Road to nowhere – a tale of two visits

Well it was a road to a much-needed pork chop actually, but more on that later.

I’d been lazing around Queenstown—eating Fergburger’s, getting softer—trying to figure out the best way to manage the multiple excursions into South Westland my mind’s eye had been envisaging the past few months. It’s a region with so many fishing opportunities that it’s hard to narrow them down to any semblance of a doable list. And to further compound things, the rivers I had in mind mostly required multi-day trips if I was to do them justice. With a complete absence of proper supermarkets for several hundred kilometres, resupplying food was always going to be an issue. After all, how long can you really fuel yourself on porridge and coffee?

Anyway, vehicle loaded with the essentials I departed Queenstown midmorning, heading northwest for the “Coast”. I knew I’d be back again to resupply, but was determined to get a couple of rivers ticked off the list on my first foray into the region. It was a sweltering day, and the roads—as was usual for this time of year—were crammed full with tourists, which had me cursing myself for not setting off earlier. I suppose it’s a nice enough drive for most—vast blue-lake vistas and all that—but it had me yearning for those lush forested sections of highway just beyond Makarora, in the hope of getting a little respite from the intense midday heat. According to Accuweather—my go-to weather site—there’d been a fair amount of rain in South Westland the previous week, but it was meant to be mostly sunny the next few days.

Eventually I pulled over for a leg stretch, where the road first meets with the beginning of the Haast river. It’s always intrigued me how drastically this river grows in size, once a couple of those substantial tribs merge with it. No fish were sighted during the hundred metre river recce. Probably just as well, or I may’ve been there all day!

007This spot was already taken and he had no intention of sharing, so I pressed on

012Dicey bit of road this, always prefer to travel it in daylight!

As I progressed along the highway, the Haast river went from crystal clear to chocolate milk, banishing any thoughts of an attempt at crossing to fish one of it’s far side tributaries. I’d brought along a budget inflatable boat for this purpose, but with this usually braided river now having no braids at all—not even an island of gravel—I decided such a crossing was a little out of my league! The river wasn’t overly menacing in appearance, but the lack of clarity (hidden snags?), and swiftness, was of concern. Anyway, it meant one river was crossed off the list, for now. This narrowed down my options, and being naturally indecisive, this was probably a good thing. Being positive.

739Bit of alright scenery… drive-by snapshot—no time to stop!

After a little more driving—the last part being my second favourite stretch of road in the country—I arrived at the first river I intended to fish. No multi-day intentions for this one, just a warm up. I’d never fished it before so I wasn’t sure what colour it usually ran, but when a slightly murky emerald green pierced the beech forest peripheral and met my eye, my first impressions were that it was flowing higher than usual. Considering a road closely parallels the entire length of this river, it’s hard to know whether you’ve got the river to yourself, let alone decide on a starting point, and so a fair bit of manic vehicular prowling was done before committing to a starting point. Midafternoon now, I was finally satisfied with my road recon of the river. Parked up near a nice run, I strode across the pasture to try my luck.

028Late afternoon bliss, it wouldn’t last…

My simmering enthusiasm soon evaporated as I failed to locate a single fish. Perhaps it was the less than clear water concealing them, or was it just my rubbish spotting again… there was no way to be sure. Numerous uneventful blind casts further cooled my new-river fervour. The uncrossable river, combined with the curiously rough grassy verges scattered with knee-deep potholes concealed by long grasses, made navigating the river a frustratingly awkward, slow process. I can only guess the rough nature of these grasslands was due to a combination of the regular flooding this valley undoubtedly sees, and the roaming cattle herd I’d spot later on. Whatever the cause, it was tempting fate to walk and spot at the same time! I tried a couple more spots in vain, with the afternoon’s efforts only yielding a couple of fish seen, and one failed strike. With light fading I drove back to a section that looked like a desirable campsite.

The weather began to close in just after dark, so with a big feed stowed in the belly, I abandoned my plans of a luxuriant sleep in a tent, and instead battened down the hatches—or rather shut the doors—and roughed it in the car. And just as well, as the rain was immense that night. Violent intermittent downpours—the trademark of Coast weather—pummeled the roof and windshield of the car throughout the night. At times it’s intensity fluctuated so dramatically it was as if the car was being strafed repeatedly with a high pressure hose. I woke several times in the night to survey the riverbed with my torch light, concerned the river may rise and inundate the car, but surprisingly it didn’t appear to come up too much.

Come morning, I was amazed to see that the river wasn’t too far away from being fishable, although it appeared to deteriorate further during breakfast. It was a frustrating day fraught with bipolar weather, with vast sandfly hordes appearing to be the only constant. Waves of conflicting weather would pass overhead every quarter hour, almost like clockwork. Rain, sun, repeat. There was little to do except read, eat, and wait. Finally around midafernoon the wind died down and the Jekyl and Hyde weather micro-fronts appeared to have settled their dispute. Thankfully Jekyl had come out on top! Trying to be optimistic, I headed off upriver with the aim of lobbing about a giant streamer, for a bit of exercise if nothing more.

014View from “campsite”, okay I’m glamorising things, carpark

008A couple of distant waterfalls that had materialised overnight

012The only clear water in sight!

029 Sandfly proofed, almost…

As the afternoon progressed the river cleared with surprising speed. It’s a fairly short river draining a relatively small valley, which was the only reason I held any optimism for the day’s fishing prospects. The scenery was ample substitute for the lack of fish sighted, with the low lying mist making the surrounding mountains appear rather surreal at times.

045Moody vista

040Moo‘ey vista

051More reclusive cows, note the youngsters a little out of their depth

Finally, late in the afternoon I spotted—hooked—my first fish of the day. A swift duel of great intensity followed, as he went on a couple of fiery runs before heading off downriver, aided by a reasonable current. But he was a sprinter, this guy, and lacked endurance, so all that was left to do was navigate fifty metres of bouldery slipperiness before pulling him into a rocky riverside port and securing him in the net. I did manage to hook another fish before a dinner intermission, but in the order of self-preservation I had to break him off, after coming very close to taking a swim in the rapids as I attempted to follow him downstream along an awkward sapling-lined eroded bank. Being wader-clad, this was no time to be attempting a River Runs Through It reenactment! It was a shame, because he looked in slightly better condition than the previous fish, but that always seems to be the way doesn’t it? It took a while for that sensation—the sudden surge of energy raging up the line, followed by the inevitable ping as the line fell lifeless—to fade from my mind.

069Peculiar lipless fish, adorned with vivid spots

Dinner was had beside the most promising bit of water I’d found so far, while I sheltered from another sporadic downpour. This pool had a couple of occupants, one I’d hooked the day before, but the other—a really solid looking specimen—was lying deep in an awkward spot. I’d had a failed attempt at him already with the regular tackle, so the plan was to have a go after dark with a mouse fly—let’s put that old cliche to the test!

080Waiting out the rain under a canopy of beech

081Peculiar precipitation – the first time I’ve ever seen small and large rain drops falling at the same time!

As the sky cleared and intermittent moonlight illuminated the river, I tied on the furry abomination, wondering how any trout in their right mind could possibly resist it. Well, long story short, he did. Although, not before having a slash at the first retrieval. But that was it, a solitary investigation, and no other responses to the ensuing barrage of casts. A smart fish indeed! Defeated, I headed back to “camp” for a nightcap and another rough sleep in the car.

092A half hour later – all clear! Ideal time for a mouse fly?

It didn’t rain as much this night. Instead, the temperature plummeted as a bitter southerly lashed the car. Upon waking the next morning, mountains capped with a fresh dusting of snow met my eye. Looks like no one informed Mother Nature it was supposed to be summer! The initial goal of today was simple: to restore sensation to my feet and keep warm, the trout could wait. Frustratingly, the Jekyl and Hyde weather resumed it’s skirmish during breakfast, and continued the rest of the morning. I ventured out for a brief fish, but the impenetrable glare on the water and biting wind made it a futile miserable endeavour.

118Brrr! Fresh snow

115General grimness – Corporal punishment!

During my river reconnaissance of the last couple of days I’d come across several clusters of beehives. Surprisingly this place seems to be a real hot spot for them, despite the seemingly incessant climatic misery. I began to ponder how this diabolical weather must wreak havoc on their productivity, given that they apparently only become active once the temperature reaches 15 degrees celcius. Their hives fell silent on this day obviously, and as I walked past them I couldn’t help but wonder if these were the luckiest/laziest bees in the country. Most humans could only dream of having so many days off work!

124Hibernating > Honey gathering

I managed to endure the wretchedness until midafternoon, but with the car now beginning to smell of mould, the thought of enduring another night of sleeping rough and cold in a mould-ridden vehicle was just too much to bear! Finally, having been beaten into submission by the weather, I begrudgingly opted to beat a hasty retreat back to Queenstown, with fantasies of a dry room, warm bed, and Fergburgers proving too much to resist! It wasn’t that simple however, as strange events appeared to conspire to thwart my escape. Severe winds downed a couple of trees, in a malevolent attempt to cut off the only escape route, but I just managed to creep the car around these. And then I managed to run the car battery flat while stopping to check the map, forgetting I had my headlights on. During this map read, a passerby I’d met back at the campsite stopped to check everything was okay. The ensuing chatter stalled me just long enough for the battery to drain sufficiently (oh the irony). Luckily after a twenty minute wait—and summoning the gods for assistance as I had no phone to call the AA—the car managed to restart. Woohoo!

064Fall back! Retreating via the eerie road to nowhere

058Splat! A toppled rot-riddled tree impacts with bitumen

I returned to this same river ten days later on my next foray into the Coast, only to find a stunning crystal clear blue river had replaced the swollen green one. The downside was that it appeared to have been fished heavily, and as a result the fish—of which I again saw few—were spooking all over the place. As I pulled the car over on a section of road which overlooked the river, I watched a decent fish spook thirty metres down the glassy glide and disappear under a rock, which in turn prompted another good fish to bolt out from the same hide, and off upriver at an electric pace. I suppose it highlighted that these days you’re very unlikely to have everything your own way, and it’s a case of either-or. Either you fish a high river with easier fish, or a low river with difficult ones.

I visited the pool where I’d fished the mouse fly on my previous visit, but no fish were to be found, only boot prints. I only stayed here the one night this time despite the fine weather, as the fishing seemed like it’d be really tough and I had other places to be! The highlight this time was meeting and spending a little riverside time with an awesome Aussie family. I’d met them in the pseudo-supermarket (which charge you twice the price than a regular one) in Haast, and overheard them plotting their first attempt at fly fishing. I had a bit of a chat with them and recommended the river as an ideal spot to at least have a bit of a cast and a camp.

We met again when I made my way back to the river in the evening, and after reassuring them I wasn’t stalking them, offered them a couple of my bad casting habits, as I had plenty to spare! In return, they offered me dinner—potato salad and a pork chop—a cold beer, and even a chillybin seat! This was just awesome, as I’d had neither real meat nor chilled alcohol in over a week by this point (I’d already completed one of the multi-dayers before coming here) so I was well happy. I probably got the better of the deal I’d say! It was also nice to have a bit of proper campfire conversation for once—no offence “Wilson!”

After the aussie family had turned in for the night, I went down to the river to get some water, and while standing knee-deep in the river, spotted a trout no more than three metres from me. He was even facing the campsite, seemingly waiting for a hook up! I had to laugh as we hadn’t spotted a trout all evening, and come morning there was no sign of him. Well I did spot him eventually, after crossing the river later in the day—a really skinny fellow in a tough spot! Spooked him before I even got away a cast.

802Skinny specimen, close quarters!

After a short, uneventful walk to the river mouth, where it met with a larger, less stable river, I decided it was time to once again head back out of this road to nowhere, which on this occasion had a much more benevolent feel to it. As mentioned prior, I had other places to be—a date with another river further up the Coast I’d been looking forward to for some time in fact (see the My False El Dorado post for the report on that trip).

I guess the thing I will remember most about these two rapid fire visits to the same river is how they were in stark contrast to eachother. It’s rare that I visit the same place in such short succession and witness the two extremes of a river’s nature as I’d done in this instance. Certainly it won’t be remembered for prolific fishing!