My false El Dorado

I was really looking forward to this one. I’d been here once before on a late-season spur-of-the-moment day trip, but the arduous hike in meant I only made it to the river with sufficient time to make a few casts before darkness descended. That is the downside to exploring new territory, but I was better informed this time and more thoroughly prepared, well sort of.

There had been a long dry spell over most of the south island—even this part of it—and so the track was far less boggy than it had been on my previous foray up it. As a result the hike in was almost pleasant; no sinking knee-deep into a muddy abyss, or boots being robbed from your feet as you pull them out.

814Beautiful track, lush forest

824Water > Steel

Not long after the track met with the river I came to a section where it overlooked a gargantuan pool, probably around four metres in depth, perhaps more. It was no doubt home to some decent fish, but given the infestation of snags any thought of making a cast at them was ludicrous. A decent rainbow was spotted sitting deep in the middle of the pool, and another further up, nestled in beside a tree trunk that lay alongside the bank from which I was ogling them from. As a litmus test to determine how spooky these fish were, I broke off a large stick from a nearby tree and lobbed it in the water just upstream of the rainbow.

The current was minimal, and as the stick drifted downstream the rainbow—ever so slowly—rose deliberately, tilting it’s body as it neared the surface, finally shattering the glass-like surface to slurp in it’s woody prey, adorning a completely gormless expression throughout the entire manoeuvre. It returned back to it’s station; the stick didn’t come back up. I suppose, in it’s defence, it may have mistook the stick for a stick insect, but in all seriousness I was gobsmacked at what I’d just witnessed. Considering the track ran above this pool it was hard to fathom how this trout could remain so naive. At that moment I couldn’t help but wonder, had I discovered my angler’s El Dorado?

886One gormless rainbow

It was enough to sucker me into entertaining the idea of having a go, making a cast. As I only had one leader I opted to replace it with a long section of strong mono, as losing my only tapered leader on a snag would’ve spelled disaster. Perusing the dry fly box I opted for a large beetle, but who was I kidding, a piece of tree bark with a hook would have sufficed!

Surveying the snags, and taking a breath in an attempt to summon my Spartan reserve, I readied myself to make the cast. SPLASH! That wasn’t the beetle hitting the water, the noise had come from further down the pool. Scanning the water, my eyes met with a peculiar sight; a weird grey ghostly figure dashing around the bottom of the pool in frenetic fashion, in pursuit of the other large trout I mentioned earlier. It took me a few seconds to register what it was: a blue Heron. Talk about fowl timing! Well I’m no expert, it may have been a Heron, or a Shag. When I enquired about the difference between the two—a couple of years ago in Whataroa—I seemed to offend the lady at the White Heron tour shop there. After that I’d given up trying to differentiate between the two. Sensitive people, those birders! Anyway, it’s ambitious, yet bungled fishing exploits shagged mine too. The rainbow by the bank was now a great deal more edgy and had shifted to an even more diabolical position. I attempted a cast regardless, but it wasn’t coming up for the beetle.

DCIM101DRIFTJuggernaut snag!

DCIM101DRIFTMore snaggy, impossible to fish water

As I progressed up the valley the track deteriorated, becoming narrower and more muddy; the forest thicker and more jungle-like in nature. Insects chirped vigorously, the humidity intensified, and the lush green foliage took advantage of every available space. Copious amounts of strange mosses covered, and dangled, from the limbs of trees, giving the appearance they had adorned one of those ghillie suits some hunters wear. Startled wood pigeons wooshed narrowly overhead with surprising frequency, such numbers of them I’d never encountered before. This place had a prehistoric, ancient, feel to it, and it didn’t take much imagination to envisage coming face to face with a dinosaur at any moment, or at least witnessing a Pterodactyl soaring in the sky overhead . This remoteness, this warp back in time, is what I had been yearning the last couple of weeks, as I slothed about in a mass-tourism hot spot, eating Fergburgers, getting softer.

937Ancient forest, where Pterodactyls could quite possibly still lurk…?

The river itself was of a curious make-up—rather bipolar in nature—consisting of either immense boulder-strewn sections, or glassy near-still water. There was very little in between these two extremes. Such was the ruggedness of some of the bouldery sections, it left you scratching your head at how any trout could possibly navigate them to get upriver. It seemed absurd, but somehow they’d managed. One thing was certain, it’d be an astounding, yet terrifying, sight to see one of these sections in full flood. And then there was the other side of the paradox—the deep endless pools. On a still, foggy morning it’d be easy to imagine a waka full of primitive, flax-clad Maori drifting down them, emerging out of the mist. Spine-tingling stuff indeed! Really memorable spots they are.

878Bi-polar river: Jekyll

DCIM101DRIFTBi-polar river: Hyde

The track passed through several clearings and eventually I began to wonder if I’d missed the hut. I’d been going at quite a speed due to the dry conditions, and reasoned I should’ve reached it by now. Finally–feeling rather worn out, and at the end of what appeared to be the final clearing and last potential campsite for some time—I decided I’d done enough hiking for the day. It was an idyllic spot, just beside a long glide section of river, an ideal piece of water for harbouring an evening rise! Firewood was plentiful, and to top it off three Whio were patrolling the river nearby! I dumped my pack and headed off upriver to get a couple on the board before dinner—trout I mean!

In my eagerness to get upriver—given my confidence that the fishing would be dead easy—I didn’t even bother to change back to my tapered leader, and so I had to make do with trying to cast the mono monstrosity. It was a nightmare to be honest, but going by what I’d witnessed earlier with the daft rainbow, I figured I should be able to get away with fifty false casts before getting the fly to where it needed to be. I spooked several fish in a long, wide, difficult glide, with toe-toe lining the bank behind me, and filling the space where my back cast needed to be. I was just after a couple of easy fish so I shot up to the next pool and immediately spotted a fish feeding away. Feeling immensely confident—well verging on cocky—I plonked a big terrestrial down just ahead of the fish. He spooked! It came as something of a shock. Progressing upstream I spooked another in a shallow run-come-glide, and another. Wow, okay, humble pie was being provided in abundance, and I wondered if dinner would be necessary at all! At around eight o’cock, with daylight fading and the river appearing to begin a steep ascent, I turned back to set up camp. Along the way I discovered the hut. It was merely 200m from my campsite, and now I understood the reason for these clued up fish.

954Serene glassy water just upstream from the campsite

903The end of trout water, and the turn around point of my first recce

My back began to ache badly as I gathered firewood. Doubled over and hobbling around the riverbed in the moonlight, I imagined I probably resembled some sort of odd Tolkien creature to anyone unfortunate enough to be witnessing the scene from afar. I’d felt a twang in my back while loading up my pack just before setting off, but progressed anyway hoping it’d come right. Backs are funny things, you never quite know how fast they will recover. After dinner and a couple of nightcaps I remained by the fire a while, pondering what lay ahead the next few days. As I retired to the tent and began the painful process of unfurling my contorted spine, which—like a substandard leader with bad memory—seemed determined to remain hunched, distant Whio whistles flared up, and continued to sound off intermittently throughout the night. I wondered whether they were sounding the alarm about something, but hoped it was merely casual chatter.

923Flotilla of Whio just up from the campsite

The next morning I was relieved to find my back had made quite a recovery. After the usual breakfast of coffee and porridge I headed downriver to begin the day’s fishing, but not before a frantic search for my tapered leader. It had fallen out of my pack at some point during the evening, and I was most relieved to find it laying on the ground not far from the tent. It was a rather sombre morning; the sky was a uniform grey with no hint sunlight piercing through. The river composition here was mostly long slow glides with the odd pool thrown into the mix. There were plenty of fish about, particularly in the glides, but they were really tough to dupe.

Occasionally I’d find a fish that was on patrol, and in the end I had to resort to casting behind one of these and laying an ambush, kind of like stillwater tactics. One of these fish spotted one of my nymphs lying on the riverbed and tilted it’s entire body almost horizontal in an attempt to extract the nymph off the gravel bed, but when I struck, the hook seemed to faintly graze it’s mouth before flying back towards me and re-entering the water between us with a plop. Oddly the fish didn’t even really spook. It was tough water to fish indeed, but given the success of the night before, it had me drooling at the prospect of fishing the evening rise here, with this particular glide being occupied by at least half a dozen fish, and not a snag in sight. Something of a rare occurrence here!

932The occasional pool which punctuated the glassy glides

936Tough water to fool a fish in

951More glassy water

A steady drizzle set in around noon, which graduated into a substantial downpour. With spirits and body thoroughly dampened now, I beat a hasty retreat back to the tent, where—thoroughly dejected—I engaged in a shameful lolly bender in an attempt to console myself. As I chomped away furiously, I began to suspect that this was in fact my false El Dorado. It’d promised so much, but instead, cast after cast met with paranoia-ridden browns—some of them so neurotic I could’ve believed they’d just returned from a stint at the Arkham Asylum!

Late afternoon, when the rain eventually cleared, and the lollies ran out—curse it, why’d I shared them with that Chinese family I met at the camping ground!—I ventured upriver, fishing the same stretch I’d explored the day before. This time I ignored the spooky fish in the toe-toe-lined glide, and made straight for the pool just above it to have another go at it’s resident, which I’d also given a good spooking. Cast made, same result.

Pressing on, I spotted a fish sitting in the pool just below where the river metamorphosed into a boulder-strewn beast. I made a cast and immediately the indicator dipped, and a successful hook-up ensued. It was a tricky battle. Firstly there was a large slippery boulder to get down, and then there was another larger boulder between myself and the fish which I had to graze the fly line over it’s entire length in order to negotiate it. Apart from that, the fight wasn’t too spectacular, and when I eventually got him into the net I saw why. Skin and bones!

966Looks like someone is in dire need of a mouse plague, quick-smart!

Feeling relieved to be finally on the board, I made my way back to camp, but along the way it occurred to me that I should start paying more attention to the nook and cranny, out-of-the-way spots that many may overlook. This was instantly rewarded—well almost—as I spied a fish over the far side of the river positioned in an awkward spot. He was on the other side of the main tongue of current, positioned behind a rock. The flow of the water he was residing in was minimal, in stark contrast to the swift tongue of current which separated us. I knew the ingredient for success here was a cast I didn’t possess in my arsenal—not good enough! Regardless, I had a go, attempted an aerial mend and hoped for the best. This is the moment when we anglers enter a sort of zen mode, things slow down, all external awareness vanishes. It’s just him and us. Bit like in those point-of-view style video games, when the player goes into some sort of frenzy mode in a combat scene and the screen changes into a vignette-style, tunnel-visioned, blur.

To my surprise the cast was right on the money. There was ample slack in the leader; the drift was perfect! Even more amazingly, he zigged to the side and took my fly just before drag was due to kick in! He was far more lively than the last, this guy, tearing line from the spool and accelerating upriver like a drag racer that had just activated their nitrous boost. I narrowly avoided getting into backing, making it to the shore just in time, from where it was possible to high-tail it after him and narrow the distance between us, and reclaim my fly line. As I did so, I noticed the connection appeared further down the fish’s body than usual, and I concluded he must’ve been foul hooked. As he paused to compose himself behind a rock, I closed in from behind and at that moment the hook pulled, something of a rare occurrence for a foul-hooking. He didn’t even seem to realise, and being the angler of loose morals that I am, I attempted an opportune netting—hey times were tough!—but he bolted just as I was closing in on him. The words of my childhood hero and lifelong role model were left ringing in my ears, “Drat, drat, and double drat!” (cue Muttley snigger). He was certainly a larger, darker, and better conditioned fish than the last—not hard though!

DCIM101DRIFTTaking a break

With the campfire well-stoked, and dinner nearly cooked—rice with a bit of butter chicken sauce, doing it in style!—I went down to the river for a quick wash, only to spot intermittent dimples appearing on the surface of the water. Evening rise! Rather inconsiderate timing, but it was a no-brainer, dinner was postponed and the rod was rigged up. I opted for a brown Klinkhammer I’d bought off trade a few years back, despite being a little concerned about the integrity of it’s hook. As I positioned myself for a cast and the eyes adjusted to the fading light, I noticed the presence of two Whio, perched on a log in the middle of the river. Concerned they might cause a commotion I quickly fired away a cast, then another, which provoked another dimple to appear on the now metallic-looking surface. I struck, and to my delight it was met with stern resistance.

The Whio, as if on cue, plopped into the water and broke into a whistling duet. Apart from the Whio’s log, it was a relatively snag-free bit of river, and so after a couple of spirited runs the trout then made for the Whio. He tore off past, then around them, seemingly trying to use them as a snag, but as the line made contact they legged it out of there quick-smart. He soon tired and was secured in the net. At 5.5lbs he was the best fish of the trip so far, so it was a shame that my camera which possesses a flash lacked adequate battery power to manage a timered photo. Such was my desperation to gain evidence of victory that I even tried a couple of shots with the action cam aided by the illumination of a torch, but the results were rather rubbish, so I won’t bother posting them. Anyway, it was a satisfying end to a long trying day, and the rather lacklustre dinner of rice and butter chicken sauce was now seasoned with a trout victory, which made it a little more enjoyable.

Next morning, with food low, I made the decision to head back down the valley. I’d stay for one more day, but I dreaded the thought of a long walk from the top of the valley back to the car on an empty stomach, so I opted to walk half way out today. It was a glorious morning: vivid blue skies, cicadas in full song, and a light breeze ensuring things didn’t get too unpleasant. Squadrons of wood pigeons flew sorties across the valley at regular intervals, some flying so closely overhead that you could hear the wind rasping through the feathers on their wings. And the odd Kea cackled occasionally from high in the beech forest canopy, possibly gloating about their latest heist of rubber. My boots—having been in their death throes for some time—had finally fallen apart late in the day yesterday. I pondered giving them a riverside burial—having their corpses plucked over by a ravenous Kea was a fate they didn’t deserve—but decided against it just in case my backup pair fell apart even worse!

DCIM101DRIFTSole mates well past their prime

DCIM101DRIFTCampsite of the last couple of days

DCIM101DRIFTBlue skies, a welcomed change from the depressing grey of the day before

All packed up, there was just one last thing I had to do before heading back down the valley—pay a final visit to that nearby pool upstream. Seems every trip there is always one fish that really gets under my skin, and this was the residence of such a fish. I’d been bettered by him the last two days, in no uncertain terms, but I just had to try one last time regardless. Given the fine weather and obvious cicada activity I opted for a large foam beetle pattern—kind of passed for a cicada too I suppose—and lobbed it a metre or so upstream from him. Without hesitation he rose and took it. I waited the agonising wait—for him to turn downward—before striking. Hook up, a jump, some mediocre resistance, and I had him! Most satisfying, Dark Destroyer he was not! Moments after my victory, a stunning, solitary yellow mayfly fluttered upward into the sky. Gotta wonder about stuff like that, was it the gods acknowledging a job well done? Incidentally, if anyone knows the proper name of that particular mayfly I’d love to know it, and the reason I only ever see one of them. Must be a lonesome life for that guy!

DCIM101DRIFTApproaching the residence of my trip nemesis

DCIM101DRIFTA rare occasion: I actually conquered one of my trip nemeses

Around an hour into my hike down-valley I undertook a bush-bash of epic proportions, hoping to emerge at a section of river I hadn’t yet fished. At the end of this 300m detour I was surprised to be met with familiar water. I hadn’t realised I’d come down this far the day before, and so the painstaking bush-bash was for naught. A machete would’ve really made the going easier, as vines seemed intent on not letting you out of their clutches alive. Mind you, in the wrong hands—mine—a machete would be a recipe for a quick chopper ride back to civilisation—A&E.

Not far from where I set up my new campsite I located another of these simple wood-devouring fish—got this one on tape!—but this time it was a brown. I made a mental note of his position and planned to pay him a visit later in the afternoon. The new campsite was truly awesome. It overlooked a long curved still section of river which was home to several fish, and considering it even had a beach with proper sand I couldn’t resist making a Wilson to have a bit of banter with later on in the night. It had been a while since my last conversation.

On the completion of essential chores, I ventured upriver. It was a snaggy section of flat water teaming with fish, well by New Zealand standards. I managed to dupe the first, again the oversize beetle worked it’s magic, but I struck too soon and the hook failed to set. I spooked every other fish I encountered, I wasn’t surprised. It was really tough as the only casting positions were high above the water, making a stealthy cast impossible. On my way back to camp I stopped in at where I remembered the wood-eating brown to be—he was purposely saved for last. Problem was, he was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he’d gone off to find a sawmill buffet. Oh well, it was snags galore here and I would’ve lost him anyway, I told myself, no doubt audibly by now.

Before settling down to another miserable meal of rice and butter chicken sauce, I had a go on one of the smaller fish patrolling the large pool below the campsite. He seemed to be feeding off the bottom, but lazily I just lobbed the beetle at him, which he ignored. I tied on a long piece of tippet and a heavy tungsten nymph. The result was instant—he bolted to the surface and took the beetle! Typical! Despite being a short fish, this guy was in great condition, he had the build of a real brawler. I had no choice but to try to restrain him, as he made for the snags. SNAP! Off he went, with my tungsten nymph and towing a little wispy indicator, reminiscent of a certain buoy scene in the movie Jaws. Bugger it, I muttered, I didn’t have many of those left.

969Calmness on dusk, downriver of my campsite

DCIM101DRIFTGreat camping spot with plentiful firewood, much to Wilson’s relief

All packed up by mid-morning, and with a vast cache of warm oats stowed in the belly to sustain me for the day, I was back off down the track. The plan was to fish a few spots I’d passed days earlier on my way up the valley, before getting back to the car and high-tailing it to the nearest PROPER supermarket before they closed. I’d had enough of this On The Spot robbery nonsense!

The first pool I stopped off at had a reasonable sized fish erratically moving around in it’s depths. I tried a couple of nymphs, then a cicada, and finally a ridiculous mouse pattern, but nothing would make him rise. I made some blind casts into another good looking pool but they yielded nothing. The next pool I tried—not sure you can even call it a pool—was far shallower, and due to the surrounding foliage it was difficult to fire a long enough cast away. The first attempt saw me having to do a spell of fly foraging in the branch of a beech tree. The next attempt went better, except for the tangle in the excess line I’d stripped from the reel. While I was addressing that, I noticed a rise in my peripheral vision, in the vicinity of my fly! This tangle had been a blessing, and aided me getting my strike timing right, as by the time I struck the fish had turned sufficiently and was hooked good and proper. Like the others, he fought okay, but nothing exceptional. I guess this mediocre fighting trait is a result of the lack of current in the river. His black spots and dark colouring were rather impressive, and well matched his dingy residence.

DCIM101DRIFTImpressive black spots on this fellow

Continuing on, I prospected a couple more pools but no rewards were reaped. As it was now midafternoon I decided to call it a day, and power-walked back to the car, but not before a couple of oncoming hikers caught me having a “Wilson” moment—that was unfortunate, given that Wilson wasn’t even there. As the clouds closed in, drizzle began to fall, and sandflies swarmed, I was glad to be exiting this false El Dorado. It may not have turned out to be the valley of untold treasures just there for the taking, but despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in this prehistoric wilderness, and hope to visit it again in the not-too-distant future.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Mike
    Mar 09, 2015 @ 10:21:02

    Ameletopsis Mayfly i would assume buddy. Bright yellow and fairly large – 12 would be about right. Swimming mayflies they are…

    Liked by 1 person


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