The Southern Lakes always surprise no matter how often you fish them. Maybe it’s their sheer volume and depth that assure we never quite plumb all their secrets, or perhaps the angling discoveries have to be made one at a time, drip-feeding the lifetime of passion. I have lived and fished here for over a decade and a half and I can’t say I really know fishing at the lakes. I do know fragments – some of them quite well – the early-spring nymphing, the manuka beetle bonanza, the cicada time when big browns patrol the surface of the deep-green water like something out of Jaws and when a well-tied Yellow Humpy can yield two dozen fish before it starts to unravel. One thing I did learn about this picture that is the Southern Lakes fishing is that when a new fragment appears, getting to know it is going to be a treat. Without exceptions.
This time it was smelting. I used to go all the way to Taupo for a fix of shallow-water fishing to smelting trout and never even thought such sport was possible on my home lakes. Sure, I’ve caught fish on smelt flies here, plying the rips of inflowing rivers during low-water winters but in my ichthyological ignorance I assumed the voracious rainbows were taking the fly for a juvenile brown. Until my compadre Craig Smith enlightened me on the matter.
From March to May there was indeed a smelting season at the Southern Lakes and the fish, both brown and rainbows, were hunting not their own juveniles but land-locked whitebait. Just as the rivers were getting tough to fish, with trout either paired up or extremely educated through a season of harassment, the smelting fish were fresh from the lake. The rainbows especially, living deep and putting on excellent condition (Craig calls them footballs) have only just, or were about to, enter the rivers and may have never seen an angler and an artificial fly. They were confident and aggressive, making for electrifying fishing. Furthermore, Craig said, he knew just the best places to fish for them.
Craig and I started guiding about the same time and, while I gave up to pursue writing novels, Craig went on with his guiding business, developing solid clientele and reputation. But now the guiding season was over and it was time for some Research & Development, which in the lingo of the pros translates into fishing for pleasure.
Thus one perfectly still autumn morning, as the black sand of the beach shaded by a mountain was still frozen, we launched Craig’s Stabicraft on to Lake Hawea and he gunned the motor toward the mouth of the Hunter River. With almost no notice at all, Craig had also invited Georgie Tolmay and it was a masterful call. A Zimbabwe expat and a daughter of an African safari guide, Georgie grew up in the veldt, stopped game hunting at 14 and learnt to fish on the Zambezi tigerfish. Her manners, voice and accent were so unmistakable, when I closed my eyes I could imagine her reading: “I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills …” The keenest fisher woman we’ve ever met, Georgie was to make our day, both with her enthusiasm and performance, though for now, fluffing up the feathers of our down jackets against the windchill, we did not know any of it yet.
I asked her what was it about fly fishing that could keep a girl so fascinated with it and she said: “When I’m fishing I don’t think of anything else. No business, no responsibilities. My mind and soul are clear and care-free, this is time for me to just be me. And there is so much to learn, it’s a total thrill.” With this particular kind of smelting there would indeed be much to learn, but this we didn’t know either.
Smelting is not a correct term for what we were about to do, though it’s descriptive of the technique, if not of the species. There are no smelt in the Southern Lakes, all efforts to introduce them have failed. What we take for smelt is in fact whitebait, a mix of Galaxiid species, almost the same as the whitebait which streams every spring in from the ocean and which causes an entire tribe of people to abandon whatever they are doing and try to net the little buggers.
Like their ocean-going kin the lake whitebait also migrates upstream to spawn, and likewise, they only make it into the estuaries. There they lay their eggs which, having developed into larvae, are washed downstream so that the life cycle is completed. Trout follow the adult whitebait, eager to top up their condition just before their own spawning runs, and they slash through the sandy shallows, hitting the translucent fingerlings with the ferocity usually reserved for cicadas. It is a sight that shifts the angler’s heartbeat into double-time. At least until he or she starts casting.
There is a definite knack to sight-fishing with a smelt fly, a sensitivity of touch and timing, and getting it just right can be a humbling experience. I won’t be bragging if I say I can put a fly where it needs to be within a cast or two, I also know about the drag and other nuances of presenting a fly. Hell, I used to teach it! So when my turn came to fish I was confident. We sighted a good brown zigzagging its way along the shallow silt shelf. I cast square across the river, plonking the smelt good two metres up and above, sending it on the inevitable collision course with the trout.
So far so easy. The fish saw the fly, it turned and attacked with a burst of speed. A positive take if I ever saw one. I gave it the required 0.4786 second of a delay then lifted the rod ready to yahoo.
Nothing. Just a pile of slack line coiling on itself like a broken guitar string.
The fish returned to its beat, unperturbed, while I untangled. Bad luck? Well, not if it happens four times in a row, on the same trout.