Reset In The Backcountry

Piero Bertocchi seeks solitude in the North Island of New Zealand

There is something about fishing in the New Zealand backcountry that gets under your skin. I lived in Wellington for three years and it had been two years since leaving. I missed the relaxed and unhurried lifestyle. I also missed the fishing. Sydney is now home. The harbour city is vibrant but the pace of life is hectic. I needed to reset. A two-week trip back to NZ was just the therapy I craved. My flights were booked for early January. The plan was to get a cheap hire car and follow the good weather, fishing my old terrain. Getting as far away from the hustle and bustle and finding solitude was essential; catching trout would be a bonus! I arrived to a glorious day in Wellington. Oriental Beach was packed with people enjoying the best of summer. It was delightful to see the pohutukawa trees with their brilliant display of red flowers as I drove through the city, flooded with enjoyable memories. With my coffee craving now satisfied and stocked up with supplies, it was time to go fishing. FISHING NOMAD I was glad to swap the harsh drone of cars and planes for the mellow bubbling of the river, but I had a peculiar feeling. I hadn’t fished for nearly a year — the longest break since taking up fly fishing. I was going to be rusty… Putting these thoughts aside, I prepared myself and walked upstream. The fine weather was meant to last for a good part of the day. It took me longer than expected to find my first trout. I needn’t have worried — the muscle memory was instinctual. Time is a perplexing thing. It seemed like two years could have been two weeks — it was as though I’d never left. It was an enjoyable day with only modest numbers, but a great way to begin the trip. Rain arrived overnight and settled in by morning. It was time for this fishing nomad to move on. With much of the lower island receiving rain, I pushed further north to Lake Otamangakau. Otamangakau is a special place (FL#83). I was invigorated just by being there — but it wasn’t going to give up its extraordinary trout. It was unusually hot and the damselflies were only present in dribs and drabs, when normally they are in the thousands. Consequently, the activity on the lake’s margins was lacking. I gave it two days and decided to move on. My next call would be an idyllic lowland river. With overcast skies and intermittent showers, I was confident I would have the water to myself. It’s a magical place to fish — excellent sight fishing but also great nymphing water and pools for variety. I was pleasantly surprised by the head of fish. I stayed on to fish the morning, which extended into a whole day — the fishing was better than the day before! I was pleased with the trip so far, but the real aim was to do an extended trek in the backcountry. Time was racing away. The forecast was predicting heavy rain for the next two days, followed by a window of reasonable weather later in the week — my last opportunity. Back in Wellington it was a chance to meet up with friends and squeeze in a short trip to my old home water, the Wainuiomata River. The river was high from recent rain but very fishable. I made a rushed start and spooked a good fish. I admonished myself. I needed to treat the river with the respect it deserved. The conditions were pleasant and the clouds were clearing. With the mid-afternoon sun on my back, it was ideal for spotting the large ‘Wainui’ browns holding in the faster water. It was the best session I’d had on the river — netting seven fish in the space of three hours. All were in excellent condition and most around the 5 lb mark. I was on a roll but it was time to move on. The backcountry fishing tomorrow wouldn’t be this easy! THE BACKCOUNTRY BECKONS I always get a little nervous about venturing into the backcountry alone. The weather in these parts can deteriorate quickly. I knew the water levels were fairly high but I only had this window of opportunity. The gorgy section of the river would present a few precarious crossings and one in particular that requires a leap over a powerful chute into waist deep water. Attentiveness and sure footing is needed. Any apprehension faded on the walk in. Upon entering the beech and podocarp forest that cloaks the impressive valley, an intense feeling of exhilaration beckons you on. The first fish was hooked in a shallow glide of super-clear water. Luckily, I didn’t get the usual first fish jitters, netting it calmly. Catching all those browns yesterday added to my confidence. It was a good start but the weather wasn’t going to play the game. The thin high-level clouds weren’t going to clear but thankfully the wind kept away. When conditions are like this, you have to accept that you will spook fish and not even realise it. You certainly have to earn your fish in the backcountry at any time, but now there was an added layer of difficulty. I hadn’t seen much in the last hour or so, and then I spotted one. The sizable trout was holding in front of a distinct orange-coloured rock on the far side of the river. I crossed the river and readied myself. As I was about to cast, the trout turned downstream, just missing a mayfly lifting off the water. I worried that it might have seen me silhouetted against the bank but it resumed its position. Its next feeding opportunity would be a flying ant pattern, which it accepted readily. Ably hooked, the brown trout blasted downstream towards a huge rock where it anchored in the deep pool. I raced downstream to catch up, and after a lengthy struggle back and forth I managed to get him to the net. I let out a triumphant call — you can only get this feeling when fishing in wild places! Wilderness fishing My two days of wilderness fishing were intense and varied. One fish took me on a joy ride down five sets of rapids. I have learnt from experience that in most cases it is better to just let them run. This fish was certainly testing my theory. It would run downstream, hold in the current, I’d catch up and it would run down again to the next pool. All caution disappeared. Difficult river crossings I would normally bypass or carefully negotiate were done impulsively with one arm outstretched with rod held high. After a fruitful release, walking back upstream, I was questioning myself — did I just cross that section? Every fish in the wilderness is memorable. The fish you miss are sometimes more so! Concealed behind a cluster of small trees, I spotted a ghostly silhouette materialise against the fine grey riverbed. It was running an extended beat in a splendid pool, only becoming visible on its course upstream. Inching forward to a casting spot, I thought it was a sure thing. My first cast was off target and the Para-Adams didn’t have a natural drift, but it was close enough to have the shrewd brown investigate and then lose interest. I stealthily changed to a blowfly pattern and waited, hoping it wasn’t spooked. Again it returned on its beat but I wasn’t ready to cast. Patience is vital! Eventually the fish returned and a better cast had it move ever so slowly to sip the fly down. Pause and strike, but the fly lifts out! Why? Had I waited too long or did I strike too quickly? In a fit of amused disbelief I made particular note of the pool and a commitment to one-day return for this one. On another unsuccessful occasion I spent substantial time crouched, trying to tempt a good fish that was lazily feeding on emergers on the edge of a slow pool in the late afternoon. Despite numerous fly changes the only bites I got were from the ravenous midges. I would land two determined fish before the day’s end, adding to a decent tally, which undoubtedly made up for those missed. The last fish was distinctly coloured with a greyish blue back and head. I love seeing blue hues in nature. It was a striking fish. NIGHT WALK When I resumed upstream it became apparent that I was fast running out of light and I was still a good distance from my planned camping spot. The walk out tomorrow would be a long and arduous hike, so I couldn’t see the sense of walking an hour upstream only to have to walk the same ground in the morning. I vaguely recalled that the track was fairly well marked but had a few breaks and diversion around fallen trees and slips. So I decided to head back to a hut on the track, thinking I could make it back in an hour and a half. A bit of spontaneous adventure would be good for the soul… It wasn’t long into the walk when I lost the track! No marker to be seen in the ravine, I re-traced and tried different options to no avail. All the while, valuable light was disappearing. Now, almost dark, the sensible course of action was to camp up, but I decided to bush-bash and thankfully rejoined the track. All was good again. It was slow going but I got into a rhythm — illuminate the ground, illuminate trees, spot marker, make mental note of marker, repeat. There were a few times I was convinced I had lost the track but eventually I’d find it. All the while I was becoming exhausted. I needed to stay focused. Despite this, the final part proved dicey. I sliced my hand on a spiky bush after slipping, got within two steps of a sheer drop and took a fall when I stepped into a hole, giving my knee and shoulder a knock. I arrived at the hut somewhat battered but morale was high. It was almost midnight — my timing was a little out! Brown rice never tasted so good. At least I had halved the distance of the walk back for the following day. Those few days in the backcountry had produced a respectable number of wild brown trout, stunning scenery and solitude. I had found what I was looking for. It is not about fishing on the perfect day but rather the gratifying quest to perfect one’s ability in difficult and challenging situations, and making the best of what wilderness brings. The reset button had been successfully hit, and my therapy was complete.

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