Plagues & Pestilence

Nick Reygaert re-evaluates the New Zealand trout fishery in the light of recent events

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness… The paradoxes in the opening lines to Charles Dickens’ famous novel, A Tale of Two Cities, are often used to emphasise the complexity of life and so too they can be applied to the events that have unfolded since Covid-19 impacted our world. There have been a lot of overstatements used to describe the last twelve months, with ‘unprecedented’ probably leading the way. It is very tempting to reach for those now as a way of adding some gravitas to the unique situation that faced anglers this past trout fishing season on the South Island of New Zealand. To gain a proper understanding of the situation we need to go back, way back, to August 2019. Word of an impending mouse plague had been filtering through the NZ scientific community. Seed counts from the forests taken that winter had indicated that it could be a big one. In these vast tracts of wilderness, this strange phenomenon occurs every 5 or 6 years when there is a widespread beech tree seeding or masting. The mice feed heavily on the fallen seeds, which leads to a population explosion. During these plagues, trout key into the mice as a food source. Keen anglers keep their ears to the ground for mouse plague information, me included. In fact I have a friend, let’s call him Mouse Man, who works in an organization that monitors pest numbers closely. He gives me some handy information at times. He confirmed that a big one was coming, and one mild day in August I took a drive from my home in Te Anau towards Milford Sound. There were mice everywhere. It was happening! The trout season of 2019/20 will be remembered as having one of the largest mouse plagues in living memory. There are a number of factors that qualify that statement and you really need to be a student of NZ’s mouse plagues to understand the significance of these factors on the fishing. Firstly, this plague was widespread, the four previous events were more localised, often happening in one valley but not the neighbouring ones. This last event, ‘Mousemageddon’ from here on, also had a volume that I have not previously seen, proving that not all plagues are equal. It also happened earlier in the year than is usual and mice were around in large numbers for later in the year too. I’ve chatted at length to many fly fishers that I greatly respect and all of them confirm that Mousemageddon was as big as they get. Of course, this is all anecdotal, but as a fisherman I place a lot of value on those observations, especially ones made by seasoned veterans. THE BEST OF TIMES Of course, another way to ‘measure’ a mouse plague is by the quality of the trout. During the 2019/20 season there were massive trout everywhere. Rivers that I’ve been fishing for over a decade and never caught anything over 7 lb suddenly started producing doubles — big doubles, at that, and lots of them. Many fish looked as though they’d been inflated by a bicycle pump — a classic indication of mice feeding. The big rivers of the North Canterbury region are known for consistently producing big fish. These systems started producing some crazy numbers, fish of 14–18 lb were reasonably common. I heard tell of one river in that region with an average that was somewhere around double figures. Heady stuff. It was exciting and I felt very lucky to be experiencing it. I caught plenty of big trout, I guided quite a few clients onto doubles and got to net a few for mates too. It was a magical summer. While all this was happening, in the background the news of a new coronavirus was filtering through the media. I gave it very little attention, I had mouse-fish to catch and nothing was going to deter me from that mission. In hindsight we seemed so blasé. During March 2020 I did three backcountry trips and caught big trout on all of them. The final trip was to the Hope/Boyle fishery — rivers that normally are heavily pressured — and we had the whole place to ourselves because by then most countries had called back their citizens. The global curtain was coming down but we thought it was great, a whole fishery to ourselves! Driving home, blissed-out and tired, I stopped at a mate’s place for a coffee. He was sitting watching the TV and that is when the Prime Minister announced New Zealand was going into lockdown. THE WORST OF TIMES It is at this juncture that the true weight of what was happening began to sink in and draw me out of my mouse-induced natural high. Concern for loved ones, and the world, dominated my thoughts. Fishing suddenly seemed much less important. Businesses, including my own, began to take a hit. The fishing industry was under siege. Friends overseas who operate fishing lodges lost months of bookings. Another friend who owns a couple of restaurants called me to say he thought he’d have to shut down for good. FlyLife missed an issue! It was carnage. To add insult to injury, the six weeks of lockdown had some of the best autumn weather I can ever remember. Even though the world was crumbling around me, the little fisherman inside was constantly staring out the window at the windless, blue sky days and imagining the trophy trout feeding with reckless abandon just a few kilometres down the road. We squeezed in a couple of trips post-lockdown, which were great and yielded some impressive fish, but the chaos that was around seemed to taint everything. We then entered into the longest winter of my life. THE SEASON OF LIGHT As the 2020/21 season drew closer it became apparent that international anglers were not going to be present for at least part of it. I must admit the prospect of that was very appealing to me although I didn’t really think it would have a huge impact on the fishing. I was wrong. The season following a mouse plague is known to produce good fishing. Mouse feeders can be very hard to tempt in daylight hours during a plague but once the mouse supply runs out they are forced to return to normal feeding. The new season promised rivers full of big trout, feeding aggressively to maintain condition with very few anglers around. For a passionate fly fisher, this was going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity. I love numbers, they are providers of truth, and as fly fishers we need to place a high value on truth in order to progress our skills and knowledge. So I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself but rather enjoy some fishing and see what the results of those trips would be. My first couple of outings delivered really great fishing but that often happens early in the season. I caught a few big fish too, but that would be expected, as there were more big fish around. By the time I got to my tenth trip of the season the numbers were really starting to add up, but that could still have been a lucky streak. By the time I got to trip twenty, the writing was on the wall. The best way I could describe it is that in a normal season you have one or two days where everything clicks and you experience fishing that you can comfortably put in the ‘best fishing of my life’ category. This past season produced one of those days almost every time I went out. The Oreti River, in Southland, is normally subjected to a large amount of pressure. It was an incredible and almost spooky experience to casually arrive at the river at 9:00 a.m. during perfect weather, in peak season, and have a choice of which beat to fish. Old timers have told me stories of fishing the river in the ’70s and it felt like I’d travelled back in time to those halcyon days. The fish were feeding with a carefree abandon I have never seen before on that river, and at times it felt too easy, almost unfair, to catch them. THE SEASON OF DARKNESS As I pen this we are no closer to knowing when the borders will reopen and winter is looming. Winter is always a tough time in Te Anau — the bitter cold and lack of tourists always casts a cloud over the town. This year it is going to be even tougher — some businesses will close for good, people will leave and head to the cities for employment. At the moment most folk are putting on a brave face but I have a feeling that once winter bites the mask will slip. I’m not looking forward to it. The worst part is that we have no idea when this will end or even how it will end. It is impossible to plan for a guiding business when you are not sure when the majority of regular clients can return. It is starting to feel like torture. Death by a thousand cuts. While another season without international anglers looms, it is a much less exciting prospect than it was. That may seem an obvious statement from a member of the NZ Professional Fishing Guides Association, but it runs deeper than just money. It has been amazing to fish here with so few anglers around, but at the same time it has felt like something was missing. For me, sharing the fishery with others is an important aspect of the fulfilment I gain from it. I probably didn’t realise how significant that is in my life until now. I miss the hustle and bustle of a busy tourist town, the smiling faces of all nationalities, the restaurants overflowing into the street. I miss my friends from overseas visiting and exploring this incredible fishery together. The sooner that returns the better. The knowledge that sustains is that this will pass. THE AGE OF WISDOM This time could also be an opportunity to re-imagine the New Zealand fishing experience. For a long time now there has be growing discontent within the Kiwi fishing community in relation to the pressure on certain fisheries, and calls for better management grow louder every year. We cannot ignore it and hope it goes away or fixes itself — it will not. Before the pandemic hit, New Zealand, like many parts of the world, had quite a few issues with over-tourism. The trout fishery has felt the effects of this too; the term ‘loving it to death’ has been used many times to discuss what is happening. Some have called for fly fishers to self-regulate their use of the resource but when big trout in idyllic rivers are involved, self-restraint is an ideology with very little practical application. Of course, as a guide, writer and filmmaker living off the NZ fishery I realise that I’m part of the problem. Therefore, I feel the only course of positive action is via regulations, another paradox, as for many the charm of New Zealand is the sense of freedom. Unfortunately the mechanisms in place to change the way the fishery is managed take a long time to restructure. I think that once the floodgates open, the pressure will undoubtedly return, perhaps more than ever. For all that love this fishery, the question is what is the title of the chapter to come? Let’s hope it is not The Age of Foolishness.

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