Opening week 2014 – first trip of the season – pt1

So, I decided to fish opening day for once. Two choices, a day trip on a local river, or a multi day trip away. Not too confident about the state of my fitness, and unsettled by the complete disarray of my fishing gear, I was a little hesitant to choose the latter. But when I checked the forecast I couldn’t resist it. So after a frantic run around buying the essentials, well most of them, I was ready to head off. And with a foot long Subway and a coffee in the belly, I headed out of town. Arriving at the start of the track later than expected, as usual, I decided to have a bit of a sleep in the car before starting out. With a bit of red wine administered to sedate the preseason nerves, I managed to procure a few hours shut eye.

I headed up the track at first light, expecting the worst, a picket fence of anglers lining the river. Oh well, I would be there a few days, no worries, I thought. I reached the first hut by mid-morning, and there were a few lads about. After catching my breath, we had a bit of a chat and I managed to sort out a bit of river for myself. The river was low and clear for this time of year, and as I sat on a rock readying my gear for battle, the birds chirped merrily in the early morning sunshine. And a cool breeze kissed my sweat-soaked brow, transforming the liquid into a salty grit. As my fumbling fingers struggled to assemble a double nymph rig, it became abundantly clear to me that they were in the grips of a bout of knot tying dementia. It had been too long.

I stalked the river bank, perusing the pocket water in search of fish. Not many pools here, this will really put my spotting abilities to the test, I thought. I saw a couple, which promptly spooked, or rather just seemed to morph into the riverbed never to be seen again. Finally I came to a decent bit of water which, at a stretch, could almost be described as a pool. A blind cast later and I had my first hook up. It felt like a decent fish, and put up a lengthly fight, leading me across the river numerous times. Already heavily fatigued from the hike in, my legs soon turned to jelly. I came close to stumbling backwards over a boulder mid-river on the final crossing, before my adversary’s endurance finally waivered. He rose to the surface and I drifted him over, and into, the net. A confidence building start!

021First of the season.

After a bit more walking and blind casting, one of my nymphs was fortunate enough to happen upon another fish. At first glance it appeared a fairly average specimen, rather short in length, but when it went airborne I was struck by it’s immense girth. At the same instant my appreciation of the fish lifted, the knot failed and the fat fellow disappeared back into the depths with my unweighted nymph. Oh well, can’t win ’em all I suppose, I reasoned.

Satisfied to have banished the possibility of an opening day skunk I made my way back to the hut, attempting to reach the track via a shortcut through the bush instead of returning back via the river, which actually turned out to be a longcut of extreme torment! The dense population of little beech saplings offered little room to manoeuvre and gave no quarter. They whipped my face and body with no remorse, as if trying to banish me from their home. I cursed them to hell, and indulged in a spell of self pity before surrendering, and falling back to the relative comfort of a swamp. After composing myself, I waged another foray into the impenetrable beech forest a little further up the valley, faring only slightly better this time. But I persevered, and after ten minutes of hell I was rewarded, as I broke free of the clutches of the claustrophobic forest, and stumbled out into the relatively luxurious spaciousness of the track.

After a short rest at the hut, and a bit of a chat with it’s occupants I headed off further up the valley. It was now late afternoon, so after a few more kilometres hiking I decided to set up camp on a tussock flat which had a rather dramatic backdrop of majestic beech. I had one of the most satisfying cups of coffee I’ve ever tasted that night, and a more than adequate dehydrated meal. The ground was hard, and it was sufficiently cold that the fly of the tent was already icing up, but it didn’t matter. Just lying down was an immense relief after spending so many rigorous hours on my feet. Now back to that bit at the start, about “buying the essentials, well most of them”. I had lacked the necessary funds to buy a sleeping bag, and so a queen sized duvet had to suffice. What kind of mug goes into the bush armed with a duvet you might ask? A keen mug that refused to be thwarted by such trivialities, is the answer!

031Campsite of the first night.

When I awoke the next morning it took some time to will my aching body off the floor of the tent. The anglers be coming, get your sorry ass up!, I commanded. Other-angler paranoia is indeed a useful tool in such circumstances. Too decrepit to eat on the move as I usually do in order to evade the swarms of vampirical bugs, I accepted my fate, and begrudgingly consumed a breakfast of coffee and oats, seasoned with sandflies. It was my penance for not completing breakfast before first light. Unlike regular vampires, these miniature winged airborne ones seemed to prefer the daylight. During this testing first meal of the day I’d committed the ultimate rookie error, I’d forgotten to zip the tent.

045Tent invasion!!

After a brief, yet gruelling, up-and-down hike overlooking a short gorge I emerged into the next valley, only to be greeted with the one sight we dread most above all others. Two anglers, just starting their day up the river.

I made my way over to have a chat with them, but they were lining up a fish so I waved, stood back, and watched. These guys obviously fish together a lot, as one sat calmly on the river edge completely unperturbed as the other began casting, sending the fly zinging merely centimetres above his head several times. Pretty soon they’d connected with the fish, and after a swift skilful battle their quarry was corralled in the net, to the amusing cries of ohh it’s just a baby! From where I was standing it looked no less than five pounds. These guys must be doing alright, I thought.

I went over and had a natter with them, and was informed to my delight that they were the only guys in this part of the valley, and they were headed out that day so I would have the top of the river all to myself. They were both great blokes, and clearly better anglers than myself, as they’d been doing very well in the short time they were there. After an enjoyable chat I was on my way again. For some inexplicable reason, this is when I began Forrest Gumping it. I’d agreed with the guys that I’d leave them a few kilometres of river to fish, but I didn’t stop there. I kept going, and going. Perhaps I was succumbing to another bout of other-angler paranoia.

About five kilometres later I stopped at a creek to refill my water. The wind was really picking up now. It pummelled my pack, knocking it to the ground, and almost sent me flying into the stream. Abruptly the blare of a chopper filled the air, and as I looked up I saw the craft dash overhead, barely clearing the forest canopy as it made it’s way up the valley in erratic fashion, swaying back and forth as the wind toyed with it. The chopper disappeared behind beech trees in the distance and the noise died down for a time, before it passed over again minutes later on it’s exit of the valley.

The racket dissipated, and the howl of the wind dominated the valley once again. It was at this point, for the first time in the trip, a feeling of real solitude came over me. I started to wonder if the reason I had the entire upper valley to myself had something to do with this impending storm. This grey menace, accompanied by it’s tireless sherpa, the Canterbury nor’wester, was descending the mountains into the valley at great speed.

066Into the storm.

Rehydrated and water stores replenished, I continued my way along the track which now ran alongside an unscalable cliff, before leading straight into the river. Hmm this was odd, I thought. Just as well the river was low, so it was of no hindrance to me at least.

This section of river was more intimate and pleasant—the water adorned a deeper shade of blue—so I took the time to subject it to scrutiny. Immediately I noticed a myriad of footprints embedded in the silty verge of the river, jumbled in erratic fashion. Signs of a recent trout duel perhaps. These must belong to the passenger of the chopper, I reasoned. A stones throw from the prints was a substantial shadow, nestled in close to the bank. I made a cast, knowing it was most likely in vain. Nothing. Then another, and another. No response. Even with my now apparent Mr Magoo spotting capabilities I knew it to be a fish. A fish that had doubtlessly already provided it’s share of sport for the day. I walked closer to it, and it dashed off up and across the river at high speed, it’s tail cutting through the water in a powerful scything motion. The footprints didn’t appear to follow the river for very long, and to my joy, had petered out before the next pool.

It was a substantial bit of water, several metres deep with two channels feeding into it, and surely home to at least one decent specimen. I scanned the pool as I made my way up it, the leaden skies devolving my spotting capabilities even further. Despite that, a sizeable dark shape near the head of the pool was singled out, and a cast made. The indicator, a long way from the tungsten nymph below, dipped slightly in a rather vague manner. I struck regardless, ever the optimist, and just as well. The result was a solid hook up!

The fly line peeled off the reel at top speed, and was towed off up one of the channels at the head of the pool. I struggled to keep pace, scrambling over the heavily inclined rock strewn bank. I paused briefly to compose myself before crossing the channel which, although narrow, still wielded enough power to command respect. Meanwhile, my foe was still progressing upstream and now making his way back across to the other side of the channel. This exchanging of riverside positions went on for some time before he made a more decisive manoeuvre and tore off back downstream, aided by the powerful current, and into the pool again. After a frantic scramble back after him I worked him downstream to where it became shallower, and he rose to the surface revealing his hefty flank. Instinctively I made a clumsy thrust forward with the net but he parried it—cheeky sod!—with a muscular sideways jerk of his head.

I was getting concerned now, it had been too long. This duel will end in failure. I don’t get to catch these kinds of fish. The hook will surely pull free at any moment, I told myself. I was already planning how I would console myself after the seemingly inevitable loss of such an impressive specimen. Oh well, I still have two thirds of a bottle of wine with which to drown my sorrows, I figured. I tried to banish these defeatist thoughts, and focus on the task at hand. We were both tiring now, and becoming reckless. My foe tacked across river again on what must surely have been his final act of resistance. I followed hastily, as the ice cold water lapped against the top of my waders, threatening to flood them. He seemed resigned to his fate now, parked up behind a rock at the river’s edge. Upon bundling him into the net I let fly a whoop of jubilation. The fish was a new best for me, and I suspected it would prove a tough one to better. It was a much needed shot in the arm, to sustain me for the rest of the day.

064A new best.

It was now late afternoon, so I was content just to make it to the hut, cook a feed, and lax for the remainder of the evening. If only it was to be that straightforward. I’d been walking for some time when I started to wonder whether I had passed the hut. Several hours ago I’d passed a sign that claimed it was one hour to the hut, however when you’re fisher-hiking, covering distances tends to take at least four times as long!

I’d lost contact with the track ever since I’d crossed the river. Surely it couldn’t be up there, I thought, looking across the river at a sizeable cliff. And well, if it was I wanted no part of it. I’d had enough of all it’s up-and-down nonsense, and seemingly sporadic orange triangular markers. And so I kept following the river, after all how lost could I get.

I spotted smoke rising intermittently into the air behind a stand of beech far away from the river. This must be chimney smoke from the hut, I reasoned. There was no way anything else could have been burning in this weather, and so I moved towards the smoke. I crossed a large tussock covered plateau and met with the river again, which was now notably smaller in volume. I travelled up it a way and there was no hint of a track, nor sign of a hut. Still I continued. The rain was heavier now, and the valley was becoming uncomfortably narrow. The thought of camping here made me uneasy, as if the rain kept up the river would surely rise, potentially leaving me stranded, or with a horrific bush-bash at least. Regardless, I persevered up the valley a few more minutes just to be certain the track didn’t go up this way, and it was here that I encountered a rather unsettling sight….

To be continued…