Places. Special places. We all have them. They resonant with us for personal reasons. Many of mine are places with water, clear water, and fish. Places like the Salmon river in Malone, New York; a stream below an old covered bridge in Powerscourt, Quebec; a particular side channel on the Missouri river in Montana; coastal La Ribera, Baja; a Snook beach along the gulf coast, Florida; the Crowsnest River, Alberta. Some of the best brief, and not so brief, moments in my life have been standing, toes wet, in the middle of these places. Another such place is a river in New Zealand (NZ) that I wrote about it in my blog two years ago: https://troutondries.com/2017/11/18/high-plateau/.
In the High Plateau post I said there are rivers in NZ where I have caught bigger fish and rivers where I have seen more fish but in my mind the high plateau is still the most special. It’s the austere beauty of the place; it’s the wide open, wind swept, rolling grassland terrain the color of wheat, yellow ochre, and my golden retriever; it’s the long slow flat pools and bends; it’s the fact that I have to use all of my angling skills and sometimes fish to almost perfection in order to make a connection there; it’s the extreme wariness of the trout in the wide open land where an angler has no place to hide; it’s the challenge of the place…
This year I was fishing six hours away from the high plateau at the opposite end of the South Island. Due to flooding and road closures I was unable to visit it the first week. However, every day I checked its flows. I checked and re-checked morning and night. They were always high; less than ideal. The river would drop. My optimism would rise. Then the flow would spike and all hope would be dashed. The route up to the high plateau is also a scary, switchback dirt road with no guard rails. With the heavy rain the region had been experiencing I knew it would be muddy and slick. I’ve driven it before in wet weather. I wondered whether I could make it up there. All year I had planned to return. I even rented a more expensive AWD vehicle to make the journey. I hoped to fish the sections I’ve been on in the past and then cover a few spots that I have never tried. Man plans, God laughs…
On my second week of the NZ trip I decided to venture south to the high plateau knowing that my chances due to conditions (continued rain) of catching a good one on a dry fly would be slim to none. And that proved true. I made the long drive crossing one raging river after another on the way down. The large glacier fed lakes I circumvented were white-capped, ocean like looking in temperament, and threatening to flood the roads and tourist towns on their edge. The wind blew, the clouds were low, and I drove through storm after storm. I got a tiny cabin rental at a holiday park for the night and then early the next morning I tackled the muddy, slippery switchback road up to the plateau. What normally takes me thirty minutes took one hour. But I got there. I brought along extra food, water, warm cloths, and my sleeping bag in case I got stuck and had to wait for things to dry out. My first day there it rained. It was cold for summertime. Snow collected on the hills that fringed the river valley. Surprisingly, water clarity wasn’t too bad but it was much higher and faster than when I fished it in other years. Many pools I had fished in the past weren’t really pools due to the higher flow. I knew of one exceptionally big and long pool, with a back eddy, where I thought I might find some slow, flat water and possibly a rising or cycling fish if insects showed.
On the east side of the pool there is high ground. I’ve sat up there and watched the whole pool when conditions were ideal: blue skies and sun. No such luck my first day. I still went up. I could see into the water on my side of the river so I sat there and watched. Wild Hare grazed above and below me, most not noticing my presence. Eventually I spotted movement in the eddy: a large yellow toned trout feeding mainly below but occasionally rising. It was in the curl back of the eddy facing downstream. Sometimes, however, it would turn around and face and feed upstream. Its behavior suggested there was food but not enough for it to stay in just one tight feeding position. Due to its unpredictable movement approaching and fishing to it would be tricky. However, it was feeding and therefore I had a chance. And a chance is what it is all about.
cold on the plateau
When I dropped down from my perch I lost sight of the trout because of the grey skies and reflection. I had to wait for a rise. I chose an upstream position as most of the time the trout was looking downstream. I stayed real low, hugged the ground and waited for the a rise and then placed a small ant pattern nearby. I watched my impression and studied the mercurial surface for floating insects. There were some dark mayflies. Slightly larger than a Blue Winged Olive (BWO). I spotted a few even larger mayflies. Some but not a lot.
There was no response to my ant pattern so I let it drift back, gently picked it up and put on a size 14 BWO, tied parachute style with a black post for visibility. I waited for the fish to rise again and then tossed my second offering. I did this two or three times and then the rises stopped. I waited awhile then went back up to my perch to see if I could spot the fish again. After some time I located it. It was still in the eddy but down deep. I waited and watched but it never surfaced again. Eventually it disappeared. I had my chance. Day one.
I drove the slick winding descent home to my cabin and that night dried all of my gear with the little electric heater provided. Next morning it was sunny and I waited awhile for the road to hopefully dry-out. By mid-morning I made the journey back up to the plateau. This time it was a mix of sun and cloud. The wind was howling when I got up to the river. Flows were even higher due the previous day’s heavy rain. There was a car at the bridge so I drove on. As I passed through a large sheep station another car caught up to me. When I stopped to open a station gate the occupants of the car, anglers, asked me where I planned to fish. I told them. They said they’d fish the beat below me. I drove to the same location as the day before, however, there was a shiny pick-up truck with two long rod holders on its roof at the parking area. I arrived too late. In past seasons I’ve rarely seen another angler on the river. I usually have the water to myself. It’s one of the attractions of the place. Not so today. I would have to fish the top beat, which meant fast pocket water and rapids. With all the rain and high water it wasn’t a good sight-fishing option. I spent a fruitless morning on it and then drove the road back downstream at noon to see if the other anglers were still around. Their cars were gone so I jumped on one of the lower beats but saw nothing the rest of the day. That was day two.
On the way back to my car I spotted a rabbit that obviously had been crushed by an ATV. The nearby large sheep station appears to have been promoting tourism: a high end farm-stay type of business. I noticed they had half a dozen high performance looking ATV’s parked in a straight row outside of the guest accommodations. I had observed many tire tracks along the river something I had not seen in past seasons. Why they’d allow their guests to drive riverside, I don’t know. There are endless opportunities in the nearby hills. Tire tracks and ruts along a river are always disappointing to see. I’ve seen this scenario before at home. Mud ruts form, get deeper and grow, and fill with standing water. Subsequent riders follow the same path. The gouges don’t heal. They become permanent. The place starts looking used, abused and just plain ugly.
The third day I got up early and got to the big pool at 7:30-8:00 am. I had the place to myself. No cars anywhere. I had seen spinners hovering along the river the first rainy day I fished it and wondered if there was a morning or mid morning spinner fall. No such luck. The clouds were back but thankfully no rain. I watched the pool all morning. The same bugs hatched in the early afternoon but the fish never made an appearance. The flow was still high. I hung in until late afternoon, watched and when cold walked and checked the other nearby pools above and below but saw nothing. I thought maybe the great trout had been caught the day before and was down deep recovering; maybe it had been harassed and moved briefly elsewhere; I don’t know? I simply couldn’t find it again…
If you fly fish a lot you know that many days are like this, unlike what is generally reported in angling social media, videos, etc. People display their successes (I’m no different), rarely the times when they get ‘blanked”. When sight-fishing sometimes you simply just don’t see much; you don’t have a lot of opportunity; and you don’t catch. Sometimes you simply walk a lot; much more than you want to. Sometimes you get cold, wet, your nose runs and your fingers freeze, or you get blown off the water by extreme wind. It’s all part of it. I could have thrown streamers or chucked weighted nymphs and possibly improved my chances up on the High Plateau. Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s not why I traveled to the plateau.
If you’ve fished for a long time you probably have a fairly rigid set of parameters which you operate by. You try catching in a certain way, pick water that matches your angling style, often fish certain specific/select flies that you like. Your way or choices are no better than any other way people fly fish or fish in general. It is just the place that you’ve come to. It is where you are after a long refinement process. It’s what you seek. It’s what you look for when you head out for a day on the water.
spinners in the sky
Periods of heavy rain were predicted for the next day and the day after. The flow on the river I had fished my first week, six hours north, was dropping and so I decided to make the drive back there late that afternoon. I was, however, satisfied with my return to the high plateau. I got back. I got back and in spite of all the weather adversity I had one good opportunity with one of the river’s large wild brown trout. One opportunity was enough.
The high plateau! Still the ultimate challenge. Still the best place I ever fished. I hope to return some day.
It’s good to have places…