Haunted Dreams and a Hot Tip

It's starting to get cold in New Zealand, too cold for this mayfly which froze to the roof of my car

I had fetched a friend from the airport the day before and we had made plans to do some travelling and sightseeing at the north end of the South Island. Part of the plan was also for me to shelve my fly rod for a few weeks and do some touristy stuff, which I was happy to do. There’s only so much fishing talk and stopping at bridges to peer over them that a non-angling guest can handle. About five minutes before we were due to set off, I received an email. It was from a recent acquaintance and a person I would consider to be an impeccable source, certainly with no reason to over-egg the pudding or play a cruel joke, and it read something along the lines of ‘Are you near X place? Ever heard of X river? Big fish are coming out of it, the biggest 18 lbs and a number between 7 - 12 lbs. You must do it. Go in at X place. Keep it hush hush’. I read the email again. And then once more. I focused  on the number. 18 lbs. I hadn’t imbibed my much needed morning cup of coffee by that stage so I rubbed my eyes slowly and read the number again to check my eyes were not deceiving me. I’d heard of such fish being caught in canals below salmon cages but never in a normal stream in NZ. The present mouse year has changed that of course. The faintest feeling of butterflies crept into my stomach and I called my friend over and said, 'change of plan, we’re heading south'. And so it was with a big golden egg having been dropped into my inbox that we drove off on a round journey of about 1,200 km out of our way, with me thinking more than once that my landing net’s built in scale only went to 14 lbs.

News of an impending Armageddon would have done little to halt my progress towards River X, and as I drew closer I felt my anticipation swell like a kid eating his way through an Advent calendar.  I allowed myself to dream big, literally, but equally stopped myself short of falling into the sinful trap of being too greedy. A seven or eight pound fish would do nicely. My friend, who I’m sure had better things to do than become sandfly fodder, was persuaded to come along to take photos of the impending trophy fish.

Along the way we stopped into a town on the banks of a famous trout river and checked in to a holiday park. I’d stayed there before and it’s a place which draws fishing types. Some live in this park all summer and go back home to the northern hemisphere and their families only when the days become short and the trout turn their attention to spawning. And return, conveniently, to the trout season in their home country. I always look with some admiration at the guys who spend their retirement hopping the equator from one trout fishing season to another and somehow persuade their spouses that it’s fine. I’ve met a few in NZ. I got speaking to one such character, a Pom, and when I told him in vague terms about the email he let out a guffaw which made his vast, exposed belly wobble and he said ‘mate, trust me, I’ve fished here for the last twenty years and there are no such rivers or secrets in New Zealand, but if you want to believe that then all the best to you’. He turned on his heels as he said this and walked away chuckling to himself and shaking his head at the same time. I put his response down to England’s woeful performance at the Cricket World Cup, being played in New Zealand at the time.

We pulled in to town X late in the evening and set up camp. An alarm clock was set for silly early the next morning - if the secret had got out I wanted to make sure I got to the river first. When the sun cut through the ground hugging mist and revealed clear blue skies I began to believe that it was going to be a special day. Even the fickle weather was playing along. This feeling was compounded when, after a drive of about an hour, we came to River X and the car park at X place was empty. The river was exceptionally clear and just to prove how simple it was going to be to spot fish we simultaneously spotted and spooked a fish of about 4 lbs in the margins of the very first pool. 'Don’t worry about him, he’s just a little chap' I said.

I went from pool to pool without seeing a fish, spending minutes at a time watching the deep water, long enough to be satisfied there were no feeding fish. Wanting to believe there were fish present I started seeing fish in the rocks and even spent half an hour casting to a trout-shaped rock until I realised my folly. Nothing, not even a minnow was seen. A trout desert. I started by making a humble apology of sorts to my friend. “Well, at least the scenery is spectacular.” And it was, thankfully. But it was also a very big crashing down to earth.

How was this possible? How could a trout utopia filled with monstrous trout become a barren trout vacuum in a matter of days? All sorts of theories ran through my mind. Had someone fished the water the day before? I didn’t see any footprints and even then I’d still expect to see a few “doggo” fish. Perhaps the rotund Pom was right and it was all a con. I’ll never know. I wasn't minded to report back to the writer of the email.

The trip down south gave me a good excuse to exorcise a demon which had been haunting my dreams for a few weeks, ever since I’d passed through a nondescript little town with a nearby river and gorge. It was here, just before the gorge becomes serious, that I’d seen a magnificent double digit fish. I had scrambled up on to a large rock to watch its home pool when I spotted it feeding just in front of a submerged boulder at the top of the pool. I decided to cast lying flat on the rock. First cast, the fly was carried by the tricky current about a foot to the right of the fish. No movement from the fish. Second cast, the same. I paused, re-calculated and started my third cast when I noticed heavy bow waves pulsing upstream. It must have spotted the waving tip of my rod. At that stage it was by far the biggest trout I had ever seen and I cursed my inability to make the cast first or second time. I took a breath and started to move up into the heart of the gorge when I heard the sounds of a motorbike drawing ever closer. Strange, I thought, the river was mostly impenetrable given its steep banks. The sound was as out of place (and annoying) in that little piece of the earth as a mobile phone ringtone in a cinema. I wondered if the sounds were coming from the ridge line where I had seen a herd of feral goats moments before. I heard the bike stop, now certain that it was just downstream and I walked back through the bush and down into the river where I saw a man sitting on a quad bike, piecing together a fly rod. I noticed that he had brought his bike to a stop just below the pool where the big fish had been moments before. I also thought I noticed an eagerness to his efforts. He knew of the big fish. It irritated me ever so slightly that he could ride up in comfort through the shallow river when I had walked in 5 km to get there. I stepped further out into the water and announced my presence, tacitly asserting my right to continue up the gorge unimpeded without any words having to be exchanged to that effect. The angler was startled and then disappointed to see me. “Any luck?” he eventually asked.  "No luck" I replied "but I did spook the big boy.” His shoulders sunk and he drove off downstream.

Moments before I went to sleep that night, and then the following nights, the image of that graceful fish casually moving its sinuous body in the current would play on the cinema screen of the dark insides of my eyelids. The unplanned trip down south allowed me a second go at that fish. I knew, after the recent fishing failure, that it would be a hard sell to my friend but I cunningly proposed a full day activity for her which would take us close to the behemoth. My friend agreed and I had my chance at redemption.

I decided that this time I would ignore the many other fish I had seen in the pools below the behemoth, some which I estimated were at least 6 or 7 lbs. They had proven difficult to catch and I didn’t want to waste my time on them. That was the promise I made to myself on the 4 km walk just to reach the river. But when I got to the river I spotted a feeding fish and I couldn’t resist casting to it. I delivered two nymphs upstream and the fish turned to its left and swallowed the smaller of the two. It buried itself in willow roots and remained there until I waded over and kicked my feet about, making it flee its shelter. It was a fish of 3 lbs and a good distraction from the behemoth. I did chide myself for succumbing to temptation, and returned my focus to the task at hand.

I walked up the river ignoring the other fish and eventually came to the reason why I was there - the behemoth’s pool. My pulse began to quicken. I inched forward slowly, not wanting to risk spooking the fish again with a clumsy approach. I slowly climbed the look-out rock, careful not to reveal too much of my head and hat as more and more of the pool came into view. The fish was not in its previous position in front of the boulder. Slowly, more of the pool came into view but I couldn’t see the fish. I stared into the water, looking hard at every inch of water but no living shapes emerged. I watched and waited for about 10 minutes. My mind raced whilst I watched the water in silence. Do fish have different morning and afternoon lies extending over separate pools? Had quad-biker returned and captured the fish? Had the fish died? A creeping, chilling realisation started to dawn on me - the haunting images of that behemoth would remain for some time yet! The most likely explanation for its absence I reckon is that it was simply hiding away under a rock at the time. 

I could easily rationalise the absence of a single fish in this river whereas I couldn't begin to explain the absence of all fish from the first river.

How did the rest of the day go? I pushed on into the gorge, a gruelling yet beautiful and remote place but I saw no other fish in the deep green waters other than a small spooked trout and a massive black eel which caused the hairs on my neck to stand up. All ugliness and slime, eels have that effect on me. On the way back, scrambling between two high rocks I slipped and fell to the ground, jarring my ribs onto a sharp rock with a pain so sharp I wanted to be ill. I walked about a kilometre before I realised I was missing my watch. I returned to the place of the fall and luckily found it between the rocks. The stainless steel strap had broken at a hinge and it probably saved my ribs the brunt of the fall.

Isn't it funny that among all the fish we do catch, the multitude of average fish mostly, it’s the missed opportunities at greatness and the misadventures which can stand out the most.   

It's not all milk and honey in New Zealand and in a self-repeating cycle it's probably that truth which makes someone change plans and set off to the opposite end of the island on nothing but a hot tip of bountiful promise.

With such uneventful fishing, I'd have done anything for a fish...


  1. Great post Justin. I've really enjoyed reading about your exploits in NZ

    1. Thanks very much for reading about them Nicholas!


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