Hiking With A Rod

It is a wonderful thought to have nothing to worry about except fishing an awe-inspiring backcountry river in the South Island of New Zealand. To leave the everyday churn of life behind. To just wake up, have breakfast, pack up the tent and then fish seemingly endless riffles and pools of crystal-clear flowing river. I was going to do this, fishing for three days on the beautiful Greenstone River. And I was somehow going to spin it to my wife as part of a family holiday with the in-laws. My father-in-law Mick Nutter had always wanted to hike the Milford Track. If you don’t book well in advance, getting a spot over the Christmas period is near impossible as the Department of Conservation limits numbers. He’d missed the boat. My idea was that Mick and I could do a hiking and fishing trip on the prominent Greenstone Track instead, which trampers combine with the nearby Routeburn Track, another world-class hike. We could be dropped off at the start of the walk and picked up in a few days’ time from the other side of the valley at the Divide carpark, a three-hour drive away. My wife and mother-in-law would look after the kids and do touristy things while we’d get to explore and fish — it was a good plan! THE GREENSTONE Respected angler and author John Kent lists the Greenstone River as one of New Zealand’s classic fly fishing rivers. The Greenstone is renowned for its early season fishing when it teems with voracious recovering rainbow trout. I knew full well that many of these post-spawners would be back in Lake Wakatipu’s depths by the time I got to fish the river, but I was encouraged to know that any fish that remained would be looking up. It was the day before New Year’s Eve and we set off for the Greenstone River from our accommodation in Wanaka. The track starts at the mouth of the Greenstone on the western side of Lake Wakatipu. With the family in tow, we drove round the lake, stopping for lunch at Glenorchy, a delightful little town at the top of the lake. I always savour the customary last good meal before the days of porridge, mountain bread and ‘dehyds’. The final part of the drive hugged the lakeside road and it felt a long way from civilisation, at least it seemed that way for the kids. When my two young boys understood that Mick and I weren’t going to be driving back with them, there were a few tears. For them, it would have appeared like stepping into the mysterious unknown. As I consoled the boys, I was enthused by pleasant thoughts of one day having them accompany me on these trips. The final packing was completed just as the mosquitoes swarmed. We bade our loved ones farewell and started the journey. It was a peculiar feeling, walking off, knowing we wouldn’t be coming back this way. GOING LIGHT For multi-day trips I’d normally walk in, set up a tent or occupy a hut, and then fish the river both up and down. But this trip signified a shift in the paradigm — this was a hike with a rod. After my last multi-day trip to the South Island (FL#90), I couldn’t see the need to lug in a fly-vest on these longer trips any more. Sure, I enjoyed the convenience of the vest but it took up too much space and then there’s the added weight, and do I really need the boxes of emergers and wets! Preferably, I needed to carry all my camping gear whilst being agile enough to fish the river. That way I could fish all day and camp at the last pool rather than back-track to camp. As part of this minimalist philosophy I required a rig that could perform all the essential fishing functions of the vest but was a lot smaller. Something capable of holding a medium-sized fly box, nippers, floatant, forceps, tippet and leaders. Significantly, it needed to be accessible, negating the requirement to take the pack off. Nothing on the market provided all these requirements. I found some well-designed chest packs but they were too large for wearing with the backpack. I don’t like lanyards with stuff hanging and swinging around my neck, so that option was out. Anyway, after some searching on the internet, I found an iPhone holder on eBay for eleven dollars delivered! It was the perfect size and easily attached to my pack belt. With a few modifications, I created what looked like a professional little fly rig and during the trip became known as the ‘Backcountry Companion’. Now, on the walk in, the minimalist philosophy was paying dividends. Enjoying the fresh air we made good progress, stumbling on some deer and the occasional friendly robin that dropped on the track to greet us. The track passes through the beautiful beech forest of the Pass Burn, and after 15 or so kilometres we came to an open tussock valley. We tented up hastily as the evening shadows grew longer against the commanding mountains. BEING THERE Although Queenstown and Wanaka were sweltering, it was cool up in the mountains. I only had a merino thermal as a mid-layer so it was going to be a chilly start. It’s counter-intuitive, as you’d think it gets warmer as the sun rises shortly after dawn, but it actually gets colder! Leaving Mick to have an unhurried breakfast and to pack up at his leisure, I was super-keen to fish but more importantly to get moving before I froze. With blood circulating and the splendid morning light soaking the vast valley, I experienced that stirring feeling we all get when approaching new water. Before the trip I had memorised the significant features on the map — the river course, bridges, tributaries, huts — and I’d read about the river in detail, but now I was living the moment. Nothing replaces being there! The water was what you’d expect for a South Island river; a stunningly clear stream with a backdrop of tremendous mountains with snow still up in their lofty peaks. As I approached my first pool I couldn’t help but be mesmerised by a large jagged peak, off in the distance. It was miles away but in a few days I knew we would pass it. There would be many fish to catch on the way there, and soon, from the icy currents of that first pool, I’d caught my first fish from the Greenstone River, a metallic coloured rainbow trout. ANGLING PRESSURE This popular river attracts many anglers including overseas visitors helicoptering in with guides from Queens-town. Initially I was concerned about following up behind other anglers, but I shouldn’t have worried too much. It does get a lot of pressure and so I just accepted this and focussed on the water ahead, and on the whole ambience. That said, I didn’t see another angler but I did hear a helicopter up the valley sometime around lunch on the first day. I wasn’t sure if it was picking up or dropping off. Fishing in the footprints of others sometimes means doing a good deed, and I did remove some old lodged flies from a few fish. It was interesting to see the fly patterns that others had been using — one or two of them looked completely foreign. The Greenstone holds mostly rainbows and it is a pleasant river to fish, with easy casting and good numbers. Interestingly, I had to adjust my spotting technique because rainbow trout inhabit different holding water to the browns that I’d become accustomed to in the rivers of the lower North Island. Surprisingly, the rainbows were spookier than expected, and blimey, they fought hard. One of the highlights on the first day was getting smoked by a good fish. This hefty rainbow was rising consistently in a pocket of fast water but refused the dry a few times so I added a nymph and got a take. This piscine sprinter muscled its way to the far bank amongst some rocks where it would stay. Most of the fishing was dry fly. Remarkably for a backcountry area, cattle still graze here, which dates back to the original pastoral agreement. Not surprisingly, blowflies were about in large numbers so Stu’s ‘Deadly’ pattern came in handy and accounted for many of those caught. Other common patterns worked equally well. TWO’S COMPANY Although I would happily take a trip like this alone, it was great to have Mick for company and to share the experience. He doesn’t fish but understands and appreciates the beauty of fly fishing. Luckily, it meant I got all the water to myself. The other blessing was that we weren’t always in each other’s pockets. Mick would often detour to take the track and meet up again further upriver, where we’d report back with different stories of what we’d seen and done. We saw in the New Year in peaceful solitude on the banks of the river, a far cry from the revellers only 30 km or so away in the partying hub of Queenstown. Mick has become a handy photographer, taking some excellent images throughout the trip. He didn’t mind taking the shots as long as I carried the SLR camera — that was part of the deal. At 70, Mick did exceptionally well on the walk and in doing so filled me with great optimism. For me, knowing that I want to be fly fishing for the rest of my days, I was heartened to think that I may well be able to get to places like this into my seventies. LAST FISH As we approached the final reaches of fishable water, the pace and character of the river softened. In a comparable way, it was as though the fish seemed more relaxed. The last fish I caught on the trip was the most memorable. I saw my quarry early as it moved to feed casually off the surface in the tussock-lined pool. All that was needed was a nice easy cast but I had edged it too close to the overhanging tussock, catching the hanging foliage. My tippet and fly then unravelled gently, delicately dapping on the water. The tiny plop some distance away was enough to get the trout’s attention and it leisurely approached my fly in the most nonchalant fashion, sipping down the drifting Parachute Adams. The tranquility ended abruptly as the fish unsuccessfully fought with vigour to avoid the confines of my net. Moments like these persist vividly in my memory. Although at times I find it impossible to shift my attention from searching for fish in the pool or riffle ahead, this trip forced me to see different perspectives. The scenery was simply stunning and I would often stop and admire the superb vistas of the immense valley and mountains that dominate it. The trip cemented the true reason why I fish. For me, the technical aspect of finding fish and presenting a fly is rewarding but less important than the journey of discovery. Is there more to fly fishing than catching fish — maybe, maybe not? Whatever your leaning, it’s worthwhile adopting a different mindset, now and then, in order to appreciate all aspects that make fly fishing a wonderful quest. The Greenstone is a fly only river. From 1 Nov to 31 May, a Backcountry Licence is required to fish the river and tributary streams. From 1 Feb to 31 March a Controlled Fishery Licence is required to fish the river above the Slyburn confluence.

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