After we’d hunted tahr and red stags on knife-edge ridges — sharp rocks in New Zealand — we hunted brown trout.
Our first stop was for morning mochachinos in Makarora before we headed to the Matukituki River. Our guide was Ross Dungey, a fisheries biologist from Albert Town on the South Island. He was dressed like a bowhunter in total camouflage.
He looked me up and down: “Is this what you’re wearing?” I had on a bright green shirt and it was the exact wrong thing. Mike Yates, who owns the Silver Pine Lodge between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, grabbed a brown checkered shirt for me, my camouflage.
In April, which is the beginning of autumn in the southern hemisphere, the browns move up out of the lakes for spawning runs up steep, glacial rivers. On their way upstream they feed on minnows that hide in the rocks.
The willows and poplars were yellow along the shore, the water milky with runoff.
I started with a sink-tip and a tan-and-white streamer. Cast, swing, step down, cast again. It was like steelhead fishing, except the fish were lake-run browns and rainbows.
After a little experimentation with patterns, I managed to hook Chris Sawiel in the cheek as he was in the path of my back cast. Later I hooked myself in the thumb, but neither hook went past the barb and the releases were easy.
At the end of a swing, a fish grabbed my red and black streamer, a Fuzzy Wuzzy. But the hook didn’t stick.
We returned to the waterfront in Wanaka for meat pies and more mochachinos, then found our way down a gravel track to the mouth of a creek. There was no water in the creek.
“It’s all being diverted to the farms right now,” Dungey said, apologetic. “It’s a relic of the days when the farm was everything and any water that made it down to the ocean was wasted.”
I changed into the checkered shirt. We worked the edge, watching for silver-brown-olive torpedoes in the shallows. When Dungey spotted a trout, I knotted on a possum fur Woolly Bully. We stalked one trout for most of an hour. I made about five casts in that time, and we lost sight of the fish at the critical moment.
Now the afternoon sun was off the water. We had one more place to try.
Time to switch to dry flies. And we weren’t expecting a hatch. We’d fish clear deep lake water in the dusk. One little dry fly to coax a big fish up from the deep blue depths. It’s a lot like faith.
A month ago, Dungey said, the fish were feeding on cicadas.
“They’ll still remember what they look like,” he said. Dungey gave me a No. 10 green-bodied dry fly with a wing tied from the body hair of a red deer.
The sky turned from deep blue to rose over the tops of the mountains. The lichens on the rocks and the rose hips in the crags faded in the growing dusk. Then a fish rose. It was out about 70 percent of my casting range in deep water. There was a slight wind riffle on the surface. I marked the line and placed the fly in the ring of the rise.
Well above the water, I knelt on the sharp rocks like I was about to pray. Visibility was clear down to about 25 feet. If I could see them, they could see me.
I couldn’t see them. I lost the fly to a sharp rock and climbed back up to the truck where Yates waited, eating a cheese sandwich. He picked out a foam-bodied yellow dry with a hair wing. For want of its real name, I’ll call it a Cheese Sandwich.
Out where the fish had risen, I set the fly down and stared at it in the fading light, a bit of fluff on an expanse of blue. A crumb on a tablecloth. It was a lot like insanity.
Then there was a swirl where the Cheese Sandwich had been. I lifted the rod, stripping down with my left hand.
Out in the deep, dark water, the fish shook its head. It had a lot of line and took more, the little black handle blurring as line whirred off the spool.
Way out in the lake, but not to my backing yet, the line-to-leader loop came out of the water and then the fish was in the air, two feet above the surface in a desperate attempt to throw the hook. It showed spotted flanks. A brown trout that was about three pounds.
I thought about my 4X tippet, thought about the blood knot I’d tied minutes before, thought about sharp rocks.
We needed this fish. I called for the net. By the time Ross had negotiated the goat path to the water, I had the fish in sight where it tried to saw the line in the boulders.
Once, twice, three times I had it close, and then Ross was there and the fish’s head was up and it was in the net. It was 20 inches long. It had taken a dry fly in deep blue water.
We were like children. Our faith sustained. Insanity held at arm’s length for at least another day.
— Gary Lewis is the host of Frontier Unlimited TV and author of John Nosler — Going Ballistic, Fishing Mount Hood Country, Hunting Oregon and other titles. Contact Gary at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.