One of the features that often surprises visitors to the region is the high proportion of fly anglers in the Canberra community. They find it interesting that a fair proportion of male anglers fly-fish and that a lot of women and kids are equally proficient.
There are good reasons. Many people think that flyfishing is difficult; an art that's too hard for them and really the province of ultra-keen, specialised anglers, expensive and not necessarily all that productive.
In Canberra, of course, people realise that nothing could be further from the truth. Flyfishing is one of the oldest forms of angling and it's easy to learn. It probably started with people tying a lump of animal wool onto a piece of sheep or other animal gut and then letting eels or other fish choke on it to the point where they could be pulled from the water. Later they graduated to imitations of fish or insects and tied a string to a pole to make it more amenable to use.
And today that's really what flyfishing is all about – a piece of wool or other material tied to a long pole that you wave up and down to attract a fish.
One of the reasons flyfishing is so popular in Canberra is that it's easy to learn. For several Sundays immediately prior to the opening of the stream trout season in October the Canberra Anglers Association run free fly classes for the public. They are held on the lawns of Old Parliament House and are immensely popular, attracting a big crowd of men, women and children who relish the thought of learning what the ancient art is all about.
As a big bonus at the end of the course the participants are invited to a private trout farm near Lake Eucumbene where they can put their newfound skills into action and that's where many of them catch their first trout. After that they are hooked, just like the fish.
Others too, do a lot of teaching. I teach in suburban Canberra every Saturday and because it's free there is often a good rollup. For me the satisfaction is watching people go from raw beginners to surprisingly proficient casters in just one simple lesson.
It's even more satisfying when they come back to tell me about their first fish on fly. Sometimes it's a trout but not always. Often it’s a redfin, occasionally a native fish such as a golden perch or, more commonly, a carp. Carp are remarkably good fun on fly and although they taste something less than leftover cold poop, they are a tough and challenging opponents which can test a fly angler to the limit.
The best first-ever fish on fly for one of my students was a carp that took a nymph in a suburban Canberra pond a couple of hours after his first lesson. It was a massive fish, weighing well over 15kg, and to this day he says it is still one of the highlights of his fishing career.
The local TAFE College also gets in on the act. With long-time teacher Lindsay Irvine, they run a six-week course covering all the basics of flyfishing which culminates in a two-day, hands-on clinic on the Eucumbene River. This gives the students a chance to test their skills on real trout in a real situation, with rapids, still pools, wind, rain, snow, trees, bushes, snakes, flies, platypus and mosquitos all competing to see whether the student will make it as a real fly angler. And of course they do.
We have some great visiting teachers, too. Well known fly anglers such as Rod Harrison from Bribie Island and Peter and Lisa Hayes from Tasmania regularly hold classes on the shores of Canberra's lakes, passing on the secrets that make a new chum angler into a competent fly caster or a more experienced angler into an even better one. They specialise in small classes and hands-on teaching and the results they achieve are absolutely outstanding.
Having introduced a lot of people to flyfishing this year, they may be in for somewhat of a disappointment now that the 2006-07 stream trout season is open. Most streams in the region are at desperately low levels because of the drought and many of them are short of or devoid of trout.
Through the year members of the various Monaro Acclimatisation Society branches, working with NSW Fisheries, released into regional streams a lot of trout fingerlings raised in Gaden Hatchery at Jindabyne. Unfortunately, many of these have since died or been eaten by predators.
There will be some successes in the higher-country streams or others where there is an assured flow from permanent springs or snowmelt, or where fish can return to the safety of adjoining lakes. But overall there will be a meagre rate of return for all of the effort involved.
The best of the streams are the Eucumbene and Thredbo rivers. They run high and hard early in the season because of snowmelt and this year look to have a lot of fish in them. The browns and rainbows have all finished spawning and fish that have remained in or returned to the river from Eucumbene and Jindabyne lakes should be in prime condition. The water is cold, clear and deep and that means demanding fishing with lure and fly.
Most anglers find upstream fishing the most productive because you can work up on the fishes’ blind spots but sometimes you have to resort to across-and-down fishing because of the terrain, bankside vegetation or that most frustrating of developments, slow-moving anglers up head.
Lure anglers should fare best with small lures such as Celtas, Imp spoons, small hard-bodied minnows or even small Tasmanian Devils.
Flyfishers have myriad patterns to choose from but reliable ones include brown nymphs, especially beadhead, small Woolly Worms and Woolly Buggers, Purple Nymbeet, Bead-head Tom Jones, small black and red Matukas, Stonefly Nymphs, Stick Caddis and various wets such as Hardy's Favourite, Coachman, Greenwell's Glory and Watson's Fancy.
When the weather is right and dries are worth a try, have a chuck with Red Tag, Hairwing Coachman, Royal Humpy, Tup's Indispensable, Muddler Minnow or White Moth.
For those of you who aren't flyfishers and the names seem meaningless, work on the basis that these are common patterns that attract fish not only at this time but for most of the year. They do not necessarily imitate anything special that the fish are feeding on at the time, although that may be true, but are just good attractors.
In other words, you are not necessarily ‘matching the hatch’, as many people unfamiliar with flyfishing are likely to assume, just offering the fish things that we know from experience are most likely to induce a strike.
The meagre flow and lack of fish in the streams this season means that the big mountain lakes are the best options, not only for flyfishing but for all forms of trout fishing. They all carry good populations of browns and rainbows and lakes such as Jindabyne also have limited stocks of Atlantic salmon and brook trout.
Jindabyne has been steady at around 58% of capacity for much of the year. It will rise a bit with snowmelt this month, although not to the extent seen in previous years because this has been one of the poorest winter snow seasons on record.
Eucumbene is in a difficult state. It is low, at 24%, the second-lowest reading since the record low of 18% in 1983. The banks are soft and muddy and access to the water is difficult.
Boat launching in most areas has been difficult or impossible and even wading the shoreline is difficult because of the sticky mud. Eucumbene, too, will rise only slightly this month.
Daytime fly fishing, especially by polaroiding the banks with cased caddis and other nymphs, small wets and even Glo Bugs, could be productive. For those who can stand the cold, night fishing for an hour or two after dark using larger wets such as Mrs Simpson, Hamill’s Killer, Craig’s Nighttime and Taihape Tickler could be productive, especially for larger browns working the shallows.
So if you want a break from lure or bait fishing, have a think about learning to fly-fish. It's fun, productive and eminently satisfying. And, above all, it’s much easier to learn than you might think. Just ask the Canberra kids who are so proficient at it.Reads: 2805