The Lighter Side

Thomas Clancy tours the North Island of New Zealand

My good mate Hugh Cherry and I could find something to laugh about at a funeral. Distasteful, yes, but true. And having lived, worked and endured high school together, we have had a lot of laughs. Our fishing trips are no exception. A comedy of errors often involving bankside slips into icy water, botched landings of personal best fish and gear malfunctions fuel the good times on the water. Thank god we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Reflecting on our recent trip to New Zealand’s North Island, I found it was these ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ moments that stuck in my mind. So, rather than retell our journey through rose coloured glasses, I’ve delivered it warts and all, in the hope that those little moments where it all goes wrong will bring a smile to your face as they do to mine. Preparations As luck would have it, Hugh’s work had him in Orange the week prior to our departure. This gave us a few windows to get out onto the local streams for some much needed practice. Hugh had only ever caught trout on conventional tackle, and only a handful at that. He did try fly fishing for them once, but snapped his rod on the second cast: priceless. Unsurprisingly, first impressions did not bode well for the trip ahead, with Hugh’s flies spending more time in the surrounding scrub than in the water. Long, eclectic chains of expletives continuously punctuated the tranquil, melodic symphony of gurgling water and bird song, as Hugh continued with his streak of bad luck. This reached a crescendo when he slammed the door of my truck into his brand new 5-weight the afternoon before we left for Sydney. Ouch. It was so disastrous that we couldn’t help but cry with laughter, although I suspect Hugh’s tears came from a different place than mine. After arriving in Wellington and organising our hire car, we headed to our first night’s accommodation. Things were looking up when we found complementary ice-cold Tuis waiting on our arrival. The feeling was short lived, however, as we soon found out I had booked a queen bed rather than two singles. The next morning we copped a final speculative look from the receptionist, packed up the hire car, and departed Wellington en route to Hawkes Bay, stopping only to purchase our fishing licences and a replacement rod for Hugh. The Tuki Tuki About an hour from our destination we passed over an alluring stretch of the upper Tuki Tuki River. Figuring we had made good time so far, we decided to have a quick look around. Hugh was up first, eager to land his first trout on fly. Two minutes into our tramp up the river Hugh excitedly pointed out a nice fish working a current line. His nerves were evident as he stripped line from his reel with shaky hands. I did my best to provide some reassurance, but truthfully I was holding my breath too. Impressively it only took Hugh, a complete novice, four casts to get the take, with two of those ending up wrapped around what looked to be the only stick on the entire bank behind him. Like a pro, Hugh struck on a vanishing indicator, putting a solid curve in his new rod. After a tense fight, Hugh was grinning ear to ear as he held his first trout on fly, a handsome 2.5 lb jack. A pat on the back and a celebratory nip of whiskey was shared between old friends — what a way to start the trip! Fishing the Tuki Tuki over the next few days was a blast. We sight cast to most of our fish, either with a pair of nymphs or a size 14 Parachute Adams. During our final afternoon on the Tuki, we were privy to a huge mayfly hatch that blanketed the river with endless rises from fish that had thrown caution to the wind. Having never fished dry flies before, Hugh was determined to land one of these reckless risers. After striking too early on a few takes earlier in the afternoon, he finally connected to a nice fish. I was standing behind him when he lifted the rod and set the hook, prompting me to give him a congratulatory slap on the back. He must have been in his own little world, because my slap seemed to surprise the hell out of him, causing a reactive jolt that sent a GT-strength second hook-set down the rod. This all happened as the fish was mid-jump, the force of which audibly popped the tippet and caused the fish to cartwheel in an extremely undignified manner through the air and back into the water. I’m sure he found it as funny as I did. The Waioeka Gorge Terrible casting on the Tuki meant an early morning stop at the ‘Rivers to Ranges’ store was needed, to stock up on flies and tippet for the week ahead. We then left the Hawkes Bay region and headed north, via Gisborne, to a farmstay in the heart of the Waioeka Gorge Scenic Reserve. As we decanted the contents of our hire car into the cabin, our host Max gallantly arrived astride a ride-on mower to welcome us to the property. It didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to fishing, where he gave us an encouraging nudge towards one of the Waioeka tributaries close by. That was all the convincing we needed to leave the unpacking for later and head out for the afternoon. We arrived at the stream as the last rays of light disappeared over the towering mountain ridges above us, and one cast into the clear tumbling waters of the pocket water was all it took to connect to a beautifully conditioned 3.5 lb hen. It was a very promising start. The next morning we enjoyed our breakfast out on the balcony and watched the mist evaporate from the surrounding fern-clad mountains. After brekkie it was a short drive through the farm to where a locked gate signalled it was time to walk the remainder of the winding old farm road up into the gorge, dodging herds of inquisitive cattle and sheep along the way. The gorge was beautiful: the river weaved wildly over broad beds of shingle, in hues of aquamarine and emerald that alternated between deep slow pools and tumultuous shallow runs. We mainly fished blind to likely lies with heavy size 12 or 10 tungsten bombs and trailing size 14–16 Hare and Coppers or similar, with most fish surprisingly taking the bigger fly. We did, however, get shots periodically throughout the day at rising fish with a mix of smaller Parachute Adams and Royal Wulff patterns. There was a large fish population in the upper reaches, all in immaculate condition. And with an average weight of 3 lb, it was almost a 50/50 split between battles won and lost, as the powerful fish took full advantage of the fast, angry water and our light tippets. The number of quality fish in this system and the surreal scenery provided some unforgettable wilderness fishing. On our second day of fishing the upper Waioeka I hooked a particularly well-conditioned fish that did everything it could to rid itself of my fly, and against all odds things were looking like swinging in my favour. Giving the signal to Hugh, he assumed net duties and waded out to the fish. In one final act of defiance, it bolted between his legs, snagging the trailing fly on his pants and winning its freedom. It took me a few moments of doggedly fighting Hugh’s right calf before I noticed the spreading smile on his face and realised what had happened. At least Hugh found it funny. It was a damn nice fish too, although I’m sure he would say otherwise. We spent a week at Wairata Station, fishing the Waioeka, its upper tributaries and nearby meadow streams (we had some fantastic sight fishing to browns on the Motu River). Towards the end of the week, a combination of twisted ankles, aching legs and oncoming colds from days spent in drizzly conditions saw us gravitate to spots a little closer to the cabin. On a whim, we hobbled down to a very fly-fishing-friendly pool some hundred metres from home, which, as luck would have it, contained a lot of quality fish. We named this ‘the Gentlemen’s Pool’ and would often fish it in the afternoons with a beer in hand, having a ball with more 3 lb ’bows. One such afternoon on this pool, while casting nymphs, Hugh sighted an aggressive rise in the well-formed bubble trail, and despite the small mayflies flickering through the hazy evening light, decided not to match the hatch and instead tied on a whopper (relatively speaking) size 10 Royal Wulff, and swung it downstream. I was mid-way through giving him crap about his fly choice when the trout, just to prove me wrong, inhaled his offering. After a very energetic fight he was rewarded with a very handsome 3 lb jack. The Tongariro We left early from Wairata Station on our final morning by the Waioeka, arriving at the Sportsman’s Lodge in Turangi with the better part of the afternoon ahead of us. Wanting to start with our best foot forward we called in at Sporting Life to get an update on the river and stock up on some local flies. At the time of our visit (spring), the majority of angling pressure had subsided and the river was alive with ravenous post-spawners. I had wanted to fish the Tongariro since watching Tom and Rob do the same in A River Somewhere when I was a boy, and it was an incredible feeling to work my way through its world-famous pools as they once did. Each morning we sat down to breakfast in the Creel Tackle House and Café in Turangi, where we enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and perused archives of old fly fishing magazines from many decades earlier. We fished our way along the river from the Bridge Pool to the upper winter limits, catching fish everywhere we went, often in complete solitude (except for those damn white water rafters). The evenings supplied us with some great dry fly fishing too, spurred on by mayfly and green caddis hatches. Final Thoughts So many other moments come to mind when I think about our time spent touring around the North Island. Whether it was Hugh failing miserably at his attempt to cast 15 feet of leader to a feeding brown only six feet away in cyclonic winds, me confidently grabbing hold of an electric fence after a full day wet wading, or Hugh shattering my fly rod with a wayward back-cast and tungsten bead fly, they all combine to form some great memories. We encountered an abundance of quality fish in some absolutely stunning locations, but for me it will always be those funny moments shared on the water between good mates that make a fishing trip truly memorable.

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