Mental Vacation, Reflecting on New Zealand

At this time I think we could all use a little mental vacation. It is just about a month since we flew back to the states, but with everything happening in the world it seems like a lifetime. There is no better way to be transported than by a talented writer, and in my opinion my wife has the amazing skill to paint a picture with her words that takes you to another place. This is a piece she wrote about half way through our trip and is a reflection on how we spent our weekends, me exploring the rivers and her and Jessie road tripping around the South Island:

A cloud of dust travels behind us on this early afternoon and I have a ceramic cup with tea on the seat console and a few perfectly ripe apricots, for a snack on the road.  Jessie holds her own bottle now, but has learned to prop it up on a stuffed bird doll so she can recline, hands free to practice waving, while the gold hills and dark mountains with the rainy mist just breaking up, go by.

More than halfway through our time in New Zealand, this is how our weekends have been spent. Dropping John off with his fly-fishing gear for one, maybe two nights, in the backcountry then retrieving him two or three days later, sunburnt and full of stories of fish stalking. Jessie and I come back to the house we’ve been staying at if we are needing routine and quiet – a reliable napping schedule, good reading spots in the sun, and a kitchen sink view of Fiordland as cherries the size of small plums, blueberries, peaches, nectarines and kiwifruit are chopped up and brewed for baby food – or we day-trip around this region of the South Island to see friends, on farms with bleating, newly-weaned lambs or in the beach towns with the smell of kelp and coal fires on drizzly mornings.

For two weekends in a row, I’ve taken Jessie down to the beach where I used to run, where the sea is three shades of blue under a pretty consistently grey sky with lighthouse in the distance. She loves books now, and will alternately turn their pages and gnaw on the bindings. But at the pub where I used to get my mail, Jessie and I propped ourselves against bean bags with our books-of-the-moment: Emily Perkins’ The New Girl, for me, and God Made Friends and Peek-A-Boo for Jessie. I had a mug of the same cheap beer I drank there in my late 20s and battered blue cod. Jessie had her bottle and the carrot banana teething rusks that taste like cardboard. We waited for a friend there, the sound of the sea on the other side of the pub, enjoying the shade of the flax bush and cabbage tree above us, but there was the ghost of myself there too, when we all went for a walk down the street to the old crib I once lived in, which was now in the process of being torn down.

I feel like I’ve been taking Jessie on these backward journeys of nostalgia, while John is forging ahead through new and fresh adventures, learning something new every hour, it seems. When I’d see him at the end of a day of fly-fishing in Montana, I’d hear his stories, and care because it was what had happened to him during the day – and I love him and want to hear about his day. But really, fly-fishing for him in Montana got to be a little bit like hearing how someone went to a buffet. It is plentiful, there is usually enough for everyone to go around, and it’s just a question of what and how much.

Here, John comes back to us with epic, heroes’ journey kind of fly-fishing stories. There is struggle. There is heartbreak. Reserves of patience and resilience are called upon. Ninja-like skills are used when approaching a creek. Sometimes there is strange and fierce competition with other lone anglers. Sandflies. Soaring beauty. Storms. Flooded rivers. New fishing buddies.

When I pick him up, I have a few beers stuffed in the diaper bag, a plum or two, and a salty bag of chips. I’ve loved baking again, and sometimes I’ve had ginger crunch slices and lavender shortbread – the farm cooking that my aunt used to do for us – in a cookie tin that I’ll bring along. I set Jessie in the grass on a blanket while John unloads his pack and throws it in the back of the car, so she can wave her arms excitedly at him and roll around before the journey back to the house. Then we take off. John always sits back in the passenger seat, cooing at Jessie for a bit, before taking a bite of any treats I’ve brought him. I drive, letting him slowly start his story at his own pace. But I can’t wait to hear how it went. In the beginning of the summer, there were weekends like this that were a complete bust. As he’s grown to know these rivers and master a completely new way of fly-fishing – which is more similar to hunting – there is triumph and awe in these stories. He is in one of the wildest areas of a wild country and he is making it his own. His stories thrill me.

The South Island has always been a place in my own history. It is where I spent most of my 20s and 30s and maybe because of that, there is a lot of looking back in places that are weighty with memories, good and bad, on my own.

When I pick John up with Jessie, there is this freeing exhilaration of growing and learning in a place alongside them. It makes this land that I used to know like the back of my hand, fresh and new to me too.

Challenges & Rewards of Southland

My Recent Adventures Fishing in New Zealand

Fly-fishing is hard. Fishing a new river for the first time can be very hard. Fly-fishing the South Island of New Zealand on my own is one of the most challenging tasks I have experienced in the sport.  

We are based in Te Anau in the Southland Region.  Within a 100 mile radius (kilometers to the Kiwis) there are literally hundreds of streams and thousands of miles of river banks to explore.  On average, each of these streams hold anywhere between 50-500 fish per kilometer and a large number of those fish could be the fish of a lifetime.  In a sense it could be compared to finding a needle in a haystack when first starting to explore all of this water.

While fishing over the last couple of weeks I have discovered that three scenarios are likely:

-After finding a random access point on the map you start blind fishing upstream from the car and within 200 yards of where you started, you hook and land one of the most stunning Rainbows that you have ever seen.

-While exploring a world famous stretch of river, you spot heaps of monsters Brown Trout, that you estimate could range from 6-10 pounds.  Unfortunately, you spook more fish than you have the opportunity to cast to.  

-You spend hours studying topo maps and Google Earth and discover stretches of river that are bound to be promising.  After hiking 5-8 miles of river with some of the most picturesque and idyllic pools and riffles you end the day with sore legs, not spotting one trout.  

Through the last month I have experienced each of these situations and anything in between. Funny enough, the first scenario happened on my first day fishing on the trip.  Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes!

Besides the vastness of the area there are a few other factors that add to the challenge of fishing Southland.  Given the trout populations, gin-clear waters and the behavior of Kiwi trout, sight fishing is the most effective technique to target these trophies.  Sight fishing is a whole new ball game for me after fishing the Blue Ribbon Trout Streams of the west throughout my life.  First, you have to approach the likely holding spots slowly, with stealth, so you don’t spook any fish that might be there.  You have to find the best viewing spot to leverage the angle of the sun, eliminating glare, giving you the most visibility, all while not blowing your cover.  You have to locate the fish, trying to identify any movement, every rock, any shadow or slight disruption in the pool.  After verifying the trout – which could take seconds or minutes of observation – you have to overcome the excitement and nerves to make a good presentation.  If you have no response to the pattern, Kiwis believe in changing the fly after 1 or 2 drifts, all while not spooking the fish with a sloppy cast or movement of your shadow.  

At this point of the process the next challenge lies in casting long leaders (10 up to 15 feet) typically rigged with a heavy nymph on the end while carrying 30-50 feet of line at some points.  After spending all summer and most of the fall holding a set of oars, instead of the rod, the learning curve with casting this rig has been steep.  By following the advice that I give to most clients – slow down the cast and to have a long pause at the back stopping point –  I have become more accurate and precise with presentations. 

Aside from these challenges, there are numerous rewards fishing in New Zealand.  Just like any fly-fishing outing there is much more to the experience than catching fish.  There is the reward of the do-it-yourself adventure, the stunning beauty and scenery in the landscape, the motivation of what might be in the next pool or day dreaming about a pint and fish n’ chips to end the day.  But for me the biggest motivation and reward are the big smiles of my wife and daughter that greet me after an overnight exploring the backcountry.    

With about seven weeks remaining in our adventure I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of Southland fishing opportunities, but I have already learned so much.  I keep telling myself that putting in the time will pay off.  I must continue to build on these experiences, continue to explore new areas and keep cataloging bits of information learned through chatting with other anglers on the rivers or talking to friendly locals.  All the while, keep reminding myself to drive on the left side of the road.  Cheers, mate!

Time Flies

It is the most amazing experience watching the passage of time through the growth of my little girl. Every summer seems to fly by but this summer has gone faster than any other before.

It started in May, full of anticipation and uncertainty. During my first couple of guide days through the end of the month, half of Southwest Montana was on high alert just incase Gwyneth had to be rushed to the Hospital. I was expecting to be flagged down on the river and to be rowing like crazy to get to the boat ramp and driving like a mad man to Missoula, but thankfully our little girl cooperated and I didn’t have to cut any guide days short.

Then in June, Jessie Blythe made her grand entrance. An uneventful Friday night at home was interrupted by Jessie starting to make her big move into the world. After Gwyneth’s water breaking, we quickly found a dog sitter and made the hour and a half drive to Missoula. After a stressful 13 hours we finally met our beautiful little girl. The rest of the month was really kind of a blur. Gwyneth and I trading off night shifts to watch Jessie, each of us filled with a combination of sleeplessness, amazement and joy. Both sets of Grandparents visiting; bringing car loads of gifts and foods, giving a helping hand and admiring their new grand baby. Meanwhile, I was headed back to the river, catching the end of the Stone Fly hatch on Rock Creek and spending a few days on the Missouri.

By July guide season was in full swing. I was busy bouncing back and forth between the Big Hole, Bitterroot and Madison Rivers while Gwyneth and Jessie were figuring out a routine. These were also my first nights away from home and realizing how quickly Jessie would grow and change in just a few days. One of my favorite songs over the last couple of years took on a new meaning and truth, Sturgill Simpson: Welcome To Earth (Pollywog). While I was away Jessie went on her first big adventure with Mom, flying to California to visit her grandparents and to be introduced to more family and friends.

August brought the dog daze of summer along with Jessie continuing to experience her firsts. My grind continued by having memorable days on the Big Hole, Blackfoot, Rock Creek and Bitterroot Rivers. The highlight being a rainy day on the Big Hole while netting the first “grand slam” in my boat; a happy client catching a Grayling, Brook Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Brown Trout and Rainbow Trout all in one day. But the biggest highlight was introducing Jessie to the river for the first time. Although the outing to Rock Creek didn’t last long, she had a quick nap with the soothing sounds of the water and cool river breeze and saw her Dad casting and frustratingly missing fish on a hopper.

Through September summer quickly turned into fall and Jessie’s personality started to emerge. While having some clients based in Philipsburg I was always looking forward to coming home at night to see Jessie’s happy, smiling face; her eyes lighting up as I sing a silly song and her beginning to make up her own language and starting to babble back to Mom and Dad. In my days on the water the signs of Fall started to appear with some big, and colorful, Brown and Brooke Trout finding the net. Near the end of the month we took advantage of our last warm Sunday afternoon and took Jessie out on the boat for the first time, enjoying Georgetown Lake for a few hours.

Now, in what seems like the blink of an eye, it’s October. I have wrapped up the last couple guide days of the season and am starting to spend more time at home hanging out with Jessie. We have started to go on walks with the dog, sample solid foods, sing songs and dress up in Broncos gear while learning all about Football; enjoying every minute while hoping that time can start to slow down just a little bit.

Evolving as an Angler

Recently I have been reflecting on how the sport of fly-fishing changes as we evolve as anglers. In the beginning all I wanted to do was catch one fish on a fly rod. After getting a few trout to the net I was concerned with numbers; catching as many fish as possible using any technique and fly pattern. Next I started hunting for big fish. Joining crowds of anglers fishing areas known for migratory large trout. Since becoming a guide I have realized that scenery, setting and company are more important than size of trout or numbers. Which still holds true for any day on the water.

Good Friends on a Beautiful River

Over the last year I have concentrated on perfecting techniques and have dedicated more time to fishing streamers. After getting over the hardest step of committing to streamer fishing, I have started to learn the nuances of streamer presentation and the thrill of an aggressive take on a large fly.

Streamer Eating Brown Trout

Following this last winter, after dedicating more time to fly tying, I have taken pride in catching fish on my own patterns. Inventing, or fine tuning, a fly pattern helps pass time through a cold winter, but once you start catching fish on that fly it is extremely rewarding.

The “McKinnie” Zonker

This evolution process is one of the big reasons that I am passionate about fly-fishing. It is an ongoing cycle and there is no final destination to the journey. This evolution can happen on any given day of fishing, just hoping for one fish to make the day; or it can happen when targeting new species, or discovering new locations.

My first Northern Pike on a fly from a recent trip

As my wife and I are expecting our first child in the coming weeks I have been reflecting on this idea of evolution and change. In a way fly-fishing brought our family together. Pursuing the sport prompted my move to Montana where I eventually met my beautiful bride. On one of our first dates we went fishing on the Gallatin River in the dead of winter. Now, with fly-fishing as my career, we have started our little family. I can’t wait to watch my daughter grow and eventually introduce her to the sport that I love.