the river that swallowed my soul
Posted on January 8th, 2013
The old Jeep engine whined as he struggled to get up the steep ascent, one tight corner after another. The bush was dominated by snow gums, well remnants of them anyway. The dead eucalyptus rose above the ground cover like ghosts, a reminder of the fierce bushfire that only a few years ago devastated the region. The corners just led to more corners, unending and frustrating but a necessary passage back home. It did however present more time for me to think, the monotony of the road often gives way to deep thought and I had plenty to ponder, it had been a hell of a week.
Almost a week earlier I left the old school house and started an epic journey to my favourite river in New South Wales, high up in the alps of the Australian high country, up around 1500 metres above sea level. It’s where the dingo howl at the night, the weather will dangerously change within minutes, the land is cruel and very unforgiving. The days had been extreme to say the least, with the UV intense and the heat physically draining. The nights where at times freezing, I was thankful my roof top tent provided me with some basic comforts.
Jeff was my fishing parter again this year, it was the river he introduced me to after all and it’s the one thing that conects us, a love of fishing the Eucumbene River. We had such success last summer, the fishing was good, so much so that I recall we ate trout most nights, ending our successful days of fishing. This year was to prove much more different. The contrast was evident, the river was down at least 30cm, maybe more. This meant the fishing was harder, fish spooked like timid butterflies out in the grassy valley. Day one and not a cracker, not even a rise, a strike or a sniff. After a morning session then a patch of downstream fishing, we came back to camp scratching our heads and eating potatoes for dinner. As fly fishermen seem to do, we contemplated all the reasons why we failed. Was it the water level? The UV? The heat? The barometric pressure? Where had the fish gone? We figured a smart fish would be down stream, in the cooler deeper water, most likely hanging out in the shady gorge country just upstream of the lake itself. We broke camp the following morning, the heat was not kind, sweat beading on my forehead, the air dry and hot in my lungs, the march flies relentless, laying plenty of their sharp blood sucking bites.
There is nothing comfortable about this country, it will literally eat you for breakfast. The old boy was packed up and I started the steep drive up the goat track, getting momentarily stuck on a deep drop in the track, the same spot I came a cropper last year. The gravel gave no quarter, and the tyres slid in brake as I hit the rise, down the hill a few metres and then back for another try, this time I gave him a good squeeze and the motor returned with traction to the rubber and a big old bounce and over we went. Rocky, steep and mostly inaccessible camp spots are harder work to get to but worth it for the plain fact that they are less abused by poorly behaved bush bashers. We hit the tarmac right at the top of the hill and headed for the river downstream, we had hope in our hearts. Both of us had had a massive, challenging year of 2012 and this trip was, for us, our annual saviour, our recharger.
Our fingers tightly crossed in hope to secure the good camp site which was right at tracks end. We had spotted it last year but unfortunately it was occupied at the time so we had the second best site instead. A decent camp site would soften the blow of the poor fishing so far. As we approached the site, Jeff made full use of his tall frame, and spotted the good site as vacant. Things were looking up. After a bit of camp layout talk, we set up camp with the intention of leaving some time to wet a line. I tramped up a rocky precipice that gave a fine view of the river and there directly below me, in the clear mountain water, was a party of trout. Some of the smaller fish moved in a small school, and larger (and tastier) looking trout were visible lurking in the shadows. Thats what I came here for, food. And this food is the best food nature can provide. It’s raised in mountain water so pure you drink it, straight from the river, and without a second thought to pollution. Excited by the prospect of landing one of these juicy beasts I grabbed my fly rod, rolled up my jeans, clambered over the rocks and waded out for a good position. Sitting quietly and waiting for a rise, studying the water, reading the feeding lane, then…..a rise! Followed by another! This is when the hunter enzyme is released and my heart rate rises, my senses go into overdrive and I have to hold myself back. I remind myself to slow down and figure my cast, the voice of calm in my head…”don’t rush it boy…take your time. You may only have one shot, so make it count” A few casts above the rise, direct on the feeding lane the fish was dining on, then i worked the fly further up the water. You’d think in this water, with that clean ‘present’ of fly that a strike was imminent. But not a cracker.
Jeff and I fished a session that evening, it was still so hot, and heading back to camp empty handed our little fishermen souls were somewhat deflated. We sat again pondering and discussing possible explanations for the poor fishing. Jeff has been fishing this river for seven years and never not caught anything. As the stars filled the sky I bathed vodka on ice and Jeff likewise, but with his ice sat whiskey. A sky of 7 billion stars entertained us with satellites, shooting stars, constellations and the 10:45pm from Sydney.
That night we ate ‘the no fish camp stew’.
The morning came, and two well rested souls geared up for a day on the water. A good camp feed of my home cured bacon, some backyard eggs, my new chilli salsa picante, and new season avocado between some toasted english muffin. Jeff and I were now fuelled up for a big day on the river. You need energy on this river, you concentrate so much on the actual fishing that you ignore the physical effort you make during a session. There is the clambering over boulders, managing the slimy wet rocks and the tramping on river banks through dense cover of acacia, hakea and tea-tree (the latter of which was in stunning summer flower). Within the first pool I had a strike of a good size rainbow trout, finally a feed for tonights dinner! The fish jumped and put on the display, as a rainbow trout so often do. I brought the beast closer in towards me, within finger reach. Then the fly line tanlged under my boots, the tippet went instantly taught, the line snapped, the fish ran, I almost cried. Well thats an exaggeration. I did hurt inside….. A LOT!
Its an unspoken rule between fly fisherman to not give advice when disaster has struck like this, so I’ll just go ahead and remind any fly fishermen out there that it’s at this point that comments on how to land a fish are unwanted. Allow me to wallow in my failure and to be disgusted at myself, that is enough pain for now. Nah it’s not that bad really, but dinner slipped through my fingers. I continued upstream, determined than ever. Jeff and I took it in turns to fish the runs, and within the hour, strike! Another great size trout. It fought well so I kept the line up high and tight. I worked the fish closer in, but he had plans for me. He pulled the oldest trout escapist trick in the book. Run down stream. Through the boulders and white bubbles, out into the fast water it disappeared. Snap! The fly broke off. Fish gone. Devastation. Futility. These words and feelings filled my mind.
A little later I caught a small fish, too small to eat. So back it went, hopefully it will fatten up for a session of spring fishing later in the year.
Perseverance or pig headedness, you decide. But this is a trait that is engrained in my approach to life, and at the half way mark of the day, Jeff called it quits. I think he said something along the lines of flogging a dead horse. I on the other hand, could not hold back and expressed that I would continue upstream. It is a once a year river trip after all, it’s a long way to come here and I wanted to make the trip count. “You want to do it solo? Are you sure? Take it slow … very slow”. That was the last I heard from Jeff for many hours. I continued upstream alone in gorge country, deep in the valley. Around each bend in the river was more beauty, everything around me making me feel both inspired and intimidated. If anything happened I’d be a goner. I think the biggest risk was slipping on the rocks and cracking the old noggin open, more so than a run in with a snake. Although this trip I spotted five snakes, two of which swam across the river in front of me, either Red Bellied Blacks or Tiger Snakes. Enough to keep you on your toes. Like I said earlier, either snakes, insects, wild dogs or dingos, there’s is always something out to get you. Fishing this beautiful river is worth it. I fished for hours, losing myself in the water, landing another small rainbow trout, returning it to the water to continue to grow. Upstream I spotting a massive brown trout, I mean massive! I unsuccessfully tried to entice it with a dry fly, no reaction at all. I tried everything I could, I even added a dropper nymph…but nothing. This big fish wasn’t even intimidated by my presence! This was his water and he knew I couldn’t catch him, he just wouldn’t allow it. Dirty old brown trout. He basically stuck his finger up at me (a figurative finger, as fish don’t actually have fingers). I gave up on cranky old brown and instead allowed my curiosity to take me around each new bend of the river, over the next run, in search of that perfect stretch of water that might just produce a nice feed.
Looking up I kept a watchful eye on the sun, it was still high enough but was on the drop down, and before long I’d be losing light, as the river sat deep in a valley and evening darkness sneaks in early. To safely return to camp that day (with enough light to manage the rocks) I had to move now. Either that or I would have to sleep on rocks, which after a long day I wasn’t keen on. Apart from the shirt on my back, my knife, a fishing bag and rod I was not geared up for an overnight camp in the bush.
I set off on the downstream tramp with limited energy. It took me hours of tramping, a mixture of exhaustion and boredom set in. I was covering the same ground that had been futile (in regards to fishing) which was like rubbing a little salt into the wound. But I had to get back to camp, I knew Jeff would be concerned. Each natural landmark, a fallen tree, a large boulder, even a bend in the river, all were welcome sights, as they signalled my location. Eventually I reached the open dry grass near camp, with one last river crossing, a little sorry and sore, I entered camp greeted by Jeff…..”you bloody mad Spaniard!”
We fished the following day, another small trout, possibly a record for the smallest trout I’ve ever caught. Again futile fishing, we headed back to camp to rest ourselves for the late afternoon rise. I climbed up into the rooftop tent, shaded by the heavy canvas protected from the suns intensity. All windows where open and what little breeze there was was very much welcome. It entered through the fly screen softly caressing my now half naked body which was stripped down to keep out the heat. Tired, I closed my eyes, and attempted to single out each sound. Like a song made of different tracks recorded in a studio, I singled out each track, the wind flapping canvas, the grass, the many different insects, endless birds of the high country and the relentless sound of the water flowing in the river (that had consumed my fisherman’s soul). It had taken my energy and given very little in return. It did give me beauty, as it did last year and it did teach me a lesson. A very important lesson. Nothing goes to plan, no matter how much of yourself you give, you are a nothing but flesh and bone, it’s nature that rules us. I had been licked, put back in my place. This years trip instead of recharging me had instead said, no loudly yelled at me…..”Rohan you ought to know better, brother! Don’t think you know me, you are the child of my creation, I WILL DICTATE THE SUCCESS YOU HAVE IN MY WORLD”.
On the final day, even though I knew I was beaten, I set about fishing just as the new sun peaked over the eastern range. Not even a rise. I painfully called it a day, I thanked the river and left her behind until next time. When she will no doubt teach me more about her ways, and no doubt I will learn more about myself.