Hunting Trout in Haunting Waters

Andrew was sullen, silent and soaked to the skin after spending eight hours in the rain standing in a river waving a stick

Andrew Bland casts for trout
Andrew Bland casts for trout during a moment’s peace between passing power boats and jet skis on Lake Wanaka. Mount Aspiring stands in the background, untroubled by the commotion. Photo by Alastair Bland

“I am haunted by waters.”

Many fly fishermen spend their spare moments wishing they had been the first to say that, but Norman Maclean beat them to it, hammering home his trout fishing classic A River Runs Through It with that final thundering line. But it doesn’t matter who said it first, because we fishermen are haunted by waters: Precisely, I am haunted by the vision of a glassy emerald pool just below a fast run of rapids, back-dropped by pines and birch. Here, a feathery mayfly pattern falls and settles on the surface—a perfect cast—floats for two or three tense seconds, and finally vanishes in a forceful explosion of water, fins and the spotted green back of a rainbow trout.

That is the magic moment that has kept fishermen shuffling through waist-deep waters, rain or shine, dawn to dusk, for centuries. I can imagine the helpless longing that some early settler in New Zealand must have felt when he looked over a prime stretch of riffles bottoming out in a wide slow pool and grieved for the trout that could not be caught here—the trout he had left at home in the slow waters of England. When enough ex-anglers felt this same heartache, a decision, I suppose, was made: They called home, put in an order for some buckets of brown trout eggs on the next boat and so sealed history. The eggs were hatched in Tasmania, the fry sent to New Zealand and released in the Styx River. By the 1880s, New Zealand had become a trout fisherman’s paradise.

Somewhere in this glistening history, the first ring of a rising brown trout expanded across the glassy morning waters of Lake Wanaka, under the looming local peaks and, away in the northwest, the austere presence of Mount Aspiring. About a century after the trout, another nonnative species arrived in these quiet waters: the ski boat, so help us. Today, at almost any moment, dozens of these obscenities careen in perilous arcs through the bays and inlets of Wanaka’s lanky, long-armed figure. They send waves and screaming voices into the Zen-zone of the odd fisherman wading the shoreline, and the awful din of motors never ends. It drowns out the birds, the breeze, the sheep and the splashing of feeding trout, and these watercraft, in sum, have committed a serious offense in this would-be-sacred mountain hideaway: They have stolen the silence from Lake Wanaka.

But lakes and mountains have a patience that will transcend the human race, not to mention some festering little resort town and some clusters of RVs. So for now, Wanaka endures the boats wordlessly while Aspiring looks down in his expressionless way, a perfect geologic yogi. He does not frown upon us, for he knows that silence will return to his kingdom. We people may be a temporary mosquito bite on the Earth’s hide, while Mount Aspiring will keep on aspiring for ages. It’s true: Geologists say New Zealand’s Southern Alps—the most jagged range of summits I’ve ever seen—are still growing, and exceptionally quickly.

Over the past week, we went from Lake Wanaka south, past the Mavora Lakes and as far as Te Anau. We fished Lake Manapouri, Lake Te Anau, Gunn Lake, the Eglinton River and the Waiau River, the main drainage of Lake Te Anau. The Waiau is credited as hosting more trout per mile—about 400, according to a local man we met on the bank—than any river in the Southland. We were entirely alone there, standing waist-deep and throwing flies over the backs of dozens of monsters. Occasionally, one would lift off the bottom, grab an insect off the surface and drop back to its chosen holding spot. Our task was to determine what these fish were in the mood for, and we changed flies every five minutes. They ignored everything—our fluffy floating dry flies, our leach-like streamers and our sinking nymphs.

This stye of fishing is called “sight-casting”—the pursuit of fish plainly visible in the slow, still water. Andrew calls sight-casting “like walking through a petting zoo.” Big fish hold like sunken logs all across the stream, their noses aimed upstream, and we work on them one at a time. They rarely bat an eyelid at our offerings. Meanwhile, yin to the yang of sight-casting is “blind-casting,” in which the fisherman throws a fly into fast-moving or murky waters. As the fly line sweeps down-current, the tension is high, prone to being broken at any second by the explosion of a striking fish.

Waters that haunt: A classic run of New Zealand rapids is home to hulking browns and sleek rainbows. Here, fisherman Bob Stinson waits for that smashing strike. Photo by Michael Bland.

From New Zealand’s mountain country run fast-moving, blind-casting streams, but we’ve mostly been working the sluggish, clear streams of the lowlands, where we’ve spent day after day sight-casting at uninterested fish as large as pike. But we catch them sometimes. The other morning, Andrew caught and released a 24-inch brown that he had been working on since sunup. We had gotten to know it well over the hours, had named it Captain Cook, and didn’t have the heart to bonk our friend over the head. Cook still swims. But later that day, we were hungrier, and Andrew caught another big brown by the name of Captain Bligh. Bligh got braised that night with herbs de Provence and white wine. The next day, another monster the size of a poodle in the Waiau River would not bite. Andrew worked on him for a while with a streamer before waving me in to try with a dry fly. No luck—sight-casting at its most frustrating. “Oh, hell—let’s shoot him,” Andrew joked, both of us just 10 feet from that tedious old brown. That was Captain Tasman. Just to make sure he was alive we threw a cobblestone at him; he dashed downstream.

We’re back at Lake Wanaka now, on our way north. Andrew just came stomping in with wet feet—sullen, silent and soaked to the skin after spending eight hours in the rain standing in a river waving a stick. It’s been coming down all day, the first precipitation in two months here. Our socks, shoes, pants and rain gear are all soaked, our room smells like a swamp and we aren’t getting any drier. We’re headed next for the West Coast rainforest, and the forecast says rain for days. If this is what it means to be haunted by waters, then Norman Maclean can have his line back. We want sun.

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