Tasmania may well be regarded as one of the finest trout fishing destinations in the world, but over the years for some reason I kept putting off making that pilgrimage.
For me fishing has always meant quietly poking along rivers or, better still, gentle mountain streams - whereas Tassie trout are generally found, or so the legend goes, in lakes the size of the Mediterranean Sea. Not only that, but the fishing down there is reputed to be highly technical, with a whole range of very specific fly patterns required for different lakes at different times of the year. Put the wrong colour wings on your specially-tied Archaeopteryx gigantus emerging highland dun, for example, and you won't so much as see a fish for the duration of your stay.
And even then, assuming you do manage to select the correct pattern and tie it on properly (yet another challenge), you've still got to cast it 50 metres or more directly into a Force Nine gale while battling the onset of acute hypothermia. Unless of course it's summer, in which case you're more likely to tread on a tiger snake before you even get to make a cast.
Is this all sounding a little negative? Obviously not negative enough, because late last year I finally put aside my prejudices and decided to check the place out. Armed with a five-weight fly rod, several cans of snake repellant and a suitcase full of beanies and thermal underwear, I headed south.
|Salmon Ponds, in the Derwent Valley, site of Australia's first successful trout 'hatch' in 1864.|
After touching down in Hobart I hired a car and decided to drive north. Going south would have made my next stop Mawson Base, but as it turned out the weather that greeted me was pretty Antarctic anyway. 'Coldest December on Record!' shouted the mid-week headline in the Hobart paper.
The early (read 'warm') part of the trip took me through a series of picturesque little towns like Richmond and Bothwell: beautiful, bucolic hamlets with all the charm of a Cotswold village minus the German tour buses.
I was pretty keen to start fishing but couldn't resist stopping at a place called Salmon Ponds, where they've actually got a Trout Museum, or Hall of Fame, or whatever they call it. In fact you quickly come to realize that Tasmanians have a great sense of their own heritage because there are museums everywhere. There's a Golf Museum in Bothwell along with a charming little course where they fence the greens to keep the sheep off them, and a Hydroelectricity Museum in Poatina. It wouldn't surprise me if plans were underway somewhere for a Museum Museum in the not-so-distant future.
|A wild Brown Trout (Salmo trutta) from Arthurs Lake.|
But getting back to Salmon Ponds: this was the place where trout were first introduced into Australia by homesick settlers eager to make the place feel a bit more like Olde Englande. To this end they also introduced rabbits, blackberries and trade union officials, all of which flourished in the local conditions, but trout proved to be their ultimate challenge.
|Fly patterns used on Arthurs Lake.|
You see, the fish had to be brought out as eggs packed in literally tons of ice, sawdust and moss in the hold of a four-masted sailing ship. After several failed attempts, a handful of survivors were lovingly coaxed to life in breeding ponds alongside the Plenty River in 1864. It was sort of a trans-oceanic IVF program that these days would probably struggle to meet with Federal Government approval.
One bloke in particular - James Youl - devoted much of his life to this dream of bringing trout to the antipodes, persisting even when the first few boatloads of ova died en route. Youl is now remembered either (depending on whether you are a freshwater angler or not) as the Father of Tasmanian Trout Fishing or a mad old bugger with too much time on his hands. Whichever, eventually a few hundred fish managed to hatch and from that day on they've thrived, spreading into just about every river and lake on the island. It was to one of these lakes I was heading, up in the Central Highlands about 150 kilometres north of Hobart.
|London Lakes fly fishing resort and another happy customer.|
Arthurs Lake, like most of the lakes in Tasmania is a massive body of water - the sort of impoundment where you have to set your watch back an hour when you hit the far shore. Left to my own devices I wouldn't have had a clue how to catch trout on such a huge lake, but fortunately an establishment named Blue Lake Lodge was there to provide me with my first taste of Tasmanian trout fishing.
|Sunrise over Creely Bay, Arthurs Lake.|
The lodge is owned by local guide Brett Wolf - you could tell he was a local by the fact he tends to get about in shorts and sandals even with a hint of snow in the air - and his wife Simone, who, together set the place up two years ago.
Now, if your image of a lodge involves heaps of dark panelling and heavy wooden beams, with knots of crusty old men drinking brandy for breakfast, well, you can relax: Blue Lake Lodge is bright, modern, warm and features some of the finest cooking you'll find in the country. It's worth the trip just to taste Simone's wild brown trout sashimi. And the brandy stays locked away 'til at least mid-afternoon.
|Sunset over lake Samuel.|
But enough of the menu - I was there to fish, so the next morning at about half past bacon and eggs we headed out on Brett's boat to search the coves and crannies of Arthurs Lake for feeding fish.
Instantly another of my misconceptions about lake fishing - that it pretty much involves 'blind flogging' where you just cast a fly at random and hope something swims past - was overturned. Brett very much favours sight fishing and the first hour or so was spent scanning the water for subtle signs that there might be a fish loitering somewhere in the neighbourhood.
Whenever a trout was spotted we'd stealthily drift in its direction with the aid of a bow-mounted electric motor. Once in range, it was my job to get a cast out as quickly and accurately as possible. Not always easy, especially when your guide yells "He's a big one!" If there's one phrase a struggling fly fisherman does not want to hear at the moment of casting it's "He's a big one!" or "Excuse me sir, could I please see your freshwater fishing license?"
After several days of fine food and fishing it was time for the next stop on my Tasmanian trout odyssey: London Lakes Lodge, just a little up the road - pretty much everything in Tassie is 'just a little up the road'.
The author with guide Andrew Harker on the Macquarie River.
London Lakes is a longer-established, equally luxurious lodge complete with its own private lakes and an international reputation. Many of its guests have been going there for decades. A simple comment like "Cold, isn't it?" would generally be greeted with "You should have seen it in August '74, old chap - the entire lake was frozen over!"
Apart from having good memories, these old-timers tend to be traditionalists and most of them favour fishing from the lakeshore. No one actually said as much, but you got the impression that using a boat was a mild form of cheating. But by this stage I was completely hooked on the boat thing and wasn't about to let tradition stand in the way of some solid fishing.
Fortunately my guide, Greg Beecroft, was of similar mind and we spent several productive days cruising around in a small dinghy pursuing large trout as they fed actively all over the lake. These fish tended to congregate in what's known as 'wind lanes' which are, more or less, rivers of food flowing across the lake. All you need to do is find one of these wind lanes, motor up to its head and then drift back down casting to big browns as they porpoise past.
While lake fishing pretty much dominates the scene in Tassie, there are plenty of productive rivers too, and so for my last day on the island I headed north to the Macquarie River to try out a float-fishing operation I'd been told about. This basically involved sitting in a raised chair on a purpose-built raft and drifting downstream, pulling up whenever we saw a rise or came to a likely bit of trout water.
|Surveying Lake St. Clair Lagoon.|
For someone used to stumbling his way up rocky rivers and slippery streams, this was the ultimate indulgence. My day basically consisted of leaning back in a comfortably-padded chair like Lee Marvin in his marlin-fishing heyday, while my guide - a very patient chap by the name of Andrew Harker - rowed me into position, selected and tied on flies for me, and pointed out exactly where to cast.
Of course, it was still up to me to make the cast. Not easy with a glass of Chardonnay in one hand, but that small inconvenience aside, fishing doesn't come much easier or more enjoyable than this. Over the course of the afternoon I hooked a dozen or so good-sized trout without once getting off my, by now, equally good-sized bottom.
I barely spent a week in Tasmania and thus hardly regard myself as an expert, but I do feel confident in wholeheartedly recommending the place, subject to a few important pieces of advice:
1. Pack warm clothes - even in summer it can be freezing, especially up in the Central Highlands.
2. Use the services of a professional guide - you'll catch more fish with a guide in one hour than you will in a week of stumbling about on your own.
3. Use a boat on the larger lakes. Don't be swayed by traditionalists insisting "you can fish from the shore." That's a bit like saying "you can hold the rod in your mouth" - theoretically possible but ultimately pointless.
4. Did I mention to pack warm clothes?