Walking on Water
It has been said that fly fishing is much like problem-solving: basically, the fish are feeding, and you can’t catch them, so here’s a problem needing a solution, ideally a quick one. Depending on where you’re at with your fishing, and the nature of the game itself, there are many variations on this theme – flies, techniques and strategies – though my particular quandary had to do with access to some of the most explosive dry-fly action on the planet.
For a part of my year I live at the Southern Lakes, near the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island, which are massive bodies of water and full of trout, yet surprisingly they are little fished except by the usual brigade of put-put trollers who tend to stick to predictable lanes and deep water. So the best stretches of sight-fishing shorelines – those with plenty of structure and abundance of food – are rarely touched by anglers. Trouble is, they are also the most inaccessible.
These are the crumbling cliff-lines and natural breakwater shores of giant boulders, overhung with trees and shrubs, hard to get to, even more awkward to follow, not to mention casting from them. The water there is deep-blue or black, with little or no littoral zone and, in season, the trees and shrubs are alive with insects many of which end up falling into the water. There, just under the surface, large trout cruise in quick zig-zagging patterns, reacting to anything that hits the water, examining twigs and leaves, gulping beetles, hoppers or cicadas though never bees or wasps. It is a sight that makes your mouth go dry and sends the heart rate spiking up for these are not the spooky fish from any popular drive-by river that can shy off at the mere wave of a fly rod but the top-of-the-food-chain predators worked up to a feeding frenzy, curious and confident. If you’ve experienced such sight even once, like me, you’d be coming back again and again, hoping to relive it.
But, as I say, access is a major problem, ranging from hard to dodgy, to impossible. Belly boats and kayaks are next to useless (too low to the surface to see from,) motorboats too noisy and clunky. So it all seemed a bit hopeless and limited to a few accessible rocks until, somewhere on the web, I saw a picture of a guy sight-fishing the Florida flats from a standup paddle board. My eyes lit up. Now here was a vessel perfect for the task – stealthy and portable, quick to deploy, ideal to see and to cast from. A few emails later, my fishing-specific inflatable BOTE paddle board arrived and changed my lake fishing forever.
You had surely seen them around as standup paddle boards – sups – have become one of the fastest-growing fitness fads and for a good reason. As a way of getting into shape, paddling a sup is right up there with swimming and cross-country skiing, a low-impact full body workout. You paddle with your arms and upper body but the power transfer is through your legs and feet into the boat so that all the muscles are engaged. Your legs get stronger, your flabdominals tightened and toned, and as your core strengthens and stabilizes – just through mere balancing on the board – a lot of back pains and niggles tend to disappear as well. And it’s not like this kind of fitness regimen is a chore, right? You’re out there, in fresh air and beautiful places, with a fly rod in your hand. Getting fit while fishing? Definitely my kind of workout.
I’m not saying it’s easy but then most worthwhile things usually aren’t. If you just grab your rod and fly vest and hop on a sup you will most likely spend more time swimming than fishing. Yet with a bit of practice a sup becomes a remarkably stable fishing platform. The progression is a lot like learning to ride a mountain bike: your balance, turning and propulsion need to become almost second-nature before you start fanging down technical trails.
I’ve put a good few weeks into just paddling, without the rod. This was a revelation in itself because the first thing you notice from the sup is just how many more fish there are on the flats and shallows than what you could ever see from the shore. Cruising the drop-off and looking into the littoral zone it’s not uncommon to be seeing several fish at any one time. This flip of perspective – looking in from the outside, from an elevated vantage point and often against a good backdrop of shoreline and trees – is one of the greatest advantages of fishing from a sup. The others are unobstructed casting space and the stealth of approach. It is the movement that seems to spook trout the most. If you just drift and keep low and still, the fish can often swim right under the sup without scaring off at all.
The easiest way to catch fish from a sup is to fit it with an accessory tackle rack, secure your rod in there and troll Woolly Buggers and the likes along the flats and drop-offs. The takes are unmistakable though, at least to begin with, you may want to follow the advice of a fellow sup-fishing convert, top Queenstown/New Zealand guide Chris Dore, and “always fight the fish on your knees” so that you don’t follow them into the drink.
Trolling lures behind the sup is a good entry-level way to get used to the boat, get a workout and catch dinner, but when you progress to sight-fishing it is another game entirely, one with a lot of moving parts. First of all, when you put your paddle down to cast, the sup becomes a lot less stable. A single wake from a passing motorboat or a jet ski can take you out if it catches you unaware. Add to this the excitement of the hunt – the fish moving fast and feeding, you trying to cast accurately to them, often at odd angles, cross-body or backhand – and it’s not that impossible to accidentally step off the board and truly “get in amongst them.”
Falling in is actually good and part of the learning; just hang on to your rod and clamber back onboard. After you fall in a few times you’ll be falling off a lot less. Your brain and muscle memory would have figured out the limits of balance and with time and mileage the board becomes like an extension of your body. You’ll find you can move around it, even turn, and you won’t need to drop down to your knees every time you hook up. In fact, there is nothing quite like the sensation of being towed along by a good-size fish while with your feet you steer the board so it follows straight. Not exactly wake-boarding but you get the idea.
Good fishing sups, like those in the BOTE range, have provision to attach a cooler box. I use a small Yeti with a couple of bungee cords. This not only keeps your food and drinks cool and handy but, more importantly, makes a good seat to rest on and to fiddle with your fishing gear. It is surprisingly hard to change flies while standing up on the sup, even in perfectly glassy water – this has to do with how our balance, sight and focus are related – so a simple seat eliminates yet another potential cause of falling in.
At the first few glances, fly fishing from a sup may seem too hard and complicated, with too many moving parts, and a learning progression that involves plenty of blank days. But if you persevere like I did, become comfortable on the board and shake down the procedures – especially the transitions from paddle to rod and back again – in the end it all miraculously comes together and the rewards are beyond measure.
One such day, I put in in a little rocky bay on Lake Wanaka and paddled out to maybe 100 yards offshore. The lake was a glassout as far as you could see, but there was a slight southerly current running and for an hour or so I paddled into it, well away from the shore as not to disturb the water I was about to fish. Then I turned in again and let myself drift to within a casting distance of the shoreline. There was not a cloud in the sky and through the polaroids the water, shaded by the backdrop of the mountains, was inky black. The flashes of gold within it were the big brown trout hunting waterlogged terrestrials.
For the next three hours I drifted along on the barely discernible current, casting to an untold number of trout. This may come as a surprise to many but, per mile of the bank, there are a lot more fish in a lake than you’d find in an average New Zealand river. And let me just say I did not get many refusals as most of these trout behaved like they’d never been fished for before. After a while, I even started teasing the fish, pulling the fly lightly along the surface just as they were about to take it. There would be the audible snap of the jaws, a moment of confusion as the trout realized it had missed, then an even more aggressive follow-up take, hard and fast like a punch just under the surface.
It all felt like some kind of surreal fly fishing nirvana – being surrounded by rising and eager trout, on a perfectly still lake, with no one else around and miles more of shoreline ahead of me. But no thing last forever. At one point, looking up to the head of the lake, I saw a north-westerly front approaching, a wall of wind, dust and churning water. Within minutes it hit, changing the lake from a glassout to white-caps, and the wind-driven swell was smashing yards high against the rocks along which, only moments earlier, the trout fed with such abandon. By then, I was on my knees on the board, surfing my way to the takeout point.
I had learnt my waterman’s lessons early during the rookie days on the sup: the inflatables are a lot more susceptible to wind than solid boards. You need to anticipate the weather and its wind changes and always – always – paddle into them so that you’ll get blown back to your takeout, not away from it into the open water, or beyond it, down the rocky shore without a way out for miles.
Back at the truck, deflating and rolling up the sup into its backpack stuff bag, I had a pang of regret that my fly fishing nirvana did not last longer. There was so much more water ahead, so many daylight hours, so many more trout to tease. But like the storm, it was only a passing sensation and did not really matter. If you’ve been out in the woods and on the water long enough, you know that Nature is always the boss and there is nothing for it but to roll with its whims while making the best calls you can, and besides, as it was, I’d already had one of my best trout days ever.
For the time it lasted, it was like walking on water, with a fly rod at the ready. And should I even mention that I’ve had many more days like that since?