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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!