I’m eating fish and chips in a small town hotel pub. It’s about my eighth serving this trip and I don’t even like fish. But the Blue Cod doesn’t taste like anything from the sea. Once I break through the thick batter the meat is light, flaky and delicious. The owner comes over, introduces herself and pulls up a stool. She asks us about our day; where we’re from; where we’ve been fishing; and how our meal is? It takes me several seconds to get in gear and respond. It’s like I’m in some sort of trance like, hypnotic state. That’s what walking a river all day and staring into clear water does to me. It’s like I’ve been in a long deep sleep; or under a spell. It takes me awhile to re-surface; to wake-up. And my mind is elsewhere. I’ve been reviewing the day. I’m thinking about the high station river we just fished, and that one fish.
Brothers of the Angle
We talk to the owner about our day. She tells us about her hotel and the small town we are in. Her husband is behind the bar pouring pints and watching the comings and goings in the pub. Two dairy farmers at the next table join the conversation when they overhear that we have been fishing. One leans over with his phone and shows me a picture of a brown trout he caught this year. My eyes pop and I say, “unbelievable”. The fish is freakishly large; it’s disproportionate. I imagine Goodyear or MetLife stenciled on its side. With my favorable reaction he proceeds to show me a dozen more photos of super-sized trout. He, and hundreds of other anglers, catch the giants on conventional tackle in a canal north of here in the central South Island near the town of Twizel. I drove along the canal a year ago and witnessed the angling scene. The trout position themselves just below a large salmon farm and feed on its effluent and residual food pellets. The location is like an aquatic feed lot; it’s a buffet. The canal is really the antithesis of the locations I have been fishing and a completely different angling experience. But in the end it’s still fishing and the dairy farmers are as excited about their annual pilgrimage to the canal as I am about fly fishing the regions and rivers that I have been on. And excitement, anticipation (dreams) and adventure is what fuels all anglers whether we are casting a worm, a red devil lure or a fly.
Roman gets up from the table and starts playing fetch with the pub owner’s dog, a Border Collie. It chases the tennis ball from one end of the bar to the other, darting between tables as patrons drink and have supper. No one pays attention. It’s obviously a common scene here. The Collie gets so excited with the game that it tries to leap up on the pool table. It doesn’t quite make it, slides off and lands awkwardly on the floor. I watch it for a second. It bounces up and is alright. People briefly look up at the disturbance, then go back to their pints, meals, and conversation. The dairy farmer shows me another picture. It’s a photo of a dozen or so of the giant trout, some 30 lbs plus, stuffed into the back of his pick-up truck. I say, “you eat em?” He smiles and nods.
The pub owner retreats to the kitchen for a moment. The dairy farmers go outside for a smoke. I have time to return to my spell and think about the day, the river and that one fish.
I was hiking a cliff when I spotted it. I almost missed it which is hard to believe given its size and the good lighting…one of the largest wild trout I’ve ever seen. Maybe I wasn’t expecting anything as I had just covered several km’s of river and had seen little. It was lying in the shallows in a little depression. A great spot. I watched it for a moment from my perch. It remained relatively motionless. You’re always hoping for some kind of movement; some sign of feeding. That means you have a chance. I made my way down to the river and got in behind and a little to the side of the trout; perfect positioning. My casts were on the mark. At first I tried a small terrestrial dry, then eventually some larger dries and ended with some wets but the trout wouldn’t feed. I left it alone for an hour or more and then returned. Same result. Roman eventually tied on a big blonde Zonker and tugged it in front of the fish. It simply cruised-off to deeper water where it disappeared.
The river is not known for having a lot of fish. It’s a long shot place. If I’m fortunate enough to return some other season, I’d probably have to donate at least two full days to it, maybe more, in order to give myself a fair chance. When you go to a river like that you really are swinging for the fence and you have to remind yourself that home run hitters also strike out the most. You’ve got to be prepared to get skunked. That’s kind of the deal you have to make with yourself before stepping into that river; the deal you make even before you make the long drive up there on the high station road. You go up there for the hunt, the space and the silence, and maybe, just maybe, one great fish.
It’s late. The owner is making her rounds and then goes into to the kitchen. Meal time is just about done. Her husband is still pouring pints. The Collie is circulating through the pub looking for a play mate. The dairy farmers are back outside having another smoke. The place is slowly thinning out. I look up at the bar’s big screen. Championship Sheep Shearing is on. I’m in Waikaka, NZ.
They appear out of the mist in a small beat-up truck that has metal cage like kennels bolted to the flat-bed. A man and woman jump out and flip the latches on the cages. Several dogs, all Border Collies, bolt through the doors like thoroughbreds at the start of the Derby. The woman makes sharp whistling sounds and the dogs immediately respond. They push the sheep herd in the wanted direction. It’s a well rehearsed, beautiful choreography. Everybody knows their moves, even the sheep. The man and woman make eye contact with me and nod. They see me for what I am, an angler. I nod back. I’m probably on their property; their large sheep station; their ranch. They have thick woolen hats on. She’s in a bulky sweater. He’s in a tattered work jacket. It’s early in the day, cool and drizzly yet like all herders I’ve seen here in NZ, they are in shorts and high Wellington type boots. Their foot wear, like their truck, has seen a lot of miles. They head off on foot with the dogs and sheep leaving a trail in the wet grass, and disappear over a hill. I go down to the river. As I walk I keep hearing whistling in the distance. I’m on a high country station somewhere in Central Otago. I feel I’ve been here before even though I know I have not.
I’m up early checking and getting my gear together; my morning ritual. It’s still dark but the campground is alive. Touring cyclists are going through their own preparations: tinkering with their road bikes, their specialized shoes and cycling packs. They are as excited about the day ahead as I am. Some are already on the road. I can see bicycle lights strobing in the distant dark.
A fellow camper drops by. I can tell he’s an angler by his outfit: shorts over synthetic long-johns. It’s kind of the official uniform here for people who chase trout. His name is Remi and he is from France. He fly fishes NZ three months a year and has done so for several seasons. He asks me how the fishing has been. I reply, “slow for me”. He says it’s been, “slow” for him too and that other anglers are reporting the same.
Remi feels we are here “too late” in the season. He also feels there are “too many anglers” around. I tell him I was here last year at the same time and the fishing was excellent. He says, “the same time?” I reply, “the exact same time”. He looks puzzled
Remi and I talk about NZ rivers and trout. He’s a great resource given all the time he spends here. Then I head out to fish. Light is starting to flood the valley and I want my last day to be a full one. I’ve run out of food and first head for a local coffee shop that opens at 8:30 am most days. Sometimes it opens at 9:00 am. That’s small town NZ…open late, close early. I grab a couple of muffins, a large flat white (coffee) and a thick chicken sandwich. I’ve still have three large Smitten apples in the bottom of my backpack and a liter of water, so I should be good for a full day.
The muffins are gone in an instant and I think about what Remi said, “We are here too late…there are too many anglers around”. I didn’t want to hear that. I already feel jinxed on this trip and my angling confidence is low. Just before I arrived in NZ tropical storm Gita blew through and with it came heavy rain, high and dirty rivers. And the trout seem to be “off”. Many we have come across in the shallows seem to have lock-jaw and are inactive. Spotting fish has also been challenging with the heavy skies. Those that are feeding seem to be down deep and on nymphs; very tiny nymphs. When the water starts to clear and optimism returns we get another deluge. At times on this trip I’ve felt like hanging up my wading boots. I’m taking the weather personally which of course is irrational. But anglers are like farmers…much of our success or failure is dependent on what is going on above, in the sky.
The morning is still cold as I arrive at the river after visiting the coffee shop. I wet wade through a side-channel on the way to the main flow. It’s bright outside but there is high thin white cloud that is casting a milky glare on the river. I can still see through the surface but not a great distance. I feel I’ll be able to spot a fish in the shallows or one tight to the bank if I go slow and search carefully. Wishful thinking? I don’t know. In spite of walking 7 to 15 km a day on river stones and through thick clumpy Tussock grass for the last twelve days, with little sight-fishing success, I still have the energy and the desire to find a great fish. There are few things in life that I have this much resolve and patience for. I still have today. I have 8 more hours ahead of me. I’m going to put in my time and search.
It’s already windy which means this afternoon it could really blow and make angling and trout spotting tough. Morning might be my best shot; my best chance. At the first river pool and run that I come across I spot a large trout lying in the shallows. I’m shocked. Luck like this just hasn’t happened on this trip. It’s not moving much. It’s decision time: small nymph or little terrestrial dry? My hands shake at the sight of the impressive trout. I decide to go with what I’d toss at home. I cast and the beetle drifts a little, and I mean just a little (a few inches), to its left. No response. I cast again and this time it passes slightly to its right. Again, no response. After 2 or 3 more casts I get it right, the fly lands dead ahead of the fish and tracks right to its nose. His very large head tilts up and eats. What?!!! I can’t believe it. I set the hook, it holds and I eventually land it. When I take the trout out of the net to get a photo it lies motionless. I admire it for a moment and then without warning it bolts. I lunge with the net but it’s gone…no picture…I can’t believe what just happened.
I try to compose myself and continue on upstream and within 10 minutes spot another large fish on a bank in shallow water. Another chance. It rises to the fly, I land it and this time get a few photos. Then a little later I locate another great one on a bank. It also surfaces but the hook doesn’t set and it disappears into deep water and doesn’t return. I’m OK with that. I’m getting chances. More opportunity sight-fishing with a dry-fly in the last few hours than I’ve had in the past twelve days.
The wind picks-up and then starts to howl and spotting fish becomes almost impossible by mid day. A bit of wind riffle on the water can actually help you see better. Too much, and it’s like someone has pulled down the window blinds. I persevere, spook one and then don’t see any more all afternoon. I return to my vehicle at 5 pm. I’ve walked all day and searched the water well. I’ve seen no other anglers. My best day angling of the trip. The door finally opened today. I had been standing there knocking on it all week and then it happened; it opened, just for half a day, but it opened. There was opportunity…two wonderful trout spotted and caught on dries. It’s why I came here.
Roman and I threw streamers when the water was dirty and big dries when the sky and water started to clear. When the rivers finally settled we had some opportunity to sight-fish. We probably caught less than a dozen trout but they were good ones. Quality over quantity. It is what fly fishing in NZ is really about. Here are more photos of rivers, landscape and trout. Some of the fish pictures below are of the same trout featured above but taken at different angles.
Some simple smallish dry flies…size 14, 16 and 18.
FUTALEUFU RIVER VALLEY, Chile, 1998.
My dog Brooke, age 1, and horses. The quietest place I have ever lived; where time almost stood still…Patagonia.
Clear sky the other night made the deep freeze even deeper. Tons of snow, short days, tying flies, and hiking.