The game has changed

Well this one wasn’t even on the cards, but a detour to see an old mate on the coast had led me further north than expected, so on my journey back home I opted to try my luck, with the big fish water—busy as it may be—proving too alluring to resist.

And my car too, proved too alluring to resist, to the hordes of bumble bees which sprung their ambush as I drove into the carpark. They seemed utterly riveted by anything white or blue in colour, especially the former. This was bad news for me, as my car was white—ofcourse—and so every foray into the car was met with one of them either entering it, or exiting—always straight at my face. Because of this, breakfast and readying my gear was a painfully slow process. Such was the frustration incurred by these bumbling yellow and black cretins, that an hour later I realised I hadn’t even gotten around to putting on my socks—rookies error in these parts—and each foot now possessed several dozen bloody pock-marks.

073Bumble bees shamelessly feeding their addiction for blue and white

My first foray into this new river system—a tired, clumsy, exploratory cast—prompted two immense shadowy figures—behemoths!—to dart about in the depths of the pool, exuding a frenetic, nervous energy. Such was the size of these inky monstrosities, I actually pondered whether a fly would even be up to the task, or whether Ned Land’s terrible harpoon would be a more sensible tool for the job. What I’d just witnessed instantly provoked a surge from within, a strange concoction of both excitement, and concern. I’d finally found the big fish, but catching them, I suspected, would prove a monumental challenge. The game had changed.

Gahhh!…. Nooooo!…. You mother…..! Sonofa…..! is the curtailed, more-polite, version of what was wailed—several octaves higher than usual—in an air of utter hopelessness, from the tip-top of the valley. Upon completion of the tirade, I remained a while, hunched over in a posture resembling a caricature of dejection—fixed midriver. This was the lowest ebb of two long, despair-ridden, days on the water.

187You may be thinking it’s a little early in the piece for my mug to be adorning such a despair-ridden expression, but there’s a reason for that, later revealed…

The day had begun in rather ominous fashion, losing a fish before I’d even had breakfast! Breakfast fish—as he’d eventually become to be known—was spied during my blurry-eye trip to the river to fetch water for my morning coffee. Back with a rod in hand seconds later, he’d taken one of my flies, and immediately after a majestic airborne display, the hook had pulled. Probably just as well, as I wouldn’t have dueled at all well in a pair of sandals. I was gobsmacked by his immense girth, and by conservative estimates he’d have weighed in at around nine pounds.

251Breakfast fish; he’s out there somewhere

Upon completion of a thoroughly miserable breakfast, I’d set off upriver intent on a short reconnaissance of the valley, but it’s intrigue drew me in, sucking me further up, as if the river were in fact flowing in reverse. Well, actually that is all a lie, but it sounded kind of poetic, right? The valley was actually rather dull, and smacked of a trout-desert for the most part, with much of the river running in two separate, skinny braids. But regardless, I pressed on, as I always do. I’ve no idea why I do this to myself. Perhaps I was one of those self-flagellating priests in a former life, and some of that mindset has continued over into this one. Anyway, the fishing was patchy to say the least, but it was the closing of the valley some kilometres in the distance which captivated my imagination, and egged me on.

135Early morning, the beginning of a day dripping with potential

As I made my way toward it—my body, and mind, baking under the unrelenting midday sun—I began to visualise a trout—and angler’s—utopia. A stable, forest-shrouded oasis at the head of this miserable trout-desert. As I neared it, to my disbelief, my vision appeared to materialise. Spying blue-tinged water in the distance, my gait quickened, another bout of the fever flared. Slowing as I reached this water of renewed hope, I spotted him—one of my future tormentors, nestled in close to the opposing bank. A light breeze ruffled the water’s surface; the current was uniform—too easy.

Given the circumstances, I felt an unfamiliar confidence creeping in—must’ve been suffering from a sort of sun-induced delirium! I still managed to fuck it up ofcourse, initially at least, hooking a tree on the twenty-fourth backcast. Returning to the river’s edge, after a victorious battle with a beech branch to reclaim my flies—a form of battle I’ve become something of a master in—I tried again. Plop—nymphs in—the sickening wait, willing the fish with an intense zen stare… fish on! It gets a bit tedious recounting these trout battles, particularly the non-spectacular ones, so I will just cut to the moment of self-sabotage.

209The fringe of the oasis, and scene of my (first) self-sabotage

With him edged under a boulder beside the river margin, and myself perched overhead, rod arched deeply, I hatched a dastardly plan. The influence of my childhood hero and role model—Dick Dastardly—was probably responsible for this course of action. Bending down, I scooped up a sizeable rock and lobbed it in just upstream, in the hope of flushing him out. The ploy worked! Downside was my rod was no longer arched at all, as the projectile severed the leader, and all ties with the fish. Oh well, it had to happen sooner or later, I reasoned. I was sure far better anglers than myself had done it, and to be honest, was surprised it had taken me this long! Drat, drat. and double drat! Cue Muttley snigger….

Onwards and upwards, well geographically speaking at least, for we were actually about to undergo a steep spiritual decline, from which I doubted no amount of evening scotches could reverse. But first, I was handed a brief respite from Nature’s persecution. As I navigated the sedate ribbon of blue, which wove through this oasis at the top of this valley, my rage dissipated, a calm washed over me, and I began to cool off—physically and metaphorically—in this distant Eden. There was no denying it was bestowed with therapeutic properties, so I paused to bottle some of it’s magical liquid for later, when I suspected I’d again be in need of it’s elixir. At it’s mid-point, a peculiar plateau of vivid green, nestled against the forest edge overlooking the river caught my eye. It looked out of place, more the domain of Roger Federer than forest critters, and would’ve made for a sublime campsite, had it not required such an arduous hike to reach. I sat there for a while, on the edge of the forest green, legs dangling over the riverbed below, until finally deciding I’d completed my mental convalescence. Feeling better, I progressed, toward the opposing fringe of the beech-clad oasis. This new-found placated state would again soon be tested, however.

176Healing oasis

16840—Love. This was an honest estimation of the Trout—Angler score by now, in tennis terms as it seemed apt given the curious Wimbledon-style lawn here

207Mystical place

Upon reaching the edge of the oasis, I was abruptly confronted with a sight of stark contrast— yet another vast, barren wasteland. With the weather now more pleasant—the sun less intense—I figured I’d explore it a little. In the beginning I spotted the odd fish—all large—but my offerings failed to incite any response, other than a fevered bolt in the opposing direction. It all felt about as futile as trying to attract a magnet with another of the same polarity. As I continued on, the walk between these neurotic fish became farther. Muttering away, head down negotiating the rock-strewn riverbed, in my own little world, I soon lost track of space and time. Watching one foot pass the next, only to repeat itself again, and again, and again, and….

Finally breaking free of the trance, I looked up. By now, I’d reached the halfway point of this next valley opening, and again—in a bout of deja-vu—began to muse over the next closing in the distance. Could it be as serene as the last? I had to find out! I kicked on, not even bothering with the river anymore. Another half hour passed before I reached it, but unlike the oasis, this one failed to match my anticipation and was more like a mirage! Regardless, I took the time to inspect it, given that it was only midafternoon, and my biggest dread being that I’d get home and be plagued by “what if’s”. This mirage, which had led me on a long walk to the tip-top of the valley, soon dissipated, revealing an utterly rubbish, rushing section of river several hundred metres in length. It’s entirety lying on full display, before the next bend in the distance. Just one more bend, I told myself, in a tone of both austerity and caution.

And there it was; the unassuming pool. The modest residence of a fish, or so I prayed. Such was it’s diminutive nature, it probably would’ve been considered a shack from a trout’s point of view. A last outpost at the top of river, before the hostilities of the foreboding frontier wilderness of skinny whitewater, cascading from the mountains, deterred them from venturing any further. Taking into account the remoteness of this pool, I reasoned that if it did have an occupant they probably wouldn’t have been visited by another angler for some time, hence should be a little more obliging.

186Harsh reality meets the eye, post mirage-dissipation

191Possibly the last trout-outpost on the river

Knee-deep midriver, and wading in a lazy, tired fashion, I fired a cast at the pseudo-pool. The turbulent nature of it’s water meant I should’ve waited for a window of clarity which eventually tends to be offered, but by now I was far too jaded for that. Promptly after the nymphs entered, a brown shape sauntered downriver in their vicinity. The indicator was already drowned by now, so I struck when I lost sight of the figure. This only succeeded in launching the flies back out of the water, and over my shoulder. A couple of false casts to dry the indicator, and I sent the pair of hare and tungsten-clad miscreants back in for another attempted home invasion. Surprisingly, this one brought success. I’d no idea where the fish was by now, but the “crisp” manner in which the indicator dipped invoked a strike, and resulted in a solid hook up.

Down in the depths, he patrolled tightly against the bank of his residence; panic-stricken like a dementia-addled statesman under siege, trying to recall the location of his safe house. Wherever it was, he didn’t reach it, as I postured as best I could in order to encourage him upstream to the head of the pool. In a manoeuvre of daring, I dashed up toward, and across, the riffle above the pool and over to the bank, eventually managing to psyche him into abandoning his pool, in favour of the riffle above. It’s exhilarating stuff, watching a large brown—well any large fish—scythe it’s tail furiously, powering up water so skinny that their back breaks the surface. With the skinny water negotiated, he came to rest at the base of a large rock midriver.

Here, standing no more than a rod’s length behind him, my now-idling mind began to rev with doubts—conjuring images of flies popping, rod unloading, line going limp. It was a fair paranoia, given my run of bad luck throughout the last couple of weeks, which was now coming close to rivaling that of the Lemony Snicket movie. And I suspected that by the time the trip was over, my series of “unfortunate events” would vastly overshadow it’s. In fact, the movie would probably appear rather rosy by comparison! Now then, returning from the digression… as I waited behind him, my mind hatched another bumbling Dick Dastardly-esque plan. Obeying my recently-made vow to throw no more rocks, I unlatched my net, leaned forward, and lightly prodded the fish, hoping to spur him on upriver. Approximately one millisecond later, I was seeing nymphs circumnavigating my head—multiple times—like a dazed Dick Dastardly seeing stars after a plan gone wrong—what on earth!

198A solitary scale was all I managed to prise from the last pool in the river

It took me a while to register what had just happened. According to the traumatic flashbacks, the moment net touched fish, fish swiveled and bolted, hook popping instantly! This time, my vitriolic post-battle soliloquay consisted of far more than “drat, drat, and double drat!” and if Muttley had been present, you can be sure he wouldn’t have had the courage to stick around, let alone point and laugh! I couldn’t help but wonder… if only I’d made a more fortuitous character from Wacky Races—say, Peter Perfect—my childhood hero and role model, it’s likely I’d have bagged myself several more fish on this trip!

So that was the occurrence which evoked the foul-mouthed tirade I began the report with, and which left me hunched over in a state of dejection in the middle of the river. You may be pondering the reason behind the chronological incoherence of this report. Well, the rationale behind it is one of pure benevolence. Such was the viciousness of the unrelenting devolution into a dark depressing abyss, and my fears of irreversibly damaging the reader so great, that I felt the need to remix and redistribute it’s disturbing events in hope of softening their effects. Regardless of how it be told, ’tis a grim tale of woe, for the most part.

All that remained of this day was the painstaking twelve kilometre walk back to camp—and more importantly, scotch—over miserable terrain, predominantly rough riverbed. Throughout this torturous trek, the only positive I could draw from the day’s events was that my pack would certainly be one litre of scotch lighter, come the end of the trip—possibly even the end of the night! To make things even more unpleasant, the weather had begun to reflect my mood; the skies had now darkened, and thick drizzle began to fall. Around eight o’clock, I arrived back at camp—spirits dampened, body soaked.

183Trout wasteland: somewhere near the tip-top of the valley

213Miserable walk, matching weather

342A much-needed session with my “bush-psychiatrist”

A light breeze escalated into a gale as the night wore on, it’s incessant roar up the valley only interrupted by the occasional distant screeching pig, or was it mountain men serenading eachother? There was no way to be sure. As I lay in my tent listening to this unsettling duet emanate up the valley, I was thankful to have found my port of Manuka, which offered more than sufficient shelter from the storm. In fact, the tent fly never wavered—not even once—the entire night.

Come morning, the rain had abated, and the only sound outside was the frenzied ticking of sandflies, setting about resuming their siege of futility on the fly. After the epic hike of yesterday—modest estimates of twenty kilometres—I allowed myself an indulgent sleep in. Around ten o’clock, while retrieving water from the river I again encountered breakfast fish. This time I summoned the patience to first down a coffee before trying my luck. End result: not interested—it was obvious the experience of yesterday was still too fresh in his mind, as he drifted off into the deep upon seeing my flies. It was clear he was becoming my trip nemesis; the one I’d remember above all others.

920Humble abode

255Port in a storm, made of Manuka

Today, I vowed, would be an easier day: a short recce upstream, back to camp for lunch, and if time and energy allowed, a short stroll downriver in the afternoon. Lunch?! Yes, I know, almost sounds a bit too civilised. Around midday, with the belly appeased after an indulgent breakfast-come-lunch I set off, legs gingerly began the process of working out their niggles, inflicted from the exertions of the day before. The journey upriver, for the most part, was a relatively uneventful spooking-strewn spell, until I met him–my numero uno torturador! Sorry, it just sounds more malevolent in spanish.

He was scything back and forth midriver, feeding voraciously in a nonchalant—bordering on audacious—fashion. I just stood, ogling him for a while—transfixed. It’s a wondrous sight, watching a big brown feasting with reckless abandon on his aquatic buffet, in a small, crystal clear river. Water so clear, the visually-impaired may even doubt there were any liquid there at all, and wonder whether the trout was in fact a yoga master, levitating above a dry streambed! Sorry, I go too far sometimes. Such abilities would serve them well however, given this current government!

Content with my voyeurism, I readied myself for battle. The sandflies scattered, as cast after manic cast was made, and he dodged them all, whilst continuing to feed on the natural. Finally, he seemed to spook, moving off down and across the river, only to turn and hold his ground again. I made several more casts ahead of his new position, and to my amazement, a significant miracle occurred. He swayed, appearing to accept one of the weighty tungsten critters on the end of my line. The strike was sluggish due to the amount of slack line on the water, but in spite of that I had him!

For a big fellow, he was a sluggish fighter. His dark appearance hinted he may’ve been an old fish, but he still appeared in good condition. Side stream negotiated, and moving towards the tailout of the pool, I began to think he was mine. The water was now so shallow he was listing his body markedly as he undertook his sporadic runs. In one last surge he bolted across the entire width of the river, and progressed back up into the deeper water. Concerning this was, as this side of river was far more treacherous—the bank consisting of craggy bedrock, the rod-length deep water—for angler at least. Here our duel slowed, each of us trying to inch a slight advantage over the other. Him trying to embed himself in a crevice in the bedrock deep down below, and myself trying to pry him from the depths without breaking him off. Nerve-racking stuff indeed!

The urgency increased as he made for, and reached, the far side of a significant rock midriver. Feeling the abrasive tremor on the line, I endured a panicked moment assessing my options, before realising there was just one. Head cam and all other non-waterproof items off, followed by a loud SPLASH! and I was side-stroking it across the river, rod tip held high like the mast of a most inept vessel—me. In my defence, it’s hard to get much propulsion while wearing wading boots! Upon entering the water—with a grace rivaling that girl from Shallow Hal (think diving board scene)—the fish had ofcourse decided to go on a feverish run, no doubt spurred on by the commotion. And throughout the entire twenty seconds it took me to ford the seven metres of deep water before I could regain a foothold, the reel spun so viciously it sent the surrounding water into a raging boil.

Back on my feet again, waist-deep midriver several metres across from him, I was relieved he was somehow still on, but suddenly the line felt dead, as if it were again wrapped around a rock. After manoeuvring for a few moments, trying to change the angle and regain direct contact with him, the line flopped back toward me, limp and lifeless. Cue most foul-mouthed rant ever. Even sailors would’ve been appalled. Most of it was all too audible on the action cam too, which was of course pointed in the wrong direction, filming an idyllic river scene untainted by a raging, hapless fisherman. Curious spectacle that is; a beautiful landscape, tainted by a very dark soundscape.

114Upstream of my swimming hole

903Suspended raindrop: taking time to marvel at the little things

So that was the fourth—and undoubtedly most painful—lost fish. Each time I seemed to be getting closer, the battles longer, nearer to success, yet more painful—more scarring. They were all good fish: breakfast fish, oasis fish, outpost fish, swimming-hole fish. Three of them were around eight or nine pounds by honest estimates—perhaps even larger—whereas oasis fish was a slightly more modest specimen. You can see the scale of their torment on me, having caused me to name them all. Their antics won’t be forgotten, and come next season, I may well drop in on their residences with a revenge mission in mind. Venturing up this river, I hadn’t expected to lose many fish at all. Not because I didn’t expect to catch any—that was a part of it—but because of the snag-free nature of the river, and the absence of awkward pocket water. And considering I had only knowingly lost a couple of “big” fish in the seven or eight years I’ve been fly fishing, to lose three in a single trip really stung!

The rest of the day was unnoteworthy—forlorn fishing and drip-drying—and given the substantial psychological woundings incurred this day, another appointment with my bush-psychiatrist was scheduled for the approaching evening. It was a productive session, and the conclusion was just to keep doing what I was doing—well except with more finesse, and less rock-throwing, trout-prodding, and swimming! Sporting a renewed glow, imparted to me by my faithful bush-psychiatrist, I was sure my trademark “blind-squirrel-nut” technique would have it’s day, and eventually prevail.

534Sliver of silver marks the way back down the valley

571Calm evening on my way back to camp

577Surreal cloud formation at dusk

592Last water gathering mission of the night

Next morning, I awoke to an uncomfortably warm tent and an absence of ticking on the fly. Hints that upon exiting the tent, my eyes would be blinded by blue skies and a beaming sun. Oh well, at least I wouldn’t be ravaged by sandflies. Breakfast fish again greeted me, and again I blew it. It’d become a part of my morning routine by now. I planned to head downstream today as I hadn’t really fished this water at all on my way up on the first day.

As I walked, I remembered the vow I’d made at the start of the trip: “I’m going to stay here until I catch a fish”. Oh dear, cue three years later cut-forward Castaway scene; me skinny as a rake, sporting a giant beard, poised on a rock overlooking the river—and yes, probably with a spear in hand too by that stage! Well I decided I wouldn’t take it that far, but I was determined not to leave here fishless (metaphorically, as I usually catch ‘n’ release).

The fish numbers soon declined so I decided to abort and try a few places upstream I’d overlooked the day before. Soon I found myself back at yesterday’s swimming hole. Perusing the pool, I failed to spot him, but I couldn’t help making a couple of blind casts at the head of the pool. The indicator dipped vaguely, and given the depth of the water I struck vigorously, fish on! Immediately I could see he wasn’t a large fish, but he sped off down the pool with admirable fire. He mirrored the battle strategy of yesterday’s fish, manoeuvring across the tailout and up against the more awkward bank. With the stakes lower—he wasn’t a big fish—and the hindsight from yesterday, I really applied the pressure as he went for the undercut base of the bedrock bank. Head down, tail up, he continued, inching forward. Rod bent deeply, line trembling, I applied just enough resistance to hold him. This went on for some time, before finally working him into a shallow recession in the bank, and into the net. He was only 4.5lbs but was in great condition. Finally, I was on the board! A Castaway fate, I would not endure.

643Undoubtedly the smallest hooked so far (we always say that don’t we), but at least I got him into the net!

When it rains, it pours. Often the case isn’t it. And in short succession I was onto another fish. Yes, two fish is basically the equivalent of a deluge for me! This one was larger, extracted from a small apartment-sized residence, my beloved blowfly “nymph” working it’s magic—love that fly. Despite the plain nature of his residence, I struggled to bring him to the net quickly. The wind—now substantial—ruffled the surface frequently, each time filling me with dread as I lost sight of him, visualising him weaving the leader through the maze of rocks and busting me off again. But my fears didn’t materialise, and in the end I prevailed.

These browns, although not fiery fighters, still apply their mass to great effect, and are a real test to shift and steer in the water. I suppose the lack of fire—verging on lethargy—is due to the meek flow through their residences, or possibly their curiously small tails. Whatever the case, this lack of flow means you have to be more decisive when playing them, rather than relying solely on using the current to wear them out. This is something I need to work on, it’s a confidence thing I suppose. Anyway, this guy was the best fish of the trip so far, and went some way towards the justification of burning multiple tanks of gas, speeding halfway around the country, and “enduring” weeks of unemployment. Tough, that.

738Blind Squirrel-nut technique having it’s moment in the sun!

I could only attribute this new-found luck to the commencement of my spooking video idea I’d come up with. After spooking the one hundred and first fish, I realised my filming here would be more productive making a video where the goal was to spook fish, rather than catch them. By now, I had plenty of footage, a diverse montage of spooking methods well documented, and this seemed like a good way to make use of them, and make my day feel less forlorn—even productive! Not long after that, the fish appeared to catch onto my new change of mindset, and thwarted me in a new way—gobbling up my offerings. You could swear they’re telepathic, these trout.

The weather was rather manic this day, with the wind shifting from upriver to downriver, and back, several times in just minutes. The sun beamed down unimpeded for the most part, occasionally illuminating ominous bruise-coloured clouds, that continually cruised by in the distance. These clouds never amounted to anything, but made for an immensely moody vista.

667Threatening skies, fortunately Mother Nature was all mouth, no action

Back at camp that night, content that I’d finally got a couple, and with food stocks dwindling, I planned tomorrow’s exit of the valley. I hoped to fish a little more tomorrow—one last attempt on breakfast fish, and possibly another shot at swimming-hole fish—before making my way out.

Dawn. The incessant winds of yesterday had vacated the valley, and a clammy calm filled the vacuum. Mist-shrouded beech forest met the eye, as I emerged from the Manuka thicket on my way toward the river, saucepan in hand. I’d decided it was a futile endeavour trying to catch breakfast fish with conventional gear, so the aim now was to wet wade him down, and give him a good clobbering. No, it was just the usual pre-breakfast water gathering mission.

It’s a mystical sight, watching the mist move up the valley. Despite the absence of wind, it still pressed on restlessly, as if under manipulation from some hidden hand. For the first time since I’d been here, a Weka arrived during breakfast, with a soap-stealing mission obviously on the top of his mind. Yoink! I retrieved the yellow pock-marked bar, and offered him the remainder of my oats as a consolation, but he wasn’t consoled at all. Daft bugger!

829View from camp: morning mist

Breakfast had—soap stowed safely—I set off for one final fish. Pretty soon I stumbled across him; the discerning feeder, the one who would not oblige. I cast, changed flies, roamed his bank looking for naturals, for an eternity, all in vain. I was even tempted to tie the open fly box onto the end of my tippet, and lob it out to him. The trout equivalent of a Continental selection choc-box. Here, pick one! He continued his gluttonous feast, in a confidence bordering on contempt, completely oblivious to my presence just five metres across from him. The sandfly hordes were now so thick, that it was impossible to breathe without inhaling a few of them. Light drizzle soon set in, and gradually intensified over the next hour. Finally, all patience consumed, I left him to it. No rocks thrown, honest. Well played Mr Finicky Feeder!

I was also becoming concerned at what effect the now-substantial drizzle would have on the river, as the riverbed was the only route out of the valley, and considering I still had to pack up my gear and undergo the two hour hike out, it’d be some time before I was free of the clutches of any torrent that might eventuate. With that in mind I high-tailed it back to camp and went about my pack up, such was the urgency I even forewent lunch.

It wasn’t until almost four o’clock that I finally evacuated the faithful Manuka thicket; my home of the last several days. Emerging from it, venturing out onto the desolate riverbed below, for the first time in the trip I shivered. A real cold had set in now. The nature of the valley had now changed. What was once benevolent and welcoming, was now austere and foreboding. The river too, emanated an air of austerity, it’s surface now adorned a sort of angler-repelling armour—a seemingly impenetrable steely coating. It was as if the valley were saying: “that’s enough!”, and upon deciding I’d bothered it’s aquatic residents enough, had materialised an angler deflector shield to thwart my eyes, and repel my nymphs. Well it succeeded on the former, but not the latter, and in spite of the urgency to get out I couldn’t help but fish the odd spot on my way downriver.

959Nature: “That’s enough, young troutophile!” Angler deflector shield activated!

About halfway through my hike out of the valley, I spotted him: my make-or-break fish. Parked not far from river’s edge, in agonisingly slow water, I really didn’t like my chances. In fact, it felt like an outright foregone conclusion, but ofcourse you still have to try. And so I did, even mustering the patience to tie on a couple of half-sensible flies, before firing them away upstream of the respectable-sized fish—admirable really, given the fatigue setting in, and my half-numb fingers which were rapidly abandoning their coordination by the second.

What I’m about to say is rather cliche, but it actually rings rather true in this situation. With what would’ve literally been one of my last casts of the trip, I hooked him. It was a miracle really, given the difficulty of the water. Immediately he went airborne. Bugger—he was huge! Why bugger? Well, knowing the size of a fish prior to the duel is a recipe for failure, for me at least. High stakes, high pressure! Once submersed again, he tore off on a run across the pool with such ferocity, that my spool—reel set on minimal drag—overspun, making a mess of the line still coiled on it. Realising I may well be in for another spell of swimming, I hastily ditched all non-essentials, before venturing out into the water in pursuit.

The river was now several degrees colder, and the tailout of the pool markedly higher—swifter—than when I’d previously crossed it in recent days. Most concerning. My legs—already sapped of energy—soon began to falter during the crossing, as the frigid liquid robbed them of their coordination, reducing my movements to the ungainliness of a punch-drunk boxer trying to regain composure mid-standing-eight count. It was a sobering scenario, and had me reminding myself that it was just a fish, and not worth risking my life over. Blasphemy, I know.

1118The atmospheric scene of the final make-or-break battle

Being towed around this miserably cold water, I began to wonder who was predator and who was prey. Roles appeared to have been reversed. I sucked it up and refocused. In an opportune moment I sped up the pool past him, getting him downstream of me, in the hope of cutting him off—dissuading him from, at least—the top part of the pool, which bore an unnerving resemblance to my “swimming hole”—far too cold for that sort of thing now! The ploy paid off, as he bolted downstream, pausing briefly, before swaying back into the current—immense now—and down into the rapid-riddled run below. I really struggled to keep pace here, as my jello legs wobbled all over the place, like the town drunk trying to make his way down the street after being ousted from the local tavern for overindulging even more than usual.

As they tend to, he pulled into a little port between these downstream runs, allowing us both a brief respite. This happened several times, until finally, with him surfacing more frequently—a sign he was fading—and my legs having warmed sufficiently to regain some coordination, I spied a final port approaching—the last for some distance. Gingerly, I applied just enough extra pressure to steer him in, then with a decisive, dread-filled scoop I nabbed him! Cue Cherokee-style battle cry. I was well-stoked! Despite appearances, he was not far from a “trophy” fish, albeit possessing a rather long athletic build, as opposed to a mouse-gorging fish’s build.

1115Blind Squirrel-nut is really killing it now!

It’d been an epic duel, leading me over four hundred metres downstream, not so much due to the trout being a machine, but more down to the nature of the water. More importantly, by the time I’d got myself sorted to continue my hike out, it had consumed well over a half hour of escape time. Mid-battle, I’d heard the occasional groan of a large rock shifting, and seen the occasional chunk of wood drifting downriver, which only added to my urgency to vacate this place. By now, the river—like some post-colonial African government—had lost all transparency, adorning a colouring somewhere between green and brown. And newly formed submerged margins of a light grey colour, several metres in width—previously dry rocks—indicated just how much the river had swollen. With the action cam battery dead flat, I had to pin all hopes on my now-fogged camera to document this victory. Thankfully—surprisingly—a frantic minute-long waving around of the camera defogged it brilliantly. The fish seemed relatively unbothered to remain corralled in the net during this time. Just a cautionary note: remember to put on the wrist strap before attempting this defogging technique, to avoid hurling it into the river as I almost did!

981A braid of the rapidly transforming river

1123Bottom of the valley in the distance

1120Love these low lying, rapidly changing clouds

All that separated me from the car now, was finding and navigating a route over the remainder of the awkward ankle-tormenting riverbed—mattered not, as after this latest victory my boots wouldn’t be touching the rocks, for I was now walking on sunshine! Yes, this is quite possibly the cheesiest line I’ve ever typed! With that negotiated without too much drama, just another hour of mellow, monotonous, rather mundane plodding along the track remained. During this plodding—with my mind now unburdened of swollen river worries—I began to reflect on the trip. Not just this one, but all the legs of my angling marathon.

Fishing such a diversity of water had taught me a great deal, and most of these lessons were hard learned, but they’re also the sort you never forget. Certain rivers exposed specific shortcomings in either my gear or technique, and on several occasions I was ruing the lack of a longer leader, lightly weighed flies, or a condensation-free camera lens. While on other occasions, the lack of roll casting ability, or distance champ casting, robbed me of opportunities. And then there was the laziness. I’m not a complete mug, I usually suspect I know what needs to be done, but often lack the discipline to implement it. I think the thing that most troubles me—specifically after the last trip—is my battle strategy. I too-often find myself in a Stalingrad scenario, where a decisive maneouvre early on may’ve curtailed a protracted battle. Actually, scrub that, I did that—rock throwing, fish prodding—and it didn’t work out. A bit more daring is probably actually what my dueling lacks, in the form of applying more pressure, or going for that opportune early netting. Anyway, my battle plan appears to be one that is ever-changing, usually influenced by whatever went wrong during the last one. I suppose some things are out of our control, and we shouldn’t dwell on them—the breaking of a “top quality” hook for instance, the popping of a fly—while others can only be finely honed by putting in long hours on the water—for example, knowing the limit of how much pressure you can apply before a dramatic failure of some sort.

395Gear failures: some are unavoidable, but that still doesn’t soften their blow!

And as I near the car, there was still a bit of time left to reflect on the season in it’s entirety, and the goals I’d set for it. Well the main one at least—vowing to do less drive-by fishing, and more multi-day trips—I felt I could definitely tick off. It’s amazing how much more relaxed and enjoyable they are, as opposed to day outings. You have more opportunity to fish methodically, to take it all in. You don’t have that sense of urgency when you wake up, knowing you have to beat the choppers to the water, outwit other anglers, and so on, which is often the hardest part. This is fly fishing, it should be a relaxing and fulfilling passtime, not some sort of adrenaline-fueled, pannick-stricken, bush version of an olympic decathlon! Hike > Camp > Breakfast > Fish > Wave away chopper > Fish… all done at lightening speed! There are roses to be smelled, and it’s a real shame many of us feel we can’t afford to do that any longer.

106Common instance these days: can’t smell the roses for the rotor-wash

And at this stage of my ruminations, two aussie fishermen appeared in the distance, coming toward me—headed for the river. By now it was nearly dark. Long walk to the river fellas, I said, feeling obliged to warn them. Long story short, we indulged in a few drinks and had a thoroughly good yarn back at the carpark, before retiring to our vehicles for a much deserved sleep—well for me at least. Next morning, with no food for breakfast, all that was left of the trip was a supermarket visit and a long drive back home, but not before one last notable event….

847 - CopyWhat are the odds… a car park full of white vehciles, the bumble bees prayers had been answered! It was a sight of horror, yet I laughed my ass off when I saw it

A police car coming down the road from the opposite direction pulled me over. Policeman: Are you Timothy? Me hesitantly: Err yes? What are the charges? Policeman: (laughs) A member of the public was concerned about your car being parked for so long and we were about to begin an aerial search for you, or something along those lines. Good thing I hadn’t come back a day later, or a hell of a lot of taxpayer money would’ve been incurred for nothing! And given my camping position, it’s likely they wouldn’t have found my tent, and a ground search with dogs may’ve eventuated.

Whew! Nice way to end the trip really, knowing someone out there was concerned enough by your absence—it’s a rare thing for me!—to take action. And also, great to have a pleasant interaction with a policeman, he was indeed one of the good guys! Taking in, and mulling over this encounter, I drove along the highway, headed for the heart of the parched province of North Canterbury, as home is where the heart is—yep pretty cheesy pun there. Although, not before a food-shop detour! my stomach barked.

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