A Backcountry Trip - March, 2004
The buzzing of the chopper
intensified as last minute preparations were made by
the pilot and all those on board eagerly awaited take-off.
The Hughes 500 was taking us out into the back country
on yet another mission deep into the wilderness. 'Us'
comprised of a small group of friends who head to NZ
each year for a bit of R&R. This time around Jim
joined us as we had lost a couple of our regular starters
but we had four which is a good number on a trip like
As the skids of the helicopter
left the ground there was a simultaneous 'whoop' let
out by all on board and the chopper was then leaned
on its side as we changed heading to set a course for
our destination. Beautiful green and super fertile farmland
whizzed away beneath us as we hit 110 knots in this
WRX of the sky.
Seriously I am not a petrol
head in any sense of the word but there is something
so intoxicating about flying along at tree top level
at a couple of hundred kilometers an hour! This is known
as contour flying and a good chopper pilot can turn
a simple drop off into an exhilarating amusement park
Matt is not a good pilot.
He is a great pilot and he often doesn't say all that
much of his own volition. But every so often he will
blurt out some little anecdote about a particular river
or valley and it is these fragments of info that make
flying him so interesting. That and the fact that machine
and pilot are truly one, and he will do some pretty
amazing things in the air.
Soon enough we were climbing
steadily and about to cross over the mountain range
that officially delineates the west coast rest of the
country. The ground below had changed from pastoral
valleys enclosed by small hills covered in pine plantations
to dense native beech forest and jagged peaks, not a
single sign of man in evidence.
This is surely the best
moment of a chopper fly-in. The first time you cross
over the top of a tall mountain range is nothing short
of exhilarating. You appear to be heading straight at
a mountain top, it is actually higher than you as you
approach. Then you slowly lift over it at maybe 20 feet
clearance of the top of the trees on the ridge and then
the ground drops out from under you as you suddenly
cross it. In a second or two you go from 20 feet above
the ground to 800 feet! It is an amazing feeling and
the illusion created is almost that the chopper stands
still for a moment and lunges, as all of a sudden you
cannot gauge your speed accurately due to the great
height. What a rush!
Soon we dropped into the
top of a small mountain river catchment and watched
the river from a few hundred feet up looking for sign
of other anglers. Following this for some time we eventually
reached our take-out point where the chopper was going
pick us up five days later. This was at a hut where
a small creek met the main river we intended to fish.
We got Matt to stop here for five minutes, a quick set
down with the engine still running. It cost us an extra
hundred bucks between the four of us, but it was well
worth it. I won't tell you why now. We also spoke to
the two guys staying in the hut who luckily were not
anglers and noted that there were few people around
fishing in the last ten days. A great sign for any fly
fisherman choppering into a river.
Another take off from the
river's edge saw us flying full throttle along the river
at about tree top level confident that we were not going
to run into anyone after speaking to the guys in the
hut. After a short reconnoiter we banked and climbed
to head downstream to our drop off point at a much greater
height, just in case someone was fishing. In a few minutes
were back on the ground at our home for the next couple
Matt had to get away quickly
to pick up another group in the next catchment over
and so we frantically grabbed gear from the cargo hold
and emptied the chopper. A few last minute words between
Rob and Matt confirmed the pick up for 4pm Friday. With
that Matt took off and headed downstream a couple of
hundred metres before putting his machine in a vertical
climb and then dropping back around and buzzing over
No sooner had the commotion
of the chopper stopped than we were engulfed by sandflies.
Literally hundreds of them all over us. We had already
anticipated this and were well covered and coated in
readiness for the assault. It seems though that thermal
leggings were in themselves not enough. Rob and I had
lightweight trousers over ours and were fine. Jim and
Bo had been bitten a dozen times in the opening barrage
with five days to go!
Gear was thrown into the
hut and a few rods hastily put together and we were
off up a small tributary stream. The river was stunning
and in the afternoon light its beauty was perhaps even
more exaggerated. Sort of like natures version of beer
goggles! The sounds of the birds, the postcard vistas
and the sight of large trout in clear water shared with
friends. All these factors play a role in bringing the
senses into sharp focus and heightening the pleasures
of what is happening around you. (I better stop now
as we are a family website and this if taken further
we could be accused of otherwise!).
That first late afternoon
on the river was pure bliss in all but one respect.
The fish were not cooperating. Most were sitting on
the bottom of the river and refusing to feed. Not only
to our flies but to the natural nymphs drifting through!
Many of the locals refer to this as fish lying 'doggo'
and it is terribly frustrating, nay embarrassing, as
an experienced fly fisher gets the living hell beat
out of his well honed ego in the company of others.
We often lament not having a witness
to verify the capture of a particularly nice fish, but
I would happily accept this as 'the way of things' if
conversely I had no one there to witness my failures.
Especially someone with a DV Camera!
That first day we fished
to a dozen fish in the two hours we had to fish before
having to head back to the cabin. Perfect drifts, careful
stalking, green lines, long leaders, fine tippets, small
imitative flies….all to no avail. The fish had
taken their bat and ball and were going home. Just one
of those days and all too familiar this season.
We then came across a particularly
well structured pool in what is pretty much a fast-water
mountain river. I snuck up high above the pool and was
able to see four good fish working away. They were nymphing
frantically! Moving up to 12 feet to intercept a drifting
nymph, well on the other side of the drift line and
sometimes the pool! This immediately told us that fly
selection and stealth would be very important as the
fish could see a lot in the clear water and the slightest
infraction could blow the whole thing.
It was Rob's turn to spook
a fish next and so he got himself into a casting position
as per my instructions. He was finding it hard to see
the fish thanks to the water being so deep and also
because he had to wade out up to his waist to reach
them. However he followed instructions well and soon
had good presentations to the fish. The first one was
amazing. The fish appeared to move a couple of feet
to the left to let the nymph drift through and then
immediately reoccupied the spot! A change of flies the
result. To cut a long story short Rob eventually picked
the right fly and cast to this larger fish. I saw the
take as clear as day and yelled 'STRIKE' but Rob could
not see any movement in his leader and failed to react
to my plea. A few words were exchanged and Rob promised
to strike on the call next time round.
Focusing on another fish
in the bubble line he got a couple of nice drifts that
were just timed wrong. I mean Rob did nothing wrong,
it's just that the fish decided to zig instead of zag
as the fly was lobbed in. This happens all too often
and when it happens several times in a row you could
be forgiven for taking it personally. Sometimes lady
luck really seems against you.
The next cast landed between
four fish that were all feeding and drifted about ten
feet. At this point it was about five feet upstream
of one of the fish and from my high vantage point you
could see the fish stop, kick its tail and motion upwards
toward the surface. There was hardly a flash of the
mouth this time but there was a definite change in direction
as the fish took the nymph and headed back down. I instantly
yelled 'STRIKE' and Rob did. The result was a magnificently
silver colored hen. The fight was solid and there were
quite a few 'whoops' and 'yeehaaas'. The fish did its
best to remove the fly but all to no avail and soon
Rob had a 3.5lb brown to the net. This was a start and
we had finally figured out the nymph!
The next bit of likely
water had a couple if fish in it that appeared to be
working well. I said appeared didn't I? They would not
even look at the so called 'right' fly and soon were
just sitting on the bottom refusing to cooperate. That
was enough for day one. A shortened day but still runs
on the board so a good start. We headed back to the
hut to share a night with the sandflies and to plan
the following day's assault.
Tuesday dawned full of
promise. The prospect of blue skies had everyone in
higher than usual spirits and after a great breakfast
of cereal, eggs, bacon, toast, coffee and tea we hit
the river. The plan was to bush bash downstream a couple
of hours and to fish our way back to the hut. There
were no tracks below us and so we knew we would not
be cutting anyone off. We also had to maximize the fishing
near to us as we had too much weight to pack extensive
distances. Shooting video will do that.
About 10.40 am we started
fishing as the cloud burnt off. The water was super
clear and the
fish were VERY easy to see, but VERY hard to catch!
Jim had the first good opportunity to fish to a lovely
brown in slightly fast water. Two casts later the fish
moved quite a distance to its left and intercepted the
nymph. A delayed strike luckily hooked the fish and
a 4lb brown was soon netted and released.
Moving on upstream the
change in the river-'scape' was marked. The first section
that we fished was almost lake like with no discernable
flow and fish cruising the edges. A kilometer later
it changed to broad glides with huge tree stumps standing
vertically to a height of about twenty feet. It wasn't
long after before we came across huge boulder gardens
with boulders the size of mini buses! It was just so
beautiful. Some people think that the chalk streams
epitomize the perfect trout stream but they are dead
wrong. The Test and Itchen are like the lower reach
of the Ganges when compared to these rivers. It is almost
as though these back country waters were designed with
trout, and only trout in mind. Each and every rock appears
to be hand made and placed and I did not see a single
section of river that I would change had I the opportunity.
It was just perfect.
Moving on upstream we messed
up a few fish that were obviously not feeding before
coming across yet another in a good spot. Bo was next
up and quickly moved into a position about seven metres
behind it. The fish was obviously happy, being out in
the open and feeding well. The big boulder that we hid
behind allowed me to film the action and Bo to hide
his form and movements. The perfect scenario.
Bo was now nervous. After
several near to impossible chances earlier in the day
he wanted to get a fish on the board and the prospect
of messing up a 'sitter' was playing heavily on his
mind. The 20 knot cross stream wind was creating further
doubt and fear. The rest of us were chomping at the
bit to take his place!
The first cast landed well
short and wide. The second not as short but just as
wide. Bo said "I just don't want to line him"
and I did my best to reassure him that there would be
plenty more opportunities around the corner and to measure
the line out behind him and reel in the slack. I told
him to "have a cast at it because I can see another
couple of fish up ahead!" (I couldn't really but
sometimes you just gotta do whatever it takes!)
Bo shortened up and threw
the line into a forward cast to get his direction right.
One solid back cast fighting the wind that was doing
its best to throw the loop off target and then a presentation
cast, a tight loop with a couple of metre line shoot
to the fish. The cast could not have been any better
with the leader landing ever so softly and delivering
the fly one foot directly above the fish's nose and
the leader hooking away to the side. I still have not
asked him if he meant to hook the leader away but it
was one of the most perfect casts you could imagine,
more so when you consider the nerve factor!
The fly drifted about 6"
and was moving slightly to the fish's left side with
the slow current. The trout met if half way and plucked
it off the surface ever so nonchalantly. The hook was
set and the fish went berserk, running well into the
backing and disappearing into the mess of boulders.
After a tense battle and a little chasing, the fish
came to hand and Bo had the monkey off his back.
The rest of the afternoon
was spent catching the odd fish and generally exploring
this wonderful river and being in total awe of the surroundings.
The walk back to the hut that night along the track
included a swing bridge crossing that just added to
the experience of trekking through a spectacular beech
forest. Four very tired fly fishers hit the hut just
after dark and found a horrible sight awaiting them.
We had company in with us tonight and the new arrivals
had the doors open as they were cooking and claimed
that the sandflies disappeared at last light. While
they do go quiet overnight, last light is as bad a time
as any to be leaving a hut door open. The place was
buzzing that night.
After a heap of bites over
dinner I pitched my tent inside the hut (it was a large
hut) and prepared to sleep while the others inside slapped
and itched themselves into a frenzy.
The next morning we awoke
to the not too pleasant sound of rain falling on the
roof. Where did it come from? It was a clear sky when
we went to bed! The rain got heavier and heavier and
over breakfast we made a group decision to walk to the
next hut a day early so that if we got a blue sky day
the next day we could just fish without wasting time
walking. We quickly packed and
headed out the door with the next hut in mind. The signs
said two hours and so we settled into a steady pace
all knowing our fitness and how soon we could be there.
The track was W-E- T, wet.
Some parts were up to shin deep in mud and there were
plenty of steep climbs and descents as well as fallen
trees to negotiate. At about an hour and forty five
minutes we started to put in some extra effort thinking
we would be there any minute. Two hours passed. This
was not making any sense. We had walked a lot over the
previous weeks and averaged 5 km/h according to the
GPS on the short walks (walks of two hours or less).
This is quite quick for these sorts of tracks. One particular
two hour walk took 91 mins as we blazed away trying
to catch Rob who clocked a 7.5km/h average (read insanely
What was going on? We had
not taken a wrong turn as the track follows the river
almost all of the way. To cut a long and tiring story
short it took close to four hours. In the end we were
starting to doubt our maps, advice and most of all the
Department of Conservation who erected the signs.
Then all of a sudden it
appeared. A swing bridge and hut just a hundred metres
away. There was a lot of excitement at seeing the hut
and we quickly burst in and threw off our packs. Getting
a fire going, putting on some dry clothes and opening
our stash of food. That's right! The helicopter drop
off on the first day was to leave a heap of chocolate,
eggs, steak and a real treat. A few beers to have with
dinner on the last night.
On a trip like this most
of the time it is dehydrated food carefully chosen,
measured and weighed as you often have to walk and spend
7-10 days getting into, out of and fishing. With the
chopper you can do things like drop off supplies on
your intended route which then frees us space in your
pack to carry luxury items. The one thing that we did
do was eat extremely well the entire time we were out
Well the rain did not stop
for the rest of the day and the next it hardly stopped
either. The river came up dramatically but did not color
and we sat there in the hut just killing time. I found
an old magazine and proceeded to do all the crosswords
I could find. Bo spent his time trying to kill sandflies
and catch mice while Jim did, well, nothing! Rob saw
the deteriorating situation and decided to go for a
walk. Less than 24 hours in the hut and cabin fever
was already well and truly setting in.
The rain stopped late the
next day about 5pm. That gave us about 23 hours before
the helicopter would return and about 15 hours until
we would hopefully fish. That evening we had company
in the hut and we had a little bit of a shin dig. With
beers, eye fillet and plenty of after dinner sweets.
A good last night was had by all and the previous two
lay days were soon forgotten.
Several checks that evening
revealed a clearing sky and we all went to sleep dreaming
of a good day and one last chance.
The next morning was cold
and the 7am check out the window revealed what appeared
to be fog. It wasn't but was rather some cloud which
would burn off over the next hour. By 8.30 we had brilliant
blue sky, no wind and the water had dropped a foot overnight
and was now almost down to its normal level. And it
was very clear.
Breakfast was decadent
as we over indulged our surplus food stocks. We then
quickly packed up our gear and cleaned the hut after
which we cut some firewood and replaced it in the shed.
Part of the deal with these huts is that you leave them
in at least as good a condition as you found them, better
if possible. With that in mind we carry a fold up saw
and spent half an hour replacing wood and cleaning.
With four people it is pretty easy work.
Final checks of gear with
tippets replaced and flies carefully chosen before heading
off. The river was in shade for the first 500 metres
and we walked by some prime trout real estate in order
to get to some sunlight. We had to make the most of
the time we had left.
The first pool we came
across had a fish feeding very obviously about forty
feet up from the run out. It was in about four feet
of water in front of a large boulder and nymphing well.
It was my turn to fish to an easy one.
I carefully started to
make my way out to a good casting position downstream
and at about a 45 degree angle to the fish. I did not
want my line landing anywhere near it and the 16 foot
leader and angle of attack would ensure this was the
case. From here the fun would begin .
A perfect cast and drift.
No response. One more just in case. No response. Change
flies. Good presentation. No response. Fish then feeds
after nymph drifts out. This went on for the next forty
five minutes as I went through my nymph box and we all
tore out our hair.
Eventually we managed to
get the fish to 'eat' the fly. Not by seining the drift
and working out what it was on, but by pure stab in
the dark guessing and a great deal of luck. The fish
moved a couple of feet to its left to intercept the
largish #14 nymph. A great fight then ensued with some
searing runs and tense moments of to and fro with leader
and tippet being run over boulders. Eventually the fish
came to hand, I make a point of this as we had lost
three weighnets in the days before, and posed for a
few happy snaps. While not a monster at between four
and five pound it was typical of the fish to be found
in many of these rivers.
We had about five hours
before the chopper was due and we just fished. The camera
was shut off and we all had a section of river to ourselves.
The fishing was tough as there were no insects about
and so they were not coming to the top, but every so
often you would fool one of these four
pound fish into eating a nymph. At about three o'clock
we made our way back to the hut as we needed plenty
of time to make sure we did not leave anything behind.
Also we had to be ready to go the moment the chopper
arrived as he had a number of pick ups that afternoon/evening.
The sky did not have a
cloud in it and you couldn't help but feel a bit of
"if only we had a few more days". But if the
pilot had said did you want to stay in longer we all
would have said no! After a couple of days of being
trapped in the hut due to rain and the lack of a really
good wash, we were all eager to head back to civilization.
We arrived back at the
hut and got organized. It took about 30 minutes to get
everything prepared and at pretty much the exact moment
that we were ready Matt showed up, a little ahead of
schedule. It took only a few minutes to load the chopper
and get on board. Matt seemed
to want to keep his distance from us and I do know why.
It dawned on me that evening when we did a clothes wash!
Anyway Matt fired up the
blue beast and we were whisked back to the 'real world'.
We did however get him to fly out along another river
we are going to come back to next year and as I write
this in mid-May plans have already been finalized. More
on that in late November when we return.