Philip Weigall succeeds in stirring up some docile fish.
There are circumstances when it’s okay not to catch trout. Let’s say the stream is an unfishable torrent, or almost dry, or there are so few fish actually present per kilometre that to even put a fly near one would be a minor miracle. You can walk away with head held high, knowing that nothing you could have done would have changed the result.
However, things began very differently last season in Victoria’s north east. In contrast to the late nineties drought years, the trout were back in force everywhere. Certainly a couple of streams were still in the recovery ward, but we left those alone. Elsewhere, no doubt about it, the trout were there to be caught.
During our season opener in late November, my companions and I struggled with high flows, discolouration and the chill of late snow melt. Yet when circumstances permitted, say during a heavy evening hatch, the trout would appear in their dozens, and we would catch some. Nice ones too.
Even as I was swept up in the frantic, delightful chaos of these evening rises, I found myself looking greedily ahead a month or two to when the rivers would be lower, milder. All the bigger-than-average trout would still be there (well, most of them) only more accessible, more catchable. Yes, this was going to be the season.
Within a month we were back in the mountains, and it seemed daydreams had been turned to reality. As the car wound its way through the valleys and over bridges, we were greeted by stream after stream that sparkled clearâ€”flowing well but without the savagery of several weeks earlier. It was hot, and the snow had gone, so there was some threat of warm water. However, water temperature checks showed 18 – 20Â°C, warmer than ideal perhaps, but quite acceptable.
When we arrived at the first river, my companions chose a quick swim before fishing. Not me. I was on the water and casting while the engine fan still spun. You know those times on a stream when it’s obvious that action is inevitable. It isn’t a case of if a trout will take the fly, but when. It wasn’t long before I could read this realisation on the faces of my half-submerged mates as they looked upstream to where I fished a perfect run. Clearly, they were regretting the head start I’d been given.
Feeling a little self-satisfied, I cast the Geehi Beetle progressively up the bubble line, careful not to rush to the drop-off at the head. Several drifts . . . nothing. Odd, maybe they’re on the nymph. I added a brown seal’s fur bead-head a metre below the dry and continued. Again, not a touch. Some minutes had passed and I glanced back down to my audience. I could not hear what they were mouthing above the chatter of the approaching rapid, but it didn’t look complimentary. With a slight sense of desperation I changed the Geehi Beetle for a Royal Wulff, then plunged right past some very good water and straight to the â€˜prime’ where the rapid met the top of the run. Even against my growing anxiety, this pocket looked great, and I watched the Wulff bounce down and over the drop-off with renewed faith. But yet again, zero.
That first session set the scene not only for the first few hours, but the next few days. The harsh comments of my friends, like â€œHand in your licence!â€ were soon silenced as they too experienced the ridiculously quiet fishing. Granted, the water temperatures everywhere were up a little, but the diaries showed numerous trips where we had succeeded when they were higher still. A fifteen minute frenzy each twilight confirmed that the trout were in fact there, so why the heck couldn’t we catch more than the odd inexplicable fish during the middle of the day?
By the third day I was fishing tungsten nymphs as deep as I could, scraping the very river bed for fish. Still nothing happened until at the end of one drift, as the fly swung absently behind me . . . whack! Now I know what you’re thinking: â€œAcross and down! He should have tried that earlier.â€ But no, conventional downstream nymphing had already been tried and found wanting.
As often happens when nymphing under tough conditions, I found myself trying to reconstruct exactly what I had done to hook that trout. It turned out to be a nice fat rainbow, the like of which hadn’t been seen in broad daylight since the trip began. Certainly, the fish had taken the fly swinging in the current, but there had to be more to it than that.
I did my best to mimic the previous cast. I had waded quite deep into a fast run that verged on being a rapid. The stream was higher than normal for December, and I had to re-adjust my footing to avoid being sent for a swim. Even with the incredible density of two tungsten-beaded nymphs, the flies would only travel the metre-plus to the bottom if cast to the slacker â€˜slots’ in this choppy current.
It turned out that there was such a fine margin between the correct and incorrect method, that it took some time to describe to my companionsâ€”both of whom were expert nymph fishers. They had been upstream indicator nymphing, Leisenring lifting, across and downing, and jiggling till they were blue in the face. Some effort was required to convince my sceptical friends that there was yet another method which would succeed where the others had failed.
THE LAZY NYMPH
First, suitable water had to be found. The slightly slacker patches within or right beside the broken water of rapids and runs was ideal. Next, the flies had to be pile-cast upstream, the objective being that they had settled close to the bottom by the time they neared the top of the slack patch in question. The nymphs had to be tungsten weighted: the required mass in brass or lead simply wouldn’t fit on the smallish #12-14 flies that the fish seemed to want.
Importantly, the flies needed to be â€˜stalled’ within the patch, and kept close to the bottom. Often, the fish would grab the nymph after several seconds of it just sitting there in the current. If not, a couple of twitches of the rod tip could be tried. Failing all that, a long, steady lift of the rod tip before the next cast sometimes brought a good strike.
As I fine-tuned my approach, I found that it paid to visualise the trout as bone lazy, half asleep on the bottom. No interest in food zipping past (no matter how close), a yawn to bugs zooming across the current, and a shrug of boredom even to insects rising enticingly upward in the water column.
I had to make the fish an offer they couldn’t refuse: a nice, juicy nymph or pupa flitting a few inches back and forth in the current, while staying close to the river bed. Tempting, and easy to catch at the same time. I could almost picture the trout watching the fly with one eye open, and eventually thinking, â€œAh, bugger it. Might as well.â€ Anthropomorphising in the extreme I know, but it helped!
Sometimes it was necessary to stand virtually on top of the area being fished in order to achieve the desired presentation, but in all the froth and bubble, neither rainbow nor brown seemed to mind.
So why were the trout being so lazy? Maybe it was not the water temperature per se, but the relatively sudden change to higher temperatures after several months of chill. Or maybe they weren’t being lazy at all, and were instead highly preoccupied with something on the stream bed that we didn’t know about.
Whatever the answer, the â€˜lazy nymph’ went from being a one-day-wonder, to a staple for the rest of the week. Granted, the dry began to perform again by day on a couple of streams, but on most, the new technique was the only reliable way of catching a trout before 7 pm. Its value was confirmed on subsequent trips, to the point that it has become a real stand-by for me on tough days.
I won’t for a moment suggest that what I describe as the â€˜lazy nymph’ is a new technique, or even that it’s completely new to me. Looking at some old home videos the other day, I can see my brother Mark and me doing something very similar on the Buckland and Ovens more than 12 years agoâ€”and in the cool water of spring, not summer.
What has changed recently is that we now have tungsten, and perhaps a better understanding of the water and exactly how to fish it. And of course there’s the confidence factor, which feeds on itself in an ever-enriching loop. The end result is that I feel as if I have an entirely new trick to try when the trout seem half asleep. It may never be my all-time favourite way to fish the north-east rivers, but as an alternative to catching nothing, it’ll do just fine.