Dark Sky

Leighton Adem is inspired by the Tekapo backcountry

After a three-hour drive from Christchurch, we arrived into the valley that would be our home base for the next four days. This was classic central South Island country, with snow capped peaks on three sides of the valley and two major rivers joining forces before flowing into the lake at the other end. If it looked like big country from the plane it was even more intimidating as we stood at the base of the valley, wondering what the next few days would hold. This area is known as Dark Sky. It is in the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve, a 4300 square kilometre designated area where light pollution is strictly controlled, creating endless star gazing opportunities for the celestially affected. It is home to the Mount John Observatory which we could see glimmering on a peak beyond Lake Tekapo, while Mount Sibbald and The Thumbs towered over us at the other end of the valley, rising to over 9,000 feet. The evening stars didn’t disappoint as we got to know our hosts over a beer and excitedly sketched out what the next few days might hold. Todd, a born and bred New Zealander, grew up hunting and fishing the back country. His wild long hair, tinged with ginger red, gave away his Scottish heritage. I half expected a cry of, “they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom,” at any moment, but he resisted the urge and engaged us instead in intelligent conversation about the fishing and the region. Jules on the other hand is a clean cut Englishman through and through, now settled in NZ, having grown up on chalk streams and salmon rivers and fished the rest of the globe extensively over the years. And Clarky, a plumber by trade but a hunter and fisherman first, who now dedicates his time to guiding. It is clear that there is a kindred connection here, of men who have spent their lives pursuing the rewards, and discipline, of stalking, hunting and fly fishing. SPRING CREEKS We awoke early to a stunning blue-sky morning, with light winds. The main rivers were flowing high from the exceptional spring rains and were still cloudy with glacial flour. So we focused on the spring creeks of the area, leaving the rivers time to settle. The first was a classic meadow stream, meandering almost aimlessly bend after bend through the lower valley. It was flowing full to the brim at a rapid rate and with limited visibility. We would find out later that the main river had braided into the creek upstream, after recent flooding. After working the bank fairly hard for a way and spooking several very large browns that were hanging against the edge to avoid the high flows, we were greeted with the choice of a smaller tributary. We didn’t have to dwell long on the decision as the water was flowing clear and at a much more manageable rate. Within minutes we were rewarded with our first sighted fish, cruising the weed line on the other bank, a good brown. Jules and Brad crept further up to spot while I dropped down and stripped off line ready to make a cast. But as quickly as he appeared, he was gone again, disguised by the weed and the low, reflective morning light. Brad had a shot at a rainbow further upstream, sporadically rising on the seam of a nice run, but after lazily following a nymph it couldn’t be tempted to take anything we put in front of it. Jules and I strode ahead, eager to have a crack at the next fish and confident it wouldn’t be far off — the morning just had that feel about it. I walk pretty fast, but in keeping up with Jules I felt like a Hobbit following Strider through the valley. I know, another predictable cliché, but seriously, this country was like a film set. Just as I got into my stride, Jules stopped dead in front of me and I promptly ran into the back of him. There was a nice snaking run up ahead. On the outside of the second bend, a small bush cast a shadow across the current. The smallest interruption to the shadow line was all we needed to spot the nose of an opportunistic brown waiting to pluck bugs from the passing conveyer. He circled a small beat several times as he foraged from the run. The setup was clear: wait for him to circle again, settle, and place my dry just a few feet in front of his nose. The first cast was bang on, and he showed mild interest with a tilt of the head as he watched it pass. On the second shot there was no interest at all. I paused to add a small scruffy nymph on a dropper. First cast fell right in the run only a few feet up from the shadow. He moved to inspect the new offering, following it for several metres downstream before deciding to scoff its scruffy goodness. A great start with a solid fish thanks to Jules’ sharp eyes. Having walked a fair way up the spring creek, focusing our efforts on sighting fish with very little result, I tried my luck in a twisting run through a deep turquoise pool. After switching to a heavier nymph, my first few drifts yielded nothing. The water screamed fish though, and I allowed the nymph to go as deep as possible on the next drift. Only the slightest pause in the line was detectable, but, on striking, a fat feisty rainbow was on and ripping up and down the pool. It was a stunning fish, not large but very healthy with a similar silver hue to the brown caught earlier. THE SERENGETI Driving further upstream we fished the upper reaches of one of the main rivers. The valley here is wide and flat, with towering peaks on either side. Covered in small grey boulders, it is hard to imagine that any life could be sustained here at all. The locals refer to this area as the Serengeti, which in Maasai means endless plains, an apt nickname. The river was still milky, even this far up, so we took to searching the seams and more obvious holds for trout. A small submerged boulder disturbed the current in a large glide, a likely lie for a fish. With my cast placed just above it, an angry brown promptly accepted the invitation of a good meal and immediately went berserk. This was a solid fish and within moments its thrashing and tossing had dislodged the fly — leaving me in one of those sit down moments when you feel like having a little cry. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before I hooked up again. This time, a super healthy rainbow and another impressive aerial display. THE GORGE If we thought the landscape was amazing in the valley, we were in for a shock when we headed up into the gorge. This was serious country, where the open valley emerges from a sheer canyon, with massive cliffs on either side. The water was flowing hard. Fortunately, we had Clarky with us — a man mountain, with tree trunks for legs. As we entered the gorge we were soon forced into crossing the treacherous river — an enormous vertical granite slab blocked progress on our side. But Clarky confidently strode into mid-stream, feet firmly planted and the current parting around him. He reached out a hand and Brad monkey-gripped his way across the river, with his feet barely touching the bottom. We continued this routine right up the gorge. When we weren’t risking life and limb crossing the river we were bashing our way through the brutal matagouri and golden Spaniard, or climbing sheer cliff faces to get to the next section of river. The gorge is rainbow territory, and every few hundred metres we came across a turquoise pool that just begged us to pull a big fish from its depths. But the pools were awash and the rainbows couldn’t be tempted. Not that it mattered; the gorge was so mind blowing just to be in. The gorge finally gave way to a Martian landscape of enormous scree slopes, and we were glad of a heli pickup thanks to Michael, the owner of Mt Gerald Station. Flying back over the gorge only reinforced our enthusiasm to return again one day and fish for those elusive rainbows when the flows are more manageable. THE NEXT GENERATION On our final day, Todd’s son Jackson joined us — a cute kid with a killer smile. At fourteen, Jack is a better fisherman than I will ever be, perhaps not yet in experience but in the instincts and hunting discipline instilled in him from an early age. As we prepared for our day’s fishing, Todd cajoled Jack into bringing out his bagpipes. Standing in the heart of the vast Dark Sky valley, the sounds of the pipes stirred unexpected emotions and captured a sense of grandeur that is difficult to describe. We split up, with Brad, Todd and Jack returning to the smaller spring creek to see if they could trick one of those cruising browns. Later in the day I joined up with them, pausing for lunch beside a hole where we had previously spotted a good rainbow. It’s a wonderful thing, watching a father and son fish together. With little verbal exchange, they worked the water thoroughly. Jack put in some great casts, but a half interested follow was all he could draw before the rainbow skulked into the depths. A while later, Todd spotted another nice rainbow mid-stream. This time Jack found his mark, tempting it into a take, and landed a beautifully coloured fish. Brad was there with camera on hand and Jack flashed that killer smile again. It was not until later in the day though, that I got a full dose of Jack’s enthusiasm for fly fishing. We jumped in the Jeep and headed up to his secret water — a tiny little creek, barely a foot wide in places. This is where he catches his favourite little ‘brook’ trout. Jack fished every little pocket with confidence, striking with such exuberance that he pulled half the tiny trout straight from the stream and onto the bank. He was in his element, with that beaming smile radiating its warmth of pure delight. BRAVE HEARTS I returned to the spring creek at dusk by myself in the hope of some rising fish on our last evening. The cruising browns still didn’t want to play, but finally I spotted a solitary rising fish taking mayflies in a gentle run. Placing a suitable imitation right up the bubble line, on the second drift I connected to a solid brown, only to pull the hook ten seconds later. But I wasn’t gutted at all. On the walk home, with the sun setting over the shoulder of the mountain, all I felt was a sense of contentment and peace. Dark Sky and its surrounds can make you feel small and insignificant, but the camaraderie and mateship developed over the few short days we’d been here made our hearts feel large, compelling us to return. Leighton and Brad were hosted in New Zealand by Stravon/Dark Sky. To fish Dark Sky contact Angling Adventures on 1800 033 094. anglingadventures.com.au

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