Australia

Australia is synonymous with diversity.

The Australian continent stretches from 11 degrees to 42 degrees south latitude. It’s roughly the same size as the US ‘lower 48’ with around 25,000 kilometres of coastline and in all of this land has a population of only 23 million; it’s a big and relatively empty place. The coastline of Australia is washed by three oceans, the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and Southern Oceans, and a multitude of seas. All of that coastline in all of that latitude means an extensive diversity of aquatic habitats in both fresh and saltwater, and of course an immense diversity of fish species, many of them quite unfamiliar to the world wide fly fishing community.

Trout on the hunt Where there's food, there's fish Tools for the job The fish of northern Australia An easy feast Diversity within estuarine waters Miles of coastline, abundant flats fishing Australian delight Wide range of species Extensive diversity

Covering all of this hemisphere’s fly-fishing would require a book, and a large one at that, but it can be partially canvassed through a list of the most important and popular fly rod species. Many of these will be familiar and many are reasonably unique. Yellowfin Tuna, Albacore and Skipjack are species found worldwide, as are the Marlin species and Sailfish, but the Southern Bluefin Tuna is unique to this hemisphere as is the Longtail tuna.

We have 32 species of Trevally and six Mackerel species. We have two species of Permit and a different species of Bonefish and we have a bunch of fish called Salmon that bear absolutely no relationship to Salmon. We have Kingfish and Queenfish, our Jacks are your Snapper and your Jacks are our Trevally and our Snapper are just Snapper and there are quite a few varieties of those here as well. Fortunately the fish don’t care what they’re called and they all eat flies and pull hard.

Freshwater

But let’s start with the most familiar - Tasmania is an island state in the Southern Ocean. At 40 degrees south it’s on the same latitude as the North Island of New Zealand and Patagonia. It’s the home of brown trout in this hemisphere. After many attempts, trout eggs from England were finally successfully shipped to the antipodes and hatched in Tasmania in 1864. Although there’s some excellent river and stream fishing, predominantly in the northern lowlands, but also in the wet temperate rainforests of the south, the complex of lakes and tarns of the Central Plateau region, at mostly around 800 meters above sea level, is the major focus for the majority of the trout fishing.

This area has developed some really unique and rather special trout fishing techniques. Tasmanians completely eschew ‘blind flogging’—many of the lakes have very shallow margins, in fact some of them are more like bonefish flats than a trout lake, and that’s how they’re fished; like you’re going Bonefishing and locally they call it ‘polaroiding’. ‘Blue sky days’ are prized because at almost any time of the season on a bright day the fish are likely to be visibly cruising the shallows, and at any time of the season they can be taken on a dry fly.

Early in the season as snow melt raises the water levels and the lakes spill out into backwaters and basins the fish follow, mostly hunting frogs, stick caddis, various nymphs and scud. They’ll frequently push into water so shallow their backs and tails are exposed. This is engrossing and deeply challenging fishing with very little margin for error. Knowing when a stationary fish has eaten your fly is very high on the ‘educated instinct’ scale and many an angler has lifted the rod to set the hook only to find that only then has the fish seen the moving fly, and has either fled in terror or with a swirl and a bow wave charged the now departing fly. On a good frogging morning you might see fish partially slide up out of the water onto the bank to take a frog. A favored rig is a scud or stick caddis suspended just a few inches under a dry – they can eat either, and there are some unique local frog flies mostly tied with soft furs.

Perhaps the most unique fishing in Tasmania’s Highlands is what’s become known by the locals as ‘shark fishing’. The Great Lake is the largest of the northern highland lakes and it’s a big windswept body of water. In summer, when a good warm north westerly wind blows, the fish go hunting for terrestrials that are blown out of the upwind forests; beetles, jassids, grasshoppers, cicadas, flying ants are all part of ‘the feast’. In the waves, lit up by the sun against the dark of the water, these brownies glow like bars of gold and stand out like cruising sharks, hence the name. They’re looking for surface food accumulated in the froth lines and wind lanes and you need to intercept them with a dry fly right in their path. If you get it right they’ll rarely refuse. Good shark fishermen who can handle the tackle use 10 foot rods and 3 dries on droppers and lay a minefield across the fish’s path. It’s spectacular fishing that can produce 30-40 fish days.

There’s some fine trout fishing on mainland Australia confined to much of Victoria the Snowy Mountains, and higher regions of the main range. There’s a mix of manmade dams, natural lakes and some delightful mountains rivers and streams that flow out of the high country of the Snowy Mountains and the Victorian Alps. Most of these flow west (or inland) as they’re the catchment of the Murray River. The apex predator of the inland rivers is the Murray cod. Known to grow to 200lbs they eat a lot of things, water birds, snakes, lizards, carp, crayfish…whatever they like really. One of the great freshwater fish of the world, they present a mighty challenge for fly fishermen.

The smaller cod, usually found in the many headwater tributaries, and up to 20lbs, are willing enough, but casting flies big enough to interest the larger fish in the major rivers is a considerable challenge. Rods such as the Sage BASS II series, especially the new Peacock, make this a good deal easier. These are temperamental fish that frequently eat surface flies with takes that vary from delicate sips to heart stopping detonations. They live deep in the cover of fallen trees. Fights are brief and deeply intense as they erupt in a welter of spray when brought to the surface. They pull like tractors and tow canoes and boats back into the snags.

On the other side of the range in sub tropical and temperate rivers that flow east to the ocean is an indigenous bass species similar to the Smallmouth. It’s a very willing surface feeder that lies close to cover and under overhanging vegetation. Like many Australian freshwater species these are catadromous meaning they migrate to the saltwater in winter to spawn. Australian bass fishermen are as passionate and as single minded as devoted bass fishermen worldwide and now that these fish can be spawned artificially, many large impoundments have been stocked and provide superb but challenging fishing.

In the tropics there’s a range of native freshwater fish that love to eat flies. Saratoga are a great favorite with Aussie fly fishermen. These beautiful primitive fish are surface feeders that sip insects off the top but eat just about anything that crosses their path - they do have a particular liking for surface flies such as Dahlberg Divers thrown in amongst the lily pads where they like to live. Sooty Grunters are another freshwater species that are found right across tropical Australia from mountain rainforest rivers to natural waterholes. They eat grasshoppers and other terrestrials and these chunky and powerful fish grow to 10lbs; they’re like bluegills on steroids and the same flies work on these too. Both these species can be bred in hatcheries and the stocking of manmade impoundments has created some tremendous fisheries closer to major population centers, but in the wild they are still prolific.

One Fish – Barramundi

The fish of northern Australia is the Barramundi—this is the fish most Australian fishermen would identify as something special and as their favorite species. There’s a great deal to like about these fish, the places they live in, the challenge of finding them, of getting a fly to them in the right manner and then landing them; they have all the attributes fly fishermen look for, except perhaps that they don’t hit top water flies as often as we would like (but they do). Related to the Snook and to the Nile Perch our ‘Barra’ is also a catadromous species that does much of its early growing in freshwater rivers and lagoons in particular, but spawns in the saltwater.

Capable of growing to 100lbs its found in a huge range of habitats from landlocked freshwater lagoons that might only open up to the sea every few years when there’s a big wet season, through freshwater rivers and mangrove systems and to coastal headlands and beach flats. In tidal waters their moment-by-moment behavior is inextricably woven into the ebb and flow of the tides and windows of opportunity open and shut by the minute. Sometimes they’re stacked up in the obvious places and it’s a fish a cast—at other times you need to for hunt them and scratching up a few fish might be considered a good outcome. They can live and feed in water so discolored the visibility is measured at just a few inches, their remarkable senses detecting even subtle flies—and you can sight cast to them in the clean water of open beaches.

Barramundi hit the fly like a hammer blow, the take is often visual as a great flash and a boil – and they leap, these fish are great jumpers. On neap tides when the waters of the estuaries flow green and clear sight fishing along the mangrove edges, casting flies deep into the shadows to just a hint of a fish glimpsed in dappled light through slots in the trees is just about as good as fly fishing can possibly get. Getting them out of there is another matter.

These fecund mangrove systems are also the habitat for many other species you can target, but these are often incidental captures as we fish for barramundi. Threadfin salmon, Blue salmon, Queenfish, Trevally and various species of snapper all feed in these rich estuarine waters. The most used rod in the estuaries would be a 9 weight and an intermediate line is the most useful most of the time. During stronger tidal flows in deeper water a fast sinking line on a 10 weight (the Xi3 1090 is a great favorite) would be used and on the flats along the mangrove edges a floating line, or clear tip line is ideal.

The Flats

Large and variable tides wash most of Australia’s tropical coastline. Fortunately there are plenty of places without the big tides and there’s always the neap tide periods. Flats fishing is in its relative infancy in this country and new fisheries and flats species are being discovered almost daily by adventurous fly fishermen who are prepared to poke around in the shallows for an educated look. However we do have some great flats fishing because where there’s food the predators will follow and the range of predators that gets up into our shallowest waters is extensive. The western side of Cape York Peninsula is a Mecca for Australian fly fishermen looking for some flats action but really there are many fine flats fishing locations around the country.

One of the biggest problems flats fishermen face in this part the world is knowing which rod weight, loaded with which line profile and which leader set-up rigged with which fly to pick up next. Focusing on a single species takes some discipline, especially when the fly you have on is a species-specific pattern. As a general rule most things like to eat crabs and to cast these efficiently requires rods and lines with some purpose to them, so 9 and 10 weights are pretty standard tackle.

A basic rig would be a 9 weight with a full intermediate line, but a line with a 40 foot intermediate head and a floating running line would be ideal. A lot of our flats fishing is actually beach fishing and beaches have variable depths and a lot of different fish swimming along them, hence the need for an intermediate line.

As there is in most places there’s broadly two groups of flats fish; the pelagic that turn up hunting baitfish, and those that turn up to feed on food found in the substrate. Perhaps the most important flats fish around the tropical north of the continent is the Golden Trevally. These are both a baitfish and substrate feeder, making them a fairly straight forward target, a well placed Clouser will undo them most of the time.

These are usually an uncomplicated and honest fish that do have their moments of selectivity. There are two species of permit, trachynotus anak and t. blocchi. Both display the full range of bastardry this species is so famous for. No one outside of fly fishermen targets them yet they remain as capricious and neurotic as the rest of their worldwide brethren.

Our bonefish, albula oligolepsis, is generally found in slightly deeper water and the Exmouth area in Western Australia has become a well known fishery for permit and bones (and a lot of other things too).

Other flats fish that are bottom feeders include the True Sweetlip family, widely known locally as ‘blue bastards’. These slow moving seemingly obtuse grazers are looked down upon by the rest of the fishing world, but not by fly fishermen. These can be fooled into eating a fly and are truly one of the great flats fly rod fish of the world.

The Blue Bone or Black Spot Tusk Fish is another flats frequenter. It’s mostly a crab and crustacean eater that once hooked is immensely powerful. Milkfish are prolific in our tropical waters and these are also gradually being undone with more frequent captures coming about each year as they get more attention. Most of the Trevally will follow baitfish into the shallows, along with Queenfish, giant herring (Ladyfish) and in places Tuna and even Marlin. Australian saltwater fly fishermen need to develop a wide range of skills to deal with the constant variety.

Offshore

The blue water begins right off the flats. Its inshore in places and elsewhere its out off the continental shelf, its tropical in the north and its very temperate in the south with a range of species that is really comprehensive—it’s just about impossible to cover the scope of what we have right around the continent in a few thousand words let alone a few paragraphs, but Tuna of various species are important right around the continent, in the southern waters Yellowtail and Samsonfish are the big end inshore predators, Blue, Black and Striped Marlin (best in Port Stephens NSW, Exmouth in Western Australia and Cairns for blacks) can be prolific as can Sailfish, Wahoo and Mahi-mahi.

There’s a host of different Mackerel species, the previously mentioned Trevally hordes and then there’s all those deeper reef dwelling fish, especially in places like the Great Barrier Reef where sinking flies on 12 weights down to 150 feet is going to get you into more trouble than you can handle.

For now this continent is blessed with a low population, an immense coastline and in most cases very well managed fisheries. Well traveled fly fishermen who are looking for new experiences and new species to add to their list will need to arrive with a sense of adventure and a sense of humor as well as a cluster of rods, lines, reels and flies. This continent has some really fine fly fishing guides and lodges with knowledgeable fly guides and although I am not an outfitter or a booking agent, whatever your preferred fishing, I can very happily forward any inquiries to the right people.

Peter Morse - Fly Fisherman, writer, photographer
Sage Ambassador
FFF Master Certified Casting Instructor
Order his new book “A Few Great Flies ...... and How to Fish them” from www.wildfish.com.au

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