Sunday 25 August 2013

The Thredbo, Part 1: The Pool

Georgina Swan with a trout
from the pool ... oddly we 

have never taken a photo 
of the pool itself

There is a pool in the Thredbo River, not in the hustle and the bustle of the gorges and rocky flows that characterise its grand escape from the ski resort of Thredbo, but on the ankle of the township itself where it becomes little more than a stream idling gently amidst tourists, holidaymakers, mountain bikers, skiiers, and fisherman of unknown quality.

Here it is almost quiescent; its falls are no more than the distance from fingertip to elbow, its crystalline essence home to stubborn and rotund ducks which plonk themselves at the feet of those that come to eat at the tables that dot its banks and then act the beggar. Only their plumpness gives them away.

And if the ducks were to look at their feet on the occasions they get wet they would sometimes find that even here in the busiest kilometre in the region they have company. For here live suburban trout. Mostly browns, perfectly camouflaged against the brown rock and sand, they move with the leisure of those at home in such a relatively cramped abode.

And while they aren't quite the length and girth of their larger brethren a few kilometres downstream they lack little in attitude. One fisher mesmerised by these little balls of muscle spent an hour floating black midges over them. Several obliged and tried to run away with the prize and when they tired of this game, the fisher switched to a spin rod and flipped small black celtas upstream. This was fun. Some more ended up with stories to tell their less aggressive mates.

Not far away, where the road finally curves up to the village, a bridge sits to the right, crossing the stream. Straight ahead is a church to the right, a golf course to the left. To the immediate left at bridge end runs a path that snakes through the native bush which absorbs the stream. For the next four or five kilometres it is a constant, heard but not seen, friend.

Ready for release back into the pool
A mere 20 metres down this path, lies the pool. It begins with a shallow flat of crenelated rock in which the trout like to sun themselves on those splendid alpine dawns when the early rays take the pinch from the air and melt the frost from the bushes and trees that line the Thredbo, turning the ground into a sea of tiny trickles each seemingly intent on making it to the big stream. With such simple clarity nature endlessly refreshes the waters.

Within metres the rock slips away to the main body of the pool - no more than eight metres at any given point, it stretches just 20 metres upstream. In its depths dash the city worker trout. Not just a few, but dozens, sprinting hither and thither; business on some days has never seemed better in the branch brushed depths. Yet on others, even those when the temperature is a single digit, the late afternoon hatch full and lasting, and the sky an ever deepening hue that eventually ends a radiant gold as the sun sinks below the mountain tops, even then there is nary a ripple. Perhaps, it is a  public holiday in the pool or perhaps the barometer is falling. Who knows? Trout are moody beasts, at best.

But on the days when the urban conurbation is in full tilt, browns and rainbows alike send streamers across the pool as they chase down a flailing victim. And everywhere there is the splish and splosh of trout on the rise. Small, medium, very occasionally large, they compete with gusto to quench appetites that verge on the insatiable.
Mike holds up a brown trout from the Thredbo several kilometres downstream from the pool

Yet despite the madness - the party continues well into the night - these are not feckless or reckless salmonids. They are smart, at the top of their game, able to spot an imitation fly, no matter how perfect it may be, and snub it for what it is.

Thus one majestic afternoon when dusk began to extend a nail, then a finger or two, and beckon, we made our way to the pool. Hatches drifted, small gatherings - here, there, everywhere along both banks. The trout were rocking and rolling. For 90 minutes we cast fly after changed fly into that jukebox.  Many we're summarily ignored. A white caddis, almost identical to those fluttering a few centimetres away, evoked not a ripple of interest. Small hopper patterns were inspected, sometimes at length, from below, and then spurned. Black midges, mayflys, Greenwell's Glory, all either failed the test or at best would evoke a pop, a splash of excitement or a nudge.

Finally, as night crept in and the last light outlined the restaurant perched perhaps 15 metres back from and above the far shore, one overly exuberant rainbow launched itself at a Parachute Adams, missed completely, but moments later, joy o joy, discovered the black beadhead nymph suspended 60 centimetres below. It would eat yet! The Adams sank, I struck, and it ran, wrestled, flipped and flew.

And from above applause rang loud and clear, like the Gods themselves were unified in their approval. The trout didn't care. I was momentarily flummoxed until I realised that the restaurant's clientele had been watching the title fight with passing interest. The feisty fish in hand I took a bow. How strange this flyfishing game can be!

The manager of the restaurant came to the edge of its decking and declared that in two years he had seen many a fly and spin fisherman come to this pool but all had walked away empty handed. It was indeed a glorious victory, of sorts, for fly fishermankind. Or so it seems.

A classic Thredbo pool and run between the two camping areas downstream from the pool
Over the next few days we spent each dusk and the odd dawn tempting the city trout. Another four, two of each kind, fell but none were taken to that mostly grisly of outcomes, the pan, despite their stocky build and perfect 25-30cm length. There are pannies a plenty for the smoker, elsewhere in the Thredbo.

And a word in the wise to our spinning friends - look elsewhere. I have seen lures of all shape and size tossed at the city trout and they react not a twitch. There are much better waters downstream where celtas, soft plastics and, closer to Lake Jindabyne, even Tassie devils come into their own. Here the fly bests all.

Upstream from the pool, the Thredbo wanders kilometre upon narrow, mostly unfishable, kilometre to its source well past Deadhorse Gap. But there is one last abode, not far from the pool. It is almost humble, a few metres that - after the carpark of kids and suburban trout, the city salmonids in their Atlantis - belongs to the elders, the retirees, big fish of perhaps three or four pounds, living a more sedentary existence. Occasionally, a callow youth will visit, get cuffed, and depart whence it came. They can be watched from another bridge, even targeted with a small rod and little back cast. But all this they have seen before. Many times.

And so we keep revisiting the pool. It has been two years and three trips since we last became better acquainted with a resident but it doesn't matter. There is a greater reflection here, even more than that which sparkles on those still summer mornings and evenings. Life is mirrored endlessly, you see. And no more so than in this kilometre where a hierarchy as obvious as that which governs our own restless lives, exists in a community of trout who must all, at sometime, pass through the pool.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Snowy Mountains mystery: Where did the trout go?

Georgina Swan with one of only two trout caught on a season's end trip - both in Nariel Creek, Victoria

The trout that usually fill the rivers in the Snowy Mountains region of NSW, seemingly disappeared for days - if not weeks - on end, during the last half of the 2012/13 trout fishing season.  MIKE GEE investigates the case of the missing fish.

The refrain was as common as the sometimes mystifyingly empty streams and rivers of the Snowy Mountains and Victorian border country: where have the trout gone, everybody asked, although nobody seemed to want to say it too loud. The whisper was almost deafening at times.

After all, season 2011/12 was blessed by the proverbial abundance, perhaps the best season in five years, although one river, the imperturbable Indi, continued its downward spiral in some areas, a spiral that began up to three years ago. 

But 2012/13, that was a different matter. Some days there were trout; a lot of days there weren't. Take the Swampy Plains River up around Geehi, about 40km down the mountain on the way to Khancoban. It has suffered from heavy recreational fishing and alleged poaching by illegal baiting - dozens of lines attached to a single line strung across the river - for years now. 

We've had several fishermen tell us about a van with Victorian number plates arriving in off-peak periods when the camp grounds are largely deserted and its owners proceeding to commit this atrocity unhindered.

Now whether it, along with the associated recreational pressures on this appealing stretch, has dramatically affected the trout population for the surrounding 15 kilometres is hard to tell but what is concerning is the complete lack of fish in the river both over the Anzac Day long weekend and the season ending Queen's birthday weekend.

No fish: Georgina drifts a run on the Swampy Plains River near Geehi
Over those two periods we tramped the back waters of the Swampy for more than five kilometres and didn't see a fish. To put that in perspective, the previous season on the same weekends we caught a dozen or so and saw many more.

Just as concerning is the slow decline of the Indi from a river where we caught 8 fish in one two-hour morning high country session five years ago, to a river where in that same stretch we have caught 2 fish in the past three years. Even the locals have noticed a changing picture. 

The view from the middle of the
Swampy Plains River
In Corryong, just across the Murray River border in Victoria, one of the region's 40-year flyfishing veterans spent three days tramping the Swampy Plains River in the Geehi area for no fish at all. He simply couldn't believe it. And down at the bottom of the mountain in Khancoban, one of the area's most knowledgeable trout men reported that the salmonids  simply disappeared out of the Indi from below the Spillway right down the run through to Bringenbrong following a warm spell in May. 

Over the top of the mountain, the beautiful Thredbo River fished hot and cold all season - although I enjoyed a six fish purple patch in an early January trip - while 70 kilometres away along the Snowy Mountains Highway and down any number of back roads and trails, the Eucumbene River fished so poorly that three fly men we caught up with over Easter in New Zealand had flown in for 7 days on the Tongariro, Lake Taupo and some of that area's streams so desperate were they to catch fish. This followed what many - including the afore-mentioned trio - regard as one of the best seasons ever on the Eucumbene in 2011/12.

A farmer just outside Khancoban with a property that backs on to the Swampy Plains River just before it runs into Khancoban Pondage - itself the victim of severe draining by the Snowy Mountains Authority this year - told us he hadn't seen a fish in several months, whereas in previous years the stretch had teemed with little trout. He also noted a significant increase in the number of cormorants on the river and the massive rise in the number of Redfin, particularly in the Pondage but also in the Swampy.

Below the Spillway we have noted an increase in the number of introduced Carp in the Indi and watched one young fisherman play a huge specimen on a lure for 15 minutes before losing it.

One of the trout caught on the Swampy Plains River below Khancoban
during the dusk hatch in November 2012

Their presence along with the Redfin certainly threatens the stability of trout in the river. That said we enjoyed a fabulous dusk hatch in November 2012 when hundreds of fish were literally dancing on the water surface for just half an hour. Two platypus swirled and curled amongst them, keen observers of this almost mystical experience. Georgina virtually had a take a cast on a white caddis with a black beadhead nymph dropper and landed three in 15 minutes. The caddis doing the damage. And leading fly fishing guru, Philip Weigal, went to print about a couple of excellent days on the Indi early in the season. 

We've also seen plenty of photos online of big trout caught throughout the fishery in 2012/13 but they are best of the year and don't reflect what so many flyfolks have told us. Finding fish this season was hard. So where did all the fish go? The 2013/14 season will tell a story. If the fish aren't back then there will be cause for concern about the state of this outstanding fishery. And what has happened to dull these once sparkling waters.

It doesn't get much prettier than this  - the Swampy below Geehi ... 
but no fish for kilometres

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Whanganui wonders, Pt 2, Easter 2013

Georgina Swan plays a Whanganui rainbow as Ken Drummond 
moves in to net


It was Easter 2013 and a long localised drought - it hadn't rained heavily for a month - meant the local trout sitting in Lake Taupo waiting for a signal from the Gods to begin their annual spawning run were going nowhere fast and getting fatter by the day, and the Taupo region rivers and streams were down in height but no less enticing.

The Tongariro was getting slimed by an obnoxious green weed which coated the boulders under foot and made wading some sections of the river a somewhat slippery affair. The Whanganui, however, was less affected, but still a little treacherous in parts.

Some 70km from Turangi, the Whanganui River is as broad as the sward through which it forages relentlessly; a flyfisher's dream of endless runs, ripples, pools and drop-offs. If a river could be custom-built for trout then the Whanganui would be it.
Unlike the heavy-hitter further upstream carving its way through forests and farmland alike, here it finds home amid pastures and small towns alike. When it comes to one of the latter then access is usually is easy. 

We spent two days on a stretch of river no more than 800 metres long with our friend and guide, Ken Drummond, who we introduced in part one of this tale. Between us, Georgina and I caught 41 fish - including some rainbows up to 5lbs and plenty of little nippers at the  other end of the scale - and dropped or lost another 12 big ones.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Let's go back a couple of days. When in Turangi we stay at the Sportsman's Lodge. It's on the edge of town, literally next to the river and has everything the do-it-yourself fisher person needs. And it's well-priced.

Fighting a Tongariro rainbow
We got to Turangi a day and a fraction before our two days with Ken. We like a warm-up day to explore and get the casting bugs out (or in my case develop some new ones). And any chance to fish the mighty Tongariro is worth taking. We decided to target the Admiral's Pool because we'd heard rumblings of fish in the area from some fellow Australian flyfishers who had just spent seven days on the river after fleeing their normal river of choice, the Eucumbene, in the Snowy Mountains region, which until very recently had been fishing particularly poorly - following an extraordinary 2011/12 season, one of the best in history. But flyfishing folk grow used to such frustrations, unpredictabilities, and inexplicable mysteries. They simply look elsewhere.

This duo had splendid stories to tell, of fish hooked and landed, and as many lost, including a couple of monsters that strung them up around rocks and snags after ensuring they removed plenty of line, as well. 

Ready for the girls ... a coloured-up rainbow trout
The day dawned fine, even warm, and we hit the river around 9am. The morning's sole victim fell to Georgina who was fishing a double bead head nymph (hare's ears) selection in the riffles just below the pool. It proved a feisty individual, indulging in several death rolls, three or four sprints and some tug-of-war before finally revealing itself as a male rainbow, all painted up and ready to chat up some girls. As you can see from the picture this chap was as red as they get.

A couple of missed chances broke up the run of things but in general it was reasonably quiet. Lunch beckoned so we retired to town by 2.15pm and indulged in a particular vice that lies in wait at Turangi bakery - its fried chicken. Chicken, bakery, odd - yes! But sensational. After that we topped up on flies at Sporting Life, tried to get as much information as we could out of Jared Goedhart, and decided to aim for the evening rise which on the Tongariro really is an evening rise.

On our previous visit in December 2012 we had called it quits about 7.15pm, fishless and uncertain what all the fuss was about. Jared explained it only takes place from dusk to dark - 30 minutes maximum. As usual he was right; as dusk dropped its gentle cloak the fish began to pop. Lots of little tykes, hopping and flipping and flopping, occasionally getting the themselves hooked. Georgina and I both had one, before we pulled stumps due to bad light. However, we did stop for a final unfurl of the line just under the highway bridge where the lights come into play. I had one solid hit and missed and then the 9pm chill forced a final retreat.

Next day dawned a little uninspired and drizzly and Ken was on the doorstep at 8am bristling with his usual energy and bonhomie. A quick stop at Creel Tackle Shop for licences and we were winding our way out of Turangi. Ken chattered away, setting the scene for potentially a day of big rainbows, small fry and a few browns tossed in for good measure.

An hour later we were on a stretch of Whanganui running through private property. By lunchtime I had caught 12 fish, none bigger than 30cm, none smaller than 20cm including my first double-header!

That's Mike in the distance - 20m closer
where he got his double header
Catching a double-header on fly is a bit like winning the lottery - somewhere in the realms of fantasy. Yet there I was in the middle of the Whanganui with a pair of young rainbows on the line. The top one had a hit one of Kenny's home tied size 12 green imitator nymphs at the beginning of the swing after a drift down a channel that had already produced another two fish. Its sibling had jumped on the trailing size 14 black beadhead nymph about 20 seconds later. The end result felt weird. Like I had a large fish capable of moving in two different directions at once. When they both surfaced I fumbled with the Panasonic Lumix FT4 I use - seriously the best small digital tough camera for in and out of water work - and failed to get photographic evidence. Luckily, Ken had witnessed the whole event from his vantage point with Georgina about 40m up stream. 

A nice 4lb rainbow
In the meantime, Georgina usually the most prolific of flyfishers when it comes to plucking trout from a river was strangely quiet ... the odd smaller rainbow but that was it for the first hour. Then she crash tackled a four-pounder which had both her and Ken celebrating. That was the opening salvo. About 25 minutes later, Ken screamed 'big fish on, Michael'. I looked up and saw George's rod bent nearly double and knew she was into a Whanganui rainbow on steroids. I immediately began trudging slowly upstream, keen to be there for the landing. Her landing rate is up around 85 per cent so the chances were good. They were a good 100 metres upstream and I was in some fairly deep water so it was time-consuming work on slippery rocks. 

Lovely fish, Georgina
Meanwhile, the fight was on. The rainbow began by sprinting to the far bank, then much to Georgina's consternation turned around and came straight back at her. George, in her own words then suffered a brain fart and decided to wind, rather than strip, the line in as the trout bore down on her. She rapidly found out speed of winding did not equal speed of trout. With loose line everywhere, she was convinced it had probably spat the hook and was already happily off downstream. To her amazement when she finally got all the line in the muscular salmonid was still there ... idling. 

In the tried and true Ken Drummond way she then applied pressure. This, from the rainbow's perspective, was not a good idea. I was about 30 metres away from her when the water about 15 metres and to my right erupted. A torpedo shot skyward, levelled out about six feet in the air, where it seemingly hung for a good few seconds, before plummeting back in with a resounding splash. I have never seen a trout in real life that fat. Eight pounds minimum, probably 10, it resembled a shiny glistening barrel. It was some fish. 

The arm wrestle continued for a few more minutes but finally it rid itself of that infernal hook and disappeared up the Whanganui. I'd already stopped walking up to them. I knew when it lifted off that nothing was going to halt that rainbow. Ken suggested Georgina fish to the top of the pool, she dissented, so he called lunch break immediately.

Back on dry land, Georgina was still recovering from the battle and the sheer brute strength the rainbow displayed. "I just couldn't stop it," she said. Ken in his normal laconic way, said, "Well that was a big one, hey."

To this day there is picture frozen in my mind of that thumping trout suspended in mid-air parallel to the water. And all of us gawping at it.

So there we were at lunch. Mike 12, Georgina 4. An unlikely score line. 

Georgina plays the first of the afternoon
The afternoon beckoned sunny and playful and Ken stepped us down stream to a run close to the left bank that featured a big pool about three-quarters of the way along. He gave Georgina the honour of that pool first. I gave her some needle and told her if she didn't get a fish in five minutes it was my pool. She got one in a tick over three. It took her longer to get to shore as it tried its best to outmuscle her. A good five-pounder.

Add a five-pounder to the list
Ken fell in love with her when she hooked another five minutes later. "Did you see her strike?," he said. "When she strikes she STRIKES. I love that."  Add a fish just under four pounds to the list. It bounced around a lot and jumped four times.
The object of his admiration proceeded to further demonstrate her striking ability by nailing a third fish within four casts of its predecessor being set free. This one decided that while pure muscle was all well and good, speed was a lethal weapon. So it turned, ignored Georgina's firm rod right and back position and hurtled off downstream taking line with it. She simply couldn't stop it. So Ken took off, net in hand, after it. George followed, maintaining pressure and winding as much as she could. I followed the pair. 

We started 150m away ...
We skated, stumbled and trotted after Ken who was a good 50 metres ahead. About 150 metres from where we started, he darted in to the water and netted the escapee. I was betting on a six-pounder at least, given the amount of line it had peeled, the blistering sprint and 10-minute fight. Ken strode up to us and held up the net ... a two-pounder, if that.

Talk about anti-climax. Truly a Whanganui rainbow on steroids.
But it was just a little guy
We looked at the almost pure silver bullet. It looked back. It looked tired. But back in the water it swam off with no prompting. The three of us trudged back to the pool where the gear sat. Georgina promptly declared her arms were too tired and sore to deal with any more fish. That was a first.

I had a few more casts but we were spent. I had caught 14 fish, Georgina 7 - although the last four she caught combined would have easily outweighed all of mine put together and then some.
The next day began full of drizzle drifting aimlessly down the green streets of Turangi, sloppy low clouds hung on the hill tops and the sky was immaculate in its even grey sheen. By the time we reached the Whanganui we had passed through four different mini-climate areas and were welcomed by milky sunshine. We had only worked half the water the previous day and Ken had some splendid runs and pools left. By lunch Georgina had 11 of the cut-throats under her belt and I had added six. Neither of us had anything larger but the river had changed with some heavy rain overnight lifting the level and flow rate. Still, we weren't complaining.

Over lunch we decided to return to the run and pool that had been so generous the previous day. I hooked but lost four good fish in the first 30 minutes, driving Ken to slight insanity, before landing a two-and-half pounder. The strength each displayed was unnerving.

Mike plays out a two-and-a half pounder in the Whanganui
One sat no more than 10 metres from shore and wrestled me, dared me to try and move it, and when I fell for its ploy, and increased the pressure, it moved a few inches left and cut the too taught line on a snag. Then Georgina missed another three solid specimens before catching two of the bright and bold youngsters that had so enlivened the two days. With rain brewing, and tired sore bodies we bade our farewells to this splendid river and its vivacious fish. I had caught 21 fish and Georgina 20. Extraordinary.There is nothing more to be said, other than to salute our guide, Ken Drummond. We will, of course, be back.   

Friday 28 June 2013

Aitutaki - Land of the giant bonefish

Felix Borenstein with an 11lb Cocos Island's bonefish caught on fly

The Wet & The Dry is proud to be a small - but vibrant - part of the global flyfishing community so we are delighted to welcome our first international guest writer - FELIX BORENSTEIN, general manager and owner of New Zealand's legendary Owen River Lodge on South Island. When Felix emailed us a couple of photos of bonefish he caught on 12-day trip to the Cocos Islands with his "long-suffering" girlfriend, Nikki, we just had to see and read more. Felix kindly sent us the who, where and why of Aitutaki Island - the home of some massive 'bones'.

Getting there
Aitutaki is a small island some 45 minutes (by twin turbo prop) from the main island of Rarotonga. Air New Zealand have daily direct flights to Rarotonga from Australia and New Zealand.

Interestingly, for people flying to New Zealand from the US, Air New Zealand offers a free stop over in the Cook Islands on their Sunday service from LA, with daily connecting flights to Auckland. Or if you wish to stop over on the way home to the US, the Saturday flight from Auckland to LA stops over in Rarotonga on its way to LA.

Where to stay

Nikki and I have stayed at the Aitutaki Lagoon Resort & Spa on all four visits to the Cooks. The resort is the only major resort facing the beautiful Aitutaki lagoon and has recently undergone a major update of its facilities. The resort is in excellent condition, the rooms and public facilities are kept spotlessly clean and now have Wi-Fi (at extra cost) in all their guest rooms and public spaces.

The staff are friendly in typical Cook Island fashion. The service is good (one has to remember Island time is a little slower than Sydney or New York) but is always friendly and accommodating. I'd rate the food as good, but its not on the bleeding edge of international cuisine. Nikki has developed allergies to wheat and dairy, the Head Chef and restaurant managers went out of their way to accommodate her strict dietary requirements.

Accommodation options/room types

The Aitutaki Lagoon Resort offers 4 different room types. Three of these face the lagoon whilst the entry level rooms face a canal which looks onto other properties. It's for this reason I would recommend you book a room that face the lagoon - it's a stunning view!

The Overwater, Premium or Deluxe bungalows all face the lagoon. Nikki and I have always spoilt ourselves and opted for the Overwater Bungalow option. These rooms offer the most privacy and are the quietest located a little further from the restaurants than the other room types. They also offer guests the opportunity to literally snorkel right from their rooms.

The Fishing!
The lagoon offers anglers fly or spin fishing for Bonefish and  Giant Trevally. The guide I recommend is
Itu Davey (or one of his brothers). Itu comes from a family of bonefish netters. A few years ago they decided to give up on netting bone fish and focus on creating a sustainable guided fishing operation. It's a wonderful story of a family that moved from subsistence fishing to create a truely sustainable guided fishing operation. Itu now employs his 2 brothers and 2 cousins in his guided fishing operation. They operate well maintained boats, equipped with new outboard motors and safety equipment.

Now I'm here to tell you that I'm just an average fresh water angler. When it comes to waving a 9 weight rod chasing bonefish - I'm a babe in the woods. My total experience salt water fishing is some 20 days - all of them on the stunning Aitutaki lagoon. And yet, I've managed to land several "double digit" bonefish - how is this possible?  It all comes down to the guide, in my case Itu Davey.

Aitutaki is not like Christmas Island; your clients are very unlikely to land 30 or 40 bonefish a day. But there is a very strong likelihood of catching 4 or 5 good bonefish, and maybe just maybe, catching a bonefish of a lifetime!

The gear
I used a Sage Xi3 9 weight rod, with a Sage 6080 Reel (in champagne – very nice) 250 metres of backing (I saw almost all of it!) and a RIO Tropical semi sink line, as a lot of the time your fishing in 3-4 feet of water.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Whanganui wonders, Pt 1, December 2011

Georgina Swan with her first Whanganui rainbow - around 5.5lb


The Whanganui River runs like a mighty vein in the lower arm of North Island, New Zealand.  Rising on the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro, it unfolds across the central plateau of North Island before eventually emptying out into the ocean at the town after which it is named. That makes it New Zealand's longest navigable river.

And mighty it is. Like the best of New Zealand's rivers, moody, aloof, challenging, and for most of its middle and upper reaches loaded with trout. A river that demands respect - as do its inhabitants.

In the afore-mentioned reaches within 80km radius of Turangi and the region's other great river, the Tongariro, it runs over a bottom that ranges from slippery boulder laden to gravelly and most types of substrate in between. Long channels, deep pools, run smooth and easily fordable in a dry early autumn, but churn and charge in a wet summer. But when in flood, the Whanganui becomes a monster best approached with caution - if it can be fished at all.

What makes the Whanganui a river to be devoured are its rainbow trout. These are no ordinary rainbows. As our guide and friend, the legendary Ken Drummond, is fond of saying, these are rainbows on steroids. Rainbows that wrench your arms from their sockets, that refuse to cooperate in any way vaguely fair. They have no notion of playing  by the book. They have no notion of surrender. None. Even the smaller ones, a kilo or under, bow to no fly fisher. There are browns, as well, and tough beasts they can be, but the rainbows, oh the rainbows ...

This two-part story begins with a wet day in December 2011 when Ken was called in by Tongariro Lodge to guide a couple of New Zealand fly fishing virgins. It was, in fact, our first day fly fishing in the country. And, as it turned out, one of the most memorable.

Ken Drummond isn't a big man, but he's huge in character. After 30 minutes you feel like you've known Ken half your life. He'll imitate a buck deer's mating roar while driving round a hair-pin corner, leaps and bounds through chapters as he gets deeper into a story that can range from the foundations of the Turangi region, to a detailed breakdown of the rivers he loves, and the mating rituals of the afore-mentioned deer.

Get out on a river with Ken and you'll find a man who has spent his non-guiding time on the same river climbing trees and any available high-ground to spot fish and their preferred lies, the correct approach to have every hole and channel. And all the time he'll natter, until a fish of reasonable size strikes, at which point galvanised in to action, he'll do just about anything to ensure it's landed.

But let's go back to that first day. It was pissing down but Ken had rung a farmer mate and found that a stretch of the Whanganui running through his property was still clear and at reasonable levels.

As we wound down a rutted farm track, Georgina and I weren't expecting what was just around the corner. As it burst into view this Whanganui was broad, smashed with boulders, runs, channels, pools everywhere, from its tree-lined banks to the back of mid-river riffles and far side deeps cutting against the fringes. It had an instant wow factor.
Mike and Ken head out to a run

It was then, as he parked his 4-wheel back from the bank and cast his eyes across the long sweep of river before us, that he uttered what has become our mantra when fishing with Ken: go slow to go hard. That is Ken's way.

Over the next six hours we worked our way down 600 metres of a river that at its broadest  was at least 60 metres - and for much of the time the rain fell, a whispering mist, occasionally interrupted by a giant's roar. Strangely though, it was quite pleasant. And when it came time to eat lunch the sun made its one brave salute to the day.

Mike with a 4.5lb brown trout
By then both Georgina and I had a fish each - mine a fine 4.5lb brown plucked from a hole no more than three metres from my feet and five offshore. 

Georgina had a rainbow from a channel that required a reasonable, but not too demanding, cast. While the brown mooched around, splashed its tail, indulged in the odd roll and seemed to consider that its proximity to shore made escape nigh on impossible, the rainbow had other ideas. It exhibited what we have come to recognise as a trait of Whanganui rainbows. 

Once hooked they often decide that becoming an immovable object is an excellent ploy. So there they sit. Out in the current, going nowhere. You can feel the occasional swish of the tail as they maintain position; unconcerned.

Ken's reaction to that is simple: bend the rod far right and down. And apply pressure. This does work. Eventually they give in and take off, coiled springs suddenly unleashed. Line peels, the drag is tightened and battle is joined. On this occasion Georgina triumphed - a 5.5-pounder her prize. 

Both trout fell to Ken's homemade beadhead nymphs. He also finds time to tie all his own flies when he isn't on a river or up a tree.

Georgina and her rainbow
Talking about trees, the afternoon began with Ken and Georgina wading under a large willow in search of a trout known to nestle in the shade of its bows. In fact, they'd seen it from high on the bank above. As the water flattened and cleared periodically and vision became possible, Ken pointed out a very big rainbow, only recognisable by the flash in those crystalline moments of the red on its flanks. So in they went but the rainbow wasn't in the mood, so Ken decided I should mine a channel on the far side of the river. Well, the water reached my chest at one stage as we ploughed across, Ken nimbly dragging me behind.

Eventually, we surfaced on a rise surrounded by pools and a channel; my casting wasn't at its best and Ken recognised that what better fishermen might have drawn from those pools was simply not on the radar, so he left me with the channel and returned to take Georgina upstream to another run. 

Ken and Mike at the run that would eventually give up the 'submarine'
"Yell, if you need me," he said, and headed inshore. The channel was a good 30-40 metres long, three or four metres wide, with plenty of areas to investigate. So there I stood moving a few metres left every couple of minutes to drift the double beadhead set-up over new territory, pushing it as close to the far bank as possible, along the drop off near my feet, eventually closing on the still water behind a rock at the left edge of the top of the channel.

For 10 or 15 minutes not much happened. My casting, aided by a friendly breeze, grew almost professional. It was probably on about the 30th cast that the white indicator suddenly disappeared. I remembered, although looking back I'm not sure how, to wait a couple of seconds before striking. When I did, my rod bent double. It felt like I'd hooked a log. A very large log. I actually cursed my luck. Then the log moved, not downstream like a log would in a current, but towards me. I took several steps backwards and the log followed. It was about this point that I realised this was a very large fish - and hailed Ken and Georgina: "I'm on!"

According to Georgina, Ken looked over, saw the rod bent double and said, "He's hooked the bottom." My wife immediately came to my rescue, pointing out that I had caught quite a few fish in my years and knew the difference between being bottom hooked and a piscatorial adversary. It was just at that moment that the fish began to follow me. Ken realised the truth of the matter. Georgina kept telling him to leave her and go and help me. But Ken, gallant as ever, insisted on getting her out of the river and then literally sprinted down the bank towards me. Georgina followed, whipping out her Panasonic Lumix DS3 camera (we  both now use Lumix cameras while fishing;  their underwater abilities and durability make them ideal for the job)  in the process). By then I'd managed to back a good 10-15 metres closer to shore but had reached a particularly deep pool. The log had happily followed, sometimes moving a metre or two upstream with a flick of the tail. It was within five or six metres of me when Ken and Georgina drew level, shouting "let it run, let it run".

In New Zealand guides like to let fish run. To this point the log hadn't wanted to. And I was happy it didn't. It was then that the water between the log and I flattened and cleared for a moment; it saw me, I saw a flash of large silver flank. The log then decided it would like to run. And turned into a submarine. So I let the drag slip, just a little - and let it run.  By the time Ken reached me, no me than 30 seconds later, I was down to the last 15 metres of backing! "We've got to stop it, Michael," yelled Ken, and grabbing my waist, literally hauled me to the shore as I held the rod high above my head attempting to restrain what now felt like a runaway train.

Once we got close to the bank, Ken grabbed the rod and off downstream after the former log now turned submarine, he went.

Have beached myself, Georgina, grinning, looked at Ken now gently blurring into the mellow rain and, said, "You'd better get out there. It's your fish." So off I went, eventually making it out to where Ken had reached his limit where the water dropped off into a deep channel. He's not the tallest man and the submarine had intelligently guided itself to a large rock and parked behind it. Reclaiming the rod and using my greater reach I managed to shift our adversary and get back some more line. It was a faint victory. The submarine then wrapped the line around the rock. I couldn't budge it. Ken had another  go, eventually put in mighty heave and ... the hook pulled free.

There was a moment's silence filled only by the whispering mist and the chatter of the Whanganui.  Then Ken uttered one succinct expletive and started reeling in line. "That was  at least 10-12 pounds, maybe even 15 or 16," he said. "It was massive. Huge. Wow!" He shook his head, "Wow."

Mike and Ken discuss the one that got away 
Ken to this day has no idea what was on the line. He still considers the possibility that the rumours of large chinook salmon in the Whanganui are true - unsuccessful attempts have been made to introduce the species to North Island, but, unlike South Island, they didn't thrive, however, fisher tales have persisted of a few hardy individuals in the upper reaches. Perhaps, this was one of them. It's bottom hugging tactics certainly fitted the bill. And perhaps it was a giant brown, all massive hook jaw and steely glint in the eye, and enough cunning and strength to defeat the best efforts of one of Turangi's finest and a first-day-flyfishing-in-New-Zealand-novice.

The rest of the day passed without incident or more fish. The rain persisted and eventually drowned out the late afternoon. No matter, it had been a day to savour; a splendid introduction to New Zealand fly fishing. And this story has a sweet epitaph. Next day we were in the excellent Sporting Life store in Turangi talking with the dedicated flyfisher, Jared Goedhart (who also runs its website and is the author of the must-read daily - or thereabouts - fishing report). Asked how we had gone I began to tell the submarine-that-got-away story. Barely a sentence in, Jared interjected, "So that was you!" Apparently, the monster-from-the-Whanganui had entered Turangi fishing folklore just a few hours after its escape when Ken had related the tale to Jared and friends.

It is an idle fancy to believe that I'll meet that fish again but every time we tackle the Whanganui it is with the knowledge that there are some very, very big fish in this extraordinary river. And you just never know ...