Fork In The Road

A Fork in the road. Seems like an apt place to start as this is what defines this trip. We were returning from a failed weekend foray up a new valley. Well the term “failed” may’ve been a bit harsh. Mate, Ollie, had done okay with a nice 6.5lber, and we’d drunk ample beer—even some whiskey—caught up with a few old mates and had a quality time. But my “skunking” gouged a matte finish into what should’ve been a glossy trip, as I’d had high hopes of racking up untold numbers of easy ‘Bows. Anyway, decision time was fast approaching, and I mulled over whether to commit to another roll of the die or just end the bad run already. Left—home, and this trip would never have happened. Right—a more uncertain path. One which held more allure and potential for glory, more pain and gain in abundance. Or maybe just the former. Pain was okay, as long as it came with a few trout conquests— the fisherman’s anaesthetic.

To put the decision into context, two days before the start of the season my car decided to top itself. It was a despicable blow, about as classy as punching a heavily pregnant woman in the gut. And the consequence was the same, as the sucker punch threatened to see angling plans miscarry only days before their due date. Then as if by miracle, my angling wingman, Ollie, lessened the devastation somewhat by inviting me on a three day trip away to new waters up north. Inevitably, later on that day in the quiet of the night, it reared it’s head—the inner angling magpie. Calculating distances, dollars available, calories needed, room to pack them. In a bid to extract maximum potential from the opportunity, inner magpie reasoned that if I jumped out of the car at a certain point on the way back I could then spend a few days at another river on my early-season to-do list, before hitchhiking back. It was an ambitious plan, and inner magpie was always delusionally optimistic, but given the circumstances I prepared and packed for it as best I could, in hopes I’d still be feeling up for it when the time came.

As we headed for home, coursing the highway which snaked through rolling cow-country, a trademark Coast downpour abruptly accosted the car. It’s viciousness left my convictions a little shaken. Johnny fed the flames, as he quipped “Could just go home bro, and be warm and comfortable”, to which I curtly replied “Nah, I’m going!” The response was intended as much for me as it was for him, with the aim of dispelling any seeds of doubt from my mind before they could germinate and down roots. We stopped for a quick fish just a few kilometres away from my proposed bail out point, only to experience another attempted-mugging at the hands of the felonious Coast weather—same target again, my angling resolve. This time the assailant was a biting southerly, it’s teeth penetrated deep into warm flesh tenderised by hours spent inside a toasty-warm vehicle, further stress-testing the steeliness of my angling faith’s foundation. Home was looking good at this point but I knew I’d regret it as I sat hunched at the laptop, beer in hand, and let’s be honest—probably still forlornly monitoring river flows like a mug! The arrival of dusk drew a cessation to an uneventful fishing session and as we navigated a Matagouri maze, carward bound, the one-liner on the back of Johnnie’s shirt caught my eye—“Feed Your Soul”. That was it, sign enough. I was going.

It was probably just as well, as the sole moment of action for me up until this point was a mad rush through a swampy maze of giant tussocks, frantically seeking out a more environmentally-responsible site to take an urgent dump. It would’ve made for a rather gritty confession to be sure, but it’s not the sort of niche I am looking to delve deep into with this blog: angler scat and related content! I guess it’d been my penance for scoffing an entire $4 “specialty” bread while we waited to be picked up from the jetty. Knowing now what it’s specialty was, safe to say I will be consuming it a bit more responsibly from now!

I sat down on the dirt, cracked open one of the provisions Mikey had kindly donated me, and watched the red tail lights disappear around the bend in the gravel road. Panic gripped me momentarily—had I got everything from the car?—but then the mind-mellowing effects of the beer freed me. Being a booze lightweight these days, the alcohol raised morale significantly, to the point where I considered making my way up the track in the dark. Coinciding with this boost in morale, the skies cleared and the resident frogs had just begun to break into song, no doubt with the intent of egging me on—“Go on young Troutophile, take heed your quest”—pretty sure that was the gist of their chorus. But I knew that beer and frog anthems alone wouldn’t be enough to sustain me long enough to carry me where I needed to go, so instead the tent was pitched on tough ground and I got some much-needed shuteye. The frogs gave up soon after, surrendering the airwaves to the quiet of the night.

I woke to find the early-season prankster, Jack Frost, had been busy in the night—stiffening my boots, but not before contorting their tops into an awkward shape that wouldn’t accommodate my feet. Tent fly, too, fell victim to Mr Frost’s fiddlings, and sported a substantial veneer of ice. A place renowned for wind had instead been still, and Frost had taken full advantage.

There was no denying it; the hike in was brutal. It’s a worrying sign when, just a solitary kilometre into it, the pack was already feeling heavy! It helped a little once I reached the shade of the forest but even then I continued to rest every five or ten minutes, especially on the rolling sections. It was reminiscent of that famous Churchill speech—We shall rest in the sun, we shall rest in the shade, we shall rest on the rock, we shall rest on the log. We shall always surrender, but only the battle, and never the war! As the hike went on the tide turned more in my favour against the dogged foe, Fatigue. It’s a curious thing, how the body gets accustomed to a beasting and finds a way to overcome it.

img_4154Eyeing the devil(s) on my back

wordpressquadrestpics4Serial-rester looking exhausted and concerned—what the #@^& have I gotten myself into!

Roughly halfway to my base for the coming days, I paused for yet more rest on a grassy flat overlooking the river. It was here that I met Atsushi, a keen young man from Japan. A pair of dazzling red shorts betrayed his stealth as he made his way down the riverbed. We chatted a while as he cooked a feed of pasta and downed a Speight’s he’d foraged from a hut, discussing fly rigs and terminal tackle. He showed me an au naturale indicator he fashioned from wood; you’d struggle to find anything more innocuous in appearance! A commotion coming from the river below commandeered our attention and drew us down to investigate. It was Ben, a fellow I’d met at the start of the day, being towed about the river by one of it’s hungrier residents. After watching a while I scurried down the bank to provide the same net-and-photo assistance I did the last time I came into close contact with a trout. It’s a bit of a blow to the ego to have the last two fish on my camera’s memory card both have been caught by someone else! As Ben released the well-conditioned brown, it plotted an exit course straight through the legs of a kneeling Atsushi as he documented the release via a bit of underwater filming. “Nutmegged” by a large New Zealand brown, not a bad story to take home.

img_4285Atsushi’s industrious wooden indicator rig

Recharged by the rest, I pressed on for the hut. As afternoon wore on to late afternoon thoughts of a quick fish crept in, only to be banished by the sound of a chopper flaring up further up the valley, and I drew the assumption that this stretch, too, had been had for the day. I consoled myself with thoughts that it was probably for the best as I’d get to the hut plenty before dark now, and to be honest I wasn’t even sure I was physically up to tearing off after a big brown anyway! The chopper incident did eat away at me a little though, as I wondered if I’d manage to get a day to myself or not.

The forecast for the coming week was grim: norwesters and rain with a chance of snow. Initially daunting, but I’d begun to warm to it though as I reminisced about the trip I’d had here a couple of seasons ago where it’d snowed and rained for days, ensuring I had the top of the valley to myself. That was the obvious plus side to stormy weather, and for me it outweighed the downside. I didn’t mind enduring rain, wind, and tough spotting conditions if it meant I’d have a little more solitude. It also meant I could stay longer without the likelihood of offending anyone, and fish more leisurely. It’s definitely a preference of mine to fish shorter, more intense sessions, rather than slug out a twelve hour day and frantically try to cover as much water as possible before the choppers descend and someone else nabs it. So the plan was to make the most of any weather breaks, and target different 2-3km sections of the river over the next four to five days.

img_4459Obligatory selfie—I’m trying to cut down

img_4621Finally earned my backcountry epaulettes. No ceremony and pomp, just took my pack off and there they were!

Surprisingly the hut already had a couple of occupants. Good blokes, both of them. And with us all being there for different reasons—hiking, hunting, fishing—neither posed a threat to the other’s most coveted resource. Come morning, the hiker was off early, which proved handy to rouse me from my slumbers. The hunter was due to fly out so we said our goodbyes as I set off out the door to finally get some flies wet!

The sun was obliging but the wind, famed for it’s petulance in these parts, was already beginning to act up. Surprisingly, the first hook up promptly arrived. It was sort of like that 6am knock on the door from an over-eager courier, catching me still a little half asleep. An unweighted pheasant tail nymph elicited a subtle take from a decent-looking brown just under the surface and the battle was on. He fought well, considering…. Considering what? Well check out his underside in the pic and you’ll see. I didn’t even notice it was a wound until after the pic was taken and I was in the process of removing the hook. Initially I’d mistaken it for a mouse half out it’s backside—yes I kind of take pride in not knowing the exact location of a trout’s anus! Regardless, it was a testament to the hardiness of these fish that this guy was still swimming around with such a substantial gash.

img_4312Trout hernia?

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Not long after that, I decided it was time to cash in all my accumulated backcountry miles for a prize. None of those trivial trinkets that other programmes push thanks, I will have that several-pound chunk of fleshy magnificence over there! Same fly as before claimed my prize, which had swung near a metre to take it. He then steamed off on a solid run, causing my malfunctioning reel to overspin and line to birdsnest, which then locked up the reel. Bugger! A desperate yank on the culprit—a stray loop of line on the wrong side of the spool—freed up the spool again just in time. Minutes later I had him in the net, but as I lifted the handle to weigh him frame parted from handle and splashed into the water. Frantic hands saved the day, and I still managed to get my grip ‘n’ grin. Bloody glad I wasn’t deprived of that as he was a beauty, definitely my favourite fish of the trip. The handle’s catastrophic failure was my fault to be fair, the legacy of me getting a bit Dr Frankenstein and combining sections of two different nets.

img_4404Top-shelf prize, courtesy of the backcountry rewards system

By midafternoon the norwester was in full force. Gusts bellowed down the valley, turning the whitecaps of distant riffles into a blurry haze as it robbed them of their surface. More than content with a couple of victories, I headed back to the hut for a celebratory brew and to carry out repairs on the net. It was oddly satisfying to discover the venetian cord—my half-arse substitute for paracord—I’d brought along contained a core of minicord inside which slid out, and was the perfect diameter for repairing the significant tear in the net. Deep down I always knew all those years of watching Man Vs Wild would one day pay off! A few wraps of tape around the handle and it was good to go another round.

img_4528Getting a little OCD with the repairs

Wednesday, I awoke to rain rattling against the hut’s corrugated iron roof. If I’m honest it was a welcomed sound, as I needed the rest. It may sound odd but I felt a sense of relief that I didn’t need to spring out of bed and stake my claim on the river before the drone of the dreaded Hamner Harpie re-entered the valley. And they say fly fishing is a relaxing pastime! Once up, I pottered about the hut a fair bit that day waiting for a weather window. Eating porridge and sipping on brews, feeling appreciative of the hunter’s left-behinds: a brand spanking new candle and a quarter canister of stove gas. They may’ve been small items but this far from civilisation their worth increased ten-fold. The candle would prove especially handy as I had little faith in my budget comes-free-with-licence head lamp.

img_5177Seeking a bit of inspiration from the desolation outside

When I did eventually go out—so much for the weather window, it was still pissing down—I looked up to see clouds coming from southeast cross paths with others coming from southwest. Not sure I’ve ever seen that before, but it looked unsettling. Changeable was an understatement and the day had everything. Cloud, rain, sun, with wind being the only constant. A little side braid near where I collected drinking water from, dry the day before, now supported a 20cm deep flow. It served me well as a quick and convenient gauge to the ever-fluctuating flows of the river.

My fishing session of the day was a brief one as I had a couple of intense duels that utterly drained me, and also rattled me a bit to be honest, both literally and metaphorically. The first saw my degenerate reel get birdsnested again, plus I took a solid fall on the rocks while somehow avoiding breaking my rod or losing the fish. When I caught up to him he was in the midst of a make-or-break investment, throwing all his remaining energy in one final boost to reach the other braid on the far side, in a bid to exit the aquatic highway via a shallow off-ramp. This bit of river, crossable before the rain, had now transformed into an intimidating thigh-deep torrent, prohibiting any sane thoughts of crossing it. But when he taunted me from the safety of the far braid, exposing his hefty flank as he drifted over the shallow inner bend of the off-ramp braid, all sanity was lost.

It was obvious he was spent and right there for the taking. The sight was the angler’s equivalent of a siren’s song, irresistible and willing me into peril. I paused for a final nauseating glance downriver, hoping to spot some reassurance should the worst-case scenario play out—“current’s not that bad, water’s not that cold, should get washed to the bank at the tailout”—only to find none of those reassurances applicable to this scene! In this brutally cold water, the sort of cold that causes muscles to mutiny as it robs them of their strength and sense, I knew my estimations of my swimming abilities were grossly optimistic and had never before been put to the test in such conditions. With the growing urgency of the situation displacing reason I went for him, pursuing him with the same devotion a mother would if it were her baby being swept away. The rocks, grippy and accommodating, were the siren’s saboteur and angler’s saviour, for without them I’d surely have been swimming. Or drowning.

When I got him in the net I was surprised at how solid this fish was. The photo doesn’t really do him justice.

img_4644Stubby stocky brawler who tried his utmost to get me “swimming with the fishes”

img_4686Main flow to the right, and shallow offramp left

The second fish was more physically than mentally taxing. He, too, crossed the river and led me down the opposite bank, forcing a run down knee-deep water over the disconcerting slipperiness of sizable ginger rocks. A treacherous sight for an angler wearing smooth-soled wading boots with a sprinkling of irrelevant silver dots—the relics of now-redundant stud screws—on each. Downstream the river deepened prohibitively, and from the elevated banks rose a succession of unaccommodating saplings of some sort, lined up by height in ascending order. I legged it behind the three of them with the rod only clearing the last one by mere centimetres. I was losing the race, and with his getaway now being abetted by the powerful current, he began tearing backing from spool. Ah well, I figured at least the backing wasn’t as prone to birdsnesting as the line was, I hoped! It was ridiculous how much line and backing was devoured by the insatiable torrent, and it boggled the mind how the fish stayed on. They were both gradually reclaimed when he entered a more sedate tailout of the run and I closed in—very slowly, cos I was already done! It was only here that I came to the realisation the connection was to fin rather than mouth. Bugger.

I sometimes post pics of foul-hooked fish, but when I think about it a little more the grip ‘n’ grin could be interpreted as a sort of conquest photo I suppose, which makes it a bit inappropriate. So I will take the high road, for once, and in an effort to live more nobly will abstain from shamelessly parading my unfooled foe.

img_4760Uncatchable big bow

img_4805River rising, bleak late afternoon

Jarred and physically knackered I was happy to call it a day, and put an end to the chance fear of another high-flows duel. I was glad these fish were not yet in their prime nor on their “A” game, as I wouldn’t have stood a chance against them the way the river was now. For me, the worst thing about fishing swollen rivers is I don’t trust myself to make the right judgement in the heat of the moment, when the mind is fogged by trout fever. It’s sort of like asking a drug addict in their darkest hour of cold turkey not to irresponsibly pursue that free stash that’s just out of reach—probably not going to happen. Obviously drowning is the worst fear, but a close second are the questions and regrets that gnaw away at you after a fish loss—“What if I’d done this or that?” ” How big was he?” “Did I just lose a trophy?”

I lit and kept the fire well stoked that night, as another downpour pummeled the hut. Utilising one of the hut’s basic chairs, I sat in the glow of the fire a while sipping red wine. Watching steam rise off sodden garments in the half-light of the hut, indulging in a bit of contemplation before retiring to the bunk.

Thursday offered probably the longest and best weather window to date. The morning was settled and sunny, and in order to do it justice I put in a longer shift and explored the furthest section upriver. The first hook up of the day involved an “edger” up to bugger all. Again, an unweighted pheasant tail did the business, flung just past him into the barely moving current. He responded with a subtle sway and no obvious opening of his gob. An uncertain lift of the rod tip literally five seconds delayed still got a hook up. He was a large athletic looking fish but possibly still in “lover” rather than “fighter” mode, and offered a poor weak resistance for such a specimen.

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Next fish was a bit of a surprise. I’d spotted what I thought to be a “baby” trout in the context of this river. The abstract sliver of grey only looked about a foot long, but as the indicator dipped—I struck—and he went airborne, that foot doubled. It wasn’t the flamboyant leap of an Ali-esque showboater fish, but rather the understated controlled surfacing of a bruiser intent on letting me know, “Oi mate, I am the real deal, not a tiddler, best show the appropriate level of respect”. And I did, immediately. I’d caught a fish in this pool a couple of seasons ago, and this one was pulling the exact same manoeuvres as that one had, causing me to wonder if it was my old friend.

He powered his way up a steep skinny braid at the head of the pool. Weaving between rocks, wearing himself out, no place to go. Observing his naive battle tactics, I actually felt a degree of pity for him as he purposefully waged his offensive of futility, defiantly exhibiting hope when the circumstances called for none. At the same time as feeling pity, I also quietly envied that resilient hope he exhibited in the face of dire circumstance. It seems like an odd paradox, to feel both at the same time.

When I netted him it looked to be the same fish, albeit one pound heavier. His looks had improved slightly and I figured the rest of him had somehow grown into that monstrous shoulder he had when we last met, though when I got home and scrutinised the pics of the two fish I realised they were actually different fish.

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Midafternoon, I reached my turnaround point, and the last fish to the net of the trip. “Darktrout” lay in wait—fish version of the “Darkman” character in the 80’s Liam Neeson movie of the same name. No hen trout want to dig him a redd but he lives on, solely to terrorise any angler misfortunate enough to hook him. “Gimme the f..ing mayfly nymph!” he demanded. I was foolish enough to oblige. Despite appearances, this fish actually fed the ego a little, as he did exactly what I’d anticipated. I took the net off in advance and was all ready to rush him, anticipating he’d writhe rather than run. And by netting them quick, tired legs dodge a fight, not that poor old “Darktrout” looked up to much sparring anyway.

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Some good fish were spooked on the way back, I was just too worn out to concentrate and give each opportunity sufficient due care. For me, that’s another reason why I prefer to keep fishing sessions short. To maintain intensity, fish more clinically, and do justice to the opportunities the river offers you. The weather closed in quickly and thick drizzle made certain I was soaked before reaching the hut. Much appreciated, Weather.

img_5127What in tarn-ation, look at that weather

img_5126Doomy looking tributary

On Friday the weather trumped it’s efforts of the day before, and degenerated into indescribable horrendousness—for me at least. But for another it was weather which conjured his avian El Dorado, bringing a bird’s equivalent of alluvial gold to the surface: giant worms. Within hours the track was literally paved with them.

While gazing out the window at nothing in particular, the hopping-diving motion of an eager young prospector-come-hunter caught my eye. A thrush, he was. He hopped and dived, then repeated, plucking a six inch long worm from the grasses on both occasions. He stopped, looked up. Our eyes locked for a moment. “Good hunting, aye?” Well that’s what I imagined he was saying. I gave him a slight nod back, “F..ckin aye”. Moments later a cacophony broke out on the roof above. As I imagined the hunter regurgitated it’s prey to it’s young, it left me wishing we too could take in this river with it’s magnificent fish, and feed it to the youngsters exhibiting a wilderness deficiency, in hopes of feeding their malnourished inner hunter-gatherer. And just like the bird had done, they’d probably need to have it shoved down their necks too.

That particular musing ended as I approached the river on a water gathering mission and laid eyes on the flow gauge braid, which was now teeming with worms. It was the same variety of worm as the ones which littered the area outside the hut. Sadly not at all similar to the skinny little red ones crowned with gold beads in my seldom used “others” fly box. Worms are yet another shameless void in my fly fishing knowledge. I’ve no idea whether these ones were washed in or naturally choose to enter the water, and more importantly whether the trout would be keen on them. Back at the hut I looked around for anything the right shade of pink. The faded frayed fabric at the top of my boots was about right, but did any of my streamers possess a hook suitable enough and could it be repurposed? Short answer, no. I reasoned the worm would be so long the chances of the fish eating the bit with the hook on it were slim to none.

Left ruing the lack of worm pattern, he was, when he headed out later on. “Find trouble right at his door, will a man who does not plan long ahead”, I mumbled to the fish down below. A bit of a Confucian-Yoda blend summed it up nicely, as I endured brutal conditions trying to tempt an unspookable fish in it’s backwater sanctuary. It was casually patrolling the shallow water just deep enough to cover it, as heavy rain churned the surface. Half an hour of forlorn flogging later my numbing fingers informed me it was time to call it a day and retire to the hut for a soup, coffee, or both. If I had committed to fashioning the worm pattern—planned long ahead—who knows? A trout, rather than trouble, may’ve been at my door. Definitely would’ve been an ideal place to test it out!

img_5272Mother Nature conserving the colours with this greyscale vista

Sitting in the hut longer than usual, it was hard to avoid the temptation to binge-eat my remaining rations. The cold and idleness compounded the temptation. But to be honest, being out on the water didn’t eliminate the possibility of a binge-eat either as it was often one of the methods I used to console myself after a painful fish loss, so I guess the rations were at risk either way! The coming dark drew an end to a miserable day where it had rained for it’s entirety, minus the thirty minutes of sun which had been the bait to lure me out. That was okay, however, as I’d mistakenly believed it to be Friday the 13th due to the incorrect date being displayed on my camera, so being a superstitious man I’d been reluctant to do much adventuring on this day anyway. As I turned in for the night I hoped the din on the roof would cease and blue skies would greet me come morning, as the thought of hitching in the rain was grim indeed. At least during the hike out I would be moving and warm, and in the relative shelter of the forest for much of it.

Come morning, hopes would soon be answered. Blue sky didn’t meet my eye initially—it was all white—but the mist soon cleared to reveal it, and the fresh dusting of “pow” which capped the panoramic mountain vista. It was tough to leave, as this was far and away the best weather of the trip. But surely, I reasoned, other anglers would arrive today and it was only fair to leave them the water—barring any rematch offered with backwater fish, of course! On top of that, I aimed to get back to the road early enough to ensure a ride home before day’s end.

img_5328Frosted peaks

img_5321Sunlight about to hit the valley

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As I made a quick detour up the track to get a snapshot of a particularly pleasant mountain vista before leaving, I heard a faint mechical drone, barely detectable over the noise of the river. Puzzled, I looked up and scanned the far side of the river. There was mist rising up in an unusual linear formation, the ground from whence it came was a grassy plateau concealed by Matagouri. It was odd, the mist appeared in the same manner dust rises after a vehicle has sped down a gravel road, but I was fairly sure there wasn’t a road here. On the way back from the photographical reconnaissance my nagging curiosity won out and I went to investigate. Soon enough the question had an answer, in the form of a white plane! Nice bit of kit it was, sporting a decal that was a surefire way to test any passenger’s confidence! I spotted the pilot, Rob, on my way down the valley and made the slight detour over for a bit of a chat. Nice bloke, he was, and what an epic way to get to the river. Chopper rides are for plebes!

img_5466Not the most confidence-inspiring word to have on the side of your airplane

img_5486Summery conditions

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I indulged myself at the same halfway rest stop on the way out. Changing out of waders, having a feed, rehydrating. It was here that I met Marcus and his missus—sorry I’m a shocker with names, just in case Marcus’s missus reads this! We indulged in the usual angler banter, and I quizzed them on whether the fish in my pics did in fact look embarrassed (to be caught by me) as someone a while back had claimed—a consensus was not found—before returning to the pressing task of the day, legging it back to the road. The muddy track had the same adhesive qualities as ice on my soleless boots, ie. none! It made the going far slower and it began to dawn on me I’d be lucky to get home that night. Slowly I came to terms with the grim reality that plans of beer-drinking and football-watching would be replaced by porridge-eating and tent-sleeping.

Late in the day, at a point hopefully vague enough not to seal his execution, my eye strayed across the mystical figure of Herne in the distance, shrouded by dusk. He stood there a while eyeing me intently. I can only assume the forest guardian was weighing me up, deciding whether I was fit to pass through his estate. Of course with ten days fishing under my belt by now I was delirious enough that it may’ve not been Herne at all, and merely an emboldened deer.

img_5515-copyhearneCheers for granting me safe passage Herne, would’ve been a long detour otherwise!

After a sleep-deprived night, induced in equal parts by full moon and bitter cold, much of Sunday morning was spent in a sort of fatigue-induced stupor. My hopes of hitching had withered and died under a unforgiving sun, so instead I pinned new hopes of getting home on the offer from Marcus, whom was due back later that day. I retreated back to the relative sanctuary of the tent, where sheltered from wind and sun, I lay on my back with my boot-covered feet still protruding out of the tent, and allowed my mind to roam as aimlessly as the sandflies crawling about the ceiling of the tent. It was here, while consuming the dregs of my ration bag’s contents and dreaming of my post-trip junk food binge, warm bath and other such luxuries, my thoughts turned to the explorer pioneers and the consequent realisation soon followed—Explorer Douglas I was not!

It was humbling to think that for those guys—Haast, Buller, Douglas etc—the frontier was their home, whereas for the modern outdoorsman we have the comforting thought of knowing it’s only a matter of enduring a few days of spartan existence before returning to the creature comforts of home when we’re spent. It’s hard to comprehend how for them hardship was the norm, and unfathomable how they could sustain it for months on end. But I suppose this is just the perspective of a man whose inner hunter-gatherer has been born assimilated into a modern age, and further diluted by 36 years of living in a different time.

Just as I was beginning to wonder if I’d somehow missed them, Marcus and his missus (sorry again, names!) arrived back midafternoon. When he first glanced me he did a double take, probably shocked at my ineptitude at hitching. During the time I packed up the tent and whatnot, Marcus and his missus had metamorphosed from weary trampers into freshened up civilians primed for a day out. Sitting in the rear cab, the motive for the metamorphose became clear; we were stopping off for beer and pool—hard life being a hitchhiker! It was an opportunity to revive a bit of the snooker-playing glory from my misspent youth, but barring a self-proclaimed solitary top-notch tin-arsed canon shot, I offered weak opposition. A 1-1 draw was salvaged and provided motive for a rematch some other day. Marcus was just fortunate it wasn’t a snooker table, or I could’ve unleashed the devastating 187 break! Dreams are fortunately free!

untitledwordpressstevenhendrybestoneOur form may be near identical, but to be honest that’s actually Stephen Hendry—I’m dreaming again

It always feels like I’m in a daze when I get back, still somehow cocooned away somewhat from the abrasive mayhem of this modern-day grind. This time especially so. Being fortunate enough to get dropped off right at my door, as opposed to the nearest town on the main route 12km away, probably fueled any dream sensations I was experiencing. Maybe it was just the immense fatigue, but possibly I was still a little under the influence of Mother Nature’s mind-mellowing substances. Put simply, it had been an awesome trip. Put a little more intricately and spiritually, it had been a banquet for the soul. Thinking back to Johnny’s influential t-shirt slogan, “Feed Your Soul”, well I’d achieved more than that. This trip had devolved into a shameless gluttonous degustation of “soul foods”, with an overindulgence the ancient Romans would’ve been proud of. It was a trip where trout mistook my flies for those of better anglers; a trip which provided just the right mix of company and solitude. And in spite of the wretched forecast, the weather and river collaborated to offer up brief spells of opportunity.

Sometimes it’s not just the weather and the fish that make the trip, but also the people you run into. They’re like the seasoning on the “soul food”, just the right amount and they will add to the experience. Sure you want some solitude, but more often than not the people you meet who share the fire, the respect and passion for the outdoors, are second to none. They’re as varied and diverse as the spots and colouring of the quarry we pursue. The odd bastard might play unfair, just as the occasional trout spits fly, but such instances are the exception rather than the norm. Ben on day one, Atsushi the Japanese angling nomad, Rob the pilot, Vaughan the hunter spin-fisher, Marcus and his missus, the gas-lending hiker (pretty crap of me that his is the only name I cannot recall, barring Marcus’ missus!)…. I’d struggle to meet such a diverse bunch of good buggers in a year of my regular day-to-day grind.

This “backcountry brotherhood”, for want of a better term, appear to exhibit a kind of generosity born out of poverty. Perhaps it’s a consequence of us all being forced into a more spartan existence when in the bush, the experience enables us to better empathise with others in need. More willing to give essentials to a stranger than we would be to give our excesses to a needy stranger in everyday life. It seems like a paradox, but I believe it holds some truth.

And on that note, with all relevant and irrelevant internal ramblings aired, I think it’s time to draw a close to what has been a somewhat protracted session in the angler’s confessional.

Tired old brown—NO, it’s the Nautilus!

Having had a satisfying day out on my first foray into a previously unexplored corner of my backyard, I opted to revisit it, this time with the benefit of a mental map pinpointing the location of my quarry—a half dozen large browns spread over an equal number of kilometres. Despite a brutal forecast of 45kph gust-wielding Norwesters, the day began placidly enough. A flamboyant band of pink donned the predawn horizon as I sped for the river, and had me pondering the old “Red sky at morning, shepherd’s warning” adage. But what of pink? Regardless, it looked ominous.

009Flamboyant predawn

It seemed a little bit of West Coast weather had crept over the main divide, as the air was laden with moisture and light rain began to fall from leaden skies, as I entered the river and began my journey up it. Thankfully, Accuweather hadn’t lived up to it’s name for once, and all was calm—for now. My aim was to at least get in a morning fish before the raging winds arrived and did their best to sabotage any angling attempts—shattering the liquid windows separating fish and I, intercepting fish-bound flies and hurling them angrily into the trees. That sort of thing. Hence, urgency was the order of the day, as with the benefit of intelligence gathered on my prior visit, I knew the fish were few and far between.

The muggy conditions wreaked havoc on my spotting attempts, leaving my glasses perpetually fogged. The perfect excuse for only managing to sight the first fish when it steamed off up the pool! As I sat down on a riverside rock to indulge in refreshments, I spied a hulk of an eel below. Friendly fellow he was, rising to the surface as I filmed him, ever inquisitive. It’s amazing how mellow and trusting these creatures are—gentle giants. Rather than bolting like most wild things would, he appeared as curious about me as I was him. Sensing this may well be the highlight of the day, I hung out with him a while—my new jet-black bud. It had me wondering what they eat to attain (and maintain) such a build. I suppose they occasionally gorge on opportune findings of deceased livestock, and that provides ample sustenance for the time in between such bonanzas, similar to how a camel loads up on water whenever they happen upon an oasis. The minimalistic movements these eel exhibit hint of a slow metabolism, so I suppose they can go several days without having to feed. But regardless, I didn’t tempt fate, and kept my fingers clear of the water whenever he angled his head upward to begin another investigative rise. I know—ya big wuss!

017Well-conditioned longfin

043 - CopyWPMy new bud (I’m sorry Wilson)

Approaching a narrower, rougher section of riverbed, I spied a rock of a darker shade of grey, spurring my overly hopeful fish radar into sounding off. With the sun having burnt away the grey, glare was no longer an issue, but an exploratory force of the Norwester had now arrived—sporadic sharp gusts—which regularly ruffled the surface of the water. I froze several metres from the dark anomaly, watching a while, trying to determine whether it be mineral or fish. Rocks, egged on by the mischievous angular sunlight of early morning or late afternoon, all too frequently cast fish-like shadows. Fool me once!

At this point, a young boy appeared high above on the opposing side of the gorge. He pointed, I waved. His mother soon came into view and stopped by his side. I pointed toward the dark figure, certain it was a trout by this stage, and made some feverish gesticulations about it being very large—cliche fisherman stuff. They watched on, no pressure. Numerous casts were made—most well off the mark—and flies changed, before they probably figured they’d read the writing on the wall, and moved on. But that writing was wrong, surprisingly, and I soon had a hook up, albeit a foul one. I can honestly say it was in no way intended. Fish twitched, most likely upon feeling the line glide into it’s side, and I struck in response, impaling it’s adipose fin. Of all the fins aye?

073Rock or fish? Starting to believe it’s a fish!

Considering he was a large fish, I didn’t hold out much hope of success as he set off into the bottomless blue. Having said that, he had a very dark appearance which initially had me wondering whether may have been sick or stressed. From my vantage atop one of the flatter riverside boulders, I watched him patrolling the pool in strangely sedate fashion, leading me to believe my hunch may’ve been correct. Figuring it was a straightforward matter of tiring him a while in the current, I was content to just wait it out. But with him being hooked near the rear there really weren’t any proactive measures I could have taken anyway.

When he began to charge about the depths with increasing fire, no less than half an hour after being hooked, any judgments of him being an old fish past his prime were completely dispelled. And instead, my mind was now conjuring comparisons between him and Jules Verne’s Nautilus—both tireless steely machines! While Ned Land’s harpoons had failed to penetrate his Nautilus’s armour, my size twelve rubber-legged harpoon had no such troubles. Continuing the 20,000 Leagues references, I could’ve done with Mr Land’s physical prowess and sailor forearms by this stage, as mine was beginning to burn. Bruised knees and shins were soon added to the list of brutalised body parts, as I was forced to scramble a boulder taller than myself when he broke free from the roaming routine he’d set for himself the best part of the last hour. A routine as repetitive as a gym circuit—dive, hold station on the liquid treadmill, surge for foot of opposite bank, saunter downstream, hold side-on to current, dash for crevice under my position. Repeat.

Watching the end of my fly line being towed off upstream at speed—woven between mid-river boulders—toward a substantial rapid this late in the fight, I could not believe what I was seeing! It’s a horrible feeling, the friction of fluorocarbon on rock, possibly even surpassing that of shin on boulder! And it’s trauma is always further amplified by the knowledge you have slippery rocks to scramble over before you can attempt to remedy the situation. Once the reel stopped singing and I’d negotiated the riverside boulder, I reasoned some sort of control had been restored. But then I began to feel a powerful tugging sensation travel up the line. This continued for a good ten seconds before the reel once again broke into song. I couldn’t believe it—he was running up the rapid! In the blindness induced by whitewater, I was reliant on the sensations in the line for clues on my adversary’s movements, in the same manner the blind utilise a cane. As I closed in on the rapid he was ascending, his shoulder was the first thing to come into sight—dark brown breaking through white—as he powered his way up out of the turbulent whitewater and into a far more placid pocket of water.

214Up through that? You’re ‘avin a laugh! He wasn’t

207Undoubtedly the steepest battleground I’ve navigated

There was a moment when, while taking a rest from his rapid-scaling endeavours, he came to rest behind a rock in shallow whitewater. A brief window of opportunity presented itself, and I had a chance to nab him. I couldn’t see his head so felt circumstances were unsuitable for a netting attempt, but upon applying sufficient upward force with the rod, his tail emerged from the water. Thoughts of a “tailing” arose, but any action was hesitated by the placement of the fly in his rear fin, as I didn’t fancy being attached to a large brown via a size 12 hook! I suppose it’d be a novel way to get drowned—towed down rapids by a large brown trout! Anyway, as I evaluated the risk he turned and glided back down through the boulders, and I was forced to endure another boulder-hop pursuit. I think I’d scaled the big boulder about five times by now, and probably eroded a half millimetre of goretex on it’s face.

I’m sure anyone reading this knows all too well, it’s near impossible to manoevre a fish when you’re connected to their rear instead of their front. All you can do is apply steady resistance in the opposite direction you want them to go, hoping to turn them. Kind of the reverse to conventional methods. I managed to succeed with this on a couple of occasions, but only near the end of the battle. Even then, he still returned back to the rock crevice he’d found, just taking a longer route than usual. Probably the most hope-eroding session of the hour and a half duel was this rock crevice phase, when all I could see was his tail—decorated with my orange rubber legged nymph—wagging steadily, countering the pressure I dared to apply. The only way to get him out was reversing him out, and with a fish this size it’s a slow gradual process. A process my back wasn’t enjoying one bit, as it maintained it’s hunched position for the majority of the fifteen minute long tug-of-war.

Once pried from the crevice one final time, he was manipulated down into the tailout. Here we stood for a time, face to face—a standoff in the shallows. Him facing upriver, myself down. It’s tempting to rush in with the net in these scenarios, but history has taught me unforgettable lessons in the form of top-nymph-on-net bust offs. To my immense relief, he opted to enter a mini backwater just beside where we’d begun our engagement, rather than back into the dreaded crevice slightly further up. All that remained of the duel was a straightforward netting. When I took him out of the black nylon corral for a photo, such was his indefatigable nature, I was half expecting (and left a little disappointed) when Captain Nemo failed to emerge from some hidden side hatch on the trout-like machine. It was hard to comprehend, but this apparently was just a fish. Or perhaps it was just that Captain Nemo didn’t feel I was worthy to board his majestic subaquatic vessel. Regardless, my foe retained his defiance to the end, even summoning the strength to break free from my grasp and attempt a speedy getaway shortly after being removed from the net. Incredible fish.

106Defiant till the end!

144 - CopyWPI know you’re in there Captain Nemo, the game is up!

119No, turns out this was just a trout—a very special one

The fishing slowed after this point. Well okay, that’s an understatement. I didn’t sight a single fish the rest of the day. But that was okay—part of me was even relieved!—as I was knackered. It was a pleasant but rather tough walk, which saw me passing my turnaround point of my last visit by some distance. Being down to my last rod I took it easy on the way back, and thankfully the rocks here were far more benevolent than those of the last river I fished, and none felt the need to conspire against me. Along the way, I paused at the vantage point where the boy and his mother had stood earlier in the day, to survey my former—well the only—battleground of the day. My foe was nowhere to be seen however. He was probably still lying deep, catching his breath. And most likely Captain Nemo would still be busy running diagnostics—refusing to believe he was just a fish!

269The morning battleground—the vantage point of the boy and his mother

279I’m stumped how long this wood’s been here, but it’s eroded state suggests it’s a while

Nearing the end of my walk back downriver, I casually flung my nymphs out and let them drift down a shallow, pleasant looking, willow-lined run. The indicator soon dived, and given the shallow nature of the water, I assumed it must’ve been due to nymph on rock, as surely I couldn’t have missed sighting any fish in this sort of water. Wrong!

Reel sounded the alarm—achtung!—as a moderate-sized silhouette fled the scene, dashing past me up and across the river, pausing under a submerged branch just long enough to weave the line through it before continuing it’s escape. Bounding across the river, stripping line from reel as I went, I watched it slide through the submerged entanglement and follow the assailant upriver. Once line was freed from willow I gave chase, but it didn’t last long. He disappeared under more willow battlements—roots this time—at the opposing bank and the line lost it’s feeling of a live connection. Adjusting angles did nothing to remedy the situation, and upon applying more pressure the line sprung back at me. Ah well, it wasn’t that big anyway, were the consolatory thoughts. Still, it would’ve been nice to legitimately catch one for the day. Though not as large as the fish further upriver, this one certainly knew how to fully utilise it’s residence’s willow-clad safe rooms. Perhaps next time it’s a case of breaking out the 8lb tippet and waging some shock ‘n’ awe blitzkreig!

On the drive home, I again stopped roadside to check in on the new-born lambs, but no melancholy musings were had on this occasion, as their comical antics served as ample distraction. But the fiendish Norwester, now in full force, soon drove them to hop to their sanctuary at the base of a Bluegum. Quite impressive smarts for creatures only a few weeks old.

296Frisky lambies—never to young to start!

All in all, given the forecast, it’d been a pretty good day. While I didn’t legitimately catch any fish, I was put through the duel of my life and have the woundings to show for it. Certainly an experience I won’t soon forget! And of course (as is obligatory with us fishermen) the encounter will undoubtedly become more grandiose with every retelling. Perhaps one day, years from now, it may’ve even evolved sufficiently to warrant a novel—one which would no doubt come close to rivaling the original classic in terms of fiction—20,000 Micrometres Under The River X!

The footage…

All is lost

Ominous title aye? Well it had to happen—one of those days. The day hadn’t started off too smoothly, realising I’d left my camera hat at home only after I’d arrived at the river. A bit of insulation tape remedied that, as I secured it to my pack’s shoulder strap instead. Makeshift and not quite as level, and certainly nowhere near as picturesque footage with my mug at times appearing in the side of the frame, but all that aside it worked okay. No amount of MacGuyver’ing with tape could remedy the other regretful events of the day however. Two fish—goodies around six and eight pounds respectively—hooked, and lost. At times, a bit of tape over the mouth may’ve been a good idea!

The first was a bizarre incident. I knew where he was, thanks to a previous encounter a couple of weeks back, but despite that I still succeeded in spooking him off up the pool. In these situations I always fire off a couple of casts ahead of them—hopes eternal—and very occasionally I will still achieve a hook up. On this occasion the ever-optimistic post-spook cast did the business! As the nymphs drifted past him he swayed and I struck. His response was an uncoordinated, writhing mess of movement, offering no real resistance. It appeared I’d achieved yet another foul-hooking—must be about the fourth one this season! His movement just prior to hook up, however, did suggest he deliberately went for the nymphs. Just a few minutes into proceedings I had him on a shallow bar near the river’s edge, but for reasons unknown I took my time. I guess his shambolic fight gave me a false sense of security. Anyway, I soon paid for it dearly, as when he wriggled off the bar and headed for the depths he appeared to regain his composure. It’s as if it takes them a while to adjust their swimming style to overcome the unbalancing effect of a hook in the fin—understandable! Less than a minute after refloating himself the hook pulled and I’d lost him. Cue wild rant.

Okuku17Morning glory, momentarily….

okuku114Close, but no….

So you lose the fish. Provided you can keep it together enough the next thing you do is retie your knots. Sometimes I’ve found this process to actually be a little therapeutic. But having just spent x amount of time in one spot playing (and losing) the fish, it’s highly likely a ridiculous cloud of sandflies have materialised, and you’re of course in the centre of it. It just adds insult to injury really. Losing a fish, and then having sandflies go to town on you while you diligently retie your rig. Fossicking over your face, buzzing under your buff—ample fuel to sustain that inevitable post fish-loss raging. With the apex of that rage having passed, you settle into a sort of brooding irritability, and it’s here that, coupled with the torment of the sandflies, a sort of fisherman’s Tourette’s takes hold—near-involuntary outbursts of obscenities, accompanied by sudden, uncontrollable hand and facial ticks. To any distant observer unaware of the context, such a spectacle would surely pass for the genuine syndrome. Fortunately for me, the nearby track was unusually quiet on this holiday weekend.

Moving on then—equilibrium reestablished—to lost fish number two. It was a half hour later that I found him, emerging from the cover offered by turbulent waters to mooch around below my boots, no more than a rod length away! I’d been lurking around this section of river a while, adopting my best stealth, as I knew he was here somewhere. Again, this was another fish I’d seen before on my previous visit. Once my eyes had finished scouring the fifty metre long section of river, I’d climbed on top of one of the river’s numerous boulders, and had begun to think he was either hunkered down under a boulder, or had perhaps relocated. Interrupting these thoughts, the large trout sauntered out of the turbulent whitewater and into the all too glassy calm stuff just below me. Instinctively, I flicked out the flies, which created a cringe-inducing ripple as they entered the water just in front of him. He continued forward, shifting course slightly, and appeared to take one of the nymphs. Completely amazed he hadn’t seen me, I raised the rod gently—we were connected!

okuku7-2.4250fpsMid-battle, about where I hooked the guy!

It was a mellow battle at first. He skulked about in a rather monotonous, circular beat for several minutes in the turbulent water at the foot of a pour-over, before finally heading downstream. Things livened up quickly at this point, as he was fast approaching a majestic three metre high midstream boulder which dominated the centre of the river, splitting the thigh-deep flow in two. Minutes earlier—suspecting a downstream manoeuvre might eventuate—I’d been scrutinising this disconcerting feature, trying to plot a course of action. But it was too far away, and I knew it’d have to be left to a spur of the moment decision. He took the left channel, probably the worse of the two options—how surprising.

okuku9-10.01Meeting the Megalith!

Struggling to keep up, having to first negotiate a short but slippery crossing over green slime-covered rocks, I watched on in despair as he wrapped the line around the base of the midriver monster. As I rounded it and reclaimed direct contact with my opponent, it became apparent that he was wedged deep in the recession at the base of the immense rock. From this new perspective it was an even more concerning sight. This was no ordinary rock; it had the look of a stony-faced killer—of angler’s morales! Perhaps the river gods, having been feeling empathetic towards the plight of their resident fish, had forged this Megalith decades earlier with the foresight a day such as this may come. At it’s base lay it’s mouth—narrow yet broad, it’s immense darkness suggested substantial depth—spanning the entire breath of the boulder. A mouth, I wagered, which surely had a voracious appetite for fluorocarbon!

okuku11-1.17Get outta there! (I did warn you at the start the new camera perspective wasn’t pretty!)

While the line still possessed the vibrancy of a direct connection, I risked adding more pressure (and a bust off) rather than wait it out and hope, like I usually do. The risk was rewarded, and as I prised him from the depths of Megalith’s mouth in reverse, and his tail soon came into view. Once fully exposed, he dashed off to another large rock at river’s edge, and I rushed over to dominate the space in front of the stone-faced tippet assassin, hoping to deter any thoughts he may’ve been having of a return. His new recluse, however, still posed a threat. A swift current drove hard against this rock, concealing both fish and the geology beneath, and as he lurched about in the depths I did my best to angle line away from rock. Several minutes later, despite my efforts, the line pinged back in my face and he was lost. Clinging to “forlorn hope”—yes it was a bit of a hazardous mission—and suspecting where he might be, I charged in—net in hand—to do a bit of shameless, manic prospecting at the base of the boulder. It almost paid off, with him narrowly dodging the side of the net by mere centimetres as he fled his hide. Cue the ballad of the forsaken fisherman—you m*ther-f*cking, n*mph-s*cking, son-of-a-b*tch. I know, bit presumptuous of me to assume it was a jack.

okuku13-1.232Shameless prospecting post fish-loss, the length of grey just right of the net is the fish

Having tasted defeat, again, I attempted to console myself with a chocolate bar, but such was the bitterness of this defeat no amount of sugar could’ve masked over it. I pressed on upriver a while, saw one more fish—yes, I’d seen that one before too—and despite knowing vaguely where he’d be, still spooked him regardless. Around midday, fairly sure there were no more fish in the previously surveyed kilometres of river which lay ahead, I opted for a quick fish downstream of the car before heading home.

For some reason the banks here were teeming with bees. There were beehives further upstream, but for whatever reason they preferred it down here. I’ve got a lot of time for the bees, especially when bearing in mind Einstein’s prediction of us only lasting four years without them. Empathetic toward their plight in this precarious, pesticide-laden modern world, I went to lengths to avoid standing on them. Basically this meant I had to walk in the river—tactics not exactly conducive to good stalking! Short of the three fish lying in tough spots around willow lined stretches—all spooked—it was a waste of time. I had one amusing moment where I undertook a painstaking bush-bash through gorse to reach a better casting position, only to emerge from the scrub and spook a fish lying at river’s edge, which then bolted ahead and spooked his run-sharing comrade. Bugger!

011Bank littered with bees

Somehow—probably due to it still only being midafternoon—I got suckered into a futile kilometre-long recon downriver. It would’ve been forgivable if it wasn’t dead straight and clearly devoid of holding water, but ever-optimistic I pressed on. May as well have been fishing the Atakama—same number of fish! The perseverance did eventually bring me to a vast, sprawling pool with a near non-existent flow. Such a substantial body of water seemed curiously out of place on this river. Here, I fished a streamer a while, but it was tough to cover it all without wading in, as thanks to yet more willows, backcasting room was minimal. My efforts eventually brought about a brief burst of excitement, as a sizeable brown viciously accosted the tungsten cone-headed streamer, but a possibly slightly too eager strike yielded nothing.

013Upriver view, midpoint of the Little Atakama

015Downriver view

So, several thousand words later and I’m still fishless. But it’s okay, it wasn’t all for naught. Another long day out, many miles racked up, and a few memorable moments thrown in. I suppose that’s the good thing about the headcam. In the event of a fish loss, you’ve still captured some interesting footage. Now, before I forget, must find that missing camera hat!

Below is a short clip summarising the day’s grim events.

Orientation week is over!

Before we begin, let me apologise in advance for the very mediocre images. My modest point-and-shoot clearly didn’t bring it’s A game on this venture! (Nothing to do with the operator at all).

Hmm… they’re wising up! It was my third visit of the season to a particularly popular section of my local river, and on this occasion it appeared the difficulty level had been raised several notches. I’d already spooked several fish by the time nine o’clock rolled around. A couple even bolted dramatically as my indicatorless nymph rig plopped into water several metres upstream—bit uncalled for this early in the season! It was clear the buffoonery of “Orientation week” was over, and now it was time to knuckle down and study—for trout and angler alike—albeit for different purposes. It appeared many of the resident fish were exhibiting post-catch hangovers, and just as a newly-enrolled “freshie” pays the price the next morning for all that beginning of term overindulgence, they too, seemed to be paying the price for their carefree early-season rambunctious feasting. With fresh wounds inflicted to their body and psyche, they certainly had ample motivation to rectify their reckless behaviour, and begin scrutinising their food far more closely before consuming.

It appeared a clutch of anglers had collaborated to transform Nature’s silty riverside canvas into some sort of monochrome Jackson Pollock piece, utilising boot sole rather than brush. Boot-sized clusters of identical circles and hexagons spanned it’s entirety, leaving it possibly even busier than Jackson himself would’ve approved of. Despite the well-trodden path, I suppose it’s possible I may’ve been jumping the gun with this assessment of pressure-induced heightened alertness, as another factor could’ve played a part—the overcast conditions. This was the first cloudy day I’d fished this season, and I began to wonder if it was merely the absence of the angler’s ally which dazzles our foe, that was making things so difficult. Regardless, I reasoned I’d keep walking until the boot prints became fewer, and the sunshine (scheduled for the afternoon) arrived.

002A rather bleak outlook—the fishing outlook seemed equally as rosy

Although fishing the same water frequently can become a little tedious, it also has it’s fascinations. You get to learn where the fish are and aren’t, and it begs certain ponderings, such as why this riffle is always unoccupied and yet the previous one held two fish. On this third venture upriver, my mind by now had the location of the first dozen fish pinpointed. A couple of those had already been duped and caught, and having little interest in catching already conquered fish, I invested minimal time and effort in those spots. Far more concerned, I was, in bettering the fish who’d bettered me on the previous two visits—especially those who’d robbed me of a couple of four buck a piece, store-bought nymphs! Two such heists had been inflicted on me here already this season, and I failed to apprehend either of the bandits on this outing. I also failed, again, to fool the tricky riffle-dwelling duo, this time even triggering a spectacular domino-spook. A fish from the pool below (which I’d assumed to be a rock)—never again!— bolted up into the riffle, spurring the lower one of the duo to dash off, which then triggered his wingman just a few metres ahead to follow suit. I’m hoping that over the course of the season, I will gradually manage to erase all of these residents off the map. Metaphorically, of course!

Near midday, with the sun still failing to make an appearance, it was getting cold and miserable. The chilled easterly wind was especially felt, as I’d jumped from a rock into the river only to have my ankle roll as I landed. My leg instinctively crumpled, and I face-planted in the river. Would’ve made for interesting (though humiliating) headcam footage, but it wasn’t running at the time. So being rather soaked, the easterly was biting hard. Fortunately a six pounder was soon hooked and the ensuing duel served to warm me up. Not a bad fish at all, but being a couple of pounds lighter than what I was becoming accustomed to this season, it felt small. Funny phenomenon, that, the sliding scale of perception.

008Nice enough hen, despite me looking rather blase about it

When the sun eventually did come out—midafternoon now—it’s warming rays were gratefully received. It’s amazing how uplifting it can be to have the sun on your face, after hours of enduring the incessant austerity of a brisk easterly. I was now far upriver and boot prints, as anticipated, had lessened. Fish numbers here were still a little patchy, and being well beyond the border of my mental map now, I had little idea of where I may encounter them. In fact, this was the furthest I’d ever been upriver, and it refreshed the spirit a little to be entering, and roaming through, a new frontier. The gorge deepened up here, taking on canyon-like proportions. Craggy walls of fractured bronze rock towered above the river on both sides. Simply put, it was all a little more majestic than downriver, causing me to pause and marvel a while. It bore semblance to a miniature wild west canyon, but for the broad line of yellow graffitied high up across one of it’s walls, marring this masterpiece. Perhaps one of the gods was feeling mischievous when designing this landscape and had picked up his oversized can of dazzle paint? Or, more likely, was it simply just the formation of a billion broom flowers?

067Marred masterpiece

Ruminations aside, I pressed on, hoping for one legit fish for the day—oh yeah, I foul-hooked that six pounder in the pectoral fin. I suspect all these foul-hookings are down to the saturated state of my yarn. Perhaps if I talked less…. Or I could just buy some mucilin. Walking up a particularly fishless stretch I came across an epic entanglement—the submerged remnants of a rusted galv-wired fence, decorated in lush green willow leaves—which appearing to span nearly the entire width of the river. As I progressed up the pocket water above it, I was thankful there were no fish awaiting a hook up as this feature would certainly be a hit with them, and a guaranteed bust off!

Some fifteen minutes later, after a drink, a snack, and a change of nymphs—this instance called for heavy tungsten—I sat the pack down and approached a pool. A deep bottomless one; the equivalent of a trout mansion I suppose. Surely such a prime piece of trout real estate couldn’t be vacant! With the nymphs in place, the wispy white, insipid, ever-failing woolly indicator eventually began to sink, to which I responded with my routine strike-come-cast. Surprise, fish on! Line surged, down diagonally, toward the base of the opposing side of the pool. We battled here for some time until he saw fit to leave, bolting through the tailout, down a swift section, and into another significant pool. This intrusion was promptly met by the appearance of another equally large trout, which darted around him for some time. I suppose this interaction was initiated by intentions to either aid him or, more likely, to tell him to sod off. This pool’s occupant disappeared a while, before returning to hound the hooked fish again, this time in the shallows of the pool’s tail section. It even had the audacity (or tunnel vision perhaps) to park up at the river’s edge in front of him, seemingly oblivious to the presence of a camo-clad trout pesterer merely metres away. It sat there a good twenty seconds before finally darting off with a vicious scythe of it’s tail as I closed in, literally leaving my fish in the dust—or rather, a cloud of silt. An exciting spectacle to watch, and it was a shame that my action camera saw fit to have a “card error” at the commencement of this duel. I’d tried to remedy the situation, but it’s not easy to unscrew the back of the camera, remove the tight-fitting battery, put it back in, and screw the back on again, all while playing a fish!

We negotiated around five hundred metres of river together, with me failing to capitalise on a couple of opportunities to net him, before he finally hunkered down against the foot of a rock in pocket water—near spent. Surveying my surroundings, I noticed it behind me—the dreaded willow-leaf clad fence! Sickening sight it was, as I knew I had to get him now, or never. I tried tailing him twice, and both times the sensation of my hand meeting his flesh caused him to bolt slightly forward before stopping again. Then, finally, he turned leftwards into the current, which caught him and thrust him towards the sprawling snag. To my immense surprise—somehow—he glided over the only low part of it. Being too fatigued by this stage, he either didn’t notice it, or lacked the energy to take advantage of it. After this, it was the simple matter of running some shallow pocket water and pulling him over to the side, and into the net!

058Sprawling snag!

034Benevolent snag-shy fish—thanks buddy!

It can be hard on the body, this fly fishing business. With the duel having taken me half a kilometre back downriver, and with my pack still being at the hook up spot, I had to walk the best part of a kilometre to retrieve it and get back to where I had netted the fish. On top of that, I still had about seven kilometres of riverbed to get down before the day was out—if only I had packraft money!

On the way back, while walking down a long glide, I witnessed a mayfly hatch of epic proportions. Something of a rarity for this river. Well perhaps it’s not that rare, but it’s rare that I ever get to see them, as I suspect they usually occur sometime after I’ve left the river. Despite all the bug activity, I still failed to see a single trout rise. It’s the thing this river seems most lacking in, dry fly opportunities. No idea why, perhaps these trout are just a bunch of impure bogan nymphers, and shun the purism of the dry. Regardless, a fulfilling day it’d been, dry fly or not. A couple of reasonable fish racked up, some new exploration, no gear damaged. And unlike last time, no poacher-ambushing cop lying in wait for me on the way out!

079A glance back while heading out, just before the hatch

Lady luck—her “cycle” was nigh

Lady luck—the fickle mistress. As anglers, we’re at the mercy of her bi-polar swings more than most. I suspect the majority of us have had enough bizarre riverside experiences to banish any doubts over her existence, and those of us who have been fishing long enough have likely observed that luck tends to come in cycles. We do our best to prepare, to take all cautionary measures in an attempt to ensure success, but at day’s end things often come down to chance. Will he dash downriver or up? Have I just tied on a dud fly? Does that unethical guide feel like dropping in on my river today? Sure, I hear what you’re thinking. Ramblings about “luck” can also be mere loser-talk from the guy who was too tight (skint) to buy “superior” flies, or the guy who doesn’t know how to tie a proper knot—guilty as charged!—but I’ve stopped masking over my deficiencies with lies. It’s all in the past.

Anyway, getting back to Lady Luck. I’ve come to learn that in order to have a happy day’s angling in her presence—albeit overbearing at times—we must get through the four stages those self-help groups preach. Denial, anger, fear, acceptance. “I can’t believe he wouldn’t eat my fly. Are you too good for my fly?! Maybe all my flies are rubbish? Oh well, I’m at the river now, just enjoy the day”. Or something along those lines. Basically we must acknowledge, and be grateful for, her spells of benevolence while we’re blessed with them, and prepare and ready ourselves for her impending malevolence.

My season, to date, had been going swimmingly. I was enjoying an unprecedented bumper spell of Ms Luck’s benevolence, with my previous two outings seeing me bag a couple of terrific fish, in quite unlikely scenarios. And today, it appeared, everything was again falling into place. First to the river; sandflies slow to muster as I dithered in the car park adorning all the usual angling paraphernalia; a first fish on the board no more than a hundred metres from the car. My victim even performed some nice acrobatics for the action camera. Good fortune such as this was enough to make me suspicious—fearful even—of the inevitably impending bad luck front. I knew it was only a matter of time before the mercury in the fortune barometer dropped like a stone.

029Unfamiliar light in this photo—I don’t usually rack up a victory this early in the day!

When I heard a distant mechanical drone growing louder, followed by the sight of a helicopter pass by overhead I assumed this was the turning point. It seemed ludicrous—this metallic backcountry bird must be lost!—as no one flies into this place. But despite that, I couldn’t shake the suspicion I’d been jumped. An audacious helicopter jumping certainly would’ve been an apt way to shatter my prolific run of good luck. As I fished on up the river, extremely low, swift-moving cloud entered the valley, concealing much of the clear blue sky. It was a peculiar weather phenomenon, and had me wondering whether this was the gods way of letting me know the game was up.

But no, to my disbelief line soon again went tight, as I hooked up on a solid brown. Initially I thought him to be a half-decent fish as I glanced his upper half briefly break the surface, but as he continued to tear line from spool my estimation of him rose several notches. He was like the trout version of Sun Tzu, this guy, waging total war on me. He defied my previously held approximations of brown trout and their battle capacities, as he steamed ahead on run after run after run—a couple of which came close to achieving his endgame of bust-off-via-gorge-wall. Tiring in the trenches—or rather the waist-deep water—I maintained my Spartan reserve, bent rod angled low to water’s surface, hoping to distance fluorocarbon from rock—Nature’s ever-present long-range release tool.

Each time he dived for his crevice sanctuary—submerging the full length of the leader—he forced my hand into applying a little more pressure than I’d normally dare. As I eventually pried him from the deep and into the confines of the black nylon corral, it appeared Lady Luck was still feeling philanthropic! He was a sleek, athletic specimen. A stunning, sheeny scale veneer concealed eight pounds of muscle.

044Possibly my favourite fish of the season, so far….

Meandering up the gorge I sighted the occasional fish, but failed to get much interest. It was amazing just how close you could get to them (casting multiple times from a side-on position when circumstances called for it) without them bolting off. Their feeding habits, sadly, were far less obliging.

Having had my offerings shunned by a decent fish, I spied a youngster sauntering up into the pool. It’s flank was covered in ostentatious aqua-chrome, and she was finning about with a little too much swagger for my liking—young un’s and their bloody “SWAG!”. Well, it was time to tone down that exuberance of youth. She’d likely never met a troutophile before, and well, that curious colouring begged closer inspection. To my ego’s relief it was a straightforward process. Nymphs in, fish on, admirable fight, in the net. Diminutive specimen aside, she was in decent condition, and sported a dazzling blue hue, and some interesting oversized spots. Perhaps she’ll grow into them! If she does keep this condition and colouring she’ll certainly be one to keep an eye out for in a few seasons time. Though by that time wisdom will likely ensure she tones down such flamboyance, opting for longevity over eye-catching, flashy bling.

136Introducing Ms Aqua-Chrome

148Those spots!—guess you had to be there….

When I finally did arrive at a (proper) fish more keen on their food—one in the midst of a feeding frenzy on the opposite side of an uncrossable section of river—I succumbed to some fairly frenzied excitement. It was one of those rare circumstances where you just knew that hooking them was a formality (almost)—something of a rarity on this river. Fearing detection, I hastily slung a few crude casts upriver of him, but the rushing current caused drag to swiftly set in. Eventually—around the seventh cast perhaps—possibly thanks to some line mending of dubious quality, the fish turned downriver mid-sway. With my waterlogged indicator rendered untrustworthy, I was unsure what’d happened but struck regardless. For a moment line was taut, fish flapped at surface in the strong current, before line once again fell slack and fish bolted down and across to my side of the river.

To my immense surprise the just-hooked fish came to a stop merely a half dozen metres downriver of me. Hopes eternal, I flicked out my nymphs and allowed them to drift down to him. With flies arriving first, the indicator was again redundant. There wasn’t really any noticeable sign that he took the nymphs but I struck regardless, and upon lifting the rod—to my amazement—I’d re established the connection! Moments later, however—just like my old Telecom dial-up—the connection was lost, again. The culprit, a failed leader-to-tippet knot, and fish was on his way for a second, and final, time. A solid fish lost twice in a matter of minutes! I suppose it was the kindest sort of knot break, offering the consolation that even if I had of set the hook better the first time, the knot would’ve failed anyway. Still, it was a little concerning. Lady Luck’s mood, it appeared, was darkening. Or was this loser-talk, should I have just retied my knots more often….

107Gorge-ous day

119 - CopyWPPromising pool

The next fish I found was a good one, but another tricky one. He was prancing about his home gobbling up god knows what. The only thing I was certain of was that it wasn’t my nymphs. I invested a half hour on this fellow, and left feeling rather humbled. It was now late afternoon, and concerns about dwindling daylight and a long walk back began to enter my mind. Turn around? But not before exploring what lies beyond the next bend! The thoughts of a shameless trout junkie.

A quarter hour later I sighted another fish—a goodie. Late afternoon glare did it’s best to thwart me, but I achieved a hook up. This guy fought valiantly, reminiscent of the second fish of the day, with the exception of the most gormless, comical jump I’ve ever witnessed. Despite turning to flee—well maintain line tension—as he swam toward me, I still managed to catch it on the action camera. It was like some sort of airborne spent spinner rise, quite an intimidating thing when it’s directed right at you! After a lengthy duel through pools, runs, and riffles. he finally tired and I got ’em. A rather odd thing had happened while pursuing him down a knee-deep run, I almost trod on another fish! Unfortunately the memory card in the action camera had maxed out by then, so I missed capturing it. Oh well, lessons hard learned!

229Just before it all turned to sh#t

Now then, you’ve probably been wondering about Lady Luck, and when she’s going to strike me down. Well your patience is about to be rewarded! (Be honest, you only read this far with the hopes of reveling in my woundings!). On the way back downriver, with daylight dwindling, legs thoroughly spent, and moving more recklessly than is wise, the toe of my boot met with the exposed half of a rock fixed in the riverbed mid-stride. I kept moving forward a while but increasingly lost balance. Okay, I know what you’re going to say. Luck?! Try learning how to walk dipshit! Well, fatigue and hurry-induced recklessness leave you prone to these sort of things. In normal circumstances, with legs that weren’t ghosts of their former selves I would’ve probably succeeded in running it out. But try as they did—six or seven paces, ever-increasing in speed—they couldn’t restore equilibrium. I suspect their attempts actually made it worse, as this caused me to meet riverbed with greater speed.

Upon picking myself up, the first thing I checked was my reel. Well the clicker no longer worked, but the rest seemed fine. Looking up I noticed the rod seemed a little shorter. Huh, the end section must’ve come off on impact, was my initial thought. But no, it was busted. It wasn’t just any old break either, it’d managed a double fracture! Ah well, bright side was I wouldn’t get suckered into wasting the precious remaining daylight on fish.

With Lady Luck now clearly “on the rag”, I made a concerted effort to negotiate the mineral minefield which lay between myself and my getaway vehicle. Eventually, as rock-paranoia gradually dissipated, I allowed myself the slight distraction of reflecting on the day’s events—whilst keeping a close eye on those mineral booby traps! I was in a state of ambivalence about this day. I’d caught a couple of cracking fish, yet also finished off an already amputee rod. As I pulled out onto the road it was clear I wasn’t quite out of Lady Luck’s reach, as she had one last trick up her sleeve—a police car laying in wait. But I dodged that one, with no further damage inflicted.

On the drive home, engrossed in contemplation of the day’s events, I began to wonder. Perhaps the day’s dark turn wasn’t a product of Ms Luck’s manipulations after all, and rather, a swift serving of karma dished up for my fiddling with the underage (yet lovely) Ms Aqua Chrome. Being something of a superstitious man, this thought had me scribing a mental note to self—leave the little ones alone! Well, at least till a couple of my carbon fibre cripples complete their convalescence.

Quote

Into the wilds of my backyard!

Four hours sleep; I was feeling a little rough. Fortunately the adrenaline soon began to course through my veins and mask the effects of any sleep deprivation, as I sped toward the river—skies lightening—praying I’d get there before anyone else. Large trucks, it appeared, had caught wind of my plans, and did their utmost to thwart them, as they lurched out from every approaching intersection to occupy the road ahead and proceed to navigate it at snail’s pace. The river I’d decided on was one I was yet to catch a fish on. I’d been there twice before on brief visits and only sighted a couple of fish—both large and difficult. I’d made it a goal of mine to catch a fish there before the season was out, and early season seemed like the best chance to get it done, before the predicted “El Nino” fries the poor buggers.

As I headed up the river, the sun emerged from behind the crest of the hill to my rear, saturating the valley with light, but more importantly, illuminating the water. Just as well, as knowing the fish would be few and far between, I needed all the help I could get. But as I rounded the bend, the river was once again shrouded in shadow. For much of the morning I fished in the shaded confines of the narrow little gorge. Half an hour into it I finally spotted my first fish, but it was too late—I was too close. He was off before a cast was even fired. Another half hour of leg work saw me arrive at my next fish. Problem was, I didn’t know it. A solitary blind cast resulted in a blur of grey bolting the entire length of the run—some thirty metres—and disappearing into the distant pocket water. (Gulp). This is going to be tough!

017

The next fish—probably a couple of kilometres from the starting point now—was a funny one. Lurking in a backwater, facing a boulder. I cast an array of flies against the boulder wall—dries, nymphs, a streamer—plopping them all down in front of him, prompting no reaction at all. Eventually, in languid fashion, he skulked off into a crevice and never reappeared. By now, my inner fire was reduced to embers, but I reminded myself that this was what I had expected—few, tough fish. But fish aside, this place was certainly living up to the impressions formed on my previous visits. It definitely had that desirable “wilderness” feel. But for the broom and gorse, which lined much of the length of both banks, you could almost imagine yourself being in some distant West Coast headwater tributary.

146

The next fish I came across was lying deep, in the final third of a rather turbulent pool. This one appeared very getable, and I was feeling confident about my chances. The first few casts brought no response. Concerned I wasn’t getting down deep enough, I switched to a double tungsten nymph rig. Nothing. Added splitshot. Nothing! I spent nearly an hour on this fish, and things deteriorated pretty badly during the latter half of the session. A boulder, dislodged during my river edge roaming, even managed to come to rest on top of my nymphs, rendering them irretrievable. Never lost flies that way before! Somehow, I also lost my quarry of flies that had been sitting on the rock beside me. Then, to really put the patience to the sword, newly tied knots began failing for inexplicable reasons. In the end, the fish did the merciful thing and disappeared.

After a long fishless walk through ever-steepening pocket water, I spied some placid water ahead. A promising sight, until the dazzling garments of a couple of picnickers—stone skimming picnickers unfortunately!—caught my eye. They were in the midst of honing their skills on what had probably previously been a trout-occupied pool. Oh well, it was the weekend, probably to be expected. I stopped and had a chat to them—a father and his two young boys—before progressing on upriver. A mere twenty metres onwards, I paused, spying a long length of tan in the emerald green—a trout! My first cast snagged on a rock at the end of it’s drift, just a couple of metres behind the fish. Sneaking downriver and into the water some ten metres behind him, I scaled a boulder midriver, and from this new angle, succeeded in freeing the flies. From here, I cast again. It soon became apparent that this was a better position to present my flies from, as on the second drift the wispy wool indicator dived decisively. Fish was on!

okuku9lbhookupBit of battle photography

His initial move was to swim right for me, and having just slipped off the boulder I was panicking that he was about to pull the highly dreaded “nutmeg” manoeuvre. But after seeing my legs he turned again, and cruised casually upriver. I felt it was only a matter of time before I lost this fish, as prior to casting I’d noticed one of my connection knots wasn’t seated properly, with a mini loop jutting out from it. I hadn’t bothered to fix it as by this point I’d lost the belief that I would succeed in getting any of these trout to take. On top of the dubious knot, this river was hellish for playing fish. Deep unnavigable pocket water punctuated by immense boulders seemed to spell inevitable bust-offs. In my mind I was wondering if I could manage to take the impending fish loss in a manner suitable for the presence of small children. Interrupting these thoughts, he manoeuvred again, pirouetting downriver this time, and surprisingly taking the turnoff into a sedate backwater—I began to believe again.

okuku9lbbackwater2Wrong turn bud

He feigned fatigue—the charlatan brown’s favourite guise—and each time I presented the net he summoned new energy reserves and bolted. By now the onlooking children were getting restless, and out of the corner of my eye I spied one of them—clutching a sling shot! Dear god, this mightn’t end well at all! I thought. What have you got there, young man? I queried him, in a concerned tone. He took the hint, and no slingshot was fired during this trout duel. Whew! My adversary began to tire proper now, and I committed to a successful netting. At just shy of a trophy, this was a pretty satisfactory first fish for a new river! The kids came over and had a look, but I reckon I was the most excited one out of all of us. It was undoubtedly the most surreal trout-duel I’ve had to date, clearing lines not only of boulders, but small children as well!

okuku9lb1netCheckmate!

075Passion of the trout—looks like this guy’s been through the wringer! (It was like that when I found it)

IMG_4120 (1)3The benefit of company—a different perspective

IMG_4118 - Copy (2)3Spreading the “fever”

It’d been a crazy last hour, seeing my fortunes (and emotions) span the entire gamut. From losing nymphs and breaking knots at the cursed residence of the last trout, to having absolutely everything fall into place perfectly with this one. If the picnickers hadn’t spooked this fish up into the faster water (I suspect that’s what had happened); if I hadn’t snagged on a rock, forcing me to adopt a new casting position; if the fish hadn’t taken a wrong turn and spent precious dueling energy roaming the backwater, I would never have bagged this fish. To find this guy, and still catch him despite the line between us sporting a dodgy knot—such fortune doesn’t visit me often! And all of this playing out in front of an audience to boot! Usually the opposite occurs when witnesses are around—my nymphs find trees rather than trout! Needless to say, my mind had endured a spell of severe lability over the last hour, but it rode out the mental maelstrom, and was amply placated with a 4,000,000 mg dose of brown trout!

I was tempted to call it a day at this point, knowing the searing afterglow of victory would comfortably see me back to the car. But no, it was only three o’clock, and angling aside, I still wanted to explore this place further. I plodded casually upstream for another two hours, and failed to sight another fish. I don’t know if it’s the same for others, but some of that angling intensity—mandatory for success in these kind of places—always seems to fade away after catching a really satisfying fish, as I allow myself the indulgent distraction of reliving the moment in my mind.

174King of the castle! I have a trout, I have a trout! (In “Borat” tone of course)

As the afternoon turned into early evening and the sun receded behind the beech-clad surrounds, the river again fell into shadow. The honks from a couple of geese—alarmed by my appearance—were ushered to my ear by the gentle downstream breeze, carried distortion-free over obliging, flat water. The idyllic scene had me making a mental note to self… “bring tent and cooker next time”, as this was a serene spot prime for a camp out. Aquatabs would also need to be added to the note, to remedy any nasty bacterial legacy of the geese—perhaps that’s why they’re called “waterfowl”. But for now, I was happy not to have an overnight-sized pack, as I had a substantial hike back to the car to undertake before the day was out.

157Just one more bend man! (Sign of an addict)

Curiously curved, ampitheatre-like canopy of beech. Perfect venue for the birds to behold angling greatness, but it’d already occurred

139Yet another delightful (albeit fishless) pool

166Divine serenity!

The walk back was mellow, with the ambience of the valley mirroring my mood—placid and peaceful. Native birdsong filled the warm, still evening air, as they sounding off before turning in for the night. Suddenly, from mere metres away, a dog’s bark shattered the serenity. Good thing I hadn’t brought Wilson along, as the dog’s arrival was promptly followed by his hunter master’s. It’s always an awkward thing when there’s human witnesses to our conversations.

Arriving back at the car with ample daylight remaining, there was still sufficient time to marvel a significant mayfly hatch before departing. Time still, even, for one last lesson to be learnt (or rather reminded of) for the day—do not remove polyprop leggings before getting home! The resident sandflies ensured I won’t soon forget this rookie’s error, as they went to town on my legs, inflicted a bloodbath even Ratko Mladic—el Monstro himself—would’ve be proud of. And just like the UN, my hands offered little intervention as they were preoccupied with navigating the rough, gravel road. Strewn with deep pot-holes, it was reminiscent of a pock-marked landscape on the receiving end of a strafing from a squadron of NATO jets.

Driving home, Mother Nature gave me one last treat—a lavish sunset vista of pink, grey, and black. Stopping roadside and emerging from the car to take a photo, newly-born lambs bleated and sprang for the sanctuary of their mother’s side in thoroughly adorable, uncoordinated fashion. It was a scene reminiscent of the old New Zealand; the time before dairy.

212The final treat of the day….

Resuming the journey home, I indulged in slightly melancholy musings over the price of “progress”, and just how much has been sacrificed for this dairy boom. Drought, debt, a narrow-minded, short-sighted environmentally-hostile government…. And then my mind snapped to more pressing concerns—the vacant state of my beer fridge’s interior! Foot a little more on the gas, before the shops close.

The home invasion

“Gusty norwesters” were the forecast for the day. Under normal circumstances, such a forecast would serve as ample deterrent from hatching angling plans. But these were not normal times. I was carless—well, sharing a car—which meant I was keen to make the most of any angling opportunity that presented itself. According to Accuweather—pretty reliable site—I could expect winds of up to 45kph. Just as well then that I had my trusty sawed-off 4 weight! (The only functioning rod in the stable of cripples). Stepping outside to pack the car in the predawn dark, I was both surprised and concerned at just how balmy and muggy it was—catalyst for the dreaded Norwester. There was no point in denying it, the forecast was bang on; this was the calm before the storm. The stand of Eucalypts nearby also knew it, and they were trembling. No doubt fearing the beat down they would receive later in the day, when the gales started up proper. As I dashed the highway for the river, a brooding vista of snow-capped mountains and leaden clouds spanned the horizon to the fore, and an ever-broadening, advancing line of orange crept up from the horizon to the rear, preceding the Sun’s arrival.

It was early morning, and Jack Trout and his missus were beginning their day with a hearty breakfast of the usual—bugs. Sun was shining, caddisfly were hatching; all was well in their expansive aquatic residence. Or so they thought. Little did they know, a serial trout predator—just escaped from a life-sentence block down the road—was making his way up the liquid highway. Approaching their residence, closing in. From the vantage point offered by a high gravel bank he spotted the contented couple. His restless eyeballs, concealed behind a pair of dark-lens Smith Optics, leered down upon them whenever the ever-changing windows of the Trout’s residence permitted. Occasionally, overcome with trout-fever, these optical shields would fog, temporarily thwarting his ogling. Thoroughly oblivious to his presence, they were, with their minds still clouded by post-spawning lust.

When Jack swung casually to devour another bug, the predator acted—surprise mutha…! Okay, to be honest we were probably both as surprised as eachother. I’d lost sight of him, and was merely preparing for another cast as I’d assumed the indicator had drowned again, until I felt an ever-increasing resistance on the end of the line upon raising the rod. Anyway, back to the Trout’s and their plight. As Jack bolted around his home, trying to recall the location of his panic room, his missus followed. Probably to question him on whether his life insurance policy was up-to-date. After a five minute long inquisition from his woman he’d had enough. He turned, dashing downriver—vacating his home—speeding through it’s tailout entrance, cutting through neighbour Dave’s more modest residence, then down some inhospitable rapids. He’d succeeded in slightly widening the gap, but the predator—now indulging in a bit of heavy breathing—was still in pursuit. He finned-it a good four hundred metres before he was spent, and hastily bundled into the predator’s net. Once the predator had attained his photographic trophies, he was set free—dumped at the edge of the liquid highway—no doubt only to suffer a similar fate again in coming weeks, or days. But for today, at least, his most pressing concern was making it home in time for dinner, or he’d no doubt have to endure more pestering from Mrs Trout. Tough life being a fish.

008Home invasion in progress. “Luv, I know you’re busy, but are you sure you updated the policy?”

022Some pretty serious pectoral fin damage!

044Solid Jack—first of the season!

Moving on to a slightly more normal recollection of the remaining days events…. On the board with a rather decent fish, I pressed on upriver with a spring in my step, and the lyrics to Ice T’s “Home Invasion” ringing in my ears (yep, I had some pretty ghetto music tastes in my youth!). It was tough to know how to approach the day, given the scheduled apocalyptic winds. I fished fast, with the aim of picking off the easy fish (if there were any), determined to cover a lot of distance before the winds blew me back down the gorge. Surprisingly, I was onto my second fish soon enough, with a double tungsten nymph rig doing the business. This set up also had the bonus of maintaining momentum better in the wind. This fish’s fighting style was in complete contrast to the last. Rather than deliberate, calculated runs, this one wriggled and spun about daftly—well it was a woman I suppose—putting on a strange visual spectacle of flickering white and grey, unable to summon the composure to flee anywhere but where the current guided it. Without too much exertion number two was on the board.

124Confused, inept fighter (no, for once I’m not referring to the angler!)

Pressing on, I reverted back to my usual self—the serial spooker—alarming the next few fish, which all sat in much shallower riffles rather than pools. The wind was really toying with my casts now, and on several occasions my cast out nymphs completely failed to find the water. Instead, landing several metres wide of the river’s edge. With all this casting at riverbank, I wasn’t really surprised when, promptly after hooking my next fish, the tippet failed at the knot. Pity, because the perpetrator was a long fish, and the fiery run it undertook post-hook up hinted it was probably a decent one.

As I waded up a deep, calm section of river, I glanced down and my eyes met with a fish-like shape. Initially I assumed it to be one of those mineral imposters that are ever-abundant in the rivers we fish, but this one begged further scrutiny. Turns out it was a fish, a rather lifeless one albeit. Assuming it dead, I scooped it into the net for a closer analysis. As I did, it came to life! I placed it back down in slightly shallower water which was more accommodating to the eyes. This was one beat up fish! Long, narrow, pale gashes littered it’s head and front third, and it’s coal-like colour further accentuated these horrific wounds. By the looks of it, the rigours of spawning had been immense for this guy. He’d done his duties, and if it wouldn’t have freaked him the hell out, I may’ve been tempted to give him a much-deserved pat on the head. But his end was certainly near, so I left him alone, to see out his final few hours in the peace of the placid water at the foot of the undercut bank.

Mortally wounded spawner

155Spent spawner seeing out his final few hours

222The first rainbow I’ve ever seen on this river

Now mid-afternoon, the gales were starting to reach biblical proportions. Ferocious gusts would rip water from the river’s surface, transform it to mist, then blast it thirty metres into the air where it would vortex briefly before dissipating. Rocks, dislodged from the gorge walls, also began to bombard the pools below. When I came to a deep, swift section of river that would’ve required a long shuffle against the foot of the gorge wall to negotiate, I decided these were all sufficient hints that it was time to call it a day!

254Slight breeze….

The wind was at least at my back on the walk back downriver, which spared my face from Nature’s unwanted sandblasting services. Each stride doubled it’s usual length, as Nature’s invisible hand took it’s grip, and forcefully escorted me out of the gorge with the force of an impatient, surly nightclub bouncer. Defiant, I paused at the Trout’s residence one last time to have a go at Jack’s missus, but a wind gust promptly picked up a scoop of fine gravel and sand from behind, and unleashed it over the entire span of the pool. The pool’s surface, in turn, bubbled and foamed rabidly as if it’d been hit by a freak hail storm. Well, I reasoned this dramatic disturbance, coupled with the fact she must’ve assumed she was now a widower, was probably enough to put Mrs Trout off her food. So I continued on, back to the car.

Arriving back at my starting point—thoroughly tired—with a couple of conquests and nothing destroyed or damaged, it’d been a most satisfactory day. And while I’ve been far more restricted in my angling-induced roamings this season than last, the couple of excursions I have had so far have been surprisingly enriching. Sufficiently rewarding, even, that my mind was distracted from it’s usual post-fishing thoughts of cold beer (quite a feat). Instead, it was busy hatching plots and schemes about my next venture up some other backyard river, as I headed back down the highway—dodging fallen tree limbs—homeward bound.

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