The Mataura in Retrospect

Dougal Rillstone describes his deep connection with an iconic South Island river and its trout.

My first memory involves the Mataura River. On a summer afternoon in 1953, just south of Gore, I caught my first trout. I had recently turned four, and the impact of the fish was so powerful that the memory of that afternoon hasn’t faded. I was born just a long stone’s throw from the Mataura, and lived a short walk from the river until I left for University. The river was my pool and playground, and this vivid connection with the river and the natural world around it shaped my existence. By the time I went to high school, I was as tethered to the Mataura by my early experiences, as I imagine a salmon is to its natal place. While my connection with the Mataura was formed during childhood, it has been fishing — fly fishing in particular — that’s kept me close to the river over the ensuing decades. Not only has it been my excuse to spend over 1500 days on the Mataura and its tributaries, but the intensity of the looking that’s integral to being a fly fisher has given me an understanding of the river that would otherwise be impossible. CONTEXT I began fly fishing on the Mataura in the early 1960s. For a time I measured my progress by the numbers of trout caught. Almost imperceptibly, though, the things that kept me fly fishing changed. The visual intimacy involved in seeing the fish grew to be more important than simply catching them, and I became captivated by the audacity involved in placing a tiny fly as close as I dared to the face of a wild trout. And it’s fly fishing, and dry fly fishing in particular, that sets the Mataura and its tributaries apart — allowing this river to be regarded as one of the finest anywhere. It’s made better because on most days the fish don’t give themselves up easily. If it weren’t so I would not be drawn back again and again, to test myself. It took me years to understand how extraordinary the Mataura is as a brown trout fishery. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when I began to devour as much good angling literature as I could find, that I was able to put the Mataura into a wider context. The fly fishing I was enjoying then was as good or better than what I was reading in the best stories of the great rivers of the United States, England, Ireland and Scotland, which for me, were the homes of the sport I loved. My experiences fishing overseas have also helped me understand where the Mataura stands in the pantheon of great trout rivers. On the wilderness rivers of the Kamchatka Peninsula, on the eastern edge of Russia, I caught a preposterous number of large rainbows — every day. They took streamers and mouse patterns without guile, and while I loved being in one of the last unspoiled natural places on the planet, the lack of challenge detracted from my fishing experience. SPRING & SUMMER HATCHES Most years I can leapfrog from one hatch to another on the Mataura. Mayflies define dry-fly fishing on the river for me. They can be found from the first day of the season, hatching on the rain-fed tributaries, often on days when showers fall from gale-pushed clouds. I have watched these hatches over the years, and while I know that temperature and humidity play a part in triggering them, the real alchemy involved remains a mystery. I am enchanted by their ephemeral beauty and the complexity of their life cycle — the transformation they make from an insect that crawls prosaically over the stony bottom of the river, to one that takes to the sky on wings as delicate as a spider’s web. The waning of the early-season mayfly hatches overlaps the emergence of a variety of other insects that keep trout focused on the surface of the river. When the evenings warm in late spring, brown beetles bumble their way onto the water and, by December, brilliantly coloured manuka beetles can be found in the bushy sections of the upper river. Some days in early summer, riffle beetles, the size of a few pinheads, drift beside grassy banks to be taken by trout with the gentlest of rises, leaving a disturbance as faint as a rain-drop on the surface. Caddis flies hatch on settled summer evenings, and trout torpedo them as they flutter across the flow. In the past, I’ve fished the caddis into the dark. It’s best done on moonless nights, when I cast at the sounds of splashy rises and set the hook by feel. In the warmth of early summer I often see a change in the way trout feed. They start tucking themselves close in to the willows, holding near the surface where they rise with metronomic regularity to take willow grubs falling into the river. The fall of the willow grub marks the beginning of the most challenging, interesting and, at times, frustrating dry-fly fishing of the season. AUTUMN ON THE RIVER Summer begins its retreat on the Mataura sometime in March. Nights cool, a frost or two settles on the ground and the days contract. Most autumns the weather is settled. Skeins of mallards criss-cross the sky to and from the paddocks of stubble and grain, which fatten them for the approaching winter. The willow grubs are gone, as are most of the terrestrial insects that have attracted trout to the surface during summer. The trout, too, feel the imperative of the changing season, feeding hard to build their reserves for the rigours of spawning, just two or three months away. Their colours change, as though a painter has been at work. Olive backs darken, haloed spots become more pronounced, and a yellow hue, the colour of aged willow leaves, often develops on their flanks. The cooling water compresses the hatch of mayfly duns which at their most concentrated can, when seen in the sharp, low-angled light, look like a charcoal-coloured blizzard. By late autumn they often don’t break the surface until 1:30 pm, and, if the day is cold, the hatch might be over by three-thirty or four. For an hour or two, I fish these hatches as though in a trance, with my focus on rise forms or the shadowy outline of the trout as they harvest the duns. I’ve fished for these trout for so long it has become an instinctive thing. I change my fly from emerger to dun based on signals so subtle that I’m not sure I can describe them with honesty. On the best days, often south of Mataura township, I am able to cast at rising fish for a couple of hours without moving more than a hundred metres. Late in the hatch, I often find mayfly spinners returning to the water to lay their eggs on the slick flow above the ripples. Once the spinners have deposited their eggs they go where the currents take them. The languid rises to these spinners, usually on chrome-flat surfaces, make hooking these trout a serious challenge because every flaw in the presentation of the fly is obvious. The flies I use are mostly small because the insects I’m hoping to represent are themselves tiny. Though they are roughly representative of the insects the trout feed on, they are otherwise unremarkable. The important element for me is the way I approach the fish, and the presentation of the fly. When I’m looking for fish I often move quickly. But when I spot them, I slow down to the pace of a heron feeding in the shallows. GAINS & LOSSES In the summer of 2017, I walked the length of the Mataura, starting from where it enters the Southern Ocean at Fortrose, and finishing close to its source, high in the Eyre Mountains. It was a pilgrimage of sorts — a tribute to the river and the landscape it flows through. The walk gave me time to ponder the changes that have taken place over the many years I have known the river. Some of the changes are for the better. Raw sewage no longer enters the river as it did when I was a boy, and the industrial waste from the paper mill, meat works, and dairy factory has been massively reduced. And the banks of the river and many of its tributaries have been fenced to keep most, but not all, cattle from the water. The losses, though, outweigh the gains. The intensity of dairy farming in the Mataura valley has added to the nutrient load the river carries, and some of the smaller streams that enter the Mataura have suffered badly from the resultant increase in algal growth. Thoughtless clearing of tussock in some of the headwater streams has reduced the invertebrate population, leading to a reduction in the quality of the angling experience. The Otamita stream, which was the place trout were first released into the Mataura system, and which for decades was my favourite place to fish, has been reduced to a pale shadow of what it once was. The way anglers use the river has changed also. Angling surveys suggest that the number of angler days on the river is lower than it was twenty years ago. While this doesn’t always appear to be the case, what is beyond dispute is that where anglers choose to fish has changed. Increasingly they are drawn to fish the upper-reaches of the river. And an increasing proportion of the anglers using that part of the river are from overseas. In part, I understand their motivation. The upper river sparkles, and the landscape it runs through is magical, as Andrew Harding’s stunning photographs show. This concentration of anglers on the river upstream of Cattle Flat is, though, already diminishing the angling experience. Solitude is increasingly hard to find. And the trout are subjected to a regular barrage of flies. It is not good for anyone, and ultimately is likely to require the imposition of regulations to reduce the crowding, and give the trout a breather. At times I have wrestled with the question of whether, by writing about the Mataura, I might be guilty of adding to the angling pressure on the river. On balance, I don’t believe the Mataura system suffers from too many anglers. It’s their convergence on the upper river that is the problem. And besides, it has been anglers who have loved the river that have worked most diligently to protect it. However, we do need more anglers to fall for the subtle charms of the river downstream of Gore. It is, after all, where the best hatches are to be found, and the population of trout in the area is extraordinary. Many of my best days on the river have been below Mataura. Go there and be surprised. WHAT MATTERS When I caught my first trout back in 1953, I had no idea where the rush of excitement I felt would take me. Certainly, there was no expectation that I would be drawn into an ever-deeper connection with the river. Nor that I would feel joy at seeing it at its best, running clear over a bottom rich with insect life, or the pain I would feel while watching the tussock-protecting parts of its catchment lacerated in the name of increased agricultural production. Back then I never could have imagined that my most enduring friendships would form around a shared love of the river and the trout that keep drawing us back. And, perhaps, most important of all, that the time spent on the river, looking into the water, would gradually allow me to see beyond the river, into myself. It has given me insight into where I stand in the scheme of things, about what matters, and about what is of little consequence.

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