The Trout Rodeo

How to handle big fish in tight places

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An excerpt from THE TROUT DIARIES, a Year of Fly Fishing in New Zealand

A few years in the planning, and a couple of false starts, but it was finally happening: we were going to fish in Haast, in New Zealand’s South Westland, during the prime time of the whitebaiting season. These last two words usually conjure up sentiments of large sea-run trout entering coastal estuaries to gorge on the little translucent squirts, but from past experiences we knew better than to base our expectations on such an elusive quarry. They come and go like silvery ghosts and often the closest you can get to one of them is when you hear a whitebaiter recounting: “there was a real big one here yesterday.”

Once, I even managed to cast to such a leviathan, running after it along the gravel bank of the Arawhata River, repeatedly offering my best-money-can-buy silicon smelt to the fish that sloshed and zigzagged just below the sheen-metal surface, leaving a trail of takes that looked like multiple rises. But it didn’t take my fly and I did not get another chance. No, this time around we would not be chasing phantoms, though of course, we’d be ready if they materialised. On this trip we were happy to focus on the resident brown trout, big and resplendent, and presenting its own set of challenges, though thankfully rarity was not one of them.

We arrived the afternoon before the season’s opening. The day was perfect, the forecast even better. The three of us have all fished here before, though never together, not in such a concerted effort, not with a large window of clear weather open over the Coast. Craig Smith, who guides out of Lake Hawea, has so fallen in love with Haast he bought a house here, a classic West Coast crib, weather-beaten and rustic, with a shed full of nets, cray pots and ancient surf rods, all framed by a miniature Stonehenge of greenstone boulders, temporarily left behind by the previous owner.

The house, which was to be our base for the trip, is not quite the Ritz but what location! Walking distance to two major rivers and their combined estuary, surf thundering beyond the windswept bar shaped into a long sand dune, sunsets in the sea. That evening David Lloyd and I walked the bank of the estuary, rods in hand. The sea-runs were in there alright, vehemently chasing herrings which themselves were big enough to hunt whitebait. Neither of us had four or five-inch feathered lures, and the fish would not even look at anything small, so in the end we just watched and marvelled. The anticipation of what could be is often more titillating than achieving the object of desire itself.

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The following day, as we stalked and fished the high banks of a local river, I was to learn one of the most important strategies I’ve ever come across in my life as a fly fisherman but to see its value you first need to understand something about the nature of Haast.

It is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever fished. People here still muster their cattle on horseback, and some riders drown in the process, and others still lose their 4WDs crossing rivers. Everything here is a couple of notches harder than it first appears. To wit, on one of our sighted fish, I faced a long and “draggy” cast and decided to wade in to better the odds. The river looked benign and only knee-deep, no worries there. Two steps in and the water was suddenly reaching the buckles of my chest waders. There was a “false bottom” to the river, a mixed concrete-like layer of silt and quicksand on top of gravel. My foundering spooked the fish. I didn’t wade much after that.

The inhabitants of Haast still cling to the old nickname Far Downers, as if to stress that in the search for their own promised land they went as far and as down as it was possible. I heard their story from Neroli Nolan, Craig’s neighbour who runs a lodge called Collyer House. One stormy evening during my previous visit, she stacked up the fire, poured out some good wine and took me on a time-travel tour to the days when Haast was considered the Wretched Coast, and its settlers, cheated and misled by a bureaucratic scandal, had to find their strength and forge their bush skills or die trying.

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When the West Coast gold-fields had been worked out in the late 1860s, thousands of people found themselves with no work and the local government came up with an ingenious solution for them. It produced a prospectus about the promised land in the far south. Any man over 16 could take up a 10-acre section and a 50-acre block, and  be granted their ownership. The land was fertile, covered with six feet of “black chocolate soil that’d produce almost anything”, and gold nuggets littered the beaches like sea shells. What’s more, a free passage to Haast was offered on the steamer Waipara to all those who dared to be rich. Desperate people flocked down to Haast, over 600 in total, and none of them knew that the free tickets on Waipara were a one-way deal.

On arrival, they found Haast more like a land of sweat, tears and despair. There was no chocolate-rich soil as promised, but a swamp humming with sandflies and mosquitoes, lashed by biblical rains, bordered by a sea and cut by rivers of uncommon severity. Disillusioned people trickled out of the district by any means possible. Some bought their way out, others simply walked off the land. By 1927 the total permanent population of Haast amounted to nine families and four single men. “The only people who stayed on,” Neroli said, “were those who couldn’t afford to leave.”

So you can see that Haast is a hard and harsh place and nothing here is easy, fly fishing included. This in itself is an attractive challenge but it also determines different rules of engagement, ones that I was about to learn.

Continue Reading …

 

Nature of Sight Fishing in New Zealand

 

Trout Diaries Radio, Episode 5:

a chat with Ian Cole, top fly fishing guide in New Zealand

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In Episode 5 of the Trout Diaries Radio we chat with Ian Cole, one of the most experienced fly fishing guides in New Zealand, and a character in both The Trout Diaries and The Trout Bohemia books. We talk about the nature of sight fishing, how to do it well and how not to get into trouble with other anglers pursuing similar goals. River etiquette for sight fishing is totally different from all other styles and, if we want our space and trout solitudes respected, we need to do the same towards others. So listen and learn what are the exact rules of engagement.

7We also stray into river conservation issues, it is difficult not to these days. Ian is a vocal activist for water quality and he will also appear in our upcoming documentary The Trout Heaven and Hell.

Enjoy the show and tune in to more of our episodes brining you the best of fly fishing in New Zealand

 

Trout Diaries Radio – Episode 4

 The Punk-Rocker of Fly Fishing

In this episode we visit and chat with Stu Tripney who runs a delightful little doll-house of a tackle store on the Upper Mataura in Athol, New Zealand’s Southland.

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Stu, who is one of the characters in The Trout Bohemia – which is now avaialble for pre-orders in our BOOKSHOP – is a guide, FFF Master Caster and an innovative fly tier. He’s also the punk-rocker of fly fishing. You can read about my re-learning to cast with Stu here.

Lot of movement in the tip, not a lot in the handle

But, as you will hear, there is a lot more to Stu than casting or punk rock.

Enjoy the show! Use the Comments feature below to let us know how you like it and what else you’d like to learn about fly fishing in New Zealand.

The Trout Diaries Podcast – Episode 2:

 

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Episode 2 of The Trout Diaries podcast is up on iTunes, an interview with Derek by Brian Bennet of Moldy Chum and Teeg Stouffer of Recycled Fish, recorded by by MauroMedia. Coming up in Episode 3 a chat with Johnny Groome and the saving of his beloved Arnold River. Stay tuned to the Trout Diaries podcast, brining you the best of fly fishing in New Zealand.

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The Trout Diaries – February

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Anaru (Henare) giving it his best shot

GONE NATIVE AT THE BIG O

“YOUS FELLAS FISHIN?” a Maori guy asked on the shore of lake Otamangakau. I said we were having a look.

“Plenty a fish here, bro, big bastards too, but bloody hard to catch, ay.” He was lean and hard, dressed in a bush shirt and hunting shorts, and his legs and arms were scratched with bush lawyer and blackberries, the barbed wire of the backcountry. Behind him was a camp that looked like a mobile butcher’s workshop. Game carcasses wrapped in fine white muslin against blowflies were hung from meat hooks on all available trees. On a log his companion sat pulling an oily swab through the barrel of a large-calibre rifle.

The man’s summary of fishing at the lake – big, challenging trout and plenty of them – was precisely what had attracted us here. Sure enough, we saw the first fish, large shape shadowing against a patch of dark-gold sand, as soon as we descended to the waterline. I was with Marc Petitjean, the Swiss fly tier and angling innovator extraordinaire but even his masterly casts and best-money-can-buy flies made no impression on this or any other fish we saw. The trout were weary, not giving us even one honest opportunity.

Marc made a face of mock dejection. “This is not a place for casual drive-by fishing,” he said. “The trout here need to be studied and understood before anything of consequence happens.” I had to laugh. This was exactly what I had planned for the next few days. For now, we were just filling a couple of hours waiting for Marc’s afternoon flight to Christchurch where he was to give one last NZ fly tying demo. Before we left I went back to ask the fellas if there was anywhere nearby I could camp.

“You can camp with us bro,” one of them said. “Plenty a room.”

And so it began, my affair with the big O, its trout and the whanau that camps along its shores.

With just enough foresight, I had borrowed a three-metre inflatable tender for the Otamangakau because the lake is an old swamp filled by the hydro scheme, and the shoreline fishing is limited to a few small and unconnected beaches. The rest of its margins are boggy and full of holes oozing muck and oily blackwater, quickly discouraging any exploration on foot. By the time I returned, set up camp and pumped up the boat it was already dark. One of the bros materialised, beer in hand, and unceremoniously put another one for me on the bumper of my truck.

“Come and have a feed with us,” he said. When I joined them both by their great incinerator fire he picked up an enamel plate from a sheet of corrugated iron which served as a dish-drying rack and heaped it with venison steaks and token stalks of boiled broccoli. Then he took a dinged-up mug, half filled it with Jim Beam and handed them both to me. We ate in contented silence, the lake behind us so still, even the stars reflecting in it did not shimmer. These two, I thought to myself, were my kind of people. My tribe.  Continue reading

Finer points of Catch & Release

Catch & Release is a concept impossible to explain, even less so to justify, to someone who has not travelled a similar road in his or her fly fishing life and arrived at it too. First you just want to catch a fish, then many fish, the more the better, then you move on to sight-fishing and start targeting bigger trout or favour a particular style, say a dry fly, over any other. By then, you’ve become skilled and proficient, accumulated a critical mass of experience. When you see a fish you usually have a fair dinkum chance of catching it, 50/50 perhaps, often more. From this waypoint on, you’re enjoying the fly fishing journey even more. Gone are the frustrations, and most of the tangles, and an occasional goof-up is a reason to laugh not to curse.

It is about here when, at least according to a traditional progression, you start catching too many fish. Or perhaps from the outset you’ve subscribed to Lee Wulff’s idea that trout is too precious to be caught just once. So you release the fish you catch, often all of them, and if anyone starts telling you otherwise, your own hackles of temper and indignation bristle to rival Lee’s best Royals. If you’ve travelled thus far down this glorious road of fly fishing for trout, walk with me a few more steps here and you will know for sure how to release the fish so that they have the best possible chances of survival.

Picture two men in a boat – two, not three – anchored in a perfect spot on the drop off at one of the Taupo’s river mouths. The lake is glass-out flat and the delightful kauri boat is called Nefer-TT, after the Tauranga-Taupo river, the TT to those in the know. The fishing is good, really good, and every few minutes the tip of one of the rods quivers. The owner of the rod strikes excitedly but then, more often than not, his face drops slack with disappointment. He is still stripping the line but the shooting head is running free again, the tip of the rod straight and lifeless. Every time this happens the older of the two men, only slightly older, picks up his notebook and scribbles something into a window of a neatly drawn table.

As I said, the fishing is good, or at least it should be if we did put our best tackle forward. By now, I’ve had seven or eight solid, hang-on-to-your-rod kind of strikes but landed only one fish, while my illustrious companion Michel Dedual, a trout scientist, is doing better, though not much better considering this is his home river and in any case it’s rare to see him lose fish.

The problem is, we are testing fishing with circle hooks as a part of a scientific research project to which Michel is contributing data. Circle hooks are, well, circular, unlike the prevalent half-ovals, and they are said to be kinder on the fish. And true enough, so far they have been. Using them, we’ve barely managed to hook a trout.

The advantage of circle hooks is supposed to be the fact they are easily removed. Here too, I could not argue. They are so easy to remove the trout can do it without any assistance from the angler, and often even despite all efforts to the contrary. In the name of Science however we persevered though ultimately the idea of introducing and promoting circle hooks into the wider angling community would be abandoned. The setting of such hook is so different from using a standard one, the trout angler’s muscle memory, formed and honed on so many fish and hook-ups, is just too set to be unlearnt and re-programmed.

For the sake of your own curiosity, I’ll just mention that a circle hook needs to be set with a much slower and more deliberate round and smooth action rather than the usual upward or sideways snap of the rod. Describing the same principle though during different activity, the old French ski instructors would tell you that, with the keen blade to its skin, you have to “slice dze tomato, not chop it.” If you chop, like I did out of deeply-ingrained habit, Voilà, squash goes the tomato, off swims the fish.

So what does it all have to do with Catch & Release? Well, a lot, because our TT experiment was a part of the same quest: how to make the fishing experience, if not less traumatic, then at least more tolerable to the fish we so adore, dream about, idolise and worship.

You and me may be considering trout an embodiment of poetry in aquatic motion but looking around on the river you may conclude that we, trout idolisers, are a distinct minority. The Taupo area, for one, is considered a “keep” fishery, meaning that most anglers keep all they legally can, and put back only what’s slabby and undersize.

For a greater part of his professional life as a trout scientist in Turangi, Michel Dedual has been crusading for the welfare of the fish and for better education of anglers, whether they fish for table or for sport.

“In either case, there should be no difference in the treatment of the fish,” he says, “until the moment you decide to either keep it or put it back. Playing a fish until it’s nearly exhausted beyond recovery is detrimental to both the taste and its survival if released. So, the number one rule is to use the heaviest tippet that will do the job and reel the fish in as quickly as possible.”

From myself I’d add, if you really love the trout and care about their well-being after the release go barbless whenever practicable, especially with large-size hooks, 12s and below. You may end up with a few “long-range” releases but weren’t you going to put the fish back anyway? Often, though not always, after the electrifying moment of the take and hook-up, the playing and landing of the fish is almost routine. Yet this is the part which upsets the fish most, at least until you get it into the net.

The next phase is even more important. With the right kind of net you can significantly improve the fish’s odds of it surviving its encounter with you. The soft-mesh nets are now becoming de rigour, at least among the conscientious guides and anglers who fish a lot and catch plenty of fish. The older nets – the woven-knotted type – are actually harsh enough to abrade the trout’s skin and scrape off some of its protective mucus. If you don’t think so, why do we rinse these nets after every fish, why do they stiffen up when dry?

Now that you have a barblessly hooked fish in a soft-mesh net, what next?

“Wet your hands,” Michel says. “This is really basic but you’d be surprised how many anglers forget to do that in the moment of excitement. Then, above all else, keep the fish in the water, and if possible do not touch it at all.”

Why touching the fish can be so harmful to them?

“Remember, they are cold-blooded,” he says. “Being touched with warm hands – even on a cold day your hands are likely to be 20 degrees warmer than the trout’s body temperature – is something they’d never in their life experience underwater. With an infra-red camera, you can see the human finger prints on the skin of a released fish for hours, sometimes days after the experience.” They look remarkably  like burn marks.

Letting the fish to continue breathing is even more critical, Michel goes on. “Without water running over its gills the fish cannot breathe, so while you’re weighing it, showing it off to your mates and taking endless pictures, the fish is gagging for oxygen. Of course, it doesn’t make any sounds so you don’t know.”

So keep the net with the fish in the water, he counsels, remove the hook with pliers or similar such tool, then, if the trout is free of tangles, simply upend the net and let the fish go.

This would be the ideal scenario but what if the fish is hooked badly or deep, like it often happens with egg imitations and Boobies? “The fish would be better off if you just cut the tippet and left the fly where it is,” Michel says. “The surgery you perform trying to extract the hook is likely to do more damage than the hook itself. Like all wild creatures, fish have amazing healing abilities, they’ll eventually work the hooks out. This is preferable to squeezing the trout between your knees, forcing its jaws open and sticking pliers down its throat. Even though you may see it swimming away, long-term the fish is unlikely to survive such an ordeal.”

If you need to hold the fish – say, to revive it after the fight – grasp it firmly by the tail peduncle (where the body is thinnest at the base of the tail fin) while with your other hand, under its belly, you support the fish’s weight, making sure you don’t squeeze, and at all times keeping its body in the water. Turning the fish upside down will usually stop it from struggling. And whatever you do, keep your fingers away from the gills. They are the most fragile part of the fish, easily damaged. Any bleeding from the gills caused by mishandling is extremely bad news for the trout.

If you really want to lift your Catch & Release game to another level, decline the offer of your guide or mate to photograph you with your catch. The trout will be grateful no end for it though, like its fight, the gratitude will be of a silent kind. If you think about it, for trout’s sake, do you really need a picture of every fish you catch?

Whether to Catch & Release or catch and keep is a personal and moral decision, and once you arrive at it, out of a premeditated choice, not because of fishing regulations or peer pressure, you don’t need to defend it one way or another. For his part, Michel Dedual is adamant that whatever our own preferences and decisions, within our Brotherhood of the Angle we shouldn’t dish out easy judgement on others but respect each other’s choices, as long as they are informed and carried out with respect. To this end he cites the antediluvian story of a failed catch and released which changed the history of the nation.“On a South Island river, I got talking to a Maori guy, clearly a Mainlander,” he recounted. “He said to me: you know the legend of how Maui was fishing, sitting on the bow of the big waka that is the South Island, and how he hooked and pulled out a massive stingray that would later became the North Island?”

“I’ve heard about it,” Michel replied.

“Ay, you know what bro? He should’ve put it back, ay!” the Maori angler exploded with jovial laughter.

“No mate,” Michel disagreed. After all, he made the North Island his home of choice. “Good that he didn’t. That stingray was definitely a keeper.”

Thoughts from a stillwater convert

For many years I’ve been rather reluctant to fish stillwater. Not that I was prejudiced against it or suffered from some obscure form of purism, favouring one type of water over another. I love lakes. I live near two big ones: Wanaka and Hawea, and there are host of others within an easy drive: Dunstan, Benmore, Wakatipu.

So it wasn’t access or the lack of proximity. It was just that, after the animated action on rivers I fished, after seeing trout holding station against hard flow, darting across current to take or inspect flies, I found stillwater – that’s stalking the edges of lakes, not trolling lures or haunting river mouths – a little uneventful, and well, more than a little hard.

Sure enough, mile for mile, I’d see a lot more fish along the lake edges than on any river. But getting them to take something, and succeeding, always seemed to me like a minor miracle. It probably did not help that my long-time friend and fly fishing mentor, a Wanaka guide Ian Cole, is a stillwater specialist. Every time I’d go out with him fish – nice fish too – seemed to materialise out of the deep black water that stretched beyond the drop-off, come into the shallows among the rocks, weedbeds and sandy patches where they were much easier to see, and they’d actually take our flies with amazing regularity. Every time I’d go back on my own, often to the very same spot like the famed but often hellishly hard Paddock Bay (Ian’s favourite) I’d get skunked, frustrated and disheartened by endless refusals and spooking.

But then something happened. Continue reading

The essence of Fly Casting

 

Researching my new Trout Bohemia book I spent a few days with Stu Tripney in Athol, looking at the casting: his and mine.

At heart, Stu is still a Glasgow punk-rocker, with tats and studs, and the choice of wardrobe colours and music that go with it. He is perhaps best known for his innovative flies – realistic, slim and robust, and well thought out. Like his pogo nymph: a foam-body mayfly larvae imitation which, when held down by a heavier fly, bounces merrily near the bottom, looking and behaving just like the real thing.

But Stu is also the country’s most qualified fly casting instructor. Behind his tackle shop in Athol there is a grassy casting area with brightly-coloured hula-hoops set up on stands to challenge the size of your casting loops. Tight loops are all the rage these days, unless you’re using bamboo, but in “casting according to Stu,” the secrets of expertise are in understanding the mechanics of a good cast and then having the ability to adapt it to your requirements. Once you do that, you can cast any loops you want at any plane – vertical, sideways or off-shoulder – and that is imminently applicable in fishing.

“People often come to me psyched up for big trout and action-packed fishing,” he told me. “I look at their casting and say: ‘well, I can take your money, drag you around the river all day and show you the big fish but, casting like that, you haven’t gotta show to catch them.” This can be humbling for the clients and not the best self-marketing strategy for a guide but it keeps things honest, and it shows the clients for who they are, whether true fly fishermen, albeit beginners, or just shoppers for trophy experiences, interested only in the results and not the art itself.

“It’s common for guys to buy these expensive rods believing that this’ll fix their casting,” he said. “I say to them: ‘if you spent the same money on yourself, on learning the skills, you’ll cast better with a broomstick than you can now with this Ferrari of a fly rod.”

I had the Ferraris already, and no desire to go back to the broomstick.

“So how about it Stu?” I said. And so we began.  Continue reading