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Disappearing into the Backcountry

Fly fishing as a cure-all to the world's problems.

Disappearing into the Backcountry

(Al Hassal illustration)

This article was originally titled "Disappearing Act" in the Feb-March 2019 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.

We were three nymph changes into the game: Jennifer thigh-deep in the impossibly clear water of another emerald pool in New Zealand backcountry, laying quiet casts along the current seam, me and our dog Maya high up on the rocks of the opposite bank, camouflaging against them, watching a trophy trout ignoring her flies. We kept the game pure and fair, as we always do—single nymphs and no indicators—and the fish was still happy and undisturbed, feeding with abandon that is a joy to see. It sat in a vein of current formed by two big rocks, in water that was fast and riffled and probably a lot deeper than it looked.

“Maybe you’re not getting deep enough,” I offered. “Put on something heavier.”

“Got just the fly for it, a Two Bit Hooker,” Jen said, tying on. “Watch this!”

For her, the fish was in the glare, but from my perfect vantage point I saw the nymph plopping some five feet ahead of it, and I saw the huge trout swing to the side, an unmistakable sign it has taken something.

“You’re on!” I yelled.

She stumbled back on the strike but steadied herself and the battle began.

“Oh my Gawd! I can’t hold him!”

Each of the trout’s blistering runs was accompanied by Jen’s girly screams, increasing in pitch until the fish stopped. This strategy seemed to work well, though she also used good side pressure, forcing the fish to work hard against the current and the rod.

“Just calm him down now, we’re almost there,” I called, slithering into the water, net in hand.

I was halfway across the current when I heard a sickening ping and Jen’s line snapped out of the water as if in a backcast.

“Noooooo!” her cry echoed off the walls of the gorge. “What did I do wrong?”


I ran the leader through my fingers.

“You did nothing wrong,” I said. “Look!”

The nymph was still on, and the knots were solid but the hook was bent open, almost straight.

What do you tell someone who’s just lost the fish of a lifetime? I held her until she stopped quivering, then said “Don’t worry love, we’ll find you another big fish.”

And we did, just around the next corner.

There was no shortage of good trout in this remote backcountry river, but then we worked for them hard. We four-wheel drove up a long forest track, rode further in on our mountain bikes, hiked on some more, and only then we broke out our fishing gear. It had been days since we saw another angler, another human being for that matter. I won’t bore you with the blow-by-blow account of our fishing prowess or the lack of it, suffice to say big trout was only one of the reasons we were here. It was all a part of a larger and carefully crafted plan, what I’ve come to call “the disappearing act.”

I first discovered fly fishing as a cure-all to the world’s problems a couple of days after 9-11 when, faced with such a monumental human folly, about all I could do was to go to the river. The spring run of rainbows was still on in southern New Zealand, the water snow-cold and the fish plentiful, and so I deemed the therapy a success pretty much from day one.

Later I realized that the effects of this panacea can be multiplied by going remote, and for several days at a time. Somehow, the river world of bugs and trout has come to be more real and true to me than a lot that’s going on in our human society: the theater of daily politics, the incessant noise of mainstream media, meaningless information and celebrity gossip, the economy so blinded by short-term profits it totally disregards the harm it’s doing to the very planet and its ecosystems that sustain us. So, you can imagine, considering the state of the world’s affairs, I’ve been fishing quite a lot, though probably nowhere near enough.

Not that my fishing actually solved any of the world’s problems, but then nothing else I could do would achieve that anyway. What it did do was to shift my attention from what I could worry about or fear to what I love, and that was good enough for me. Your priorities change when in the woods and by the river: to find feeding fish and try to catch them, have a level camp and enough firewood for the evening, enough food, fuel, and firewater, trying not to over-talk it all, and let the river and the woods do the talking instead.

There is ample scientific and medical evidence that, biologically at least, we are still hunters and gatherers, built to move and roam, to live outside, to feel the uneven earth beneath our feet, sunlight on our skin and, I like to think, the river currents against our legs. We have not evolved to live in concrete jungles, swipe touch screens, and watch bad television, to spend our lives in closed air-conditioned spaces under fluorescent lights.

So, in a way, my disappearing act is an­—albeit brief—return to who we really are, or at least supposed to be. It is not running away to hide from the world but going to the source to recharge so that you can come back stronger and deal with things better. And besides, fishing may seem totally meaningless to an outsider, but as the inimitable Robert Traver told us “I fish  . . . not because I regard fishing as being so terribly important, but because I suspect that so many of the other concerns of men are equally unimportant and not nearly so much fun.”

Disappearing into the Backcountry
(Al Hassal illustration)

Come to think of it, a disappearing act does not need to be a multi-day backcountry epic either. Many of my most memorable ones have been 4WD trips out of my Land Cruiser camper. Even with a little bit of topographic research there is an untold potential for such adventures.

“I’m constantly amazed by the perceived wildness and remoteness of the places you take me to fish,” my partner Jennifer, a Colorado native, told me recently as we sat by a campfire on an empty beach. We had just fished all day, and would fish another river tomorrow, but we camped here because of the abundance of firewood and to get away from the sandflies.

If this was Colorado, there would be condos and ‘No Trespassing’ signs everywhere,” Jen went on. “Into any place that has decent fishing, the gazillionaires move in and they buy up huge swaths of land, privatize the access, and effectively make the land disappear to everyone but themselves. It’s a different kind of disappearing act. You don’t really know how fortunate you are here.”

Maybe some of us do. Considering that foreign anglers are prepared to pay upwards of $700 USD a day to disappear on New Zealand trout rivers, and taking into account just how many such days I had for myself over the past three decades, and if that’s what they are truly worth in financial terms, I’m something of a gazillionaire myself, in experiences anyway, if not quite on the bank statement.     

Whether you hike into the wild for days or road-trip in a 4X4, a disappearing act needs certain key ingredients. It has to be a full immersion in the trout world, not a dabble between returns to the lodge, bar, and cell reception. You have your coffee with the sunrise and your firewater at sundown, and you tune into the cycles of insects and fish, the periods of activities, and the times of rest. You wash with the river water and dry off in the sun and the wind. You unplug from the noise of the society—don’t worry, it’ll be there when you come out—and you listen to both outer and inner silences, you turn off all your devices and let the river be your music. It helps if you can disappear with one of your best friends, too, even if that means yourself only.

But don’t get too hung up on the prerequisites and preferences. Go and do it! Allow yourself the gift of doing a disappearing act, even if only for a weekend. Don’t fret about the details, they’ll work themselves out. Life is really a lot simpler out there. The most important thing is to make a start at this unorthodox way of saving the world.   

You see, the kid in the book Into the Wild may have been naive and incompetent in the bush, but his ideals were right and true. We have become so disconnected from our natural world we have forgotten who we are and what is our place in the great scheme of life. To the point that something called Nature Deficit Disorder has become an identified medical condition, affecting mainly children though, considering our lifestyles and increasingly artificial and polluted environments, none of us is totally immune from it.  

So my disappearing act is a way of going back to who we are, a start in undoing the damage. As a popular saying goes “there is no WiFi out there in the woods, but the connection is a lot better.”

We just happen to go there with a fly rod.

Derek Grzelewski is fly-fishing guide, author, and an FFI casting instructor who divides his time between New Zealand and Colorado. He is the author of The Trout Diaries, The Trout Bohemia. and The Trout Dreams. Visit his website at

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