Words by Mauro Dei Agnoli
Like all the other passengers at the Queenstown Airport departure lounge on that Friday morning, Wolfgang and myself were gazing at the heavy snow falling outside and wondering how this was going to affect our flight out. The plan was to fly to Auckland and catch the connecting flight back to Sydney with a few hours to spare. What could possibly go wrong?
Our plane wasn’t even on the tarmac yet. It was out there somewhere trying to make a landing into Queenstown over the perilous Kawarau River valley. Three times the pilots tried and abandoned the landing and then the ominous announcement from the airline staff that the incoming flight, now running low on fuel, was being diverted to Christchurch and our departure out of Queenstown was now delayed at least three hours, weather permitting. Welcome back to modern life reality! It was only yesterday we were seemly on another planet, casting to big and aggressive brown trout who couldn’t get enough of the grey mayfly duns landing on the water’s edge. It seems like ages now, but it was only four days ago on Monday when we landed into Queenstown on a bright sunny day. Our bags made it alright but not my two rods which I had checked in back in Albury. Unfortunately, the helpful airline staff deal with this on a daily basis. “It may come on the next flight but maybe not. More likely tomorrow. So where can we get them to you when, and if, they do arrive?” I told them I’m staying at the Mossburn Pub for the next two nights, 150km away. Yea sure they’ll get them to me. I’ll be lucky to ever see them again.
Our guide for the next three days, Paul picked us up outside our Queenstown accommodation early next morning and off we headed south. “Well fella’s” he said, “the bad news is there’s rain forecast tomorrow, maybe even snow, and so the planned trip to the Upper Oreti River is not a good idea. The good news however is that we’ve got other options. So, I’m reckoning we start today on the Aparima river”. It took around an hour and a half to get to the quaint little town of Mossburn which would be our accommodation for the next two nights. We dumped our bags, picked up our packed lunch that Paul had pre-arranged and off we went. We were on the river by mid-morning.
The Aparima is a typical braided New Zealand stream and at this location it had two or three running channels which were running quite swiftly and the cobble stones on the bottom very slippery. On one side there was a significant willow-lined backwater seemly now landlocked and the debris line on the surrounding trees was evidence to the fact that the river, only a week ago as Paul advised, was about 2m higher and this would have been a great place for rafting instead. The backwater was crystal clear but we left that and headed for the braided channels where the water had a slight milky turbidity. There were many likely looking pools and without any surface activity the name of game today was going to be the typical New Zealand style two nymphs in tandem (the heavy one as the dropper) with an indicator. And we gave the water, and our casting arms, a flogging. Despite many changes to our nymph patterns and leader length, it just wasn’t happening.By noon, somewhat subdued, Paul suggested we have lunch and although we were carrying our sandwiches in our backpacks we decided to walk back to the vehicle where we could take stock. But in doing so I suggested we firstly cut across to the backwater and follow it back to the vehicle. The sun had now broken through the clouds and although every detail in the water was revealed we didn’t need that to spot the definite sign of a rise under the willow further up ahead.
We moved away from the water’s edge and then followed Paul along the bank. We popped our heads over the brush and the two magnificent browns merrily cruising around could not be missed.
However, they didn’t miss us either and off they scurried to take cover under the willows on the other side. It wasn’t long before Paul spotted several more further along and being relatively shallow water I reverted to just the one unweighted nymph. Several casts in their vicinity produced nothing but to spook them. However, it was at this time that I came to appreciate Paul’s amazing ability to spot fish at a distance. Time and again he could spot a fish well in advance of us and despite pointing them out to me I could not see them until they made an obvious move. I determined that from here on I would always let him walk in front of me and this proved to be a definite advantage.
We were able to get quite close to some of the big browns in the backwater. One was busily nosing the bottom with his tail protruding out of the water and several times I cast the nymph in front of his nose but to no avail. We suspected that these fish were quite educated, highly selective or most likely both, and so begrudgingly we moved on to have lunch.
Paul suggested we drive well upstream on the same river and here there was only the one main flow channel. We continued with the two-nymph rig and I also tried the streamer using the across and down technique but again to no avail, until about the time we were thinking of calling it a day.
Paul was walking about 15m upstream of Wolfgang when he suddenly yelled out, “right here Wolfy, about a metre from the bank.” Wolfgang did eventually make out the big brown in the metre-deep flow and out went his two nymphs. The take was definite and up he came followed by several jumps. “Follow him down! You’ve gotta get below him” yelled Paul. And presently he was in the net, photographed and released. We then called it a day and drove back to Mossburn, the Railway Hotel and the wood fire. I went to the bar to get our beers and the barmaid said, “are you Mauro?...here’s a present for you” and pulled out the package with my two rods from behind the bar. Well, there you go, miracles do happen.
Wednesday morning saw us arise in anticipation of what the weather will bring. As predicted it was raining but only lightly. Whatever! venture out to the stream side we must. Today the Mataura River was our destination and after picking up our prepared lunch packs from the local café, we were off. After a drive of around half an hour we reached our access point and strangely the rain had stopped and in fact it was quite mild. The sun was breaking through and for good measure, we applied sunscreen to our faces. Walking through the farm paddocks lambing was well underway and there were many day-old ones shadowing their mum’s.
We got to the water nearest from the car and immediately Paul says “there’s one, and there’s another...” Wolfgang and I just looked at each other and shook our heads. This isn’t fair!
We hiked downstream for about 20 minutes to the point where Paul decided we could start from and again, he spotted one immediately. Eventually Wolfgang and I made him out as well but as we approached he slowly made his way into the deeper water and so missed our engagement. It was shortly after this that we noticed the first gusts of wind building up and casting a woolly indicator with two nymphs in these conditions makes it particularly hazardous. A case in point was when, in hauling for a back cast one of these windy gusts assisted in planting the dropper nymph right in my face with the barb imbedded ” .Ever prepared, Paul pulled out his surgical pliers and undertook a minor operation without causing any pain or any harm to my good looks. “Now this is a good pool Mauro., Wade into the water 3m from here, begin your delivery there and work your casts across every say metre or so”. On my third cast I was on to a solid fish and downstream he went. “Follow him down! You’ve gotta get below him. And keep the tension on to keep him out of those willows on the other side!” Well into the willows he went and presently I was hooked onto the willows minus the fish. “You haven’t finished this pool yet Mauro. There’s plenty more in here. Start where you left off”. Second cast and I was onto another good one. This time I was confident to apply a lot more pressure and I kept him out of the willows. Soon he was in the net and my first on the score board.
It was now around 11:00AM and the weather was starting to turn. The wind had picked up, dark clouds were rolling in and it was starting to spit. Can’t stop now, this is too much fun! “I need to show you the aquariums before it turns too bad” said Paul. So we put on our ponchos and soldiered on. Moving upstream we reached a long deep pool with weed beds scattered across it. “There’s one there! And there’s another, and also over there, that one’s a monster!” said Paul. With his assistance we eventually made them out.
Wolfgang already had the right combination on and so he was right to give it a go. The big brown just out from our bank was stationed on the edge of a weed bed and was oblivious to our presence even Mataura River. The one that got me on the score board. Mataura River. One from the "aquarium" though Paul and I had ring-side seats above him. Second cast was on the money and up he came to take it without hesitation. It was fortunate his fight was fairly subdued because with the deep water and steep banks, the options for landing him were limited and with Paul’s assistance he was in the net. The weather was now was turning ugly and the rain was replaced with soft snowflakes. Although Paul could still spot the fish it was now getting much harder. As well as spotting and guiding he was replacing our rigs and tying on our flies but soon he declared that his fingers just wouldn’t work anymore. In any case, watching the indicator in this snow became impossible and the air temperature was dropping rapidly. By noon it was just too hard, we pulled up stumps and headed for the car. Our thoughts were with the baby lambs we passed along the way and wondered how many would survive the night. Nature can be cruel.
We had our sandwiches in the car but there was no let up in the weather and so we headed back to Mossburn, stopping for a hot coffee before we pulled up at the Railway Hotel. It was around 3:00PM before we were settled in around the fireplace at the old hotel with a Speight’s beer and talking to the locals. By this time there was 4 inches of snow on ground outside with no sign of it letting up and the bartender was throwing lumps of coal into the fire to ensure we’d stick around……and we did. “Tomorrow looks like it’s going to be fine”, said Paul. “Now the options are to head up to the Upper Oreti where the big ones are. There’s not as many and they’re further apart than what we saw at the Mataura but they’re bigger, and I mean bigger! It’ll involve a fair bit more walking between pools.”
Both Wolfgang and I agreed that the fish we encountered at the Mataura were well big enough for us. Here in New Zealand all the fish seemed to be the one size anyway…..big! We didn’t see any small ones. We preferred to have the assurance of quantity over size and another go at the Mataura would suit us well. “No problem”, said Paul. “I’ve got another nice access point to the river we can go to.” At dinner in the old hotel the snow outside was still dumping down but that didn’t deter Paul. “It’ll be fine”, he said and we retreated to our warm rooms and bed shortly after. The snow outside made it dead quiet but in any case, I was dead to the world within minutes. The last morning in Mossburn greeted us with a still day and broken cloud and despite the snow covered countryside Paul’s prediction of a fine day was correct. Off we headed to a spot further upstream from where we were yesterday near Garston and parked the car right beside a long clear pool lined with willows on the opposite bank.
We rigged up again with the tandem nymphs and indicator and started walking upstream behind Paul and within 15 metres, as expected, “there’s one behind that boulder, and there’s another one, a big one, over there”. And Wolfgang and I, on que, “where?” “Mauro, you’re first up. Give it a go”. The snow finally forced a retreat from the river
The first cast was short. The second too wide. Next one on target and there was no mistaking the take and I saw the flash of his body in the water. I was ready, and I struck immediately as the indicator instantly vanished from the surface. Downstream he went and following the usualinstructions, so did I. I was hooked onto a freight train and I had never seen my rod bent like this.
My casting wrist was also feeling the strain and once I had the reel drag sorted I had to use both hands on the rod grip. The pool narrowed at its tail end with the river, divided by a long grassy island, flowing over rapids onto the next pool but on our side the pool just came up to a shallow beach which is where, under instruction, I had to land this fish. If I let go down the rapids I would have to chase it down which was not an appealing option.
The large brown put up a magnificentfight and at times he did indeed push upstream and tried to head for the willows but eventually I began to feel the line relenting. Presently he was in the shallows of the beach, vanquished. What a relief! A few photos and then back into the water to fight another day. The 6lb brown was my biggest fish of the trip. We made our way upstream for the nextfew hours. Paul constantly pointing out the fish well before Wolfgang and myself could see them. We made plenty of casts, got plenty of rejections and yes even hooked several more, some landed and some to get us hung up in the willows and broken off.
One time Wolfgang had a nice fish over the lip of Paul’s net only to then see it make a sudden last powerful flinch and watch it escape out of the net leaving the nymph behind in the webbing. I’ll spare the expletives that followed. By about noon the water was noticeably getting more turbid and becoming “milkier”. We assumed this was a result of the runoff from the recent snow further upstream and the fish were becoming harder to spot so Paul suggested we not persist and instead go back to the car and head for another spot well downstream.Nearly reaching the car, Wolfgang said he’d try the pool where I caught my big brown earlier in the morning, and it was a good thing he did. In a virtual repeat of my engagement earlier, My 6lb brown Wolfgang's fish from the same pool he was soon on to a similar big feisty brown and after a great tussle presently had it landed in thesame location.
We then drove downstream to another access point up from a bridge on the main road. Again, the Mataura at this location was about 20m wide with a nice cobble stone bottom. It was about knee deep on our side and the opposite bank was lined with willows which overhung the deeper channel.
The water was reasonably clear but more importantly we couldn’t ignore the occasional mayfly hovering over the surface and presently, we saw the first rise out in the middle of the stream. Paul of course could easily make out the fish under the surface.
This was the start of the climax to our whole trip. One by one more fish starting rising and what I mean by this is that they would come out with their snouts, greedily taking mayfly after mayfly as it landed on the surface. They were so focused on the surface food they were oblivious to our presence in the stream even though we could be only 8m from them. Paul knew exactly which dry to use. A floating emerger with a white post wing, grey dubbed body and no hackle.
One after another we then hooked big rising fish in water no more than knee deep. However, I can’t honestly say we landed them all. As soon as they were hooked they instinctively headed for the willows and into the deeper water where the underlying roots protruded into the stream. For many, if we couldn’t stop them they snapped the leader and if we let them run we’d be in the snags. And only sometimes did we manage to prevail.
The mayflies seemed to be active along this run which was only about 100m long and on our side was grass-lined. Beyond that a wide boulder beach took over and there was no surface activity adjacent to it. So, when we got to the head of the run we went back and, taking a wide berth from the water’s edge, startedback at the tail end. With the fish seemingly undeterred and rising freely we would again commence fishing this same run. We did thisthree times and we lost count of the fish we took.
As they say, all good things must come to an end and in due course the mayfly activity subsided. It was now about 5:00PM and time to head back to Queenstown where Paul would drop us off and he’d then go on to his home in Wanaka. We bid Paul a subdued farewell and promised to be back. What a time!
And now, after our plane had been diverted to Christchurch, the sky starts to clear! What else would you expect? I rang Qantas New Zealand and after being put through the inevitable “please hold the line” several times we managed
to get a flight out later that afternoon direct to Sydney. We were home in Albury by 9:00PM but after a whole day in planes and airports we agreed it must have been another planet we were on the previous three days……….Take me back there!