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

The Trout Diaries Podcast – Episode 1: Introduction

 

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Welcome to the first of our TROUT DIARIES podcasts. New Zealand is a phenomenal place to fly fish for trout, many say the best in the world, but it’s also one of the most challenging. Many anglers have come here to live their dream of the Trout Eldorado only to come away beaten and humbled. This is because, as Charles Gaines wrote in his The Next Valley Over:

 “In some places and at odd times trout fishing can be easy in New Zealand but typically and essentially it is more technically challenging and butt-kicking difficult than anywhere else in the world.”

This is just one of the reasons for these podcasts: to help you improve your fishing and, if you are coming from elsewhere in the world, to come prepared.

In subsequent episodes I will be brining you the best of New Zealand fly fishing: interviews with top guides, trout scientists, river conservationists, tips and tricks for what to do and what NOT to do here. I will take you with me on the road – the research trips for my trout books – and show you our diverse regions and how they differ through geography and seasons.

Another reason for these podcasts is to spread the word about conservation of our trout rivers which are under an unprecedented threat from industrial interests. The more anglers know about this the sooner the change in environmental awareness will come about. So please join us, let our voice be heard. The hour is late.

In the course of our journeys you will meet some of the characters who inhabit my books – the trout bohemians – and learn what makes them so passionate about fly fishing in New Zealand. You will gleam some of their river wisdom and experience. We will finish each episode with an audio excerpt from my books THE TROUT DIARIES and THE TROUT BOHEMIA (which will be out in August) to give you a literary taste of what it’s like to live the trout dream here.

There is always a danger in a writer writing about himself and his work so to begin with and, to forestall any self-indulgences on my behalf, here’s an interview about The Trout Diaries which Colin Shepherd did with me for his HOOKED ON FLY FISHING radio show.

So, sit back, pour yourself a glass of your favourite, and join us in living the trout fishing dream.

 

 

From my monthly column at Midcurrent.com

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The Trout Diaries: “The Mystery River”

IF I TOLD YOU where we fished for three days in mid-January your life would be in danger, because sometimes it can be perilous to know such secrets. In danger, too, would be my own masculinity, for, sure as Sage, my compadres-in-rod would come after me also. So let us just say, after Papa Hemingway, that the river was as big and as wide as a good river should be, and that the ratio of trout to water was favorable, if not to the trout then surely to the angler.

But let us also add, leaving Papa to his vices and devices (since we have long ago moved from impaling grasshoppers on hooks and calling it fly fishing), that this lower South Island river had enough side-creeks and spring-fed backwaters to provide textbook sight fishing. This was to be its saving grace during our visit, as the river itself was far from being at its best, running the color of milk put into a Bombay Sapphire bottle, and so high even some of the side creeks were marginal to cross in a Landcruiser with the snorkel higher than your head.

There were four of us in that truck. David Lloyd, my regular riverside buddy, was back again from Asia for his fix of fly fishing, and this time he had brought a friend named Mike Brady, an initiate to this game of trout. Then there was yours truly and Craig Smith, a champion bloke and a competent outdoors all-rounder who once gained notoriety when he wrecked his sea kayak off the coast of Banks Peninsula and saved his life with an epic swim that was front-page news across the district. Craig guides this river regularly if infrequently, and it was his call whether we should attempt the crossings or not.

He tested some of the creeks by wading them all the way across, looking for holes, soft spots and other hazards.

“If I can wade it I can drive it,” he said, and this struck me as a good rule to remember. I had only recently backed off from several such crossings, not so much mistrusting my own Landcruiser but my judgement. Craig’s own river sense was finely tuned and tested in battles. After a particularly gnarly crossing, in a place where several years ago a Land Rover was swept away and its driver drowned, he told us how, getting across the Cascade River south of Haast, his truck side-drifted in the current for some ten meters before it clawed its way up and out. Inside the car, both Craig and his passenger were wearing life jackets, a lesson from another incident in the Cascade when, during a similar crossing, the Nissan 4WD of the local farmer became a river-bottom attraction and, no doubt, a home to eels and trout.

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The Trout Diaries – Early January

 

Of all places to hunt for the big brown trout Reefton must be the ultimate destination, or at least one of them, and so the area has suffered from overuse of certain wax-lyrical expletives employed to describe it: heaven, and mecca, and paradise, even eldorado. But tune into the après-fishing conversations in a local pub, restaurant, motorcamp or tackle store and you’ll soon pick up a disturbing pattern of river news. Many anglers come inspired by the repute of the place, and they see and fish to some very large trout. Occasionally – just often enough to keep the legend alive – someone would actually hook one. But most would go back home beat up, unlucky and disappointed, the trout having got the better of their skills and patience, and sometimes of the spirit as well.

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A telling piece of local flyfishing lore, repeated with relish and a wink, recounts how one day three guides fished three different beats on the Larry’s, one of the area’s iconic rivers. It was tough going and when they met that night in a pub to wash it off, they did the math and it transpired that among the three of them their clients fished to 75 sighted trout that day – all large heart-stopping brutes for there seems to be no small fish here at all – and not one of these fish was hooked.

This was by no means a discredit to the skills of the anglers or the guides’ local knowledge. It’s just that they pitched themselves against the adversaries that are old and wise and fished for some many times, they developed disdain for those trying to catch them. They rarely even spook, just move out of the way of flies, all the while never stopping to feed.

I didn’t know any of that when I came to Reefton this summer to stay and fish with my long-time friend Gazza. He is about as competent an outdoorsman as they come. He got his firearms licence at the same time he received his driving permit, though he was a flyfisherman even before that. He moved to Reefton attracted not so much by his lucrative job in the newly-opened goldmine but by the area’s reputation of the flyfishing kingdom come. To better his chances, he even managed to get hold of ten years of fishing diaries compiled by our mutual friend, a retired guide who in his days excelled on the rivers around Reefton.

The said guide was one of the very few outfitters who could honestly guarantee getting you a trophy brown, even the elusive double, if you put in the time and the mileage, and did not mind a fair bit of discomfort. He did so by making it his mission to understand the fish and the rivers better than anyone else. With access to such info you’d think fishing around Reefton would be like picking the choicest fruit of a well-known tree. But it was not so.

“If all else fails go to the Rough,” he said, “this is one place you’ll always catch fish.” To ease himself into the local fishing conditions Gazza did just that and promptly got skunked. It was a hard blow to his fishing confidence.

I have fished around Reefton before, several times, and usually managed to eke out a fish here and there but never with any degree of consistency. It was clearly not a place for some quick drive-by fishing and so this time I came to lay in for a siege. I dragged in my 22-foot Buccaneer Cruiser caravan – my mobile fishing cabin – and parked it on the lawn next to Gazza’s house. This time, we vowed, we’d break out of the gloomy statistics. This time we’d put in the time and the mileage and get Reefton figured out.

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It’s dreamy big-trout reputation aside, Reefton is hard to fish at the best of times, certainly no place for tweeds and other fancy gear. The weather is coastal, with a lot of rain and overcast days. There are few tracks maintained to any standard and beyond them the bush is thick and barbed with vines that rip skin as easily as they do gore-tex. There are blood-sucking sandlfies, and mossies, and later in summer, to mar the explosive glory of the cicada season, usually a plague of wasps as well. The names of the rivers are descriptive if in a pragmatic and understated sort of way: Rough is just that, Stony will test your rock-hopping skills, and Deep Dale is a string of crystal pools down the cleft-cum-gorge that’ll make you wish you were a mountain goat or at least brought some abseiling gear.

Then there are the trout – huge and numerous, resplendent in their leopard-skin camouflage, and fighting the way a cornered big cat would fight. Like mirages, their dark shapes materialise and vanish through the shimmering water of the riffles and in the deep pockets frothed by rapids. Their size and contempt for anglers, their ability to bust the strongest tippet as if it was gossamer, are like a gauntlet thrown at your feet. An irresistible challenge.

This is an excerpt from The Trout Diaries, A year of Fly Fishing in New Zealand

 

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