Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The hydro hike

Where we were going, everything needed was to be carried in. Food, shelter, warmth… given the utter lack of anything close by or anyone to pull our bums out of trouble I had a look at my gear and began an upgrade. We’d wet wade so decided that dryness and warmth would be afforded best by waders. My wading boots however had seen much better days, so the first upgrade was a pair of Simms G3 guide boots. They’d provide way more ankle support than my old boots (more akin to a heavy shoe). I also bought some ‘Alumbite’ cleats which screw in to attachment points on the boot. More about those later.  I resisted the urge to pack any more than 1 pair of extra clothes, which were merino garments to clamber into once in the tent and which were packed in a dry bag. Cooking gear, plate spoon & mug, camera, sleeping bag, sleeping mat. Emergency blanket, GPS, spare batteries, head lamp. Knife, fire lighters, lighter. Check. Quick run through and all gear packed down nicely. I made a decision to take only one rod, but did put in a spare reel with a sink tip line for working wet flies through deeper pools. Little did I know that I’d need both a spare rod and reel before the trip was done….

The weather forecast wasn’t great; but with clear flying windows forecast for both drop off and pickup days, we made the call at the last possible minute that it was GO TIME! I hit the road after work and arrived at 10pm to find Coch, assorted gear and odds and sods scattered through the motel unit. We got our gear sorted, packed and ready. I knew that I wasn’t going to get too much sleep but hit the hay before midnight. I did sleep though and awoke before the alarm was due to go at 05:00. We had a quick cuppa then packed my truck and hit the road looking for a nice breakfast which we found in one of Coch’s favourites. With coffee and toasted sammies on board we were off for our date with the chopper. We met our pilot, got a rundown and coordinates for our pickup which were locked in to the GPS, and then we were away. It was a stunning day for flying and as we hopped over ridges we were given a run down on the various watersheds. We came in low over our destination river and straight away were amazed by the size and number of fish that made their way away from the chopper’s shadow.

The craft departed and that was it, we were on our own. Gear assembled, waders (we’d spend the whole time immersed) and packs on, we set off. It’s been awhile since I’d lugged a pack around so I was a bit wobbly at first. This would be the dry day of our trip – with rain forecast to arrive in the evening we certainly appreciated the clear blue skies overhead. Then we began to spot fish. The clarity and depth of the water was astonishing and we were surrounded by beech forest interspersed with the occasional hardwood.  Jase hit the first fish and that set the tone; a beautiful rainbow of over 6lb was landed after a great scrap. My first fish hit deep down in a run – I caught the glint of the fish’s flank and hit – and if a shade under 4.5kg, she was only a shade. Simply the largest rainbow I’d caught in quite a few years lay at my feet after an absorbing fight. Round and deep, what a magnificent creature! We looked at each other, grabbed some shots, got her on her way and fist bumped. The fishing was epic in such awesome surroundings and by our lunch break we estimated the average weight of fish landed at over 2.8kg. A good mix of browns and rainbows were landed and we were going well.

The sun beat down on us – I could only imagine this scenario in cicada season would produce epic dry fishing. By mid-afternoon the GPS indicated that we’d made good progress. The body was tired but felt good; multiple crossings take their toll eventually but the strata was reasonably good as far as footing was concerned so we weren’t burning too much energy on odd sized boulders or needing to climb large rocks.

At 17.00 we left the river bed to look for a camping spot, and after a bit of searching found an old camp site where we got our tents sorted. I headed down to the river to look for dry driftwood (beech forest yields little in the way of good firewood normally) and arrived at the camp pool. It was truly magnificent – the sun poking between 2 ridges illuminating a pool headed by a huge rock buttress against which the main flow thundered before deepening and then tailing out over a shingle flat.  

In the tail, trout moved around intercepting the mayflies; a hatch was on and fantails were darting around taking their share. I grabbed an armful of dry wood then nipped back up to camp telling Jase to drop everything and get down there. If I could camp above any pool anywhere then I’d happily choose this one.

camp pool

We got our meal underway and I lit a fire to dry our gear near – my waders had sprung a leak – which didn’t surprise me so I was wet from crotch down. Not so bad when the sun is out, but our world was about to change…. Having got dry and warm and waders dry we retreated to our tents as the first raindrops fell. I slept like a baby, awakening only to answer the call of nature at around midnight – it was still raining.

Dawn came and the rain had temporarily stopped, giving us the opportunity to break down our gear and get packed. We ate, drank got going, not fishing the home pool as a sign of respect to it and its inhabitants. A nagging cold southerly had set in and the first crossing had water leaking in. Today I’d get way colder than I like being.  The heavy overhead conditions allowed good visibility into the pools and again the fishing was superb. We worked our way upstream spotting fish and calling strikes for each other. The water began to change – it was rising but still clear which normally prompts the fish to feed actively. We also stopped using indicators as the fishing was done by sight. It rained on and off and the GPS showed that our progress was slow; however we had a waypoint in mind to reach by midday and were only 30 minutes off the mark; the equivalent of messing around trying to catch one good fish. The timing angst really went back to a conversation that Jason had had with an old timer, who’d suggested that to get through the zone we were travelling would take 5 days, well we only had 3 and a half… we reviewed how far we’d come and realised that we were well on schedule.

We came to a deep pool which held several brownies and it was Jase’s time to shine… he unpacked his big gear and began to dredge the pool with an articulated flaming mick, hooks, legs and appendages wiggling all over and he stripped and wagged the rod tip. For a while a big ol brown eyed the fly up before leaping on it resulting in a solid hookup and Mr Brownie boring around the pool time and again. Finally I was able to grip his tail, what a stunner of a fish, great shape and colour… and with 15cm of musk rat crossed with frog hanging out of his gob he made a great photo subject.

I was getting colder and colder and began to lose my focus a bit; first I dropped my rod with the hub of the Z Reel landing on the rocks. This caused the drag to lock and stay locked on a fairly tight setting. The next fish I hooked ran down the pool with the line throwing spray before using all the available free line then hitting the reel - *ping*. So I sat down, dragged out my old Velocity II and changed the flylines over and got back in the game. With the river now much smaller in size, our shots became fewer and we weren’t seeing any brownies now. I had gone from a double nymph rig to single green stonefly for the deeper pools, or a pheasant tail for fish holding shallower. Mayflies came off now and again so the small brown nymph was quite effective; having said that we caught some crackers on the stoneflies. The team effort was the best way to go; with one guy up on the bank in the bush, fish were much easier to spot and the takes which weren’t always obvious to the angler were called almost unerringly. Our second camp site was found after some searching, and after getting bogged just over knee deep in heavy swamp. Carrying an additional 20kg of gear while being bogged is no fun and on one occasion it took me 5 minutes of effort to extricate myself. I was fairly tired by the time I got out. The site was not very salubrious, just a damp clearing but it looked like a hotel to me. We got tents sorted, food cooked and hit the hay early. It took a while to drive the cold out, but a combination of merino garments, warm socks and the down sleeping bag eventually did the job.

Day III dawned overcast and again I was cold, not having a fire to dry gear with, meant I climbed straight into wet gear. We'd also run out of coffee so were drinking boiling water for our hot drink... surprisingly warming. We bypassed the camp pool and began to head upstream. again we found fish straight away and began to catch them. Often there were several to a pool and on occasion we were able to pick up a 1-2 instead of singles. It rained on and off and by mid afternoon when we checked the GPS realised that our pickup point was not far off. We'd fair burned through our section. The price paid was that the river had risen a foot and we'd burned extra energy fighting the current ...Then, disaster struck. My Radian got hung up in some scrub and in the process of flicking the line I somehow point loaded and snapped the tip section. It was a dumb action of a tired person. Jase immediately broke out his VXP and gave it to me to use - thanks bud.  The river by now was much narrower and not every pool held fish. We were now walking past barren although lovely looking water; our best guess was that angler pressure played a role. We lost very few fish the whole trip but both of us got the dropsies in the afternoon... losing a fish or 2 each. We reached the pick up point late in the afternoon and set about finding a camping spot. I was asleep before the sun went down but not before I found an old candle and used some melted wax in the split seam on my old G3 waders.

Our final day dawned clear. We ditched our packs and after eating headed upstream. The fish were thin on the ground but still of reasonable size. My mental notes tell me that we caught a couple apiece only before our pull out time. We made good pace back to the pickup zone and with a couple of hours up our sleeves spent them getting our tents, waders and other gear dry. At this point I'll note that of 20 Alumbite cleats that started out on the soles of my boots, only 8 remained. A bit of a have, Mr. Simms.

The Hughes 500 zoomed in over the ridge and circled once before coming in. With gear aboard we set out on our return flight. An unbelievable trip had ended. A bucket list trip even...

Saturday, November 7, 2015


In my own muddled way I knew that Coch and I were off for a fish. I knew where. What I failed to do was stay on top of the time table so when we spoke mid-week, I hadn’t organised a get out of jail pass for Thursday evening…. But as it happened that worked out ok, as Coch had to make a long run across to the army base to get “non- exploded ordinance training” for our impending heli trip into the remote back country.  So we arranged to meet up at the hut Friday mid-morning; and when I showed up having got turned around a few times (by my innate inability to read directions) Coch was rigged up and waiting. I moved my stuff in, got changed, rigged up, got my waders on and we headed out. He carried his z Axis double-hander, and I rigged my Radian for the first time ever. We’d fish the big water and then head into some smaller stuff later where we’d share my rod. I have to say that watching a double-hander in action is worth it; it looks such a relaxing style of fishing and I can see how much water can be covered…. Lovely stuff.

We worked downstream with him covering water from above, and I fishing up towards the man with the big rod. I hit my first fish in a deep seam above a large rapid that flowed down into a deep emerald pool and it charged off. And kept charging – the backing loop rattling through the guides. The only way forward was to cross the seam above the raid, and work down to the fish, which gave it plenty of time to rest in the pool below. Cranking the reel like a madman I moved down towards the fish and slowly got it under control, before finally netting out a sweet 3lb rainbow in fighting fit condition. If that was to be the tone-setter for the trip then it would be a real grin generator! We worked our way through some nice water with Coch getting to grips with the big rod and getting some hits that didn’t stick, while I prospected pretty much fruitlessly with a nymph combo. We packed it in and the big rod was broken down, and moved on to fish a small stream. Mayflies were coming off the water to I put on a grey wulff with high brown wings that matched what I could see on the water. Slowly we moved up. Spotting conditions were hard under the overcast sky but the first decent pool looked fishy; and sure enough a big brown snout rose and inhaled the dry. I giggled as I hit him but that chortle didn’t last long when my tippet knot broke as the fish heaved himself across the pool… I can only guess that the prolonged earlier fight with the rainbow weakened the system (tippet was a massive 3x!). A quick re-rig and we were off.

Small stream loveliness
The afternoon passed with fish not seen, fish missed, fish hooked, some landed and in the small water a great deal of fun was had, going fish for fish. We returned to the main river and despite it being late in the afternoon, decided to fish a few of the large pools. Jase fished a large deep pool with the big rod while I re-rigged with a deep water double nymph combo. By the time I was finished he’d worked the water he was able and moved off downstream. I got set and began my journey up the pool. A dink ate my fly midway up and flew around the place before coming to hand; and then I had one of the most bizarre things happen. A good fish hit and as I raised the rod I realised that the line was wrapped around the weapon multiple times, maybe I’d created a massive mend that had done that? I let the fish run downstream and chased it as I tried to undo the wraps. The fish moved to the bottom of the pool and slightly upstream, the tension of the water holding the fly in place. When I finally unwrapped the line and took up the pressure… the hook pulled. I wasn’t surprised in the least but I would have loved to have seen that fish with Jedi line tangling powers. Back up at the eye of the pool I was dealing with a back current as the main flow of the river hit the far bank at full noise. The indicator shot downstream which can happen in swirls and I hit hard and came up tight on a fish that screamed off 70 m of line, straight down to the tail of the pool where it boiled in knee deep water amongst the rocks in the fast current. As I moved slowly down, getting first backing and then fly line back onto the reel the fish shot upstream, the line spraying as it cut the water. Back in deeper water the fish hugged the bottom… I was now level and began to side strain the little bugger, but every time I pulled him off balance he’d slug it out back into his lie. I walked backwards and dragged him… he responded with a thumping run back into the depths. Downstream side strain only led to a small upstream charge. Upstream side strain finally moved him up out of the depths. By now, time was ticking on and 15 minutes had gone by. Then, success, he came up over the lip of the pool into view, and he was a she! A few minutes more of cajoling her into the net and I was looking at the best conditioned rainbow I’d caught in an age. A few snaps and a bad selfie and she was back into her zone, having first pulled the net scale down to an even 5 lbs. Jase came up around the corner looking for me; all I could do was grin and tell him I’d show him a photo later.

Perfection with fins

Bad selfie

He then decided to return to the hut for beers while I fished the Hut Pool. I didn’t really do it justice, to be honest I didn’t feel much like doing too much more casting today. Jase returned with a couple of icy colds and we sat on the bank in the late afternoon sun. Sweet. Then my buddy pointed out a tricky lie that no one fishes because of its trickiness… we waded across the river and down and I handed the rod to Jase. The lie was a real crappy one, the river smashing into a series of willows at full noise creating a seam in which fish could lie… the seam being perhaps 20 feet and crowded in from the bottom by another willow. With almost no drag free drift it would be a SOB to fish but when the indicator went he’d already raised the rod and the fish simultaneously hit the burners, turning downstream and taking to the sky through the willow’s tangled branches… the next few minutes were a bit of a crack up as the fish leaped and leaped again downstream of the willow which had gobbled up the fly line. After a bit of macramé weaving, Coch got the line free and the fish under control and I netted out a sweet 3lb rainbow.

We wandered back to the hut, cooked up venison steaks and prepared for the evening rise. We’d fish a long flat pool and as the sun set caddis began to come to the surface. We sat and waited as the little guys started up and then finally the slurps of decent fish began to bloop out. I covered a few rises for no gain, while Jase at the bottom of the run hit a good fish that jumped all over the place before being landed after a few frantic minutes.
Back at the hut we relaxed on the balcony before hitting the hay relatively early; tomorrow would be a big day.

What a balcony - indoor/outdoor living at its finest!

I was awake before 5 and got the kettle on. We ate quickly and hit the road – needing to be first on the water means no sleep ins. Our travels took us through territory old and new, in my early twenty’s as a travelling sales rep I’d visited some of the spots we passed, and flicked a fly around. We parked and got walking. The scenery was stunning as the forest began to wake up. The sun poked its nose over the ranges and we rigged up. It was still cool in the shadows but what a cracker of a day! Still clear skies – spotting would be at its best, but would still be difficult given the nature of the water. I can’t give a blow-by-blow, but good presentations got results and we landed a large number of fish. And what fish they were! The fights were often epic, with the most epic of all being a nice ‘bow that hit me in heavy water at the head of a pool before powering downstream around a rock the size of my truck. I ran upstream and then crossed the deep water to the rock, frantically trying to get enough slack to ‘cast’ the line over the rock... no joy, any slack I put in the system was gobbled up by the bow…. By now my line was gone and I was well into backing… and then Coch waded out and climbed the rock. 

Trying to free the line involved him hanging over deep water unhitching the backing from a protrusion on the boulder around which the line was snagged. Finally it came free and I got my first few winds of line back on the reel. Meanwhile Coch was crossing back when he upped-and-overed, completely saturating himself. Getting soaked in the line of duty… it wasn't exactly summer down here… anyway the fish finally came to hand and a nice 4lb jack was released to do his thing. Coch took off his wet gear and removed the cotton layers before climbing back into waders and putting his raincoat over top to cut any wind chill. We got back to it and over 10 hours fished our way through stunning waters that challenged both wading and angling skills. By midday my dodgy knee was grinding but was easily ignored, as we tandemed upstream fishing likely water. For a longish period mid-afternoon I couldn’t find a fish, but Coch seemed to be able to ‘magic’ fish out of their lairs regularly enough. Then it changed for me again and my zen returned. We lunched by a big pool where Coch and I both landed browns in the inflow; his fish was spotted sitting in a slack current and ate his mayfly nymph, mine was hidden by a curtain of bubbles and gobbed down a big stonefly.

We forged ahead and late in the afternoon turned around; 10 hours of current bashing over slippery boulders and I was feeling it. The walk down took a good 90 minutes at a brisk pace; my concentration was dropping at times and I arsed over on several occasions. Soon we arrived at our hop out point and decided to fish the final pool. Mid way up I got stuck into a trout that ran and ran out into backing; the last I saw of the fish was a bow wave and tail wakes as it screamed through shallow water before busting me on a rock.  At the car we dropped in our gear and drove back to base. I was stuffed and hit the hay before darkness had fully set in… epic day…

You know now and again you get a sniff of big fish waters here, hear a whisper there… well I’d heard a tale of a stream that was relatively untouched, held good numbers of fish, was hard to access… in short, we needed to go and find out what was there. And go we did. It took a decent amount of searching to find the rumoured goat track down into the gorge, and that was after finding the damn river in the first place. The goat track was a barely discernible path that no self-respecting goat would use, and given that the gorge was at least 30m of sheer drop it was heart stopping stuff getting down. But my god, when we did… what a magical little stream. Just downstream of our landing point a sun dappled basin with a hard rock bottom just screamed TROUT!!! So Coch wiggled down keeping behind low scrub. I sat upstream, camera in hand. Soon he signalled that a fish was in residence and his 2nd or third cast produced a strike – but only from a tiny little fellah that was horsed out and released. When the big guy bit, I called out to Coch as I saw his jaws open and close on the nympyh and the strike was perfect. The trout fought hard in the depths of the pool and it took a couple of attempts to get my net under the fish.

What a perfect little place… we moved upstream, prospecting each likely run, finding nothing at home until under a veil of spray tumbling down into the crevasse I found a fish in a dark lie. We moved onwards finding stunning water but no fish. Obviously the population there is seasonal and we’d struck it wrong with our timing. We decided to explore for new access points which involved a pretty scary climb out of the ravine… Coch went up like a got. I climbed like a barrel full of lead, broken down rod clutched in a death grip. By the time I hauled myself over the top lip of the gorge I felt a wee bit relieved, a lot dirty and moderately puffed.

We drove around looking for access points and after an hour of dead ends pulled the pin. Back at base we gave the hut a big clean up, packed down and got going. Awesome way to blow off the cobwebs and get the kit ready for what’s coming next….