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.
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.
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