The plan for a recent weekend fishing trip went like this. On Saturday, my brother Mark, mate Dasher and I would travel to the Port Fairy area. En route, Mark and Dash would drop me at the Hopkins River, where I would rendezvous with my friend Jon and his father Norm. Mark and Dash would then continue on to fish the surf for salmon, and the five of us would meet up at our shared lodgings that night. Got all that?
Jon is the proud owner of a new boat, and rather than wait for my noon arrival to begin plundering the estuary, he opted for a morning start. The best flies and spots, Jon assured me, would be sorted out by the time I climbed aboard. I’ve had some great days on the Hopkins, and felt quietly confident that Jon’s craft, complete with state-of-the-art electric motor, would offer an afternoon of successful (and mildly luxurious) flyfishing.
In the event, Mark and Dash dropped me at the appointed boat ramp under grim skies that periodically issued splatters of stinging rain. A southerly gale was blowing and the river was crumpled by small waves. Worst of all, the water was about the colour and consistency of miso soup. The boys wished me luck with more heartfelt sincerity than usual, and left me at the ramp to await Jon’s pick-up.
Jon’s boat showed up soon enough, but my friend’s half-hearted wave and preoccupied disposition suggested that all was not well. And it wasn’t just the dirty water that had dampened his enthusiasm. The electric motor had died. Without the control of the electric, the Hopkins’ currents and the gusting wind had made flyfishing virtually impossible. Hmmm.
A couple of urgent phone calls to some helpful local contacts soon had us reconsidering our options. Eventually, one stood out as the best – perhaps only – chance of a bream on the fly. A river called the Fitzroy was within striking distance and, of all the estuaries in the district, we were advised that it was the most likely to be fishably clear after the recent rain.
So we headed for this new spot with the almost irrational enthusiasm that usually accompanies the receipt of a good tip from a local – even a tip heavily hedged in caution. I chose to ignore the part about the Fitzroy River being “nothin’ like the Hoppies for bream”, and focussed instead on the likelihood of clear, sheltered water that a semi-crippled boat could cope with.
The Fitzroy did turn out to be, well, clearish – and both narrow and sheltered enough that we could position the boat close to the better channels without great difficulty. The fishing was tough. But out of the wind on a pretty, deserted river, the spirits aboard lifted. By the time the late afternoon sun broke through beneath the cloud bank, none of us seemed too concerned that the bream were proving elusive.
Then Norm had a good hit, and shortly after, while fishing from the shore near the boat, I caught a bream. I was working a Muz Wilson red Hammerhead along a weedbed just as I had been doing off and on for an hour, when the strike came from nowhere. I can’t remember what I did or didn’t do when the fish hit, but I recall a disproportionate mixture of excitement and relief when the bream stayed on. It pulled away with that breamish side-on power I hadn’t felt in a while, flashing a bright flank beneath the tannin water. It took a minute or two before I could bring the bream to my grasp. It was simply a ‘keeper’ that I didn’t keep, neither big nor small for a bream. But it was a fish on an otherwise fishless day, and it had meaning beyond the simple weight of it in my hand.
I phoned Jane when I got in that night and, of course, she asked: “How was your day?” The weather had been crap, our original target river was ruined by muddy water, the start time had been delayed by hours and the boat only half worked. Yet I found myself replying that it had been a great day’s fishing, complete with good company, a brand new spot, and even a respectable fish caught under tough conditions.
The next day, Sunday, the wind dropped to nothing and the sun came out. Jon had repaired the electric, and he and Norm headed back to the Hopkins for a second try. Local guru Scott Gray took Mark, Dash and I offshore in his runabout seeking salmon. We fished in a gentle swell behind a large reef, where the sun shone down through 4m of water to dapple a sea floor alternately lined with kelp and bare sand. The salmon schools were loosely packed and erratically spaced, but we never went more than 10 minutes without finding them.
I haven’t yet spent enough time in the salt to get used to the sheer desperation with which pelagic species can attack flies. Often there were three different salmon hurling after three huge, glittering flies, which we stripped as fast across the surface (or just under it) as we could manage. The salmon were all 1-2kg fish and, once hooked, they buckled 9wt and 10wt rods like wet straw. It was fabulous, frantic, prolific flyfishing that saw somewhere between 50 and 70 salmon boated in about three hours – we’ll never be exactly sure of the number, because none of us wanted to stop fishing for long enough to keep an accurate tally. When Scott finally turned the boat for shore, undoubtedly leaving hundreds of un-caught salmon still cruising the reef, there was no dissent. Four different anglers were entirely satisfied.
Heading along the darkened roads to home that night, with Dasher at the wheel, there was time to sit back and contemplate the weekend. Mark commented that it felt as though more fishing had happened than could be fitted into two days, and yet the weekend seemed over too soon. Then the mobile rang – it was Jane, asking how my day had been…Reads: 578