South Island Flipside

Joshua Hutchins swaps the backcountry for Twizel’s bridges, canals and power stations

The rain is heavy as I fumble with my tent poles and try to set up for the night. My hands, shivering from the cold, drive the pegs into muddy earth. The temperature is dropping and I am already drenched. Matt, my fishing buddy, is also struggling in the rain. It’s almost dark and I’ve lost all hope of getting dry. Yet, amidst my discomfort, I have a growing sense of satisfaction. Today was my best day of the season so far. Fast forward five months and Matt and I summon the waitress over to our table. It’s the third time we’ve been here in four days and the third time we’re ordering dessert. The fire crackles in the background, chilled music fills the room and red wine soothes the moment as we reflect on the last few days of our trip. Yes, last season, fishing with Matt in New Zealand’s bountiful South Island, I experienced two very different adventures. One, entrenched in the raw depths of the backcountry, and the other, housed in the clean comforts of an urban setting. Grant Febery of Loop Tackle introduced me to Matt Jones several years ago. Knowing how regularly I visited the South Island, he suggested I get in touch with a young guy from Christchurch named Matt. “I think you’ll get on well,” Grant said, “Matt is very fishy.” A Facebook message later, and we had planned our first fishing meet-up. My first few trips with this enthusiastic angler were unsuccessful, but the friendship remained. Our luck soon changed and with each new season we would throw out crazy ideas as to where to explore next. The 2015/16 season was no different, and we decided to start the year with a back- country hike into Matt’s extended backyard – the Canterbury Region. Backcountry Bliss November quickly rolled around, and the excitement of another backcountry adventure loomed. Unfortunately, I have a horrible habit of packing my luggage only hours before a trip. “Do I need waders?” I typed to Matt via Facebook chat. The question seemed redundant considering that in the past five years I’ve never bothered to take them. New Zealand is wet-wading heaven, right? My phone buzzed. “They’re predicting snow down to 600 metres on the second day. Maybe pack them just in case.” In went the waders, along with a few extra layers. Not messing around, Matt picked me up from the airport, we stocked-up on supplies and began our passage towards the backcountry. A two-and -a-half-hour drive and the sun was starting to set. We parked the car and loaded up our packs. “You know where you’re going, right?” I asked, in quickly fading light. “Yeah it can’t be too hard,” he said, “We just follow this track until we get to the lake. From there we follow our noses.” Perhaps it was his accent, but he sounded confident. Dodging sheep and hedgehogs, we hiked our way in pitch black until we felt we had done enough. It was the first time I’d hiked a new trail at night, and despite the obvious risks, it gave me a heightened anticipation of what we would discover next day. We set up camp and waited for the morning to reveal just how far we’d come. The sun rose, we packed up our camp and began to fish our way up the river. It was surprisingly warm and the tail end of a nor-westerly provided a false sense of security before the predicted southerly rolled in. Matt spotted the first fish, and landed it quickly. A respectable eight-pounder and a good first strike on the board. The next run was mine, and a heavily feeding brown trout soon revealed its position. One cast over the top and no reaction from the fish. I changed fly to something heavier and, as I’d hoped, the large brown moved towards it. My indicator dropped and I prepared for the fight. “This one looks big!” I said, instantly discrediting Matt’s previous fish. A swift netting and the scales read 10.25 pounds. Matt, a competitive kiwi, rarely lets me get away with being one up, and several runs later landed a stunning ten-pounder himself. The day kept getting better and better, with several more big browns and one surprise rainbow. We were ecstatic about the day and couldn’t believe how perfectly things had turned out. And then came the rain… Urban Warfare For years I had heard about monster fish at Twizel. The town’s sprawling canal systems and diverted lakes are an essential source of New Zealand’s hydro-electric power. These canals have also seen the development of commercial salmon farming, with the fish fattened on pellets in netted pens. But because these waterways are connected to lakes and rivers, trout have also taken up residence. The biggest of these trout, along with escapee salmon, live near the pens and feed off the excess food. It’s not the most natural of environments, but with talk of fish in excess of 40 pounds, you should try everything at least once, right? With this in mind, Matt and I set the dates for our final trip of the season and decided to give the Twizel fishing a go. Once again, I flew in, but for the first time brought no hiking or camping gear. We booked a comfortable hotel in downtown Twizel and planned to fish any water within 20 minutes of town. This was a completely new fly-fishing experience for me, far removed from our water-logged adventure of a few months earlier. Our four day plan was to try for a monster trout in the canals, fish a few of the local lakes, and have one last try in any close-by rivers. According to Matt, high flows in the canals associated with peak electricity demand produce the best fishing. And so that is what we hoped for. Passing through Tekapo we stopped for a toilet break and checked out the view of the lake. Not much further on we made another pit stop at Lake Pukaki. A quick inspection of one of the bridges revealed some large trout cruising below. “I think it’s time to get the rods set up,” I said, looking over to find Matt already rigging up. The fish we’d spotted appeared to be chasing baitfish, so I was quick to attach a streamer and head back along the bridge. “Here he is!” I yelled out as a fish appeared right below me. With barely a cast my streamer lay a few metres in front of it. One twitch and the brown zoomed forward to inhale the fly. I struck, the fish aggressively turned on its side, just enough to reveal its large size, and then broke free! I may have gone a little hard on that one. A few more follows and we moved on to check into our hotel. By now the afternoon was drawing in and we decided to explore some of the canals in preparation for the days ahead. To our surprise they were barely flowing, and either extremely dirty with glacial silt, or gin clear. This could prove to be a hard week. Evening came around, and we decided to do something I’ve done very little of in the South Island – night fishing. Matt knew of a few close-by rivers that can hold large trout late in the season, so we decided to give that a try. And we certainly weren’t expecting what we got. Fishing down and across, with a somewhat erratic style of retrieve, I was the first to connect with a fish. Your senses are amplified in the dark, and so, what turned out to be a 13.5 pound angry rainbow provided the most fun I’d had in ages. We caught a few more trout in the seven to ten pound range, and a surprise 15 pound salmon. “This is awesome!” I kept calling out, my voice echoing through the darkness. We hit a dead patch and then, like an intruder in the night, the silence was broken with an intense splashing sound in Matt’s direction. We were fishing Lumo Flies (glow in the dark style streamers) with floating and intermediate lines, so the flies were very close to the surface, producing loud takes. “This feels massive,” Matt called out as I turned on my head torch. He was already well into the backing and making his way downstream towards me. This ‘massive’ rainbow turned out to be 25 pounds, almost resembling a wild steelhead buck. A truly impressive fish. Day two and we made our way to the canals to find the unthinkable — no flow. Ever persistent, we managed a few nice sized salmon and trout and were taunted by some crafty browns that looked in excess of 30 pounds. We then decided to head back and explore some of the other lake margins and rivers. After all, there were so many options close by. The closest to town, Lake Ruantaniwha, almost felt too convenient. Even here, so close to civilization, we caught some great fish. We love our die-hard backcountry adventures but could see how addictive this urban-style fishing can be. A comfortable night’s sleep, decent food and easy access by car seemed a world away from our usual New Zealand experience, but we certainly had a lot of fun. And frankly, that’s enough for me to want to come back and do it all again. Well, that and a potential 45 pound brown…

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