Robert Upe spends a weekend wading, casting, stripping and dining in the nation's trout-fishing capital.
There are no tanned bodies in G-strings nor bow-tied waiters serving icy cold Boags on a tray but I'm having the time of my life - in long reeds with an older man. We're speaking in hushed tones about nymphs and damsels and gazing at the trickling Elizabeth River sparkling in the sun. This is fly fishing.
We've been out all day, stalking and talking fish. The nymphs and damsels are insects that feisty brown trout like to eat but so far the fish have outwitted us, rejecting the intricately hand-tied artificial flies that replicate scrumptious insects but harbour hooks to haul the unsuspecting from the pure water.
Fly fishing is a peaceful pursuit and the gentleness of the river and rhythm of casting can lull you into a stupor if you let your mind wander.
All day we have been casting, then stripping in the line to imitate an insect moving across the water. The routine is simple: plop the fly into the water, then strip in, plop, strip in, plop, strip in ...
Wearing waders with boots that look a little bit silly and Polaroid sunglasses, so we can see better into the water, we have stalked along the gum-lined river bank. We have frightened a wallaby or two - and myself - as they bound out of the thickets. We have tip-toed upstream in knee-deep water with the regular plop, strip in, plop, strip in ...
Somehow, I stagger on every slimy boulder on the river bed while the fly-fishing guide at my elbow, Roger Butler, remains sure-footed and constantly on the lookout for insect activity to ensure we have the most strategic flies on the end of our lines.
Even if there was a cold beer here on a tray, there'd be little chance to indulge because the serious fly fisher is never idle.
I'm stripping in late in the day after another cringe-worthy cast from the reeds, telling myself that fly fishing is not all about landing a fish - it's about the beautiful waters and peaceful bush that leads you here - when a plate-sized brown trout strikes.
Bang. I raise the rod with Flash-Gordon speed and somehow the hook catches.
Brown trout, Butler says, tend to use their strength and cunning to get away. "They know their habitat well and will dart under stumps and logs and into reed beds to break the line off." But this brown trout succumbs and Butler eases it into a landing net before gently removing the hook, taking a photo of the prize and releasing it back into the river. A good day's work.
"Where's the fish?" asks Greg Peacock, as we arrive at his grand 1848 Tudor-style lodge, The Priory. "I thought I'd be cooking trout for dinner." His lodge has been meticulously renovated and furnished with antiques. It lies about an hour from Hobart in the small town of Bothwell.
It's customary for fly fishermen to catch and release their fish but as Peacock inquires I wonder if I should have kept the trout. Peacock says it's best not to overpower the delicate flavour of trout with over-preparation but we'll never know that flavour on this night. As back-up, he has Tasmanian smoked salmon and braised lamb shank, with a pinot noir, served in a dining room that evokes an air of a grand old English hunting and fishing lodge.
There are four bedrooms at The Priory, accessible via a huon pine staircase, each with a marble bathroom and king-size beds. It also has a library, a hunt room with fly-fishing gear and landscaped gardens on the hill overlooking Bothwell. It's one of a number of upscale Tasmanian lodges working in tandem with fly-fishing guides to provide guided fishing with luxury accommodation. The guides pick up and drop off at the lodges each day, while non-fishers can soak up the lodge luxury or tour nearby towns.
Tasmania has often been referred to as "the trout-fishing capital of Australia" because of its abundance of waterways and cool conditions conducive to trout.
Another Tasmanian property to embrace the state's strong fishing culture is The Lodge at Tarraleah. It's a 1930s art-deco small luxury hotel in isolated wilderness, about two hours from Hobart, with a cliff-top hot tub and a range of massages and treatments, a bar with more than 200 whiskies and the Wildside Restaurant, which aims high with local produce.
Tarraleah is close to more than 30 lakes that, according to lake guide Bob McKinley, constitute a large part of Tasmanian trout fishing.
There are more than 3000 lakes in the Central Highlands, he says, and the best months for fishing them are coming up.
Hobart-based McKinley can pick up from lodges such as The Priory or Tarraleah but he'll also take anglers on day trips from Hobart. He provides gear, a specialised boat, instruction and lunch.
This trout season, which started in August, has been a boomer, Butler says. "The winter and early spring floods have well-and-truly settled down on the rivers with top-quality water and fish in excellent condition and the lakes are full or at best levels for years," he says.
"In the lowland streams and up in the lakes, the wetter winter has meant some delays in the hatches, back to more traditional time frames, whereas in recent warmer springs and drier winters, the hatches were getting earlier.
"The mayflies have been out in good numbers and now the damsels and dragonflies are attracting the fishes' attention on the lower-level lakes and rivers. Looking towards the second half of the season, it is shaping up well and I expect the excellent condition of the trout to continue."
Robert Upe travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.
Jetstar, Virgin Blue, Qantas and Tiger (from Melbourne only) fly to Hobart. Tiger fares are from $35 one way, including tax.
Fly fishing there
Red Tag Tours's guide, Roger Butler, specialises in rivers, phone 0419 348 070, see redtagtrout.com. Fish Wild Tasmania guide Bob McKinley specialises in lakes, phone 0418 348 223, see fishwildtasmania.com. For more information and guides, see troutguidestasmania.com.au. Prices vary but a day of guiding with Red Tag Tours — including tuition, gear, food and transport — is about $575 a person.
The Priory Country Lodge, at Bothwell, has superior rooms for couples from $400 including breakfast, dinner and afternoon tea. Phone (03) 6259 4012, see thepriorycountrylodge.com.au.
The Lodge at Tarraleah has luxury lodge rooms for couples for $990 a night until March 31, including dinner and breakfast. Phone (03) 6289 1199, see tarraleahlodge.com.
For enthusiasts The Salmon Ponds at Plenty (about 45 minutes from Hobart) supplies more than a million trout annually to stock Tasmania's waters. There's a fly-fishing museum and fish-feeding at Australia's oldest hatchery. Entry: adults $8, children $6, family $22. See salmonponds.com.au.