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 ...

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