On the cusp of moving countries, Nick describes what he’ll miss – and what he’s looking forward to.
A couple of years ago, my wife Miri decided that after 35 years living in Australia, it was time to think about going home to New Zealand. (I was very relieved when she said I could come too!) We haven’t quite made the move yet, but we’re in the final process of preparing to pack up my bamboo rod workshop and heading ‘across the ditch’. I’ll still maintain an Australian rodmaking base at Cressy in Tasmania, but somewhere in the south of the North Island of New Zealand is about to become home.
An interesting thing happened when I started mentioning to other Aussie anglers about our move. Every single one expected I would be ecstatic about the change in my fishing! I actually found this a little surprising and confronting, because as much as I’ve loved the fishing I’ve experienced in New Zealand, I can’t actually say I’ve found it ‘better’ in regard to the quality of the experiences I’ve had here in Australia. It really made me reflect on what I’ll miss about Australia (and what I won’t), as well as what I’m looking forward to – and at a deeper level, exactly what it is that’s attracted me to flyfishing for nearly 40 years.
Foundations… and Expectation Management
As a trout fisher, I’ve often thought I was lucky to grow up in Adelaide. If people think Australian mainland trout fishing is marginal, they would be astonished to see most South Australian trout streams. Don’t get me wrong, in good seasons, some of these waters can be beautiful, clear and bountiful, with abundant trout rising to mayfly hatches. But Adelaide Hills summers are more brutal than anything I’ve experienced in the eastern states. Week-long daily highs over 40, with the mercury rarely below 30 even at night. And yet the trout survive and continue to provide flyfishing opportunities.
Starting my trout fishing there did a couple of important things. Firstly, it really made me treasure every fish. In tough years, they could be few and far between, so trout caught in these times were even more revered. Secondly, it gave me an immense appreciation and respect for the hardiness of trout and where they could eek out an existence. I hope I’ve retained that respect for all trout, large and small – and also my own willingness to persevere and maintain optimism in those tough times of drought and low water.
I often wonder what would have happened if I’d begun my association with trout where there were steadily-flowing rivers and an expectation of good numbers of larger fish. It might have been easy to be spoilt – something South Australians don’t suffer from!
Does Size Matter?
Part of the appeal of New Zealand, and what people talk about often, is how big the trout are. There’s no doubt that the average New Zealand trout seems to be twice the size of most of Australian fish. But what does that mean? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate big fish! They get my knees wobbling when I see them, but to me, it’s all relative. A cookie-cutter 4 pounder might barely raise an eyebrow when it’s average for a fishery, but a hard-earned pounder can be a lifetime memory in a tiny trickle where sprats are the norm.
Similarly, in Japan, a ‘shaku’ or 12 inch Yamame or Iwana is considered a trophy there, and if I had to choose, some of my most memorable big fish might be the rare few of these I have tried unsuccessfully to catch.
A fishing friend bought a weigh-net on his first trip to New Zealand a few years ago, and continued to use it on his return home. He soon christened it the ‘Net of Disappointment’. Even though the Monaro was firing, weighing otherwise hard-earned, memorable fish of ‘only’ 5 ½ or 6 ¼ pounds made a mockery of the absolute size of fish being the most important thing when compared to NZ trophies.
It is sometimes interesting to know the size of a fish, but it can lead to getting drawn into ‘bigger is better’ bragging rights with other anglers (many of whom might be a little generous in estimates of their own captures)! I saw one way to deal with this on a recent trip to the USA. I was in Michigan for the Greyrock bamboo rod gathering, which is timed to coincide with the Brown Drake and Hex hatch on the Ausable River. A guide showed me a photo of a big brown a client had caught on the previous night’s drift. When I asked how big it was (see, I’m as guilty as anyone!), he said “I don’t know. If a client asks me to measure a fish, I’ll do it, but otherwise I never measure them”. What a great way to avoid being gazumped – ignorance can be bliss! The only thing that should matter is the personal pleasure a capture has given you.
One of the things I love about the fishing here in the Snowy-Monaro, is what small fish can offer. These can be plentiful waters with eager fish in the 8-14 inch category – browns or rainbows – where if you bothered to keep count you might catch a hundred in a day. Too much of it, and it can become a slightly disturbing blur, where you might not remember a single individual fish. But it’s a reminder that this is recreation and it’s meant to be fun! Crimp your barbs, look at the beauty of where you are and laugh at the innocence and generosity of hungry, willing fish.
However, small fish can also be as hard to fool as their bigger cousins. I’ve had experiences on small clear, low-flow streams, lying on my stomach, with my best fly and presentation, a small brown trout in the deadly tail-out slick of the tail of a pool has come up, inspected my fly, and… bolted like a scalded cat, spooking every other fish for 50 metres.
David Scholes wrote about this respect for small fish in small waters in his chapter, ‘The Waters of Lilliput’, in ‘Fly Fishing in Australia’ (still the best introductory book on Australian flyfishing in my opinion).
The old quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, ‘Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting’, highlights the fact that there has long been competition for this natural resource. This of course spills over into water for the trout and our fishing.
Year by year, even with broad acceptance of climate change, things will continue to get worse into the foreseeable future. As sad as that is, having seen the resilience of trout in South Australia, I’m confident we will still have good fishing here in Australia, both on the mainland and Tasmania. We actually had some of the best fishing of my entire thirty years here during the ‘noughties’ drought, in rivers that tend to stay too high and cold in better times. Things are changing though. We will lose (and have already lost) some waters over the years to lack of rain and heat (and other environmental degradation), but many still prevail.
It will be up to us, as individuals, to exercise our judgement as to when to leave some waters to rest. An example of this is the Monaro, where most people pretty much leave the area’s streams alone right through the summer months.
While NZ doesn’t have our extreme drought and occasional decimation of rivers, there have been massive changes there through diversion and irrigation for increased dairying and other money-making opportunities. So I’m cognisant that anywhere in the world, fish (especially introduced ones) and anglers are seen as a minority stakeholder.
The other pressure on trout waters is self-inflicted – angler pressure. Whatever the reasons, I hear many more complaints from Australian anglers about competition for access in New Zealand than Australia. Whether that’s because travelling anglers with limited time tend to focus on the most popular waters, or just because NZ is a drawcard for anglers from right around the world, meaning there’s often a perception of too many anglers for the amount of water. Whatever the reason, I’ve always been grateful that here, there are so many small streams that even in peak periods, I’m able to find kilometres of water to myself.
Although I fished NZ as a holiday angler many times, I really won’t know what the reality of the angling pressure is until I actually live there and explore. I am at least preparing myself for the possibility of dealing with more competition for water.
Dry Fly or Die
As a self-confessed dry fly nut, the Australian mainland has been great. By choosing a destination around time of season, location and weather, it’s been possible to pursue dry flyfishing pretty much from the first day of the season to the last. Part of that I suspect is due to our ‘skinnier’ water and warmer, drier climate than NZ, so for the dry fly angler, the marginal nature of our fishery can have a silver lining.
Having said that, Miri and I have had success with dries in NZ when most other people are nymphing, finding enough fish at least casting a glance upwards, to give us a chance.
One aspect of dry fly fishing I do see being more of opportunity for me in NZ, is the evening rise. Here on the mainland, living a couple of hours or more from the fishing, I do a lot of big day trips. This usually results in fishing mostly during daylight hours, with a big drive home in the evening. This actually works out well, because the fishery locally is dominated by the afternoon and evening easterly, which shuts down the possibility of an evening rise. In NZ, however, it’s well-documented that the opposite can be true, with an evening rise being the main time the fish look up for a feed. We are also going to make sure that we’ll be living closer to the fishing, so I’m hoping to be able to down tools after work and head out for a couple of hours rather than an all-day expedition.
I think dry fly fishing will always be my passion, but I know full well that many visible fish in NZ just won’t come up for a dry. I’ve accepted I’ll probably be using nymphs a little more, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of becoming a better nymph fisher. I’ve tried Euro nymphing and it isn’t for me and I don’t use strike indicators, so ‘challenge’ may be the operative word!
Likewise, I’ve taken an interest in two-handed casting and making hollow-built two-handed bamboo rods. To me, the grace and technique of two-handed casting is a rewarding activity in itself, but I’ve struggled to find rivers large enough near my Australian home where there are fishing applications for it. I’m looking forward to exploring the lower reaches of some larger NZ rivers and swinging some wets with two-handed rods. Perhaps this approach, on waters which are less generally appealing due to their size, might form part of my angler competition avoidance strategy!
Countryside and Creatures
I’ve grown up fishing in Australia, and I do love the harsh beauty of the ancient, weathered land and its yellows and browns. The smell of eucalypts and the Australian bush make me feel at home. I also love the vivid greens of the North Island, and the spectacular mountains where we are headed.
One thing I know I’ll really miss, is the Australian wildlife. It’s easy to take kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, echidnas, platypus and lizards for granted when they’re an everyday occurrence, so it will be sad to say goodbye to them. I’ve even stopped cursing platypus when mistaking them for a rising trout way up the river!
It’s funny, another common remark people make about the move is how great it will be to fish where there are no snakes. I’ve never had a problem with them, despite quite a few close encounters. After the initial surprise (often to both parties!) to me they’re an interesting part of the fishing experience. I guess I’ve always dressed with some amount of snake protection in mind, so I am looking forward to being able to wear lighter clothing on the water.
When I think of the danger of snakes, I often recall the experience of Canadian Chris Dawson in his book, ‘Woolly Worms and Wombats’, which describes a fishing holiday to Australia and New Zealand. He spent the first half of the trip in Australia looking out for and in fear of snakes, but only briefly sighting a couple. Then, when on the NZ leg of his trip, he was attacked by a swarm of European wasps which nearly killed him!
The Seven Rivers
One thing I’m not looking forward to is the physical move. The final pack-up of my workshop and our household has to happen though, so it’s time to take that deep breath and get it done. I’ve never thought of myself as a book collector, but my fishing library is around 700 books, so I’m glad Miri is stronger than she looks – she has a lot of boxes to pack! I do plan to cull some books as we pack, but the mental energy of making a judgement can be more effort than just packing another box.
One book which will certainly make the journey, is Douglas Stewart’s ‘The Seven Rivers’. Aside from being beautifully written, I’ve always identified with the fact that he writes about the Taranaki region of NZ, where he grew up and Miri is from, and we visit regularly. He also writes about the Monaro, where he often fished upon moving to Australia. His move was in the other direction to mine, but he obviously appreciated the beauty and fishing in both environments.
My last couple of seasons here have felt like a bit of a farewell tour of my favourite waters. In a strange parallel to a story in Stewart’s chapter on ‘The Badja’, I had a spookily similar experience on my very last trip fishing here on the Monaro. An unseasonably hot, lifeless day, without a fish moving, changed to total pandemonium, with cinnamon termites (the red flying ants in Stewart’s account) falling on the water as thick as rain. Immediately, trout large and small were rising everywhere. The result for both Stewart and me? One solitary little fish each!
So it seems there is more to fishing than catching, and though I’m hoping for some catching in New Zealand, I feel the real things to look forward to are the experiences I haven’t even thought about yet.