Taruarau Rainbows

Greg French explores the Hawke’s Bay backcountry in NZ

Ric and I are in the middle of the North Island driving east, looking for respite from nation-wide floods. We suspect that we are just inside the south-western boundary of the Kaweka Forest Park, though we can’t be sure because we are here on a whim and don’t have a decent map. All we can tell from the road signs is that we’ve turned off the sealed Taihape Road and we’re heading south up the gravelly Comet Road, which has been partially washed away. Clearly ‘Road’ is aspirational. A battered sedan is coming towards us, and we have to pull our small hire car into a deep culvert. The 20-something driver draws alongside and stops to talk through his wound-down window. He says that his name is Stumpy. “I’ve alriddy trimped into thu Taruarau an fushed the arse out of ut,” he apologises. “Ya might be bitter off going to the Mohaka or somewhere.” “The Mohaka is blown out because of the cyclone,” I lament. “Floods everywhere,” Ric elaborates. “This is the only patch of sun we’ve been able to find. We noticed that the Taruarau is low and clear. How’s the backcountry stretch further down the valley?” “Clear uz. Hard fushin, but. Bugger of a year for cicadas. Too wit.” I nod. “Too cold,” he adds. He’s got to be joking. Spontaneously, I wipe the sweat off my brow. Ric reaches for some Tui beers and passes them around. Stumpy reciprocates by reaching for his fly vest. “Here, hiv some of these. My own pittern.” The flies are oddly proportioned: short and stocky, rather like Stumpy himself. After we’ve finished our small-talk and drained our beers, we wish each other luck and drive our separate ways. I manage to cajole our hire car all the way to the road’s end, where there’s a tiny turning circle and a crude public hut, the Komata Hut according to the routered nameplate on the front door. It’s clad in flat iron and painted yellowy orange. Ours is the only car here, which is convenient because it would be a tight fit if there were any more. We hop out, back into the blistering heat. We are surrounded by scrub and stunted trees, mainly American lodgepole pines. What are they doing in a forest park? There’s nothing tall enough to offer decent shade, but at least there’s a water tank. We drink our fill and top up a couple of plastic bottles. The hut looks like a backcountry bivvy, with a small entry porch at one of the gable ends, and four bunks inside. It would be much more useful if it had been built at the end of the walking track, near the river. We are impressed, given its location, that it has not been vandalised. Then again, this is New Zealand and your average Kiwi has a lot more respect for public infrastructure than does your average Aussie. The best thing is that a 1:50 000 Topo Map has been hung inside above the kitchen table. We study the contours. First the track goes straight up 200 metres. After that, it levels out for a couple of kilometres. Then it plunges straight down 750 metres to the river. According to a Fish and Game pamphlet on the table, the walk in should take about one-and-a-half hours, which seems optimistic. According to John Kent’s guide book, also on the table, the walk out could take more than four hours, which seems pessimistic. I take a high-res photo of the map for reference during our tramp, then we go back outside and start getting our gear together. “How much food should we take?” I ask. “No good going all that way for less than two full days on the river,” says Ric. “So, three nights then. We have enough meat and fresh vegetables for two nights. I suppose we can eat fish on the last night. I’ll take some Cajun spice.” “Assuming we catch any fish,” says Ric. “Stumpy didn’t seem to go much on our chances, and I get the feeling he’s a pretty good fisherman.” Ten minutes later, as we head off on our tramp, Ric and I are still discussing whether or not fish can become ‘educated’. I recount the time on February Plains when I caught a frog-feeding brown trout three times over four days. And this reminds Ric of the time he caught a creek-resident rainbow trout in a small pool on almost every visit over an entire summer. We’re feeling better now. DOWN, DOWN, DOWN After a bit of a grunt we summit Komata, 1083 m above sea level. Then we have a pleasant stroll through the last of the pines before reaching the precipice. I look down, down, down into the valley. We’re so high we can’t see the water, or even hear it. The good thing is that the descent passes through primal rainforest. But the track is poorly benched and has too few switchbacks. Despite the shade the air is hot and humid, still and close. Never has going downhill seemed so arduous. At least the cicadas are starting to sing. On the trunk of a single manuka we count forty of the large green-grey clapping variety. Finally, not far from where the track fords the river, we enter a tiny glade. There’s a fireplace, and nearby a permanent trickle of cold water. It’s idyllic. Ric races off to wash in the Taruarau and I set up the tent. Then, while gathering firewood I find a cache of camping gear. It looks like it hasn’t been used in ages. The most prominent piece of equipment appears to be a hard-sided plastic briefcase. Curious, I examine it. It unfolds mechanically, like one of those Transformer toys, morphing into a table with four permanently attached chairs. It’s clunky and ugly, and must surely weigh several kilos. Hilarious. Who would ever have considered carrying it all the way down that interminable bloody hillside? I set off to find Ric. The last bit of track down to the river is particularly steep and gravelly. How come it hasn’t eroded into a canyon? I deduce that hardly anyone visits this river, and this makes me happy. Which makes me wonder if I too somehow buy into the mythology about backcountry rivers being easily overfished. Ric is busy casting to a pod of big fish lying deep down in crystal-clear water at the head of the first pool. “How’s it going?” I ask. “No response,” he says. “Do you think Stumpy’s spooked them?” “Nah,” I insist. We both know that it’s always hard to catch deep-lying fish when they’re protected by complex currents where it’s impossible to get the fly down quickly and maintain natural drift at the same time. The logical thing would be to ignore them, but… In the morning we wake to the melody of tuis. After a hot breakfast we wander down to the river and begin fishing our way upstream. There was a time, even last year, when I was a better river fisherman than Ric. Superficially we may have looked like equals, but I was slightly better at spotting fish in heavy current. Slightly better at predicting lies in riffly water. Slightly more confident in my selection of flies. Slightly more accurate with my first presentations. Slightly better at managing micro-drag. And the cumulative effect of all this was that I sometimes out-fished Ric ten to one. That was then. Ric is truly my equal now. We discover that the pools on the bends can only be fished from one side. The runs, on the other hand, are open enough and broad enough for us to fish on opposite banks without encroaching upon each other’s currents and pockets. There are no fish stationed in the prime areas, only deep down. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that despite several cicadas landing on my shirt – and the odd Jurassic-sized dragonfly too – there’s surprisingly little food on the water. We continue to prospect our way up the currents though, using WMD grasshoppers in preference to ‘Stumpy Cicadas’ because they are so easy to see. BIG, DUMB RAINBOWS The first few fish we catch are small, chrome rainbows weighing between one and two pounds, all from the riffles. They seemingly come from nowhere, and are ridiculously powerful. Then, finally, we start spotting bigger fish in shallow water. Most of these are rainbows weighing three to five pounds, and they are also chrome and strong. Every trout that’s properly in station inhales the fly beautifully but sometimes, in our enthusiasm, we muck-up the strike. Pricked fish either sulk around looking for hidey-holes or shoot off upstream but we rarely lose sight of them. After a minute or so, when their body language looks right, we take another shot. Usually the fly is scoffed immediately, other times we have to tie on a nymph, but we almost always end up getting a second take. Big, dumb rainbows. The largest trout always scream off into the backing. We chase after the first couple, running along the banks where possible, wading back and forth across treacherous riffles where necessary, and usually end up beaching them one or two pools downstream from where they were hooked. Then we become less single-minded. If landing a runaway trout looks like it’s going to take too much effort, we apply the brakes. Sometimes the hook straightens, sometimes the tippet breaks. Who cares? There’s bound to be plenty more fish in the next riffle or pool. Three river-kilometres upstream from camp, the sun slides past the canyon wall and we are left in shadow. We meet up around the far side of a big pool, at the head of a backwater which happens to be fed by a tiny tributary gutter. Deep down is a cluster of big fish, including the only brown trout we’ve seen all day. The inflowing current is soft and technically simple, and we end up landing several giant fish on heavily weighted nymphs. Then we begin making our way back downstream. We are almost sated by now, and only stop to cast to fish that are actively feeding. Even so, we catch several more rainbows, including one decorated with a WMD grasshopper and another decorated with a Stumpy Cicada. It’s almost dark by the time we reach camp. We reclaim a six-pack of Tui beer from the cold-water trickle, and sit at the Transformer table beside a too-hot fire preparing steak and vegetables. Tomorrow it would be nice to race upstream to the backwater and start fishing from there, exploring new water for the rest of the day. After all, according to the map on the LCD screen of my camera, we’d enjoy another two river-kilometres inside the Kaweka wilderness before breaking out into Pohokura Station. We suspect we won’t get any further than we did today, though. We don’t have the sort of willpower that’s going to be required to walk past all the fish we’ll undoubtedly see en route, not even those that have been caught once or twice already.

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