Roadside Rainbows

David Freudenberger settles for virtual wilderness fishing in New Zealand

I’m a big fan of backcountry adventures on both sides of the Tasman (FlyLife #51, #59). The rewards of a long hike to a dashing clear river are many and varied. It’s not just about the fish; it’s about the solitude — the wonderful state of separation from the distractions and pressures of the modern world. But solitude comes at a price — sharing it with a bunch of mates is a contradiction. And if your mates are on the other side of 60, with dodgy knees or a titanium hip, a long bush- bash is asking too much, even if the spirit is willing. So I set myself a different challenge — wilderness-like fishing no more than an hour from a car park. Once again New Zealand delivers. The experience just a short stroll from the car was indeed satisfying, particularly the buzz of sharing it with three mates, including one who had never fly-fished before. Unfortunately most trips have to start from a major city, so the traffic snarl of getting out of town tests one’s patience, Auckland included. Sure, we could have hopped on a regional flight to a provincial city like Napier to by-pass 45 minutes of traffic, but then we’d have missed the bargain of a cheaper rental car available in Auckland. At least, once out of this sprawling city, time to a river destination is much less than the long haul from Sydney or Melbourne to the Snowy Mountains. Don’t forget the beer Next challenge — how to squeeze four blokes and their luggage into a hire car that failed to come with a baggage rack. We just made it, but then we needed to stock up with four days of groceries. The riverside cabin I booked was a long way from the nearest grocery by NZ standards (Opotiki was an hour away). So how to create more room in a station wagon? Think outside the boot — or rather inside it, in this case a generous spare tyre well. We packed every spare centimetre of the well with dietary requirements, red wine included. That’s another downside of hoofing a long way into the bush: most grog gets left behind unless you’ve got a strong mule of a young mate to haul it. This time we had a fine selection of local beers and wines, though the wine buffs in the group insisted on a few robust Australian reds in the mix. I have to admit it was good to have a full larder. Freeze dried meals keep one going in the back country, but Owen’s big breakfast fry-ups were a treat. Riverside huts & tracks Fly fishing in both Australia and New Zealand is remarkably egalitarian. For a small price there are some great guide books and similar guidance from the internet. Just google ‘NZ fish and game access’ to freely download enough maps of river access points to explore new places for years. Accommodation is also available for all tastes and budgets, from basic $15 a night huts listed by the Department of Conservation, to five star lodges with every comfort laid on. For us ageing geezers, privately owned huts on the North Island’s Waioeka and Ruakituri rivers were our base for a week of comradeship and quality angling. A short stroll had us on the water for an evening rise. Thirty minutes of poking along gravel roads had us accessing many kilometres of river with room for the four of us to spread out along riffles and pools. The small creek experience was also on the cards as Richard and I explored some of the many tributaries of the Waioeka. First time on fly It had been on Owen’s life list to eventually take up the fly rod after over 50 years of diverse bait and spin fishing. Knowing this, it wasn’t hard to convince him to have a go with fur and feathers. I gave him a couple of casting lessons on a farm dam and he managed a bit of practice before heading across the Tasman. He started on the Waioeka with spin gear just to be sure of getting at least one Kiwi trout of decent proportions, but then he took on the challenge of the fly rod with gusto on the intimate and fertile Koranga River (upper tributary of the Waioeka). My objective was to get my mates onto some quality fish within an hour’s stroll of the car, and the Kor-anga has never let me down. After a pleasant amble through native forest we fanned out along the river, Richard and Mark upstream, Owen and I down. I put Owen onto a promising pool next to a few willows and I headed down to a nearby run. I got in a couple of casts, then looked upstream in delight to see Owen’s fly rod bending and shaking to a fine rainbow. He’d already hooked and lost one on a nymph, but the second came in without any antics amongst the willows. His casts weren’t pretty, his gear was basic, but they placed the fly in the right drift with a minimum of fuss. And he ended up catching more fish than the rest of us! His next fish was just as satisfying for us both. A lie close to the bank held promise, so I stepped aside and, right on cue, Owen was on to a rainbow that pulled hard and strong. I can now see the appeal of being a guide. It’s a great feeling, knowing a river well enough to confidently share its joys. Eel on fly After getting Owen’s fish on camera it was my turn. I worked my fly along a pool I remembered from six years earlier. It was the source of the great ‘one that got away’ – you don’t easily forget those pools. Once again it delivered with a well-conditioned rainbow that I eased down into a backwater ready to net. Suddenly there was a lot more weight on the line. One of the many eels in this river had grabbed onto the belly of the trout and wasn’t letting go. Nothing for it but to net the two of them. It finally let go when I lifted the pair out of the water. The productivity of these North Island rivers always astounds me, and it’s not just the 1–2 kilo trout likely in every pool and run. I purposefully kept a fish frame from dinner to run a bit of an experiment (we scientists are always on the job). Once we got down to the river, I put the frame at the edge of a pool in 20 cm of water. It brought in over a dozen eels in a matter of minutes. I now understand how Maori legends of great creatures originated out of these dark and deep pools. Remarkable Ruakituri We could have fished the Waioeka system for the week, but I’d been hankering to take on the fabled rainbows of the Ruakituri. After refueling with beer and espresso in Gisborne, we headed back inland and up the Ruakituri valley road. Our host, Davis Canning, was waiting for us at his simple but fine old hut. It has heard many a fishing tale from five decades of family and friends and he now generously shares it, for a modest price, with characters like us. I thought it a bit parochial that he’s been fishing the river for 60 years to the near exclusion of all the other fine rivers in the upper Hawkes Bay, but I didn’t think that a few days later! The density and physicality of the rainbows and browns just a short stroll from numerous roadside pullouts must be experienced to be believed. Davis advised us to use 10–12 lb tippet or else… It felt ludicrous to tie a size 16 nymph to such thick material but we all lost more fish on 12 lb tippets than we caught. Some broke the line, others straightened the hook. Owen (he’s getting too good with the fly rod) managed to hook a fish likely nudging 10 lb, but the dogged beauty, after running this way and that, and leaping clear of the water eight times, got under a rock and head-shook the tippet to smithereens. Even after 60 years, Davis has yet to land one of these legendary fish, though they are frequently hooked. He’s still got that young man’s itch to score. Good on ya! Exposed rocks Perhaps part of the Ruakituri’s magic is the density of large boulders, many of them only partially submerged. Before picking up my mates in Auckland I attended a science conference that included a field trip on creek ecology and riparian restoration (yes there are a few perks being a nerd). We helped sample aquatic insects and learned about their habitat prefer- ences. It turns out that half-submerged rocks are habitat hotspots for trout tucker. You’ve probably noticed mayfly and stonefly husks on these rocks a few centimetres above the water line. Turns out that they drift onto the boulders then crawl up and out of the water to metamorphose into adults. These half and fully submerged rocks are also the feeding ground for aquatic insects that graze on the algal films growing on stable rocks. So pay close attention to boulder fields in any river. Time and again we nearly stepped on 30–40 cm fish just submerged amongst the slippery rocks. Smaller rocks in high energy and flood prone rivers are constantly being abraded of their algal films as they tumble about. Such unstable rivers tend to have far fewer fish. Similarly, rivers filled with just sand and fine gravels are generally barren wastelands. Local lore Enough lecturing. One of the great things about fly fishing is that it nurtures a diverse and unexpected range of friends and acquaintances. This particular sojourn brought together a retired government bureaucrat, an internationally experienced journalist, a farmer, and an academic — me. Together we had more than 200 years of accumulated stories to share over long evening chats if we weren’t out chasing the evening caddis hatch. Our tales were mixed with many shared by our hut owning hosts. We learned of the challenges of farming such steep hill country and the amazing value the once useless scrub now has, producing manuka honey that even hospitals are using as an effective treatment for infected wounds. We learned of the outstanding sustainability of the Ruakituri fishery. Davis showed us his father’s meticulous daily catch records of the 1960–80s. The catch rate and trout size today is as good as ever, even though fishing pressure is far greater. I find sightseeing as a tourist, just passing through, not much better than voyeurism. But a trout rod and vest gets one connecting with a place. Being close to roads and towns, we met other Kiwis as well as international fisher folk. Our roadside huts meant an easy invitation to drop by for a beer and a yarn come sundown. A yearn for the next trout sucks us in to the riverlands of each place with its unique visual, auditory and experiential tableau. A river or fine lake is never ‘been there, done that’. Rather they are places to eagerly return to in memory and in person. Wilderness of the mind Yes, I still itch to get backcountry — next trip. But the rewards of roadside angling are fine ones too. Sure, occasionally I was distracted by a B-Double truck grinding along the road carrying in hay for the local farms. But fly fishing requires such concentration that we’re joyously oblivious to almost everything except the river and drifting dry-fly indicator. Yes, we saw a few other people on the rivers, but that was no issue, we simply drove on another kilometre. Finding others already on a favourite river reach after 10 km of tough hiking, that’s another matter, but not one we had to contend with this time. A virtual backcountry experience is readily available, particularly if you’re able and willing to stroll an hour or so from the car with no more than a raincoat and sandwich in your pack. So yes, I’m planning my next backcountry adventure with a mate with young legs, but I’m also planning a reunion with my other-side-of-60 mates. As soon as I join them at 60 and sort of retire, we’re going back to the Koranga and Ruakituri. Bring it on.

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