There is a wide range of different methods you can employ to chase trout in the abundant river systems around the southern parts of Australia. Whether you fish with lures, bait or fly, every technique has its advantages and disadvantages. With so many different variations in trout-holding water available to us, one can never get fed up with trying to outsmart this species.
When it comes to fly fishing, the techniques are many in how you can approach trout in rivers, but one method stands out as unique and very addictive. I am talking about stalking and sight fishing in the backwaters of our larger rivers. This sort of fishing can be rewarding yet also frustrating. Results can go either way, but you will certainly want to go back for more. Like hunting, it requires patience, restraint and perfect execution, although this still doesn’t guarantee a result.
With summer fishing in full swing, we are seeing a wide range of terrestrial insects falling into the diets of trout. Early summer sees plenty of cicadas about, offering a feast to greedy fish waiting under trees for them. As summer progresses, the cicadas start to die off and we see grasshoppers and crickets getting larger and often finding themselves in the water near grassy banks. And, of course, the ever-popular willow grub fall happens right when summer gets to its hottest moments and the wind blows them from overhanging trees. All of these insects are targeted by trout that patrol the backwaters, under the trees and away from the current. With water levels often raised in tailrace rivers at this time of year to meet agricultural demands, the bigger fish push up into the edges and backwaters to preserve their energy and feast on the bugs that fall to the surface. This means a bit of foam on a hook the right colour and size will attract interest from the bigger browns that patrol these waters. Getting their interest is one thing; landing these fish is a different story.
Before you can even think about presenting a cast, you first need to locate the target fish. These brown trout that cruise in the backwaters are no fools and are not likely to rise to continual blind casting where they are holding. One poorly placed cast is usually enough to scare them off and end the game in a moment. In fact, anything that alerts them to your presence will likely have them turn into the current and head for the safety of deeper water. So, taking you time in approaching the water is essential. You should assume that a fish is holding in every section of water you approach, even if you cannot see it there. Approaching from alongside bushes or a tree will offer you some cover and allow you to take up a position to watch the water for a while.
These trout are territorial beasts and they usually work the same beat over and over again, cruising for food throughout the day. These ‘beats’ can be a few metres in length, or can cover 20 metres of a section of a bank. But what is certain is that if a fish is undisturbed, it will work back and forth along pretty much the same route in search of food. Watching and understanding this routine is the key to presenting to these fish. Taking your time and not getting too eager is essential. There is always the tendency to want to cast at a fish when you first get an opportunity, but with brown trout holding in these calmer waters, you can be certain the opportunity will arise over and over again – provided you don’t do anything to spook the fish first. So, wait and watch.
Understanding at which points in its beat the fish can see allows you to determine when to cast at it. There will be times when a confident brown is cruising out in the open water, headed downstream to return to the beginning of its beat. At these times, the fish will be looking right at you, so it is essential that you do not make any movements, let alone lay out a cast. Once you have an understanding of the timing of its travels, you can fit into one of the blind spots. But you need to get the presentation right, and the water in these areas can present a range of issues with back-currents and eddies playing havoc on the fly line, creating unwanted drag on your fly. This will certainly alert the trout to the fact something isn’t quite right and will result in a rejection. So, pay attention to the water flow before you think about presenting a fly.
Often there are sections of almost still water that are found in the fish’s beat, allowing you to gently place a cast and leave the fly on the surface until the fish makes another pass. At this point, a very subtle twitch of the fly will be enough to alert the fish to its presence and should be enough to induce a strike – or scare it off. These fish have plenty of time to make a decision about what they will or will not eat, so they are not easily fooled. Usually you will need to move down a size or two in your tippet, with a very long leader to even get a fish to consider your fly. However, if you go too fine on your tippet with these larger fish, you will struggle to land them after the strike.
When the water is moving a little faster, the fish usually hold in a smaller section and take up a position feeding on bugs coming down in the current. This allows for a more active presentation that is less likely to spook the fish. With plenty of terrestrial insects falling to the surface, a brown trout will often turn from the current to take an insect that hits the water behind it. This makes it easier to present to the fish without spooking it by landing your line overhead. A gentle ‘plop’ on the water’s surface will usually be enough to get the attention of a feeding brown trout and you will see them turn and chase your fly downstream. Of course, you will mostly like be in their line of sight whilst this happens, so it doesn’t make it easy to strip in excess line without giving away your position. And then, when they do strike, you need to have the greatest amount of patience to set the hook. As the fish will be facing you, it is very easy to pull the fly right out of its mouth if you strike too soon. Wait until the fish has closed its mouth and the nose has gone beneath the surface again before you lift and set the hook. Then hang on.
This is where it gets really interesting. Often you can sight and stalk more than a dozen fish before you get to this moment, so there is a lot riding on the next few minutes. Remember, we are targeting very smart fish that are holding in water that is usually under trees and with fast currents not far off. The hook-set usually gets them angry right away and the first few moments can make the difference between landing and losing a fish. Many will go straight for the current, headed for deeper, faster water, so you will need to take control and try to stop them from hitting the faster water. You are not often in a position that will allow you to follow these fish downstream; in fact, most of the time your casting position will not allow you much movement at all, so if you allow these fish to take too much line, you can kiss them goodbye. Of course, this is going to result in a few straightened hooks and plenty of broken leaders when a fish does run on you. Most of the time, there is not a lot you can do, except maybe say a little prayer and keep your rod tip as high as possible to reduce shock on the leader.
The other scenario is when the fish doesn’t run out into the current. This is usually worse. Brown trout are not like rainbows. They are not usually acrobatic and don’t tend to surface much in a fight. They prefer to fight dirty and usually head down, in search of cover when they get hooked. That means tree roots, weed beds, undercut banks and any other obstacle they can find in an attempt to bust you off. When they head for the timber like this, you need to give them a little slack or they will surely leave you hooked to a tree root wondering what just happened. This is why I prefer fishing these waters with glass rods as the softer touch and extra bend they offer is more forgiving than faster, modern graphite rods and the success rate for landing these fish is slightly increased. A mate who is good with the landing net and fast to act is an essential accessory under these conditions. Getting that fish into the net sooner rather than later is the key. Don’t wait for them to tire out or you will just see them break you off.
Of course, this sort of fishing is not for everyone and a far cry from the traditionalist’s idea of what fly fishing should be. But it is a hell of a lot of fun and will allow you to sight, target and catch fish that are often bigger than others you might find in different sections of the river. The thrill of standing dead-still by the bank as a brown trout cruises past inches from your feet is unlike anything else; actually getting a strike from this fish half an hour later is even better.