I suppose one of the frustrations with fly fishing in New Zealand, although in this particular case it pleasures me to be frustrated, is the sheer amount of water available to be fished and how little time we have to explore these delights. Although Alastair and I have fished pretty much everyday for the month I have been here we still feel that we haven't even scratched the surface and every time we get a day off together we plan a new trip each time further afield to discover what we hope to be a truly magical place.
The art of fly fishing isn't just about the quantity of trout caught or even quality, it is about the journey, immersing yourself in nature, casting your thoughts into the watery world of your quarry and if through skills and always a little luck one of these mysterious trout blesses you by taking your imitation, every hour and day spent not catching is forgotten and for that moment there is nowhere else in the world a fly fisherman would rather be.
Every fishing trip here seems magical in its own way, the difficult days have silver lining as we learn from the experience and use it to better our next trip and the successful days are relived in our thoughts, dreams and whilst telling tales to fellow eager fishermen.
Well we have fished the majority of rivers within an hours drive from Te Anau and with a day an evening and the following day until 4:30 pm off work we plan our jungle fishing expedition!! Filled with enthusiasm and excitement we had heard wonders about the Clinton river. Tales of large rainbows and browns taking terrestrials in gin clear turquoise water whilst being surrounded by the rainforest a truly wilderness place to fish, with no car around the corner to get to and no home comforts we knew already it would be magic.
The Clinton river lies at the head of Lake Te Anau and is only accessible by a 1 hour ferry trip, it is also the beginning of the Milford Trek so a handy path runs up alongside it for the first 4 miles. With our tickets and burgeon packed we board the ferry glowing with anticipation as we have been talking about this trip for some time. You cant seem to beat the feeling of entering the unknown, your mind imagining what may be waiting for you, on route Alastair and I discussed files and tactics working ourselves up as we looked in our fly boxes at our terrestrial flies, spider patterns, monuka beetles, cicadas and even a mouse pattern each should they be needed. We got talking to a gentle giant called Ross, who worked for DOC (Department of Conservation) and managed the tracks and huts along the Milford Trek. A man of around 70 although you wouldn't have known it looking at him as he towered over us at about 6"6 with legs reaching as high as my abdomen and hands like shovels it was clear why he worked on the Treks as it would take a good skip and a jump to match just one of his strides. He mentioned as have others whilst we researched our trip that the main river is quite large and about 4 1/2 miles upstream the river splits into two and the north and south arm are both good fishing and there is a place to pitch a tent a little way up the north arm. So we had a plan to trek up the the junction and fish from there up...
The ferry approached its dock, we gazed, sheer jungle creeping up the mountains being met with snow capped peaks it really is a place of beauty and showing no signs of human life, apart from the small jetty. We placed ourselves at the front of the queue as we did not intend on getting stuck behind the rest of the trekkers. As the hatch opened we were off like two kids in a walking race backpacks on we quickly dipped our crocs in the disinfectant as this river is pristine and algae like Didimo could decimate such a perfect place.
With the pack left behind we were still almost at jogging pace although not like the other trekkers who were equipped with good sturdy walking boots, small backpacks and walking sticks, no we looked a little more ex centric. Wearing a fishing jacket each, cap and shades didn't seem too out of place and even our shorts were fine, but the leggings underneath and our chosen footwear, Crocs with not walking sticks but fishing rods I'm not sure what breed the others must have thought these fly fishermen were.
The first 20 minutes brings you out to a collection of huts in an opening which looked quite impressive, the river sparkling with green and turquoise flowing down into the lake and a swing bridge crossing over in the distance, we looked at each other and just began to laugh....it was in fact more beautiful and couldn't have been more perfect than even our young imaginations could have conjured up.
Al turned to me as this was going to be his last expedition before leaving for the UK and said quite simply;
"This place will haunt my dreams."
Nothing more needed to be said he was definitely going to make another trip to New Zealand.
We had previously said that we would hike up to the forks where the north and south river split, however being the young over enthusiastic fishermen we are we couldn't resist setting up one of the rods whilst on the bridge after I had spotted a good 5lb rainbow sitting in the margins from the bridge, we had a good lead on the rest of the trekking party so Al sneaked down through the undergrowth and got behind it. A Parachute Adam's trailing a nymph was the set-up of choice and with one cast falling short to gauge the distance he placed a perfect cast around a meter in front of the rainbow; flies drifting beautifully down past his nose.....nothing, same again still nothing. I could see the fish clearly and it didn't appear to be feeding but with one final cast it was spooked and made its way into the deeper water. This water was so clear I could see the shadow of the 6lb fluorocarbon on the bottom and thought to myself we may have made a big mistake as 6lb was the lightest leader we had and perhaps 3lb would have to be used here, although fear catching a 5lb strong wild rainbow in this river full of snags and trees on 3lb line. We moved on nonetheless.
I would say walking with pace but it wouldn't be true we were almost jogging along the track stopping at each opening in the forest to try and spot some fish we were bubbling with excitement kind of like waking up on Christmas day when your about 6. I remember when we were young we couldn't open any presents on Christmas day until the fire was lit and the dog was walked, so we used to get up in the dark, run the dog for 3 miles light the fire and wake our parents up as early as possible. Funny how not much changes as you get older just different things excite you. Anyway back to the fishing....
Another 20 minute walk and we came to another opening, we spotted two fish sitting quite still in some really shallow water, Al went in again behind them, although misjudged the depth of a certain part and went chest deep with the burgeon still on his back, scrambled to the side, ditched the burgeon and balanced his way along a fallen tree to casting position. We had expected getting wet so all our dry clothes were wrapped in bin liners in the bags. I got back to the clearing and watched as Al again made a perfect cast to one of the fish, this time a size 16 single Adams, surely this wouldn't spook them. One cast one fish spooked!! Next cast again perfect to the second fish and two fish spooked!!!! This was beginning to be more difficult than we first thought. Although rather than being frustrated we laughed about it as the fact that we were sight fishing for big wild rainbows in one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen was a treat enough.
We were told it was a 2 hour hike to the forks and 4 1/2 miles. We hit the 4 mile marker in two hours, legs slightly like jelly from our power walk laidened with burgeons. The river opend up a little and there was a white gravel bank glistening almost like snow in the sun. This will do we said to each other and we set up the other rod. We had been told it can be a difficult river to cross so we had prepared for a little swim. We fished up and came to a fallen log where we saw a feeding big brown trout in amongst the branches. I laughed to Al and said i'll have a go but I don't know how I will land it.... I took everything not waterproof out of my pockets and was expecting a swim with a fish on. I tried to predict what would happen if hooked and I could see two branches he would swim between which I would have to follow him through so with my plan I stalked up behind him along the branches and into place with a single #18 PTN un-weighted so not to spook him. As I got into place Al said I have lost him and we waited 5 minutes for him to reappear but nothing. Damn, I was looking forward to a swim after a big brown trout!!
The next pool up would have to be fished from the otherside so we decided to cross here, it only seemed chest deep so do-able. Army style carrying our backpacks over our heads we waded across the river, the sun was on our backs, burning a little and the river was refreshing given our 2 hour hike.
We approached the next pool and could see three big browns on the surface swinging in the flow every now and then sipping from the top. "Right come on now Al" I said and watched him get into place 10 casts later he had covered the fish with three different fly set ups and still nothing?? We were getting a little confused as to what we were doing wrong, the fish had gone down a little and I left Al to keep fishing as I moved up to the next pool. I was beginning to think that we should have brought 3lb line although I wouldn't expect to land any...
I had spotted a brownie lying in the margins and began to cast to it with a green blowfly trailing a nymph he was swinging but not interested in my flies, they were hard feeding on something but we had not yet discovered what and we had forgotten our sieve which we use to see what naturals are floating down. Al had joined me by now and seen the brownie I was casting to, with no avail, and just before I was about to change flies we spotted a rainbow swing from under a log into the middle of the stream and take a nymph, I wasn't too hopeful as my nymph was not heavy at all and the flow quite fast, I cast upstream of where it showed and watched as it swung out again and torpedoed up to smash my blowfly on the surface!! We were both laughing at the ferocity of the take, I struck and felt the solid weight of the rainbow shaking from head to tail with a flash of silver it jumped clean out of the turquoise depths heading towards a fallen tree I increased the pressure slightly in an attempt to prevent a snag and with another powerful jump my line came hurtling towards me and landed in a heap at my feet......Snapped!!! That will teach me for trying to control these strong wild fish!
"Perhaps I shouldn't have tried to bully it?" I said to Al
but he replied "you had to otherwise you would have lost it in that snag"
So the idea of dropping down to 3lb now seemed ridiculous as with a fish like that I wouldn't have stood a chance!!
We fished up, blind fishing any likely spots and as we turned the corner we approached the junction of the north and south branch!!! The branches met in a deep pool where we could see numerous fish feeding, I cast to a few but with no avail as on this side there was a back eddy which created drag, so after around 5 minutes Al had joined me and I made a long cast into the fast water on the far side, I had lost concentration and at this point we were looking upstream at 3 more feeding trout in the tail of the next pool and discussing how we would approach them. As I looked back to my flies I noticed a big rainbow in the middle of the pool doing a somersault and heading back to the depths, I said to Al look at that!!! My line was above it, "do you think it took my fly?"
"Not sure mate" was the reply.
So I gingerly began slowly stripping in the line and lifted the rod and watched as the fish felt the pressure and darted ferociously upstream!! Fish On!!!!! I said.
A picture perfect solid rainbow of around 8lb's!! With pictures taken we released him and watched as it swam back to the green depths of the pool from where it came.
I tried my luck again by casting into the fast water on the far side of the pool but didn't expect that much luck again, Al moved up to where we saw three feeding trout prior to my lucky encounter.
I remained where I was as I really wanted to see Al catch one and chuckled as I heard his cries of frustration, he was indeed moving these trout who regularly came to his flies but seemed to turn away at the last minute before taking the fly!
" come on....come on....come on.....yes....yes...Nooooo!!!"
was the general gist as they decided to turn away.
I moved up to him to see the action and the pool seemed full of trout but none willing to take his fly!!! After around 15 minutes I said to Al "lets move up as this is only the junction pool and we have the entire North Arm to fish up before dark. Al is someone that hates giving in so after another 5 minutes of desperate measures and casting some of the ugliest flies in his box, large rubber crickets, cicadas he joined me upstream.
I had crossed the river and stalking the bank, I had spotted one sitting off an overhanging tree, come on Al now's your time to shine!! He approached and cast his flies just in front of it, it swung and rose to his blowfly!!! Strike!! And as he lifted the only thing to connect was the air with his flies, another cry of frustration!!! The fish vanished like a ghost and I left Al to continue fishing hoping that there may be another.
The following pool was separated by some fallen trees which must have come down in the last flood and wedged themselves there, an old tree trunk lay on the far side parallel with the flow and I could see two rainbows lying with backs against it, just before I made a cast to them I noticed another closer to me swing out to take a dry! I quickly turned my body still false casting and placed it just to the right around 5 foot in front of the fish, my heart stopped as I watched it come out of its gentle swaying, tense up as a tiger does before it pounces and dart into the stream and take my fly, after waiting for it to turn with my heart in my mouth I struck!! Contact again!! And watched in awe as it darted from side to side, upstream and down stream until letting up and coming to the shore. Al had seen the commotion and joined me, his waterproof video camera taking some breathtaking footage of the fish fighting the rod. I landed it and urged Al into the pool as I wanted to see him have some action.
I pointed out the two still lying against the tree trunk and Al cast to the one closest to us, with one accurate cast the fish swung out, we watched its jaws pierce the surface film and sip our imitation into the its world, as Al lifted the fish shot upstream with the sound of the reel screaming and a massive smile on Al's sunkissed face he played it well before it decided to swim downstream into the next pool over debris from the previous flood we both expected to get snagged but he kept the line taught and high enough to pass over the snags freely and landed it in the previous pool!
Al was chuffed at his 5lb rainbow in such dramatic landscape and I was happy he had broken his duck. We continued up river where I was snapped by a brown on the strike and Al seemed to be unlucky and had two fish rise but instead of conventionally, they turned on the fly and took it facing us swimming downstream so when Al struck the flies simply came out of their mouths. The river got a little more rocky and much thinner, so after a couple of kilometres we decided to head back down to where the last fish was caught and to be at the junction pool for the evening rise!
With camp set up we went back down to where I had caught the first rainbow and fished into the dark. I caught another beautiful rainbow which had swallowed the hook, I don't usually kill fish but this was a perfect chance to have some trout for supper so it was knocked on the head. Al had gone further downstream and with the light fading I headed up to the junction pool. Al caught up, wet through!! It appears that he was precariously balancing on a log to cats to a rising trout when he slipped and completely submerged in the river!! I laughed although 10:30 pm isn't a great time to go for a swim with no hot shower to get warmed up.
We fished into the darkness, there were rises but nothing spectacular and we both failed to catch any more. We headed back to camp, light a fire, enjoyed some beers we had brought and got a little tipsy, enjoying the smoked trout and our surroundings laughing about the day and putting the world to rights.
Needless to say the hour ferry trip back we slept like babies exhausted from our trip and totally satisfied with Al's last New Zealand Adventure!!
I'm sure we will be telling tales of the trip well into retirement to our grand kids someday!