How to handle big fish in tight places
A few years in the planning, and a couple of false starts, but it was finally happening: we were going to fish in Haast, in New Zealand’s South Westland, during the prime time of the whitebaiting season. These last two words usually conjure up sentiments of large sea-run trout entering coastal estuaries to gorge on the little translucent squirts, but from past experiences we knew better than to base our expectations on such an elusive quarry. They come and go like silvery ghosts and often the closest you can get to one of them is when you hear a whitebaiter recounting: “there was a real big one here yesterday.”
Once, I even managed to cast to such a leviathan, running after it along the gravel bank of the Arawhata River, repeatedly offering my best-money-can-buy silicon smelt to the fish that sloshed and zigzagged just below the sheen-metal surface, leaving a trail of takes that looked like multiple rises. But it didn’t take my fly and I did not get another chance. No, this time around we would not be chasing phantoms, though of course, we’d be ready if they materialised. On this trip we were happy to focus on the resident brown trout, big and resplendent, and presenting its own set of challenges, though thankfully rarity was not one of them.
We arrived the afternoon before the season’s opening. The day was perfect, the forecast even better. The three of us have all fished here before, though never together, not in such a concerted effort, not with a large window of clear weather open over the Coast. Craig Smith, who guides out of Lake Hawea, has so fallen in love with Haast he bought a house here, a classic West Coast crib, weather-beaten and rustic, with a shed full of nets, cray pots and ancient surf rods, all framed by a miniature Stonehenge of greenstone boulders, temporarily left behind by the previous owner.
The house, which was to be our base for the trip, is not quite the Ritz but what location! Walking distance to two major rivers and their combined estuary, surf thundering beyond the windswept bar shaped into a long sand dune, sunsets in the sea. That evening David Lloyd and I walked the bank of the estuary, rods in hand. The sea-runs were in there alright, vehemently chasing herrings which themselves were big enough to hunt whitebait. Neither of us had four or five-inch feathered lures, and the fish would not even look at anything small, so in the end we just watched and marvelled. The anticipation of what could be is often more titillating than achieving the object of desire itself.
The following day, as we stalked and fished the high banks of a local river, I was to learn one of the most important strategies I’ve ever come across in my life as a fly fisherman but to see its value you first need to understand something about the nature of Haast.
It is one of the most interesting places I’ve ever fished. People here still muster their cattle on horseback, and some riders drown in the process, and others still lose their 4WDs crossing rivers. Everything here is a couple of notches harder than it first appears. To wit, on one of our sighted fish, I faced a long and “draggy” cast and decided to wade in to better the odds. The river looked benign and only knee-deep, no worries there. Two steps in and the water was suddenly reaching the buckles of my chest waders. There was a “false bottom” to the river, a mixed concrete-like layer of silt and quicksand on top of gravel. My foundering spooked the fish. I didn’t wade much after that.
The inhabitants of Haast still cling to the old nickname Far Downers, as if to stress that in the search for their own promised land they went as far and as down as it was possible. I heard their story from Neroli Nolan, Craig’s neighbour who runs a lodge called Collyer House. One stormy evening during my previous visit, she stacked up the fire, poured out some good wine and took me on a time-travel tour to the days when Haast was considered the Wretched Coast, and its settlers, cheated and misled by a bureaucratic scandal, had to find their strength and forge their bush skills or die trying.
When the West Coast gold-fields had been worked out in the late 1860s, thousands of people found themselves with no work and the local government came up with an ingenious solution for them. It produced a prospectus about the promised land in the far south. Any man over 16 could take up a 10-acre section and a 50-acre block, and be granted their ownership. The land was fertile, covered with six feet of “black chocolate soil that’d produce almost anything”, and gold nuggets littered the beaches like sea shells. What’s more, a free passage to Haast was offered on the steamer Waipara to all those who dared to be rich. Desperate people flocked down to Haast, over 600 in total, and none of them knew that the free tickets on Waipara were a one-way deal.
On arrival, they found Haast more like a land of sweat, tears and despair. There was no chocolate-rich soil as promised, but a swamp humming with sandflies and mosquitoes, lashed by biblical rains, bordered by a sea and cut by rivers of uncommon severity. Disillusioned people trickled out of the district by any means possible. Some bought their way out, others simply walked off the land. By 1927 the total permanent population of Haast amounted to nine families and four single men. “The only people who stayed on,” Neroli said, “were those who couldn’t afford to leave.”
So you can see that Haast is a hard and harsh place and nothing here is easy, fly fishing included. This in itself is an attractive challenge but it also determines different rules of engagement, ones that I was about to learn.