In a nutshell, fly fishing involves walking into waist-deep water (or just standing beside it), casting a line tied with a small fly (a replica insect) ahead of you, then mimicking the movements of said insect/fly for hours at a time. The aim of the game? To trick a hungry fish into biting. It’s no small task and a master fly fisher in action is something to behold.
I headed to the Rubicon River, about two hours east of Melbourne, to learn the tricks of the trade with long-time fly fisher and guide, Charley May. Originally from the UK, Charley has fished the rivers around England’s Peak District and chased scales in glacial Patagonian streams, but her heart belongs to Victoria’s High Country.
Five river hours, one questionable casting technique and two pretty brook trout later, and I’m hooked (sorry). Why, you ask? Let me tell you:
1. It’s an accidental workout
A day spent on the river/lake/stream/insert-body-of-water-here is the best kind of incidental exercise. Forget the gym – why not swap the stairmaster for a rocky river bed or the body length mirror for the reflection off a glassy lake? There’ll be significantly more fresh air, which can only be a good thing for your lungs.
Sure, you can fly fish from a drift boat (don’t get us wrong, that’s also awesome) but if you want to work your core, try wading upstream through waist-deep water, against the current, pretending to be a fly for an entire day.
2. It’s a game of tactics
A good fly fisher constantly analyses the movements of the river, paying attention to the local bug life and educating themselves on fish feeding patterns. To increase your chances of catching a slippery little fella, every choice you make – from time of day to what fly to use on your line – will come into play.
Charley describes fly fishing as “one big puzzle,” explaining that “part of the fun is doing your best to piece the game together”. Trout spook easily, so in order to attract the fish it’s the caster’s job to perfectly imitate a food source or trigger an aggressive response. Imitating a caddis or nymph is harder than it looks, but that’s what makes the fishy prize even more satisfying.
3. It’s humbling
If you’re the kind of outdoor enthusiast who appreciates a challenge, fly fishing is the sport for you. “My best piece of advice for beginner fly fishers? Don’t expect to catch a fish on your first day,” says Charley. This is not the sport that you’ll perfect on your first go, it takes practice and perseverance.
Nailing that first-class cast doesn't come easily, neither does tying the fly or reeling in for that matter. I got my fly caught on every rock, tree and river bed on my way upstream, but catching my first-ever fish on a dry fly was still one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.
4. It can take you around the world
It’s not hard to pack down your rod and fly collection to take with you on your travels. And what better way to see some of the world’s most pristine natural habitats than from the middle of a river in Alaska or a lake in New Zealand? All you need to do is follow the fishing laws and continue being a respectful (and sustainable) fisher (ie. don’t overfish and carry all your trash out with you).
Charley has fished some of the most beautiful parts of England but salt-water fly fishing in northern Australia is still high on her bucket list. “New Zealand is one of the fly fishing nirvanas, but I’d love to get up to Queensland and try my hand at some salt-water stuff. It’s crazy to think you’d be fishing alongside crocodiles!”
5. It’s not going to break the bank
Fly fishing is not an expensive hobby. Sure, you can always find ways to spend a small fortune on gear if you’re so inclined, but all a beginner really needs is a fly rod with line and leader, and a collection of small flies. From there the water is free and the fish don’t come with a surcharge.
6. It’s meditative
It’s easy to go full zen on the water. Your mind is able to completely empty of its everyday worries to concentrate on the job at hand: catching a fish. For hours (or days) it’s just you, the great outdoors and the hunt for that elusive tug at the end of your line.
Being outside is a proven serotonin enhancer and when you couple that with the tranquility of a babbling brook, you’re in for a relaxing surprise. Charley says that fly fishing really helped her growing up when she would use it as a form of escapism. “I just find fly fishing to be really calming, and really good for my mental health,” she says.
7. It’s a primal thing
In today’s society, it’s not often that we get to appeal to our primal instincts, but I found fly fishing to be a profound way of getting back to square one. There's nothing quite like evaluating the rush of a river current; like sneaking up on a school of trout armed with just a rod, a line and your wits. With fly fishing, you’re incredibly involved in every part of the hunt, which makes caching the fish even more satisfying (regardless of whether you’re throwing it back).