DRIFTING

   Pausing for a moment of contemplation.

Pausing for a moment of contemplation.

That gentle morning light seems to push back all those fears that hound our minds at 3am. Glancing sideways out of the ute window, I see vague outlines race by as the human world slowly comes into focus; the radio is silent, and only the occasional rattle of the trailer reminds me that the boat is in tow. Early mornings belong to no one. Fishermen seem to love them more than most, the enveloping quiet, indifference from most wildlife and only the occasional raspy bird call. The put-in at Cressy is quiet, not another soul as you watch the sun creeping closer until finally that ribbon of fire burns across the landscape. The boat slides gently from the cradle, the teflon doing its job as quickly the boat is tugging on the rope. Sometimes it feels a little strange, like a dog pulling on the leash, then final checks and a gentle push, and your other life is left behind. The first dip of the oar as you correct then find your line, followed by the inevitable arse shifting as the rope seat softens and you push to find your sacred position. You swing the bow into the current, one more quick check, and finally it feels right.

Despite the graft, it just feels right. Everything seems to be as it should be, and a little on-the-spot research confirms that these boats were designed for hard labour. I’ve never considered myself an oarsman, but when I sit in a boat that has been shaped by my own hands a different kind of connection seems to exist. It may sound a little fauxmantic, yet it is possibly like any other love in that it helps make us whole. The slow start is comforting, low volume on the chatter as eyes search, those extra few minutes in the seat settle you quickly as mental adjustments are made and reading the water takes on its true meaning, searching casts arc out toward the bank as perception and reality clash. Thankfully, rhythm takes hold as cast after cast seems to be hitting the zone, the first slashy take drags us back as the mad scramble ensues, all that initial organisation goes to shit as the net gets dragged out from under what appears to be a floating fishing store and takeaway food shop. Gently you ease back on the oars as the struggle quickly fades and the net is dipped beneath a pretty little hen with spots that makes you take a second look. It feels good to be on the board early and, after easing her gently back, some quick reorganising shuffles the positions and it’s my turn to cast. 

The day rolls with the pace of the river. Continual mends are thrown as you attempt to use the current to your advantage, still no hatch yet enough fish sitting just off the edge that the nymph dropper can still bring some activity. The air temperature has climbed enough that we can now strip down to waders and a tee, we need no reminders of how cold and long winter is, and any chance to lighten up is taken. Along with the warmth come the hatches. All of a sudden the back eddies are filling with lilting mayflies, they lift and fall under the now patchy sky, leaders are lightened and size 16 black spinners are tied on and ginked. We float along until a fish shows and the oarsman does his best to slow us in the current. You don’t hit all of them, but when all those sweet little things fall your way it opens a part of your soul and allows you to tip a little back into the sometimes-empty cup.

We come to the bridge near Woolmers. The old homestead dominates the skyline, and for better or worse we get a glimpse into our colonial past. Fish love this section, and I’m calling off the clock face sometimes, much to the annoyance of the guy up front as fish selection gets a little ragged. I can’t keep the smile from my face as a couple of sitters are missed and observations about my poor boat handling is thrown backwards, all this only making me happier. We swing into the tighter section, dodging overhanging branches and working hard on the oars to hold our good line. The jitters from the bridge section have faded and a solid cast forward sees a good fish suck down the little black spinner; he heads straight for the boat as Marcus works furiously to gain control. The leader disappears under us as I quickly try to pivot us upstream, and suddenly the rod springs upwards and all goes quiet. He starts winding in- the bend in the rod has gone and so has the fish.

I can’t keep the smile from my face as a couple of sitters are missed and observations about my poor boat handling is thrown backward…

We ease the boat into the bank and unload a far too elaborate lunch. It’s always been this way only because we can; it feels so luxurious to lay back and pick through the esky for an icy cold beer and half a chicken. Talk has amped up as the reality of the day sinks in and we revel in the fleeting ease of our lives. Most of the talk is about access; Tasmania, like most other places, is struggling with increasing numbers and landowners that are taking a pretty dim view of people blundering around their property. But, the boat allows you unhindered movement, and can take you to places that see very few people.

We quietly reload and push back out into the river. It never ceases to amaze me what freedom I feel when we fish like this, no order, no need to think, just the river taking us along, oars gently dipping as the landscape unfolds like an old school panorama. The heat of the day has slowed things a little, and we seem to settle a little more as lunch and the warmth of the sun work their magic. Casting is laid back as memory works hard to keep the backcast high, and when a fish gives itself up the softness of the day makes for a quick release and gentle return.

We drift on. Numbers no longer matter as we move through familiar country, most sections now open pasture beyond the river with fences of Hawthorn bush and grazing sheep. At every turn you spot a different hawk or kestrel, most riding the light winds as they hunt over the open paddocks, while others sit on fence posts and watch with a slight turn of the head. Sound carries clearly over the water, giving us the chance to put a dry on feeding fish, and takes are no longer a surprise as striking becomes as natural as walking. We watch fish dance across the river, spray showering upwards, the tiny fly holding as you battle all the while with the guy on the oars pushing and pulling, keeping you in touch with the thing you so desire. Fishing sometimes offers up these special moments as the river, the fish and the landscape allow you to grasp all that is and all that can be, maudlin thoughts abate and for those few thankful moments you are free. 

We seem to have timed this pretty well as we move through the timbered section then on to some longer pools. The sun is quietly retiring and a coolness has moved in; almost immediately another hatch is on. The fish seem to have lost some of their usual paranoia, and seem happy to attack any fly they find. We are both now standing and casting, the boat swinging  on the current and us risking a swim to get a fish. We look up and see something that we both take a moment to recognise; street lights in the distance tell us that we are coming up to the take out and our day is drawing to an end. We are both quiet for a moment, and then I reach into my flybox and drag out a big Goddard caddis; we may be nearly done, but the fish don’t know that. We take turns all the way back, talking and laughing, taking the piss out of each other until the very end. The boatramp at Longford looms up and we quickly tie off, Marcus heads up to grab the car as I start breaking down rods and tidying gear. This bit just rolls the same as always, you know your tasks, get them done. We drag the boat out and tie everything down, the pub at the end the street is open and we stop for a pint, not much to be said, just the life of a couple of fishermen. 

Paul
#TheSeasonNeverEnds

DRIFT BOATS IN TASMANIA

As published in Freshwater Fishing Australia magazine no. 130.

THE CAMDEN BOYS, PAUL BRADBURY AND MARCUS SAUNDERS TAKE US ON THEIR JOURNEY THROUGH BACKYARD BOAT BUILDING AND SEDATE WATERS.

Fly Fishing is the reason drift boats exist, building them is a good reason for fishermen to exist.
— Anon

I wandered around the garden on a sunny December morning, nursing a cup of coffee that, in return, was nursing my weary head. One last beer – it gets me every time! I was daydreaming about an upcoming river trip I was soon to embark on five days on the South Esk River in North East Tasmania with my best mate in a borrowed inflatable boat when memories of the previous night came back to me. F*%k me! Last night, after about the seventh beer, I vaguely remember telling Marcus (said best mate above) that we were going to build our own goddamn drift boat!

The receipt in my email inbox confirmed our plan. Thank you for your order Mr. Bradbury, your copy of Roger Fletchers Drift Boats and River Dories will be dispatched today. Staring blankly at the fence, my mind finally registered the proposition. We were going to build a boat and go fishing in it – all in three months!

So there we were. Two guys with a shed- load of wood (more about that later), a box full of tools and no idea what to do! Not really what you would deem a textbook start, but a start nonetheless.

THE DESIGN
Legendary American boat-builder, Woodie Hindman, designed the McKenzie River Drift Boat around 1946, and they quickly became a favourite of American fly-fishing guides. Mac boats are as tough (certified for class 4 rapids) as they are beautiful, they’re a charm to row due to the accentuated rocker, and can pivot on a 10 cent piece. Perfect for fly-fishing, the high bow gives the angler a higher elevation for spotting fish, while the oarsman has no trouble maneuvering the boat in all kinds of water.

Tasmania doesn’t have the big freestone rivers of North America, our waters are more meadow streams and big open lakes. And while Mac boats may seem over- gunned for this job, their shallow draft and maneuverability gets anglers into places other boats simply can’t go.

BUILDING THE BOAT
What do you need to build a boat? Timber, tools and time… easy, right?

Huon Pine is our favourite timber; Tasmanian boat builders have been using it for over 200 years. It’s easy to work with, strong, smells amazing and most importantly it never rots! Huon is an increasing rare commodity; we chose to use salvaged wood from Queenstown, on the remote West Coast. The piners, as they’re known, drag up logs from the mighty Gordon and Franklin Rivers; it only seemed appropriate that wood drifting on the river ends up a wooden river Drift Boat. How many years of this diminishing resource we have left is uncertain, but any boat made from this wonderful timber will definitely out live us.

For The Mayfly, our first boat, we used a combination of Huon, Celery Top and King Billy pine, all endemic Tasmanian timbers and perfect for boat building. Some of the longer lengths required simply weren’t available so most of the external rails and chines are scarfed. Wood glue and a little patience make these joins virtually unbreakable, and added another level of skill to the build, mills like Bradshaw’s, in Queenstown, need a simple cut list and will cut the timber to any size, a wondrous service in this day and age. The other essential ingredient is Marine Ply, this had to be shipped from Queensland, we chose AAA grade hoop ply, it’s easy to work with and tough as all get out.

PETER THE CARPENTER (AND BOAT BUILDER)
Being a carpenter, my man cave is overflowing with tools. Modern equipment certainly helps speed up the building process; the complex cuts and joins are even manageable in the backyard workshop (or on the back lawn). However, hand tools are not to be ignored and still play a critical part in boat building. It is even possible to build a Drift Boat without an extension cord. I found myself relying on hand planes and a tenon saw just as much as the drop saw.

There’s a lot of jargon in boat building, I read and re-read the instruction book to try and get my head around it all. Loft this, chine log that, and what the hell is a thole? Oh well, just get on with it! My inner monologue battled with impatience and enthusiasm in equal proportions, I wondered what it would be like when we were floating down the Esk, damn it man concentrate!

BUILDING YOUR BOAT
The first thing to do is loft the plans onto the ply sheets, attention to detail is critical and a simple word of advice here may be appropriate, if you haven’t built a boat before, stick to the plans. Even minor changes will have more of an impact than expected.

Scarfing the ply is the first step, we found a belt sander was the most successful for this job, keep the lines of the exposed layers straight and it will all become apparent down track. With the cutout of the sheets we use a power saw with a guide, this gives us a very accurate working edge. This is probably the time to discuss the most suitable glue, we used International Paints Epiglue, a two-part adhesive that is easy to mix, apply and sand. Once the ply is cut, move onto the ribs. A good quality bevel, sharp plane, strong vice and lofted plans are all essential to get this part correct. Take your time with the bevels and check continually, lay them out on the lofted plan and you will soon see if they need any more adjustment.

Assembly at the beginning is one of the most challenging parts of the build. Both sides have to be screwed to the transom and then tortured around the centre rib. Doing it by the book leads to breakages and swearing! A little frustrated I consulted You Tube, which revealed an alternative approach. Screw in the stem post as shown, then screw in the transom, place the centre rib in position, secure, then working from the centre, alternate rib placement forward and aft. This is so much easier and it works.

Continue to sand as smooth as you go removing excess glue now will save a lot of time at the end. Fitting the chine logs is tricky, check the rib cut outs and front and rear bevel cuts, always remembering that these are forever visible.

Once fitted, check for square and sand everything to get a tight fit with the bottom sheets, remember to line up the join in the sheets with the centre rib (you won’t see the join) for a much better finish. When cutting out the bottom panel keep as close as you can to the scribed mark, if you don’t there’ll be a lot of extra sanding before you can apply the external chines. I love this point of the build, the shape is clear, a lot of the complex cuts are done, and it starts to look like a boat.

Now is the time to fill and sand the exterior, this is a critical point and requires a lot of attention, as this is what will give you a better final finish. For filling we use International paints Epifill, once again a two-part product that is stiff to apply yet sands beautifully and takes paint very well. Once filled and sanded, apply primer and allow to dry, check for imperfections and fill if necessary.

I prefer to paint by hand, a brush and roller gives a more traditional finish and allows plenty of flexibility with colour choices. Two coats of primer gives a great finish when sanded and take the undercoat really nicely. Be careful painting outdoors, as enamel paint attracts flies more than cow dung. You can end up with a lot of unwanted tiny beasties set into the finish. And, rain is no friend either! The Mayfly ended up in my lounge room one wet January night.

TIME TO GO FISHING
I woke up on another Sunday morning, three months later, with an enormous sense of satisfaction, there on my front lawn was a hand crafted Drift Boat, something that I had wanted my entire life. Marcus and I got straight to work applying the vinyl graphics, roping up the seat and packing our gear. My father-in-law was due in an hour to drive us to the river. As we all stood around admiring the boat, Marcus brought me swiftly back to reality by asking “reckon she’ll float?” in all the excitement we hadn’t even tested the bloody thing in the water.

Two hours later we we’re drifting down the South Esk river somewhere in Tasmania. The first bend in the river spun the boat, tore off paint and shot us straight into the willows. It’s fair to say we we’re pretty anxious!

The days that followed were a steep learning curve, we battled strong head winds, and low summer flows that resulted in us carrying the boat through some sections of the river. No hatches, very few fish and no cutlery, needless to say it wasn’t one of the best fishing trips we had ever had! We eventually cut the trip short, conceding defeat to a relentless Northern sea breeze.

Subsequent drifts have been less dramatic, or perhaps our confidence has increased. Either way, we’re now both hooked on drifting rivers.

THE BENEFITS OF A DRIFT BOAT
Drift boats as their name suggests are at home on rivers, yet we’ve had enormous success using them on our local lakes. The ability to drift gently along shallow edges or drop-offs and reach spots deeper draft boats can’t is a real bonus. Many of the fish we have caught out of the boat have been caught in six inches of water. Drift boats are perfect for patrolling the edges of Penstock Lagoon, and casting back towards the weedy edges where fish are nymphing or rising to mayflies.

One of our favourite waters is Brumbys Creek in the north of the State. Brumbys Creek is a renowned tailwater, with wonderful weed beds reminiscent of English chalk streams. It’s a tough fishery, but drifting its waters opens up new opportunities that shore based angling simply cannot reach. Last season a very polite elderly gentlemen cautioned us about chasing the splashing birds on the opposite bank, we rowed over and had an hour and half of spectacular dry fly fishing.

Tasmania is a long way from Oregon, yet perhaps that’s what great design is all about, here we are 80 years after they were first designed, building and using these wonderful boats on the other side of the world. They evoke an inherent sense of wonder in everyone. The people we meet on the water are drawn to them like a trout to a mayfly.

Marcus
#TheSeasonNeverEnds

DECEPTION

Are they splashing birds or rising fish over there? Turns out they were fish.

I think it’s when I look back over the season that I notice it the most. When we’re all inside, the heater is on and we are all just doing our own thing. My mind seems to wander so easily to that point. I sometimes wonder if it should be different, I think for a moment, no, this is definitley right.

You never tire of it, there is never a time when you feel that it is any less. That moment when you cast to a sighted fish and you see him adjust and then rise slowly, the world around you seems to draw in its collective breath as you allow all of your everyday life to be put on hold.  You watch him decide. Will he? How many times have I heard myself under my breath saying “take it, take it”, then you see it, the nose breaks the surface and he quietly sucks down your fly.

So much has been written about fishing with the dry fly. My shelves (probably like your own), are scattered with books about this one subject, and to be honest, I understand why. How many times has an ordinairy day been changed by that one fish who chose to leap onto that small emerger with such gusto, leaving you are so taken aback that you nearly forget to lift? And after those few exciting moments you stand in the stream as a changed angler, a surge of confidence runs through you, all negative thoughts are forgotten and you look at the water ahead of you with fresh eyes, is that a fish working under that far bank?

Deception by its very nature has a changing face, and I am yet to find a fisherman who doesn’t love that moment.

Deception by its very nature has a changing face, and I am yet to find a fisherman who doesn’t love that moment. All this goes well until somebody says “yeah I do love the dry, but the nymph is so primal”. There is no doubt that nymph fishing is a wonderous element, watching anybody good is like watching (as John Gierach says)

‘a moment of zen’. The guy fishing the grasshopper indicator with a stick caddis dangling 500mm below is so animated in his love of this technique that you can’t keep him down, and anybody that has been to New Zealand can never forget watching that yarn indicator moving down the bubble line in water clearer than a Hilton martini, sometimes the fish touch so gently you feel as though you’ve dreamt it, then reality strikes and you realise that he’s there.

 I think my lack of skill with the wet is more about choice than anything, I just don’t choose to fish it that often, somehow I just keep looking for fish, hoping that eventually you will find one. Sight fishing with a wet, now that’s another story, you cast out, straight away all your senses kick in. Last summer I fished an amazing caddis hatch, the air was filled with them, I tried what seemed like every dry in the box, and guess what, all they wanted was a black fur fly. You seethe bulge and you cast ahead, as the fly hits the water a few numbers are mumbled as you count it down, that’s enough,  give it a twitch, all this is being played out between the rod tip and your fingers, your heart is beating so loudly you swear you can hear it and your eyes are starting to water as you watch the leader looking for a sign.

Nothing.  No swirl, no bulge, nothing.  Will I lift and recast?  No. Wait. Give it another gentle twitch, wait, and then it goes, no fuss, no antics. Just a simple drawing down of the line, and for that millisecond your mind yells “decieved!”

I push back in my favorite chair and the moments in my mind start to slow, a voice is calling and I move myself back to the now. David Scholes once wrote a small entry on hunting, and he lamented that he could release a fish after a titanic struggle and perhaps catch that same fish later in the season, but a bird shot on the wing was an affair destined to only happen once. Those visions of fishing that I love so dearly, I know instinctivley will be with me forever, and perhaps for both the trout and myself, we will meet again to play this wonderful game.

Paul
#TheSeasonNeverEnds