Sunset with a Plonker – How NOT to fish in New Zealand

Read it! Sooner or later, it’ll happen to you too

How NOT to fly fish in New Zealand

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

On the way back south I camped by the Motueka. The river flows through a stunning and fertile valley, Arcadian in its feel and landscape. Steep green hills guide the river, twisting it this way and that, creating attractive bends, structure and lots of fishy terrain, while the banks offer kaleidoscopic vistas of happily rustic lifestyle—orderly orchards and gardens, berry fields and tree plantations, and here and there unpretentious whitewashed homes presiding over this valley of plenty.

Yet for all this natural wealth and abundance, and despite what the trout guidebooks promise here, I have always found the Motueka a tough place to fish, at times so barren it seemed completely devoid of life. Over the years, I’ve put it down to my own ineptitude and unfamiliarity, the warm water temperatures and the fact that most pools double as swimming holes for orchard workers. After several uneventful attempts, I’ve given up fishing this river during the day.

But if there is an evening hatch on the Motueka, the fishing can be excellent for an hour or so, and so every time I’ve passed this way I’ve timed my travels to arrive well before the sunset, find a good pool, and wait and hope that the mayflies will hatch and the trout will notice. Occasionally, the miracle has happened. With the sunless sky casting the last of its golden sheen on the water, in the feed line against the willows, the fish rise, lining up in their hierarchical order. The bigger fish sip passing mayflies with stately economy, befitting their age and size, making only the tiniest dimples in the surface, while the gung-ho youngsters leap and splash, throwing their entire bodies at the insects, sending sprays of droplets across the river’s surface.

Experiencing such a rise is enough to make me forget all previous disappointments and no-shows. I watch and study, compare the rises and choose my fish, always going for the most inconspicuous ones, as more often than not they are the most worthwhile opponents.

Casting here requires the utmost precision, for in the prime zone of the feed line the fish are often packed closely one behind another, and you don’t want the fly to be snatched by an all-out half-pound youngster before it floats under that overhanging branch where an old patriarch fish is feeding with a quiet metronomic cadence. There is usually time for only one or two fish before it either gets too dark, or the rise peters out, or, more commonly, the entire pool is disturbed by the fight of the hooked fish. This, too, is an added attraction, a further distillation of the experience.

When the conditions conspire in your favor, and if you champion a sniper’s instead of a shotgun approach—one good cast over many hopeful ones—the evening mayfly hatch on the Motueka is dry-fly fishing at its best.

On this day, just thinking of the promised spectacle during the drive from Picton was enough to make my heart glow with anticipation and hope, the breath quicken and the hands sweat lightly against the steering wheel. By the time I arrived at my chosen pool I had a mild case of trout fever, the kind that makes you fumble with knots and drop tiny flies, and repeatedly fail to find the eye of the hook with the sharp end of the tippet because your hands tremble ever so slightly. Getting ready, I tried not to hurry, taking deep breaths and repeating an old Latin precept: Festina lente. Make haste slowly.

Over the tail of the pool not a whisper of wind ruffled the weightless flutter of slender Blue Dun mayflies as they broke away from the surface. A few smaller fish were already splashing in the feed line, a sure prelude to a full-on evening rise. I had come just at the right time. Everything was perfect.

Too perfect.

Presently, a nose of a red twin-cab 4×4 ute appeared in the access driveway, paused for a moment, its driver taking in the scene, then unceremoniously jolting and crunching his way across the rocky riverbank, going too fast, as if angry that the bank was so uneven, and that by driving fast against it he could flatten it. He came to a halt directly between me and the river, the truck’s front wheels almost reaching the waterline. The engine stopped, the door flung open and a pear-shaped man emerged dressed in gumboots, track pants and dirty work shirt stretched tightly over his beer belly.

He appeared to be avoiding looking at me, as if I were not there, halfway into my waders, with the rod rigged and resting against the snorkel of my camper. He walked around to the back of his truck and in the loose junk scattered around the ute’s tray began rummaging for his fishing gear. This did not take him long, as in the next moment he was splashing through the shallows and toward the rising trout. The trout which I had been anticipating for the past few hours, and whose every rise added an extra beat to my own heart rate.

I considered my options. What do you do? Confront the dude? This can be a no-win scenario. You fight, you’re a fool; you walk away, you’re a coward. Still, there was an unacceptable “this is my river so piss off” kind of meanness to the way he barged into my riverine dream and shattered it. This was no innocent mistake or ignorance; this was a premeditated affront. A slap in the face. Something that caused your blood pressure to spike and made you think: “Someone ought to teach this punk a lesson.”

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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.

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Smelting Perfect – my latest at Midcurrent.com

 

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The Southern Lakes always surprise no matter how often you fish them. Maybe it’s their sheer volume and depth that assure we never quite plumb all their secrets, or perhaps the angling discoveries have to be made one at a time, drip-feeding the lifetime of passion. I have lived and fished here for over a decade and a half and I can’t say I really know fishing at the lakes. I do know fragments – some of them quite well – the early-spring nymphing, the manuka beetle bonanza, the cicada time when big browns patrol the surface of the deep-green water like something out of Jaws and when a well-tied Yellow Humpy can yield two dozen fish before it starts to unravel. One thing I did learn about this picture that is the Southern Lakes fishing is that when a new fragment appears, getting to know it is going to be a treat. Without exceptions.

This time it was smelting. I used to go all the way to Taupo for a fix of shallow-water fishing to smelting trout and never even thought such sport was possible on my home lakes. Sure, I’ve caught fish on smelt flies here, plying the rips of inflowing rivers during low-water winters but in my ichthyological ignorance I assumed the voracious rainbows were taking the fly for a juvenile brown. Until my compadre Craig Smith enlightened me on the matter.

From March to May there was indeed a smelting season at the Southern Lakes and the fish, both brown and rainbows, were hunting not their own juveniles but land-locked whitebait. Just as the rivers were getting tough to fish, with trout either paired up or extremely educated through a season of harassment, the smelting fish were fresh from the lake. The rainbows especially, living deep and putting on excellent condition (Craig calls them footballs) have only just, or were about to, enter the rivers and may have never seen an angler and an artificial fly. They were confident and aggressive, making for electrifying fishing. Furthermore, Craig said, he knew just the best places to fish for them.

Craig and I started guiding about the same time and, while I gave up to pursue writing novels, Craig went on with his guiding business, developing solid clientele and reputation. But now the guiding season was over and it was time for some Research & Development, which in the lingo of the pros translates into fishing for pleasure.

Thus one perfectly still autumn morning, as the black sand of the beach shaded by a mountain was still frozen, we launched Craig’s Stabicraft on to Lake Hawea and he gunned the motor toward the mouth of the Hunter River. With almost no notice at all, Craig had also invited Georgie Tolmay and it was a masterful call. A Zimbabwe expat and a daughter of an African safari guide, Georgie grew up in the veldt, stopped game hunting at 14 and learnt to fish on the Zambezi tigerfish. Her manners, voice and accent were so unmistakable, when I closed my eyes I could imagine her reading: “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills …” The keenest fisher woman we’ve ever met, Georgie was to make our day, both with her enthusiasm and performance, though for now, fluffing up the feathers of our down jackets against the windchill, we did not know any of it yet.

I asked her what was it about fly fishing that could keep a girl so fascinated with it and she said: “When I’m fishing I don’t think of anything else. No business, no responsibilities. My mind and soul are clear and care-free, this is time for me to just be me. And there is so much to learn, it’s a total thrill.” With this particular kind of smelting there would indeed be much to learn, but this we didn’t know either.

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Smelting is not a correct term for what we were about to do, though it’s descriptive of the technique, if not of the species. There are no smelt in the Southern Lakes, all efforts to introduce them have failed. What we take for smelt is in fact whitebait, a mix of Galaxiid species, almost the same as the whitebait which streams every spring in from the ocean and which causes an entire tribe of people to abandon whatever they are doing and try to net the little buggers.

Like their ocean-going kin the lake whitebait also migrates upstream to spawn, and likewise, they only make it into the estuaries. There they lay their eggs which, having developed into larvae, are washed downstream so that the life cycle is completed. Trout follow the adult whitebait, eager to top up their condition just before their own spawning runs, and they slash through the sandy shallows, hitting the translucent fingerlings with the ferocity usually reserved for cicadas. It is a sight that shifts the angler’s heartbeat into double-time. At least until he or she starts casting.

There is a definite knack to sight-fishing with a smelt fly, a sensitivity of touch and timing, and getting it just right can be a humbling experience.  I won’t be bragging if I say I can put a fly where it needs to be within a cast or two, I also know about the drag and other nuances of presenting a fly. Hell, I used to teach it! So when my turn came to fish I was confident. We sighted a good brown zigzagging its way along the shallow silt shelf. I cast square across the river, plonking the smelt good two metres up and above, sending it on the inevitable collision course with the trout.

So far so easy. The fish saw the fly, it turned and attacked with a burst of speed. A positive take if I ever saw one. I gave it the required 0.4786 second of a delay then lifted the rod ready to yahoo.

Nothing. Just a pile of slack line coiling on itself like a broken guitar string.

The fish returned to its beat, unperturbed, while I untangled. Bad luck? Well, not if it happens four times in a row, on the same trout.

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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

 

From my latest column at Midcurrent.com

 

The Fables of La Fontaine

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Do you have a river of your dreams, a place that comes first to your mind whenever you think “flyfishing?” It may be a memory snapshot of somewhere you’ve already been or a mental compilation of everything that is the best in our pursuit. Picture it for a moment, what’s it like?

What size, with what backdrop, in what country? Does it have long smooth glides where rise-rings take forever to dissipate, or is it fast and boisterous, with plenty of big rocks for rainbows to sit against? Is it an easy ego-pampering water à la Timaru Creek or a fair dinkum test like the lower Tongariro where massive browns regard you with contempt? Whenever I closed my eyes I always saw my river clearly but only this spring I realised that it actually exist, and that it has a name. I also got to fish it for all of three days. Talk about vision becoming a reality!

The river is called La Fontaine and it seeps out of the swampy paddocks on the New Zealand’s West Coast, two hours north of the glaciers, near the farming settlement of Hari Hari. It’d be tempting to think that it was named after the writer Gary LaFontaine who, as one journalist noted in Gary’s 2002 obituary, “was a flyfisherman—in much the same way Albert Einstein was a mathematician.” You may have come across his books – Trout Flies: Proven Patterns, Caddisflies, and The Dry Fly: New Angles – they are classics in their field. But it’s more likely, certain in fact, that the river carries the name of another scribe, the Frenchman Jean de La Fontaine, a conjurer of magic and fables. For a dream river such association seems particularly fitting.

I’d been meaning to explore it for years and never had but this time we’d finally set a date and made it happen. My fishing compadre David Lloyd flew in from Hong Kong and one sunny November day we set off in my camper, from Wanaka and up the coast. By that time we’d already had a week’s fishing on our favourite River X, hard but rewarding, and it was the most memorable trip ever (sorry mates, no GPS coordinates here.) Sight-fishing to eager browns, the solitude and the luxury of having the river to ourselves had raised our standards, honed the expectations. Thus we arrived in Hari Hari a little too cocky perhaps, two self-professed experts ready to kick butt. The La Fontaine browns would see to it that we did not delude ourselves for long.

lafontaine_releaseLa Fontaine is a river-size spring creek, with fat weed beds waving in the current over clear patches of light gravel and sand, all of which makes for rather good spotting. David and I delight in sight fishing, now almost to an exclusion of any other style, and the “See no fish, cast not” adage has become something of our modus operandi. We are happy to walk for miles just looking for the moments of magic this particular kind of voyeurism affords, knowing that to see even one fish react to a fly – to see it  take, inspect or refuse – is an experience far more intense and memorable than catching half a dozen fish blind.

Maybe it’s because we’d both done our river mileage, flogging the water without seeing the fish first, or perhaps it is a residue of my years as a fishing guide. For a guide, watching his clients fishing blind can be intolerably boring which is why we so insist on finding the fish. Spotting makes a guide feel useful and engaged, a part of the adventure. All other alternatives are grim by comparison. Consider the renown Scottish gillie who was asked what was the single most important skill for a career fishing guide. After scratching his beard in deep thought he replied: “I’d have to say it’ll be the ability to yawn with your mouth shut.”

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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.

Sneak preview of The Trout Bohemia

 

THE TROUT BOHEMIA, the follow-up title to THE TROUT DIARIES and part 2 of THE TROUT TRILOGY will be out worldwide in August 2013.

Once upon a time a prince met a beautiful princess.

“Will you marry me?” the prince asked.

The princess said, “No.”

And he lived happily ever after. And he fished, and skied, and hunted, and went on long safaris, and he drank expensive whiskies by the campfire, and there was no one there to tell him he played too much, and that it was costing a fortune . . .

So begins The Trout Bohemia, a book of fly fishing travels in New Zealand.

 

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You can get your SIGNED copy in our online bookshop here

 

Trout Diaries Podcasts – Episode 3:

 

Johnny Groome fishing the Arnold

Johnny Groome fishing the Arnold

Johnny Groome and the Arnold. The saving of “One of the best trout rivers in the world you’ve probably never heard about.”

Episode 3 of the Trout Diaries podcasts features a happy-ending post script to the story of Johnny Groome and Arnold River (featured in the book and as ONE MAN’S RIVER ONE MAN’S WAR on Midcurrent.com.)

An inspirational tale of what happens when we follow our passion and stand up for what we love and believe in.

Let us know what you think (use Comments below.) This is our first fully audio-engineered  show.

 

From my monthly column at Midcurrent.com: February

 

Johnny Groome following a fish on the Arnold River, West Coast, South Island, NZ

Johnny Groome following a fish on the Arnold River, West Coast, South Island, NZ

One Man’s River, One Man’s War

In a garage studio on a cliff above the Ahaura River, on the South Island’s West Coast, Johnny Groome stepped back from his easel and regarded the canvas with a critical eye. A heavily-timbered stag, trotting up an alpine game trail and pausing momentarily to glance over its massive shoulder, looked back at him from the unfinished painting with a mixture of curiosity and defiance.

“Enough work for today,” Johnny said, stabbing his brushes into a tin of turpentine. “Let’s go for a fish. I’ll show you my best river in the world.”

I have come to see him about just that, my curiosity piqued by his book Arnold Gold, full of stories about large flies and amazing Coloburiscus hatches and a river that no one else seemed to care about. Years ago, during my exploratory forays to the West Coast, I looked at the Arnold  but dismissed it after a cursory glance. It seemed too hard: intimidating fast water, so dark it was impossible to look into, all of it hemmed in and overhung with willows, with an impenetrable thicket of blackberries and brambles blocking all access like bales of barbed wire. I went on to Reefton instead, and this, Johnny was now telling me, was the mistake everyone made.

“There are three types of trout waters on the Coast,” he said as we drove down to the river. “Your lowland waters like La Fontaine and all the spring creeks, your backcountry rock-and-boulder rivers that everyone goes for, and then you’ve got the Arnold which I prefer above all the rest.”

Unlike most other trout rivers on the Coast—all of them rain-fed and thus prone to frequent and at times cataclysmic floods—the Arnold flows out of a large lake—Lake Brunner— and is thus uncommonly stable. This is apparent when you turn over one of the stones that cobble the riverbed: black with algae and trailing tendrils of weeds, and absolutely teeming with aquatic insects. But blink and you miss most of them because the water-blaster current washes them away instantly.

“One time I set up a fine mesh sampling net and then moved a few stones upstream of it,” Johnny said. “The net yielded over 1000 critters, mainly net-building caddis and Coloburiscus nymphs. I try not to do this too often because, really, the bottom here is so old, undisturbed and densely populated that when you pick up a stone you instantly want to put it back, feeling guilty about the havoc you’ve caused.”

It is this aquatic ecosystem—stable, long-established and unaffected by the heaviest of deluges—which makes the Arnold such a unique trout fishery. “It is a haven for brown trout,” Johnny says. “There is an overabundance of food here, unlimited shelter and almost no disturbance from anglers. The numbers of fish must be experienced to be believed. I have pulled out up to 20 good fish in a day from a patch of river the size of my kitchen. Based on my catch rates I’d guesstimate the numbers at 500 fish per kilometre, in places perhaps even more. This surely must be the highest density of trout anywhere in this country.”

None of it is immediately apparent as we walk upstream from the highway bridge and along the smaller channel of the main river called the Left Fork. If anything, my old impressions are reconfirmed. Absolutely no room to cast, arse-up territory wading and, worst of all, no sign of fish. The water is stained brown by the forest tannins, and it runs over a black bottom, frequently frothing into whitewater. No hope in hell to spot a trout, not even with a painter’s visual acuity like Johnny’s.

“What makes the Arnold such a Cinderella of a river is that it is a blind-fishing water in a region known for its sight fishing,” he says. “You try to spot fish here, you’ll fail almost every time. But here the trout are packed so tight you need to cover every square inch of the bottom.”

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