October 08, 2022
That late spring and early summer we got to fish a lot of still water. There wasn’t much choice. Like ocean breakers crushing over a lonely rock, one westerly storm after another came in from the sea and swamped the island country, turning the rivers into dirty torrents. These waves were spaced two to four days apart so the rivers never fully cleared, before discoloring again and rising at alarming rates.
But within each storm cycle there was usually a day of calm, like a gap between the planetary breaths, and these we took with gratitude because, if you’re into sight-fishing, they were the only times to make it happen. These were the days of stillness and crystalline beauty, with all the dust washed out of the air so that the world was crisp and fresh, and often touched with new snow which came on the tail end of the storms.
The trout too seemed to take advantage of these days, and along the edges of lakes they were plentiful and hungry. I spent one of those halcyon days with my friend Craig Smith, a Wanaka guide and—by necessity if not quite by choice—something of a stillwater expert.
A year earlier, his twin daughters were born on the opening day of the fishing season and from the hospital ward he sent out a group text which read: “Two perfect females, 5½ and 6 lbs.” Replies congratulating such stellar start to the season—good catch and a couple of keepers—poured back. Someone even suggested he’d name the girls Rainbow and Brook.
Craig is a rarest kind of a fishing guide, always under-promising and over-delivering, and so little wonder that, come fishing season, he is booked out, with all his spare time devoted solely to his family and the newly found delights of fatherhood. But a disciplined man that he is, Craig still takes his days off and I so get to fish with him then.
That day at mid-morning, when the light was just high enough to start seeing fish, we had a quick scout at the northern end of Lake Hawea. A slight breeze corrugated the water and it should have helped our shenanigans, but the trout there appeared uncommonly wary. They milled about, agitated and shying from anything we cast at them, often even before the line hit the water.
“Looks like everyone else has been trying here too,” Craig said. “Let’s scoot across and find some fresh water.”
Next, we were ploughing a deep wake across the lake, heading for the less accessible eastern shore. We saw the first fish even before the boat nudged into the sandy bank. Craig whipped out his rod, cast, hooked the fish and promptly lost it.
“That’s more like it,” he turned to me with a wide grin. “Let’s go for a walk.”
The lake was glassing out now, with only moving skeins of opaqueness, like breaths of frost, marring its surface wherever the dying wind touched it. The sun was high, the sky cloudless and this made for perfect visibility. There were fish everywhere, moving slowly through the shallows, each one attended by the twin of its shadow, so crisp and defined you could see all of its fins. The shadows appeared bigger and sharper than their owners and it was easier to look for them first, then let the eyes travel up to find the fish that cast it, its elaborate camouflage suddenly useless, betrayed by the spotlighting effect of the sun.
Among the submerged boulder fields that made up the littoral zone of the lake the trout followed the contour of the shoreline, often less than a meter out. They moved with dignity and poise picking off nymphs with surgical precision. But wherever there were weed beds, every sandy patch of the bottom within them had a fish lying doggo, fins splayed out on the sand, unmoving like a statue. I had always taken such fish for ones who are resting and who, not feeding, would not be interested in a fly. But now Craig dispelled this misconception.
“They are not resting at all,” he said. “They’re ambushing bullies, lying still and camouflaged, until a bully swims within a striking range. Just watch.”
[“Bully” is a common term for the “cockabully,” a native New Zealand fish 1 to 2 inches long, of which there are at least 40 species. The Editor.]
Sure enough, within moments there was a burst of sediments over one of the bare patches among weeds. It happened so fast we had to extrapolate that what we had just witnessed was a snake-like strike and a gulp. Even before the puff of sand dissipated the fish was already on the bottom and motionless again, back in its statue mode, but poised for another attack.
Casting at such trout is a mistake that only perpetuates the illusion the fish is not feeding, Craig explained.
“Cast at it, or even near it, and you’ll spook it for sure,” he said.
The thing to do was to cast a bully imitation several meters off to the side, then slowly, with short deliberate strips of the line, parade the fly into the trout’s field of vision.
“In still water, trout are often triggered into attack mode by the little puffs of sediment the bully or the nymph make as they move along the bottom,” Craig said. His bully was tadpole-sized, big-eyed, milky-white, semi-translucent. And heavy. Each time it was lifted off the bottom it produced the desired puff of sand.
The exact imitation of the movement takes practice and, early in the day, having not matched it correctly I had several fish ignoring my fly completely. Some were interested but still not committing, coming back for another look, before suddenly blurring off at speed for the safety of deep water.
My casting was tolerable, but every now and then the muscle memory from a winter of using a heavy shooting-head line kicked in and my line came down like a falling tree, scattering fish in all directions.
“Yes,” Craig said, standing up after one such bungled ambush, “it’s definitely presentation, not detonation.”
It didn’t matter. There were so many fish and so many opportunities, we were often at a loss as to how to cast to one trout without scaring off several others. Maybe the days of foul dispiriting weather sharpened our appreciation because we both had a keen sense of just how perfect everything was. Whatever else was going on in our troubled world, all was well here and now.
There was not another boat on the lake, not a sound of a car anywhere. From our perspective Mount Aspiring showed its classic Matterhorn profile, sharp like a shark’s tooth, and the reflections of other mountains in the water were so crisp it seemed the entire world was perfectly still and we and the trout were the only ones moving within it.
Past midday, we sat on a large rock overlooking a well-defined bay of fine trout terrain, ate our sandwiches while Craig brewed up coffee, barely taking his eyes off the water. When you’re fishing with him even lunch is a form of sitting in ambush.
“You and Ella okay?” he asked. We had both seen each other through past misadventures of the heart.
“Touch and go,” I said. “More go than touch, actually. Bit of a stalemate.”
“Who’s the stale mate then?”
“Well, we both try our damndest, but sometimes it just doesn’t work.”
I didn’t know anymore. After a combustive reunion it had only taken a few days for both of us to fall back into the old behavior. Conflicts, walkouts, and loaded silences. Tears. All seemingly over nothing. Men from Mars, women from Venus? More like from different galaxies, light years apart.
“If you want to, you’ll find a way,” Craig said, never stopping to scan the water. “The question is not if you can but whether you want to.”
Just then, both in the same instant, we saw a fish cruising toward our lunch rock, moving with deliberate slowness as if dragging the burden of its large shadow.
“Jeez, that’s a beauty,” Craig whispered. “Get in there, mate, it’s your turn.”
It wasn’t, but I didn’t argue. Over the rocks we fished nymphs, not bullies, and I had a tried and proven set-up on, supplemented at Craig’s insistence with the tiniest of yarn indicators. I laid out a cast on an anticipatory course with the fish, straightened the line and let it settle.
Crouched on the rock, shoulder to shoulder, we watched the fish approach.
“Give it a twitch now,” Craig whispered, and I did. From where we knelt we could see the puff of sand the movement had stirred.
The fish turned and in delicious slow motion we saw it come in, then up, rising to the surface, eyeing the yarn indicator, nosing it, poised for a take.
“Get outta here,” Craig laughed, “he wants to take it for a dry.”
Just then the fish saw the nymph, and its lithe body coiled and turned for it, dipping down. An instant later the indicator followed it under. I lifted the rod and the water erupted with a fighting fish.
The battle was swift and confined. I kept the fish splashing while Craig leapt in to net it. We did not want it to run and spook the rest of the bay. Not exhausted by the fight, the trout shot away in a blur of gold as I upturned the net. Moments later the ripples of splashes and wading subsided, and our world was again perfectly still. Just the two of us and the lake full of trout.
Derek Grzelewski is also the author of The Trout Diaries: A Year of Fly Fishing in New Zealand (Stackpole Books, 2013).