“Sunset With a Plonker”

Derek GrzelewskiOn the way back south I camped by the Motueka. The river flows through a stunning and fertile valley, Arcadian in its feel and landscape. Steep green hills guide the river, twisting it this way and that, creating attractive bends, structure and lots of fishy terrain, while the banks offer kaleidoscopic vistas of happily rustic lifestyle—orderly orchards and gardens, berry fields and tree plantations, and here and there unpretentious whitewashed homes presiding over this valley of plenty.

Yet for all this natural wealth and abundance, and despite what the trout guidebooks promise here, I have always found the Motueka a tough place to fish, at times so barren it seemed completely devoid of life. Over the years, I’ve put it down to my own ineptitude and unfamiliarity, the warm water temperatures and the fact that most pools double as swimming holes for orchard workers. After several uneventful attempts, I’ve given up fishing this river during the day.

But if there is an evening hatch on the Motueka, the fishing can be excellent for an hour or so, and so every time I’ve passed this way I’ve timed my travels to arrive well before the sunset, find a good pool, and wait and hope that the mayflies will hatch and the trout will notice. Occasionally, the miracle has happened. With the sunless sky casting the last of its golden sheen on the water, in the feed line against the willows, the fish rise, lining up in their hierarchical order. The bigger fish sip passing mayflies with stately economy, befitting their age and size, making only the tiniest dimples in the surface, while the gung-ho youngsters leap and splash, throwing their entire bodies at the insects, sending sprays of droplets across the river’s surface.

Experiencing such a rise is enough to make me forget all previous disappointments and no-shows. I watch and study, compare the rises and choose my fish, always going for the most inconspicuous ones, as more often than not they are the most worthwhile opponents.

Casting here requires the utmost precision, for in the prime zone of the feed line the fish are often packed closely one behind another, and you don’t want the fly to be snatched by an all-out half-pound youngster before it floats under that overhanging branch where an old patriarch fish is feeding with a quiet metronomic cadence. There is usually time for only one or two fish before it either gets too dark, or the rise peters out, or, more commonly, the entire pool is disturbed by the fight of the hooked fish. This, too, is an added attraction, a further distillation of the experience.

When the conditions conspire in your favor, and if you champion a sniper’s instead of a shotgun approach—one good cast over many hopeful ones—the evening mayfly hatch on the Motueka is dry-fly fishing at its best.

On this day, just thinking of the promised spectacle during the drive from Picton was enough to make my heart glow with anticipation and hope, the breath quicken and the hands sweat lightly against the steering wheel. By the time I arrived at my chosen pool I had a mild case of trout fever, the kind that makes you fumble with knots and drop tiny flies, and repeatedly fail to find the eye of the hook with the sharp end of the tippet because your hands tremble ever so slightly. Getting ready, I tried not to hurry, taking deep breaths and repeating an old Latin precept: Festina lente. Make haste slowly.

Over the tail of the pool not a whisper of wind ruffled the weightless flutter of slender Blue Dun mayflies as they broke away from the surface. A few smaller fish were already splashing in the feed line, a sure prelude to a full-on evening rise. I had come just at the right time. Everything was perfect.

Too perfect.

Presently, a nose of a red twin-cab 4×4 ute appeared in the access driveway, paused for a moment, its driver taking in the scene, then unceremoniously jolting and crunching his way across the rocky riverbank, going too fast, as if angry that the bank was so uneven, and that by driving fast against it he could flatten it. He came to a halt directly between me and the river, the truck’s front wheels almost reaching the waterline. The engine stopped, the door flung open and a pear-shaped man emerged dressed in gumboots, track pants and dirty work shirt stretched tightly over his beer belly.

He appeared to be avoiding looking at me, as if I were not there, halfway into my waders, with the rod rigged and resting against the snorkel of my camper. He walked around to the back of his truck and in the loose junk scattered around the ute’s tray began rummaging for his fishing gear. This did not take him long, as in the next moment he was splashing through the shallows and toward the rising trout. The trout which I had been anticipating for the past few hours, and whose every rise added an extra beat to my own heart rate.

I considered my options. What do you do? Confront the dude? This can be a no-win scenario. You fight, you’re a fool; you walk away, you’re a coward.. The impossibility of avoiding other anglers on New Zealand rivers, and the unpleasant run-ins which such encounters can lead to, have now become so common that Fish & Game New Zealand has produced double-sided signs that anglers can leave behind the windscreens of their parked cars. Fishing upstream from here (downstream on the reverse side). And on both sides: I’m a friendly angler but not here for the company, so please respect my space, or words to this effect.

Most often than not I’ve found that riverside confrontations are the result of one party’s ignorance. Your weekend warrior out with his brand new Sage or your overseas tourist used to fishing elbow-to-elbow on stocked ponds genuinely may not understand that if you stalk wild brown trout you need room to move and fresh water to cover. They may not fathom that even walking the river bank, without a single cast, can spook fish, and it can take hours if not days for them to come back and start feeding again; that water already covered that day is considered second hand and thus a waste of time to fish. Or that cutting in front of a trout hunter cat-footing the riverbank is likely to elicit an emotional outburst which makes the most severe case of road rage benign by comparison.

The thing to do was – always – to communicate, to enquire about the first-comer’s intentions and then to respect them. This simple act often diffuses a potential confrontation, with the response likely to be along the lines of: “I’ll only fish to the next corner, the rest is all yours.” The result is sharing of a river, the sense of a silent brothers-in-rods kind of kinship, sometimes a few fresh tips or insights, even a new friendship.

Well, clearly, I wasn’t about to make friends with Pear Man, but I felt I could not let the matter drop, either. There was an unacceptable “this is my river so piss off” kind of meanness to the way he barged into my riverine dream and shattered it. This was no innocent mistake or ignorance; this was a premeditated affront. A slap in the face. Something that caused your blood pressure to spike and made you think: “Someone ought to teach this punk a lesson.”

I tied Mops to the tow bar on her long rope; Airedales are naturally too friendly to be ambassadors of vengeance. I left my rod where it was, leaning against the camper, so that it would not get in the way, then started walking toward the man. Beyond him I could see that among the splashy reckless rises there were now others, spare and measured, a clear sign that bigger fish were joining in the feast. There was a good twenty meters between me and Pear Man, so I had ample time to consider my opening gambit.

My first thoughts were to question the marital status of his parents, or perhaps the profession of his mother but, really, was it their fault that what they conceived half a century ago turned into an arrogant old grump? I wanted to ask him if perhaps his digestive tract was upside down, with its two distinct ends unfortunately swapped around, or if his brain was made not of grey matter but of a different, foul-smelling substance, manure-like. In my agitated state, I was not short of possible expletives, but I quickly ran out of distance and time to choose one.

“Hope I’m not interrupting, mate,” I said and he grunted something without looking back. He stood ankle-deep in the water still fiddling with his gear, which I could not see.

His grunted reply was predictable: something rhyming with “muck,” slurred into an “off,” and followed by another short word I did not quite catch. And maybe just as well. Pear Man was a ripe subject for some talented anger-management consultant, though right now I felt I could use the help of one, too. There was no backing out, however. Not now.

“Don’t know if you noticed, but something fell off your truck when you were bouncing over those river rocks,” I ploughed on.

“Ay?” he turned to me in mild surprise. His face was slack and jowly, red and unshaven, but his mouth seemed set in a permanent grimace of distaste, as if he didn’t like the smell of something under his very nose. His small, shifty eyes regarded me with suspicion, then turned toward the river bank, retracing the way he came.

“It was kind of small, but I think it was important,” I went on.

“Wha’was’tha’?” he finally spoke looking back to me.

Perfect presentation, I thought, now for the take.

“Your angling etiquette, bro. Didn’t you see me getting ready to fish?”

He turned away and back to the river with a horrible huffing sound and only then I saw his gear. It wasn’t just the sloppy looks and the attitude. Pear Man really was a plonker. In his hands he held a telescopic spinning rod fitted with an egg-beater reel, and at the tip of the rod there dangled a silvery ticer he was about to start lobbing at the rising fish.

Now, I’ve got nothing against spin fishing. I own an Abu baitcasting rod, for salmon, sea river mouths, and times when the water is just too big to fly-fish it well. The rod comes with an open-face Ambassador 6600 C4 reel which is so beautifully engineered I often find myself fondling it, and turning its handles dreamily, and the sensation is pleasantly soothing, almost contemplative, as if the thing was some sort of high-tech prayer mill. But to spin-fish for trout rising to mayfly duns just bigger than mosquitoes? He might as well have been throwing stones at the fish, which, in effect, was what he was doing.

My anger and indignation instantly evaporated. This was ignorance, after all, just thickly disguised by a layer of boorishness, and I had a premonition that his antics would be worth watching for their high entertainment value. Just how high I could have had no idea.

Pear Man lobbed out a cast, and—plonk!—it landed right in the feedline. I had to give him credit for accuracy, though, to be honest, if he was to get one of those rising fish he’d have to stun it with that ticer then immediately hook it with the treble hook attached to it. It was like watching someone extinguishing candles in a shooting gallery. Wherever the ticer landed, the rises instantly ceased.

I stood on the bank and watched—and Pear Man knew that I was—and maybe the pressure of it all was too much for his nerves, for he misjudged one of his casts and sent it right into the branches of the willow overhanging the far side. The reel snapped into its “retrieve” mode, and the heavy nylon twanged across the river. Pear Man yanked it a few times, causing willow leaves to snow down into the water, but the treble hook held fast. He grasped the reel with one hand and started putting his weight into the pull, and I took a few precautionary steps away from the river.

In my late teens I used to spin-fish for pike in the lakes of north-eastern Poland. The lakes were weedy, and it was easy to get snagged. The matron of the house I stayed in worked at the local ambulance station, and, as a warning to a young angler, she recounted how she could always tell when the fishing season started because on the doorstep of the emergency room men would appear, rods in hands, treble-hook lures dangling from various parts of their facial anatomy—ears, lips, cheeks, eyebrows—like some form of bizarre exotic piercing, the nylon often still uncut, running through the rod’s guide-rings to the reel. Pulling at a lure snagged in weeds is akin to shooting an arrow back at yourself, the arrow’s tip armed with a treble hook.

Maybe Pear Man didn’t know that, and in any case, the anger he had brought with him to the river probably did not help. He yanked harder and harder, and watching this I began to hope his line would snap first before he’d have a chance to hurt himself. But what must have been shark-gauge nylon did not snap.

Instead, the willow branch finally gave and the lure shot back across the river. It missed Pear Man but glanced a vicious ricochet off the river rock, and reflexively, at the sound of it, he dropped his rod and cowered throwing up both his arms to protect his face from the blow that did not come.

Fly Fishing Trout DiariesI tried to keep a straight face, but it was hard. Pear Man’s cheeks went two shades redder as he furiously reeled in all the loose line. “Did it ever occur to you that the winding action of an egg-beater reel looks faintly, well, masturbatory?” I wanted to say, but thought better of it.

Besides, the plonker was already throwing his gear in the back of the ute, sliding into the driver’s seat and, if not quite laying a yelp of rubber on the rocks—the riverbed was too rough for that—driving off even faster than he came in, the ute bouncing mercilessly against the rocks.

When he reached the road he stopped briefly, whether to pick up his angling etiquette or just to disengage the hubs I shall never know.

I turned back to the river. Along the feed line under the willows the trout were rising again, and some of the dimple rings were soft and light like child’s kisses. I looked up into the fading sky and smiled to myself. The dream was not shattered, just foreshortened. There was another half an hour of daylight left.