With the travel bubble to New Zealand still not operational, I decided to see what creatures lurked in our very own backcountry in the north-east high country. I teamed up with local guide Matthew Howell. He knows the area and therefore we could fall back to his plans B, C, D all the way to Z in case weather or other events would impact our original idea for a backcountry trip. We packed the truck full of camping gear, fishing gear, recovery gear, food and a few nice bottles and went happily on our way.
The recent sustained rainfall (thank you La Nina!) meant the river of Plan A was in great condition, flowing just right. That means: wadable with only minor detours through bush to navigate around the deep holes. The scenery was stunning, and the water seemed fishy everywhere we looked. The sun was up, the flow gin-clear, so we expected to do well on the dry.
Each session we fished, we carried two rods, one Czech nymph and my 4-weight bamboo for the dry. The approach was to try to spot fish directly, then searching with a dry fly, and finally, a few heavy nymphs ‘Czech-ed’ through the deeper and faster sections. When you make the effort to go into the backcountry, the thinking is not to wander unknowingly past big trout.
On the first session, a handsome 3¼lb brown came to the net on a 3.8mm tungsten nymph fished through fast head of a deeper pool. So any initial plans for dry-only were immediately invalidated, in the nicest possible way. The 2-rod approach clearly had merit.
In the next pool, we saw an even bigger fish feeding aggressively, eating nymphs and at times breaking the surface. Surely this was dry fly time? We tried half a dozen dry fly changes on the fish, and each time it would come over – heart stop – and reject anything from size 16 right through to 8. Luckily, the trout kept feeding, so it was time for a lightly-weighted nymph. I tied on one of my favourite flies for this scenario, a ‘MP91’, which is a Marc PetitJean full CDC caddis nymph. First cast, the fish moved and the tell-tale white mouth-flash was enough information – time to lift and run! That fish literally stood on its head and flapped its tail all the way through the pool, and I was sure I’d bust off. Somehow it stayed on and a run downriver with the fish followed. A few runs later, I let the fish glide over a large rock, and Matthew was there scooping it up. A superb 4lb brown on a 4 weight bamboo. I couldn’t have asked for more from any backcountry anywhere!
The next day we blanked. It was kind of my fault, as the one opportunity we had was when a very large brown took a very large dry and I busted it off on the strike. (Turns out the backcountry isn’t just a string of big trout successes.)
By the fire that night, we made a plan of attack for the next day, which was to drop into another section to find the fish. After a good night’s sleep, we packed up and headed to the chosen spot, only to find a big, shiny 4WD and two very well kitted-out flyfishers getting ready to jump in. Even in remote country, plans can be thrown just like that. Not to worry, we drove to another piece of water, rigged up, and away we went.
Good decision: in the first run, we immediately saw two trout rising. How different from the day before. There was also thunder in the distance and a change of weather forecast for the afternoon. The warmth and high humidity seemed to bring on the hatches and get the fish moving. I tied on a large (size 10) D2 fly – a Dobson fly imitation – to test the theory that big fish eat big flies. First cast, slightly negative curved, landed on target and in one wallop the big dry was gone; as was the monkey on my back from the day before!
One thing with CDC flies is that you have to take a bit of care drying them after a catch to keep them floating well. As I was making some quick ‘drying’ casts, I was on again… I’d hooked Matthew in the leg! Ouch. With a bit of plier work to de-barb the fly, it came out fine. Just as well, it was the only one I had left!
The rain had started to set in and it was nearly time to go when we spotted a log of a fish. I put the D2 fly over it, and it was log. Then I walked up to it and the log suddenly turned and dropped 10 feet into a new feeding position. Game on! This time we made around two dozen fly changes, but it just would not eat. Yet sometimes it would lurch to suddenly eat a nymph. So it was ‘alive’ and still to be taken; what to do? The last fly change was, as it always is on such a trout, something big and wet – a Woolly Bugger. I cast it right in front of the fish, and I could not believe it when I saw the flash of white mouth. I lifted and a heavy head shake confirmed the hook-up. So started a new river dance. Fortunately, Matthew was quick to net the fish before it disappeared downstream. He nearly keeled over backwards, with the only thing balancing him being the fish in the net. Turned out it was an oldie, a slab of 60cm but only 3¼lb in weight. Matthew surmised it could have been the same fish he caught in the same pool 4 years earlier, weighing 6¼lb then!
It turned out that the old trout was blind on the left side. As it was hugging the right bank, it could only see into a limited angle on the right. That explained why – in hindsight – it was only eating to the right, and why I initially could walk right up to it before it moved. I guess that most of my flies must have drifted to the left, on his blind side. So there’s a lesson in there somewhere…
This was not a trip where quality is measured in numbers. If you are a fish counter, there are better places. But if you like scenery, are comfortable being truly remote, don’t mind blanking but with a decent chance of a great reward, have a closer look at the maps and explore some of our very own backcountry. You might be surprised by what you find.