You’re thinking about superlatives to describe this river but even the wildest of them seem tame and more than a little awkward.
For two days you’ve fished a lake that lies neatly below snow covered slopes, the caldera of a recently active volcano and a fissure that oozes steam constantly. You didn’t think that any landscape could get more beautiful than that. You were thoroughly wrong.
The Supermodel is swimming more than wading through the tail of a fast, deep bend pool in the direction of a midstream boulder. He’s looking for a position so that he can get a reasonably long drift at a fish that periodically shows over a ledge against a sheer rock wall. It’s a good fish. A rainbow. 5 pounds? At least 5 pounds. Maybe more. Probably more, but you don’t want to think about that – it just makes your hands shake.
Walking into the valley you arrive at a bridge that is raised some 20m above the river. It’s your first view of the river and you instantly fall deeply in love with it. You’ve seen some pretty rivers before today but this surpasses them all by a long way. Almost immediately everyone in the party points out a different fish in the long, languid run below. Their voices are hushed and as though speaking normally will spook the fish below. The Host is silent and alert, looking for a specific fish. A resident brown. Like a log, apparently. A log with fins and spots. It doesn’t show itself and you are elected to go down to cast at the pair of most substantial of rainbows that are cruising the run.
You make your way carefully down the stairs to the wide bank, staying behind the concrete bridge supports, and work your way downstream against the forest of tree ferns on the near bank. You pick your way quietly across warm, polished rocks and onto a sandy shore, well below the fish. This is your first cast on a New Zealand stream and your hands shake as you strip line from the reel and get into a casting position. From above the four other guys in your party simultaneously start barking instructions. Relative directions are 11 o’clock at five meters or 2 o’clock at 12 meters, etc. You get one or two instructions that suggest strongly that someone either wears only a digital watch or that there’s a fish crossing the boulder field over your right shoulder. You want to tell them to shut up, and you would, but your voice isn’t working properly.
The river is the Whakapapa. In the Maori language a ‘wh’ is pronounced as an ‘f’. That you’re fishing the ‘fuk-a-papa’ makes you giggle like a schoolboy. When you drive by the Whakamerino Lake you’re doubled over laughing as every New Zealand stereotype jumps into line and the lads start making jokes about “Baaabra” and “Maaary”. It’s silly and trite like all humor on a trip with the lads should be, but it demands to be done.
Forgetting that you don’t have the benefit of their altitude above the river – and that you can’t cast simultaneously in four different directions – you throw flies at the river in the hope that you’ve got the direction and distance right or that a fish just happens to be lying in hungry wait in the general area in which your fly lands. They aren’t and you’re a little more than mildly frustrated. You’re about to call them down when the Host shouts at you to stand dead still – he’s spotted the brown. The whole party reverts back to their falsetto whispers like the cast of a particularly bad pantomime.
The Host guides you into position and explains where to place the cast. These are one cast fish and it doesn’t help that you can’t see it. Apparently it’s “next to that black boulder on the bend”. You count several dozen of them so you just select the one that you’d pick to be lying beside if you were a massive wily old brownie, zing off a cast, spook the fish, get liberally sworn at and, with blood still ringing in your ears, you hear the rest of the party clanging their way down from the bridge above.
The Supermodel has defied death or at very least the need to fill out forms in triplicate with his travel insurers and is now standing on the midstream boulder. You tell him to stand perfectly still while you and the Host try to find the big bow again. The Supermodel is a damn fine angler and isn’t put off by much, but from the corner of your eye you see him snap rigid, go pale and stop breathing. You don’t process too quickly his change in body language as your attention is fully upstream where you think that someone must have just hurled a large rock into the riffle. Your synapses are firing wildly but are crackling as ineffectively as crossed wires as they try to make connections between what you’re seeing and what you know about the size of the splash that a feeding fish should make. Was that a fish? It can’t have been. The sort of fish able to make that splash would be enormous. An endangered blue duck pops up and puts the mystery to bed. You remind yourself to get a grip on yourself (something that isn’t easy because right now there are rocks floating down the river in front of you – pumice, a floating volcanic rock and a sight that you’ll never quite get used to).
You return your focus downstream where your colleague still isn’t breathing. “Guys” says the Supermodel in a Mickey Mouse tone “right here at my feet”.
How did you miss it? A meter ahead of him in the lee of his boulder lies a good bow. A really good bow.
How big is a ‘good fish’? It’s bigger than a ‘nice fish’ and slightly smaller than a ‘great fish’, but it’s essentially a relative measure. In the rivers that you normally fish there would not be a term for this specific fish – it just wouldn’t exist there. Sure, there are statistical anomalies in the population that see a remarkable fish come out every few seasons, but this fish would comfortably eat any of those and have room for dessert, a cheese platter and a few glasses of decent port. Still, you get the sense that in this particular river it’s still not a ‘great fish’ and this realization makes your head hurt. You classify it rather as being ‘really good’ so that everyone will know that it’s better than good but not quite as good as great.
How he hasn’t spooked it is a mystery, but it’s lying in its station and is tipping back and forth as it picks nymphs from the current.
Another atomic splash comes from the riffle upstream and you jerk you head around. No ducks this time. You are are genuinely confused. Fish just don’t make that much of a disturbance when feeding, do they? A duck surfaces a few meters away. You’re unconvinced that he’s the cause of the splash but you remind yourself that the simplest answer is normally the correct one and that you’re looking at the world’s splashiest duck. Another part of your mind insists that the simplest and most obvious answer is that there’s an absolute hog in that riffle, but like floating rocks you write it off as being, at very least, highly improbable.
The Supermodel strips line off his reel. His face is whiter than his very, very white teeth. The Host is coaching him through it and tells him to pull the flyline loop through the tip of the rod lest it hook up later and to present with only the leader. Beyond the impeccably laundered crispness of the collar of his monogrammed designer shirt you can see the tightness in his neck muscles and are all at once grateful and disappointed that it’s not you on that rock.
Throwing all advice into the wind the presentation is preceded by some gratuitous false casting and lands with three meters of flyline over the fish. The fish here are big enough to have outgrown their predators and while they’re wary they don’t take off upstream as though Satan is at their heels every time that they get a little surprise like they do at home. This one just drops a little deeper into its lie and stops the feeding behavior. You join in at directing a chorus of insults at the poor bastard on the rock. You feel his pain, but proper decorum dictates that you chastise him like a cripple at a Trump rally. A few more last-ditch drifts over the fish pushes it under the boulder and the game is now truly up.
You arrived at the Host’s home in the very wee hours of the morning after some 30 hours of traveling, catch a fitful few hours sleep and spend the first day preparing equipment for two weeks of camping and fishing. In New Zealand they call it ‘freedom camping’. You arrive at a likely spot, pitch a tent, crap in a hole in the ground, get on with the business of fishing and take your refuse away with you when you leave. It’s not at first everyone in the party’s idea of a good time, but it’s yours – so you block out the mild complaining and generally just smile a lot.
On the first full night with the Host you go out for a superb traditional New Zealand curry dinner and decide on your return on cracking a bottle of duty free scotch. The Giant (typically) and the Supermodel (unusually) head to bed early. The Pro, the Host, his lovely Scottish partner and yourself have a wee dram before bed. When the Pro falls asleep mid-conversation he too is shooed off to bed by the Host’s partner who, despite him being Durch, calls him a ‘dozy sassenach’. Somewhere between the neck and the bottom of the bottle the Host asks your expectations for the trip.
Expectations? You tell him that you have none, and his face gets that satisfied smile that it sometimes does. He is perceptive, unusually intelligent, significantly multi-talented, has a wicked sense of humor and is uncompromising all at once. You think that you’ve made a connection with him. You really hope that you have because, while it doesn’t normally matter much to you whether you connect with people, in this instance you really want to.
You explain to him that everyone visits the island for a ‘double figure’, trophy brown. He nods. You tell him that the problem with this is that if you, for example, land a 9lb rainbow you’ll have fallen short of your task and will be disappointed by what, surely, is a fish of a lifetime. He smiles again. Your mind is a little hazy from very little sleep and very much whiskey but for now your anxiety melts and you know that this is all going to work out just fine.
The Supermodel is looking for safe passage back from his rock and leaves his line dangling in the current behind him. Thinking that his fly is snagged in the tail-out he gives it a yank. It’s hard to say which of the two unlikely combatants was more surprised by the turn of events but a minute later he lands his first New Zealand rainbow. It’s not even a ‘fair’ fish for these waters but he’s smiling and you’re smiling and Host is smiling and the day seems a lot brighter for it.
While snapping the customary photograph, from over your right shoulder someone blasphemes. You also saw the splash in the same point of the riffle. No ducks around this time. The last time that your mouth was this dry was the morning after that bottle of duty free.
The pool belongs to the Supermodel. Rules are rules, we’re all gentlemen here and we’ll get into that riffle soon enough. He casts at the ledge where you previously saw the bow but with no return for some good drifts. There’s a point after duffing a shot at a good fish where your fishing becomes mechanical and unconvincing as your failure is still the focus of your attention. Our centerfold, you think, instinctively realizes this and he casually hands the pool over to you and the host to fish out. You tell him that there was a fish fishing in the riffle near the head and feel a bit guilty about leaving out the part that it’s an absolute hog of a – bow? Brown? You guess that it’s a bow. They like the white stuff. The Browns hang on the edges, especially where there’s a bit of overhead cover, in water so shallow that it sometimes doesn’t cover them.
The Host expertly fishes the mid section of the pool, on the bend, and pricks what seems to be a good fish. His movements are brief and concise and when he tells you that he felt the fish’s tail beat powerfully twice before it popped off the hook you have no doubt that this is the case.
The Giant catches up with your party. The Pro is still crossing the stream below on his way up. When you parted company at the bridge they went downstream aways and then followed you up. The Giant got a good fish apparently and photos are being shown and the fish next to the midstream boulder is being pointed out, but you’re not really listening – there’s a hog in the riffle just above you and you’re up next.
You’re fishing a dry and dropper combination on the end of an elegant mid-flex rod in 5/6 weight. The dropper is a nondescript caddis thing and the dry is the largest stimulator type fly that you’ve ever seen. The leader is braided, the first 3′ section of tippet to the dry is 2X and the dropper hangs from 3X. All of this is connected with perfection loops that you’ve tested to the point that you have a cut in the index finger of your left hand. There are no abrasions or wind knots. You’re as ready as you’ll ever be.
The Host gives you no direction or coaching. You’re not vain enough to believe that this is because you know exactly what you’re doing but rather recognize that this fish is a dead sitter. He’s not a ‘dead cert’, but the cast is easy, he’s feeding freely and you know exactly where he is.
You stay well back and remove enough line from the reel. You make two false cast outside of the line of the fish and make your presentation cast. As the cast unfurles the fish slams something off the surface about a foot to the right of where your cast is about to land. You panic and consider trying to draw the fly back through the air towards you and away from the strike zone. In the split second in which these decisions are made you elect to let the cast be, to allow it to drift back and to make another cast.
To your joy the fly lands precisely where you intended it to and to your surprise it is immediately engulfed in a swirl of fish and spray and adrenaline.
The estimates of the fish vary somewhere between seven and nine pounds but you settle on what you think is a conservative seven.
You’re trying your hardest to forget it but your friends won’t let you. They taunt you relentlessly. They remind you incessantly that you lost the fish of the trip, but you already know this. You saw the take. You felt the loose line in your hand rip forwards. You felt the weight and the power of the fish. You saw its length and the butter-yellow of its belly. You were the only one silent as the brown repeatedly slammed itself into the surface.
You also felt the tippet break before anyone else realized it.
You’re standing on the bank and your rod is lying at your feet. Your line is drifting flaccid down the stream behind you. Your friends are talking but you don’t hear a word. The Host puts his hand on your shoulder and smiles.
You remind yourself that you came here without expectations.