Tramping for Trophies

David Nixon experiences the South Island backcountry

Every so often a fishing trip comes along that completely blows your mind. Whether it be the epic scenery, the good company, or the sheer quality of fishing on offer, these are the trips that keep us coming back. Our fly fishing odyssey into the backcountry of New Zealand’s South Island last summer had all the ingredients for such a dream trip, and it was amazing to see how everything fell into place. Well, almost everything. For my good mate James and I, this particular dream had sprouted when we were pimply-faced youngsters with shiny new outfits, wandering the streams of North East Victoria and harassing the speckled residents. We fished these diminutive streams after school and on weekends, occasionally tagging along with James’s father, Rod, to catch the evening rise on the Goulbourn River. Fishing videos were our staple screen diet in those days. We would sit drooling in front of the telly, watching while fortunate souls landed sight-casts in front of fat trout in exotic countries with jaw-dropping scenery. Inspired, we would charge out into our local streams and chase the resident browns and rainbows — fish that were barely the length of our adolescent hands. Flash forward 25 years, and James and I both found ourselves living in the south-east corner of Queensland, a fly-fishing desert in comparison to those free-flowing streams of our youth. Add to this the usual culprits of mortgage, career and family life — let’s just say that our casting skills had lost some polish. LIVING THE DREAM So it was with great anticipation that I hatched a wild plan with James and his father. Our goal was very simple; at least, it sounded that way when stated aloud. We wanted to tramp into the backcountry and catch a trophy trout. Preferably one each, if that were even possible. With very little experience in fishing the rivers of New Zealand, and a paucity of time for the challenge, we decided to employ the services of a guide. Our guide of choice was Tom Hodge, a Christchurch resident and highly esteemed purveyor of local trout knowledge. James checked in with him a few days prior to the trip; a brief call that seemed to tick all the right boxes. The trip was still on. Tick. The weather forecast was looking sensational. Tick. Tom knew a river full of mouse-munching monsters, all in fantastic condition. Yes, that will probably be satisfactory! At this point in time we were pinching ourselves. We had three whole days of fishing, a fantastic weather forecast, a spectacular destination, and a good chance of hooking a genuine trophy! It is hard to describe the elation we felt as we splashed through the last few potholes on a rugged four-wheel-drive track. Having started the journey before sunrise, we’d spent the best part of four hours winding our way up into the mountains, absorbing the breathtaking scenery as we rounded every corner. Now the locked gate told us all we needed to know; we would have to proceed on foot. We quickly stuffed our backpacks with warm clothes and bedding, and enough fortifications to sustain us for the three-day adventure. Newborn lambs scattered in front of us as we headed overland, the morning sun still low in the sky and enthusiasm brimming at an all-time high. We set a cracking pace, buoyed by the reassurance that our destination was within striking distance. It was a calm morning and we were, quite literally, living the dream. Despite the forecast for fantastic weather, the clouds began to thicken overhead as we tramped up the valley, and a sneaky nor’wester kicked in just prior to the commencement of casting. We all donned a few extra layers to compensate for the cooler conditions. However, the wind continued to pick up, and I was soon wearing all of the layers at my disposal, including a jacket that had been falsely advertised as ‘windproof’. James was the first to pick up a 7-weight, and with Tom’s tutelage he was soon casting admirably against the mounting headwind. Tom’s ability to spot fish in the overcast, wind-ruffled conditions was nothing short of astounding, and James was soon casting at some hefty targets. TEAM RHYTHM We soon fell into a good team rhythm. Those of us who weren’t presently under Tom’s guidance passed the time by boosting morale from the sidelines, devouring assorted rations, and heckling Rod about his choice in headwear — a bright red cap that was sure to spook any self-respecting trout within a hundred metres. In between times we sought reprieve from the frigid wind by crouching behind small bushes. Everywhere we looked there were fish of epic proportions; great slabs of muscle, finning gently into the current. Tom estimated a number of these to be trophies — fish weighing upward of ten pounds. He called these fish ‘doubles’, a word that rolled smoothly from the tongue like marbles from a car roof. The average size of these fish was simply mind-boggling, our mouths agape as we peered into every pool. It’s hard to say whether Rod’s hat was to blame, but we didn’t catch a single fish on the first day, despite a valiant effort in challenging conditions. With the temperature continuing to drop and the wind making life miserable, we left the river behind us, spurred on by the prospect of a sheltered hut. Our accommodation was set well back from the river, and we spent the next twenty minutes in the fading light tramping through the kind of ancient beech forest that looked quite capable of concealing a whole horde of Hobbits. The hut itself looked warm and inviting; a welcome sight for a sorry bunch of footsore anglers. In dim candlelight we tucked into a hearty meal and exchanged stories while a fire crackled in the background. By this stage we were comfortable and content, thoroughly enjoying our authentic backcountry experience. We settled into our sleeping bags early, and dozed off listening to the mischievous scampering of possums on the tin roof. Day two and we were up and about before sunrise, keen to maximise our time on the water. We wasted little time with morning formalities, downing a quick meal that, back in Australia, we might have loosely referred to as a ‘Dingo’s Breakfast’. We hiked down from the hut and set out across the valley, enthusiasm buoyed by a decent night’s rest. It didn’t take long for James to connect to the first fish of the day, a spirited brown that tore up and down the pool, with an aerial display that seemed to go on forever. James was suitably stoked when Tom finally slipped the net under this well conditioned five-pounder. Next it was my turn to commandeer the favoured 7-weight, and with a quick refresher from Tom I was soon committed to the challenge. I fluffed a couple of good chances early, and before I knew it the dreaded headwind had sprung up again, complicating my best efforts at casting. I persisted into the afternoon, finally nailing a lazy two-pounder with a sneaky cast punched into the wind along a steep bank. Although memorable, this brown may well have been the smallest fish in the river. I was happy to get a run on the scoreboard, but despite my satisfaction I couldn’t escape the feeling that this particular fish wasn’t the calibre I was chasing. The daylight expired quickly, and in the silent trek back to the hut I quietly lamented the times when I’d muddled my lines, striking when I should have waited, and waiting when I should have struck. Having covered a lot of kilometres for the day we were all fairly subdued. We downed another brilliant dinner while orange firelight danced on the hut walls, and soon retreated to our sleeping bags for some hard-earned rest. WEIGHT OF EXPECTATIONS We bounded out of bed early on the final day. The conditions were glorious and we were falling over ourselves to head upstream to fish some new water. There wasn’t a breath of wind and the river was crystal clear. Long leaders, light tippets and small nymphs were the order of the day. James was the first to capitalise on the cracking conditions, landing an exceptional cast in front of a stonking brown. This monster quickly snaffled a tiny nymph and proceeded to tear off upstream in a blistering run against the current. James was patient and careful, skilfully playing his cards until he finally guided this magnificent fish into the landing net. James was ecstatic and stunned all at once. We collectively held our breath as Tom weighed the fish. Perhaps the weight of our expectations somehow contributed to the final score; this fish was bang on ten pounds! We had just landed a genuine backcountry trophy! Having sent the fish happily on its way, we promptly sat down to regather ourselves and to munch on a celebratory chocolate bar, whilst swatting away the dizzying swarms of sandflies that had descended en masse into our happy gathering. With the folly of sitting still quickly becoming evident, we moved on to the next pool, with Rod now wielding the wand of choice. It took less than an hour for Rod to join the party. Red hat notwithstanding, he soon struck into another brown of ridiculous proportions! After a brief foray around the pool, this fish decided it was going to wedge itself under a large boulder at our feet. Rod tried changing up the angle, but couldn’t manage to extract the sulking specimen. Tom came swiftly to the rescue, all but swimming in an attempt to encourage the fish out from under the rock. Despite some tense moments he soon hoisted aloft a net bulging with the most magnificent fish we had ever seen. The scales confirmed our suspicions; this fish was a little larger than James’s trophy. We had somehow managed to land two trophy trout in one morning! This fish was a donkey. Having whooped and high-fived and taken a bevy of photos, Rod stooped and sent this superb jack back on its way. The now immortal 7-weight was passed down the pecking order and soon ended up in my trembling hands. James and Rod were buzzing and, with the possibility of a trifecta now well and truly on the cards, I was feeling the pressure. It didn’t take long for Tom to find a promising target. This double was happily feeding, swerving right and left to snaffle any passing snack. After it refused my initial offering, Tom changed my fly again and again, only to have each new offering rejected. However, this fish was still feeding, and every time Tom tied on another fly I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the one. I cast repeatedly, punching into the headwind and staring expectantly into the mid-afternoon glare. There is something surreal about seeing a trophy fish on the end of your line. At least, that’s what I’m told. Unfortunately, this particular fish hadn’t read the script. Instead, that pesky nor’wester reasserted itself, time got the better of us, and before we knew it we were winding the line back onto the reel for the final time and tramping back to the truck for the long drive home. For a dream that had sprouted in our youth, we had come full circle. Now we were the fortunate souls, tramping up remote rivers and catching trophy fish. Well, maybe not all of us. The trip had been nothing short of sensational, but I was leaving behind some unfinished business. Not that it really matters though. Now I have the perfect excuse to go back.

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