Spring cleaning

Friday afternoon found me in my garage in full pottering mode, peeling away the layers of stuff that had settled on top of my raft since it last saw the light of day, sometime back in November. Outdoor furniture, snowboard, skis, boots, coolers, camping gear and various articles of clothing had all found a home there over the dark days of winter. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too does she seem to reject the notion of a smooth, uncluttered surface serving a beneficial purpose to the universe.

The stimulus of all this activity was, of course, the strengthening call of the river as the days lengthen and the temperature warms. I’m not much one for winter angling. Hauling a fish from the depths of it’s seasonal slumber, torpid and sluggish, frozen finger tips and slipping on sheet ice doesn’t appeal that much to me, not when there are books to read and fireplaces to sit next to. Like the fish, I need a break from the game. If we were meant to be out on the river during the winter months, there’d be some kind of divine signpost, like a stonefly hatch in January.

Spring is another matter, however. There is promise in the air – promise of warmer, greener days, of fish moving from the depths to the shallows, where they can be reached without recourse to the dark arts of weight and indicators. Once the layers of stuff had been removed, it was time to strip down to the bottom of things for a spring clean – removing dry boxes and dry bags, vacuuming silt and sand, picking out discarded tippet, dropped flies, rod tubes, bottle caps and crushed beer cans – the detritus that accumulates in a working fishing boat.

The funnest part is going through my fishing pack, restocking leaders and tippet, floatant and fly boxes. When it comes to flies, it is a truism that what you have the least of is what works the best. Restocking favorites, it is difficult to look at a hopper or stimulator and not imagine it slapping onto the water amongst the grass of an overhanging bank before disappearing in a boil of water, or at a parachute adams and not see it settling gently onto a bubble line and pirouetting helplessly on the current where mouths and fins pockmark the surface.

Fly boxes sorted, I dragged out my camera and sifted through the accumulated clips also, looking for snapshots of springtimes past. My favorite days on the river are those occasional spring days where the sky is grey and lowering, a brooding ceiling that shrouds the mountains and promises moisture, occasionally shedding tendrils of cloud that break free and reach earthward. Bare willows point heavenward, bending before the breeze like bony supplicants and corn snow swirls, pattering softly off raft and clothing, and I’m wrapped snug and warm in a cocoon of fleece, gloves and goretex. In the lee of the banks the blue wings huddle, upright wings buffeted by the breeze, flecks of dark olive against the metallic grey of the water. Flights of swallows swirl in apparent chaos until their method is discerned, working their way slowly upriver into the wind picking bugs off the surface before turning and wheeling back downwind to start again. There isn’t another soul out on the river, and the reward for braving the elements on such a day can be some of the best dry fly fishing of the year.

So I’m officially ready to be back out there again, mentally, physically and logistically. Now, if we could just ditch these sunny days for some cool, threatening overcast, I’d really be happy.

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The Homecoming

This time last year I was back in New Zealand for the first time in five years and, taking the opportunity to sidestep family obligations for a few days, headed to the hills, fly rod in hand.

My destination was a friend’s cabin on the lower reaches of the Tauranga-Taupo River, or TT as it is called locally, in the central North Island. It is a short river, as most are in New Zealand, originating in the Kaimanawa Ranges and flowing due west for 17 miles before emptying into Lake Taupo. The lake itself lies in an old caldera, formed by a series of vast volcanic eruptions beginning some 25,000 years ago and continuing to this day, which collectively have flung an estimated 500 cubic miles of earth into the atmosphere.

As a consequence, the river carves its path through relatively soft volcanic substrate, particularly in its lower reaches where it fans out onto a flood plain, its course following the pull of gravity and the impetus of the latest flood surge, frequent in a region where annual rainfall is measured in feet rather than inches. The higher up toward the headwaters you hike, the more stable becomes the terrain, the bush-clad banks narrower, higher and better able to contain the flood waters and confine the river to its banks.

From the cabin I hiked downstream for fifteen minutes then cut through the bush to emerge onto a rocky beach on the inside of a bend, tying on a big attractor with a deep tungsten dropper, then sitting on a boulder at the river’s edge for a few minutes to take in my surroundings. This particular afternoon the river was low and clear, cutting through wide gravel bars lined with thick blackberry brambles, tall spindly manuka and tangles of deadfall stacked like matchwood against the tops of islands and the banks of back eddies. The tree tops bent and swayed to a gusting northerly that pushed rain clouds before it, scudding across the sky to the accompaniment of an occasional rumble of thunder off in the distance. The air was humid and carried with it the scent of toe-toe and kowhai overlaid with a hint of sulphur given off by the patches of black sand that lay among the rocks along the shore. Somewhere behind me in the shade of the forest a tui cackled and wheezed, and I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, absorbing sponge-like the familiar scents and sounds.

A keen pair of eyes is the most important piece of equipment an angler can have in New Zealand, the ability to be able to see a fish before it sees you critical to the process. I worked my way slowly upstream, studying the water carefully as I went, looking for torpedo shapes among the rocks on the bed, or a shadow or flicker of movement indicating a fish holding higher in the water column. Once, at the top of an aerated run, the dry took a dive and I set to feel a writhing on the end of the line for a second or two before the hook pulled free, and I cursed my inattention, recalling the definition of fishing as a jerk on one end, waiting for a jerk on the other. I wanted little more from the day than to cradle the fat belly of a fish in my hand, to reassure myself I still had the requisite mojo, and to gain a sense of closing the loop on my homecoming.

With the sun close to dipping below the tree line, it began to look like that closure might have to wait for another day. One more pool lay ahead of me before a deep crossing would be required if I wanted to continue upstream. It was a long pool, fast and narrow at its head, widening and slowing at the tail out where I stood, the gradient of the bed sloping away from me toward the far shore. It was there I saw the movement, or rather several movements. Half way across to the far bank was a shelf line, and as I watched I saw three fish working the line of the shelf, staying deep but moving to and fro, feeding freely, dark shadows among the mottled greys of the rocky bed. On my sixth cast the dry fly stopped dead in the current, and I set hard and felt the weight of the fish immediately, playing it cautiously downstream to the slower water of the tail out before feeling confident enough to unsnap my net and bring it to me.

Trout are not native to New Zealand, and all rainbows are descended from a single batch of eggs imported from the Russian River in northern California. Having developed in isolation, free from cross contamination from other species and strains, they are regarded as one of the purest strains of rainbow in the world, in some cases now exported back to their ancestral homeland to help restore the genetic integrity of their ancestors. This particular fish had a livid wound on one flank, evidence perhaps of an encounter with a shag, a cormorant-type bird that sits high on overhanging trees, silent and still, before diving spear-like into the water. Kneeling in the river to release it, I stood and reeled in my line, happy with the day, feeling well and truly home.

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There’s nothing decent here

We sat in camp chairs, sipping beer and a marg, reflecting on the last couple of days. Fish often enough and every now and then the stars align – weather, location, company, circumstance – to create an experience tinged with magic. The day’s last sun brushed the cliffs of the Flat Tops with hues of orange and pink, the perfect accompaniment to the golds and reds of the aspens on their lower reaches.

I pulled the collar of my down jacket tighter around my neck, marveling again at the temperature swings that are part and parcel of a fall day in the mountains. A pot of stew bubbled to the stove’s soft hiss, and we talked of how good a hot tub would feel right about now to fifty-something year old muscle and bone.

We’d caught a bunch of fish, mainly brookies with olive bodies, neon purple spots and orange and white tipped fins, cutts with flanks of gold and the occasional brown, spotted and buttery in the crystal clear water. They’d taken dry flies throughout both days, some aggressively, others with a sip so gentle you almost doubted they were there.

Right around then, he walked into camp, all boots, buckles and some kind of pistol on his hip that he made sure we’d see. Touching the brim of his hat, he asked for an axe. “Looks like it might get chilly this evening. I need to chop some wood, and seem to have left mine behind.”

I looked past him, down hill to where he was camped. Truck, trailer, ATV, full camp kitchen kitchen, expedition sized tent, a Cabela’s salesperson’s dream. “Sorry mate, we’re not doing a fire.” I’ve taken plenty of guys like this fishing – so much gear to keep track of, they inevitably leave behind something vital to proceedings.

He looked around as if to satisfy himself as to the veracity of my reply. “How’s the fishing?” Without waiting for an answer, he continued. “I was up here earlier on in the year, didn’t catch anything decent.”

Caveman looked up for the first time. “What’s decent mean to you?” I was glad he was only on his first marg. Wars have started over less.

He shrugged. “You know…. decent.” He held his hands some vague distance apart then tapped the pistol on his hip.”In case I see any blue grouse. You know blue grouse? Gonna get me some of them bastards.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” replied Cave. “Nothing decent up here.”

The pot bubbled in the silence. I reconfirmed our lack of an axe, and he turned and headed back down the hill. The first stars shone to the east, the sky turning a deeper indigo. I chuckled and reached for another beer. Hopefully he’d remember to leave the safety catch on when he tucked his pistol under his pillow that night.

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