Heading into the wilderness to connect with nature and take stock of our mental health. Learn more about the Flybiking program for men's health here!
Words and photos: Colin Levitch
“How long have we been riding for?” Matt asked
“About 10km,” I said
“I don’t remember the hut being so far out, I’ve only walked to it before, and it definitely wasn’t this far, let's pull out the map,” Matt said. “Yep, we missed the turn way back.”
In search of trout, fishing guide and The Fly Program Founder Matt Tripet and I saddled up our eMTBs and pedalled out into the Mount Jagungal wilderness. We planned to ride down past Round Mountain Hut to fly fish the Tumut River; the trouble was we’d miss our turn by about 9km.
Fly biking as I call it is simple, instead of walking or driving out to a remote stream, you ride. With the advent of eMTBs, it’s never been easier to cover a lot of ground fast, and with minimal impact, as demonstrated by our 18km detour.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the Snowy Mountains, poking around the Main Range backcountry on my skis looking for pow turns, but this was the first time I had ventured well outside of the skiable terrain.
Matt collected me from Jindabyne at 6am, and we headed towards the Mount Jagungal Wilderness on the Snowy Mountains Highway, stopping along the way to see the Giant Trout in Adaminaby, and passing by Australia’s highest village, Cabramurra. The drive dips and dives through sub-alpine forests and alpine tundra, parading you past historic huts and abandoned mining equipment from the previous century.
By the time we reached the trailhead, the sun was just beginning to reveal its power, and we pedalled along, taking in the scenery.
Today was the first time this year Matt had ridden his Trek Powerfly, a dual suspension eMTB.
"I've walked out here with fishing clients, and it definitely wasn't this far. It only took a few hours; we are getting into full-day hike territory here. "
As Matt unfolded the paper map, it only took a moment to realise we had gone on quite a walkabout. We pointed our bikes back in the direction, and just as we did, the breeze carried the sounds of wild dogs yipping and howling with glee. We weren’t able to spot them on the saddle above us, but Matt thought it might be two or three packs communicating from their dens.
About 40-minutes later, we made it back to our turn, Farm Ridge Trail is steep, rocky and rutted fire road descent followed — if you’ve ever ridden at Mount Buller, think the Delatite River Trail, but steeper and in worse shape.
After about a kilometre of burning brakes, we pulled up to Round Mountain Hut. The historic corrugated iron hut which was originally built in the 1930s and then reconstructed after it burned down in a fire in the 1940s. The hut is still used today, and inside there are a few bunks, and just across the fire road is what's purported to be the best drop toilet in all of Australia; facing Mount Jagungal, a split door allows you to drop a brown trout off at the pond and still enjoy the scenery. Naturally, I had to test the goods, I can happily report the hype is real.
Leaving the hut, you descend further into a spectacular alpine vista, down to the upper headwaters of the Tumut river.
At the riverbank, it was time to ditch the bikes and begin our search for fish. This zone of the Snowy Mountains is brown trout territory (not the kind from the drop toilet), and the fish in this section of the Tumut are big and smart. The water was crystal clear, and healthy backcountry fish are large for a reason — they are fierce hunters, extraordinarily perceptive and skittish; even an angler wearing a brightly coloured shirt standing on the bank will send them to the deepest part of the river.
In a backcountry river, fly selection is critical; the lure you’re casting needs to imitate what the fish are currently eating. Flies are divided into wet, dry, streamers and poppers. Wet flies sink below the surface an imitate insect larvae, fish eggs, or crayfish; dry flies float on top of the water to imitate emerging, or adult insects like mayflies, stoneflies, midges or grasshoppers; streamers are wet flies that imitate baitfish or other subsurface creatures; and poppers are fished along the surface with quick twitches to create the illusion of a wounded baitfish, frogs, mice and the like.
Within these classifications, some patterns are designed to imitate natural bugs, and others which are brightly coloured and unnatural are designed simply to grab attention — usually eliciting a violent strike if the fish takes the lure.
I tied a ‘Bum Fluff Stimulator’ (yes, that’s actually the official name) a buggy pattern that simulates quite a few adult insects and floats like a cork onto a 12ft leader and set off; Matt went for a double fly rig with a small popper and a nymph. Not three steps into the river, I lost my footing and went for a swim; being snow runoff, the water is not warm, but in the heat of the day, it was a refreshing dip, even if it was unintentional.
With Matt up ahead and me playing sweeper, I presented my Bum Fluff in every bubble line and over every hole along the way.
Even with the clear water against a rocky bottom, brown trout are well camouflaged, and both Matt and I stared intently on what we thought to be fish, which turned out to be rocks and cracks on many occasions; we walked well over a kilometre before we even spotted a fish.
Matt was maybe 100m upstream from me when he called out, nearly prone, and signalling for me to come down the river. Floating gracefully on the end of a deep hole was a Brown that would have been maybe 10-12in long. He was rising to the surface to feed, prime for a dry fly.
Presenting the fly directly above the fish, after the third or fourth case, he went for it but Matt wasn’t able to set the hook before the trout turned his head and went to the deepest part of the river, well out of sight, not to be seen again, even when we backtracked later in the day.
We kept moving up the river; the banks got steeper; it was harder to fish but easier to see into the water.
"Stop, did you see that?" I said. "Wait for the flash."
"Mate that's a fish, and a big one too," Matt called back.
Fluttering around the edge of a deep hole, was an absolute hog of a brown trout, at least 20in long Matt and I both crouched down on the bank to watch and make sure it wasn’t our eyes playing tricks — when we were totally satisfied it was, in fact, a fish we hatched a plan.
Trout can look and focus out of both corners of its eyes at the same time, meaning the fish can see nearly 360 degrees at once; so it can stare down your fly, and see you standing on the bank. This wasn’t a fish to mess around with, and so Matt went down to cast, and I hid around the corner, camera at the ready.
“I’m going to throw a popper to see if we can get a big strike,” Matt whispered loudly. “Stay down over there.”
Matt presented the fly just upstream of the fish so it would drift into its field of view, and the trout watched it float directly overhead four times without showing any interest.
“Let's try something else,” Matt whisper yelled to me. “He’s rising but isn’t interested, I saw a Mayfly hatch back there, I’m going to try another dry."
Casting from his knees trying to stay out of the fish's field of view, Matt threw a Mayfly pattern he ties himself, and bang; fish on.
The trout dove down deep and headed for the other side of the river and Matt had to follow it not to risk breaking the line off. Trudging through the deepest part of the stream as the fish began to tire out it changed direction heading for the small rapids just downstream, with the weight of the fish and the fast-moving water behind it was a recipe for this trout to getaway.
Before I knew it, Matt was on the other bank running alongside the fish until it splashed into an eddy outside of the current. Matt was back in hot pursuit, tromping through the shallows to get on top of the fish before it could recover.
From behind a rock downstream, I saw Matt’s head pop up; he was grinning ear to ear, and then lifted up one of the biggest brown trout I’d ever seen. By his estimation, the fish was four or five years old, and his belly was firm, and Matt thought he must have eaten something solid like a crawfish within the past couple of days.
Soon our time with the fish had come to an end and Matt gently returned him to the water and watched him gracefully paddle back towards the hole where we found him.
We worked our way back down the river throwing a line out occasionally, but the climb back up the fire road is what dominated our presence of mind.
Even for an eMTB, Trek’s Powerfly is a long bike, with a wheelbase well over a metree and 474mm chainstays, so they're a bit of work in tight switchbacks. But this length puts your weight smack dab in the centre of the bike, allowing you to crawl up a vertical wall sitting upright in the saddle.
The trouble is, between the long wheel base, and the low-end torque-y power offered by the Bosch motor, you get a bit lazy and rolling the front wheel over a loose rock you don’t move forward on the saddle which starts you sawing on the bars. Next thing you know, the front wheel has followed the path of least resistance down into a deep rut and you’re totally sideways with a foot down blocking the entire fire road, killing any momentum your riding partner had built up through the climb.
Being a bit smaller and lighter than Matt, I made it up the climb first. "That wasn't so bad," Matt said as he crested the last of the incline.
"How good are eBikes?" I called back.
The Farm Ridge Trail fire road would have been nearly impassable on a standard MTB, between the incline and loose rocks, even the strongest climber would have struggled to keep a bike moving forward — we'd made it up with a bit of work and not too much sweat.
The Fly Program
Matt Tripet founded The Fly Program in 2016 after his brother-in-law took his own life a few years prior. The Tripet family wanted to do something to help others who may be in a similarly dark place and decided it would be their life's work to equip Australian men with the tools for better mental health.
"The focus of the organisation is Australian adult men with a focus on early intervention mental fitness and prevention programs. We don't work in the clinical spectrum; everything is based around early intervention and post clinical intervention.”
The stigma around mental health, and asking for help when you need it is changing, even still in Australia, about eight people take their lives every day — six of those eight are men. The 'she'll be right' mentality that permeates Australian culture encourages bottling emotions up; The Fly Program was created to encourage males to become more comfortable talking about their emotions and being vulnerable.
"Our aim is to give people a prevention-based toolbox of skills that they can use when mental health adversity comes into their lives. Just like you get your body fit for riding, our focus through The Fly Program is mental fitness for our minds as well as our bodies."
The Men In Flight Initiative is TFP's community outreach program that uses adversity in the outdoors and learning new skills like casting a fly line as a tool to help participants disconnect and let down their walls.
"Our (men's) pathways for seeking support socially or professionally is really poor. So when we can create a pathway that is organic, that is non clinical, and something that can provide a physical challenge to individuals — we love to be challenged by the outdoors — that we can also create that as a safe landscape to find reprieve and seek support for some of the challenges that they may be going through."
With The Fly Program's success, for 2020, Tripet will be launching the Sisters in Flight Initiative, which will be a dedicated women's program based on the same principles.
"It will be similar where we will use nature's adversity to build character and resilience within ourselves through a connection with wild places, through a mountain biking or fishing."
For more information on The Fly Program, or the Men In Flight and soon to be launched Women In Flight initiatives head over to flyprogram.org.au. If you are struggling with depression or mental health, LifeLine and Beyond Blue are here to help.