Risking the Ultimate Price for a New Zealand Trophy: Part 1

“This one’s worth dying for, I’m jumping in!”

These were the words of my friend, Mike, just before leaping in to a stream on New Zealand’s North Island in an insane attempt to corral a 30” brown trout.  The words were actually a prelude to his second brush with death during the trip.  Mike gave me dibs on the fish after we spotted it finning in a narrow, deep, swift run between two nasty-looking logjams.  Despite the fish’s impressive size, I wasn’t so optimistic.  The other fish in this stream suffered from lock jaw so far that day, and I figured this particular fish was impossible to land anyway due to the surrounding logjams.  I certainly would not be able to crash through the thorns of the adjacent blackberry bushes to chase it downstream.  I passed on the opportunity, considering the low odds of success.  But it was a good fish; it was maybe even the best fish we saw during ten days of fishing in New Zealand.  Therefore it was no surprise when Mike started tying on some 15 lb test Maxima and attaching it to our favorite streamer.

The fish moved on the streamer like it was a mouse, smashing it a split second after it hit the water.  We had no time to embrace the surprise, as Mike’s brown trout of a lifetime was already tearing downstream between the logjams.  Mike decided to do his best Brad Pitt impression, and prepared to jump in A River Runs Through It-style.  Rental car keys, a wallet, and a phone went flying as Mike quickly ditched any valuable object on his person.  Mike shouted the phrase that has become infamous among our group of friends.  With a giant cannonball, he was in the river and promptly floating downstream.

To my relief, he quickly surfaced, and for a moment it looked like Mike may actually have a shot at this fish.  The moment was fleeting, and the brown quickly wrapped itself around one of the feared logjams.  Somehow, Mike made it back to shore before becoming part of the logjam himself.  Later, as he searched for the discarded wallet in the bushes, he rationalized his decision by explaining that he spends many of his days dreaming about 30” brown trout, and by noting the fact that he has a good life insurance policy.  This moment reinforced my role as the “rational one” in our fly fishing partnership.

As previously mentioned, this was not Mike’s first flirtation with death during this trip.  The first was much less voluntary.  We spent the initial days of our trip attempting an upstream traverse of a very remote section of stream.  A month before our trip, we spoke with a helicopter drop-off company about a potential plan.  Helicopters provide a very common and surprisingly affordable way of getting deep in to the New Zealand bush.  Pretty much all of their flagship rivers were booked months in advance.  The operator of the company suggested a section of stream that may not have been fished in a decade.  The reason for this—he explained with affable Kiwi nonchalance—was several sections of nearly impassable and remote gorges.  He revealed that these sections would probably require a “short swim.”  He offered no further guidance, as it was clear that he had not personally made the trip.  We didn’t need much convincing to explore an unfished section of a pristine New Zealand headwater stream, and we quickly signed up for the trip.

After two days of adventure, we boasted a few decent fish, but we spotted more massive freshwater eels than trout.  We were excited to head further upstream toward the takeout landing pad.  A couple miles upstream, we reached the first gorge, and it was not a short swim.  The span of the first swim was almost the length of a football field.  This would not normally pose much of a challenge for two decent swimmers.  But with unseasonably cool air and water temperatures, higher flows than normal, and the added challenge of dragging 50 pounds of gear in a dry bag while swimming upstream, we realized that this swim was no joke.  A packraft and a life vest would have been a preferable set-up, but we had been led to believe these items would be unnecessary for some short swims.  We briefly considered the sensible option of turning back, but the allure of virgin water was too great.  We stuffed our gear in to the dry bags and leaped in to the cool water.

The water felt more icy than cool after a few strokes, and I swam hard alongside the main current up the side of the river.  As planned, I used my 120L dry bag as a flotation device, and took some comfort in the fact that I wouldn’t sink as long as I held on to the bag.  I swam as hard as I could to shorten the duration of time in the water, and soon I was past the gorge.  I rested on a gravel bar, and turned back to take stock of Mike’s progress.  I saw pristine forest, a beautiful river, and towering cliffs, but not Mike.

The sick realization that Mike may have drowned pervaded my thoughts immediately.  How would I tell his wife?  He has kids!  Seconds turned in to a minute or more and there was still no sign of him.  Having regained my strength, I got back in to water to search for him.  At that point, I saw his head bobbing adjacent to a cove in the cliff that had been out of my view.   He worked his way around the edge of the gorge while clinging on to a terrace at the bottom of the rock wall.  Long story short, Mike really had almost drowned.  A hole in his dry bag rendered it useless as a flotation device.  His legs cramped in the cold water.  He was drawn under by his heavy wading boots, which he had not removed.  He sank in about eight feet of water, and was able to violently kick off the bottom of the river and back to the surface.  His proximity to the rock wall probably saved him, as he was able to grab on and catch his breath, before working his way over to my gravel bar by hanging on to the rock.

One of us just suffered a near-death experience, we were both mildly hypothermic, and half our gear was soaked.  What did we do?  That’s right, we kept going upstream.  Fly fishing is an illness.  Another gorge a mile upstream finally thwarted us, and we decided that the sensible option was to cut our losses and head back down to the warmth of the hut where we were originally dropped off.  The swim downstream with the current proved less strenuous, and we made it back to be extracted by helicopter the next day.

The trip was actually much better than represented by these stories.  In between these two anecdotes, I experienced some of the best fly fishing of my life in multiple disciplines.  Sight fishing.  Streamers.  Mice at night.  Violent takes on huge dry flies.  Fish that threatened the 10 pound barrier.  When it all comes together, New Zealand is trout fishing nirvana for the fly angler.  I cannot overstate my recommendation to experience New Zealand for some of the best and most interesting trout fishing on the planet.

Despite the lack of usual dangers, the wilds of New Zealand pose serious challenges for the intrepid angler willing to get deep in to the backcountry.  As I contemplated this trip, I crossed off the threats I’m used to dealing with in North America.  No bears!  No snakes!  Fewer hostile, gun-toting land owners!  I did not anticipate the tests the New Zealand bush would pose.  The “summer” weather could be wet and chilling.  The bush was often dense and impassible.  The biting sandfly swarms put even the most ravenous Alaskan mosquitoes to shame.  But for the prepared and fit angler, perhaps no better DIY paradise exists on earth.  Stay tuned for my next article on New Zealand, which will detail advice about how to set up your own DIY New Zealand adventure.