From my monthly column at


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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