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Highway 61 visited: Brown trout Down Under

4/21/2005
A Baton River brown is quite a trophy. 

MOTUEKA, New Zealand — I pulled off Highway 61 and set up my tent before the impending storm clouds.

Minutes later, I was standing hip deep in the Motueka River waving a graphite rod in the air and flirting with electrocution. Lightning cracked the sky apart and thunder banged off the mountains.

Back in the rental car to wait out the storm, I studied road maps and hummed Bob Dylan's song, "Highway 61."

It's named after the legendary road that follows the Mississippi River down to the Gulf of Mexico. It's a highway I know well, and it's a pathway to countless side roads for angling adventures, whether it's southern Wisconsin spring creek trout or monstrous Louisiana catfish.

In New Zealand, however, State Highway 61 on the South Island follows the Motueka River Valley, one of the nation's most productive brown-trout fisheries. Its numerous tributaries also are well regarded and thousands of hours could be spent fishing them.

The brown trout of the Motueka are part of a radio-tracking study carried out by the New Zealand Fish and Game Department in order to determine their migration patterns. Hooking a brown with transmitter antennae is a possibility.

Normally, the Motueka and its tributaries allow for sightfishing, but the almost daily rainfall made this impossible. With some luck, determination and my ever-present rain jacket, I caught some agreeable browns in the murky water in rivers throughout the Nelson-Marlborough region.

However, I was fishing "blind," as they call it here, and it left me craving to stalk trout in the famous, ultra-clear waters for which New Zealand is so well-known. But the rain kept coming and the water kept rising.

During a lull in the downpour I walked back to the river and found another angler casting into the darkened river. His name was Simon Blackburn, and he wouldn't be taken for a tweed-and-necktie flyfisherman.

Blonde dreadlocks fell down to his shoulders and polarized sunglasses wrapped around his face. We both stared out at the river swollen with rainwater and I tried to figure the situation out.

"So let me get this straight; you can usually see the trout in this river?" I asked Blackburn.

"Yeah," he answered.

"And you can just point them out and cast to them?"

"Yeah."

"And that's normally how you do it?"

"Yeah. It's crazy, eh! But when the river's like this most guys reach for a spinning rod; the water's just too high. And this part of the river probably gets caned pretty hard by the locals. It's too accessible."

Blackburn turned out to be an intense trout-fishing addict and back at his camper truck we exchanged stories and I immediately took a liking to him. He was another guy with one eye on the open road and another on the nearby trout waters.

He lent me a copy of Troutfisher magazine to read and it was good he did, for that evening I was trapped in my tent for an all-night thunderstorm.

A couple of days later while exploring the Motueka, I noticed a sign for River Island Lodge, a place I recalled from past research. I pulled in to inquire about fishing and possible accommodations.

I was greeted by the owner, Alistair Webber. I soon realized he was the same Webber mentioned in the Motueka chapter of "Catch that Trout! Fishing the South Island of New Zealand," a flyfishing guidebook by Rob Giles. I felt blessed to meet a local expert and I listened to his every word.

He suggested I visit Kahurangi National Park — the wilderness holy land of brown-trout rivers. Running through that expanse of backcountry are the fabled Karamea River, as well as the Beautiful, Ugly, Roaring Lion, Leslie and Crow rivers.

When Webber fished alone, he explained, he often fished blind using strike indicators and nymphs. But he also had high acclaim for sightfishing.

"With two anglers working together, one casting, one spotting, there's nothing like it," he said. And he passed along the name of a local guide, Steve Perry, recommending I experience this method of fishing in tandem.

The Kiwi summer brightened up as I drove to the upper reaches of the Wangapeka River that enters the wilderness area of Kahurangi National Park. If I were to trek toward the fabled Karamea River, this would be my starting point. My plan was to get a feel for the area and also to exercise self-control.

I decided I would not cast until I spotted a fish.

After two hours of wading and hiking, I approached a pool holding three brown trout — big, medium, small. The small one would make any angler very pleased. The medium one would make your day. The big one was stunning.

I walked back to the woods, sat down on a rock and watched the fish through my binoculars for 20 minutes. Finally, so this is it, I thought, this is what sightfishing is all about.

I crawled over the rocks and slid into the water's edge, keeping a low, stealthy profile. From the rear position, I couldn't see the fish. I cast toward the memorized spot and nothing approached the drifting Adams and hare's-ear rig. I cast two more times and nothing. I wondered if I spooked them.

I scrambled back over the rocks and spied the pool. They were still there but in different positions. Again I crawled and waded into the river. I cast again and nothing.

For the next hour a pattern emerged: Make ten casts; wonder if the trout are still in the same spot; wade and crawl back to shore; observe that the trout are still there but have moved slightly; crawl and wade back into casting position; cast again.

I kept this up until the trout decided they had enough of the chaos and found some security in the deep, dark waters of the opposite shoreline.

Hiking back to the car before dark, I mulled over what Webber recommend about fishing in tandem with another angler, one casting, one spotting. In this kind of environment, such teamwork was the obvious way to go.

The next morning I found myself on the Baton River, a tributary of the Motueka, with Steve Perry of Riverside Angling Adventures. A local of the Nelson area, he has been a tramping and kayaking guide in the past, but his specialty is flyfishing for the local browns.

As we sorted the gear, Perry recommended using strike indicators. I showed him a gigantic fluff-ball indicator I used for fishing under frothy roller dams back home.

He raised an eyebrow. "I want to get a picture of that," he said. He then produced a cream-colored speck of lamb's wool. Dabbed with floatant, it is Mother Nature's best strike indicator material. It's found on barbed wire and thorns where the ubiquitous sheep pass by, which in New Zealand is almost everywhere.

His inside knowledge of the river was quickly evident. After a short walk through the pasture, we emerged from the wood's edge to see a deep pool of surfacing browns. It was the kind of sight that turns normal conversation into whispers.

There was one behemoth brown in the pool and after a few casts he was hooked. The line slashed through the pool and I tried to keep my head together.

After minutes of fighting the fish, the line stayed taunt and unmoving. Perry speculated the enormous trout went under a ledge at the head of the pool. We pondered the no-win situation and, with a shrug, the line was broken off. Unbroken was the adrenaline surging through my blood and the day just started.

We continued upstream, wading across as the river meandered. Perry stepped up on a rock like a footstool to get a better view on the riffled run ahead.

"Right here, James," he said.

"It looks like a rock," I responded.

It felt like I was with my father during my first deer-hunting season and could not see the obvious outline of a whitetail on a hillside.

"Let's change glasses," I suggested. There was no magical difference in lens quality, only color. His polarized grey lenses were like looking through a smoky diamond, while my amber lenses made the world look like the dawn of a nuclear winter.

"It still looks like a rock," I said.

Then the rock shifted upstream and shifted back. I gasped with enlightenment. I wondered how many fish I passed by in the previous days.

Positioned 30 feet behind the trout, I cast ahead of it and listened to Perry's remarks: "A bit higher, James. Looks like he's … still there … just below the white rock."

Another cast and I watched the strike indicator disappear in seconds. The 5-pound fish fought well and, after admiring the colors, I released him back into the Baton.

We moved upriver and I asked Perry a question that had been bothering me for the previous two weeks: "So since this sightfishing requires such clear water, what do you do when it rains a lot, like this past month."

He told me the typical strategies: wait until the river clears, go deep with nymphs and hit the obvious cover.

Perry then recounted one experience on a rain-swollen river:

"I just walked along the shoreline and there they were — all stacked up, out of the main current. Some of them had their dorsal fins sticking out of the water, and I just took them one by one."

By the end of the day, we developed an easy rapport, told stories and traded opinions, and Perry taught me some techniques of New Zealand flyangling arcana necessary to land the trout that fin free in this wonderful land Down Under.