Keeping Me Sane

Sam Reach reflects on the agony and ecstacy of his fly fishing season

How many of you return home from fishing, sit down, contemplate your day and truly appreciate the pleasures that have been gifted to you? I bet not many of you. I didn’t — until recently. Mid September 2016 I badly broke the tibia and fibula bones in my left leg whilst playing a social game of the ridiculous sport that is soccer. My foot rolled and I heard an extremely loud crack, just like a dry tree branch snapping. I immediately knew my leg was broken, and by the time I hit the floor my only thought was that the fishing season started in two weeks! If you want to put a fly fishing mate, who has maybe stolen a fly too many from you, into a state of depression, then break his legs before season opener… It works. I spent a week in hospital, had three foot-alignments and an operation which came complete with a metal plate and 16 screws. By the time 1st October arrived I was lying in bed with my leg raised to stop it swelling. I couldn’t move anywhere past the toilet and could only look at trout online… “Just take me, take me now,” I thought. Two long weeks or so passed at home and the pain eased enough for me to venture out. I managed to source a wheelchair, and my partner, Nicky, took me to the outlet of a local lake — a smooth concrete area where we could park right next to the water’s edge, complete with a concrete stand on which to place my leg — it was perfect. Feeling semi-normal for the first time in weeks, I eagerly set up and began throwing loops. Heaven! I tied on a big heavy Woolly Bugger to try to cover every bit of water in front of me and was rewarded with a hit almost immediately. My dog Hebe bounded over to see what I’d hooked — a wee rainbow, probably not even a pound in weight, but my word, it did feel good. One more followed from the same spot before it got too uncomfortable and we had to head home. Feeling bad that I was getting Nicky to carry all my tackle, seats and pillows whilst I pointed at rising fish and tried to chase them down on crutches, I needed a spot that would benefit us both. I wanted to teach her to fly fish, preferably somewhere I could sit and catch more than one fish, so decided on a small local lake about 20 minutes drive from home. I chose this lake for its fairly level grass edges. Finding soft level ground is near impossible in Twizel. At maybe 30 acres, it’s a lake that I had fished only once before and disregarded as being quite featureless, with a poor average fish size, and usually busy with campers and swimming Labradors. Little did I know that this little gem was soon to become my sanctuary. I knew about a feeder stream coming in at the far end of the lake, probably only a 5 minute walk away from our car and other campers, but it seemed like 20 km with a busted leg wanting to explode every time it dropped lower than my heart. Multiple rests on my back were needed, with my purple toes waving in the air. Nicky helped by digging out the rubber ends of my crutches which were constantly getting lost in the mud, and my dog just stared at me wondering why I was taking so goddamn long… but eventually, we made it. Hebe had already clocked a couple of fish running up the stream so he was happy! I sat on my seat, tackled up with a small damsel nymph, flicked it across the stream mouth and very first cast had a thump. A pristine rainbow about 12 inches long, then another, and another… I think every fish in the lake was huddled around the inlet. I gave Nicky a casting lesson and sent her away with another rod. We had an awesome afternoon, with maybe 50 fish landed and Nicky adding five to her tally. Not bad at all for her first time with a fly rod! When trout rise to your flies, indicators are pulled under and savage takes rip the fly-line from your hand, you quickly forget about any worries you previously had. I was annoyed at myself that it had taken a serious injury for me to take proper note of this lake. Small trout in NZ are often disregarded, especially in the Twizel area where a fish below 10 lb is a tiddler. These little trout, though, were sending me into the stratosphere. Every single one was perfect, each different from the last, and ultimately, they all pulled as hard as their tiny bodies and fins could possibly manage. I could easily have sat and cried at the end of that day… there aren’t many moments in my fly fishing life when I’ve been as happy as that. I think Hebe had a fun afternoon too, never really moving from the stream. A good five hours just staring intently, waiting for fish to scurry up through the shallow sections — a typical pointer/fishing dog, he doesn’t miss a thing when it comes to trout. Well, that was my fishing spot sorted for the next couple of months. Once home, I jumped on Ebay — one new 3-weight rod, old style clicker reel and fly line later, I was ready for another outing. Unable to drive, I had to work around Nicky and anyone else who was willing to take me back there. I managed several trips up to the lake before warmer weather started to hit and the fish spread about the lake a little more. I could move around a bit better now, using crutches, and stand on my one good foot for about 10 minutes with my broken leg perched on a seat. The evening rise here is absolutely out of this world. As most of the lake is shallow, fish hit the surface constantly, giving the illusion of heavy rain rather than a rise. My flies of choice soon became sparsely dressed hoppers — pulled through a ripple or a wave, the trout love them, and with a few rapid false casts the fly sits up on the surface like new. The only way to fish the lake now was by patrolling up and down the banksides, fan casting or dropping the fly anywhere near movement. Trust me, if you land a hopper anywhere remotely close to one of these trout, they’ll charge it down and chomp it. Hebe helped too: he has acute hearing and often moves his head quickly in the direction of a rise — many a fish I’ve hooked because of it. Hungarian Vizsla — not a bad thing to be included in your tackle list! I had now caught a couple of hundred fish out of the lake, on all manner of flies, and not one fish was even close to 2 lb. Was I bothered? No, not in the least — it just got better and better. I was leaving my fly on the water for merely a couple of seconds, more than enough time for any cruising fish to hurtle towards it, and I had learnt to use ‘sloppy’ casts to make my flies plop onto the water — the bigger the rings from the fly, the more savage the surface takes seemed to get. Hebe learnt to watch the direction of each cast and for the fly hitting the water, knowing it was pretty likely that’s where the next fish would come from. We hit the lake night after night and never failed to have top-notch sport. Early December… I got the pot off my leg and I was into a moonboot. For those of you who’ve experienced this, you’ll know how good it feels to be able to stand on two feet again. Although pretty painful to hobble on, I could now see a rise and chase it down without carrying a seat and using my crutches too much. So, following surgeon’s and doctor’s orders, I was keeping to level ground and taking things easy… Yeah right! With Hebe on point and improved mobility for me, my catch rate went through the roof. Like any fly fisherman will tell you, if the fish are biting, nothing else matters. This was the case with my leg too. If I was standing at home talking to a friend, or sitting in the pub chatting to someone, I’d feel it. I’d feel the pain, the swelling, the aching, the bruising, the stiffness — but put me on a lake full of small rainbows that rise like there’s no tomorrow, and I’ll wander those banks until the bloody thing drops off. Once into my boot I bought myself a cheap automatic car, enabling me to drive to a few different fishing spots, but nothing compared to my lake. It has made me so happy and I always return to it. Thank you Lake Middleton, you saved me! You kept me sane through difficult times and maybe introduced a few new anglers to our beautiful sport. The lake is open all year and I imagine the winter fishing will be delightful too. I’ll definitely be making it a regular spot from now on. Great news… I’m now out of a boot and looking forward to getting out on the rivers and streams, hopefully before the end of the season. Walking the banksides now, I realise what I’d been taking for granted: all those fish I’ve chased, the rocks scrambled to land them, the deep river crossings, the steep inclines and descents, the drop-offs, the fences jumped, the holes fallen down, the rock faces climbed, the bags carried, the tightly laced boots, the tiny pebble under my foot — all of these effortless when the body is fit. Be thankful that you can conquer all these feats; there are many who can’t. Never ever forget just how lucky you are to be able to live and fish amongst some of the most beautiful waters in the world. But most of all, when you return home and sit down after fishing, it’s not about how many you caught or how many trophies you landed — it’s where your legs took you. So next time you’re debating a trip up the river, or fancy trying a small local lake you once shrugged off as being below par, do it — it might just blow your mind.

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