Travel: The one that I let get away

New Zealand 2: fishing in a remote river in North Island attracts the adventurous angler. And with its big trout making a worthy adversary, it is a sport of equals.
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The Independent Culture
IN THE heat of a North Island summer, hotter than usual due to the unwelcome arrival of El Nino, it is a relief to be standing in the cool waters of the Whiritane river, shaded by the vast trees of the Rangiora forest. Even if my search for a wild brown trout remains fruitless.

Downstream, our guide, Graeme Ryder, stalks a fish with my wife. There are no fish near me. I have sent them packing with my blundering.

Later, Ryder explains that the trick to spotting a trout is to look not for the fish but for its shadow. The paleness of the body makes it virtually impossible to spot against the shingle riverbed. The angler, however, has one advantage; the water's limpidity means that shadows can be spotted against the river bottom. One has to look through the water rather than at it. I begin to get the hang of what Ryder means. It's like staring at those patterned collages where the shape suddenly jumps out at you. We both spot the beige slab of a large brown trout 40 feet away.

"Hold still, hold still," hisses Ryder. I freeze with excitement. After 20 seconds I begin to wonder when I can unfreeze as the fish plummets neurotically upstream. "This is ridiculous. How did that fish see us?" I ask. "Chasing shadows, that's what it's all about."

In fishing guidebooks, the Whiritane river barely gets a mention. Fifty miles east lies Lake Taupo, where big-game hunters stand side by side, heaving out impossibly large trout. Ryder, who has been guiding anglers for 16 years, is happy to let the hordes remain ignorant of the Whiritane, which ambles through the thick Rangiora forest, its murmuring pools holding small but feisty trout. It was this kind of unfashionable river that had made the prospect of fishing in New Zealand so mouth watering.

It was only at dusk, when the nightly hatch of insects makes the fish less circumspect about what they eat, that we had some success.

If the rivers of the north island lure the greedier anglers, it is the remote rivers of the south that attract the adventurous. This is an angler's paradise, with waterways ranging from glacial-fed rivers that thunder out of mountain ranges into dripping rainforest, to swampy streams that meander through farmland before arriving at the Tasman Sea.

We made our way up the west coast, fleeing the squalls from the Arctic that lash the coastline all year and cover every gatepost and roof with a rich layer of lichen. We moved inland to the streams around the Nelson Lakes.

At the Mangles river, near Murchison, we met Ray Borcovsky, a local farmer. We were the first anglers he'd seen up on his land for several weeks. The Mangles looked Scottish: long shallow glides culminating in deep pools filled with tea-coloured water. Pines and poplars fringed the riverbank. It was not until the early afternoon, having moved with painstaking care, that I finally saw a large shadow lurking in the peaty water.

I moved back and crawled slowly into the river. I could see the fish holding its position 30 feet in front of me. My first cast would be crucial. I loosed the line and watched the fly sail off short and to the left of the fish. I could hear the voice of Graeme Ryder murmuring in my head: stay calm, cast quickly, don't think too hard.

I flicked the fly delicately off the water, my eyes straining at the fish and cast again. The fly landed six feet in front of the trout's nose. I have tried to reconstruct what happened next, but it happened too quickly. I do remember the tail flicking languidly and the fly disappearing in a violent froth of water.

There was plenty of hollering and a fair amount of advice screamed from the riverbank until, perhaps 10 minutes later, the fish surrendered. We peered at him as he lay defeated in my net. Bright gold with brown and red spots splattered across its body, five inches deep and twenty four inches long, and a huge, angry head. He was a beautiful, wild, animal.

He gazed blankly. It took only a few seconds to reach a decision: he slunk, giddily, back into the depths of the pool, perhaps a little embarrassed at being fooled by a foreigner.

I lay on the riverbank, staring up through the pines, my mind greedily storing away those precious images of my victory for future reference. Purists argue that catching a Scottish salmon is such a privilege that each conquest should be rare enough to be remembered with absolute clarity. The same rule applies for New Zealand trout.