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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Gone Fishin'

It is too easy to get trapped into a machine like routine and not stick your head up to enjoy that which you work for. I work to pay my bills and to enjoy life where I can. In the last few years I spend most of my time trying to keep up with my bills and not enough time getting right away from them. A friend, a few months back, explained to me the secret to his ability to make time to do things outside of work. He said “it wasn’t my idea, my cousin said to me, you book the trip, then, if you get close to the date and you can’t do it, you cancel, or you move the date out. But if you don’t book it, you won’t go. So, you need to plan it well in advance”.

The following evening an email came into my inbox inviting me to fish a remote part of Tasmania on a fly fishing expedition. I didn’t even think, I just booked the tickets and said to myself “if I can’t make it, I’ll just cancel”. But I had no intention to cancel.

We left very early one morning last week and arrived in Hobart just before lunch. There were four of us, old mates, on a road trip heading for the Central Highlands to a village called Miena where we were staying at a place called The Rainbow Lodge.

We arrived and found our bedrooms and within the hour a guide picked us up to head out onto our first fishing spot, Little Pine Lagoon, a place which says of itself on a placard located by the banks that it was the most famous trout fishing spot in Australia. I had fly fished since I was 15, having learned from an influential ‘uncle’ (he wasn’t really an uncle but more a close family friend) that in life two things that were really worth knowing about were fly fishing and jazz music. We were aesthetes, he and I, but he died of cancer some fourteen years ago and whilst I held onto the jazz he left me, I really didn’t give all that much attention to my fly casting.

My attempt to perfect the art of fly fishing had always been stymied by bush and trees since I had never taken the time to buy a boat. Trout fishing in Australian rivers or dams often means getting tangled and patience with untangling my line was never a virtue I held in high esteem, nor looking after such ornate gear. For a few years I switched over to spearfishing, a certain kind of Hemingway romance beckoned me, but after years of getting sea sick, as well as getting tangled in more lines, I had pretty much given up that art form too. Especially when I had come face to face with a three metre shark and if it weren’t for the fellow diver who pushed him off coming too close to me, I might not be writing this blog today.

It was quite refreshing that the first thing that was asked of me was to change into waders once we parked near the far dam wall, for I had never worn waders fishing before and I assumed it meant I would have less scrub to catch onto in my back cast. Some of the group, the more adept fisherman in our party, already had their own waders and were walking around like proud aristocrats in this somewhat similar landscape to the Scottish highlands - at least that was how I perceived them. I eventually got mine on and we began trekking through thick scrub made up of what the locals call ‘kerosene bush’ (because it smells like a fragrant kerosene and bursts into flames when you burn it) and another fragrant smell that seemed to be emanating from some form of an acacia. Through reeds, shallow brooks and more scrub, we penetrated our way onto the far side of the lagoon where we fished for rising trout who barely rose at all whilst a sporadic burst of sunshine followed by grey cloud made it impossible to work out whether to add or subtract layers of clothing.

The landscape I would like to describe as apprehensive, but really this is not the correct word. It looks more like an aftermath – as though the winter, the rain, the wind, the dry and the fire have all had their way with the landscape and what remains is that which was able to survive. Our guide, Craig, showed us photos of the landscape not six weeks earlier, where the entire lake and surrounds was covered in ice and snow and very little nature could be seen at all, enveloped in the kind of winter we Australians pay to go and see in the North.

This was a desolate place, so desolate, as our guide explained to us, that the native indigenous tribes only ventured to the highlands to gather possum pelts in the summer. So desolate that sheep were, as a general rule, only brought up to the highlands in summer for transhumance (the act of droving live stock from summer from lowlands to highlands – yes, it is a word) . As we fished the lake all I could think of was how hard the local flora and fauna had it. Not two weeks earlier I had been on the Great Ocean Road thinking the very same thing about a different part of our unforgiving country, that so much of what our flora and fauna endured in a typical year was outside the realm of what I myself would be willing to tolerate. I made a joke, to myself since there was no one in my vicinity as I cast my rod into a perceived fish rise, that if I were a wombat living in these parts I would certainly throw myself into the middle of the road and wait for the next passing car. And certainly, that is how I perceived the numerous road kills, from wallabies to wombats, that lined the roads in an around Miena and the lakes and rivers where the locals, domestic and international guests came to fish.

Towards dusk we realised that not one of us was going to catch a fish so we stopped for biscuits and some sterling hot filtered Illy coffee that our guide surprised us with. By now the hands were cold and everybody was craving mittens… I had a pair of soft brown leather gloves lined with cashmere that I had bought from Saks four years earlier. I was toasty and not relying on landing fish to make me happy, so I sat on a rock and soaked up the landscape whilst I gave my guide my rod. His casting was mesmerising, days later I was to find out he is considered one of the best in Australia.

At night we went to the local pub and ate a T-bone that was blue on the inside, washed it down with some lager, went back to a few more wines at our lodge and then crashed after a short but interesting conversation that ran in the vein of ‘locker room’ banter but falling short of anybody declaring themselves a ‘pussy grabbing celebrity’.

The next day we fished two lakes, one called Bronte, the other I forgot, and we were mostly unsuccessful but for a few piddly-diddley little trout too small to take home and bake. It was a magical day despite the lack of biting fish which were said to be reacting against changes in the weather and to a late start to the season. But a magic day fishing does not always require fish. There are the near hooks, the beauty of casting your line out to a soft rise just outside your range, then changing your cast moments later when another rise comes in closer on your left. The sheer beauty of looking at pines dotting the far bank whilst you wade between two tiny peninsulas of grassed soil that are met not ten yards off the bank by the stump of a tree that barely juts out of the brown tinted water. At your feet you see the rocks and the clouds your feet make as you tread carefully into deeper water. The art is to make sure you stay dry, stay focussed and stay untangled and with grace and poise you must flick your line, supposedly 11 to 1 on the clock (which nobody ever seems to do), hawling the line and whipping until you are ready to safely lay it in front of your fish. Then, depending on dry or wet flies, you have to employ patience or skill in seducing the fish. If then all these elements fall in your favour, if those skills and equipment all come together, coupled with a splash of luck, you will find yourself hooking a fish, but the journey does not end there, for bringing in the fish can sometimes be just as difficult as hooking it.

It was this aspect to fishing that I fell in love with once again, reminding me of that uncle that once spoke so fondly of jazz and recalling that there were some similarities. Like good jazz, a fly fisherman seems to hang softly in the wind, both gentle and sporadic, then aggressive and enduring. The way jazz is a sort of lofty idealism, so too is fly fishing, there are other, easier ways to fish, but none carry quite the same art or kudos. To catch fish on a lure, it’s still a skill, but to cash fish by a fly, is like asking a painter to sit down and paint en pleine air.

That night, without fish, without anything to cook back at our lodge, we once again headed for the local watering hole to order chicken parmigiana and sunk back beers, exhausted. I checked my phone to make sure Donald J. Trump hadn’t already been assassinated but as I feared, he was alive and healthy, albeit orange. I looked outside and thought ‘well, if all else fails, nobody will ever want to invade this spot other than fly fishermen’.

On our final day we fished a place called Penstock Lagoon which will be etched into my mind for a long time to come. Of course, that is because I had some mixed emotions on that day, some highs, something very low. At Penstock the morning looked and felt like another day of no fish. The weather was neither here nor there but we were told inclement weather was heading in our direction, which our guides told us was good for fish. By now, we were starting to disregard everything they said, about as much as the media needed to be disregarded as to who might win the US election. Yada yada, we thought, you guys said every time the ‘next place will have fish’. In fact, some of my compatriots were starting to look a little red with agitation. Meanwhile, I was still in my mode of being very laissez faire about the whole bit, suggesting I would be more than happy just be amongst nature. I was becoming that annoying pacifist that nobody wants on a hunting trip.

My old mate and I were on Craig’s boat when I stripped hard and felt my first trout fighting on the line. He was an aggressive little thing and for the most part I was doing everything right. I managed to bring him in reasonably quickly but when we got him onto the boat he was too small to keep and so I said hello and goodbye fairly quickly. I declared to my old mate, whose name is Mike, that my fishing trip was over. To catch and land one was good enough after three days. Then he hooked one and landed it. Then another. It was starting to look like the tide had turned on our expedition.

At lunch we all sat down for roast beef rolls and that winning but somewhat archaic hors d'oeuvre platter that you get on such trips of camembert, Jatz crackers, cabanossi and pickled onions and gherkins with a side of cashews. I am not being a snob, I was grateful to have food provided, but it does humour me when it’s served in those small plastic compartment trays.

After lunch both guides, Tom and Craig, were using the lunch break to practice their own skills. Deftly both would place their flies right in front of the trout and twice Craig brought in fish from the bank where none of us were able to secure a fish on the line.

There was a Telstra tower we were able to reach with our telephones and wanting to know about the US elections I had jumped onto Facebook. It was all the same news, it could wait. But then, as I scrolled down further, the photo of a recent acquaintance I had met, someone whom I had liked but had perhaps pushed away from me, had killed himself with an overdose of pain killers. Accidental or not, he knew the risks. Not four months earlier he had asked me to help him write his life so far on a timeline. It could not be said to be a straight out tragedy, there was much goodness in his life. But then he was bullied at school and his father had proven to be a great disappointment to him. I can remember how frank I was with him on the last time we spoke. I hadn’t had enough patience with him, in fact, I had told him to stop with the attitude and pull the tooth pick out of his mouth, enough with the smirk too.

It was after lunch that the weather turned very cold. As we drifted through the lake the fish were now more active with the weather choppy from wind and blurred from rain. My casting was now much more confident and I threw my line out and ripped my flies back as fast as I could. Without any particular reason and not being on any particular cast or rise, I found myself on a big fish, at first not recognising it’s size until it pulled at my line and make a run. Once my guide confirmed it was a big one I could not speak, as though everything from the last three days, the patience, the practice, lead to this moment, to bring in this one fish that by now I had glimpsed as he came to and from the surface waters. It took me near ten minutes to bring it into the boat, unable to utter a word with anyone that tried to communicate with me, feeling the line go taught and release, then taught again, but not too taught, carrying that pressure evenly to tire the fish rather than to over-wrought him with strength as my guide advised. There is a balance that must be carried out in your retrieval that is the art of showing restraint, of keeping the appropriate tension on to make sure your fish never snaps off.

Landed, my brown trout was 59cm and the biggest fish of the trip by 8cm. He weighed approximately 4 pounds. By far he was the ugliest fish of the trip, I hadn’t seen one less pretty. I loved it because it was mine and I was determined to eat him too. Slimy and forming bubbles on the skin I threw him into the holding tank. We fished on, this time my other mate was up front. He landed two more fish, bringing his total to four. The rain set in harder and we were now cold and rugged up under our waterproof jackets getting a good Tasmanian soaking with the wind now picking up too. The second boat pulled up and heard the news. They were resolved not to see me get the biggest fished and turned their boat back out into the inclement weather liked armed bandits.

We called it a day towards the early evening. We two got back to the lodge first and so prepared the first two fish with dill, butter and lemon.

When the others arrived the first fish came out of the over and we drank the last of the Asahi beer, poured out a bottle of Riesling and Pinot Noir and toasted the most successful least successful fishing trip that any of us had embarked on. We had intended to drink and talk crap until 3am but our flight was very early and, exhausted from another full day in the elements, we all crashed only to rise again at 5am to make our way to Launceston.

At the airport, one of my friends remarked “did you see Barry Humphries boarding the aeroplane?” . I had thought it might be him but I wasn’t sure. So when we docked in Sydney I made my way over to him at the baggage carousel and dropped him my card, explaining what we did. “I even once made a silhouette that looked like Dame Edna, pink on a lilac warp, it was stunning” I said, not mentioning that it took forever to sell because not everyone shared my enthusiasm for The Dame as a bow tie. He smiled “I’ll be in touch” he said, I hope by that he did not mean his property rights lawyer….

Tonight I am going to listen to jazz and think of fly-fishing and maybe spare a thought for my friend who didn’t get such an easy run in life.

Casting into risers off the lagoon bank

Preparing for the hike through scrub

My biggest catch. 

The scrub which lines the lagoons and lakes is often covered with snow. The kerosene bush permeates a lovely smell in the air.

Our guide Craig, a superb caster
First fish of the day.

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