It was a cool January day in northern California when I phoned my friend Mike Hunter in Dunedin, New Zealand. A month later, winter turned to summer on the other side of the world and we met as promised in a tiny town near the South Island of New Zealand’s Waipahi River.
It was 9:00am on a cloudy day that couldn’t decide whether to drizzle or clear when Mike drove up in his dark blue Toyota Land Cruiser. After a hearty hello, we drove along a tiny country road which turned to gravel before we stopped at a bridge crossing the river. There had been a record amount of rain a couple of weeks before, then a strong cold wind blew in from the south, now slowing. It was a chilly summer day as the south wind comes directly from the Antarctic with nothing in its path until it reaches this island.
Donning polarized glasses to cut the surface glare, the water looked fairly clear, but still with slight color from the rains. Perfect fishing conditions. It took a half minute of searching the river before I saw a very large trout just two feet below the surface, expectantly facing upstream. The river was slow there, with moss-grass protection on either side of the rock the huge fish was hugging. There was no way to present a fly without spooking it. “Not to worry,” said Mike, “there’ll be more!”
We drove on for several miles, me reveling in this immense sheep country. A never-ending series of dry mountains loomed in the distance as green rolling field after field lay by the roadside, a backdrop for the playfully meandering river. There were three or four miles of river for every straight mile flown by the abundant white-backed magpies and ducks and geese. The fields were all fenced, some containing sheep and the empty ones growing thick grasses the sheep loved. We stopped by a farmer on a tractor, a friend of Mike’s on whose land we would fish. Not yet forty, his strong smiling face was already weathered. It was a fond hello and goodbye. We opened a nearby gate in order to cross a large sheep-filled paddock. There were more fences and fields, seeming a long time until we stopped by an isolated field-surrounded stretch of river.
Mike sent me half a mile over a hill to pick up the meandering river downstream. The plan was for me to fish back to the car while he fished upstream from our stopping place. Fishing the smaller New Zealand rivers requires careful upstream stalking, fishing a dry or wet fly ahead of one’s progress to a spotted fish or a likely riffle. This was a brown trout river, the average fish weighing two or more pounds. The one at the bridge must have weighed four pounds.
I traversed the fields and barbed wire fences, plowing through knee-high wet grasses. Paradise shell ducks and mallard ducks and grey ducks flew overhead. Spur-winged plover staged strange short aerial flights accompanied by a primitive screeching.
After a long struggle, I reached my part of the river. I first surveyed a section while walking at a distance along a high bank. The banks were very colorful, with contrasting green grass and clover, feathery brown sedge and an occasional tall purple flowered thistle. There were small and large smooth rocks along and in the river. In slow-flow areas there was some moss. In places, there were crossing rock ledges. These combined with the river’s frequent turns and gentle pitch to set up an endless series of pools and riffles, mostly shallow enough that wading upstream was not difficult. I could see why this was Mike’s favorite river.
Mike had tied up some size-fourteen “hare’s ears.” Instead of the usual copper wire he had used lead wire for extra weight and a fast sink into the undercut drop-offs and pools. I tied on an extra-long fifteen-foot leader to avoid spooking these wary fish. To my four-pound leader I attached the hare’s ear wet fly as a dropper fly, off a floating size-twelve royal wulff dry fly. Above, the sky looked ominous, pregnant with moisture. Excellent conditions, since overcast made my stalking less obtrusive. I fished carefully, unable to see any trout in this dim light. The preferred technique requires casting into all parts of likely riffles, slowly advancing upstream.
There were no takes, even in likely areas where my dry fly danced invitingly along the surface. It took a half hour before a good fish smashed at my dry fly. There was no connection as I struck back. It was exciting though, as I had seen the long golden flash of the taking trout just before the splashing strike.
Mike had thought that “nymphing” with wet fly was the best method, and somehow I didn’t feel like I was doing it quite right with the hare’s ear in a dropper position, especially in this small stream-like river. I reeled in my line and took off the royal wulff and tied on the nymph by itself. After a few casts, the action of my fly and line felt better. No more extra junk, just the artful presentation of the weighted hare’s ear nymph.
After forty-five minutes of fishing and only another hour to be back at the car and still empty handed, it was time to start thinking like a fish. Just ahead there was a likely looking riffle and pool. Perhaps I had been too visible, too erect. I could sneak up along a high bank of the river on the opposite side and be invisible, especially since a light rain was beginning to pockmark the stream’s surface.
Keeping my hands and rod low, crouched against the bank, I gained line length by false-casting downstream away from the riffle, then roll-casting across and up to the head of the riffle. No luck, but there had to be a good fish there. I remembered an experience as a teenager when I first tried fly fishing in heavily fished eastern United States waters without luck until I decided to keep plying a good stretch of water over and over until any resident fish would think a hatch was on. After hundreds of casts into the same place I was rewarded with a good fish. I had used that technique only a few times since. Now I vowed to keep trying this riffle, casting again and again, allowing only my invisible leader and weighted nymph to land there.
It took more than thirty casts into the riffle before my line stopped. I pulled back sharply and was rewarded and excited by a heavy and moving resistance. A big fish was on! No leaping or big rushes. Just slow rod-bending pressure, characteristic of a large brown trout in a small river. It was almost five minutes before it felt comfortable to walk backwards toward the shore with a tight line, dragging the large brown tout out of the water. A beauty with a bulging stomach, golden brown all over, profuse red and brown body spots, a large head and impressive square tail.
I paused to take in the moment. Normally I release my trout but this time my wife and friends had asked that one be kept for a delicious evening repast. I slit the great fish’s throat and disemboweled it. A female with some eggs and a belly full of nymphs, freshwater crawfish and caddis fly larvae. I lovingly rinsed off the fish and then measured it. Twenty-two inches in length and three pounds in weight. Exactly the fish I’d come for. I placed wet grass in a large plastic bag brought along for this purpose, and gently lifted the fish, placing the package in a compartment of my fly fisherman’s vest against my back. The great fish’s weight and solidness felt good there.
The sun’s rays thrust through the clouds. Simultaneously the wind was whispering, and as it did, it ushered in the sounds of overhead ducks, the plover’s call, the sound of distant sheep, and the murmur of the river. The brief burst of the sunlight illuminated the beads of dew and rain on the deeply green grass, it’s surprising warmth counterbalancing the cooling caress of the wind. It was a New Zealand brown trout kind of day.