Westland Rising

Jakub Kanok opens the season on the West Coast of the South Island

We always put some serious effort into preparing for what we call the Opening Trip, although our biggest worry is always the unpredictable weather. You can have a super solid plan lined up but should also have a couple of back-up options primed. To get into the rhythm and right mind set, we crammed the car full of unnecessary gear and left our homes in Queenstown three days before the grand opening. There’s always fishing to be done somewhere in Aotearoa, whether it’s stalking lake edges for cruising trout, chasing sea runners in the estuaries, or scoping rivers before judgment day. We had just over a fortnight ahead of us with the idea of spending most of our time in the Kahurangi National Park up north, but as often happens, we were forced to change our game plan due to 72 hours of torrential rain, which rendered our chosen rivers unsuitable for fishing. The good ol’ Kiwi weather! Remaining optimistic, we made an impromptu decision to stay in the area between the gates of Haast and township of Whataroa instead. Here, the West Coast offers a good variety of spring fed rivers and creeks, with clear water and consistent flows throughout most of the season. SPRING CREEKS The river we chose to kick off the season meanders its way through swampy farmland. In past years it has provided excellent sight fishing opportunities. We knew that sea-run trout would be present in the lower reaches, boosting the numbers of fish at this time of year, but we decided to begin in the upper reaches where the main river is noticeably smaller and fed by multiple spring creeks. So there we were, at the access point not far from State Highway 6, at a very foolish hour, with temperatures just touching 1 degree Celsius. The previous clear night had set us up for a stunner of a day. We brewed the JetBoil, whipped up a hearty breakfast and hopped into our waders. The sunrise was a breathtaking display of radiant colours as the first golden light dribbled over the farmland and ignited the birdlife into a chorus of melodies. We began our walk towards the misty river in the distance and soon found ourselves standing on a high bank, amazed by the water clarity. Sitting down, we watched as the peaks of the Southern Alps popped through what remained of the morning cloud. It was time to rig up. I decided to go for two nymphs under an indicator, while Jason chose to tie on a dry/dropper rig. When the sun obliged, I spotted the first fish sitting just in the start of the riffle. Jason lined up behind the fish but couldn’t see it due to the glare, so he listened carefully to my instructions, positioned himself in the best spot and started stripping out some line. Dropping his cast to the right, his flies went past the fish unnoticed. Same on a second and third cast. If this had been later in the season the fish would most likely be gone, but it kept happily swinging for food. Gotta love October! The fly finally landed in the right spot and danced down the current towards the fish. His Blowfly, acting as an indicator, disappeared under the surface and he lifted his rod with excitement. The excess fly line was quickly gone through the guides and his reel started to scream. After an energetic battle, Jason landed a brown in superb condition. We admired the colouration and spots on this estimated 6 lb trout, followed by a cheeky nose kiss and a humble thank you. Over the next couple of hours we were fishing at a pace one might call lazy angling, taking it extremely slowly and enjoying every aspect. I don’t think I have ever covered such a short amount of water in such a long timeframe. Fish numbers were much higher than expected, offering double hook-ups and ‘YEAH BOI’ cheers on multiple occasions. Practically every brown trout we landed that day had unique markings and pigmentation, though all had one thing in common — a big pot belly, with every one in exceptional condition. We were in high spirits and called it a day surprisingly early, eager to enjoy a couple of cold beers at our previously set up camping spot at Lake Mapourika. Lying in the tent, wrapped snugly in our sleeping bags, the melancholy call of a ‘morepork’ put us to sleep with ease. The next two days saw us having a blast on smaller West Coast spring creeks. The weather gods were generous, providing clear skies, light breezes (if any) and pleasant air temperatures, setting up some decent afternoon mayfly hatches. Fishing these small creeks can be highly addictive, and there were plenty of options to keep us satisfied for several days, but we were both in an eager mood for a tramp. It was time to relocate into the mountains. TIME FOR A TRAMP There is no drawn line to cross before you are in the backcountry. For some, it might be a single day trip to a slightly remote place, accessible by vehicle. For others it could be a quick chopper ride to places that aren’t commonly frequented, or a longer adventure on foot involving overnight stays. Undoubtedly, the only real way to understand the feeling is to go and experience it for yourself. A heavy front moved across the coast overnight, making our river of choice more suitable for whitewater rafting than fly fishing. Encouraged by a decent forecast that suggested the next few days would clear through, we began making our way up the valley to the hut. West Coast rivers can rise rapidly in just a few hours, making places you could wade across become extremely dangerous after torrential rain, but we knew that the rivers had the ability to drop just as fast. We decided to bypass the middle reaches and put in the hard yards to the headwaters. After a half-day of walking through rough terrain, alternating between the track, boulder hopping, and battling swampy clearings with groves of ribbonwood and scrub, we found ourselves close to the river. Some sections of the track reminded me of the scene from ‘The NeverEnding Story’ when Atreyu’s beloved horse Artax is lost to the swamp. While pushing forward I could hear the river closer to the track with every step, and decided to bush-bash through the mixture of thick beech and podocarp forest. In the space of about ten minutes I found myself on a high bank staring at five decent sized brown trout, gulping down insects in a stretch of very attractive looking water. Unfortunately for us there was no way to get to them — we were more than happy to just silently observe. According to our topo map we were no further than 20 minutes away from the hut, which was to be our home for the next couple of days. With only a few daylight hours left, we dropped our bulging backpacks at the hut and backtracked a few kilometres downstream in search of some early evening fishing. We had an outstanding time on no more than 1 km of water, pulling out some decent sized fish. Darkness came quickly. We were at a place we wanted to be — there was no light pollution or disturbance apart from the crackling fire, and we were loving such a blissful silence. We woke up to a crisp morning. Feeling refreshed we ate breakfast, sipped coffee and chilled out, waiting for our gear to defrost after foolishly leaving it outside overnight. There was no need to rush — we were highly unlikely to encounter another soul. CURSE BROKEN Sunlight filled the valley with warmth as we began our journey upstream. The sky was blue without a single cloud in sight, but the fishing was not so fruitful. A couple of hours later we were fishless, not far from the hut, and had already spooked over half a dozen fish. What the heck… such great fish numbers for a short stretch of primo water, but no luck. Still fishless by midday… it felt like we were cursed. I was personally dealing with some solid frustration and my mind was drifting. We headed further upstream where the river turned into a gorge full of boulders and fast turbulent water. Sections of it were impassable, so we decided to follow a track tucked into the beech forest, occasionally checking the pocket water. And there he was, a good-sized brown, actively feeding in the bottom column of a deep section of fast flowing water. It meant I had to get as close as possible to achieve a drag-free presentation, and fish super heavy. I had a good feeling, so unclipped my net in preparation. Two double tungsten nymphs went past my head, way too close for my liking, but landed exactly where I wanted them to be. No indicator with water so clear — I could see the fish intercept the nymphs. SET!! The startled brown darted towards me, causing me to react and dive the net right in front of him — he surrendered in just a few seconds. The curse was broken, my mood lifted. We came across a couple more fish in the gorge but lost the battle, hooked but never landed. We were now in the headwaters. The river had noticeably shrunk in size, and the valley had opened up. Birds suddenly started to appear, swooping over the water. It was now 3 o’clock and the fight between fish and birds over mayflies brought spectacular entertainment. We had to join in! No time for poor casts, the presentation was everything. The Parachute Adams came out of our fly boxes, ready to be torn apart. We were buzzing with happiness. At that very moment we wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else.

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