Take me to the river
Fly-fishing inspires a touch of philosophy in the Snowy Mountains
MY guide is a character out of a Hemingway novel, face outdoors-gouged, camouflage jacket studded with fish hooks and knives. His Aussie vowels are overlaid with a Rockies drawl from his years in the US, where he no doubt encountered mountain lions and grizzlies.
But Craig Daly is having none of the stereotypes. His economy of speech is more Zen master than hunter, and he wields his fishing rod delicately, like a conductor with his baton. Nor is he impressed with the hearty way I fling my rod forward in the hope of casting my line across the river.
‘‘Don’t cast like a macho man,’’ he says. “Fly fishing is like ribbon dancing in the Olympics. See that lovely loop of line in the air? That’s what you want.’’
Startled, I cast again, and my line is neither looped nor lovely. It falls down like wet spaghetti and Daly tut-tuts like a vicar in a bawdy house.
“Pause on the swing to make the rod tip bend and throw the line by itself. Don’t throw too hard. Deliver the fly as if it’s untethered.’’
He says if I follow these principles then I’ll find flycasting is easy. When Daly casts, it looks effortless. He flicks his wrist and his rod flexes. The line spools out and drops the fly into the water, plop, right where he wants it. If only it were a pink ribbon, he’d win gold.
I think it’s easy too, for a while. We start on the riverbank, casting across the grass. Daly stands behind me, grasping my wrist, and soon has my rod tick-tocking like a metronome. Swing back, pause, flick forward. Yet once we head down to the river, distraction and adrenalin take over. There are branches and snagging bushes and eddies out of which a 4kg trout might emerge. What will I do if I actually hook one? I heave my rod over my head and hurl my arm forward in excitement. The fly falls to the water at my feet like a stabbing victim.
“Beginner’s mistake,’’ says Daly. “Cast to the side, not over your head. Imagine you’re in Queensland, fishing the mangroves for barramundi. You have to get the fly in under the branches. Cast overhead and you’ll snag a tree, not a fish.’’
Where we are is knee-deep in the Thredbo River in the Snowy Mountains, one of the best places in Australia for trout fishing. It’s a modest river that runs from Thredbo into Lake Jindabyne, but its tranquil waters are easily accessible at various spots along the Alpine Way, and you can bag a half-metre fish if you know what you’re doing.
Those who don’t know what they’re doing (such as myself) can head out with Clearwater Fly Fishing Guides for a crash-course in the basics. I’m given a Scott fiveweight rod, surprisingly light and flexible. When I cast it too violently it cracks like a stockwhip, alerting Daly to my ineptitude.
“Women often make for better beginners,’’ he observes. “They pay more attention to what I’m saying, are calmer and less gung-ho.’’
Daly tells it as it is, but he’s a patient guide and doesn’t take himself too seriously. He says fly-fishing is about standing on a riverbank trying to outwit a very dumb creature with your intelligence and equipment worth thousands of dollars. And then when you do so, boasting about it to your friends.
He also puts to rest any anxiety about selecting a fly. True, fly-fishing is the art of deception, and fishermen argue endlessly about which flies to use after consideration of the weather, water temperature, prevalent insects, and the selectiveness of local trout.
“But really, trout usually eat brown things about 20mm long,’’ he concludes as he fits a deer-hair humpy to the line. I’m a little disappointed in its drabness, because his vest is lined with boxes full of metal-and-hair hooks like the jewellery collection of a goth: yellow-green olive