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Goulburn Valley Fly Fishing Centre

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Backwater Alternatives

The mighty Goulburn River is a formidable water anywhere downstream of Lake Eildon. Used as an irrigation conduit, it supplies the immensely fertile Goulburn Valley, with a lifeline of water the whole year round. Large and unrelenting releases of water begin in early summer and end in mid autumn, turning what would otherwise be a dust bowl into a food bowl.

It is becuase of these large, controlled releases of irrigation water, that the Goulburn is seen as such a difficult fishery. High summer flows which the make the majority of the river unmanageable to traditional methods should open the door to a bit of lateral thinking and the unique fishing opportunities that these high flows present.

Huge summer flows of 8,000 mega litres a day and higher are routine from late November through until early April. Anything over a couple of thousand megalitres a day sees the backwaters and edge waters really start to fill. With this inundation of new ground come the trout. Fossicking about looking for food, the edges providing not only a new source of nourishment but also added protection from predators. Many of these backwaters contain sunken timber and are quite often shaded by trees.

The confidence this astalking a typical summer backwater ffords the trout really has to be seen to be believed. Fish will happily rise all day while an angler perched on a tree trunk a mere metre above, daps the fly trying to elicit a response. I have, on many occasions spent four or five hours on one fish and would not have realised the time spent if it weren't for the sudden lack of effectiveness of my polaroids!

Backwaters come in all shapes and sizes. Some are 30 metres in circumference some as small as a coffe table. Almost all hold trout. They are the lazy Susan's of the trout world, funnelling a never ending supply of food to the occupant. All a trout has to do is casually fin in the slow moving water and wait.

These reverse currents extend right down into the depths and so a constant supply of nymphs, stick caddis, snails not to mention all the bugs found on the surface or in the film are on offer. Consequently they are locations highly desired by trout.

Once you come to this realisation you can safely assume that competition for these places is high and therefore the better, bigger, stronger fish will occupy them. This is the case. The trout found in these backwaters tend to be considerably bigger than those found in the main flow of the river. As I look back through my diary for the past 5 years I see a distinct trend whereby most of my big fish came from backwaters. Even in the past two seasons where we haven't had many real high-water situations (recent droughts have meant Lake Eildon has been running well below capacity. This has caused some rationing of irrigation releases ) most of the big fish of four pound and up came from the edges and all the true trophy trout that we saw were all found along the edge.

One thing that closely observing a backwater teaches you is the pecking order of trout. A couple of years ago I spent the better part of a week in one particular tree! It was during this week that the Goulburn first swelled to its summer levels and the fish were on the lookout for new lies. From my perch I had a great view of a backwater some twenty metres square and maybe five foot deep. Trout after trout would cruise through looking for food and the best position. Fortunately the pick of the water was directly below me on the crease of two reverses and a pocket of scum rapidly developed. Almost every day a new and bigger fish occupied this position and it was fascinating watching these large trout aggressively chase away smaller intruders. Eventually a four pound fish occupied this niche and was caught and released twice that season.

Perhaps the most attractive attribute of this style of fishing is that it is totally visual. Donning a pair of Polaroid sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat the angler sets out at around 10.30 most mornings. With the sun at your shoulder, your Polaroid glasses have maximum penetration through the glare and an underwater world is revealed. To anyone who is yet to experience this all I can say is get out and do it. It can be thoroughly exhilarating and the whole day can fly by in an instant. Gargantuan battles are fought well before the fly even reaches the water! Finding a fish, working out an approach, choosing a fly and finally presenting the fly without spooking the fish or getting caught in the overhanging trees and grass....

A typical session will go somewhere along the lines of this; after selecting the stretch of water to be fished you have to work out how you will go about it. Fortunately other anglers are not a consideration as in all my time fishing this way I have only ever seen a lone few compatriots. All these backwaters are best approached from an upstream direction. Now before you dimiss me as crazy; the reason for the downstream approach is because these edges we are talking about generally are home to a current reverse and the fish are facing upstream into the reverse. That means they are facing 'Downstream' in relation to the main river flow.

Armed with this knowledge the angler picks suitable looking water and approaches from an upstream position. Keeping a low profile and shadows off the water, using slow movements, wearing drab clothing and tramping lightly are all par for the course. This is hunting and you need everything in your favour if you are to fool a wary, timid trout in such a location. Quite often you will need to crawl poking only the tip of your nose over the edge to see what's down there.  

Scan the water carefully looking not only for a trout but any irregularity. A shadow on the bottom, the white of a mouth as the trout eats something down deep, anything that doesn't quite look right. More often than not it wont be too hard. The fish will be on station and making regular patrols on a 'beat' whereby he will cruise his backwater/patch. It is important to note this as I have seen a number of people spook fish by casting thinking the opportunity is about to be lost. This is not the case and as long as you haven't done anything to alert the fish he will return to his spot within a few minutes.

Be aware that many of these fish will sit hard against the bank or in the undercuts. Although you wont see all of them in time its is definitely worth carefully scanning this water. I remember spending 20 minutes in a backwater that I knew contained a good fish. As I went to move, a fish of around seven pound shot off from right beneath my feet. Also of interest is the fact that these trout will remain in such areas for as long as the water levels are up, falling back to the main flow when it drops. They will return however as soon as it rises again and it is not out of the ordinary to find the same trout in the same backwater, season after season.  

The hardest part of this style of fishing is getting the fly to the fish without spooking it. What I would flatly state is false casting is an absolute no-no. In 90% of my backwater fishing only the leader and maybe a few feet of fly line are through the tip. Coiled on your hand you must be ready to present this with as little disturbance to the water as possible. Flick casts, bow and arrow casts and all sorts of other unorthodox deliveries will be called for; all that matters is you get it over the fish. Sometimes you may have to present to a fish at a greater distance and may even have room to do so, but keep false casting to a minimum and as low to the water as possible.

Refusals can be expected while fishing these edges but I would like to share a few secrets with you. Firstly, a refusal isn't a problem, as although you cannot afford to rip the fly off the water as you will spook the fish, all you have to do is wait for the fish to go off on its regular beat. You can then retrieve the fly and change it. As Arnie would put it 'he'll be back'.

What I've found is it's best to keep your arm movements against your body while changing flies or in other words only use small body movements, that way not alerting the trout who may come back on station half way through this process. Quite regularly a lack of interest will be taken as a refusal but this is not always case. These fish will sometimes swim very close to the surface and therefore their field of vision is greatly reduced. Remember if the fish is near the surface he won't see your fly unless it is right on his nose. Also in regards to this 'hand to hand' combat, watches should be taken off and kept in a pocket or vest. Its quite frustrating for an hours stalking to be ruined by flash from a watch catching the sun. I wear mine upside down and usually with a long sleeve shirt.

So you've done everything right. You've picked good looking water, approached from upstream in a commando like fashion with leader coiled in your hand all at the ready but what fly should you have on ? These is the easy part. I have found the majority of these trout are feeding on small terrestrial items. Small beetles, leafhoppers, ants, caterpillars, grasshoppers and cicadas are frequently on the menu. The fly of choice for me though is a number sixteen or eighteen Cochybondhu. This rather innocuous Welsh pattern is a real gem in such water. I have watched even the most selective trout in a variety of bug falls rise and sip this fly like it was the 'proverbial' last feed he was ever going to have.

Also worth noting is that it is often only a matter of going down in size rather than changing patterns that is the key to success when a fish refuses your offering. On a few rare occasions patterns as small as a twenty four have proved the undoing of picky trout. In the more open backwaters with no tree coverage a small paradun will also fool most fish.

Most beetle patterns, ant patterns and in season grasshoppers will take trout. Perhaps those taken on grasshoppers are the most exciting in that unlike the beetle and ant sippers who seem content to leisurely sip them from the film the trout taking the hopper more often than not slam the artificial from the top witha crash.

Sub-surface presentations are sometimes required and can be very difficult to get them to the fish as they show little motivation to move much for underwater items. Fortunately they will come to the top on most occasions but if not a small green nymph works enough of the time for me to recommend it. However the sheer joy of fishing the dry and seeing the take override the desire to fish below the surface and make something more difficult than it really should be. But no matter how you do it this close up 'eye ball' fishing really gets the blood pumping and the heart racing.

Did I say the hardest part of this fishing was presenting the fly without spooking the fish ? Well I lied! The hardest aspect is landing the fish. Guide Geoff Hall is notorious for clichés such as " get 'em on first, worry about getting 'em off later" and I am a firm believer in this 'Geoff'ism'. Four weight rods and four pound tippets are not necessarily the best equipment for stopping a large trout from finding refuge in the sunken log just two metres from where he took the fly. But this is what you are looking at. Locking the fish up from the word go is of paramount importance if you want to retrieve that pattern and not have to re-tie your tippet.

Most of the water is inherently 'snaggy' by nature of its location and getting their head up earlyon in the fight is the only hope for landing such fish. Many trout will be hooked and lost but it is surprising how much pressure you can exert with such gear. Hooking some four pound tippet onto your back fence and testing exactly how much pressure you can put on this mono is a great confidence booster before putting that expensive graphite wand through its paces in amongst the snags. Nevertheless all things going right you will still lose more trout than you land.

So there you have it. Sight fishing with the dry fly to the largest fish in the river. Not back country New Zealand, Alaska or Patagonia but two hours drive time from Melbourne. So go on, give it a go and see why those in the know keep returning to the Goulburn River summer after summer. 




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