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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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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