Friday, 31 October 2008

"Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies,": living the fishing dream in NZ

The Tongariro river is world famous for its trout fly fishing. The closest I remember ever coming to holding a fishing rod was scooping for minnows with a green net and cane in the rock pools at the edge of the North Sea. But as you know ´proper´fishing is unbelievably expensive at home. In New Zealand you can buy an annual licence for just over a $100 that allows you to fish in any river anywhere in NZ for no extra cost. Not bad, eh!?
Unfortunately, we seemed to be starting the sport at the deep end. Fly fishing is apparently the highly skilled end of the sport. Like sword fighters, the skill of fly fishing is considered to be more of an art form. By the end of our afternoon we clearly understood why!
Our guide was a lovely old fishing veteran called John Sommervell. He had big rough hands full of cuts and large patches of callous skin from standing waist deep in running water holding on to his tackle for years on end. (Sorry, mum!) His jacket had tens of pockets, all full of essential fishing gear and ´stuff´. He had recently returned from a trip to the rivers in Mongolia fly fishing for taimen, a long distant cousin of trout. He was one of only 3 to catch one. We knew he was good.

He was adamant that we learnt the basics of fly fishing properly. Other guides apparently showed people how to cast off and then took over form the client and caught the fish for them. Waders on, we were READY TO FISH! It was a lot to take in. We learnt all about loading the rod and casting off, then about the ´presentation´of the fly on the water. After about 1 and a half hours of practise we were ready to give the real thing a go. The problem now was trying to coordinate all the things he had been telling us. My mind was a blur. No wonder it takes years to learn and become good at it. He teased us with tails off people who had caught a fish on their first cast. We weren´t to be so lucky. The real difficulty is that you don´t actually feel when you have got a fish on the fly. You have to watch the floating guide like a hawk. If it moves, dips or does something strange, chances are you have a strike. Then, you yank the rod with your right arm and pull the line with your left to hook the fish on the fly. What followed was about 2-3 hours of us both concentrating really hard and then desperately yanking the rod to see if we had a strike. John stood behind us and watched over us, occassionaly screaming ´STRIKE´as an indication that we needed to react. Unfortunately, the reaction time between a strike and reacting with the rod is less than a second. After 5 hours standing in the middle of a fast moving river, neither of us had caught anything. We hadn´t even come close. But John was very complimentary about our casting style and presentation. We both really enjoyed it (I would love to have another go) but today wan´t to be our day.

Fast forward a couple weeks to a boat drifting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the Bay of Island in the North of NZ. This time we were fishing for red snapper. No fancy technique this time, just a rod, a very long line and a bucket of sardines and mullet. More of a waiting game than an artform, we started hooking up some smaller snappers after about an hour. Unfortunately, they were too short at under 30cm to keep and we had to throw them back. Goldfish, the skipper called them!

Another hour passed and still we had caught nothing. The skipper decided to move the boat and change the bait from sardines to the more expensive mullet. Within 5 mins I could feel a much bigger wait on the end of the line. This is the feeling I had been wondering about and waiting all this time for. My mind rushed away with images of the catch and pictures of me arms fully stretched holding the prize. As the hook got near the top of the water, the skipper wondered if it could be a John Dory. When it flipped and splashed itself out from the waves it showed itself to be a a a.. a... SHARK! If only a smallish school shark. Still, I had caught a shark. Cool!. "I think we´re gonna need a bigger boat!" (and more quotes from Jaws sailed around my foolish head). Sadly, the spritely youngster caught itself in Kathy´s line and twisted and jerked itself into such a mess that it took the skipper ten minutes of cursing, swearing and bopping the poor shark on the nose to release it.

Not long after we started getting lucky with some gurnard (they have colourful fins and look more like butterflies). Thankfully we were allowed to keep them. Our dinner tonight was banking 100% on this trip! The skipper dismissed them as carrots. Although it was unusual to catch them, he still wasn´t impressed. His trip in the morning had proved very fruitful for nice large snappers, he felt he was letting us down. The truth was that Kathy and I were overjoyed to catch anything at all after our last trip. We didn´t care. We felt like true seadogs at last!
By the end our total catch between us was 3 goldfish (snappers), 5 carrots (gurnards) and 1 great white (school shark)! The skipper sent us packing with our freshly filleted gurnard and the wings off the snapper he had caught in the morning.
Dinner that night in the camper van was sensational. Mashed tatties, mushrooms and spinach tossed in garlic and pan fried fish (tossed in seasoned flour).
Breakfast was almost even better! The leftover tatties and fish were transformed into fishcakes. With a big dollop of Watties (made by Heinz but spicier) tomato ketchup we scoffed them overlooking the waters where we had done our hunting the day before. I felt amazing, Kathy looked amazing, the fish tasted amazing. Sometimes life does not get any better.

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