Xmas humbug trip – The Christmas Spirit’s sinister assassination attempt on an angler’s ego! pt1

Blue river dreaming. That’s what got me here, to the banks of this “second tier” river. Well to be fair, the river does hold a reputation for big fish, just not very many of them, even by New Zealand standards. But it was more the stunning blue water that was the lure for me, and being a less sought after river I’d hoped to encounter less anglers! A nagging doubt crept into my mind though as I clocked up kilometres, rather than fish. Was this venture into new ground going to be a fruitless endeavour? I pondered. But back to the beginning, before I give too much away and you won’t even bother skimming through this post, which surely rivals the Old Testament in terms of length.

It was December 20, and I was determined to sneak in one last trip before the new year, and the waters inevitably become even more crowded. The Christmas Spirit—oh yes, he exists—had been busy though, doing it’s utmost to thwart my plans. Three rods broken in a ten day period was a pretty clear sign some sinister force was doing it’s utmost to prevent my escape of the city, and it’s Christmas cheer. But what it had failed to take into account were the actions of a benevolent soul from the local fishing forum, who countered these malevolent meddlings by offering me a spare rod for the trip. Cheers Jack! So anyway, after religiously checking the flows of the relevant rivers in the region daily for the last week, I decided it was finally time to go!

007Love the feel of these forest-hemmed highways

The weather pulled it’s usual bipolar antics as I headed over the pass, making the drive a bit more interesting. Several sporadic downpours of rain, a Barry White, Best of Bread, and Phil Collins CD later—yes we were doing it retro this time—I arrived at the river. It was a gorgeous morning, intensely blue skies were only interrupted by large fluffy cumulus clouds of a most vivid shade of white. As I loaded my pack until it was ludicrously overflowing with waders and boots and sandals and kitchen sinks, dairy cows made their way past in sombre dejected fashion, heading for the milking shed to deliver their milky payloads. Occasionally one would pause and eye me with an intense curiosity, as if I were the most fascinating thing they’d seen all week. Or perhaps I was mistaken, perhaps these were looks of disapproval aimed at the leather band that encircled my Akubra hat. With the pack loaded, a quick “breakfast”—emptying the car of all remaining perishable food, and putting it into my stomach till I neared the point of feeling sick—and a quick browse of the DOC track sign, I headed off across the vivid green farmland toward the river.

027Passing through pastures on a scorching summer day

The sun beat down on me, and sweat was already beginning to breach the band inside my faithful Akubra hat, and bead down my brow. The walk to the forest edge was deceptively long—the vast open dairy plains made it hard to judge distances—but my rabid angler enthusiasm was kicking in now and I bounced along with renewed energy. It was a relief to finally reach the forest, and the cool shade it’s canopy offered. I dumped the pack and indulged in a drink, and a brief survey of the river which now ran alongside the track. My eyes met with a disappointing and somewhat surprising sight. The river carried far more water than I’d envisaged, and it’s cloudy colour was cause for concern.

044Not ideal sight fishing conditions

After hiking my way along the track for some time it became apparent that there was something missing in this forest. It had taken me a while to notice it; the deathly quiet—where were the birds? Was this valley just not a popular spot for them, or had predators transformed this forest into an avian morgue? Now that I was aware of it, it became quite a depressing phenomenon. Usually when the hiking is tough I rely on the rhythmical birdsong to act as a sort of coxswain as I march through the forest, but today the only sound present was that of my own gasping. The track soon climbed markedly—curse it!—and became riddled with murky pools of rainwater. The river was far below now, out of reach. It began to dawn on me that this could be another of those frustrating HIKING/fishing trips, but I told myself it was too early to be entertaining such despairing thoughts!

740Fishy looking water, yet frustratingly out of reach

The track eventually led to a tussock flat, and being uncertain how far it was to the next one I decided to set up camp. I hadn’t much sleep the night before so I wasn’t up for a big day. The river was braided in this section, and I spotted an island covered in Manuka trees which had some lovely campsites, but being unsure of how quickly the river might rise, decided against it. As much as I like the movie Castaway, I held no desires to recreate a freshwater version of it, and there had already been enough tragic “Wilsonnnn!” moments this season. Another appeal of the island was that it was likely to offer sanctuary from the rodents. Strangely, the short section of track through the clearing was dotted with the corpses of several rats, it was unclear whether they had been trapped or killed by stoats. Once the tent was assembled I decided to skip dinner and just go straight to sleep, but still being light the sandflies that had invaded the tent really went to town on me. And so, reluctantly, I ventured back outside for a fish until sundown.

039Despite them being the enemy of our native birds, I still felt a bit of empathy for these little guys

Despite being exhausted, sleep was intermittent that night as I woke to frequent rustling sounds outside the tent. Come morning, I was relieved to see no rat hordes had gnawed through the tent to devour my food stocks at least–one of my concerns before the trip! The weather was terrific again today, and after a laxed breakfast and tent pack up I was on my way. The river still looked quite high so I kept walking up the valley hoping it would become smaller after I crossed some of the sizable sidestreams. There weren’t a lot of places where you could actually inspect the river, as the track weaved through beech forest most of the way, and was either high above the river or some distance from it.

063River access, but not for long, up we go again!

Eventually I came to a spot where the river was easily reached, and it was here that I saw my first live mouse—and trout. The fish was nestled in close to the river’s edge and feeding voraciously, and fortunately nowhere near as spooky as the mouse! He was rising to something. Hurriedly, I assembled and rigged the rod, and moved into position. Several casts later, and the only thing I’d hooked was the tree behind me—twice! He certainly wasn’t spooky at least, I noted as I scaled the inclined bank above the river to fight a tree branch and reclaim my flies, but it seemed he was a very discerning feeder. I tried everything—mayfly and caddis, nymphs and emergers of various sizes—yet no takes. Fifteen minutes later he finally stopped feeding, seemingly satisfied with his feasting on the aquatic buffet he settled in behind a rock. I made several more rather forlorn casts, then with all hope depleted I walked over to him just to check he wasn’t one of those “I know you’re there but I’m not even going to spook” type fish. He wasn’t, and promptly bolted across the river in alarmed fashion. A good sized fish indeed.

The track soon appeared to cross the river, which contradicted the route on the DOC sign I’d browsed earlier. As the river was still far too high to cross I had to undergo a painstaking bush-bash up and along some fairly steep terrain. The heavy cumbersome pack didn’t make it easy but after twenty minutes of hard slog I reached a clearing—home to a pleasant section of river which looked very fishy. Of equal importance, this stretch was placid enough that if I did hook anything I might stand half a chance of landing it. I spotted a couple of fish as I made my way up the run, but neither were feeding and I failed to interest either of them.

066The section that required a substantial bush-bash

067The residence of a couple of unobliging fish

According to DOC’s map there was meant to be a hut not far ahead, so I went for a bit of a wander over the vast tussock plain, and begrudgingly entered the maze of Matagouri that occupied it, hoping to find a way through. Experience had taught me such hopes were usually daftly optimistic, but in this rare instance luck was on my side. Savour it old boy! The hut was unoccupied, but considering there was no water supply I opted to set up camp back beside the river. The braided nature of the river may not have made for ideal trout habitat, but it was perfect driftwood habitat, so at least I had plenty of fuel for the campfire.

I ate dinner as the last light of the evening receded back behind the mountains. The quiet of the evening was only pierced for the briefest of moments, as a forest giant across the valley toppled with a groan then a crash, as it met with the forest floor. I sipped on cognac as the fire crackled away, the occasional woody explosion sent an ember flying, and rouge wafts of smoke did their best to sting my eyes. But to it’s credit, the faint breeze was mostly benevolent and gently ushered the smoke away and up the valley. It was a pleasant balmy summer’s night, one which had me relishing the prospect of several more summer campout’s this season. I reflected on a what had been a testing and fruitless day, the golden liquid provided ample solace and I told myself tomorrow would be better.

098Prime driftwood habitat, trout—not so much!

104Drowning my sorrows rather than toasting victory

Upon unzipping the tent I was greeted with another immense blue sky and sunlight so dazzling it had me retreating back into the tent for my sunglasses. Due to the tent being in the shade I’d managed to indulge in a slothful sleep-in, rather than being driven outside by the heat. And I would’ve slept longer had it not been for the faint sound of voices I’d heard as people made their way along the track not far from my tent. I tried to leg it up the track after them, blurry-eyed and in no mood for such exertions, with my legs still aching from yesterday’s efforts. I abandoned the pursuit after fifty metres, figuring it was a hopeless endeavour as I wasn’t even certain which way they went. I reasoned if they were fishing I’d run into them soon enough anyway. After breakfast and a pack up I was on my way again. The river was now a single channel and looked a bit more promising, though still turbulent and swift in most places, and still too deep to cross.

179Nature in the raw

At one point while walking along the track the sound of rushing water quietened, piquing my curiosity, and so I bush-bashed through the narrow strip of forest to get to the river, suspecting there may be some flat fishable water. Of course I had to emerge at the river’s edge right beside a good sized fish! It didn’t have any adverse reaction to my gormless intrusion so I backed away into the foliage and reemerged further down-river to make a cast. It was a clumsy effort—the line landing too close to the fish—sending it bolting off into the blue. The problem was the chances were so sparse that I never really had a chance to get warmed up and into the zone. The only other thing of note before the track again diverged from the river and began a cruel ascent, were a squadron—I don’t know the proper word but I like this one—of geese attempting to make it’s way up-river. Made for quite interesting viewing while I paused for breath.

182Missed opportunity

183The view down-stream, not much margin for error had a hook-up and duel ensued

192A pretty serious side-stream, wouldn’t like to be around when this one is in flood!

456A closer shot of the sidestream minus my mug tainting it’s beauty

It was about now that the track began to inflict some serious torture upon me. It subjected me to some downright sadistic ups and downs, and to make things more depressing it was heading far away from the river. I hadn’t seen another soul for two days now, so I felt free to indulge myself in any tourette’s-style outbursts I might feel coming on in circumstances like these. These were the perks of venturing up an unpopular part of a not-too-popular river, no one was around to bear witness to such ravings. It was also nice to be able to take my time, and not have that sense of urgency and dread when you wake up, knowing you have only until about 8am to stake your claim before the heli-fishers arrive. That sort of thing can really detract from the enjoyment of a trip. Well there were no choppers here, and it was now abundantly clear why!

218A much needed timeout on the most comfiest log in the backcountry!

Eventually the forest canopy began to thin and it became lighter, and I became aware that I was on the verge of summiting this mountain, my Everest! It was at this moment—when pausing for breath—I was visited by my first Robin. Quite an uplifting thing when you have walked nearly 27km and seen next to no bird life. I’m not that big on birds, but the bold and curious Robin endears itself to everyone doesn’t it? It didn’t hang around too long though, perhaps I looked too beat up to be capable of rousing any grubs or bugs, or whatever it is they eat.

After a half hour of downhill slipping and skidding, I finally broke free of the clutches of the forest of doom and staggered into a lovely clearing. ‘Twas the upper valley—small, intimate, inviting—a most welcome change! A well deserved lie down was had before going through the process of selecting a campsite. I am prone to suffering from a bit of Goldilocks Syndrome when it comes to selecting campsites—too much river noise, too little firewood, too far to get water etc etc etc.

424Summiting my Everest, note to self: fishermen have no business being on summits!

232Upper river, starting to look more fishable now, yet no fish!

Once the tent was up I went up-river for a bit of a recce before dark, spurred on by the now-smaller river. The excitement didn’t last long, as I walked by more and more turbulent water. I perused any flat water intensely, yet no fish were found. Finally I reached a rather dodgy looking three wire bridge which looked like a real challenge to cross, given the size and weight of my pack. Quite a leap would’ve been necessary just to get up on the thing, and so after much internal deliberation I decided this was to mark the turnaround point. Attempting to remain positive, I reasoned the river should be much lower and clearer in the lower section by now, allowing more of it to be fished and maybe even crossed, so I planned to give it proper attention on my way back down the valley.

The camping here was hard work. The dead trees were mostly soggy and rotting, the toetoe’s had already been plundered, and the rocks for my fire had to be transported from the riverbed. And the one rock I did find nearby had ancient looking rubbish under it! Not a good omen I reasoned, and in a strange way these little things reassured me that turning around was the right move. It’s one of the hard things about going on a trip alone, you’re the one making all the calls, and there’s no one else around to bounce ideas off. Doesn’t help when you’re naturally indecisive either!

236Call this a bridge?! This was to decide the turn-around point

To be continued, intermission time folks (pulls curtain)….