Once upon a time on the Mohaka

My boots settled into the soft pea-gravel of the river bed. I stood silently, thighs and calves braced against the steady press of the river, imagining the soles of my feet growing roots, tapping deeper into the earth beneath me, grounding me to this place and time. I’d last stood in the Mohaka several years ago, and with the direction life was taking, who knew how many more until I did so again?

With eyes closed, I inhaled the scents of the river, cool and humid – beech forest and dank vegetation overlaid with a faint hint of sulphur mingled with heather in bloom. Somewhere behind me a pair of native tui, birds whose white throat-ruff saw Europeans call them Parson’s bird, cackled noisily in the bushes along the river.

The roots grew deeper, through the soft earth and clay and volcanic substrate to the bedrock beneath. Then Steve’s voice snapped me from my reverie.

“Oi, Sunshine! Are you gonna cast to the fish, or wait till it stops feeding?”

I returned my attention to the task at hand. Thirty yards upstream, a small rocky point jutted out into the flow as the river made a sweeping curve to my left. The point created a large back eddy, at the bottom of which I stood. A current seam swirled off the tip of the point, and in this seam a brown trout fed freely, rising every thirty seconds or so to take small mayflies from the surface. Steve, a friend who guides anglers and hunters in this part of New Zealand, had concealed himself in the bushes along the bank above where the fish fed, acting as my spotter.

“OK, false cast directly upstream in front of you. When you’ve got enough line out, I’ll let you know. Then drop the fly in front of the fish.”

I stripped line off the reel then began false casting, once letting the line land on the water ahead of me, well away from the fish.

“Quit fishing like an **#!%$ American!” he yelled, stifling a curse under his breath. “Keep the line off the water!”

He was right. Any hint that there was an intruder present would see the fish disappear into the river’s depths. Suitably chastised, I continued to false cast until he gave the word, and I set the fly on the water, directly on the current seam. It was a small fly, riding low on water reflecting the glare of the surrounding bush.

My first cast was short. A rise, well away from my drift. Second cast, this time in the zone. Another rise. I waited a second then struck hard. The fish, hooked, immediately charged for the faster current in the center of the river while I endeavored to raise the rod tip high, to get some leverage against its pull. Still underwater, it turned upstream then leapt clear of the river, slapping down on its flank as it shook from side to side. The line went slack. Up in the bushes, Steve groaned, head in hands.

“Mate, that was a spanking! Welcome home.”

I shook my head as I reeled in my line. The hook was bent out, straightened to a right angle.

“Well, so much for that.” I gently eased first one, then the other, boot from the pea-gravel and turned toward the shore. The tui still cackled, and in response to the gathering heat of the day cicadas had started to rasp, their collective crescendo rising and falling, an aural manifestation of the river’s pulse, of the life force that flows through and around us.

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Solitude on the Bighorn

There came, for a brief time in the afternoon, an impression of being completely alone on the Bighorn. Beneath a breaking sky, just the two of us, and the grey vein of the river, pushing northward toward the horizon. Upstream and down, not another boat or person in sight, a rare occurrence on a river this renowned to anglers.

Picture Channel, Bighorn River

Constant wind coursed downstream, leaving its choppy imprint on the river’s surface. Upstream a few miles from us, the lake above Yellowtail Dam was turning over as surface water temperatures cooled, leading to discolored water issuing from the bottom of the dam. Perhaps this combination of elements and natural phenomena helped explain the lack of other anglers that day. Whatever the reason, the solitude adds to the memory.

Below Yellowtail Dam, the Bighorn exits its eponymous mountain range and continues its course across the open plains of southeast Montana toward its confluence with the Yellowstone. Some say this countryside lacks the elemental beauty through which other Montana rivers flow.

This is Crow Indian country, and it was near here that Custer met his demise. The events of that day, and its consequences, are yet tangible, a presence that hangs in the air. At the last it must certainly have seemed to Custer and his men a remote, inhospitable place, as distant from civilization and comfort as the moon, but to my eye the river’s steady course through cottonwood-studded plains, alive with the calls of ospreys and ringneck pheasants, is one of still wild and largely uncompromised beauty.

I pinched a third split shot onto my leader to help the nymphs sink more rapidly to the bottom of the river, and cast again into the wind. Letting the line drift below me and straighten in the current, I used the tension of the water tugging at the line to load the rod and flicked the rig upstream. In this way I worked my way steadily up the side channel – tension cast, mend, let it drift downstream, tension cast again, settling in to a metronomic contemplation of the current seams, riverbed topography and indicator, pausing only occasionally to wait out an extra-strong burst of wind. After fifteen minutes the indicator dove, and I set into a lovely brown trout that stripped line from the reel, heading downstream, me in hot pursuit.

After releasing the fish, I sat on the bank amongst a cluster of small Russian olives, situated too close to the river’s edge to have survived the record high water of earlier in the year. Stripped of their color and foliage, their skeletal remains were plastered with detritus from the river – dried-out weeds, moss, mud and grasses – hanging off them in such fashion they resembled the tattered masts and rigging of some strange fleet of ghost ships, sails torn in disarray.

Montana sunset

We floated into a deserted take out early evening, as the low sun found a sliver between earth and overcast to draw forth from the landscape a rich golden hue. Faded cottonwood leaves rattled drily in the dying breeze, the clouds above a swirl of orange and purple. We loaded the boat onto the truck then sat by the river, sipping beer while the sun dipped beyond the horizon, and the lingering twilight that is part of this corner of Montana began.

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Accidental Angler: Speed dating vs courtship

There is a stretch of the Madison River in Montana below the town of Ennis that is only open to walk / wade anglers. A boat can be used to access the many braided channels, but any fishing must be done while standing on terra firma.

The Madison River below Ennis

We parked at one of the several access points, then began to hike downstream until we hadn’t seen another angler for a while and judged we were clear of the eighty percent who seldom stray more than a quarter mile from their vehicle. I elected to enter the river at a place where a couple of small islands created deep side channels against the bank on their near side, with wider, shallower riffles on the far.

The day was blue and mild, stark contrast to the previous when we’d floated a portion of the river upstream of Ennis – leaden skies and a cold wind, squinting hard in the flat light to detect the subtle takes of fish that rose occasionally to the small dry flies we cast.

I stepped off the bank and into the flow, wading out to the tail of one of the islands where I stood in the shallows, deciding what flies to start out with. While the promise of a warm fall day was in the air, a trace of the previous night’s cold still lingered. If there was to be any dry fly action, it likely wouldn’t be until later in the afternoon. I selected a large indicator dry then two feet below it tied a weighted nymph to bounce along the bottom of the shallower riffles and hang suspended in the deeper runs.

Standing quietly in the water, the gentle push of the river against my boots, carried downstream with the flow any desire to hasten in to action. The snow capped Ruby Range defined the western horizon, while closer a few cottonwoods along the shore bank still clung stubbornly to the last of their foliage.

I took my time working up the first run, savoring several feelings: being grounded in the river, the flex and load of the rod, the arc of the line out and across the water, the settling of the flies as the current carried them back to me. The first riffle yielded two small browns followed by a larger rainbow. Hooked against a tangle of shore roots, it leaped and dove and broke me off before I had time to get in synch with its movements.

I retreated to shore and sat on the grassy bank, feet dangling over the edge just shy of the water, laid the rod in the grass next to me and began repairing my leader. At that moment, float fishing seemed like the angling version of speed dating – always on the move, a quick cast, a twitch and jiggle of the fly to see if there is a reaction, then on to the next encounter, and the next. There is constant communication and interplay, not to mention the physical presence, between oarsman and angler.

Wade fishing, on the other hand, seemed more akin to a gradual courtship, reminiscent of older times, when the pace of life was slower, our culture less hung up on the drug of instant gratification. More time was taken in ritual and observation. There is just the angler and the river, and sometimes, if enough attention is paid and time invested, there is a meeting of the minds.

I decided against tying on another fly, at least for the present, instead choosing to sit and listen. I remembered the beer I had stuffed in my pack, the cozy still keeping it cool in the warming day, and popped the top.

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Once upon a time on the Mohaka….

I’ve been thinking some about mortality lately, in part due to venturing into my fifties. In vehicular terms, you’ve just passed the 100,000 mile mark. All manufacturer’s bets are off, and the needle on the tank shows closer to empty than full. In part it’s the season, the sun low and fleeting, nights long and cold, nature stripped bare. In part, the sudden passing of a family member, and realizing the folly of believing there will always be a tomorrow to finish whatever is put off today.

When my time comes, there’s a river in New Zealand I wouldn’t mind having a few ashes scattered on. It’s called the Mohaka, and it flows out of the Ahimanawa mountains in the east-central North Island. In twenty five years of river running, its has given me moments of elation and anguish, inspiration and fear. I’ve had my best day of fly fishing ever on its waters – no camera to record it, no other soul to witness it, just me and the river. I’ve stood on its banks knees weak, insides knotted with dread, a crew member from my raft missing in its raging waters for over an hour, and felt the waves of relief when he was found, safe and sound. It has been the scene of my most challenging guide trip – three days for no fish – and also the provider of my biggest tips.

When a recent family event necessitated an impromptu trip back to New Zealand, a day on the Mohaka was my number one recreational priority. I managed to hook up with Steve, a friend who’s been fishing and hunting the central North Island for the best part of three decades. In that time of guiding the rich and famous he’s walked away from helicopter crashes, dodged the slings and arrows of outraged husbands, caught more fish than is decent, and like most guides probably drank enough to kill several small elephants in the process.

It had been over five years since I’d had oars and feet planted in a New Zealand river, and in terms of my fishing technique, it showed. Despite knowing better, it always seems to take a while to reintroduce myself to the realities of New Zealand fishing. You tend to not get too many opportunities, so a fish missed as the result of a clumsy cast or mistimed hook set or too tight a rein always leaves you pondering, wondering: will the river will give you another chance, or has she shut the door on your face and turned the key? Gentle Colorado-style hook sets get treated with head shaking disdain, while attempting to arrest that first charging run with a drag set too tight results in bent hooks and the kind of language that would make a sailor blush.

Fortunately this day, the Mohaka was a patient mistress. My first fumblings were tolerated, and after taking a break for lunch and a beer, I got my mojo working at last. The reward for me was a couple of lovely fish, a rainbow and a brown, a day spent on a special river in perfect company, and the commitment to ensure that it is not another five years hence before I again get to immerse myself in the sights, sounds and smells of one of the most special places on Earth.

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You take what the river gives you

“Are you sure you don’t want to put the boat in the garage overnight? It feels like rain, maybe snow.”

Not for the first time in my life, I should have listened to the Voice of Wisdom, or Wife, as she is more frequently known.

“Pfffft. What’s a little rain? It is a boat, after all.”
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Next morning I reminded myself of this exchange as I shoveled and swept several inches of heavy, wet snow from the boat, more falling from a leaden sky. Common sense would have dictated pushing the trailer into the garage and going back to bed, but over the years experience has taught me that sense and fishermen often share little in common. In my own defense, I would like to point out that had I not being getting paid for rowing the boat, I would have been back between the sheets in an instant. As a guide however, my motto in such circumstances has always been that if the fishermen are dumb enough to want to go, I’m silly enough to take them – an attitude owing as much to relative poverty as much as anything.

The thing I remind myself in such circumstances is that for me, this is just another day at the office. For the guy who has driven here from Ft Worth or St Louis or worse, Oklahoma City, this is a once or twice a year event and he is not going to let a little snow discourage him – at least for the first half hour, after which the realities of a day spent sitting on a raft in below freezing temperatures often starts to sink in. There is also an element of long-dormant teenage macho that comes to the surface, fly shop bravado that sees the fishermen stand around in a jocular group, reassuring themselves that all is well, and they are not going to let a little snow put them off going fishing, like someone from California would.
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We cut a faintly pitying sight at the G Street boat ramp Sunday morning, rigging rods and stowing gear while the snow swirled. Even the kayakers there for the slalom competition seemed to look at us with bemusement. If there was a silver lining to the cloud, it was that the extra moisture had helped to bring the river up from its previous day’s low of 170 cubic feet per second to somewhere around 200. The drought of 2002 served to lower the bar with regard to what was considered a viable water level to conduct commercial float fishing trips, and it seems 2013 is destined to lower it further. That year was the last year I guided commercial whitewater trips on the Ark, and the thing savvy guides learned above all else was that their attitude was the sole determinant on whether or not people had a good time. Some guides carried with them a small black cloud, lamenting the state of the river, while others looked for new ways to have fun and entertain. That year was my best for tips. So far this year, while the monkey on the oars has had to work harder, the fishermen are having as much fun, and catching as many fish, as any other.

By the time we reached the Stock Yard Bridge the clouds and snow flurries had moved on, pushed out of the valley before a frigid six-layer wind that bit at any exposed flesh and made a mockery of accurate casting or mending. At such times one takes solace in the fact that, as a downstream wind, it was pushing us ever closer to the take out, which we reached tired and happy, miraculously right around beer thirty.

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