IN THE MORNING we started up the river, zigzagging against its meanders, linking up shoulder to shoulder for the crossings, stalking the tails and eyes of every pool. The middle parts of pools, sandy, deep and slow-moving, were impossible. The fish, like submarines, were either parked right at the bottom or finned leisurely in circles, nymphing among the dust devils of debris, completely out of reach. With good sunlight, against the background of mossy cliffs and forest, the fish were easy to see, but catching one—well, for the first few hours at least it seemed beyond the ability of any of us.
Though the water was not yet heavily fished this season—only a few parties had visited thus far—the trout were exceptionally wary, probably due more to the water clarity than angling pressure. Browns you could not touch. Even lifting a rod to initiate a cast was enough to send them off at speed. Rainbows were more forgiving, but only slightly. One in three or four fish offered what I’d consider a fair chance of being caught, and these odds did not take into account human error or gaucherie.
With three of us on the river, I had only two opportunities that day. On the first I hung up a cast, and by the time I untangled my line the fish was gone. On the second, an unexpected gust of downstream wind doubled back my 16-foot leader and dumped it on top of the fish. It was like throwing a rock at it: one moment it was there, the next it was gone, dematerialised. Was this mongrel of a taniwha still following me? I gritted my teeth and took solace in watching the faultless travails of my companions. Despite heavy odds to the contrary, Marc eked out two beautiful fish, and Michel had another one. This, the latter assured us, was really good going in the Rangitikei. And all this happened even before the godsend of the evening rise.
Even if the fishing is hard, the Rangitikei offers a saving grace in the form of an evening mayfly hatch. Fish that are so difficult during the day are suddenly bolder and more visible, and just careless enough to be humbugged. Thus a skunk here is not really a skunk until the night falls fully. Even if you have not touched a thing all day, you can relax in the confidence that the half hour of twilight during the evening rise should produce opportunities which can be converted into fish with even a modicum of skill. Unless, of course, you have your demons for company, or make a cock-up of a stratagem, like I did that second night.
On the classic South Island dry-fly rivers I fish regularly, you can assume that, if there’s going to be an evening rise, it’ll happen in the slower, smoother bottom third of the pool. I am not quite sure why it is so, whether this is where the mayflies are more likely to hatch, or perhaps where the fish can see them better. But you can bank on it, especially if, along the deeper side of the river, there are defining features like trailing willow branches or bushes which create a funnel-like effect in the feedline. This is the spot the best fish would dominate, a place of primary focus for an observant angler.
So that night, as we divided a long cliff pool into thirds so each of us had enough room to fish, I took the bottom section and, all gear ready and double-checked, set out to wait.
And wouldn’t you know it, the Rangitikei trout do not rise in the tail of the pool. They rise at the top end, just below the whitewater of the riffle. In the dimming twilight some fifty metres above me I heard a heavy splash, then Michel’s laughter echoed down off the cliff bank.
“Hah! She is a beauty, this one!”
It wasn’t long before Marc had a fish on too, then Michel again. In the space of an intense few minutes they landed half a dozen fine rainbows, while absolutely nothing was happening at my end.
It was almost dark when, finally—Mon Dieu! Was this really possible?—a fish rose some ten metres in front of me. I’d been ready for the past half hour, line coiled at my feet, fly kept dry in my left hand, and so instantly I had the dainty CDC with its white punk hairdo in the trout’s window of vision. Another rise. I held off for just a moment then gingerly lifted the rod. There was a violent tug back against my pull, then, where the rise had been, a hefty fish leaped, flashing silver against the gloom of the forested cliffs. It bounced off the surface and jumped higher still, then buried deep into the inky water, tearing off all the loose line I had at my feet and a goodly length from the reel as well.
Now I had it on the reel, in control. My throat went lumpy and dry. Man, finally. I had a fish on. I was back. Back from the lala-land of botchery and blunder. And not a moment too soon. This place was far too special, too once-in-a-lifetime kind of water to fish it like a twonk.
I reeled in some line, and the fish pulled it back, and I gained it again. The reel sang, these were the sweetest moments. And then, would you believe it, the fish broke me off. Just like that. Twang! What was touted as “the world’s strongest fluorocarbon” snapped like the tying thread pulled too tight. I wanted to sit down on the bank and howl.
Copyright © 2011 Derek Grzelewski. Excerpted from The Trout Diaries, A year of Fly Fishing in New Zealand, with permission from Stackpole Books.