The Score

Bob Wyatt assesses the state of play on Southland’s heavily worked fisheries

I was having a dram with my friend Dave Witherow the other day, as usual just shooting the bull. As usual, too, there were a couple of others there, both keen anglers. One was a young guy from the Czech Republic, fulfilling his dream to fish the fabled trout streams of Nirvana. Dead serious, committed, but clearly born too late. My heart went out to him. Dave’s place is something of a forward operations base for some serious fly fishers who make the South Island their hunting grounds. And hunting it is, no mistake. Many are here for the much larger than average wild brown trout of the backcountry streams. Dave is one of those himself, probing into the fjords and river valleys as far as he dares in his hand built aeroplane. By the way, what you and I might dare, including even getting into that plane, falls well short of what Dave considers just a normal day out (see FlyLife #78). Anyway, legends aside, like most of the regulars who hang at Trout Central, Dave is getting on. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but like several of us he’s over seventy now and slowing down a tad, just taking things a little easier. Relatively, that is. No one would say Dave is actually ‘mellowing’. Some would say it’s more a fermentation process. An evening at Dave’s place, headquarters for the Lucky Skunks Club (another story), involves what used to be termed ‘ripping yarns’. In his case they are mostly true, sort of. At their core there is the hard kernel of fact. One fact that we can’t escape, and Dave won’t let us, is that things ain’t what they used to be. On this occasion, Dave was delivering a hard-bark epistle on just how good things really were back then, which was the mid-’70s to, say, ten years ago. This was almost before my time here, but I caught what I regard as the end of something. And it was pretty good all right. For one thing, the nightmare tsunami of industrial dairy farming hadn’t really washed over the South Island, although it had obviously arrived if you were wide awake. We weren’t. Now the future is looking a wee bit bleak. FISHING PRESSURE The other thing, and for Dave it’s maybe the big one, is fishing pressure. There’s no arguing against that one. Less fishable water means more numbers concentrated on what’s left. There are a hell of a lot of anglers on the water now, locals and visitors, and increasingly they are excellent fly fishers. Balfour is now no longer really a farm town. Unless you are a retired farmer with a life connected to the place, few people would choose to live here, except for Dave and some committed anglers who maintain fishing baches. It’s maybe too tight a social loop for most folks. But it’s a bona fide trout town. The only things missing are the fly shops and guiding services. The guides are mostly from over in Queenstown, but our rivers are easily within a work-day for them, so, like the little girl says in the horror film — they’re he-e-re. Balfour is more your trout fisher’s redoubt. A nowhere-left-to-run sort of deal. Dave is making his last stand here, and I don’t fancy being the social worker who tries to rescue him. A few more angling worthies have dug in on a part-time basis over at Lumsden, just fifteen minutes up the road. Most are on friendly terms with the local farmers. Trout fishing-wise, these guys have the area pretty much staked out for themselves, or did have until recently. Living next door to your river is no guarantee that you’ll get a chosen stretch to yourself. The river in question is widely regarded to be among the top three or four best trout rivers on earth. Surprisingly, despite all the recent pressure, it’s still good fishing. But, as Dave complains, you can’t just march up to any riffle, like in the old days, and proceed to bag a limit of thumping and completely innocent brown trout. You didn’t have to be even a decent caster, Dave shouts, and in fact, nobody was. And flies? You’ve got to be kidding. No one had even heard the term emerger because it hadn’t been invented yet. An effing Royal Wulff, a big one too, would have nailed any trout in the river. They shouldered each other out of the way to eat it! It was an effing Paradise! So it was. And still is, relatively. With all the attention it receives, it’s no longer what you’d call easy, but you can see that Dave and a lot of other originals and newcomers, including me, have had to raise their game. And we did. Everyone has. Maybe that’s the problem. The country, roars Dave, slamming an empty whisky glass on the table, is infested with effing experts! Nowadays, it’s not just a matter of finding a stretch with no one else on it. If there has been anyone in the past few hours, and there probably has, it was likely one of those experts, or worse, an expert with a guide, so it’s stuffed. These guys can fish, and they go at it like there’s no tomorrow. Which raises the disturbing thought that maybe Dave’s right. Many of the trout will not just have been spooked, but hooked, played out, and released, maybe more than once. When things get busy the whole enterprise begins to take on the aspects of a game, with a score card. When a crew of three of four of these guys hit the river, it’s more like organised sport. About here, one of the other Skunks, looking warily around the room for support, will point out that, okay, sure, it’s maybe not what it was, but you have to admit that we still get some pretty damn good fishing. Being a more recent immigrant than Dave (the other guys are all native Kiwis), I mention that to me and anyone who wasn’t there for the best of it, and despite all the traffic on the rivers, the fishing can still be superb. Dave himself feels he’s had a decent day’s fishing if he brings four or even a half-dozen good trout to hand in a day, a good day anywhere, entirely achievable and well within our normal expectations. And some days are really good, giving up ten or a dozen fish to the fly. All good sized fish, two to three pounds or more. Where can you still do that in the world, and essentially for free? BRING YOUR A-GAME So, my argument goes like this. Okay, it’s not what it used to be, and it’s undoubtedly getting harder, but — relatively again — it’s great. What we all have to do these days is accept that the good old days are gone forever and we need to bring our A-game to the water, every time. After almost sixty years of fly fishing, I’ve actually had the experience of a river full of completely innocent trout charging my fly as if it was the last thing they’d ever eat. It was fun when I was sixteen, but now I like a bit of a challenge. A take from one good difficult trout will make my day. Two or three is sensational. I love a glassy slick full of trout rising to mayfly spinners or willow grubs, the more the merrier, but being one of fly fishing’s most challenging situations makes it even better. Getting a brace of trout in a spinner fall is really doing something, and taking more is worth tooting your own horn about. And I know why. It’s not the numbers, or even the size, although more and bigger is always better – it’s the difficulty. The difficult thing done with something like grace, even a little style: that’s where you’ll find the beating heart of fly fishing. To do that, and there’s no way around this, you have to be pretty good. And you don’t need anyone else to tell you that. If you fish with anglers who are themselves pretty good it’s even better, because they recognise the difficulty. They respect the results. They know that the size of a fish, while a big one is a wonderful thing in itself, means really very little compared to a quite ordinary fish taking a well presented fly in a tough situation. Now that kind of experience is still possible, even in today’s busy and competitive arena. In fact, there’s an extra layer of difficulty for us now that makes success even more satisfying. The fish, according to some including Dave, have been educated. They’re hard to catch and getting harder every season, right? So whether you believe this or not, the answer is the same: you’re just not going to catch difficult trout if you aren’t a pretty good fly fisher. And by that, we mean, first and foremost, you can cast. That $1200 fly rod may as well be a broom if you can’t drive it. You will also know something about trout behaviour, not just a clutch of romantic notions about fly fishing, but some joined-up thinking on what makes a trout tick. Even if you hire a guide who knows where the fish live and will even select your flies and tie them on for you, you’ll still have to make that cast and not stuff up one of the few chances you might get. Forking out $800 a day to the guy that put you in that situation will maybe concentrate your mind. So, although I hold with a lot of what Dave is ranting about, the fact remains that we still have some great trout water over here, and superb trout. They may or may not be getting smarter but on the busier rivers they are certainly seeing a lot of fly lines. Blundering around, false casting the water into a trout-free-zone is a sure way to convince yourself that the river has been hammered, fished out, or otherwise stuffed. Go ahead, blame it on the other guy. The other thing is to maybe just take it easy. It’s got so that I’ll pass up some good fishing with a weighted nymph on the chance a rise will start and I can get them on a dry. If there’s any chance of it, I just want to see that fish take my fly on the surface. I maintain it’s simply one of the finest things there is in life. Admittedly, not changing rigs is risking things, and it’s partly out of sheer laziness, but I’m fishing for my own pleasure, not playing for money, and no one’s keeping score, so who cares?

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