I saw a nose.
Neurons fired, linking visual data to cognition, memory to muscle. Just seconds before, as I plucked the big dry fly from the water, something happened. Something altered the surface. I sort of set, but by now, long milliseconds later, I was calling it a back cast.
Dull olive fly line settled to the ground at my right, snaking down into the cobbles.
It was right there, about a foot off the bank, just upstream of that dark grey… It was a fish…wasn’t it?
Absolutely no omen from our recent past would bespeak, nor any one of my 3 dispirited comrades, believe it could be a fish. I could not believe it.
Spencer had caught one brown, days earlier. Bryan, Jeff, and I hadn’t raised a single real fish between us for days.
Our morning had been spent in now predictable fashion, walking and walking, staring and staring, at perfect gravelly river beds, devoid of fish.
Our expectations, especially the certainty of finding fish, had drifted off days earlier, replaced by the depressive and tangible resignation to the reality of our situation.
I know what a fish looks like…
Any routine ripple or wave could easily mimic the upward push of fluid that precedes a trout taking a dry fly. That serendipitous appearance of a wide brown trout snout meeting with your fly’s drift, common at home, wasn’t possible here and now.
All the pre-supposed splendor of a New Zealand fly fishing trip was feeling like movie magic; smoke and mirrors for ticket sales, tourists, and suckers with expensive fly rods from abroad; much more Middle Earth than place where memories are made.
Yes, all the testimonials and even past experience had taught us this wasn’t to be a usual fishing trip, nor a usual trout stream. We didn’t expect big numbers. We knew you can’t just blind cast to nice looking water and expect fish to appear, not here. But, the water looked so impossibly idyllic. There should be a fish or two, somewhere, eventually.
No… that was a wave. I’m seeing what I want to see. Just bored. Or crazy… just a bit?
The light was dim, grey, and flat. Heavy clouds and chutes of rain filled the upper valley. Visibility was crap and visibility is everything here. It’s your only hope.
Visibility had been incredible on Day 3.
We had meticulously stalked over 3 miles of the most pristine forest stream that even the most creative of artists could envision. Sapphire runs, diamond-clear riffles, and turquoise pools poured themselves calmly over light dappled freestones, cutting a winding path through the beech-green canopy, accompanied by the soundtrack of songbirds found here, and nowhere else.
By early afternoon, this, the most incredible trout fishing scene I’d ever beheld, had yielded exactly zero fish.
We abandoned a sublime river in favor of a punishing march out of the backcountry.
On Day 2 and 3 combined we hiked more than 26 miles, with heavy packs. I had been stung by bumble bees four times.
This trip isn’t working out.
Day 1 had been mostly a drive day. We planned to fish a little but had been rained out. During a quick cloud break we’d scrambled down to a roadside stream and stared into a beautiful bouldery pool.
There were no fish, that we could see; and that was the most hope I’d felt during the entire expedition.
Now I felt pain in my right ankle, chaffing down under, and a growing general fatigue.
It was a fish. Browns like that kind of water. Of course it was a fish.
It was now Day 5, actually Day 5.5. I had yet to catch a brown, or even draw a strike, on New Zealand’s South Island, the most spectacular setting for a fly fishing film ever framed up in a lens.
The only consolation was that we were still in New Zealand. It is stunning and it is unlike anywhere else. Awe is a natural emotion, second nature after a while, developing with a casual glance in nearly any direction.
New Zealand is a new place with a tactile energy. Nature and culture are actively working things out right before you. Processes are underway, fueled by geology, economy, and spirit. Fluid swirls of clouds are only the most noticeable evidence of flux. Mountains are moving. Plants, animals, people, wanted and unwanted, show up and weave their way into the wooly fabric of the place. Infant rivers change course, nudged in new directions by matter-of fact seismic events. Like most everything else in this land, the trout are new too. They’re still growing and pushing, all bullish and beefy, into new niches now theirs.
I’ve never felt like this… so sore… seriously sore. Is this how “old” feels?
Here we were on Day 5.5 with nothing to show for months of planning, nothing to justify costs, nothing to post online, nothing to inspire. The situation was desperate; four tired, middle-aged men, aging, aching, failing to fit into this new place.
We couldn’t feel this bad at home. Far up in the Uintas, somewhere in Montana, or deep in BC. No matter how far we went into a North American wilderness, we would know how to find fish.
I should probably cast there again… just to check.
With the approaching rain, the accelerating buzz had passed annoying and pegged at oppressive. We’ve got bears. We have mountain lions. We even have wolves. But none of these, neither our slow deer flies, nor sucky mosquitoes, are any kind of match for sand flies, the South Island’s most prolific predator in terms of total biomass and general obstreperousness.
I noticed my hands were speckled with bright red bumps as I picked sections of fly line from the rocks around my feet.
How much worse can I itch?
Everyone else on earth and Instagram seemed able to easily wander their way, with nothing but hope, into this newest part of earth, and find remarkably large, young, healthy, vibrant fish. We’d practically drunk the YouTube videos, the Facebook posts, the #flyfishnz Instapics, and read the blogs, sharing links gleefully by group chat. But by now everything in this new world had started to seem like that technology we would never grasp.
Day 5.5 was moving toward Day 6 and I’d kicked a million rocks. I was tired. My feet hurt. Several toenails were black. The look on my face, probably my appearance in general, was growing old as the spent hills of Appalachia and crotchety as the residents.
I could see age and aches in my friends’ faces as well.
Sand flies, miles, and too many false casts had worn us low and sedimented fate about our swollen ankles and sore feet.
I swear I saw a nose.
On Day 2 I had seen a fish. Forty pounds of backpack and I had stumbled all tired and fly-bit up close to a sandy river edge where a long brown trout stared back at me with big fixed eyes and a fluttering tail portending our parting. By the second futile false cast the fish had slipped into deep water.
Other shadows, rocks, logs, and swirls had not been fish. I had directed a cast at every one and been met by cadaverously still objects, made to look alive only by the deceitful combination of current, turbulence, and light.
This movie was droning on in hopeless dialogue, dragging.
Ok. I’m going to try to cast to that spot again — just to see.
All of it, barren aquatic environs, age, pain, itch, notwithstanding, I somehow, in some way only an old angler understands, suspected something alive swam under that steely grey surface. Trout are still trout, even if there aren’t very many. Instinct or something like it screamed, that in that spot, just upstream from the rock, on the soft edge of that deep run, there may just be a gilled and golden creature, like those I know from home.
I pulled against the loose line on the ground and forced it back high into the air. Two hauls later, after a long pause to straighten a long leader, I laid the fly just upstream of the spot.
Fish — FISH — FISSSHHH!
Relieved, and finally taking big breaths of sweet southern air, I was a kid in canvas shoes feeling tugs of the very first trout I’d ever caught.
Only this one was 2 feet long and toothy.
New places are worth the trip, worth the preparation, worth the walking, the money, the pain, the struggle, the patience, the time; worth it all.
Our past is a gorgeous misty stream, a long exposure we once waded.
It’s enjoyable to look back at the photographic effect, but only the present is ours. It’s crisp, in focus, within easy casting distance. And despite the aching age-worn vessel that bears us here, there are remarkable fish, with new cool rivers to keep them.