It's a familiar landscape to those who've seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But though you're unlikely to bump into any hobbits in this spectacular mountain wilderness, fishing the mighty Rangitekei River is an out-of-this-world experience, finds John Archibald
Through a gap in the rockface, a small stream joined the mighty Rangitikei River, a diamond in the jewel box that is New Zealand trout fishing.
Stephen Mattock, my Kiwi guide, rowed us gently under the overhanging branches that guarded the cleft, the rubber inflatable scraping the rock walls as it squeezed through into the quiet waters beyond.
Fifty yards further on, we climbed out of the raft and gingerly made our way upstream through the trees. I wouldn’t have been surprised to have come across a small person with large hairy feet, as this was hobbit country.
The fish rose under a vertical rock face on the far bank of the deep, overgrown backwater – a big brownie languidly sipping down the flies which drifted overhead. Standing crotch deep in cold water on a sloping, soft muddy bottom, in felt soles, with overhanging branches surrounding me, the cast seemed all but impossible. Stephen was not to be deterred.
“Throw a sideways cast, keep the rod horizontal, mind the branches, try not to scare the other fish just upstream”. (Who said fishing in New Zealand was easy?).
The first effort, thrown with little confidence due to my precarious position, fell well short. The second got fouled up in the branches, to be retrieved, once more, by Stephen. The third effort was inch-perfect, the cicada landing with a little plop four feet above the fish.
Time came to a standstill as the fly inched its way towards the fish. He rose slowly to the surface, sniffed the fly, then floated backwards for three feet with the Cicada balanced on the tip of his nose, before lazily falling back into position.
“B….r!” said Stephen with feeling. “Change your fly, try a Blue Dumpy”.
“But he rose to it, shouldn’t I try again?”
“Naw mate. If he was interested he would have taken it”. Back home in Scotland, I would have stuck with it; here in New Zealand they don’t hang about, so the exercise was repeated with the Blue Dumpy, with the same result, trees and all.
A hard-fighting brownie
“Move upstream, try for his brother”.
A virtually identical-size fish was plying his trade ten feet upstream. Getting into position was easier said than done, the slippery, steeply sloping mud doing its best to present me with a good ducking. The cast was equally difficult, but perseverance and luck again resulted in an eventual inch-perfect delivery.
This fish was more decisive than his brother and I suddenly had a hard-fighting brownie on the line. I would like to say there was a quick, cruelly efficient conclusion, but the trees, muddy bottom and my unsteady stance resulted in a somewhat ungainly, splashy affair before the fish was safely in the net, weighed in at 5lbs, photographed and returned to his lair.
“Ha!” said a now more exuberant Stephen. ”He smelt it, he felt it …… and he got his photograph taken”. They have a way with words, do Kiwis.
Another ungainly waddle upstream resulted in a short, violent but unsuccessful battle with a larger brownie that spat out the Blue Dumpy with venom. “B…..r!” repeated Stephen, obviously unimpressed by the speed of my reaction when striking.
Having fished out this hidden little gem it was then back to the glare of the main canyon where my two companions, Bob and Rowland, were fishing a wide, deep pool of the main river. “Any luck boys?”, I asked. “Naw …”
We climbed into the raft taking care not to damage the rods and floated down a splashy riffle into a long, fishy-looking pool with a large rock, guarded by a ten-foot-high rock on the right bank.
We fished a couple of likely looking lies on the left bank without success before wading across the river and fishing the wash to the side and rear of the rocky sentinel. Still no luck.
Battling with a leviathan trout
Climbing the rock on the instruction of Stephen, and peeking gingerly over the top into a deep flat glide immediately upstream, we spied a large trout lying in about ten feet of water – a very large trout indeed.
Crouching low behind the summit of the rock I tried a few casts above the leviathan, with different combinations of flies, but the ‘big troot’ was unimpressed. Which was probably just as well, as I couldn’t see how on earth I could have dealt with the fish had I hooked it – the climb down to bank level on the opposite side of the rock from where the fish lay was both restricted and it needed two hands.
“Climb down and try him from the side”, suggested Steven. “I’ll zero you in”. I did as I was bid and found myself in a dank, cool ravine to the side of the pool just upstream from the rock, with just enough room to fashion a cast.
With the precision of a gunnery officer (as an ex-Royal Engineer I acknowledge the irony in that simile), Stephen had me casting to a spot 30 feet out and 15 feet above the rock.
The first cast was ignored. “Try six feet further up” As was the second. I cast a third time …
“He’s coming!” hissed Bob who, together with Roland and Stephen, was lying on his tummy on the top of the rock. They were like three little boys watching a footy game from a nearby rooftop.
“He’s coming up!” I couldn’t see a thing of course and could only stand watching my Royal Wulff on the glassy surface as it glided oh so slowly towards the rock. “He’s coming!” hissed another voice from above. Time seemed to stand still.
“Wait, wait” trilled Stephen, excitedly. My grip tightened on the rod, white knuckles betraying my mental state. “Please God, don’t let me screw this up” I thought.
Despite the nerve-jangling wait I was still taken completely by surprise when an eruption engulfed my fly. I tightened into something solid. The line straightened, the hook held. Yes!
“He’s on!” squealed someone. I didn’t need telling, as line sped through the rod. I tightened my index finger on the cork handle, the rod bent into a beautiful arc. There was an audible ‘ping’ as the line shot back over my head into the shady coolness behind.
Retrieving the line, I looked for the fly. No fly. I had been broken at the knot. With skin-crawling embarrassment, I expected a tirade from above, but even worse, there was just a stunned silence. Sympathy or disgust? It was hard to tell. Either way I was mortified, angry with myself, and bereft, all at once. Fluorocarbon can be unforgiving stuff, especially in the hands of an incompetent, part -time amateur.
One of nature’s best-kept secrets
An hour later we had reached the end of our long, beautiful and productive journey through Middle Earth and were met by Stephen’s wife Trudi, and four very cold beers.
We hadn’t seen another soul all day, had returned and lost several stunning rainbows and the occasional brownie, and had experienced one of nature’s best kept secrets. Yet my heart was heavy. The next day I would be returning to Hong Kong and the crazy world of work, commuting, stress and hassle.
Bereavement is a strong word, but it was not far off what I felt then, and would feel again tomorrow at the airport. Unknown to me, it was also the last time I would see Roland, who would die of a heart attack on a trip home to Scotland later that year.