January 10th, 2004
Let’s start this column by ignoring the fact that I am writing it in Paul’s car being eaten alive by sandflies. Let’s also put to one side the state of this car – and, in fact, the state of Paul himself, who I barely recognised at Christchurch airport on Monday; not least because it was 6.30AM and thus couldn’t possibly have been him. And let’s forget that I haven’t slept for a week, and that I have had spend much of that week in the grip of some vicious Australian flu, and that I soon have to endure more of Paul’s innovative bush cuisine. All that matters is that I am somewhere very remote, in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island – and already, I have been given plenty to think about.
I have of course been thinking about this trip for months – partly because it’s hard not to spend some time getting excited about an epic trout-chasing journey to the end of the world, but also because I have been painfully aware that I needed to capitalise on my experience the last time I was here. In 2002, I turned up to met Paul completely ignorant of the challenges that lay ahead – ignorance that proved to be costly in terms of my mental well-being. Fishing in New Zealand is more fun than you can possibly imagine having with your waders on, but it is also a lot harder than it looks.
The first aspect of this – and one that makes itself felt extremely forcibly almost as soon as you set foot on a river – is that you have to be fit to fish here. I’m not talking about 20-lengths-of-the-local-pool fit here, either. If you have been seduced by tales of giant trout in extraordinary scenery (and the fishporn that inevitably accompanies it), as I certainly was the first time around, you are going to be in for a nasty surprise. What those pictures of pristine, aquamarine rivers don’t ever really get across is how much hard work is involved in getting to them, or how difficult just walking along the banks can be. ‘Banks’, in fact, is often a misleading term here, because few of the rivers have anything as well-formed or identifiable as the chalk streams or reservoirs at home – these freestone rivers have not just the usual free stones but vast, shifting tracts of them, mixed in with plenty of giant boulders and tree trunks and sandbanks and all the other things that come with a landscape as geologically and hydrologically unstable as New Zealand’s.
All this makes your life suddenly very exciting, especially if you spend 300 days a year at your computer, as I unfortunately do. Suddenly, you are stumbling and panting and swearing across this alien terrain wondering what on earth you did to deserve this much physical pain – and that’s before you’ve even found your first tussocks, which I have written about here before. This is one place where you really need to think hard about your footwear – and, critically, not believe Paul when he tells you that diving boots are up to the job, as I did so catastrophically last year.
And so it goes on. Long before you find a fish, there is hard work to do; and by the time you’ve done it, you may not be in tremendously good shape to fish afterwards. Today, we walked downstream for 90 minutes or so along what seemed to be a pretty unchallenging track some distance from the river, aiming to fish back upstream to the car. Alas, the last couple of kilometres of this apparently gentle hike was across swampy, tussocky ground; a breeze for Paul, not so for someone who hasn’t used most of the muscles in his thighs for a year or two. So by the time we were sitting at the top of a gorge high above the river, looking down at the enormous fish that was clearly visible on the far side of the current, I was already feeling the pressure.
At this point, some of the other elements of trout fishing in this unique country become suddenly and terrifyingly apparent. For one thing, I had to work out how to even get down to the fish – in the end, a scramble down a short but steep, shingly and wader-threateningly thorny bluff. Next: the wind. Spend more than ten minutes in the South Island and you are invariably introduced to its fondness for throwing a howling gale your way as if from nowhere; yesterday’s was upstream and manageable, today’s was downstream and much less so, perhaps 35 or 40 knots in regular gusts. Casting a heavy nymph accurately with a five-weight in this sort of wind is non-trivial, to say the least – and it’s something one doesn’t really get a lot of opportunity to practice in south-west London, frankly.
Critically, you have to do all this quickly. These fish are not terribly selective – in rivers this unstable, you eat what you get given – but they are spooky and they have a supernatural ability to know that you are there. You might say that most trout would find it hard to ignore 210 pounds of stout, pale Englishman tumbling down a hillside, but even if you creep up on them carefully and quietly, they realise very soon that something odd is in their world. What makes this especially hard to deal with is that they don’t have the decency to bugger off downstream, as most spooked trout do – they just ignore you. So perhaps the most important thing of all in catching these fish has nothing to do with fly selection or drift or even the sexiness of your loops; instead, it has everything to do with getting your fly in front of the fish as fast as you can. This can be very hard to do, given the facts that a) there are several thousand thorn trees behind you, waiting to snag your backcast and b) that your leader has become inexplicably and comprehensively tangled around the rod tip as you fought your way through the gales. Today’s problem, though, was c) the fish in front of me was alarmingly, breathtakingly big; well into double figures, the sort of fish that you really think you might never see in the wild. As trophy fish go, this is one that you desperately want to hook; but you know that if you do, you are in for some serious trouble afterwards, because you may – will – have to follow it downstream through the scarily bank-free gorge, and perhaps even all the way to the sea.
I haven’t talked about fish-spotting yet – a subject so intractable on these beautiful, wild rivers that it deserves a space of its own in the weeks to come. I’ll mention the sandflies again briefly, only because a cloud of them is making light work of my forearms as I type and they are thus right in the focus of my attention. They are atrocious creatures which no god would have been evil enough to create, and so thus serve a profoundly important philosophical purpose. I will instead simply mention the astonishing view of the mountains of the back country, and the shallow lake full of cruising trout not 100 yards away, and the fact that I have another two weeks of all this pain and anxiety and exhilaration to look forward to. I am very glad to be here.