Tuesday, 7 January 2014

The lodge that Felix built

Owen River Lodge

Part 1 – the Owen River

Continuing their journeys in search of New Zealand's finest trout, MIKE GEE and GEORGINA SWAN spent seven days at the near legendary Owen River Lodge on South Island. Our special three-part report begins with a day on the Owen River.

Owen River Lodge lies a mere two kilometres of dusty road (if it hasn’t rained) off State Highway 6 as it curls down to the town of Murchison, some 20 kilometres distant on New Zealand’s South Island. It lives in a valley with its namesake a literal breathe away. In the close distance the peaks and ranges that fill the Kahurangi National Park press down, at times almost to the river’s verdant banks.

This is the lodge that Felix built. And it’s one of the big four New Zealand luxury flyfishing lodges – Stonefly, nearby south of Nelson, and Tongariro and Poronui on the North Island are its main competitors.

Felix Borenstein (left) and Mike Gee
Felix Borenstein is one of us – more than one of us, in fact. He’s a flyfishing trailblazer, starting in Australia 18 years ago in his native Victoria.  When he bought Owen River Lodge some 10 years ago, it wasn’t the lodge it is today. No chalets, no spa, no lush gardens, no killer chef named Ryan (his food is seriously good). Since then Felix has put a lot money, time and effort into making Owen River Lodge a mecca for the sport’s tragics and not-so-tragics worldwide, and perhaps, a little curiously, a destination for honeymooners.
The majority of its patrons come from the US and Australia with about 10 per cent trickling in from the rest of the globe.
Felix’s big drawcard is, of course, the region’s brown trout. This is big browns country – and I do mean big. Double-figure fish are plucked out each year and 6lb-plus trout are plentiful – but you have to be good enough to catch them. These are wild, canny, trout; trout with years of experience in driving flyfishers slightly mad.
It is a challenge and that is part of the attraction. These browns don’t commit suicide as readily as do the rambunctious rainbows that dominate many North Island rivers.
What Felix offers is sight fishing for some of the finest salmonids you will ever cast a fly to.  And he has the guides to back him up. He needs them. These are men with the eyes of a hawk, knotted muscular loins, skinny as a rake, with thousands of kilometres in their legs, capable of walking up and down dale, all day, lugging a large pack full of food, drinks, supplies, on their back.
It is outlandishly hard work and on top of that they have to sort out the errant casting techniques of many their clientele. Deal with their moods. And try and ensure they do actually catch a trout. Not catching many fish – or even a fish – sometimes does not go down well.
And don’t forget: the weather is about as variable as it gets; the trout are moody buggers prone to not giving a sip for at least half the time you are fishing; finding the right fly can be a needle in a haystack job. And even if the guide does, the client actually gets the cast in and the fish cooperates and engorges the fly, then the fish has to be landed. The conversion rate is around 33 per cent.
Mike Gee with our guide, Paul van de Loo, and Mike's
 third trout of the day, a 3.75lb 'old man' brown
Who would be a guide? Well, Paul van de Loo, for one. For 23 years, in fact. He’s pretty damn good at what he does. It is no secret – in fact, on these trips it’s declared well in advance, that while my wife, Georgina Swan (George to her friends and you, the reader), can cast a fly line with admirable adeptness, I have a cast that has a mind of its own. The good, the band and the ugly – and that’s only the first three casts.
Paul inherited this ongoing, oft disaster, and made it his business to get it – if not right – a lot better. So, on one day when the casting yips set in, I was banished to a “practice pool” on the Maruia River while George and Paul set off upstream to hunt browns. I was only allowed to follow them 20 minutes later.
After three days, Paul had beaten enough knowledge and technique into me that I caught a PB brown in the Owen River, challenged George for the most hook ups and could bang a cast into the teeth of a gale blowing down the Hope River the day after we left the lodge, drift it over a brown I spotted sitting in the water column, hook and land.
So Mr van de Loo knows his stuff. He managed to do what at least three other top guides have failed to do: get my cast into reasonable shape.
He can also see trout where these ageing eyeballs could only see, well to be honest, bugger all.
Flyfishing the Owen River
In three days of fishing the Matakitaki, Maruia, and Owen Rivers, George and I hooked 18 fish and landed 11 – George also notching a PB brown in the Owen River.
So let’s start with that day on the Owen River. Felix and Paul say the average catch per couple for a good day on the Owen is three fish. Georgina and I hooked eight browns and landed six.  They weighed, in descending order: 7.25lb, 6.75lb, 5.75lb, 5.25lb, 3.75lb, 2.25lb.
In terms of quality fishing it’s hard to beat. This is, for us, the perfect river, the perfect fishery. The Owen never really sprawls like so many South Island rivers do – a few kilometres away, often parallel to State Highway 6, the Buller River runs, a broad silver swathe, scything through the countryside; sometimes braided sometimes not.
The Buller is the trout highway for the region; virtually every river runs into it and the trout use it to move around. It used to be a mighty river to fish but they say that didymo, that scourge of trout waters, has so affected it that fish stocks have dwindled significantly and it is the feeder rivers that hold the best – and most - trout.
But the Owen – it’s a flyfisher’s dream stream. Unlike many South Island rivers it isn’t braided and, as the photos on this page and in the slideshow indicate, it can sometimes be just three or four metres from bank to bank.
It is a mighty test of skill. The water is gin clear; the cast needs to be all the things that make up a good cast: accurate, straight, turns the fly over, and as a simple as possible – false casts need to be kept to a minimum.  Distance is not generally a problem.
Like the best trout streams, it mixes runs and riffles with pools and deepwater edges; fast water, slow water, flat and chop, it has the lot. Over it all, preside sheep dotted hills and pastures, willows line its edges, blackberry bushes usually appear least when you least want them too, constantly foiling an over-exuberant attempt to plop the fly two metres in front of the trout’s nose.
George plays out her third trout of the day - the Owen
 is a mere three metres wide here
You don’t wade much: sometimes to cross over to get a better angle to a lie; others a few metres in from shore to a trout virtually dead ahead. As George found out you may need to cast around a bush; at other times with blackberries blossoming behind you.

At the beginning of the day, the tall grass - it is chest high in places -  ensnared my back cast as I stopped it way too late. It is such technicalities that, on the Owen, will see you spend more time unwrapping and untangling your fly than using it to fish with.

The first fish of the day should have been mine. However, George having cast to a couple of seriously spooky trout in the first pool was lagging behind as Paul called me up to tackle a fine specimen in the next pool up, 40 metres or so from where Georgina had drifted a nymph over a brown’s nose, had it look at it and declare it was fine piece of fly tying. Just as we settled to cast, the trout decided feeding downstream was in order and swum off in Georgina’s direction.
She paused, Paul moved down, they hatched a plan, her cast went out once, twice, and it struck. So did George – using a technique Paul had imparted. Rather than striking straight up when nymphing, strike downstream, keeping the rod down; if the trout is past you then strike upstream, rod down. It works.
Ten minutes later, Paul netted a beautiful 7.25lb brown trout – a PB for Georgina. It is fish like this that drag us back to New Zealand time and time again. It is an honour to be able to chase and catch such foe in these green clad ranges, redolent of hobbits and magic. The spell is such it is hard to want to go anywhere else.
Georgina with her PB 7.25lb brown trout  
Hold a big trout in your hands, as the cold clear water runs down its mottled flanks and the sublety of its colours play in the sun; look it in the eyes – its stare won’t waver; feel it glide gently and serenely away at the point of release. Do these things and you feel life’s bright emotion well and surge.
George’s second trout was only another 20 metres away. The great thing about flyfishing with your partner is that their success is as fulfilling as your own. And they can bail you out when you have a ‘moment’. I had a ‘moment’ (five bad casts in a row), called George in. Two casts later she was on to a 5.75lb fish, that threw itself around with such abandon the rainbows in the Whanganui River would have been applauding.
Top to bottom: Georgina's 5.75lb trout;
 Mike's first fish - 2.25lb brown;
George casting in an awkward situation
At this stage I felt like spitting the dummy, packing up my fly rod and taking it home. I’m sure many of you know the feeling – when it all seems too hard. “It should be fun,” Paul said to me, then. “So just stop your backcast early, relax and enjoy yourself.” So I did. And had a 2.25lb trout flapping at my feet within 20 minutes.  The little blighter actually knocked off the nymph from under the nose of a much bigger fellow we were chasing.
This kind of trout play didn’t help George when she ended up casting to three trout with a blackberry bush behind her, the wind beginning to blow from her left to right. Three times a fish came for the fly, then baulked. But still they fed and still George persevered. A lovely 40 metre cast, drifted perfectly downstream, over a big fellow’s nose, surely he would strike! No. Paul cursed.
Then, a fourth, smaller trout, just three or four pounds came rushing into our group, spilling the beans about the folk downstream and telling all sorts of nasty lies. The adults became suspicious and didn’t like this spritely newcomer. We moved on.

A perfect little lie contained my next target. The river rushed down from the right, dropping 30cm or so over rocks before cornering into a more tranquil, deeper stretch. On that corner, tucked behind a rock, sat a large feeding trout. My job? Cast 20 metres or so, landing the nymph just to the right of the trout and let it drift past/over him.

It was virtually a straight cast. The first cast was too long, the second too left, the third too right, the fourth too short by a whisper, the fifth and sixth, left and right of the target, the seventh was perfect: the indicator sank like a stone, I saw a flash of flank as the trout moved, and I struck – downstream. It was on!
It fought with all the strength that legend has these South Island browns possess. My arms began to hurt as it peeled off line, once, twice, three times. It hurled itself skywards – to no avail. I’d lost a trout that shook the hook free with that trick the day before and knew to drop the rod tip. Slowly it tired. One last surge and, after what seemed like an eternity but was more like 12 minutes, it was done. Paul got the net around its splendid flanks and lifted it from the water, eyed the measure, and looked at me.  He paused. He always pauses.  Bastard. Then smiled, “6.75 pounds.” We hugged. A personal best brown.
Mike with his PB 6.75lb brown trout
All those moments of self-doubt, the casting phobias, were washed away with the adrenalin of accomplishment. A surge of pride. The beginning of self belief. And if that all sounds a little too heady, so be it. Every sportsperson experiences such highs should they reach their goal. I run half marathons sometimes and the sense of accomplishment on finishing is similar; but for me this was even greater. I know I can run. I didn’t know if I could ever begin to master the mysteries of the fly – at least, well enough to catch such a fish in one of the toughest, most technical rivers in New Zealand. This fish was five years in the making.

It is something that lives with me and makes me itch to get back there.
George and Paul celebrate her final trout of the day - 5.25lb
George, who really did get the thin end of the casting stick, was next up and found that Paul had spotted a fish midstream, only 30 metres away, where the Owen is no more than four metres wide, if that. Only problem was she would have to cast to her left from behind a bush - with a gale blowing for her right to left. For 20 minutes she flipped that fly around that bush and that fish. The conditions were difficult;  tall grass danced in the wind behind her. I don’t know how many casts she made but she eventually made the right cast and had a 5.25lb brown running hard downstream. She and Paul celebrated righteously when it made the net.
The final fish of the day turned out to be an old man trout – on his last legs but with enough spirit to take the nymph I floated over his head as he lay no more than a few centimetres from the shore, tucked behind a rock in the riffles. He fought with all the strength he could muster and, in his heyday, would have been a monster. Now, at 3.75lb, his body scarred from the floods a few months earlier, his head so much larger than the rest of him, he was waiting for his time to come. Perhaps, this was his last battle. If it was, it was honourable. We returned him to the water rapidly, hoping he would see out a few more weeks in these timeless waters where the big fish lie.
As the clouds flew by, the wind gusted, rain sped bullet-like parallel to the ground, not hard but thin and temporary, Paul offered one last pool. George and I looked at each other. No. This was perfect.  Three fish each. A personal best each. In conditions we might normally dismiss as too difficult. The Owen had thrown down its challenge and, with the help of Paul, we’d found a way to not only answer, but to feel like victors.
And when we returned to the Lodge, got out of our gear, and went to join Felix and Paul for the traditional afternoon beer, only to find them looking at Paul’s photos of our fish, and videos of their return to the wild, with Felix grinning from ear-to-ear and offering the heartiest of congratulations and explaining how much we had accomplished, we felt like we had just climbed New Zealand’s mightiest peak, Mt Cook. Perhaps we had.
The view from our cottage at Owen River Lodge

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