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Confessions of a Mugfly Fisherman

You don’t need to be a champion fly caster to enjoy the unique pleasures associated with waving the long wand around. SHANE MENSFORTH reports.

TO some people, casting a fly rod is as natural as riding a bike. The trainer wheels come off after a couple of casual lessons and the wonderful world of fly fishing opens up. For others, like me, it’s a totally different story; more akin to playing golf than cycling, where frustration and resignation occasionally make way for brief periods of satisfaction.

I’ve been fly fishing, on and off, for the best part of 30 years. Time with the long wand in hand accounts for maybe 10 per cent of my overall fishing, but it’s something I genuinely love. Not being particularly good at it is, at times, a pain in the arse, however, my shortcomings haven’t proven a significant deterrent. I own a dozen fly rods between 4-12 weight and half a dozen reels, none of which get anywhere as much use as they should.

Returning to the golf analogy for a moment, where technique and practice are critical to success, my fly casting would undoubtedly be better if I did it more regularly. I’ve been taught by respected names like Ken Orr, Peter Hayes, John Rumpf and the late Evan Matthews, most of whom spent more time shaking their heads at my general ineptitude than actually instructing me. None of these guys ever told me I was hopeless, although they probably thought it, and without their patience and guidance in the early stages I would most likely have abandoned fly fishing decades ago.

Despite my obvious fly fishing inadequacies, I’ve been fortunate enough to catch some pretty damn impressive fish on the long wand. Trout, bones, tuna, salmon (Atlantic and Aussie), yellowtail kings, snapper, snook, trevally of several varieties, coral trout, barra, saratoga, queenies and threadfin reads like a “who’s who” of Australian fly fishing targets, so I guess even a “mug” can join the party if enough opportunities present themselves.

There can be no doubt that the mystique often associated with fly fishing deters a lot of anglers from having a go. Fly fishing has its own lingo and a sub-culture that sometimes appears aloof, which is a pity. I know I’ve occasionally felt intimidated when in the company of died-in-the-wool wand wavers and can fully appreciate why a lot of fishos turn off as soon as the conversation heads in that direction. I was once a member of a sportfishing club where a small group of fly specialists formed their own little clique and began looking down their noses at the rest of us. Rightly or wrongly, elitism has been associated with fly fishing since Adam was a junior angler and to me it’s a real pity.

There can be no doubt that, in some cases at least, casting a fly is the most effective way of catching your target species. The most obvious scenario along these lines, of course, is presenting a tiny dry fly to a discerning wild brown trout. There is simply no better method of putting that fly where it has to be to fool the trout, especially if the fly is intended to replicate an insect or minor aquatic crustacean. In most other fly fishing situations I can think of, however, a soft plastic or hard-body lure fished on threadline gear would be equally, if not more, effective.

So, why fly fish?
I can only speak for myself, of course, but the main reason I go fly fishing for species like salmon, barra, snapper and trevally is to inject an exciting challenge into the equation. For example, catching a big Australian salmon in the surf on traditional tackle, baits and lures is fun, but put away the big surf stick and break out a 10 weight fly rod and everything changes. Every element of the scenario becomes more difficult and the fishing brain is forced to change to a higher gear.

Instead of merely throwing the bail arm over, loading the rod and letting rip for the horizon, casting takes on a different level of significance. Somehow you’ve got to get a relatively bulky 10-12cm Lefty’s Deceiver 70 or 80 feet out into the surf to reach an inshore gutter, which is no mean feat, especially for the non-expert fly caster. You’ve then got to be able to strip the fly fast enough to attract the salmon’s attention. It’s a difficult combination of skills, but something that’s very satisfying when it all comes together.

I’d like to walk you through some of the more memorable fly fishing scenarios I’ve enjoyed over the years. One or more of the following may just be enough to tempt you into having a crack for yourself. They don’t appear in any particular order and they were all appealing for different reasons.

Christmas Island bones
Regarded by many as the Holy Grail of shallow water fly fishing, bonefish certainly live up to their considerable reputation. I was lucky enough to be invited to fish Christmas Island by good mate Geoff Jones back in mid 2006. Like me, Jonesy is an occasional fly fisher whose ability rarely matches his aspirations. Also along on this expedition were Glenn McCarthy from Angling Adventures and renowned Taassie guide, Peter Hayes, so we were definitely in expert company.

Christmas Island is a windy place. It blows 15 knots overnight, increases steadily throughout the day to 25 knots and then drops back to 15 as your head hits the pillow again. The bones are scattered over hundreds of square kilometres of inshore tidal flats, where they feed on tiny crabs and prawns grubbed from the sand. Eight weight tackle is generally the preferred option for presenting small flies and, as Jonesy and I discovered, the ability to cast quickly and accurately is critical to success.

To cut the Christmas Island story short, I managed to catch 20-odd bonefish for the five-day trip, while the experts among us caught three times as many. My casting simply wasn’t efficient enough to improve on that number, but I was anything but disappointed. You’ve probably all heard stories about bonefish being like sand whiting on steroids and I can vouch for that description being right on the money. Kilo for kilo, bones are among the fastest things on fins and even a three pounder will leave you gob-smacked as it relieves you of a hundred metres of backing at lightning pace. My advice to anyone with the time, money and inclination to catch a bonefish is to make it a top priority and there are few locations as consistently productive as Christmas Island.

Bensbach barramundi
I’ve visited Bensbach Wildlife Lodge, in New Guinea’s Western Province, a number of times. It’s probably the best barramundi fishery on the planet, as well as one of the most naturally beautiful wilderness locations. Along with the usual baitcaster tackle, I’ve always taken a 10 weight fly outfit to Bensbach and on most occasions had a ball with both barra and big saratoga.

The largest barra I’ve ever taken on fly, a 22 pounder, came from the Bensbach River in July of 2005 during one of the most mind-boggling fishing sessions I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in. There were nine of us in three boats all pulled up on the bank and casting lures in the general vicinity of a large swamp drain. It was virtually a fish per cast, with everyone hooked up on barra of varying sizes for
a couple of truly incredible hours.

After catching and releasing 20-odd fish on soft plastics, I abandoned the baitcaster, rigged a bulky pink and white fly on my 10 weight Loomis and rejoined the fray. An intermediate sinking line soon had the fly down in the strike zone and after just a couple of strips, a magnificent barra erupted mid stream. It was the first of more than 30 for the fly rod and I can tell you a 10 kilo barra on eight kilo tippet is a lot of fish to hang onto!

Convention Beach salmon
Surf salmon are right up there as my favourite fish. There’s something about a 10 pounder, leaping and gyrating in the surf, that always sets my heart racing. Convention Beach, on SA’s West Coast, is one of the most reliable big salmon locations in the country. My son Brett and I fish there a lot these days and, providing tides and weather conditions are in our favour, we rarely miss out.

The Convention Beach salmon run between six and nine pounds, with the occasional double figure fish if you’re lucky. Fresh local pillies are the gun natural bait and metals and soft plastics work as well; but it’s on the fly that Brett and I enjoy them most. As mentioned earlier, surf salmon on fly are a significant challenge and there have been some frustrating occasions when we simply couldn’t cast far enough to secure a hook up.

Easily my memorable session at Convention occurred last December, when a school of big fish was holed up in a gutter no more than 20m from shore. The salmon were ravenous and within easy casting distance and Brett and I had an absolute ball catching and releasing them on eight weights. The best would have pushed double figures and the average size was seven to eight pounds, so you can imagine how much fun they were. We were both hooked up on rampaging salmon for much of that two-hour session and it took at least another week to remove the silly grins from our faces!

Tassie trout
My first Tasmanian fly fishing expedition was back in the late 1980s under the guidance of Evan Matthews. Evan was the sort of guy who could teach anyone to cast and the fact that he regarded me as one of his most challenging students was always
a source of mutual amusement. He’s departed now, rest his soul, but Evan remains as one of the nicest guys and best fishing companions I’ve ever spent time with on a river or lake. He showed me how to fish in difficult locations like Little Pine Lagoon and even put me on to a couple of beautiful brownies on that water’s legendary “Untouchables” shoreline. There’s no doubt Evan is still catching big speckled things somewhere up there in trout fishing heaven.

Ken Orr was my next Tasmanian mentor and we’re still good mates today. Ken also found me a handful to instruct, particularly when it came to subtle dry fly presentation, but he has always been accommodating enough to let the bad casts slide by without comment and compliment me on the occasional good one. We’ve shared some memorable fly fishing on his home turf in Tassie’s Lakes District, particularly on legendary waters like Bronte Lagoon, Brady’s Lake and the streams around Tarraleah. It was Ken who introduced me to Ian and Rosie Cook in 2007.

The Cooks operate Twin Lakes, which is a superb 3000-acre property located about an hour north-east of Hobart. It’s a private fishery that produces brown and rainbow trout of truly staggering proportions. I know a lot of fly fishing purists poo-hoo private fisheries, and that’s their prerogative, but I also know how exciting it is to lock horns with a double figure rainbow trout on six or eight pound tippet, and this is the sort of fishing Twin Lakes offers.

I’ve enjoyed several excursions to this great fishery now and, apart from a rather ill-fated four-day stint in 2009, the fly fishing has been nothing short of sensational. That February disaster was due to a combination of low water levels and near 40 degree heat, which made the poor trout unwilling to do much except mooch about and try their best to stay alive. Fortunately, a very wet winter that year revitalised Twin Lakes and it’s now back on line as Australia’s premier private trout fishing venue.

Most of the fishing involves repetitive casting with big wet flies like Woolly Buggers and leech patterns, but there are occasions when the fish are up top on dries, so Twin Lakes offers something for everyone. It’s ideal for me and several of my close fishing buddies who don’t possess the casting skills of an Orr, Rumpf or Hayes. This doesn’t mean the fish are a push-over either and you still need to be on the ball to catch them. They average 10-12 pounds and I have now caught two over 20, which undoubtedly puts me in a rather elite group – ordinary caster or not!

Offshore experiences
I’ve done a heap of long-range offshore fishing over the past decade or so, mainly out of Port Lincoln, and there can be no doubting this is a fabulous area for all manner of heavyweight sportfish. The autumn produces calm weather and unlimited action on the wide grounds, enabling both charter operations and private anglers to get out amongst the bluefin, yellowtail kings, samson fish and sharks.

Because the heaviest fly fishing outfit I own is a 12 weight, I have been a bit limited as to what I can tangle with out on the bluewater, but there have been plenty of memorable moments. My best fly-caught bluefin to date is a modest 36 pounder, but there have been a couple of monumental encounters that concluded in the fish’s favour and I’m confident of cracking the 50 pound barrier at some stage in the future.

A 24-pound yellowtail king is undoubtedly one of the toughest fish I’ve yet hooked on fly tackle and rates right alongside a giant trevally of similar size from the Kimberley coast a couple of years back. Both kings and GTs are brutes on most tackle, but really show their stubborn side on a fly rod. Samson fish are almost as tough and the same applies to a few less glamorous species like big silver trevally and SA’s jumbo snapper.

Like most who enjoy fly fishing enough to spend some money on tackle and travel to far-flung destinations, my ultimate ambition is to catch a billfish on fly. This may or may not happen for me, but it’s something I’ll most definitely have a crack at before I’m too old and/or too poor to consider it.

The moral of this story, of course, is that you don’t have to be an expert fly caster to have fun. All you need is the desire to challenge yourself and to hook up with someone who can teach youthe basics. What happens from there is entirely up to you.

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