Rangitikei Dreaming

Leighton Adem goes rafting for rainbows, New Zealand style.

The Rangitikei is one of New Zealand’s most significant rivers. Stretching 185 km in length, the Rangitikei carves its way from the Kaimanawa Ranges in the Central North Island, flowing south and west past the Ruahine Ranges, into the Tasman Sea. Lush green pastures and forests line the valley, but the most defining features are the grey papa (mudstone) cliffs. Papa was deposited on the sea floor 15 million years ago and is soft and susceptible to erosion through the frequent and violent flooding events in the Rangitikei, creating endless canyons. Even small tributaries only 10 metres across, flow in gorges as deep as 50 metres in places, forming a unique landscape that makes you feel instantly isolated from the rest of the world. The valley regularly experiences flooding flows, producing constant change in the terrain. With such extreme conditions it’s a wonder trout can survive here at all. Yet they thrive, especially the rainbows, and actually get bigger the higher you go into the headwaters and tributaries, perhaps a sign of the smart ones moving away from the more challenging conditions below. It is in this land of constant change that we meet Mikayla Mattock, a budding 21-year-old fly fishing guide at Tarata Fishaway. Mikayla was born and raised in this valley, along with her three sisters, after her parents Trudi and Steven moved here forty years ago. Perched high on top of the gorge, the Mattock family have developed a keen sense of adaptation to everything the valley can conjure up. Raising sheep, hunting wild deer, gathering eels and, of course, fly fishing are everyday occurrences, sustaining a life that is as rewarding as it is challenging. Mikayla and her father Steve are clearly at their most content on the water. Drifting in rafts on the Rangitikei and its legendary tributaries, these guys know every inch of water. In fact Steve even points out a specific rock beside the river where Mikayla began life, in the outright sense. An unfortunate visage that we quickly scrub from our imagination. The point is clear that Mikayla is from this water as much as she lives on it. The fishing in the Rangitikei valley is widely varied (see FL#2, #59, #60, #88). In the main river, an endless series of glides meet gravel banks, pushed up on the corners, pouring over drop offs into deep pools with a run that bounces off the towering papa canyon walls before broadening into yet another glide. Floating a double nymph rig deep under an indicator is not exactly technical fishing, but it’s the perfect setup for my best buddy Sean to cut his teeth on his first New Zealand trout. Sean and I have fished together since the first day we held fly rods, many moons ago. But in that time we followed significantly different paths in the intensity of our fly time. In my case the years were frenetic. Sean’s path has been more incremental, with life and family necessitating a compromise in fishing time. So it was with great excitement that Sean and I finally found our way to New Zealand. TWO BIT HOOKERS Our first day on the river starts early(ish), with Steve impatiently sitting astride a quad transporter making references to useless city folk — “you call that early” and “how much bloody gear do you want to bring.” We get straight into it, fishing the drop-offs blind, as the fish aren’t looking up yet. There are only two things you need to get right for drop-off fishing — mending and depth. You can throw the crappiest cast you like up into the turmoil above the drop off, but you must throw a couple of bold upstream mends immediately before your fly gets to the drop to ensure a drag-free descent into the head of the pool. Sean’s induction into this is to have Steve and I on his shoulder screaming at him to mend. “I said mend, that’s a dribble. Throw that line out the end of your rod man!” It’s an abrupt introduction, but eventually Sean delivers a couple of juicy mends, and thwack, the healthy rainbows are all too eager to grab a nymph for breakfast. We’re using a combination of double tungsten beads on the bottom and a single tungsten on the dropper with a large distance to the indicator. I tied up some Two Bit Hookers for the trip, mainly because I like the name, and they do the trick, with a Hares Ear, Flash Back PT or Prince Nymph on top. The rainbows are all a chunky 4 to 6 lb, pulling hard, and Sean’s look of elation is priceless as we take turns at laying into these fit trout. Fishing the canyons from a raft is the only way to easily cover the water in this part of the Rangitikei. Mikayla expertly navigates the waves and obstacles as her father scoots ahead on foot to scout the next “honey hole.” It almost feels like bludging, they make it so easy. Our only job is to fish, and fish well, and we happily keep up our end of the deal. BUBBLE LINE SIPPERS As the canyon begins to warm up, the bubble lines become more evident. Flowing hard up against the base of a 50 metre cliff, the lines are barely a foot wide and always on the other side of a broad stretch of slack water, or even a back eddy. Lesson number two for Sean. The fish are often surprisingly hard to detect, with the subtlest of tells. It’s often only the slight hint of nervous water, or if you’re lucky a couple of millimetres of nose briefly breaking the surface. “There’s one Did (dad in Kiwi)” we hear from Mikayla perched at the oars. I suspect that Steve has often seen the fish long before, but the interplay of master and apprentice is delightful to observe, especially between a father and a daughter. Often kids who grow up in a remote environment can’t wait to reverse their situation and move to the city. Not Mikayla. She is clearly at peace on the water she has spent her whole life on, and wholeheartedly committed to becoming a full-time guide. There is very little room for fancy mends on these bubble lines. Almost instant drag puts the sippers down straight away. Fortunately we change to dries for these fish and the chaotic casting of Two Bit Hookers and indicators can be forgotten momentarily. Dead accurate casts are now required with a short drift window in front of the fish before drag spoils the party. I find that half the tippet length again of what you might think, provides the perfect cushion to eliminate drag, but it does make accurate turnover challenging. Sean has always been adept at aerialising line, having spent his early years practising on his dam while I was off fishing. So the false casts aren’t a problem, but getting that delivery length right can be a bitch with a 12- foot (and then some) leader and less than a hoola hoop to land it in. Again he rises to the challenge and, after a couple of nice fish, is rewarded with a first-cast sighted fish alongside a papa cliff that looks like a moonscape. With the sound of Steve’s “STRIKE” echoing off the cliff, there’s no problem with the hook-up. It’s a cracking rainbow and definitely Sean’s proudest moment on the trip. THE WATER BEYOND After a couple of days together, it begins to feel like we are being adopted into the Mattock clan, with Steve holding court at the family dinner table each night, regaling us and their other guests with endless tall stories and inappropriate jokes. The eyelids of the varsity quarterback and dermatologist couple from West Virginia nearly peel back at Steve’s joke about the Kiwi, the sheep with its head in the fence, and the Aussie who decides to join in the fun by sticking his head in the fence. We’re having so much fun that we cancel our heli trip into the backcountry, so we can explore some of Steve’s favourite, less accessible locations in the tributaries. We pass a bunch of helmet-wearing lemmings in a mini bus heading to our put-in. For many, rafting the Rangitikei is the experience of a lifetime, but for us it’s transport to the water beyond. After negotiating some heavier water, we take-out at the confluence of a major tributary. We had pored over this pretty stream on the map for weeks and it was everything we expected, with pool-run-pool setups for miles up the steeply cut valley. We barely walk 100 metres before spotting a hefty rainbow taking nymphs in the heart of a shallow pool. One cast is all it takes. We work our way up from pool to pool, with Sean and I going fish for fish. We are spotting fish right where you’d expect them to be, and if the drift is on line they are all too eager to eat. The day just dissolves in a haze of methodical fishing and the incredible surrounds, with every pool as though it were hand crafted specifically for the purpose of holding trout. On the way home, rafting back to Tarata, fish start to respond to a late afternoon mayfly hatch. Nothing extraordinary, but enough to spot a rise here and there. Pulling up above a large back eddy we carefully stalk up the back of the upstream gravel bank. Sure enough, in the tail of the deep, turquoise, reverse eddy is a nice rainbow working away at emergers, slurping them in mesmerising routine. “Sean you’re up buddy, this is the one.” I can literally see Sean’s hands shaking with anticipation as he stalks further up behind it. The first cast is a little short, but the second cast settles right in its window, with the fish coming up in slow motion from three feet below, nose then mouth up and over the little CDC emerger. “STRIKE” as the silence splinters with Steve’s now familiar cry. In an instant the scene goes from slow motion to full tilt as the rainbow drags Sean back and forth before tearing straight into the main current. Smart fish. “Give it line,” we shout, but to no avail as it takes 100 metres before the current helps break it clean off. Silence. MAGICAL WONDERLAND Mikayla re-joins us for the next adventure, where we down-scale our rafts to little two-person sprats. I’d been asking Steve since we arrived about the amazing gorge we crossed on the way in, about 30 metres deep and barely 10 metres wide. “Yeah we haven’t fished it much, but there’s fish in there for sure.” We bush bash our way to the put-in and start fishing straight away at a stunning waterfall pool. Again another place people would come just to look at the waterfall. The stream is bewildering. I know I’ve made Hobbit references in previous NZ articles, but seriously this emaciated canyon is like a magical wonderland of trout fishing. Waterfalls around every second bend, moss-covered canyon walls, and trout in every other corner. Amazingly the trout are as big as in the Rangitikei, only more challenging as we are approaching from upstream with no room to skirt around them. In the end the deadliest technique proves to be spotting sippers from the raft while floating toward them and delivering a cast straight at them and a few feet in front. Watching the fish rise to the fly from front-on is a real treat and the battle requires a fair bit of rod-and-raft ballet. Again my favourite CDC emerger does the trick every time. I love that fly and I’m pretty sure it’s now in Mikayla’s go-to fly box too. On our final day Sean and I fish on foot by ourselves. This is a perfect opportunity to apply the methods we have honed over the week. After a lot of fish, and even a double hook-up selfie for posterity, we reach the big back eddy again at the perfect time of day. We crawl over the gravel and sure enough, there she is, Sean’s bust-off beauty. “Can I have a shot at her? I think I have a plan.” She is a little deeper this time and working a wider circular beat. Disappearing into the gloom and then reappearing back where she started. I decide against my go-to emerger for a simple Pheasant Tail, no bead. “Can you see her…? Here she comes.” The nymph lands gently above her, settling into the film as she shifts her posture before angled fins tilt her steadily up to her meal. The plan is in play, which involves sprinting straight past the fish, across the slippery papa mudbank, almost falling into the pool, before turning her back toward the lee side of the eddy. Problem solved. The last and by far my most enjoyable fish of the trip. With the light rapidly fading, we stumble back down the river valley, exhausted from a packed week of fishing and adventure. I race ahead to try to find one last evening riser in the ‘home’ pool. Navigating the tall bankside grass tussocks I hear “Com’on boy, I’ve got the fire going and some cold beers for you.” Steve’s been waiting impatiently for us to hear about our day and has three chairs set by the fire. “Just hang on Steve, I wanna have a quick crack at those two fish rising in the back eddy there.” “Jees boy, you can’t get enough can you?” Damn right.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.