The Pursuit of Poundage

We probably all know an angler who prioritises chasing the big fish—so much so, that they put it above all else. For me, fly fishing has always been about the place, the experience, and the people you meet. Sure, I guess I’ve always had the hope somewhere in the recesses of my mind that I may be fortunate enough to stumble onto a monster trout occasionally, but it’s not something I’d ever plan my trip around.

Due to the fact that most of the rivers I’ve fished in the past aren’t renowned for “bug fush” (that’s “big fish” for you non-natives), I hadn’t ever encountered one of these angling “size queens”, not until this season at least. I met him on the track while on my way out of a valley, and he’d enquired how my fishing had been. Rather pleased with myself, I recalled my conquest of a seven-and-a-half pounder, to which he replied with a despairing Geez, I may as well have stayed at the last river. After recouping from the robbery of my afterglow, I began to feel a bit sorry for the chap as I resumed my hike along the track. With such high expectations he must surely be left disappointed more often than not.

Thanks to a freakish recent event—the catching of a “trophy” trout—I’ve now acquired a new-found insight as to what makes these guys tick. The catching of this fish was something of a double-edged sword for me; obviously a terrific and memorable experience, but I suspect it may prove difficult to reach those heights of euphoria again. I fear that it may leave me taking above-average fish for granted, as on the last trip to my local river I found myself somewhat under-awed after catching a couple of fish that went six and seven pounds. Usually I would have been ecstatic with such fish, but the experience with the “trophy” fish seems to have significantly raised my own bar of expectation. And so I can now see how—not dissimilar to a drug fiend—some anglers trips are reduced to chasing an ever larger dose of brown trout in order to get their fix. And it is always the browns we pursue, as if they’re the equivalent of uncut “product”.

322Possibly the moment that spawned an angling “size queen”. Time will tell….

212A happy, easily-pleased angler from a few seasons back.

064 (2)A flock of “Poundage Hunters” progressing to the headwaters. Going by the bottleneck-inducing traffic it must be a “mouse year”.

I’ve no idea how my angling perception or formula for enjoyment will change in the foreseeable future. Whether I will gradually return to being satisfied with average sized fish, or whether I’m now destined to join the ranks of these tunnel-visioned angling size-queens. Destined to forever obsess over, and chase maximum poundage; destined to resort to lurking only in valleys where the big fish—sorry “bug fush!”—reside. Let’s hope not.

One thing is certain though, come next season, after this “mouse year” is said and done, it will be one hell of crash back to reality for those chasers of maximum poundage, as the fish inevitably return to normal size. It has me wondering how they will cope, with their levels of expectation having been at an all-time high the past season. Quite possibly we may see the emergence of a new niche for the shrinks, rehab for the size-obsessed angler! The pharmaceutical companies had best get to work inventing a new pill, as this ailment is certainly more real than some of the others dreamed up in recent times!

As for me, all hope is not yet lost. I have faith that my video-come-short film projects will steer me away from the clutches of big-brown addiction and toward a more well-rounded style of angling, and an appreciation for all the other facets of a fishing trip. I guess time will tell, so stay tuned. And as an outsider with a less skewed perspective, feel free to step in and call an intervention if you see me sliding down the slippery slope that is the Pursuit of Poundage!


The Trifecta of Torment

The trip began like most others, running late as usual, and starting out later than intended. And it looked as if I was going to pay for it as, making my way along the road toward the river, I happened across a couple of elderly gentlemen in the midst of adorning their angling attire. A cordial discussion was had, and it was agreed I’d leave them the first couple of kilometres of the river. They’d mentioned there was a chopper coming to pick them up, so it didn’t quite make sense, but whatever, I wished them well and headed off into the valley. Fifteen minutes or so later, the distant drone of a chopper became audible. Moments later I spotted it heading away, seemingly for some other river. Nevertheless, I honoured my part of the agreement, just in case.

Anticipation was building as I neared the point where I planned to start fishing from. And it was then that the unthinkable happened. The loud blare of a chopper—the same one as before—filled the air, as the craft dashed out from behind a hill in obnoxious fashion, and descended down into the next valley, merely one hundred metres ahead. Now I don’t know if it’s occupants were the same elderly gentlemen I’d made the pact with, or whether they were a different lot. Regardless, I must confess much of the next hour was spent cursing the old b….tards, as I wandered dejectedly along the track, figuring I could at least set up my tent and have a read and a nap, before possibly having an evening fish once the chopper’s sorties were completed for the day. Certainly at this moment I could sympathise with the ancient mariner. Water, water, everywhere, nor any spot to fish! Still, I banished any thought of trying to slay this particular Albatross.

106The least endangered bird in the back country, and most dreaded…

I kept an eye out for the chopper’s occupants as I made my way along the track, scanning the riverbed wherever there was a break in the vast swathes of Matagouri which impeded my view. I’m not one for confrontations however, so I kind of hoped I wouldn’t run into them. During one of these surveys of the river an interesting pool caught my eye. In need of a bit of a breather, I stopped here and had a bit of morning tea. From here I had a good view down the valley. I could still see the chopper, but no anglers, it was kind of bizarre. Nearing the end of my pool-side sojourn I spotted a light brown shape emerge from the turbulent water at the foot of the riffle that led into the pool. Well after another unsuccessful scan for the fishermen, and reasoning they’d jumped me anyway, I decided to try my luck.

I seldom have much success in these slow water scenarios, which allow the trout more time for a careful inspection, so it all felt a bit forlorn as I lobbed my flies into the water below. He was patrolling the pool now, and with my ambush all set he turned and made his way back up the pool, and without any hesitation, devoured one of my nymphs. Rod lifted, and a hook up established, he bolted down-river a short way before seeking refuge in the depths behind a boulder. The river was deep here, and so I had to strip off some line and venture down to the tail-out in order to make it to the other side, which allowed for a better angle to keep the line clear of the boulder-clad riverbed. He was undoubtedly a clever fish this one, and utilised the boulder-strewn bed of his residence wisely, weaving between them with purpose, before pausing for rest again. It appeared impossible to pry him free from here without breaking off, and so I threw a couple of rocks into nearby water with the hope of spooking him out. He didn’t even bat an eyelid, not that he could have. And so I waited. chest-deep in the frigid water, having to resort to standing on tip toes at times, to avoid my camera getting dunked. At this point a chopper sound once again brashly interrupted nature’s symphony, as it passed overhead on it’s way up, and presumably out of, the valley. The occupant appeared to give a wave, and I resisted the urge to give a “salute”, instead opting for a subtle head shake. I’ve no idea where these guys had fished, or disappeared to, but more importantly, back to the battle.

Soon my calves began to cramp in the brutal cold. Yes, I was wader-clad, but bearing significant battle scars, they were easily breached by the frigid liquid. I dared adding a little more side pressure during one of my adversary’s riverbed weaves and the risk paid off. I’d turned him enough for the current to catch his flank, and off he went down-river headed for the tail-out. Then he turned again, pulling in behind a significant boulder. After a series of wily manoeuvres through the pocket water below on his behalf, and several ill-advised, shin-denting skips and lunges of my own, he was secured in the net. He was a new best for me, in terms of size, and undoubtedly orchestrated the most protracted and tactical battle I’ve endured. Considering his cunning, surely rivalling that of the Desert Fox himself, I shall remember this fish as “Rommel”. And considering the liquid desert he resides in, I thought it quite apt. Sadly however, that by no means makes me worthy of the nickname “Monty!”. So that completes the first leg of the trifecta.

123“Rommel”, one cunning bastard.

Well, turns out you just never know. Guess that was the lesson to take away from this experience.  I’d assumed I would be reduced to fishing the chopper-angler’s dregs, but couldn’t have been more wrong! After pausing to empty my waders and wring out my socks, I headed off up the track to find a suitable campsite. From the track, I spied a comparatively small fish feeding in the tail-out of a pool. I unbuckled my pack and carefully descended the steep bank to have a go. Several casts later and he was on. Quite the acrobat, he went airborne several times before making for the sanctuary of a recess at the base of one of the many river-edge boulders. I stripped back all of my leader and gently guided my rod tip into the recess which had the desired effect of spooking him out. Pretty soon after that he was bundled into the net. If you look closely just above my fingers, you might spot the sizable dent he bears on his flank. He put up admirable resistance for his size, but this one wasn’t to be one of the legs of the terrible trifecta.

173Not exactly a monster, but a spirited fighter.

Content with my angling achievements for the day, I set up camp beside a cluster of Matagouri, on a sheltered flat overlooking the river. It was a pleasant spot, offering ample shelter and firewood, and home to a section of river that was sufficiently sedate that it’s noise wasn’t overwhelming during the quiet of the night. The sandflies certainly seemed to like it here too. During the night my sleep was intermittently interrupted by a mouse seemingly intent on laying siege to the tent, and sacking it of it’s edible contents, but shhh, best not pass that on to DOC, as this is one of the few valleys here in the south island that isn’t getting poisoned this season. I dread to think that a confirmed mouse sighting might well change that!

231Goodnight sandflies, hello dinner!

The next morning I awoke in the comfort of my new sleeping bag. Yes, no more lugging around a queen size duvet for me! That particular madness is all but banished to history! It was a pleasant morning, clear skies and a complete absence of wind. I got on the water early, in the hopes of at least procuring an hour or two’s fishing before the choppers inevitably arrived.

253Starting out in the morning.

275Sunrise, time to fish!

I spooked the first fish, which appeared to morph out of nowhere, only to promptly go back from whence it came. Next, I examined a deep run where I’d hooked and lost a large fish at the end of last season—which I suspect may have actually been a salmon—but it was devoid of fish. A significant walk led me back to the pool I’d caught the larger fish from yesterday. I had a bit of a look for “Rommel”, just to check on how he was doing, but instead spotted a fish which appeared larger, lying deep and feeding. I remember immediately after I’d hooked “Rommel” another had bolted over to investigate, as they sometimes do, so I knew there was at least one more fish in this pool. After several casts I hadn’t piqued it’s interest. I changed nymphs a couple of times, and eventually it was a tandem of small tungsten nymphs that did it.

There was definitely a sense of deja vu to this battle. Same pool, same tactics, initially at least. He set anchor to the bouldery bottom, and I grimly pondered a nerve-racking protracted duel. Thankfully though, this fish was more restless and less methodical than his resident buddy, and surprisingly he progressed up the pool to a shallower section. I was tempted to try and net him then, but as I planted my foot in the water he tore off back down the pool, into the current. Then, just like his buddy had done, turned and pulled in behind a boulder in the tail-out of the pool, which allowed me time to catch up to him. This is where the deja vu of yesterday’s battle ended, and an extra spice was thrown into the fight. He towed me through the awkward pocket water for a spell, then after a rest, pivoted, and tore off down the rapids below. With the aid of the powerful current he was really moving now, and I was quickly threatened with the prospect of going into backing. I charged frenetically through the water, first into the centre of the river to steer the line around a long branch which protruded from a large boulder, and once that had been negotiated, back to the river bank which allowed for a faster pursuit.

355The branch that almost lost me “General Sherman”.

With the end of my fly line now seemingly around forty metres away it finally ceased being peeled from my reel. I quickly wound in line as I skipped over the rough rocky river edge, praying he was still attached to the end of it. There was just so much line out now, and with it not fully under tension it was hard to tell. Nearing his resting spot I was relieved to feel we still had a connection, something of a miracle considering all of that! He moved away from the bank as soon as I got there, and started making his way sluggishly back upstream, but he was done. I applied a bit of force to lift him to the surface and attempted to net him, but he slid over it. It was only then that I got a full appreciation of his size. With him so close now, I grabbed him around the tail and steered him into the net. As I lifted the net out of the water the spring-scale was again stretched further than it ever had before. Another new best.

322If his buddy was “Rommel”, well that had to make him “General Sherman”, as he was built like a tank.

Once a burst of photos were taken—pretty glad I discovered that well concealed feature of the camera last week—he was released back into his diabolical residence, from where he’ll no doubt torment many other anglers to come, and I wish him luck with that. I was surprised at how he swam off into the depths without the need for a breather after such an epic battle, clearly he’s a very fit fish, and one that is possibly fueled by mice? Anyways, unlike “General Sherman”, I was spent, at least for the time being. So after emptying my once again waterlogged waders—more deju vu—I pottered back to my campsite to make a brew, have a bite of lunch, and bask in the glory of victory! Content with my conquest, the choppers could fly around all they liked, nothing would take the shine off this day. The second leg of the trifecta was now complete.

353Okay experts, what sort of mayfly is this? Can someone educate this layman?

After lunch, I ventured upriver, and it was here that I met the third leg of the trifecta. I spied him from the Matagouri-clad bank overlooking the river. He was in surprisingly shallow water not far from the bank, and in the midst of a feeding frenzy. It all seemed like a formality, with him feeding with gay-abandon, and also given my new-found confidence. But frustratingly, he ignored and even had the audacity to dodge my offerings in preference of something else! Usually I just chuck on a generic cover-most-bases type fly, but these go-to’s weren’t cutting it this time. I decided to experiment with a cased caddis, which after doing a bit of research online after my last trip, discovered I possessed a few in my fly box. Ahh, so that’s what those simple brown things were that still cost three bucks! Yes, I’m clearly revealing another deficiency in my game right now. Okay, so back to the fish. A brown cased caddis was lobbed ahead of the shamelessly gluttonous trout, and he immediately obliged, siding over to devour it. Yeah, fish on! I struck enthusiastically, and then it happened…. an abrupt crisp CRACK!

395The third Wilsonnnn! moment this season, and we’re only a month in!

The rod recoiled back over my head and into the river. Well the butt half at least, while the top half slid down the fly line, which was now slumped over my shoulder. With extreme haste, I fetched the portion of the rod that lay behind me and stripped in the slack line, then watched the top half slide down the line ever closer to the fish, before stopping when it hit the water. Fortunately the fish hadn’t gone on a run, which allowed me time to retrieve the remainder of my rod carefully, so as not to spur him into action. This trout—seemingly a good sport, had given me some sort of standing eight count, or perhaps he was just enjoying the spectacle—now bolted off. I pursued him in truely gormless fashion, with half a rod tucked under one arm, and the other half held high in the air. The fish then paused again, and I managed to get close. It was tempting to have a go at netting him already, given the dire circumstances, but I didn’t. Guess I was too busy trying to devise a technique to play him. Inevitably he turned and bolted down the pocket water below, and there was no way I could keep pace, nor strip line from the reel fast enough, with the line now having to travel through a “Z” shape path from reel to fish. The tension grew greater and greater, and then the inevitable ping! Busted off. Haven’t experienced that in a long time. So now I was down to one rod, which was already missing a guide. Oh well, I pressed on up-river, pondering if come the worst case, there was any way New Zealand trout could be cajoled into partaking in a bit of noodlin’.

189A difficult casting position mid-picture, on the true-left river bank.

I sighted a large grey silhouette in the depths of the next pool. Going by what I’d hauled in earlier in the day I assumed it to be large. I made several casts with no success. Then I tried again from the other side of the pool, where the currents were more accommodating. After several more casts, and with the wind coming up, I changed to a single double-tungsten beaded nymph. During the first cast the slack line at my feet had tangled around a Matagouri bush, and as Murphy’s law dictates, the fish nabbed the fly in quick order. The slack line was fast being taken up as I scrambled to free the line from the bush. The cruel intricacies of this particular shrub make you wonder whether the gods had consulted with Mr Rubik in an attempt to engineer a bush capable of regularly causing the most complex mind-boggling tangles, from the slightest contact. With a final desperate hard yank it was freed from the Matagouri’s clutches, and without a second to spare! Not long after that the hook pulled, and an impressive fish was on his way. It was as if the gods were saying Oi! That’s enough for today! 

I decided to take the hint and call it a day at this point, and made my way back to camp for the appealing prospect of a sit-down dinner on one of the most comfortable rocks I’ve ever found, washed down with cheap red wine beside the campfire, and inevitably reflect on what had been a most memorable day. While on my way back I may well have sighted the intervening angling god responsible for the lost fish. Look closely…!

405Can you spot the weird shadow-man in the distance? Perhaps it was one of the angling gods looking on? We all know they’re out there.

723The most comfortable rock in the backcountry, and a tidy campfire left for the next camper, who is hopefully me. Luckily dreams are free!

The following day saw me back at the scene of the crime, the accomplice was still feeding away in rather brash and gormless fashion, completely oblivious to my presence. With a speed Telecom can only dream of, I had reestablished our connection, the cased caddis doing the business again. Obviously not the fastest learner, this guy. But what he lacked in dining sophistication he certainly made up for in brawling skills! Perhaps this prowess in a fight accounted for his nonchalant feeding style, having the confidence he could out-duel anyone unfortunate enough to hook him. He pivoted and tore off down-stream on what was a fifty metre run by conservative estimates, down a now-familiar battleground of turbulent, perilous, pocket water. I bolted after him, my demented gait resembling that of a novice triple jumper’s, as I bounced my way over the riverside boulders with the grace of a Gazelle, well not exactly. Finally he halted behind a rock and we both made the most of the welcomed respite. A short spell later he pivoted again and tore off on an even longer run down-stream. I followed, this time stumbling mid-river while negotiating waist-deep water. It was unforgivable really, that I still hadn’t gotten around to installing the tungsten cleats—still in my pack—onto the more useful place, the soles of my boots! I cursed my procrastination as I slipped, causing one of my shins to collide with a rock. Guess you’ve got to learn to make pain your friend with this sort of angling!

566Helmet, mouth guard, and shin pads would be suitable angling attire in this perilous pocket water!

When I caught up to him he began wandering the boiling pockets of water seeking a hide. I thought I had him beat now, surely it was only a matter of time. And just as well, as the river entered a gorge another hundred metres downstream. But to my horror he turned and bolted for a third time, and incredibly it was the longest run of the lot. My lungs screamed for mercy as I covered the seventy-odd metre stretch to where he’d pulled up. He still wasn’t done, and had found a recess at the bottom of a boulder to hide under. I managed to eventually pry him out, only for him to move to the other side of the river and do the exact same thing. The water here was at least shallower, but the line couldn’t pass between the two boulders he was hiding under. If he bolted the tippet would inevitably break. I watched him closely, waiting for a window of clarity in the boils of water. I made out that his tail was protruding from under the boulder and figured I’d make a grab for him, knowing if I didn’t get him the first time, my touch would spur him forward and he’d bust off. Thankfully I got a firm grip just in front of the tail and pulled him out. I was immediately struck by the thickness of this part of his body.

You’re probably wondering why I’m raving on so much about this fish, as he’s the smallest of the three that comprise the terrible trifecta. Well I suppose it’s due to breaking my rod on him the day before, and then having him subject me to the most epic angling battle I’ve ever been put through—scrambling through, and down, two hundred and fifty metres of perilous pocket water—and then grabbing him from under a boulder within metres of a gorge where I most likely would have lost him. So anyway, that’s the final leg of the torturous trifecta all wrapped up. The TAB would surely have given long odds at the start of the trip for all three battles being won by the angler, and I certainly wouldn’t have backed it!

480Respect for the conquered.

573Recovering in a makeshift trout nursery.

535He finally stopped down there somewhere, oh wait, actually he kept going around the corner a bit!

220Beech forest basked in glorious afternoon sunshine.

With the legs trembling and battered, I decided to call it a day. After the now ritualistic emptying of the waders, I made my way back to the campsite to lax for the remainder of the afternoon. Sinister looking clouds began to dominate the sky, which had me concerned that a storm may be coming. Being camped on the wrong side of the river was a bit of a concern should I have woke to a swollen river, but I took my chances. The storm never eventuated, and so all that remained was the simple matter of a quick pack up and breakfast among a cloud of sandflies, before hiking out of the valley.

738The kitchen sink is in there somewhere!

So that was the trip that will forever be remembered for it’s Torturous Trifecta. I guess what I’ll take away from it is that this angling pass time of ours never gets old, as each trout duel has a myriad of variables to it which makes each one a unique experience. Entering the trip, I was a relative newbie to fishing pocket water, but now I’ll feel a sense of both excitement and trepidation the next time I hook into a trout in such water, particularly if they possess anything close to the fighting spirit the fish in this river have. But above all, it leaves me wondering what other new experiences and enlightenment await me this season.