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Trout Tangos in Otago

By Justin Smith

How do you write a story that must, in a few pages, convey a day of exceptional fishing that stands out as the one of the best days of chasing trout that I have ever experienced!

For those who have already fished in ENZED, maybe even now heads are nodding, and eyes are rolling, as alike memories, salted with golden moments, come again to the fore, and with them, bring a smile of contentment, a sigh of longing or even, wide eyed amazement, as an inner voice exclaims; Was I really there!

This was our first family overseas holiday and after nearly a year of planning, five Smiths were embarking on a 17 day invasion by motor home of the south island of New Zealand. The tourist icons were earmarked and our itinery was complete. Glaciers and jet boats, fiords, forests, rivers and mountain peaks, none would escape our touring frenzy.

But this was not a fishing trip, this was a family holiday, and I must say in hind sight, a successful and enjoyable family holiday. Even so, somehow in the planning and research for this family holiday, I stumbled across fifty or sixty pages of South Island fishing regulations, bought and read a book called ‘Trout Fishing, a Guide to the South Island’, by Tony Busch, and mysteriously acquired two 4 piece travel fly rods, oh yes, and a NZ fishing license too.

So yes, I confess, there in the back of my mind, there was a secret desire to wade one of these magnificent stretches of water, cast a fly, and dream, maybe, just maybe, the line would tighten…

In the mean time, we were all having a wonderful holiday. Each day that greeted us, contained natural wonders, that humbled and inspired, though Josh, my 16 year old was a little concerned we may be journeying to places with marginal TV reception.

IN the first stages of our travels, I remained focused on the sight seeing aspects of our holiday. This wasn’t very difficult, especially when we had had such special experiences, like hiking, sorry tramping, to the foot of Aoraki Mt Cook, or cruising the majestic and awesome Milford Sound. Such natural wonder is more than enough distraction even for a fly fisherman. And in any case, given we were still in September, the trout season for most waters still weren’t open. So my longing and temptation to fish remained tentatively under control.

But, without exception, as we crossed or passed by river, rivulet and stream, pond, loch or lake my eyes would linger, and our motor home would slow…

Most sport fishing waters were closed in September, but not all. Regulations for sport fishing in New Zealand, for a New South Welshman, are complicated, really complicated. Some rivers open in October, some in November, some are opened all year, and some not at all.

And some rivers, maybe even the SAME river, may have three or more different sets of regulations, in place, at the same time, depending on where you are on that particular river, and beware, the regulations are very specific, and yet at the same time, may be difficult for a ‘non local’ to understand. One regulation may typically read, ‘open all season from the outflow of the lake down stream to where the foot bridge crosses, from there down stream to the viaduct, season opening is from 1st October. The season for this river upstream from the inflow to the same lake shall be from the 6th November’, and so on, so you need to do your research, read your maps, consult your references, and be certain of your compliances, before you just blunder in.

Some rivers may also be subject to other controls, which are usually sign-posted at most entry points, so be aware, and if in doubt, ring Fish and Game, or drop in to a local tackle shop, buy something, then ask your questions, trust me, it’s better that way.

But today was now the 2nd of October, and after nearly a week of touring, aka, not fishing, slow river crossings had become river stops and stares. ‘You need to go fishing’ said Ros. ‘I need to go fishing’, I agreed.

We had arrived at Wanaka on Lake Wanaka, Central Otago, only the day before.

Wanaka is such a beautiful town. Surrounded by snow capped alps and lapped by an expansive clear water alpine lake. Tomorrow would be my day, tomorrow, a date and time was set to meet up with local Guide, Greg Dougherty and we would fish the Clutha for the day.

And perhaps, as a prequel celebration, that night, our family had a special night out at a seafood restaurant with spectacular water views over Lake Wanaka. As I waded in to my scampi on a stick, I gazed from my plate to the window, and looked out to see a red sun whose reflections were painted serenely on a calm lake. I was a beautiful windless evening calm, calm…except….. Except it was alive with a full on hatch, and trout rising everywhere!

I got indigestion.

Tomorrow would come….I couldn’t wait.

Rendezvous pick up was 8:00am…..I was early.

As I stood at the entrance of the Motor Park at which we were staying, wearing my waders, fishing vest, newly acquired ‘fly fishing NZ fishing cap, and holding my new fly rod, a bloke wandering by, stopped, ‘you going fishing then’? He asked. In the 5 minutes we chatted, before Greg Dougherty arrived, we had covered such topics as local fishing spots, best fish caught, favorite fly, fish stocking, evening hatches on the lake, my fishing club in Australia and one or three other topics that I can’t recall at the moment.

Yep, I was excited, and the coffee I had for breakfast wasn’t helping.

Greg Dougherty, of Alpine Fishing Guides, was professionally right on time, as he pulled up right along side, towing the rubber raft behind his Nissan 4×4.

“Justin?” he called out through the window. “Yeah, how’d you guess”, I replied. Greg smiled, and after shaking hands and throwing the gear on the back seat, we were away.

By now it was obvious I was in hyper talk a lot mode, so Greg politely listened as we drove the 10minutes to our launching point at the Clutha River bridge crossing near Albert Town.

I viewed this river for the first time, wide, deep and fast flowing, rippling clarity, clean and cold.

I shut up, except for my mouth, which was open, and not moving…a rare sight.

“Are you going to rig up”? Asked Greg. I blinked, recovered from my awe induced river fixation, then promptly started talking again; yep I was even more excited now.

I had also brought with me a selection of flies, and was confident I could cover most of my bases .I had especially tied a good range of well weighted nymphs. Greg too had already rigged a two fly rig, but after looking at my flies, said I would have no problem using any of the nymph combinations I had brought with me.

To be honest, I felt really pleased with myself, when Greg said my flies were fine. But I opted for Greg’s rig. My flies could wait for another day.

The rig we used was a simple two fly nymph rig… The Top fly was a heavily weighted #10 bead head black brown nymph, and about 40cm from it, tied from the hook end was what I think was a slim un-weighted coloburiscis on a #12, but any slim black or dark nymph would have done. This was tied together with 6lb flouro, and dropped under about 9’ of straight 8lb flouro with a foam indicator on the butt.

Before entering the dingy, and launching, we both donned our life jackets. With a last simple push we were away. Our dingy glided with the current, quietly and smoothly, allowing a sense of being part of the river.

It’s strange you know, the first five or ten minutes of the initial river journey seem to be erased from my short term recall. I know I was asking an awful lot of questions, but I can’t remember what they were, I can only guess that they would have been all the usual ones. I know my head, with eyes wide, grin wider, rotated and jerked a hundred times in every direction, as I attempted to absorb the enormity, the sheer pristine beauty that surrounded me at every point of the compass. In trying to recall this introduction to fishing the Clutha, the attempt to suck it all in, seems to have resulted in a sensory overload and temporary shutdown.

But I do remember this though; I was happy, childishly joyously happy.

In serious reflection now, as I concentrate, slowly two men in a small rubber boat come into focus. They are floating at a pace, just faster than walking speed. Up stream they are framed by two high banks, and in the center background, towers the Treble Cone Mountain range. The river flows between an avenue of willows and poplars, the willows, freshly foliaged in bright lime green spring leaves. The nearby hills are carpeted in bright yellow blossoms of manuka scrub, and towering majestically behind them all, the jagged snow capped peaks of the Southern Alps.

And, now, as I reflect upon scene, I can hear a voice, and it’s not mine…”and that’s where the Hawea converges with the Clutha”, and I see Greg pointing and there it is, the Hawea, flowing into the Clutha in a southerly direction from its outflow at Lake Hawea.

We hadn’t traveled for long or far, when we pulled in to a gravel beach, left high and dry on an island that divided the river into two main channels. Greg led me to the waters edge, and then he surprised me. I thought he was going to point or guide or polaroid something, but he didn’t! “Lets see what’s on the menu, shall we”? As he began purposely, to upturn and inspect, the undersides of several rocks and small boulders in the waters edge.

Is it only fly fishermen who get a kick from this sort of thing? I was intrigued. The bottom of the rocks were alive. Greg pointed out various species of nymphs, mainly mayfly and cadis, some crawling, some attached, but all living underneath each and every rock we inspected. This confirmed at least two things for me, one, that after more than 40 years, some things don’t change, I still like looking at bugs under rocks, and two, our little trailing nymph was the right size and colour to match most of these little critters.

Sitting in the raft, floating in the river current, means even an ordinary cast can still produce a perfect drift. It really does become an easy thing to achieve. Such fishing can be done by almost anyone, especially with an expert guide and pilot, who can position you directly over the most productive runs of the river. But as enjoyable as this is, I believe, it isn’t until you stand in the river and cast. It isn’t until you are purposefully delivering the fly, or mending the line, watching the drift, reading the water, that you really feel that you are actually fishing.

This is when the river can speak to you. Just above the tumbling gurgling wash of the riffles, the river whispers. “They are here”.

It is when you a standing in the living current, feeling its power against your body that you become fully focused, and completely consumed by the mission before you. It is, as you immerse yourself in the river, that your soul feels the harmony and knows the rhythm. Loops are tight and your rod grip is relaxed, this is pure heaven and it is this sweet feeling that swells with each cast, and flows with every drift.

I call this fishing

But even so, the first fish didn’t just jump on the fly because I was feeling good about myself, although I was fishing confidently, and the water looked productive, nothing eventuated in the first hour. I think Greg was getting just a touch anxious, but to be honest, I felt it was only a matter of time before we would have runs on the board.

Greg put the raft into shore at another spot, not far down stream from the island we had just stopped at, which he informed me, had fished well on many previous occasions. This location just oozed ‘fish me’. The faster deep water, became channeled, and concentrated, passing close by a large overhanging willow, the other side of which, the water slowed and eddied.

It was this transition zone, between fast moving and slow moving water, that Greg was directing me to fish again and again.

Greg left me there, just for a few minutes, so he could do some spotting a little further down stream. The fishing that was given to me, as my task so to speak, until Greg returned, was fishing I understood. A style and technique that I had practiced and succeeded at many times before.

Casting upstream and across, I present a fly that drifts naturally, just inside the faster flowing transition zone of the two differently flowing currents. Simple, but not as easy as it sounds, given that the water closest to me, in which my fly line and majority of leader lay, wanted to slow and pull the end of my leader out from the faster flow, and unnaturally skate it across and back into the slack water.

But, with thoughtful mending, the drift could be significantly extended, and the tag two nymph team, could thread the path between the ‘zones’. To see this is so sweet, but to see the indicator porpoise under the bubbles, three quarters into its run, and feel the line pull tight is sweeter still.

There is micro moment, when all activity slows to nothing. A hesitation in time, where our trout comes to a decision, that something is not right. This moment is like the pause that is experienced by the sprinter between the ‘set and gun’. It is this moment that is almost instantly extinguished, as our silver torpedo explodes from the water, to tail-dance and head shake for all its worth. Fins are traded for wings, and tails for toes.

I screamed like a girl, and laughed like a boy.

My new friend turned his head and bolted down stream, but I could tell straight away he was no monster. But what fight and spirit she displayed! Dive and leap, spin and summersault! I could see Greg from the corner of my eye, emerging from amongst the willows and striding back up the shoreline towards me, net in hand and a nervous smile on his face. This was a good moment. A little reminiscent of an anxious father and excited son, each wanting not to fail the other.

“That’s it, keep the pressure on, head up, good, no not yet, that’s it, yep, good…yes!”
Did Greg speak this, or did I just think it loudly? I can’t remember for certain, but it sums up the last moments of this first fish, as we bring it impatiently to our net.

With 6lb fluro verses 1 ½ lb fish, the struggle was definitely one sided, and the outcome seemed in hindsight a sure thing. But I lost three sure-thing fish during the course of this days fishing, including a 4 lb brown, who kissed my feet before waging his tail.

But for now, it didn’t mater. Expertly, Greg brought the netted fish to the shore, and carefully, we removed our small black nymph from an undamaged top lip. Then this beautifully conditioned silver bodied rainbow was framed, photographed and gratefully released with fond farewells and respectful salutes.

The day now had truly begun. Greg and I shook hands for the second time that day, and I can say now, in the privilege of hind site, not the last time.

Many is the time, when you arrive at a fishing destination, and make the first enquiries about the current state of the fishing, that you hear something like this, “no mate, it’s no good at the moment you should have been here the day before yesterday”, or, when after the trip is over, and you’ve returned home with nothing to show for your efforts, and then by chance catch up with a fishing mate, just returned from the very spot you fished, and he will exclaim how great the fishing became the day after you left!

But this day, my day, was both the day before yesterday and the day after today, rolled into one. The sun shone warm, and the sky beamed a monotonous blue. There was little wind, and as the morning progressed, it just got better.

We moved back into the flow of the river, and drifted towards our next ‘hot-spot’. As we floated in the current, Greg noted more fly activity along river. Not exactly a full on hatch, but a suggestion that more food would be in the water, and that the fishing should improve.

True to his observation, the next run turned up another rainbow of similar size to the first. The take was enthusiastic, and the leaps and tail walks were no less impressive. Two more fish not long after this one meant that the day had progressed to the stage, where each cast was accompanied by an absolute expectation that a fight with another fish would soon ensue. Yep, happy and cocky, a dangerous combination….

Perhaps, it was this cockiness that led to the loss of the next, and for the day so far, best fish. She took the nymph more subtly then the previous fish had, and instead of leaping for the sky, she headed for a deep undercut bank near some willows down stream of the take.

And there was weight, real weight in this fish. “Greg, I’m on”! Greg wasn’t far away. As usual, once he had set me up on a run, he would move upstream or down to locate individual fish. I think he could sense the extra urgency in my voice with this fish, and he hurried to my side, with net at the ready. A few minutes later, after leaning into the butt of my 5 wt Kilwell, I forced a flash of colour to reveal my trophy. “Greg, it’s a brown, I think it’s brown”!

The Clutha produces rainbows predominately, but to see this beautiful brown flash her crimson dots defiantly, as she dived again for cover, produced for me an even wider smile. But I was too impatient to see this beauty up close and personal, and as I leaned hard into the stick to bring the head up to the waiting net, the hook pulled.

“That’s what we call a long range release”, answered Greg, as he read my confused and dismayed facial expression. It’s strange, for some reason, I really wanted that particular fish, had to be 4lb at least, maybe 5lb… “There will be more”, assured Greg, as if again reading my mind, and you know he was right there too

Greg suggested we move on, and after straightening the hook of my bottom dropper, and checking for wind knots, we were again relaxing in the mid stream of the Clutha, as she carried us round another bend filled with expectation.

We had developed a nice routine by now, and when Greg said we’d stop for lunch, I was almost disappointed. Normally when I fish, munching on a piece of fruit, or one of those food substitute bars is about as close as I go to stopping for lunch when there’s fishing to be had..

I was put ashore adjacent to another perfect textbook run, and while I happily cast up and across in familiar and comfortable fashion, Above and behind me, Greg set to work, putting up our camp chairs and setting the ‘table’ for our mid day supper.

A warm sun stood high, looking down on cool bubbling water and there, accompanied by present memories of jumping fish still flashing in my minds eye, I sat in my chair on a grassy ledge above the run I had just fished. In good company I ate sandwiches on homemade bread and followed them up with cake as well.

As good as it was, I ate quickly. I could still hear the river, and she called me still.

Yes, the river called to me, but luckily, I also had a guide, and he was a lot more specific.

This day we would fish over 14 km’s of river, but really, that would be a misnomer. You can not possibly fish 14 km’s of river in just one day, but you can, with a raft and guide, be taken to a large number of productive runs contained within a 14 km stretch of river. Many of those runs a near inaccessible to approach by foot, so access by raft further enhances the opportunities on offer within the stream.

Greg, I think, may have been saving the best till after lunch.

As we followed our course down stream, with Greg guiding the raft left or right as he did, I noticed, that the river was both widening and becoming shallower. Directly to our left, as we floated down, the river coursed over a wide low water fall. The shelf, over which the water cascaded, opened out into a long deep pool, churning and frothing with twisted currents, filled to the brim with flotsam and promise.

We could see fish hiding in the eddies beneath the drop off. This was a trout feeding smorgasbord. The deep pool concentrated and slowed the delivery of food and oxygen. Being deep, it also provided cover and security for it’s inhabitance.

Greg suggested I move above the drop off and cast across and down, then feed and mend to keep the flies in the drift for as long as possible. Such good advice. But, I don’t know if Greg thought I would feed and mend as much as I did. It was such a perfect current flow, taking line and fly through the middle of the pool, the bottom of which I couldn’t see. With most of my line now in the stream, I waited…one more snake and feed, just another foot, just a little more line…. My heart missed a beat as the indicator plummeted.

In true rainbow style, the fish dived once, but only to gather momentum to turn his head up and shoot for the sun, once twice three times! Such a display! But it was not the aerobatics Greg and I now admired most, it was the size.

“Did you see it Greg?”, I said with a lot of adrenalin assistance in my voice.

His smile said it all, but it was again, a nervous smile.

God I hope I don’t bugger this up, I thought.

Now, the question begged, had I learned the lesson the Brown had given me an hour before? I was lucky, the pool was deep, and my fish changed tactics. Aerial displays use a lot of energy, and perhaps this is why she now dived deep and turned down stream, attempting to use the current to her favor. But the help she sought was week for the current in this deep pool was not strong.

Using changes in low side ways pressure, I turned her head left and right as she angled across the bottom. All the time, telling myself, to be patient, firm but gentle. Contrary to this angling mantra, I was very much aware that I was testing leader and hook to the limit, the feeling I should back off was fighting the deep desire to see this one safely in the net.

She tired though, and Greg expertly netted a fish that was far from spent. “I could see you were keen to get this one in”, he remarked, which I think may have been a euphemism for ‘I think you may have had a touch of luck on your side for this one’. But none the less, we clasped hands and shook, and with excited grins we mutually surveyed our prize.

This was a great moment, and yes we were guide and client, but more so, detached from the ‘business’ of the day, we were a couple of fly-fisherman, like-minded and motivated, mutually enjoying the capture, struggle and landing of a great fish. We shook hands again and took the special pictures of the occasion. Our prize was in wonderful condition, and ready for spawning, so without further delay, I placed her head in the current, and watched the life return to her. With a flick of her wide spotted tail, she was gone, but not the memory, not the picture, and not the story.

More fish were caught that afternoon, and some were lost as well, but each seemed special yet some how less than that hen rainbow.

You come to a stage in a journey, where you realize, it has been the traveling and not the destination that has made it special. This was one of those journeys. As we rounded the last bend, we saw the Luggate Bridge that marked the end of this trip, and although it was still more than a kilometer off in the distance, I deeply yearned that time would slow.

Somehow, I knew, against hope and optimism, that the last run we fished would yield no more silver bullets. I wished, in a way, I had put my rod down for these last few minutes, and just sat back, letting the events of the day sink in.

But that is not my nature, not yet anyway.

So, true to form, I kept casting until I cast one last time. Even then, I stayed focused on my indicator and maintained a natural drift to the very moment the front of our raft nudged the stony beach at the base of the Bridge, which marked the end of our days beat. Our trip had ended.

But this was my day.

This was a great day. And hopefully this will not be the last day that I find the special good fortune to fish such a magnificent South Island river as is the CLUTHA.