Nick manages a final South Island stream session before winter closes in.
With time running out before the season closed, I took the day off work, and hurriedly packed for a trophy river in Canterbury.
The drive up was eerily quiet. The only vehicles were supermarket distribution trucks and the odd car. Occasionally, a farm ute would amble past. I was here to give one last nod to the river, before a big dry spell in my cabin, where the only trout fishing-related activities would be writing, reading and fly-tying.
But it turned out that the lack of traffic was something of an illusion. As I came up the long straight after the bridge, there was a 4×4 parked on the roadside with a large fishing sticker across the back window. So, I thought, I’m not the only one with this idea. Then, at my chosen pull-off, there were already a bunch of cars parked on the roadside. I hurried on, trying to find an access point without a car in it. When I couldn’t find one, I resorted to peering in car windows to see if the vehicles belonged to anglers, looking for evidence like rod tubes.
That’s when I came upon a beautiful truck, with a flat timber deck, parked in a pull-off. It was a hunter with a note on his car windscreen saying he had gone in a couple of days earlier, and would be back out in eight days! I imagined him coming down from the tops, carrying a heavy load of venison or a trophy rack of antlers.
After poking around for an hour, I finally found a gap where I could get in without dropping in on someone else’s fishing beat, and left a note on my dashboard outlining my fishing plan.
On the way down, I met two anglers coming out: a young man and woman. They approached respectfully, keeping well back from the water’s edge, and informed me they were hitting the road.
It was their last day of fishing, and he started giving away all his information. He told me where he had caught his trophy trout of the season; albeit in that earnest but vague way fishers do: they talk a lot, but you learn very little. After fifty-five days of angling, he had worn out his new fishing boots, and his time was up. “You’ll have the river to yourself”, he said. “We haven’t seen anyone upstream, and the one angler that was camped out has just left”.
This year was a mouse year. There had been a plague of mice, and the trout had eaten them and grown huge. Because the fish were bigger than usual, this river had been crowded with fishers and guides all season. Now, these anglers were finally going home, and I had this short stretch all to myself.
As usual there was a strong downstream wind blowing. The mountains stood out in stark relief against the brilliant blue sky. The sun shone with the low, sharp light that is peculiar to autumn.
How long would it be before I came here again, I wondered? These places would continue to exist, but for the next few months, at least, there would be no people here; no anglers anyway. No one to admire the mountains, walk the rivers, or catch the fish. I felt a sense of privilege, like the last one through an art gallery just before closing time.
I walked up a long, straight run with a high bank. I had fished here on my previous trip to the river many months earlier. That day, I had caught a powerful 7-pound jack, which had jumped fifteen times as it ran down the long pool. I wondered if he would be there today? However, when I got to the area, I noticed the river had dropped, and now he was nowhere to be seen.
It was perhaps not the best time for actual fishing. The trout were tough, almost impossible. After a season of seeing the finest flies and presentations from some of the most skillful and dedicated anglers in the world, they were not easily impressed. I finally found a feeding fish, but after just a few casts it drifted off. This was to become the norm for the day.
The brown trout were getting in the mood for breeding, and sometimes, when you thought they had spooked, they were actually just chasing each other around the pool. Some were paired up and others weren’t. It was a matter of finding the ones that, like myself, were still single, and also feeling hungry.
It was hard to spot fish in this low light. The river was wearing a suit of shining silver armour, so tough that even the best polarised lenses couldn’t penetrate it. In contrast, I was rusty, having not fished the backcountry much since spring to avoid the mouse trout crowds.
In these conditions I needed an indicator, as I couldn’t see the fish well. I also needed two nymphs: a big heavy one to get down to the trout, and a smaller one to hopefully catch them. A long leader – two rod lengths worth – completed the rig. This was a great setup to catch a big trout. It was not, however, a setup well-suited to casting in strong headwinds.
And after only fishing a handful of times this season, I was getting tangled terribly. I developed a magical ability to tie the two nymphs and yarn indicator in fantastic knots. I thought I was past this stage after thirty seasons. Then the wind mischievously switched to a freezing upstream wind, something we almost never have to deal with in Canterbury. I caught the rod tip several times, wrapping the whole package around it at speed. I was frustrated and wanted to smash the rod upon the rocks. But it was helpful to feel again how a beginner feels. This would help me be a better flyfishing teacher, I told myself.
Flyfishing is good like that. It helps you to keep your feet on the ground. You might be wearing thousand-dollar breathable waders, but you still can’t walk on water. Sometimes, you can’t even do a simple thing like put a fly in front a fish.
I slowly made my way upstream, gradually realising that I really did have the river to myself. All those other cars I saw must have been hunters, not fishers. I stopped and ate my lunch hurriedly, while the fish in the pool beside me ate theirs.
The big trout
Late in the day, I was still fishless. I was hiking up a long shallow run, the kind you walk past to get to the next pool. There was a comfortable-looking log on the bank, left by a flood, and I could see another log in the river. Both were the colour of the wooden pews in old churches. Then the long brown log in the river moved. Whoa! It was a trout, about a metre long, obviously in the 10 to 20-pound class. I watched it feeding. A few grey mayfly duns were hatching where it hung in a pocket in the fast water, swinging steadily to the left and right to eat nymphs.
A fish like that could make a season. It might well be bigger than the one I had got in November, that maxed out the fourteen-pound scales of my weight net. I marked the spot where the fish lay, and sat on the log to change flies. When I inspected my handiwork, the dropper between the two nymphs looked a few inches too long. I couldn’t be bothered re-tying it again. I crossed the fast, cold, thigh-deep river well downstream, and slowly waded up along the far side of the current and into position.
On the first decent cast, the indicator checked briefly, dipping under for a moment. I struck into clear air, and wondered if it was just drag. But on subsequent casts, the indicator did not dip again. I should have shortened my dropper. I was soon tying the rig into knots again, and the presentations were not my best work.
After half a dozen casts, the huge trout disappeared off to the left. When it reappeared a minute later, it somehow looked shorter, although it was hard to tell. The light was changing as the sun got lower, and now the brown log looked more like a grey rolling-pin under the water. Never mind, he was still swinging side to side, feeding happily, and that was the main thing.
The next cast shot forward, the flies landing well upstream of the fish and in line. As they reached the spot, the indicator shot down unmistakably, and I lifted triumphantly. The line whizzed, and a brown trout shot into the air. But something was wrong. It looked about four pounds. I brought the fish into the shallows, and it did not grow as I netted it, like the trophy fish sometimes can. I weighed it, just to check, but it was four pounds, not fourteen. No, this was definitely not the target fish.
Still, I admired it in the net. A silvery hen fish: fat, small head, and likely a sea-run fresh from the ocean. It was nice to catch a trout. But it was not the hog. They must have switched places after one too many casts. When the big boy left, this fast moving sea-trout had grabbed his spot. Fair enough; I smiled ruefully. I was not worthy of the big fish. I had been found wanting, and had been given this pretty and inexperienced wee hen as a consolation prize. A fish more suitable for my performance on the day.
Never mind. I looked up to breathe in the beauty of the mountains. Clouds were stacking up in the valley. The weather was changing, and there would be rain tonight. It was time to go home.