There is a fine line between well thought out plans and daydreams. When you embark on an international fishing trip, it can sometimes be hard to separate the two. The plan is always going to be tainted by daydreams of a perfect days fishing to trophy fish, of landing at least a few. Those ideas are what give the initial spark to any such endeavour. Thus began our trip to New Zealand. All naive plans, daydreams and excitement.
The trip started well. A few fish caught in the lake while sinking a few celebratory beers, some light hearted banter, eagerness, excitement and vibes. The fish we caught weren’t bad either, Lee and Brett both landing fish on dries either side of 3lb respectively. It twas going to be a good trip. Or so we thought. The first signs that our daydreams may not fully come to fruition seeped into the holes in our tents when the rain set in just as we were creeping into bed. Not to bother, what’s a little bit of rain.
In the morning we packed our sodden tents in the now set in rain. It wasn’t hard rain, but it was rain, proper consistent rain. In New Zealand I think they call it sunny with a chance of showers. With bags soon packed we headed off on our hike. The guide book said that it would take us four hours to reach the hut we wanted to reach. Of course the track was closed (which we knew, but like the naive chickens we were, disregarded), so we had pencilled in an extra hour or two to get around the fallen trees that were reportedly covering sections of the track. We started walking at 830, that would still give us a full afternoon’s fishing. And thus we merrily embarked on what would turn out to be a far more arduous excursion into the backcountry than any of us had imagined.
The first few hours went more or less to plan. We were wet, but spirits were high and the walking pace was brisk. The odd tree lay across the track, there was the odd sketchy hill climb, but nothing too bad. Closed? Bah, it was fine. We would make the hut in no time. It was only then that we encountered our first real test. It turns out the fallen trees we had encountered to that point were not the fallen trees that had closed the track. What we now encountered was a fallen forest. The track, which had until this point been well maintained and easy to follow ran abruptly into a wall of wood. What had once been vertical forest now lay horizontal covering any trace of a track. Trees criss crossed each other chaotically. The scene resembled a game of pick up sticks for giants. The destruction stretched for a far as the eye could see. See through fogged up glasses in the rain and mist anyway. With the river running high and un-wadable, even on the margins, there was only one way forward. We would have to go through it. Over it. Under it. We started out. We climbed, crawled and fell as we picked our way through the jigsaw of logs and branches. An hour later, only a few hundred metres from where we had crossed our first log we broke out of the horizontal forest, we had finally found our way back in the far more amenable and familiar vertical kind. It turns out going through real fallen trees is far harder in reality than in the imagination. The path, now clean and free of impediments lay ahead of us. We had made it through safe and sound. Our enthusiasm however had not. It had taken one hell of a beating in the horizontal forest and was now hanging on for dear life. The merry upbeat mood of our travelling party was gone for good.
To try to revive the flagging mood, we stopped, set up the stoves, made coffees, ate muesli bars and had a break. It was here that Danny discovered that the forest had also taken a tax on his gear. It had claimed his jacket as its property. He briefly toyed with heading back into the chaos to wrestle it back from the forest’s branchy grasp but he eventually decided that the chances of finding it were so slim that it wasn’t worth the pain. Soon, it was time for us to continue on our somewhat less merry way.
The pace was slower this time. More a sombre trudge than the light-footed jig of earlier in the day. The group of six were now walking at wildly different speeds. Three of us took the lead and charged on ahead, waiting for the others every 10-20 minutes. The waits grew longer and longer as the hike progressed. We encountered more trees and more hill climbs, each sketchier than the last. This continued for a few hours until the three of us in the lead encountered a fallen forest that made the others look likes child’s play. Unlike the first forest which had been more or less on flat ground, this fallen forest was on a hill. At a 45 degree angle. We made our way 15 or so meters into the criss cross of logs with great trepidation. An almost vertical drop, descending 50 or so meters straight down to the river greeted us. All that lay between us and forward progress or alternatively a fast descent to the river was a short climb across a precariously balanced log dangling over the abyss. The inevitable finally dawned on us. There was no way we were getting through that way. We retreated. Making the hut wasn’t worth the risk and crossing this fallen forest did indeed pose a significant risk to life and limb. On the upside, the sun was now finally shining. Thank god for small mercies, at least we would start to dry.
Defeated, we made our way back and found the others, informed them of what lay ahead and began to formulate a plan. For a while that plan was to wade across the river. After a few pack-less attempts this plan was soon also put into the too dangerous basket. Eventually we decided to set up camp nearby. It was now 230 or 3 in the afternoon, the four hour hike had taken closer to six and we had made it barely three quarters of the way.
Once we arrived at our chosen campsite we got to work. Packs exploded, wet tents, mats, sleeping bags and clothes were soon strewn across the rock beach in front of our campsite. And slowly the mood started to lift. Whiskey and rum emerged from packs and were consumed with gusto. Dehydrated food was rehydrated. It tasted good. This would turn out to be an anomaly, it turns out six hours of gruelling walking can make anything taste like haute cuisine. Fishing though would more or less have to wait until tomorrow. But hope remained, in fact hope was resurgent, fuelled by the sun and our glorious surroundings. As we basked in the last of the afternoon light and made a few blind casts, we watched as our indicator rocks began surrounding themselves in air rather than water. We watched the off white cloudy river clear before our eyes. It was at about this moment that a few of us made a pretty big mistake. Given the possibility of more rain the next day and a potential of a rushed hike back to the safety of civilisation, many of the group were keen to offload as much weight as possible. For most that took the form of rum and whiskey. Somehow, over the course of the night three bottles of spirits were consumed by four of us. Brett and Perrin sensibly decided to more or less abstain.
We awoke the next morning to glorious sunshine, snowcapped peaks in the background and in the foreground a clear river that had dropped about a foot over night. For four of us the morning also brought with it brutal, brutal hangovers. The first hangover casualty was Nick. He briefly emerged from the tent with the rest of us before promptly crawling back inside. He wouldn’t emerge for many hours. I was the next, vomiting soon after waking up. As I sat feeling sorry for myself I watched a school of little fish come in and dine on last nights dinner. At least I was useful for something. Thankfully, after a berrocca and a few painkillers I wasn’t too broken and when the others headed off fishing I joined. Nick stayed in the tent. He would emerge late that afternoon, he would go fishing, he would hook a monster which would run down river and throw the hook. So it goes.
The river that had the night before been uncrossable was now a relatively easy wade. About 100 meters up from the campsite, we got our first taste of the daydream. Brett spotted a trout, feeding hard against the bank. Perrin waded into position, made two unsuccessful casts and then connected on his third. A perfect cast, a perfect drift. He fished the shit out of that fish. Mayhem and poor thinking ensued as we tried to land the fish (the hangovers didn’t help, Perrin’s fish almost becoming the third casualty of the night before as I tried to “land” the fish by falling on it). Despite the bumbling, for that one moment we could do no wrong no matter how hard we (I) tried. We landed the fish. It was a gorgeous New Zealand brown. The moment was perfect. THIS WAS NEW ZEALAND. THIS WAS THE DAYDREAM! It was on.
A little further up I found a rising trout in a backwater. I cast a dry fly at it. Its jaws broke the waters sruface as it went to eat the fly. Its head almost fully out of the water when it began to close its jaws. “Happy days!” I though to myself. Not quite. As I watched, eagerly waiting for the moment to strike, everything happening seemingly in slow motion, I noticed that while its jaws were descended back below the waters, the fly had stubbornly remained floating high and dry on the waters surface. “Shit”. I just managed to resist striking. I cast again. The fish again saw my fly, again it turned at it greedily. As it swam towards the fly though, disaster. During his turn he caught a glimpse of me from the corner of his eye and promptly turned his thoughts from breakfast to the safety of the main current. So it goes.
The next few hours continued in a similar vein. A comedy of errors so to speak. Sighted fish, followed by mistakes eventually resulting in spooked fish. Danny got closest, he hooked a fish but lost it as it ran downstream. At one point Brett, in an attempt to prove Perrin and Danny wrong threw a rock at a sighted fish. “See, told you it was a fish”. Dumb, but funny in hindsight. In the final pool of the day, once most had started to return home I found a monster, busily rising on the edge of a gravel bar. I got in position and cast a size 16 Dad’s favourite at it. After two rejections I changed flies. A beetle this time. Another rejection and another fly change. Danny was wading up the other bank, I told him to stop and promptly sat down behind my hiding tussock to tie on a size 18 emerger. This was the fly. As I got up to make another cast but instead of a fish, there was Danny standing exactly where my fish had been. River noise had drowned out my cries, he had continued wading. So be it, things like that happen. It was nobodies fault. Still, a string of expletives came rushing from my mouth, raw emotions bubbling out uncontrollably.
On the way back to the camp, we sighted the fish Danny had lost earlier in the day. In the same spot. “It is in behind the red rock, just past that green bush hanging…. wait, I’ve said that before, its where it was this morning. EXACTLY!”. Everyone had casts at it (all five of us), 20 or so flies went past it, 50 or so casts went over its head. All that time it kept happily feeding. Finally Perrin hooked it. Another manic poorly thought through landing effort and we had fish number two on the bank. This time a little better than 5lbs. Happy days. The daydream was back.
On dusk Perrin and Brett headed out for a quick fish and Brett got on the board in similar circumstances to Perrin’s second fish. Twenty or so fly changes were needed before he finally converted. 4lbs. Good times. The daydream had blessed us. The daydream was slowly becoming a reality. Or so we thought…
That night with more rain forecast for the next day the plan was made to hike half way back the next day before fishing lower in the valley. In the morning we packed up camp and walked down. This time via the river. This turned out to be a stroke of genius. The hike time literally halved, more than halved. What had taken 3 plus hours on the way up took just an hour and a half. On the way we spotted a few fish sitting in some perfect deep blue holes. After setting up our new camp Nick and myself headed back to the fish in the blue holes. We fished to those three fish for 4 maybe 5 solid hours. One of them was a big boy (8lbs, a friend had caught it a few weeks before hand). They were feeding deep. 8 foot plus of water. They wouldn’t spook, no matter how hard we tried. We couldn’t catch them. Hundreds of casts. Numerous silly rigs to try to get down to them. Numerous desperation presentations. Czech nymphing from in front of the fish in full view of it isn’t a great idea right? Well, we tried it. It didn’t work, but the fish didn’t spook either, it just kept on feeding down deep. Eventually we gave up. The other boys had had a bit more luck. Brett had hooked up but was busted off. They had spotted a few more fish they couldn’t tempt. In the end a donut for everybody. At least it was a glorious place to donut. Little did we know this would set the tone for the rest of the trip. The daydream was now over. Reality was about to come crashing in.
That night more rain started. Heavy rain. My tent flooded. I slept under a tarp out in the open. I swatted 20 sandflies in one slap. Lee spent the night dreaming that a rat was doing circle work in his tent. When he woke up a rat really was doing circle work in his tent, tiredness does funny things to the mind. When the others finally awoke and left the safety of their tents, the rain was still falling steadily. We set about packing up and walking out more or less as we had walked in. In the rain, wet and with sodden tents. This time however, our spirits weren’t high. Our spirits were now just dregs in the bottom of a beer bottle the morning after the party. As a fishing day that day was more or less wasted getting out of the valley and getting back to civilisation. As was the next day. This time by tiredness and weather. The rain hadn’t stopped since we had left our valley. Sunny with a chance of showers. We fished all day anyway, if you can even call it that. Every river we hit was high and dirty and our tempers and brains were starting to frey. We didn’t really fish “properly” we just mindlessly went through the motions. In hindsight we should have just set up shop at a microbrewery or winery for the day and refreshed ourselves. It’s what we all needed.
The day after that though was perfect. The river we fished was perfect. We sighted many BIG fish. Almost all were sitting really deep, almost all were going to be very very hard to tempt during the day. We tried anyway. In the end we only caught one. Nick managed to tempt a feisty a 3lb fish from the tailout of a nice pool. It wasn’t conventional. Two wonderful drifts ended with the fish rejecting the fly. In desperation or maybe in an attempt to avoid the many fly changes that had plagued us, Nick jiggled the fly on the third. It worked! By 7 o’clock we were all wrecked. We left just as the fish were coming out from their deep holes to feed in the shallower water. Just as they were becoming far more catchable targets. We contemplated staying but we were beat. We knew we weren’t making a great decision, but none of us had the energy to continue.
The next day was our last day fishing. Nick tapped out and stayed on the couch. I was still on a donut for the trip, as was Danny. By now I’d more or less lost it mentally. Not catching fish had muddled my brain, turning it into an omelette of tangled thoughts. By now the daydream was just a distant memory for all of us. We headed to a river, we saw big fish. We saw one very big fish. We failed to convert any of the 4 or 5 fish we saw. Which brings me to the last cast of the day. The last cast of the trip. It wasn’t to the very big fish, that had spooked hours before. It was “just” a 6-8lb trout. What followed was a good cast. A fly drifting right at the fish. The fish seeing and eating the fly. The fish shaking its head to free itself. And me? I just watched, forgetting to strike until way way to late. After 6 fishless days, what was a 7th in the big scheme of things. I was done mentally anyway. I had completely stopped believing. On that last cast, on my best opportunity for days, my fishing brain had shut down and just frozen. It was like my brain was suddenly running windows 95. After I swore at myself for a good 30 seconds Perrin pipped up jollily in the background to cheer me up.
“You just lost the fish of a fucking lifetime”.
It worked. I cheered up. They are just fish after all. So it goes.
The daydream? That would have to wait till next time. That was OK, I’d had a taste. The sort of taste that has you itching to do it all again soon. The sort of taste that leaves you hungrier than ever to turn the daydream into reality. As for the trip, if there is a more beautiful place to string together 7 donuts, I don’t know of it… If there are five better dudes to do it with I don’t know them.
Thanks to Lee, Perrin, Danny, Brett and Nick for a great holiday and thanks to Lee for taking the photos. Flipping awesome work bro!