I expected to spend more than two days in the backcountry of the Rainbow Road, but the sandflies were vicious, and I was graciously given far more than what I had hoped, as I hunted for large brown trout. And so the story begins…
I hardly began my journey over the Rainbow Road, when the Wairau River called for me to cast my line upon its waters. I was sight fishing for trout, but without success, when I looked down a 75ft wall of loose dirt and rock at the river below. Were my eyes deceiving me? As I peered through the trees into the pool below, I spotted a monster trout that only rivers of New Zealand can produce. As I stood dumbfounded, a dirtbike rider by the name of John pulled up and asked if I was okay. He was the only person I had seen all day. I explained that I was NOT OK… and then I showed him what I was looking at.
He couldn’t believe his eyes! The size of this trout was unimaginable to me, and to him, as it easily looked to be 14 to 15lbs. It was the largest brown trout I had ever seen. John had a fly rod strapped to the back of his motorcycle. He looked at me and asked, “What are you waiting for? Get down there and catch that fish!” As I carefully scrambled down the cliff, my hands began to shake. This was the opportunity of a lifetime. This was one of the big reasons I had come to New Zealand.
When I reached the river below, I called to John and he relayed to me the location of the fish. I selected my fly, and suffering from something similar to buck fever, I could barely tie it to the end of my line and tippet. I knew my first cast had to count, but the sheer size of this fish had given me casting amnesia. I wish I could say that I had elegantly presented the perfect fly, but my cast looked like it was the first time I had ever touched a fly rod. Aargh!!!
Was my dream fish gone? John said he was still there. So, I cast again. But this mammoth fish was not attracted to my fly. I cast again without success, and then added a nymph. I then tied on a different combination. I cast twice, but without success. I repeated the same process with almost every fly that I had in my small bikepacking box of flies. After an hour of casting to him, he did not flinch, and he did not feed upon my fly. I think New Zealand trout have Ph.D.’s in not being fooled. But this trout was not spooked. He was big and he was confident.
I climbed back up the cliff, and I conveyed to John that I hoped he was not disappointed. He told me that just seeing that fish was the highlight of his day. As we parted ways, I noticed it was getting dark. Had I really spent all day on such a short stretch of river? My journey along the Wairau on Rainbow was only at its beginning, and I was more than twenty miles from the designated backcountry campsite. I had no choice but to set up a clandestine camp hidden in the trees. I left no trace!
After setting up camp, and eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich, I heard the river call to me again. It was dark, but I was hoping my friend would finally be in the mood to eat what I was serving. Climbing down the cliff by headlamp was ten times more difficult than the during the day. One slip, and who would ever know where I had gone? I supposed John would know… when he heard the news of the missing bikepacking angler. It was a risk I had to take!
As the dark night bled with only the sound of rushing water from the run above my pool, it was a surreal experience as I contemplated what fly to use. I decided on a black leech, and my rod threw it effortlessly into the black pool. For a half hour I worked the river… Nothing!! Nothing, but frustration, as the sand flies where eating me alive. I turned on the red light of my headlamp to assess the damage these assassins had done. In the red light, I saw a caddis hatch beginning to come off the water. Nobody tried to sell me on a caddis fly when I was at the fly shop in Nelson. Why didn’t I buy a caddis fly? Ugh!!!
Then I remembered, my friend Crocket Sessions had pulled an emerging caddis fly from one of my boxes at home, and suggested I bring it with me. Fortunately, I listened. As I tied the caddis fly onto my tippet, I saw a trout sip one of the caddis off the water 30 feet in front of me. I cast my fly 3 feet in front of the rise and 2 feet to the right. Was it my dream trout? As the trout double-sipped my fly, I patiently set the hook. Bam!!! My reel exploded as my drag whirred in the cooling night air. I knew it was him. It could only be him!
For the next half hour we negotiated with one another in a style of give and take… He would take and I would give… He would give and I would take. He would dive and I would lift. He would jump and I would lower my rod tip down and to the side. I could hardly believe he had not spit out my tiny fly. My forearms were burning… and so was our resolve!
I have no idea how long we were struggling. I lost track of time in the darkness. And fortunately, he finally appeared to lose his fight. As I brought him close, I did not want to beach such a beautiful fish. I did not want to hurt him. I had no net, as I was touring on my mountain bike. I wanted to return him to the water better than I had found him, with even more knowledge of how not to be fooled. I wanted our struggle to be over. Yet, I wanted to pick him up and hold my dream trout. I had such mixed emotions. I wet one of my hands to handle him, and when I bent to to wet the other… with one last surge of energy, he spit my fly and swam back into the night. It was symbiotic – a win/win relationship!
The next morning, I thought it was raining. I had awoken to the sound of hundreds of sandflies popping inside against the rainfly of my tent. I wished it was raining. I still had the majority of the Rainbow Road to travel, but I fished all morning with only the bites of thousands of sand flies seeking to feast on my flesh. After lunch, I said enough is enough. I took off my fishing clothes, put on my cycling clothes, and raced 55 miles to Hanmer Springs with a few stop offs at the Island Gully Hut and Lake Tennyson (as they caught my curiosity and I had to see what they looked like).
My total distance on the Rainbow Road was 79.5 miles (including fishing and curiosity jaunts), with 6005 feet of total climbing according to the GPS. The second day of that journey was 62 miles with 4651 feet of climbing. It was another hard day of getting beat up by rocks and washboard roads, but I felt energized as I attacked the climbs and flew down the descents and over the flats. I even managed to break a spoke nipple doing it. Fortunately, I had a tailwind at my back as I rode into the sunset, and into the hamlet of Hanmer Springs, set up camp, and lifted a cold one in honor of my dream trout…
My verses for memorization and meditation on the Rainbow Road: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:22-25 ESV). I’ll let you connect the dots… 🙂