This is our coldest time: Deep snow on the hills around Canberra, some frozen streams and plenty of ice in the lakes, tourists around town with blown engine blocks because they didn't know they had to use anti-freeze in the city and so cold on fishing trips that you have to put life-support goodies, such as food and Chardonnay, in the esky to stop them from freezing.
We still fish, however, and if you know how to go about it you can get a few nice fish.
The native fish have the brains around here. They know that if they retreat from the cold streams to the deeper, stratified lakes, they can move up or down in the water column until they find the warmest layer and the most readily-available oxygen supply. While that may sound complicated, it is no more difficult for them than it is for your cat to prowl around the room until it finds the most comfortable spot near the fire or heater to lie down and snooze.
And snooze is what the native fish do for much of the time. Having fed up well in Autumn, they have plenty of fat reserves to see them through the Winter and thus don't feed very much. Mostly they just sit around and ponder the quality of life, waiting for Spring, or an optimist like one of us, to come along.
They can be tempted, however. You can sometimes entice a Murray cod or golden perch to lash out at a deeply-jigged or trolled lure or a bobbed bait such as a fat bardi or wood grub, shrimp, scrub worm or yabby. Bardis and wood grubs are available from local tackle shops and shrimps can be caught on site in most reservoirs. Local yabbies are unobtainable, being deep down in their Winter doonas, in the mud, but sometimes supplies are available from warmer climes such as just about anywhere else in Australia.
Finding the fish is not just chuck-and-chance. Most are down deep against snags or rocks, and especially along steep rock faces. Sometimes they are visible on the sounder, although it is hard to pick between a nice fat cod and a rotten carp.
If a fish shows on the sounder, however, risk a bait and try it. If it's a cod you can practise your catch-and-release or barbecue skills and if it's a carp, you can hide your disappointment by practising drop-goals over the nearest cormorant roost.
The best time to hunt for natives is around midday to mid-afternoon. That's when the air temperature and light intensities are at their peak, which means it is most comfortable for you and most amenable to them. You might only get a couple of hours fishing in a day but, hell, who wants any more when the temperature for the day might only rise from –6° to a maximum of about 5°.
Trout, of course, couldn't care less about the cold weather. In fact, they love it. They evolved in it, grew up in, feed in it and have sex in it, which makes you wonder a bit about these fish.
Most of the browns spawn in June-August and those that have already spawned have now returned from the rivers (which are closed to fishing) to the reservoirs, which are open all year round. By now they are ravenously hungry and ready for action.
The rainbows, conversely, are just now starting to spawn in big numbers. A lot of them are up the streams and inaccessible to anglers, but some are still available in the lake because they have already returned or are still on their way.
Either way, it can be a good fishing month, albeit with only short fishing sessions dictated by the weather on the day. On the bad days the fog doesn't lift all day, the temperature stays down around 2° to 3° and the ground and margins of the lake stay frozen. That's when you eat your chook, drink your other main food group and give it away for the day.
On the good days, however, the weak sun comes through, the fog is burned off, the temperature is up around 6° to 7° and you wouldn't be dead for quids.
That's when you break out the bait gear and lay out some scrub worms, PowerBait or bardi grubs and wait for a bit of action. Alternatively, you can toss out small lures such as Celtas or Imp spoons and work the banks. If you are boating, try deep with a variety of lures on lead-core line or downrigger.
My preference is fly-fishing and I regard August as the most productive month of the year on Australia's biggest mainland trout fishery, Lake Eucumbene. I love prowling the banks with my super-duper Spotters glasses, polaroiding the shallows for the fish that are just lying there or quietly working a beat.
Most of the fish are browns and they are delightfully testing opponents. They can spot you from a long way away, so you have to move carefully and quietly with minimal clunking on a frozen bank or splashing in the water in the shallows. Cracking thick ice in the shallows by walking on it is a sure-fire way of spooking a fish. Stay on the hard, frozen mud.
I mostly cast direct to a fish, leading it by perhaps a metre or so but sometimes, where a fish is easily spooked, you have to put the fly out and wait for the fish to come back along its beat then activate your fly from where it has sunk.
Everybody has their favourite patterns but I prefer Woolly Worms and occasionally Woolly Buggers, together with bead-head nymphs and small beetles, Mrs Simpson, Hamill’s Killer and Craigs Nighttime. I nearly always fish wet as it is too hard to get the fish to come to a dry.
The essential elements of this technique are good polaroid glasses, because sometimes a resting fish looks just like a log or other type of debris, slow walking along the banks and a resolute belief that, yes, there will be fish there and, no, your manhood will not freeze up and drop off, because you are wearing proper clothing.
For all the fun of this style of fishing, there is a deadly serious side to it. These are seriously low temperatures and you have to dress for them. Preferably you need thermal underwear, neoprene waders, proper head and face protection and a knowledge that the condition known as hypothermia is real and can strike anybody who is not properly dressed and mentally ready for it.
If you are boating you need to take even extra care, because if you finish up in the water your survival time is measured in minutes, not hours. In the drink you can survive perhaps two to four minutes. After that, you have had it, so for all my fun about Chardonnay and other things, remember that there is a time and a place for them and it is not out in a boat.
Even on the bank, take extreme care. Your fishing trip is a mixture of good careful fun and a safe return home. We look forward to seeing you here to do just that.
Rainbow trout start spawning mostly in August and provide good Winter sport.
In Winter the native fish retreat from the streams to the deeper, warmer waters in the reservoirs.
A Summer prize such as this fat Murray cod is a much more testing quarry in the depths of Winter.Reads: 421