January 17th, 2004
There are a lot of stones in New Zealand.
Now, this particular factoid may seem of vanishingly little interest, while being blindingly obvious too akin to stating that there is lots of sand in the Sahara, say, or that the North Pole is very cold. But let me assure you that this one has a lot more significance than that. The newness of the land and its crumbly foundations, combined with repeated gouging by glaciers a process once memorably described by one of my favourite authors as geological cunnilingus have given the whole of New Zealand's south island a desperate and literal case of shingles. Every significant hill and mountain is busily shedding endless fields of boulders and pebbles and gravel and just about any other smashed-rock configuration you can think of, all merrily tumbling down the slopes and being swept along in the rivers and streams and generally carpeting the landscape in an attractive but irritating manner. Pitching a tent anywhere here can safely be described as non-trivial; walking more than about 100 yards in any direction is placing your ankles at serious risk.
But there is a much bigger problem than these. Trout look like stones.
If, like me, you grew up in the pastoral English landscape and developed an early and unhealthy obsession with fish, you have by now got used to spotting fish in rivers. Most self-respecting fishers have spent months or years of their lives hanging over the side of bridges, crouching under willow trees, peering into shadowy pools and generally annoying family and friends with their compulsive fish-watching fixation. I am no exception, of course; while my youthful pals were leering at girls and cars, I was lurking on riverbanks, hoping that a passing chub or trout or grayling would show a bit of fin.
The upshot of these misspent years is that I am not bad at spotting fish by most human standards. The ability to interpret clues that they're around is deeply etched into my visual cortex, to the point where my non-fishing friends think that I am some sort of freak; like most people who spend a lot of time fishing, the tiniest movement or shadow starts ringing bells in my head that people with normal hobbies simply never hear. But here, I am as clueless about fish-spotting as I am about train-spotting.
Part of the problem is with the rivers themselves, which are fundamentally different from most of their European counterparts. Staring into the crystal waters here is utterly beguiling, to the point where I often find myself actually forgetting to look for fish, and forgetting why have I have come here; the hypnotic combination of the flow and the light and of course those bloody stones seems to do something to my cerebral rhythms that definitely excludes seeing fish. Under these circumstances, the trout just fade inextricably into the background, leaving only the faintest clues that they are there. Advice on how to detect these clues varies widely. Look for the shadow; try and see the silhouette against a white stone (and while there are lots of these, there are also lots of blue and red and especially grey ones); defocus your gaze; retire to the nearest pub and get catastrophically pissed instead, my personal favourite.
It gets worse. The fish don't hang out in the same places here as they do at home. A pool or eddy which at home would be positively screaming TROUT! at you is often empty except for the stones, of which there are of course a great many. And they all look like trout, so I still waste hours every day looking for a fish which experience has taught me probably isn't going to be there. On this trip, nearly all the fish we have seen have often been inches from the bank, in water barely deep enough to cover their backs (and I use the word 'often' here with caution, as we have fished at least two rivers this week where the trout were two or three kilometres apart. You really need them to be big to make that worthwhile). My European eyes just don't look for trout in such places. Neither do they look for them in fast runs or at the rear shoulders of long glides and pools, where these fish are also often to be found. Worse than this is the fact that when Paul has seen a fish and points it out to me, I usually still can't see it.
It gets better with time, of course. But it takes a long time. This is my second trip here, and after many days' experience of these rivers I reckon I still see one in five of the fish I walk past maybe. It didn't help that I lost my polarised sunglasses in a swamp last week, I suppose nor that before I left to come here my opthalmologist told me that my eyesight had started its inevitable decline into I-need-longer-arms-to-read territory. But if I had to pick the hardest thing about fishing here, seeing the fish would be comfortably at the top of my list. These stones have a lot to answer for.