Winter in the trout regions of the Canberra-Monaro district is a wonderful scene. The weather is cold, with night temperatures dropping to –10° or –11° on the mountain lakes and plenty of deep snow on the hills.
Some of the days are a bit tough, with gale-force winds that prevent you from standing up properly and providing wind-chill around –30° with ice forming around the shoreline and sometimes developing into large sheets in the shaded sections of water; fog freezing on the tree branches; nothing moving anywhere.
Other days, however, are delightful: Crisp and clear with just a pale sun shining through; no wind; birds echoing in the distance; moisture dripping from rocks and trees; an occasional fish dimpling the water offshore.
It's not hard to take but you have to understand the whole rhythm of the mountains to enjoy it properly and to get the best out of the limited Winter fishing.
Take the browns, for example. For the past two months they have been emerging as fashion statements, developing superb body colouring with prominent orange-brown spotting, great scarlet slashes along their sides, big hooked jaws on the males and fat bellies on the females.
They are going spawning, travelling for long distances up rivers such as the Thredbo, Eucumbene and Murrumbidgee, searching for just the right gravel beds where they will lay and fertilise their eggs in clear, cold, oxygen-rich and silt-free water.
They started moving upstream back in May, progressing farther every time there was a spate that encouraged and allowed them to bypass barriers such as silt hummocks, rock bars and waterfalls.
They will keep on coming during July, August and even September until all that want to spawn have done so. A lot of them will then fall back to the lakes where there is plenty of food in the form of yabbies, shrimps, water fleas, mudeyes and other insects to help them regain condition.
They will be ravenously hungry because they don't feed much on the spawning run and the processes use a lot of energy that has to be replaced.
Some of the fish don't immediately return to the lake. They stay upriver knowing that the rainbows are coming up to spawn. Rainbows move mostly during August, September and October, seeking out and using the same gravel beds that the browns previously occupied.
There is a fair bit of predation now in the streams. The browns will eat just about anything that moves but adore trout eggs, trout hatchlings and trout fingerlings.
Eventually, most of the old and new fish move back to the lakes, leaving in the streams just enough new fish to properly use the available food supply.
Spawning fish, of course, are off limits to anglers. The stream season closed in the first week of June and won't reopen until October.
In the early pre-spawn there was some exciting fishing in the lakes and rivers. This is the one time of the year when fly and lure anglers can hope to catch trophy fish, elusive monsters to 6kg that most anglers dream about but get a chance to fish for perhaps only once a year.
This year there were some big fish in the Thredbo and Eucumbene rivers and in the reaches of lakes Jindabyne and Eucumbene leading to those rivers.
On one occasion I crept along the Thredbo River near Paddys Corner, downstream from Gaden Hatchery.
There were dozens of big browns lying in the current, on the bottom and facing upstream. They didn't spook too easily but I still fished warily, keeping a low profile in my neoprene waders in the cold water and keeping false casting to a minimum.
The trick was to get the fly across and down to where the fish were lying, preferably positioning it so that it drifted past the fish's mouth and encouraging it to slash at it out of hunger, aggression or irritation. The best of the flies were Glo Bugs, small egg imitations and small nymphs weighted with copper wire.
Some good fish fell to the flies that day and of course all of them were returned. I had my trophies – photographs and memories.
Many other anglers fished that stretch of water, some with lures, some with flies. A lure angler got the biggest fish I heard of, a 6.8kg brown which was returned and maybe by now has helped produce another couple of hundred new trout for Lake Jindabyne.
Despite the generally cold and sometimes adverse conditions, fishing in the lakes can be quite productive.
Firstly, ensure you are safely and comfortably dressed with thermal underwear, neoprene waders, thick socks, fingerless or finger-opening gloves, a good beanie or balaclava and a rainproof or snowproof jacket. Hand and pocket warmers are good, as are polarised glasses.
If you are lure fishing you can try a wide range of patterns but are likely to do best with things such as a Wonder Spoon, Wonder Crocodile, Rapala Minnow in sizes from 3cm to 13cm, jointed Rebel Minnow, Baby Merlin and a host of other look-alike patterns.
You can fish blind or cast to the occasional rising fish.
The trick is to keep on the move, covering a lot of water and then concentrating on any spot where you catch one fish. Rainbows in particular often group up with 15 or more fish in a pod and where you catch one, more can be taken.
Browns tend to be a bit more solitary bit still may be around in pairs.
If you are fly fishing you are likely to fare best with a sink-tip or intermediate-sink line. One of my favourite techniques is to use a wet fly such as Rabbit or other fish pattern on a slow-sinking, weight-forward line, then dredge the bottom about 5m to 6m down.
Move the fly across the bottom using a slow figure-eight retrieve and strike when you feel the slightest touch. It's a deadly technique for big browns in particular.
Polaroiding is another useful technique, involving slowly walking the shore with a good set of polarising sunglasses, searching for fish lying or cruising in the shallows.
When you spot a fish, cast gently to it and lead it with the fly. It's surprising how often you will get a hook-up, sometimes in incredibly shallow water. Highly recommended for its fun and success rate.
You can still use bait during Winter. Best ones are the old standards, scrub worms, bardi grubs and PowerBait fished in shallow to medium-deep water on light tackle. Fish can be expected at any time of day or early evening – it's usually too cold to stay later.
If trout fishing is not your bag you can always try for redfin or natives in other waters.
Redfin can be quite active during cold weather, though not as lively as during the Summer.
The natives are mostly pretty quiet during Winter, sitting down deep and not doing much, but sometimes you can get them interested.
I like to try with top-quality baits such as live shrimps, caught locally, or live yabbies, which you have to obtain from a bait supplier because the local ones are all deep in the mud for the Winter.
Alternatively, you can try self-berleying bardi or wood grubs, juicy scrub worms from Tasmania or saltwater prawns (don't tell the freshwater fish where they came from!).
You can cast lures, too, but expect fairly sparse rewards for a lot of effort, as you sometimes have to put the lure almost in the fish's mouth to get a take.
No matter what you do, though, there is always some fun to be had with your Winter fishing. Dress well and enjoy yourself.Reads: 644