I have moved most of the content of this blog to my new site. You’ll find it here
I have moved most of the content of this blog to my new site. You’ll find it here
As the outrage about water quality in New Zealand reaches new heights, here’s a perspective from someone who has fish for trout in the country’s pristine waters for 40 years, and the message he has for us all …
My story about Mayflies in New Zealand Geographic is now out in bookshops and online
At dusk, on the upper Waiau River under the swingbridge entrance to the Kepler Track, the mayflies were hatching. Each insect rose from a dimple on the water’s surface, then took a hyperbolic flight path, vanishing into the glowing Southland sky.
The mass emergence of mayflies attracts trout, which I had come here to fly-fish, but such was the explosive beauty of the spectacle before me, I put my rod away and just watched.
Mayflies spend almost all of their lives underwater among rocks on a streambed—usually a year, sometimes two in the case of the largest species. Then, when conditions are right, they ascend to the surface to hatch. There, they struggle through the viscous membrane that separates the two worlds and climb out of their nymphal shucks—think of a whitewater kayaker, adrift in a current, pulling herself out of a tight cockpit. Then they fly off, keeping their bodies vertical in flight, tails trailing like long legs, giving an overall impression of dainty ballerinas carried on gossamer wings.
Once in the air, they live only a day or two, to mate and procreate, to die and to fall back into the water. This phenomenon, and a misunderstanding of their complete life cycle, has given rise to their Latin name Ephemera—living for a day—to describe the fleeting nature of their existence.
Though trout hunt mayfly nymphs among the river gravels all year round, they are especially attuned to the calendar of the mayfly hatching. Ascending insects, briefly trapped in the surface film, are at their most vulnerable—away from the safety and shelter of riverbed crevices, caught out in the open and silhouetted against the sky. No surprise then that, as I watched, the weaving currents of the Waiau were roiling with feeding trout, the fish slashing and punching from beneath the surface, their jaws snapping like so many pairs of wet hands clapping shut.
But the mayflies’ strength is in their numbers and the brevity of their emergence. Some of the hatches in the United States have been so huge and dense, they registered on radar systems at local air traffic control. One species, Hexagenia limbata, erupts from the waters of the Mississippi in hatches totalling some 18 trillion insects—more than 3000 times the number of people on Earth. The newly emerged mayflies are attracted to lights in riverside towns and descend on them like a blizzard. Local authorities use snow-clearing vehicles to sweep up in the aftermath.
Above the Waiau, thousands of fluttering insects streamed skywards until night fell and the spectacle ended as if by the flick of a switch.
The trout were gone just as quickly and I turned on my headtorch, climbed up the steep rainforest bank and headed back to my camper, pausing for one last look at the river from the swingbridge. Only now I realised that, faced with this extravaganza of mayflies and trout, I had completely forgotten about fishing. This, it later turned out, was not an uncommon reaction, as many careers in entomology began with a fly rod. “You start by fly fishing for trout but after a while you stop bringing your rod,” one mayfly researcher told me. “The invertebrates are a lot more interesting.
all photography by George Novak
My story Saving Trout Country, about trout and water quality in New Zealand, is in the March issue of North & South Magazine.
Have a read and join the groundswell!
“There’s a good fish just down and left of that boulder,” I said to my companion Frank Mosley, and pointed to it with my fly rod.
Frank couldn’t see it but this was to be expected. Unless you’ve trained your eyes to spot New Zealand trout, you are likely to miss all but the most obvious ones. Frank was from Montana, accus- tomed to “fishing water” rather than individual trout, though to his credit it was tough to see fish here in the Reefton backcountry. The ostrich-egg boulders that cobble the riverbeds are bone-white and, in bright sunlight, as hard on the eyes as the blinding glare of a glacier.
“Trust me,” I said. “There’s a fish there all right, and a big one too. Just cast a metre up and left of that boulder.”
Frank did, even if he was not entirely convinced. His cast was accurate enough, but for a long suspended moment nothing happened. He lifted the rod and the line seemed snagged.
“Damn, I caught the botto…,” he said, but then the bottom near the boulder exploded with a fury of spray.
The big trout was airborne above it, shaking its head from side to side, its arched wet body glinting gold as it caught the sun- light. The fish bounced off the water a couple of times, then shot downstream, like a soft, lithe torpedo and a contra- diction to all laws of fluid mechanics.
“Oh my gawd,” Frank’s voice was an octave above his usual baritone. “Did you see THAT? It’s a monster!”
We followed at a run, rod held high but bent into a deep C, Frank’s eyes fixed at the end of his line. He seemed in a trance, ready to walk on water. Well, almost. He was fit and nimble for his mid-60s but a few times I had to catch and steady him as he stumbled over rocks he did not see. The fish was tak- ing us down the river and we crossed and re-crossed the tumbling current, wrestling with it, tripping and fumbling on slippery bottom, gaining some line, losing it again, but at all times keeping it taut like a guitar string.
Twice Frank was down on his knees, flailing on all three limbs but with his rod arm steady and strong. With a pang of dread I saw where the fish was head-ing: a mother of all log-jams a pool below us. If he went in there, into the debris of past floods, we would never get him out.
But then, in the eye of calm below the rapids and just short of the log-jam, I finally netted the fish. He was just shy of the magic 10lb that is the hallmark of a trophy. Frank got his pictures and we released the fish immediately. He was a magnificent trout in his prime, with a fiercely hooked lower jaw, muscled body and a glistening skin that seemed too tight for it.
He was just as spent as we were, and nosed into a rock in the slack water right at our feet, and for a long while all three of us just sat there in absolute stillness, catching our breaths, the only sound the murmur of the river. Then I heard Frank sobbing, and covering it with laughter. He rubbed his eyes with a ban- dana, his hands trembling. “Got the god- damned river water in my eyes,” he said, but he was fooling no one. I smiled and said it was a really good fish, the kind you’d expect out here.
“No, no, you don’t understand. I’ve been fishing all my life, since I was big enough to hold a rod, and this is the best trout I have ever caught,” Frank cut in. “Where I live, you can’t even buy this kind of experience anymore, no matter how much money you have.”
He fell quiet and withdrawn after- wards, taking time to absorb the expe- rience, and he didn’t want to fish any- more that day, as if not to dilute the quality with repetition or numbers.
On the way back down the river he said: “You’re probably spoilt because you
can have this any time you want, but for me this one fish was worth coming all the way down here. Mountain climbers go to the Himalayas for the best there is, fly fishermen come to New Zealand. Today, I bagged my personal Everest.”
Continue reading in the March 2014 issue of the magazine or get the online version here
Writing is such a solitary pursuit sometimes you wonder if your work just goes out to disappear into the Great Void. Fortunately, seems not a day passes without emails, messages and comments from the readers around the world. Even better if you get to meet them in person, and find that you share the same passion and spirit for adventures. Sometimes, like Karilyn here, and Mark who took this picture, they turn out to be Airedale people as well.
Thank you all for your generous feedback, kind words and encouragement. They make the writing journey all the more worthwhile.
The images above illustrate the results of an unusual artistic collaboration between the French artist Hubert Duprat and a group of caddisfly larvae. A small winged insect belonging to the order Trichoptera and closely related to the butterfly, caddisflies live near streams and ponds and produce aquatic larvae that protect their developing bodies by manufacturing cases from silk and incorporating substances—grains of sand, particles of mineral or plant material, bits of fish bone or crustacean shell—readily available in their environment. The larvae are remarkably adaptable: if other suitable materials are introduced into their environment, they will often incorporate those as well.
Duprat began working with caddisfly larvae in the early 1980s. An avid naturalist since childhood, he was aware of the caddis in its role as a favoured fly for trout fishermen, but his idea for the project depicted here began after he observed prospectors panning for gold in the Ariège river in southwestern France. After collecting the larvae from their normal environments, he relocates them to his studio where he removed their own natural cases and then places them in aquaria that he fills with alternative materials from which they can begin to recreate their protective sheaths.
He began with only gold but has since also added the kinds of semi-precious and precious stones including turquoise, opals, lapis lazuli and coral, as well as pearls, rubies, sapphires, and diamonds. The insects do not always incorporate all the available materials into their case designs, and certain larvae, Duprat notes, seem to have better facility with some materials than with others. Images courtesy of Cabinet magazine.
Gustave Flaubert, oh so Bohemian, always broke but still doing what he loved, once wrote:
“Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.”
Ask my dog Maya about writer’s life. She’d probably say it’s not all bad. Here are a few postcards from the dog’s life. Decide for yourself:
Readers and clients have been writing to me asking some basic questions about fly fishing in New Zealand. I reply to all these queries but as both Qs & As have become quite repetitive I thought there must be a better way of handling this. And there is!
Doug Stevens at nzfishing.com has put together an excellent primer about all you need to know planning your trip to this Country of Trout. Beyond the usual must-know nuts and bolts of travel, he has written up a detailed month-by-month breakdown of what’s happening and where. Best of all this essential ebook is free. You can download it here.
Doug has also put together six regional guidebooks about fly fishing in New Zealand – three for each island – and these are available for purchase here.
Happy fishing and may the trout rise for you wherever you go!
Look what I’ve found in the back eddy of the cyberspace! A superb documentary about visiting and fishing the hallowed waters of Izaak Walton and his Compleat Angler. Take an hour off, pour yourself a glass of your favourite, and enjoy this lyrical journey of author and artist James Prosek
Apparently, The Compleat Angler is the 3rd most published book in English language, after the Bible and the works of Shakespeare, though now Tolkien would probably be a close contender too. You can get The Compleat Angler as a free Kindle ebook here
Next time you lose a fish remember Walton’s timeless words:
“You cannot lose what you never had”
My post about Marc Petitjean’s Magic Tool and how it simplifies fly tying with CDC, has been hugely popular so here’s its sequel, this time about tying a basic Caddis fly. Watch how Marc does it, his tying is poetry in motion. Between the mayfly from the previous post and this caddis here you’ll have most of the dry flies covered. And, after you’ve tried and tested these CDC gems, you’ll never want to go near a trout stream without them.
For GUIDED Fly-Fishing in New Zealand visit us here
For signed copies of THE TROUT DIARIES and THE TROUT BOHEMIA go to our online bookshop here