Stygian overnighter

The timing of this post was purely by chance, and I had a chuckle to myself as I realised. Given the nature of the title, the date—Friday the thirteenth—and my thirteenth post, to add to intrigue!

There he lurked—down below—a lengthy blur of grey, poised behind a large rock. Not me—a fish! This substantial, slate-coloured anomaly in the sprawling stretch of blue below was a reassuring sight, given that this river had a reputation for low fish stocks, and it markedly heightened my anticipation of what was to come! Before a cast was made however, a rod would be necessary! Another vehicle was already present when I pulled into the car park, and upon chatting with it’s occupant—a pleasant, elderly lady, whiling away the wait with a paperback—was informed her son was fishing the river. So this was the reason for my lack of kit; I was approaching the river for a chat, not for battle. I didn’t find him in the end, and to my surprise their sedan was nowhere to be seen by the time I got back to the car park. Guess he must’ve gone downstream.

Some half hour later, I returned to the spot where I’d encountered the slaty specimen. This time, sporting our angler’s coat of arms, ready to try my “luck”. In position, at the foot of the tall, erosion-scarred, bouldery bank, I switched on the head cam and began whipping the rod about in furious fashion. By now, it’d become something of a signature cast—this manic action—and I dreaded to think it was being committed to muscle memory. Due to the absence of a near-top guide on the rod—broken off during disassembling a while back—getting the first few metres of fly line out had become an angst-ridden chore. The tandem of nymphs plopped into the water a few metres ahead of the now more abstract, rather ghost-like grey figure. Enduring a wait of tension due to the leisurely flow which ran through his residence, he finally appeared to turn, and pursue the nymphs. When he pivoted a second time, the indicator promptly dipped, and I struck. A taut, lively line was the result, rapidly followed by the sensation dying as quick as it had begun. The headcam commentary comprised of a single word, succinct and sufficient: F..cksake!

I pressed on, eager to get upriver, out of reach of the curious calfs—adorable as they were— and their vast minefield of earthy ejectamenta, in search of a campsite with more potable water, and less precarious underfoot. Apart from my red-spotted fish fetish, I also have a blue-water river fetish, and this river was feeding it in spades. The runs were very easy on the eye—aquamarine in colour—but the pools were simply divine, gleaming like luxuriant sapphires in the midafternoon sun. Unfortunately, like the gemstone, they were all too scant, and it appeared a long walk was going to be had between them—oh, and the fish.

057Surprisingly tame

059Curious cuties

I soon approached an immense, fern-covered cliff. It was an impressive—yet rather imposing—sight, and a dominating feature over the river below. Of particular concern was a section with an intimidating cornice-like overhang, wielding a vast tonnage of sodden earth. Unsure of which path the track took, I chose to chance it on the river rather than pass underneath this behemoth. The crossing wasn’t too bad—waist-high and possessing a moderate flow—but any more and I’d have been potentially facing a swim. From here, I dumped the pack and pottered about for the next half hour, inspecting the river—finding the track. A couple of blue duck were soon heard, then located, perched on a rock midriver, and eventually a big orange triangle located, signalling the point where the track entered the forest. Another river crossing was necessary to reach it, but this one was relatively easier than the last.

074Colossal cornice

063Spot the Whio…?

In places, this track was a little more rugged in nature than what I’d encountered in the other legs of my angling marathon. Jagged rocks, so slippery they had you wondering whether the gods themselves had lubricated them specifically for their own amusement, only to watch on as this mug with a ridiculously overloaded pack—yep still doing that—attempted to negotiate them. These rocky sections punctuated long flat gravelly sections, which were something of a treat. Then there were the rather more treacherous sections, which overlooked some serious drops down to the river. In a serious downpour, I imagine it’d be a fairly sobering place to be! These sections usually had exposed, crumbling faces of rock above them, which only fed your concerns.

Early evening—fed up with walking, and with a thick, impenetrable mist descending into the valley—I settled on a campsite a short elevated scramble from the river. Most of the good campsites appeared to be on the other side of the river, but I banished any thought of trying to reach them, due to the perilous nature of the crossings. On my first visit to the river’s edge—saucepan in hand—collecting water for dinner, I noticed a fish. A good one indeed. After the ensuing scramble back up to camp, where I swapped my saucepan for a fly rod—it offered a slightly better chance of success!—I once again began to manically whip the air with my crippled rod. I’ve no idea how I’d been managing the occasional success with this technique, as even the sandflies seemed to spook by the time I’d finally got my casts away!

096Just upstream from camp, the encroaching mist beginning it’s descent

This fish was in an easy spot, several metres downstream of a riffle-come-rapid, residing on the still side of the verge where fast water met with slow. The first cast was sufficient, and after some metres drifting, the sight of the nymphs provoked a decisive swing sideways, with the indicator submerging in the process. A successful hook up ensued—to my immense relief—but this was just the easy part. I knew the only option was to really boss this guy, as there was only a short section of water downstream fit for dueling, before things got really craggy and all would certainly have been lost! It’s these scenarios when my 3x tippet really justifies itself, or my tow rope, as some purists refer to it!

He wasn’t an overly savvy strategist, this fellow, and a couple of minutes into it—or so it seemed—he hadn’t made any attempt to get downstream. I had him on the ropes—leader on the verge of entering the guides. This is the point where I usually need to be more decisive, more proactive, and on this occasion it was no different. I got a good look at him as he surfaced two metres away. A hefty fish, with a lovely clean appearance. His flank was toned a modest grey, in keeping with the river, and a sparse sprinkling of equally modest black spots. No rubies to behold here. Instead, intriguing black pearls. He floundered briefly on the surface, but upon sighting the net, submerged and bolted with the urgency of a submarine in dive mode, trying to evade a strafing from enemy aircraft. Downstream of me now, and about to hitch a ride on the tongue of current which would inevitably lead him down to unduelable water, I really upped the pressure—far more than I’d normally dare! The line—and rod—trembled under the extreme tension, as if they were struggling to cope with this immense surge of energy, but together we managed to haul him—our Stygian nemesis—into a calmer pocket behind a rock—just. But this victory was only temporary, and it wasn’t long before he attempted a repeat of the same manoeuvre, bolting back into the current, and soon after, the dreaded predictable occurred. The rod recoiled; the line pinged back in my face. Fish off! In-your-face alright….

Upon investigating the cause, suspecting a break at the knot was responsible, my eyes met with a rage-inducing sight… the hook on the top nymph had snapped! At this point, a completely mental tirade ensued, and only ended when I began to see stars and decided it’d be wise to calm down before the onset of some sort of medical emergency. To my credit, I still summoned enough inner calm to document the cause of failure on camera.

082&%$#& gear failure, undoubtedly the worst way to lose a fish! Note the steady hand despite the rage, Spartan stuff indeed!

085Smile for the camera! “Cheer up bud, it’s just a fish”, is what you would have told me if you fancied a brutalising!

Totally hollow, feeling as broken as the nymph, I scrambled back up to camp, deciding on a quick dinner and turning in for an night early—sulking we were! It wasn’t the sort of place for casual night time fishing anyway. Kea cackled from above, and Whio whistled from below, but I was in no mood to savour this rare duet on dusk. Throughout dinner I kept replaying it over and over in my mind. It plagued my thoughts the remainder of the night. Should I have gone for the netting? Played him softer and hoped for the best in the craggy river below? Attempted a beaching? This gear failure had made the experience an indelible one, forever etched in my mind—well the next few weeks at least!—and had me vowing to learn to tie my own, come winter. It’s not that I haven’t had hooks break before, it’s just it usually happens when I’m attempting to retrieve them from my clothing, pack strap, or boot lace, not on a solid fish!

Rain began to beat down on the tent around midnight, and continued for the entirety of this most Stygian night. At times, such was the intensity of the downpour, the racket of water hitting fly resembled that of a garden hose nozzle at full pressure, doing it’s utmost to pulverise the tent into submission. I woke up several times throughout the night to this, and was relieved to have situated the tent high above the river, well out of reach of the clutches of any torrent that might manifest overnight. As I lay in the tent, I dreaded to think what shade of brown it’d be flowing come morning.

Eyes open earlier than usual, the rain had all but ceased. Only the gentle pitter-patter of light spitting rain—and sandflies—against the fly remained. The events of the night before soon flashed back, in a similar way you tend to recall events after an overindulgent boozy night out. Keen to distance myself from—rather than dwell on—the haplessness of last night, I crawled outside to inspect the river. Given the immensity of the downpour, it wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated. Significantly discoloured—yes—with undoubtedly a far greater rate of flow, but there was no fearsome, fish-expelling, riverbed-scouring, torrent. Impossible to cross, but possibly fishable later, I concluded, attempting to remain upbeat as I set about cooking and consuming my usual Spartan breakfast, as the sandflies did theirs.

103Brown but not out, or so I hoped!

101Port in a storm—the flow was even a bit much for this guy! (Centre bottom)

127Early morning flashing, a good way to start the day!

224Guy on the right was obviously the boss, and droned on so much the others seemed to get fed up. Remind you of anyone…?

The sun made an appearance during breakfast, and burnt off the remaining low-lying cloud throughout the morning. During the next couple of hours the river’s clarity improved markedly; the brown colouring had by now completed it’s transition into that of an opaque emerald. I progressed a short way upriver to inspect a run where I’d spooked a fish the day before, prior to the unspeakable occurrence. I crept cautiously along the bank, but regardless I ventured too far. He seemed to have spotted me first and reacted by leisurely moving off upstream. With a fair amount of glare on the water it was one of those situations where it was hard to be certain of what happened, so I tried my luck regardless. Nymphs away, fish on! Not much of a fighter, considering the violent nature of the river, and he was in the net in short time. It was scant consolation really, given he was half the fish of yesterday’s, but I tried to be grateful. The tide has turned, I tried to convince myself.

142Scant consolation

163Sun appearing midmorning, signalling a change in fortune perhaps?

Progressing upstream, the river didn’t seem to hold much promise. It was rapidly metamorphosing into the domain of blue duck and boaters—kayakers that is—rather than trout water. It was a long walk between any semblance of desirable trout habitat. I could’ve fished it blind, and did do a little prospecting here and there—mostly to reduce the chances of one of those seemingly inevitable “oh you shoulda…” arising conversations when I got home.—but given the lack of fish in the few pieces of good water I saw, it just felt futile. I managed to hook two more small fish on my foray upriver—both lost in wild water—making it a total of five fish seen, five hooked. This one hundred percent hookup ratio on a river was something I’ve never accomplished before, and came as a surprise considering the rubbish nature of my angling abilities! It appeared that given the apparent lack of food available, these fish were wholeheartedly buying into the “beggars can’t be choosers” rationale.

172Perusing the Ponga’s plight—perched precarious in a position prone to peril. Gotta love alliteration!

185Such was the humidity here that even a swept away Ponga survives, roots completely exposed!

175Long walk between pools!









The scenic qualities of the valley and plentiful numbers of Whio roaming the river were ample compensation for the lack of fish, while the hiking itself was pleasant as the track was mostly flat, yet still diverse enough in nature to make it interesting. Throughout my trip I’ve found it quite thought-provoking to see how varied the beech forests are. A forest merely an hour up the road can be of a drastically different composition to the last. Guess it shows how varied this country is, and how many unique microclimates it possesses. Interestingly, despite the ruggedness of the terrain I found the bush-bashes in this valley to be an almost civilised affair with the forest having a more of an English vibe to it, and could’ve likely been undertaken with a cup of tea in hand—jolly good! The forest here has a distinctive openness to it, and contains shrubs that would look more at home in an English cottage-style garden. No idea why, perhaps one of the early european settlers planted it out with the idea of making it his own little trout stream…?

182Bush-bash, a relatively civilised affair here

DCIM101DRIFTDicey bit of track

DCIM101DRIFTLovely ambience to this bit of track

By midafternoon I’d made it back to camp, content with my exploration of the valley. After lunch and a pack up, there was just one thing left to do before exiting the valley. Actually two things: a quick bit of Weka thievery investigation, and far more appealing—a final visit to the section of river below camp, in the hope of a second round with the fish I’d been robbed of. And a robbery it was, with the air of a despicable Don King style rigging, possibly another antic pulled by the gods for their own amusement? Despite not seeing him, I made a couple of blind casts, and the indicator did dip on one of them, but as I struck all I felt was the faintest pluck—off what I’m not sure. A rock? The fish? Hopefully it was the former.

As I neared the carpark I revisited the spot where I’d laid eyes on the very first fish, but he too was nowhere to be seen. It had proved to be a relatively fruitless overnighter, but regardless it was one I will remember fondly. In fact I may even return again soon in the hope of having another shot at the two good fish that got away! Yep, suckered into a rematch via robbery, Don King would be ‘avin a laugh about that!