommend that you try and get the colour, or at least the tone, as close as possible to the natural. If the mayfly you are attempting to imitate is a slightly different shade of grey when compared with your pattern, do not despair. To try and get it perfect would drive you insane and unless you live on the river and have access to a multitude of different materials and a ridiculous amount of spare time, you will never precisely imitate any of these insects. Be content to approximately match the colour of the insect.
Interestingly, some guides in the USA have found a novel way of approaching this problem. They tie their patterns in white and colour the wing and body in with permanent markers at the point of fishing them. A clever and inexpensive way to ensure that they’re ready for everything, but a very boring fly box to look at!
I’d go mad tying all white flies all the time!
Last, but definitely not least, we come to presentation. While this is made up of several distinct parts, in the end it can be seen as the way a fly arrives at the fish.
First of all, you must not spook the fish while casting. To us this means dull colored lines, laying the line an leader away from the fish i.e. casting from behind and to the side, and generally being careful when presenting the fly. Minismising false casts. Not casting over the fish. Shooting the last 10-15 feet to avoid leader flash scaring the trout.
Depending on the situation you may need to cast from downstream of the fish, upstream, the side even from directly above. The trick is to be aware of just what the fish can see and to present the fly without the line, or your body movement spooking it.
So, can you cast sufficiently well to get the fly to the fish without spooking it? If not, get out and practice. If you cannot get to the river due to time constraints, take your rod to work or to the local park. Twenty minutes a day for a month, on the roof at work, or in the alley, car park or local sport’s field, and you’ll be ready for anything. Set up targets at 20-50 feet away and practice from all angles and distances. With the wind at your back, front and side.
When you can lay a 12 foot leader out accurately into a 1×1 metre area, you are ready to take on our toughest fish.
So that’s the mechanical part of presentation, as in the delivery of the fly to the target. But what about how are the naturals behaving? If there are egg laying caddis, the insect will be seen dipping and crashing to the surface, and so should your imitation. Fishing from above the trout and carefully skittering a dry fly down to it will work, as will an upstream presentation with a twitch at the appropriate moment. A mayfly dun presents a different kind of challenge, as most will be found drifting with the natural flow of the current, something that your natural must also do. A long leader and fine tippet are needed here to allow the fly to drift free of any drag, and successfully imitate the naturals. If you were to take the aforementioned caddis technique and swing the mayfly dun down to the fish, you would most likely never hook a fish; just as dead drifting a caddis over a fish chasing the egg laying adults will also likely fail.
So to effectively and successfully present the fly, you need to both get the fly to the fish without spooking it, as well as accurately imitate what the naturals are doing. Most of the time a dead-drift will work better than movement. But with some caddis, grannoms, cicadas, hoppers, stoneflies etc the right amount movement at the right time can make the world of difference.
While this seems rather difficult and complicated; it really isn’t.
First things first
You need a fold-up seine net. These are indispensable and can be found here or you can make your own using some dowel rods and screen material from the hardware store.
Once on the river, all you need do is get into the bubble line in the tail of the pool you are going to fish, directly downstream of the rising fish you wish to target, and take a quick sample. A fold up net that takes in the surface drift and down to about a foot below is great and portable enough to carry with you at all times.
Then take a look at what you’ve caught. Compare your evidence with the rise forms you are seeing, and then make an educated choice.
Choose the correct size, get the shape and approximate colour right and then present it well, and you will catch more fish than you miss. Armed with this knowledge, it can sometimes seem like things are too easy, with every fish you present to, taking the fly, making you think you are invincible. Then, without warning, the hatch will change, perhaps the duns are less numerous, while more spinners start falling to the water, leaving you wondering why the fish have stopped taking the fly that you’re using.
The key to it all is simple observation, be aware that the fish will swap over to other bugs or stages of the life cycle if the hatch changes. If you suddenly stop getting takes, take a few moments to watch and work it out, rather than casting the same fly out of hope.
Matching the hatch has become synonymous with fly fishing over the past few decades, and with good reason. You wouldn’t think that something so simple could be seen as revolutionary. But the efforts of many meticulous anglers to better understand trout and their behavior, and to build a logical framework for choosing which fly to use, most definitely was seen as radical at the time. But this methodology is one that has withstood the test of time on many of the most technically difficult waters. From Idaho’s Henry’s Fork to New Zealand’s Mataura to Armstrong’s Spring Creek in Montana.
Matching the hatch has become the starting point for every fly fisher targeting selectively feeding trout and it should be the first thing that a new fly fisher learns, after the basics of casting. This common sense approach to the sport will hold all who follow its principles in good stead.
So the next time you are fishing a hatch and cannot get a take, watch the riseforms carefully and jump in the water to catch some bugs, before choosing a fly. A little time spent doing this investigative work before making a cast, will pay big dividends.
Sorry, but you do not have permission to view this content.
Sorry, but you do not have permission to view this content.
Unless the lake is very full i.e. >80% with spring rain forecast for the coming months, the Goulburn will be running at a very low level (i.e. minimum riparian flow of 250 MLD (Megalitres a day with a megalitre being a million litres; the equivalent of one Olympic swimming pool of water). This is so that Goulburn Murray Water (GMW) can capture as much water as possible, to later be sold when things are dry in mid-summer when the farmers need it.
Lake Eildon is the source of much of central Victoria’s irrigation water and the plan is to let it fill throughout the months from May-November and then use this stored water once the spring rains end and the demand from farmer’s increases. Typically most of our rain comes in August/September.
Heavy spring rains falling onto a soaked catchment can see up to 40,000 MLD coming into the lake from its feeder streams i.e. the Big, Upper Goulburn, Jamieson, Delatite and Howqua Rivers. Many people mistakenly believe that snowmelt plays a major role in the amount of runoff and the level of the lake each spring. This is incorrect. Heavy spring rain at weekly or fortnightly intervals is the key to seeing the lake fill. It is at this time of year that releases to the Goulburn River below Lake Eildon are all but stopped.
The fishing in this month is a mixture of wet/nymph and dry; about 75:25 subsurface to surface. Often this is the only clear water in the state, as the natural flowing rivers are in flood and are way too cold (water temperatures). The minimum flows of the Goulburn provide for fishable conditions and water releases from deep in lake Eildon ensure clear/warmer water is to be found (when compared with naturally flowing streams of the region).
Clear water can almost be guaranteed between Thornton and the Pondage but as you move further downstream, more gullies and gutters enter the river and cause some discoloration in the process. Some increase in clarity can be found downstream of the Rubicon confluence at these times but the water in that section is much colder and therefore less likely to offer up good hatches or very active fish. Either way it can be the saviour when the Goulburn up this way is running low and dirty.
The fish are very wary in the low, clear flows. A lot of the browns will line the inside of river bends, feeding in ridiculously shallow water and sitting dead still, waiting for aquatic insects and baitfish to show themselves. This is very tough fishing. As a result blind fishing with nymphs is the best option in the clear water. If the water is slightly discoloured, a wet fly like a woolly bugger will do well. Dry flies should be kept small in keeping with the type of insects likely to be hatching; namely midges.
Evening rises are usually slow although there will be surprises as some larger duns will pop off some nights, much to the frustration of the fly fisher who only has a sinking line and wet fly set up! Most years we see these hatches of quite large duns as early as August 20 and by the opening of the trout season you can bet that you will encounter them on evening. I cannot recall a trout opening where these large, pale duns haven’t made an appearance. As the month progresses the hatches will start to increase dramatically, with caddis showing up in greater numbers and numerous other mayflies also appearing in larger concentrations as we near the end of the month.
The river can remain at 250MLD for the entire month of October if the weather is cool and we are getting regular rain i.e. normal conditions. This seasonal weather will ensure that there is no demand for irrigation and if the farmers are not demanding it (i.e. paying for it) the water will not be released. In a drier year the need to sustain optimal growth in the farming communities a long way down stream will see rises of up to 3,000 MLD. Generally speaking you can expect to find the river between 250 and 2000 MLD.
By now water temps have increased and the first big hatches have started. My diaries show it as happening most often sometime between October 1 and 7. Huge hatches of caddis will persist throughout the day and duns will make an appearance on nightfall. The fishing throughout the day on caddis pupa patterns can be ridiculously good. Twenty fish days are relatively common and the river is often in perfect condition; wadeable with the fish actively feeding from the surface.
As the month progresses we start to see larger insects and more of them. Grannoms begin to appear in great numbers, crash landing on the water’s surface as they make their way upstream. Caenids begin to hatch in huge clouds and this will continue for several months. These hatches are by far the biggest that I have ever seen, anywhere in the world, with literally millions drifting by all morning from first light until about 8 or 9am, sometimes much later. Think long, fine leaders, tiny flies and picky fish. Catching them is more about presentation than imitation. Getting in sync with the fish and putting your fly across it at the exact right moment is all-important. The best days occur on a river running <1500 MLD after a cold, clear sky night. Expect amazing dry fly fishing when this happens.
By month’s end the fishing is as good as you will find anywhere. First light caenids. All day caddis with overlapping hatches of multiple species of mayfly duns, caddis and spent spinners as well. Just glorious dry fly fishing.
By now we usually have slightly higher water levels as the demand for irrigation increases and this is welcomed as the fish are getting slightly edgy after about six months of low water conditions. Levels of between 1,000 and 3,000 bring on some of the best fishing of the season.
The intensity of the hatches is building to a crescendo that will occur somewhere between late November and Christmas. Absolutely everything is coming off. Caenids at first light for a few hours. Then caddis will hatch through the day as will several species of duns. Beetles are starting to become important and evenings will be a smorgasbord of duns, spinners, caddis, stoneflies, grannoms in every size shape and colour. Being prepared for all eventualities is advisable!
On the thundery afternoons, termites hatch in huge numbers in the forests to the south east of us and will end up on the Goulburn; capturing the full attention of the trout. A good imitation is worth its weight in gold and you will be able to sell a working fly to your mate for at least 20 bucks a pop. Some great fish are caught during this hatch each season.
Some nights the Kossie Duns will hatch out and make grown men weep. It is ‘THE HATCH’. The biggest, baddest mayfly that we have here in Australia. Make no mistake; this is one of the highlights of the year. Very big duns appear at last light with little indication/warning and the fishing gets very easy for about twenty minutes. A must experience event with #8-10 mayflies drifting down in the last light. I fish #6’s ‘over the top’ of the hatch and do very well with this approach.
Daylight savings has now kicked in and the days are long and hot. The river will be anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 Meg a day but usually around the 4,000 MLD mark. Backwater fishing is now starting to really come into its own. Fish will move out of the main river flow to seek out more favourable conditions in the slower flowing edges. The bigger fish take up the best positions, often less than a foot off the bank, and defend them from all comers. This is a great time to be fishing.
By now small hoppers are everywhere and ending up on the water. Green is the colour of choice for those seeking to imitate them and sizes should be between 12-14. Beetles are just about peaking in numbers around now and they are also going in, especially on warm northerly wind days when they tend to get on the wing. As a result, the fishing of terrestrials starts to make up the bulk of the daytime opportunities. Fish are in close and naturally seeing lots of these insects dropping in from the overhanging banks. Any terrestrials that end up drifting in the main river tend to end up being funnelled into the backwater,s and in turn the fish.
Stalking the edges carefully becomes the key to success and those skilled at it will catch many more fish than the average angler. As the month progresses the hoppers will get bigger and so should your flies. But it’s not all about terrestrials in December. There are a number of good hatches.
Caenids will remain a focal point for those willing to get up early. Also the rusty dun will start showing up each night in ever increasing numbers. Many caddisflies will also be important but the larger volumes of water will often disguise the presence of small, dull coloured bugs. So look carefully.
It is about this time that we see the most important source of protein for our trout appearing. The willow grub. The larva of the Sawfly is without a doubt the best thing to happen for the fish of the Goulburn that I can recall. What’s even better is that they appear in high-summer when the hatches of aquatic insects decrease in intensity, giving the trout the most abundant and easy to capture food source of the year, when they wouldn’t otherwise be coming to the surface as often.
These grubs fall from trees all day long and the fish will rise without pause, for hours at a time. It is nothing to walk onto the river at 9am and fish willow grubs to rising fish until 9pm. The fish go crazy. Reacting to each and every plop on the water, knowing that an easy meal has just arrived and is unable to escape. By the end of the month we are noticing more and more large fish occupying the prime lies and all fish are putting on substantial amounts of weight. The fishing becomes so easy (most of the time!) that I pretty much only take a camera and telephoto lens out and leave the rod at home.
This is one of our favourite months. Not just because the Goulburn is good but because all of the natural streams (read un-dammed) are at perfect levels there is an abundance of opportunities.
As logic would dictate, a drop in the other rivers means that the warmer, drier weather is starting to have an effect. As a result the demand for irrigation increases from the farmers located down river of lake Eildon. As a result water flows are increased with levels between 4,000 and 10,000 to be expected. Backwater fishing becomes all important. If the level is at the lower end of the spectrum there can be brilliant hatches. When it is up near 10,000 backwaters are the only real option with evenings spent on smaller feeder rivers or hunting hatches by floating in the drift boat.
The willow grub is still the most important food source for the fish of the Goulburn and this is often the best month for fishing them. Fish rise all day and put on tremendous condition in the process. Many backwater specialists will appear in the shop day after day, stocking up on willow grub patterns that may only have a return rate of 30% i.e. one fish landed out of every three hooked due to bust-off’s in snags and willow trees! This is the most exciting fishing of the season with fish of 3-5lb being hooked at 1-2 rod lengths.
Hopper fishing with larger flies averaging around a #10 is now the way to go. The fish are used to big grasshoppers going crash and they hit them with real vigour. Blind searching the edges with a hopper or hopper/nymph combo is exciting, if not a little draining in the heat. We try to break up hopper sessions into smaller bites of a few hours with a break back in the fly fishing centre in between, to cool and escape the heat of the day. Cicadas are often the fly of choice and account for numerous big fish all January long.
Beetles and small soft hackle wets are deadly in the backwaters and parachute duns will often take a fussy fish that refuses the beetle or hopper. By now there are some trophy browns to be found in close and the best backwaters are nearly always occupied by a hefty fish. On most days you should be able to work the edges carefully and fish to at least a dozen sighted and often rising fish. These are good times.
This is not to say that evenings are a dead loss. Often the best backwaters are worth fishing on last light. If you find a good fish in along the edge through the day and spook it you can always head back to it with the confidence that it will show up near to dusk. Long flat pools offer some excellent spent spinner fishing in the last 120 minutes of the day for those on a drift boat.
This is when the unique nature of a bottom feed tailwater like the Goulburn is most evident. Just as the Goulburn runs low and warm when the other rivers around it are running high and cold, it now runs high and cold as the others are getting low and warm! Great for the trout considering daytime temperatures will reach 40 degrees Celsius at times.
River levels severely hinder hatches of aquatic insects. Releases of between 6,000 and 12,000 MLD see the hatches wind back considerably. The focus is now not only on backwaters but also the large areas inundated off the river proper; the billabongs and lagoons. Some of these areas extend back a mile into adjoining farmland and unbeknownst to most fisherman, the fish cruise these areas slowly and silently. Most of these fish go unmolested for the entire summer. The section from Alexandra downstream is particularly good for this sort of fishing.
The willow grubbing is peaking but populations may vary depending on the amount of rain we have received and the temperatures, both daytime and night-time. Some years will see all the willows denuded of vegetation and grub numbers thinning out pending a re-shoot of the willow trees. Other years, as per this past summer (Feb 2013), the trees will mostly be in prime condition and covered in grubs. Great fishing can be expected and there will be some very large fish caught.
Big hoppers and attractors like the stimulator and chernobyl ant work well as the fish are now used to everything from cicadas to grasshoppers to beetles to spiders going into the river. Sighted fish should be fished to with care, blind fishing the edges should be with bigger rubber legged flies.
The month of March is not really autumn in the Goulburn Valley. Although there is a distinct trend of cooler evenings, the endless procession of stable high pressure systems sees blue skies with a few scorchers thrown in for good measure. Hot weather will often persist until early April. While river levels will come down quite a bit, we will still regularly see 3,500 to 5,000 MLD being released. This will signal a return of the recently MIA hatches with duns and caddis showing up again, much to the pleasure of the fly fisher.
Backwaters are still fishing with many more now fishable again, now that the full irrigation releases of February have subsided. Fish make their way back from the now drying billabongs and take up positions in the reverses and backwaters. Hoppers and beetles are still working although duns and caddis will catch a fair percentage of the fish on offer. Don’t discount cicadas, crickets and the humble soldier beetle. All of these critters can be very important at this time of year.
Willow grubs will taper off at some stage this month. While they are usually still going strong up on the Tumut River, the first of our cold nights in late March will knock most of the grubs on the head.
As the river levels fall away, the fish once again take up position on current seams and a return to normal blind searching techniques will bring results. As the month progresses the water levels will decrease, as will the air temperatures and this will trigger more hatching insects.
April can be one of the best months of the season. By now the river is somewhere between (1,000 and 3,000) and terrestrials are but a memory. The aquatic insects now take centre stage. Rusty duns can hatch in very large numbers and the last hurrah of the caddis is not to be missed. As the flow rate decreases we usually see an associated increase in water temperatures which triggers hatch activity.
Insects are again getting smaller in size. The fish are biologically programmed to feed heavily in anticipation of spawning, which will occur in the coming months. As a result, hatches are usually met with solid rises from the trout. Small parachute duns, especially in rust, grey or olive will work very well. Emergers in dirty browns will also do well and the humble stick caddis suspended below a dry will at times catch a great number of fish in along the edges. Particularly following a substantial drop in river height.
Having said all that about smaller bugs I should throw in nature’s curve ball. You will get tremendous hatches of kossies on last light most evenings. It might only last 10 minutes but they will appear and the bigger browns, who may have held on the bottom, seemingly not feeding all day, will rise to them. Spinner falls of this mayfly will occur any time from 5pm onwards and large orange spinners should be carried for just such an event.
Later in the month the river will start to drop rapidly. Days get much shorter and overnight frosts or early morning fogs become common. Autumn proper is on the way. River drops should be met with glee. Weed beds that have grown and flourished over recent months will see mass evacuations of bugs. Sometimes they will hatch as a result. More often they just move house. The good thing is each significant drop in level will cause a mass migrations of insects, which results in many ending up being caught in the drift. Midge larva can be deadly fished under an indicator at these times. Wink, wink.
There is a period that occurs every year from about the third week in April until mid-late May that is glorious. Sometimes it goes for three weeks sometimes four or five, but it is the most pleasant time of the year and brings about some of the most enjoyable fishing you will ever experience on the Goulburn.
Cool, crisp mornings give way to the bluest skies imaginable and days of light wind and rising fish. The river usually comes crashing down to the minimum flows (riparian flow 250 MLD) and stay this way throughout the winter/early spring period as rainfall is captured in Lake Eildon for the following summer’s irrigation releases.
This is the time of midges, blue wing olives and light gear. Careful wading and approaches to feeding fish are a must. Fish will often rise from about 8.30 am throughout the day. On the foggy mornings the start is just a bit later at around 11am but still the good fishing remains. My most pleasant memories of fishing on the Goulburn are in this time period with the weather as close to perfect as it gets.
Sometime late in the month the weather changes significantly although often the first major rain events are not until at least mid-June. The days are shortened and the hatch and rise occurs in the middle of the day with less emphasis on the last hour or so. It just gets too cold.
About the end of the month the first browns start to spawn and should be left alone. Catching these fish is not sporting and requires little to no skill. Please leave fish that are in spawn mode to their efforts. There are plenty of (not yet spawning) fish still actively feeding, with only the early run fish involved this early on. This usually occurs in the last week of May.
The one surprise that we sometimes encounter is that the kossies continue to hatch on last light right throughout this month and into June. This year (May-June 2013) we saw Kossies hatching most nights on dusk, long after they were expected to disappear. This is worth keeping in the memory bank as most of us are not expecting to be fishing # 8 dry flies at the end of May.
JUNE – AUGUST:
The Queen’s birthday weekend heralds the end of the trout fishing season. This three month period of closure allows the trout of our rivers to spawn unmolested and is keeping within the sporting ethic of fly fishing. This is the time to tie flies, plan trips, head to Idaho/British Columbia with us or fish on our private waters! ;-) ;-)
Hope this helps you to get a bit more of an overview of what goes on here on the Goulburn River. While this write up is pretty comprehensive, there is a lot I didn’t even touch on, as well as some things that change from season to season. Things like our stonefly hatches, black ant falls and a number of other at times significant events, that most people won’t encounter.
If you should need flies for an upcoming visit feel free to order a fly pack from our online shop or stop by the shop for some flies, a mud map and up to the minute advice from our staff of guides.
Sing out if you have any questions. You can reach us in the shop any time on 03 5773 2513 or on my mobile 0418 995 611 and of course we are available for guiding, tuition and/or drift boat trips every single day of the season.
Many of you will read our reports and notice that we release all of our fish. Those of you that have been guiding with us or have read about our services will know that we have a catch and release policy on all guided trips. While most people are too polite to ask why this is the case, we feel it is something worth qualifying here in writing, so that everyone can read our/my reasons and decide for themselves what is the best for them.
Catch and release is the only way that we as individual anglers can ensure the survival of the trout fishing in our local rivers. Australia is a harsh landscape and trout are on the margins in terms of maintaining healthy, wild, self-sustaining populations. The number one reason that most mainland trout fisheries struggle is the climate. We have hot, dry summers here and this has a huge impact on fish populations. We also have droughts which run for up to ten years. The most recent one had a massive impact on trout populations with fish kills being recorded on all local rivers (most went unseen as no one was fishing due to the conditions).
Then there is the lack of suitable spawning sites. The Goulburn is a wonderful river but its flow is the reverse of an undammed river system. It runs high and cold in summer and low and warm in winter; as valuable autumn, winter and spring rains are captured for irrigation releases during the months Dec-Mar of each year. Unfortunately these minimum releases fall below the ideal level for trout spawning in most sections of river. Typical releases of 250 MLD through the winter mean that the Goulburn is basically a narrow creek when otherwise it would be a wide, full river.
This means that only a few key places are ideal for fish spawning in terms of depth and flow rate over the appropriate riverbed. If the flow rate was upped to say 2000 MLD then the amount of suitable places would be increased by a factor of 15 or even 20. But at these low flow levels there is only so much water that a fish finds suitable for egg laying, which results in a cycle of fish digging each other’s eggs up, as each successive run of fish occurs.
On top of this the water releases from the lake can vary wildly as companies like AGL and other groups can call on their water entitlement at any time. It always happens at trout spawning time. This is not a fatalistic statement but rather plain fact as the power companies will often hold onto their entitlements and use them when the demand is at its peak. Typically when we get hot spells in summer and everyone switches on their AC and cold snaps when we all turn on our heaters. This can cause the river to be raised and dropped in a relatively short space of times i.e. days or weeks.
The worst case scenario is when the river runs high for a week or two at spawning time, and then suddenly drops as the demand for power drops to normal levels. All those fish that spawned at the higher river levels have their eggs left high and dry. This is disastrous and something that in other parts of the trout world would lead to legal challenges and ultimately compensation being paid by those damaging the fishery. All told a small amount when compared to the huge profits derived from peak power generation, but nevertheless money that would go back into the fishery, into things such as stocking or habitat restoration. No such thing happens here in this country and as anglers we all suffer for it without even realising it is going on.
The Goulburn’s feeder streams are also vulnerable at these times as they are all low and accessible in the early part of the spawning period. Fish massing in pools ready to spawn are hammered by mostly unscrupulous folks (i.e. they know what they are doing), who tend to kill as many fish as they can. Even those fishing to spawning fish with the intention of releasing them are doing damage by disrupting fish from their task, often resulting in accidental injury, the fish failing to spawn or even just tramping over egg beds and adding to the huge mortality of eggs at this critical stage. Many so called ‘anglers’ specifically target these fish when they are at their most vulnerable and totally preoccupied. Something akin to shooting a bird on its nest.
To illustrate how we feel about the situation know this. You will never see an egg fly for sale in our shop; nor will you find us fishing them. We have never sold them and never will. This is not some holier than thou position we have taken purely to take some ‘perceived’ moralistic high ground. It is simply a logical step to remove ourselves, our clients and our customers from being part of the problem. Sure the guys on our trips fish egg patterns in British Columbia to steelhead and salmon. But these are extremely healthy fisheries that are managed and self-sustaining.
Then we come to the elephant in the room; our Fisheries Department and their lack of anything even resembling management. First off let’s banish the myth I often hear trotted out in defence of killing our wild fish. ‘But they are stocked for us to catch’. Once and for all; our rivers are not stocked. They are not ‘Put and Take’ trout fisheries that are continually being restocked. Our rivers receive no stockings or assistance from those charged with maintaining them. A few years ago we received several small token stockings of a few hundred fish (election year?!) at several of the key access points along the Goulburn but due to the timing of the fish releases, the points at which they were liberated and the amount of self-promotion that was done by our Fisheries Department, more fish were taken out than went in.
Our Fisheries Department are not pro-active and show no desire to manage or improve our river trout fisheries. This is a fact. They have a blanket 5 fish per day, per person bag limit for all of Victoria’s rivers. In fact Victoria is the only place anywhere in the world that trout are found, where the Fisheries Department in charge fails to manage its waterways on a river by river basis. Even many of the republics of the former Yugoslavia, still healing from civil war with their economies in tatters, have taken the time to protect their trout fisheries from overharvesting by enforcing catch and release and a key part of this is understanding what each fishery is, and protecting it with the appropriate regulations. At very least the major systems like the Goulburn, Kiewa, Mitta Mitta should have regulations specific to their unique needs.
So we have a 5 fish per day limit on our rivers that are not stocked, that are affected by drought, that have limited natural recruitment and are affected by poorly timed releases of water from a lake. What could possibly be worse? Well the fact that our Fisheries managers choose not allocate any resources to actually enforcing their own inadequate regulations. Instead they prefer to make a big deal about ‘high profile’ policing i.e. checking licences at the Eildon Pondage on busy weekends e.g. Trout Opening, Melbourne Cup Weekend, Easter etc. The irony being that the Pondage is a stocked lake; a put and take fishery! Rivers don’t even factor into the equation when it comes to enforcement.
I have guided here full time since 1997. Not once have I, or my clients, been asked to produce a licence. There is no enforcement and the people who do the wrong thing know this. Once the river drops and we move into June, I will see the same cars, at the same access points, day after day. These people use trout eggs for bait and flout what little protection the trout are afforded by the current regulations. These people do this because they can.
All this and the fish of the Goulburn River and its feeder streams maintain reasonable populations of naurally spawned fish. Despite the hostile Australian climate, poor natural recruitment, lack of management or indeed any meaningful enforcement of the woefully inadequate regulations; the trout of the region hang on and provide us with excellent fishing at times.
Back in the early 90’s we concluded as a group that killing fish was damaging our local fisheries and we have since made a conscientious effort to minimise our impact on the fish stocks here in the valley. I can personally attest to seeing the same fish caught 7 times this season by my clients alone and so I do have a grasp of the economic benefits to be gained by releasing fish. But this is about more than my vested interests as a guide who earns his living on these waters. This is about the ongoing viability of the trout fishery itself.
If I want my children to be able to go out in twenty years time and fish to a trout that is selectively feeding on emerging pupa or to stalk a willow grub feeder in a backwater on the Goulburn, then the only option is to release my fish and encourage others to understand why it is necessary to do the same. My view is that if we cannot get our Fisheries managers to take the job seriously (and do what they are paid to do), then it is up to us as responsible anglers to do everything in our power to educate our fellow fisherman and set the correct example.
Some will call me elitist because my position conflicts with their world view. So be it. I live on this river. I play on this river. I make my living on it. When it comes to the Goulburn there is not a lot that escapes the motley crew in this fly fishing centre, as we are all fanatical about the trout and the rivers of the region. We see a lot, we share everything that we see and we speak to others that are fishing the waters that we love so much. As such I feel that we have an obligation to share what we know and hopefully help protect what is, when all is said and done, a fragile and finite resource.
I implore you to take a greater interest in our rivers and to make up your own mind. Read the published studies that speak of low fish numbers and inadequate natural recruitment. While I personally have no grievance with folks taking a feed of fish from the fisheries that can handle it, our rivers just don’t fall into this category. I am writing this at 10.30pm on Easter Sunday 2013 and if you could have seen the numbers of fish killed so far this weekend, you would understand just how big the problem is.
The ironic thing is that I have fished in many of the premium tailwaters in Idaho/Montana and in terms of the river as a blank canvas, we have something every bit as good they do when it comes to the Goulburn. We have the hatches. We have the water from Lake Eildon. We have some terrific feeder streams. All that’s missing are the populations of fish. If we could now just convince the majority of anglers to release their fish, we would have a tailwater of true world class status. It would take 4-5 years but we have the raw ingredients necessary to create a superb trout fishery, here in our own backyard.
Thanks for taking the time to read this and all the best for the coming low water season.
Goulburn Valley Fly Fishing Centre
PS – I am not advocating making rivers fly only here. I think all rivers should be managed based on their unique character and needs. I think that making certain streams ‘catch and release’ would have a dramatic effect on the quality of the fishing on offer. Slot limits should also be used. Electro fishing surveys could be used to determine the profile of the river and we could allow say 1 fish at between x and y cms per person per day. But with regulations you need enforcement. The current 5 fish per day is a joke but I haven’t yet decided whether our Fisheries managers are totally malevolent, incompetent or a mixture of both.