Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Interview with The Milkman: Tedla Morgan
By Gil Greenberg

Like, you want to catch a permit? Talk to Bruce Chard.  You want to catch giant trout? Throw a Galloup streamer. You want to catch suburban milkies? Obviously, you call Tedla Morgan, a.k.a., The Milkman. I first met Tedla over the Australian saltwater flyfishing forum in 2013. I’d just moved to Townsville, Australia, and being new to the sport—or should I say the lifestyle—I was hungry for any local information that would assist me in my journey. I stumbled across one of Tedla’s posts where he shared his latest milkfish outings. For Tedla, it was just another morning at the milk bar. For me, it was a chance to learn and later hook into something solid . . .  more solid than the 30-centimeter flathead I caught the previous week, and the out-of-season barra I’d sightcasted to, thinking it was a trevally.

For those not familiar with the Far North Queensland fly-fishing scene, Tedla is a Townsville local, originally from Jamaica. He has a degree in marine biology from James Cook University and is one of few people who can claim they’ve caught fish in a puddle. He specializes  in catching fish on waters where most wouldn’t consider casting a line, let alone chucking a fly. When not on the water, he works at Townsville’s Tackle Warehouse.

Can you describe how you got into fishing urban environments?

I started off fishing just like everyone else. When I was a kid you couldn’t go far—you’d have to stay close to the cities. I’d have to fish all the little urban waterways. You know, ponds at the zoo, at the park, getting into trouble with security. And eventually I’d start fishing the little rivers and streams. Growing up in Africa you’d take advantage of every opportunity you’d get. You know how it is as a fisherman—you eat, sleep and breathe fishing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a tiny little waterway. You fish it. You’d be surprised at the opportunities that are right at your doorstep, or not very far away. They might not be the most scenic, but you’d be shocked at the quality of some of the fish.

The really urban landscapes get overlooked. That provides a level of protection to a fishery that everyone ignores. You really shouldn’t ignore the little things on your doorstep because going for a fish is good for you. I can recall instances where it’s pretty much been medically prescribed. The doctor says go out and get some fresh air, go fishing, it will be good for you, and that in my eyes is a prescription. That’s a medical professional telling you to go fishing, you can’t tell me fishing isn’t good for you. It’s good for the soul.

How’d you first get into fly fishing?

I first picked up the fly rod at boarding school in England. In Dover we had a really beautiful trout stream running through the city, but in town limits there was no fishing. Game fishing in England is really all about trout and salmon, so when you roll up to the river, you gotta be fly fishing. Sure, I could go and throw some lure or some worms and catch a lot of fish, but where’s the fun in that? So I picked up a fly rod and had a go. Sure you get into trouble—you know knots and tangles—but eventually you figure it out.

By the time I got to University [James Cook University in Townsville, Australia] I knew a little about fly fishing and had fished a couple of places, but had never fished the saltwater. I’m really into ultralight fishing and going into the salt with my five-weight, catching a bunch of (Indo-Pacific) tarpon and little GT’s. Working on my casting was a new set of challenges that I really enjoyed. Then getting into the fly tying side of things, where you can tie something very specific for a certain type of fish, or something generic that will work just about anywhere . . . there’s just so much to learn and discover. The real turning point for me was when I figured out that I could catch just about any fish with a fly that I could on a lure. You just have to figure it out, almost like a puzzle.

What motivated you to get out there and target milkfish in urban ponds around Townsville? To my knowledge, you were one of the first to figure it out.

Well, I was sorta one of the first ones, one of the first to sorta half-publicize it at least. I came about wanting to catch milkies by accident. We were looking for a new species to try and catch and we had seen them in the ponds, in the channels, and in the lakes. We had caught juvenile ones in cast nets so we knew they were there. We just had to figure them.

We had also caught a few by mistake on ultralight setups and lures, so we knew they ate more than just algae and scum. A fish doesn’t get that big and strong by eating just algae. We did our research and found out how people had been catching them with burly and spin gear, worm flies and algae flies, up the cape and over in the islands. We said we wanted to fish for them proper. Eventually we found some older guys who had figured out how to catch them on the fly years ago. They would give us little hints as to what type of conditions to look for and what flies worked for them.

We started by studying the areas where we were finding them feeding. It was all about observation. We spent countless hours just watching them, taking notes about tides and conditions. We found a correlation between the tide height and operations of certain pumps or water gates in some of the urban lakes we fished. Then we looked into the food webs and tried to determine what they were eating and, more importantly, what drove them to feed. We noticed how certain currents would bring in feeding fish. It actually took me about three years of trial and error before I was able to get a bite out of one. I was like, shit, I like these things.

How did you go about targeting them at first?

We started targeting them along wind lanes and scumlines with pretty good success, fishing stuff on the surface. Regardless of the circumstances, milkies won’t move for a fly. So you’ve gotta get it right up to them—spoon feed them—without spooking the fish. You’ve really gotta place your fly up-current and just let the current drift it into where they are feeding. The trick in these situations is to get a dead-drift—same as trout fishing.

They are usually focusing on a particular food source. You’ve gotta figure out what it is that given day and match it. Then it’s just a matter of exploiting their competitive nature. I mean, if it’s just one or two fish feeding, or if they are spread out, it will be tough. But if you can get a group packed tightly together, and you make the right cast, you will probably hook up to one.

So how has your technique changed over the years? Last time we went out we pretty much nymphed for them

Yeah, we now target them in different ways, in different scenarios. We’ve found them to be quite catchable in the canals that feed the local inland lakes and drainage ditches. In these situations we tried different lines and different presentations. Lately, we’ve been having good luck fishing shrimp flies with sinking and intermediate lines. You gotta drift the fly down into the strike zone then try and hang it around there for as long as possible. Sometimes you gotta give it a couple strips to get the fish’s attention or try swinging it a little, but most of the time just getting it in front of them and letting the current do the work is best. You gotta keep contact though, so you can feel the weight of the bite.

Other times you find them feeding really shallow and you can sight cast to them. You have to give them a substantial lead and then float a fly over top of the fish because they are so spooky. Sometimes they will eat and sometimes they won’t . . . it’s just the way they are. I had one a little while back that was chasing small prawns (shrimp) on the surface. I was able to line him up and distract him with a few rapid strips. He ended up chasing down the fly quite aggressively, and I got the eat.

We have also gotten a few cruising fish to eat. These are a lot of fun. You are casting in front of the bow waves, working an active presentation. While you’re not going to have a high hookup percentage, the visual aspect makes it a lot of fun.

The flies we use have also changed. We now generally use two types of flies. The algae fly is great when they are schooled up and feeding. You’ve gotta fish it with a static presentation and let it drift into the fish like a dry fly or nymph. They are a simple tie—a little green fur or material tied to a hook. My fly-tying kit lives in the car so I’m always prepared.

We also use Wooly Buggers and shrimpy crustacean looking things. When milkfish are feeding subsurface, or close to the bottom, we’ll give the fly a little motion to get their attention. Most of my flies are about an inch-to an inch-and-a-half, and tied on a size 4 or 6 hook.

What does the strike feel like?

Sometimes they will hit it proper hard and can bust your tippet, but most of the time it’s really soft, feels like stretching a rubber band.

It’s like if you were winding in a fly and it snagged up and you’ve got water pressure on your line and you feel it tightening up. Then all of a sudden you feel a little pressure and maybe a head shake right before things go ballistic. It happens so fast, you have maybe a second or two to set or the fish will take off and if your hook is not buried deep its will just pop out.

We have also gotten a few cruising fish to eat. These are a lot of fun, you are casting in front of the bow waves working an active presentation. While you’re not going to have a high hookup percentage, the visual aspect makes it a lot of fun.

If you manage to hook one solid, there’s no telling if you’re going to land it. Imagine fighting a 30-pound bonefish in a pond or gutter full of old shopping carts and other nasty things that will mess up your fly line. We usually do this with 4-to 6-weights.

You’re making me miss the ‘ville, mate! I got one more question before you get off to bed. Other than milkies, what’s your favorite species to chase with flies?

Ugh, tough one, but the Indo-Pacific tarpon ticks all my boxes. It’s a fish that eats readily, grows to a decent size, and can be found everywhere. They look identical to the Atlantic tarpon, but stay much smaller. [Juveniles are generally similar size to trout and can be caught in just about any waterbody that connects to the ocean in the wet season; adults are found around reefs and in estuaries where a solid fish can be from 22-to 28-inches long, nose to fork] For me, as an urban angler, these guys are perfect. You really have to work out the different patterns, as they can be found in so many environments. It always keeps you guessing.

I also love targeting Barramundi . . . I could go on about this all night . . . . Favorite fish on the fly. Man that’s a hard one.