November 08, 2011
By John Randolph
One evening while scouting a small spring creek near Hokatika on the South Island of New Zealand, I stood searching upriver for rises. Charra beds lay in an even blanket at my feet and spread upriver as far as I could see. The water spread in a thin shimmering sheet across the beds and purled quietly in clear, pebble-bottomed depressions, the ideal holding spots for feeding brown trout. Sheep baaaed as they clattered across a wooden bridge downstream; rain clouds lowered darkly over ragged, shining mountains to the east; and the sun sank slowly at the ridgeline to the west. All was quiet except for stream murmurs, sheep talk, distant cowbells, and the occasional "plup" of trout.
As I watched, a movement six feet from shore caught my eye. A large dorsal appeared and then disappeared, then a dorsal and tail. I froze. The distance between the dorsal and tail told me enough. I stood then and watched as the dorsal and tail moved upstream atop the charra, toward a depression, and then disappeared in the deeper water.
Wading slowly on the weeds to cushion the noise of my feet, I crossed the stream, pausing to look for riseforms in the depression. As darkness fell, a riseform appeared, then another, but I did not cast. I returned to my streamside cottage and thought about those trout over a glass of pinot.
The next afternoon I visited the stream, waded upstream in search of trout in the depressions and in the clear runs above, but could see no large fish. I decided that the massive trout I had seen swimming across the charra was moving up from the deep sheep-bridge pool below to feed on the evening rise, and probably did so each evening at the same time. I decided to be there that evening.
When I reached the stream after dinner, I remained far back from the banks, searching for a large dorsal or tail moving along the charra. The sheep clattered and baaaed in chorus, crossing the bridge below, clouds still lowered on the mountains to the east, and the sun shone brightly as it dipped beneath the clouds toward the horizon. The glare blinded me despite my Polaroid glasses.
Then, shading my eyes with my hand, I could see two large snouts breaking the surface glare, and behind each maw, a dorsal and a tail. I estimated the two fish at over 24 inches long and each over five pounds.
I decided to wait until the sun sank just below the ridge. Otherwise it might reflect light from my rod or glasses if I moved forward to cast to the nearest fish.
As I waited . . . five minutes, ten, twenty . . . I watched the two trout feeding, relaxed and happy, on caddis emergers as they popped to the surface in the film of the small depression. They were feeding carefully but ranging rather than holding station in a feeding lane, moving this way and then that, foraging on the popping emergers.
It was relaxing just watching happy, experienced trout enjoying themselves feeding in the twilight, and I thought about just letting them continue as the light fell.
My hands shook as I held the tiny CDC caddis emerger up to the sky so I could see the 4X tippet through its tiny eye. It took repeated hunt-and-pokes to finally penetrate the hole. There. Then I worked with deliberate care, holding the fly bend with thumb and forefinger and the two tippet strands with thumb and forefinger on the other hand, then twisting the fly . . . one, two, three, five, six twists. It was like assembling a military rifle blindfolded, by memory and touch. I worried that time was fleeting but dared not light my headlamp for fear of frightening the feeding trout.
After the sixth twist, I urgently held the fly up to the sky once more, and inserted the tippet tag into the gap above the hook eye, then doubled it back as insurance, wetted it, and tightened–smoothly. The takes would be strong, the weight stressful, and the trout's mad dash into the charra abrupt and terminal.
My mind raced with anticipation and worries: Would the terminal knot hold? Were my tippet knots all tied properly (with no overwraps, and lubricated and tightened smoothly and firmly so they set)? How much line loop to leave below the stripping guide for a slip-strike? Could I stop the first bullish run, or would the trout instantly dash into the weeds and break me off? Where should I take the trout downstream for landing, assuming I could turn him? How should I handle this large a fish without a net for release? Mind racing, I forced myself to just do it, casting into the pocket glare where the trout noses lifted and fell. The nearest snout would be my first target.
My first cast of the damp fly landed left and ahead of the snout, but the trout fed to the right and then dropped backward. I gently retrieved the fly, which had drifted downstream of the pocket. I cast again, this time to where I thought the randomly feeding fish would rise. Wrong guess. On my fifth presentation I watched the fly indent into the surface glare, and the snout appeared. I lifted and allowed the slip-strike loop to come taught against a pleasantly throbbing weight.
The fish, a brown trout, rocketed from the glare, streaked downstream toward me and then into a charra channel, where it wallowed. Walking softly on the weedbed, I approached, leaned and gently eased my hand under its ample belly, pressuring the fish against the weeds. Its kype lifted and fell slowly; its belly overflowed my thumb on one side and my four fingers on the other. It was a large elderly male brown trout, with yellow flanks and unscarred gill covers and long-toothed jaws. I estimated it at 26 inches and measured its length against my rod, from butt to two inches above my stripping guide. I cradled it there in the weedy channel until it quickened, then shot upstream into the weedy alleys.
I watched . . . then turned my gaze to the depression. The other trout remained feeding happily, even urgently, on the popping emergers–apparently oblivious to the struggle that had occurred close behind it.
I dried my fly on my shirt, blew on it, dressed it with silicone floatant, and cast 30 feet to the spot between the weeds where I estimated the trout would appear again. Two casts later, the snout appeared where the fly landed, and I lifted.
This trout tore upstream, streaking up a narrow weed channel, peeling into my backing like a bonefish headed off a green flat into blue water. I held my breath. One turn right or left and the weeds would end it.
But after that first blazing run the large trout seemed resigned, and I reeled it gently back down the channel and into the feeding pool where I'd hooked it. Five minutes later I held the female brown trout gently against the same charra bed where I had held the first fish.
She too measured 26 inches, her belly overflowing my cradling fingers. She swam slowly away up the spring creek. I stood watching her go, and the light lower into gloaming, and the constellations above brighten on a cosmic black vault. I finally trudged slowly across the soft charra beds towards the cottage light in the dark sheep pasture.
The starlight was so bright that I had no need of my headlamp. I placed each step carefully as I approached the lane leading from the river to the cottage, but in watching the starlit heavens, I missed the abandoned wire fencing and caught a boot in midstride.
I felt myself going and, after a brief struggle, gave in to the fall and rolled to break my impact. I landed softly in the puddled sheep lane and lay there, inhaling the urine-sweet smell of sheep manure and recalling the farms of my youth. I relaxed, peering into galactic space in search of the Southern Cross.
"Is that Crux there? Acrux below? Ursa Major? The False Cross? Centaurus?" I wondered. I tried, stupidly, to recall something significant about the southern Milky Way from college astronomy. (Later, Wikipedia explained that, "Emerigo Vespucci mapped Alpha Centauri and Beta Centauri as well as the stars of modern Crux on his expedition to South America in 1501. Crux is important to Australian Aboriginal astronomy. It and the Coalsack mark the head of Emu in the sky in several aboriginal cultures, while Crux itself is said to be a possum sitting in a tree.")
A bottle of pinot waited in the cottage. I raised and untangled myself and stumbled under a dark starry vault, wending my way through bleating sheep, toward my reward.