Expect the Unexpected

Piero Bertocchi recounts an early-season South Island adventure

For my fishing companion, Andrew Warnes, the aim for this trip was clearly defined — to surpass his dad’s best fish of six pounds. I pondered my own expectations as the 300 horsepower engine of the water taxi propelled us towards the headwaters at the top of the lake. With several days of fishing ahead of us, our early season trip was focused on two wilderness rivers: the D’Urville in the top of the South Island — to tick off another destination from Andrew’s A River Somewhere odyssey — and a trophy water in the Waiau catchment in North Canterbury where six-pounders are considered small. Far from pack-fit, we were soon testing our desk-bound physiques on the walk in. It wasn’t long before the banter started. I was accused of doing ‘old man stretches’ to relieve some tight muscles and, amusingly, Andrew was having real trouble staying on his feet on the dicey track. Melodious tuis and bellbirds filled the lush valley with birdsong, heralding our entrance into wilderness. I was mesmerized by the blue shimmer of a river that I’d been thinking about for months — it was finally within reach. As the track cut back towards the river my attention was continually drawn to the pools. Pausing for a glimpse of a trout, I was prompted by Andrew that we’d be getting to the hut at midnight if I kept stopping. Indeed, we would fish tomorrow. Optical illusions Fishing in New Zealand’s rivers takes some adjustment. There are generally fewer fish in a stretch and perhaps they’re more wary than Australian trout. The emphasis is on sight fishing, which does take some time to learn as I’d discovered in my two years living in New Zealand. Identifying subtle smudges against the riverbed and discerning particular alignments of shapes and certain movements are key observation skills for finding trout here. Despite it being his first trip in a while, it didn’t take long for Andrew’s eyes to adjust to the new conditions. Being early season, the river was flowing stronger than we’d have liked but the pools were quite fishable. The key was to slowly and methodically scan for these cagey river-dwellers. Backcountry trout don’t give you many chances, particularly if you stumble upon them. Once alongside a fish, the likelihood of catching it decreases substantially. Andrew soon spotted one such fish, and remaining completely still, he talked me onto it and relayed necessary adjustments for each cast. Just when we thought it was spooked, on the fifth cast it moved up to take the dry. In fact it took the dropper nymph, although we could have sworn it ate the Parachute Adams. It’s happened to me a few times before. Was it an optical illusion, or was it just a rise to the floating nymph, or to both the nymph and the dry? PERSONAL BEST We fished the usual dry patterns with diminishing confidence as the fish continued to favour our nymphs. Andrew had tied on an old version of Stu Tripney’s Bionic Blowfly that had resided in his fly box for years. Its big black foam body with pink post was easy to see on the water. It was much too gaudy, I offered. Andrew silently accepted this as a kiss of death. When searching a bendy section of river, Andrew spotted a good brown holding off the main current. In two minds whether to change down to a smaller dry, he reassured himself that having spooked heaps of fish already, one more wouldn’t matter! The big brown’s instinct to eat this large floating meal prevailed. Hooked, the fish exploded into action making a beeline towards the opposite bank, where Andrew was able to steer it away from some troublesome-looking snags. Composed, he brought the fish into gentler water and into the care of my waiting net; a magnificent 7 lb backcountry brown, bettering his father’s benchmark and etching the memory of a lifetime. Andrew’s elation was contrasted by my frustration at having squandered some good opportunities. Disheartened, I reassured myself that tomorrow was a new day and we were headed to a new river. Footprints & Hut users Let’s face it, anglers don’t like fishing in other’s footsteps. This is particularly so if you’ve hiked many miles up into the mountains to reach your destination. We started the 20 km trek to the hut from a carpark with a single car in it, but as the track became softer under foot in the forest I noticed boot prints and my paranoia grew. Ever the optimist, Andrew quipped that it could be a young German masseuse in training. We had become more conditioned and the long march wasn’t too bad. Funnily, we arrived to find the hut occupied by a German hiker, perhaps a masseuse! Andrew was chattier than usual, but inelegantly burnt the milk for his coffee in front of the young lass after claiming he’d never do it again, as he had done earlier in the trip. With the smell of burnt milk wafting through the hut, we learnt that the footprints belonged to a hunter who had arrived in the afternoon and was still out on a hunt. With rain falling we were just happy to have made it to the confines of a warm hut, and didn’t mind sharing it with trampers, bird watchers, hunters or escaped felons, as long as they weren’t anglers. Indeed we had come across some interesting hut folk already on the trip, like the ‘gear guys’ at the last hut where we stopped over to await the water taxi. The amount of gear strewn about had led us to believe that the lakeside hut was being occupied by two families, but instead it was only two boat anglers. Amongst the numerous crates of stuff there was an interesting contraption that we couldn’t quite figure out. Instead of something cool, like a deer movement sensor, it was a ‘Yagi’ – a device used to amplify mobile signal. Escaping to the wilderness with Wi-Fi! Then there were the hunters who arrived late that evening after a bone-aching 30 km march from the adjacent mountain range. Laden with fresh slabs of venison and brimming with confidence, they made our tramping efforts seem rather timid. Now, at this new hut, we received a further group of six hunters on their annual trip. A well planned affair, they had flown-in quad-bikes, a generator, deep freezer, you name it — these guys knew how to organise a trip. Thankfully, none of them carried rods. trophy water Our time on the trophy water had come and we set off to fish this beautiful river with high expectations. The overnight rain had settled as snow, providing a backdrop of stunning snowcapped mountains. The weather did little to help our chances as it couldn’t decide between rain, hail or snow, and appeared to flicker between all three. It was a good-sized river, allowing us to split up and cover each bank. Our passage upstream would lead us to an amazing stairway of cascading rapids which slowed to a short stretch of pocket water. Noticing a dark silhouette, I immediately ducked down. From my crouched position and in marginal light, it was difficult to tell if it was indeed a fish. I made a cast with dry fly and Pheasant Tail Nymph. Time compressed as the shadow rose swiftly in mid-water and a split-second later the dry fly dipped, triggering an instinctive strike. I was on. The big brown blasted into action, leveraging its considerable girth to advantage in the strong current, escaping downstream. I was more desperate than ever to land the behemoth and after a few gut-wrenching minutes I coaxed it to a pebbly inlet. I was invigorated by a sense of relief and elation. Andrew crossed the strong current to capture the moment with a few photos. Over 8 pounds, I was mesmerized by its thickness. A stunning fish, sporting minimal spots, its golden flanks led to silver markings that bejewelled its gill plates and head. The frustration of earlier days had vanished. I would sleep easy that night – I’d been given the angler’s tonic. FLYING SPOOKS The following day we started down-river, covering a lot of water for just a few shots at smaller, tricky fish, with mixed success. We were almost back at the hut when Andrew spotted a large fish feeding freely at the end of a long deep run. I saw his arm raised — our field signal for a fish — and prepared my camera for a few action shots. It was a splendid day; the sun was high in the sky and the wind a delightful zephyr. Unhurried, Andrew changed to an emerger as the big brown continued to feed on the surface. There was no rush, he had all the time in the world. At first it seemed I was imagining a distant buzzing sound but soon the first of two vintage aeroplanes came coasting up the valley, just as Andrew was about to cast and no doubt catch the fish of a lifetime. It couldn’t be happening! Andrew waved frantically as the plane flew at low altitude directly over the river. As the shadow of the flying machine eclipsed the pool, the trout spooked instantly. Andrew was left in a state of disbelief. What could I say? We had lunch in situ, hoping the big brown would return to its station, but instead it remained in the safe depths of the pool. Back at the hut, Andrew was inconsolable, convinced that any trout in the river would be spooked for the rest of the day. Not wanting to squander valuable sunlight, I pushed on, with Andrew saying he would catch up later. But no joy. Perhaps his grim assessment was right. When he did catch up, his half-hearted gaze suggested he was still reliving the whole aeroplane episode. Eventually I spotted a feeding fish in a small piece of pocket water. It rose and took my emerger but failed to hook-up. At least it got Andrew interested again, and it would soon be his turn, having found a good fish rising in the bubble line of a substantial pool. Steadily, from a high bank, he directed his cast, dead on target. This time there would be no plane. Instead, the massive trout propelled itself a few feet into the air, taking a flight of its own. With a series of leaps and violent headshakes the big trout fought hard, but Andrew was up to the task. Thankfully, I was able to net it, first time. Andrew confirmed the weight at just less than 9 lb – a new best! But in the process of unhooking the fish it escaped his grasp, freeing itself. He seemed unperturbed, as the moment had been captured in his mind’s eye rather than in pixels. We didn’t want to leave — catching big trout can be addictive. Our adventure had proved that you should always expect the unexpected when fishing in the backcountry. We had experienced some prodigious moments and been both humbled and heartened by some of the most challenging angling on offer in New Zealand. Trout fishing is capricious, and not knowing what tribulations and treasures lie ahead is what makes it so exhilarating.

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