Bananas For Cicadas

Joshua Hutchins hits prime time in the South Island

Nothing adds more frustration to a fishing trip than the comment, ‘if only you were here yesterday.’ When you’ve invested time and money in a trip, it can add serious salt to the wound. And that’s how my 2017/18 New Zealand season began, particularly on the South Island. I was mixing up my time between kingfish and trout, and every day we focused on the trout, it rained. A lot. Things would clear up, so we’d have another shot, but the rain clouds would eavesdrop on the conversation and come back in full force. Despite purchasing a season licence, I only spent one full day fishing for trout. They don’t call it the Land of the Long White Cloud for nothing. As the 2018/19 season approached, I was hoping for something more positive. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s only a good year if it’s a ‘mouse year’. Mouse years are, obviously, spectacular, and the last major one of 2014/15 produced unbelievably large trout. But a diversity of factors contribute to New Zealand’s enviable fishery. For me, dry fly sight-fishing alongside peak cicada activity creates an optimum fly fishing experience — and one I don’t want to miss. After hosting trips in New Zealand for the last few years, and often flying home realising I’d barely touched a rod, this year I intentionally carved out more time to go fishing myself. I had set aside dates with my regular crew of mates and had high hopes. I wanted to see the trout go bananas for cicadas! A GOOD START After surviving the obstacle course of Kiwi customs, including vacuuming my tent and a quick check of boots, I was set free into the South Island. The next morning, after very little sleep and no coffee, I was greeted at the door by fellow angler Matt Jones. We packed the car, grabbed another fishing buddy, Jimmy Teen, and made our way to the hills. In what would normally be a two-day trip to our destination, we were hoping to conquer it in one. Jimmy, clearly the wisest of the group, suggested we ride mountain bikes instead of hiking, and so the bikes were thrown in the car. After a bumpy drive we arrived, straight into a tidal wave of sandflies. With not a breath of wind, the flies were soon feasting on any inch of exposed skin. We were glad to hit the trail, gain some speed on the bikes and momentarily lose our sandfly friends. It wasn’t until 11 a.m. that a pulse of wind began to finally make its way through the valley and give us some reprieve. As Matt, Jimmy and I worked our way along the river, things were looking good. Every turn, every good piece of water, held fish. They were all willing and almost all took a large cicada style fly. With twenty to hand, we decided it was time to find the bikes and head back to Christchurch. In the haste of a late arrival and zero preparation, I had brought very little food. Knowing no rewards awaited me at the car, I thought out loud, “Gee, a beer wouldn’t go astray right now. We’ll have to stop somewhere on the way back.” But when we did return to the car, Jimmy — ever the ideas man — revealed something he’d prepared earlier: a cooler full of beer. Life was good. BACK TO WORK Beer and sandflies aside, it was now back to work. I have the pleasure of working with many local kiwi guides. We typically run week-long trips with four anglers, two local guides and a host. But this trip involved just two clients — due to a cancellation — and Tom Hodge, a young and enthusiastic trout guide based in Canterbury. I first met Tom a few years back and he’s since helped many of our clients catch great trout. He always puts in a long day, is patient, and crikey, he can out-walk just about anyone! Our two clients, Owen and Don, arrived. Owen was new to fly fishing, ready for the adventure and hoping to catch his first fish on fly. I had taught Don to fly fish several years back and he had always dreamt of fly fishing in New Zealand. “What’s your aim for the trip?” Tom asked as we drove out of Christchurch the first morning. “Catching anything is good for me,” Owen said, while Don replied, “I’d like to beat my 5-pound PB.” “Well I’d say we have a very good chance on both counts,” Tom smiled. “The weather is good, and the cicadas have just started showing up.” Just what I wanted to hear. Tom was right, and on day one Owen landed five gorgeous brown trout and Don claimed two new PBs. Our week continued with Tom taking us to progressively more difficult water. All leading to the last day in the hope of finding, and catching, that extra big fish. BIG TROUT I have fished the Canterbury region many times and I love it! Big trout, and my favourite type of water. Owen and Don were seeing it at its best: no blank days, and fish up to 6½ pounds, eating dry flies. But it was time to try for something bigger. We took the 4WD into a river we were yet to visit for the season. The morning was cool, and with our jackets zipped up, we waited for the warmth of the sun to fill the valley. The line of light finally crept down the gully, sweeping away the morning chill. And with it came the cicadas. Like nature’s band conductor, one cicada called from the bush, and hundreds more began. “It’s on,” I said, as I looked around and packed my cameras in the bag. “Yep, time to bring your A-Game,” Tom chimed in — which is guide talk for, “You are going to see big fish — don’t screw it up.” Although it was still early as we made our way up the river, cicadas were already clumsily dancing across the water. In the first pool Don missed a good rainbow. Owen landed one in the second. The action continued all day. “Dry or die baby!” I called from behind the camera. I don’t think the guys really knew what I was saying but the excitement of days like that make you say weird things. We arrived at a likely pool and immediately noted three large fish. It was Don’s shot. The largest of the three fish had prime position in the shallow run at the head of the pool. The big brown was swaying violently and often breaking the surface to claim a natural cicada. Don climbed into position, armed with Tom’s home-tied cicada pattern of choice. All those years of practice had led to this moment: get the cast right and the fish will surely eat. He made the cast and we held our breath. The cicada unrolled at the end of the leader and it felt as though time went by slowly and quickly all at once. “Striiiiiiiiiiiiike!” Tom called out, in case we hadn’t noticed the fish porpoise on the fly. The trout was strong, full of fight and in peak condition. But it was finally brought to net. A relief. For the fifth or sixth time that trip, Don broke his PB, with a stunning 8½-pound, small-stream, backcountry brown trout. Is Don. Is good! ONE OF THOSE WEEKS There are times in New Zealand when backcountry trout are so temperamental that nothing seems to work. They could be responding to the weather, angling pressure, or random fishy stuff that no one really understands. And then at other times you only need two flies to succeed: a cicada imitation and a blue-arse blowfly pattern. This was one of those weeks. We dropped Don and Owen back to Christchurch and I met up with my next fishing crew: Pier, Trent and Matt. Checking the weather for the week, it looked like things would start badly but then quickly improve. And the forecast was right. Waking up to a howling nor-wester, we decided to go fishing anyway. But perhaps we shouldn’t have. On arrival we were met with fresh footprints, followed by low cloud all day and very flighty fish. But things weren’t all bad. I was casting to an uninterested brown trout when a rainbow trout appeared out of the corner of my eye. Retrieving my line, I crept into position with the fish sitting about 15 metres away. Plonking a large cicada fly on the water in front of me, I gathered my line, preparing for the cast. But then the rainbow left its position and I assumed it had spooked. “You’re kidding me!” I said. Frustrated, I almost began to pull in my line. But then, dumbfounded, I stood and watched that same rainbow trout swim 15 metres downstream to come and eat the fly at my feet! I was in shock! I had never witnessed such a sensitive display of lateral line detection from a trout. I set the hook into the fish and laughed uncontrollably for a moment. When they want a cicada, they really want it! The next three days were the best cicada fishing I’ve witnessed. With trout averaging 5 to 8 pounds and no footprints from previous anglers, the fish were truly going bananas for cicadas. Spring creeks, small backcountry streams or wide-open meadow-lined valleys, it didn’t seem to matter. The moment the light hit the valley, the warmth followed and so did the cicadas. It sounds too good to be true, but the only reason a trout wasn’t at least hooked was if the pool had more than one fish and the first hook-up scared the second fish. One day, walking back to the car, I noticed a number of birds hitting the river in the distance. As we walked closer we saw there were cicadas all over the water. Those birds led us to a further six large fish. We had nearly given up for the day, but it just kept going. It certainly wasn’t a ‘mouse year’, but the fish were so willing and well-conditioned — a true champagne experience shared with some of my closest fly fishing mates.

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