At the end are the rainbows

Grumpy McMurdo Fishing News

At the end are the rainbows by Hugh Creasy

The paddock was bare of green grass, just browned seed heads of rye flicking my boots, and the husks of clover flowers, chewed to the ground. Sheep gathered in the far corner, surrounded by a thin layer of hay. Their droppings dotted the landscape, buzzing with blowflies in the still air, richly aromatic. One of their brethren lay against the fence near the gate to the river, a desiccated corpse, white-boned and grey scraps of wool still emitting a nauseous stench, after months of decay.

Through the gate we crossed a patch of pennyroyal, hot, sweet mint to combat the paddock’s odour. Then there was an unavoidable scratch from the blackberry on the riverbank, where the thorns grew hard in the sun. The river was distant, a streak of blue against the far bank, too far away to give moisture to the blackberry’s roots and the bramble had dried out, its fruit hard and red with no chance of ripening. I missed its tart flavour.

A season ago, the river ran on the near side and the berries were succulent and plentiful. For a month there had been no rain, and before that even light showers were rare. Dairy farmers had dried off most of their herds, and were giving thanks for record payouts for the previous season. Their bony-backed stock were on short rations and the milking sheds stayed empty.

We trudged the bouldery river bed to reach water and search for fish. The river was small and the water warm. Green algae hung in streamers in the riffles and midges danced in the hot air, settling now and then on damp patches of weed at the water’s edge.

We lifted boulders from the water. There were net-building caddis and free swimming caddis in the crevices of the boulder’s undersides, and a few tiny mayfly nymphs, too small to identify. Duckweed grew in the shallow ponds at the edge of the riffle and water boatmen had colonised what must have been long-standing water. On one boulder there were the husks of stoneflies, caught in the moss that coated its downstream side.

The riffle ended in a banana-shaped pool where we hoped to spot a fish or two. Last season this pool was part of a broad reach, and trout congregated at its edge, where a sidestream entered the main river. It flowed from an underground spring, and while it may not have been highly oxygenated, its cooling waters attracted flotillas of fish.
They rarely fed during the day, but at night they spread out across the reach and feasted on rising caddis and adventurous bullies out for an evening meal. A season later and the patch of willows where the sidestream flowed was 50 metres from the main river and while the spring still bubbled away, its waters were lost in dry boulders. Pondweed grew in the bubbling water and a small eel made its way through the underwater forest.

It was pleasant in the cool shade of the willows, and we paused there to munch muesli bars and sip fruit juice, watching dragonflies buzz about. They were giant dragonflies, noisy fliers and in their juvenile form, formidable hunters. Their presence here was a bit of a mystery. The spring was not large, just a couple of metres across, and its water was very clear and cold, hardly fruitful enough to support a colony of these voracious feeders.

The sun was high when we returned to the river. We searched the depths of the pool through polarised lenses for any sign of trout, and sighted one, holding deep and keeping still. The odds were that there were many more fish in the riffle at the tail of the pool, where the water was oxygenated enough to give them some energy but they remained invisible.

This section of the river was obviously suffering considerable stress. There was only enough flow to keep life ticking over, and even if we caught fish during an evening rise, the chances are they would be of poor quality and it seemed hardly fair to subject them to more stress.

There were larger pools to the south, a few kilometres away, before the river emptied into an estuary. I am fairly sure that many fish sense impending hardship and make their way to the sea, preferring the dubious survival chances in a salt water environment, to the stress of poor quality fresh water.

Near the estuary there was little current, just a line of scummy bubbles making their way slowly seawards. A group of Canada geese grazed a nearby sward of saltgrass, and black swan fed, bottoms up, in the shallows.

The heat of the sun was debilitating, and we retired to the nearest pub to cool down. After food, liquids and plentiful advice from the locals we returned to estuary as the sun was setting. Apparently there had been a good whitebait run after the season closed, and the locals had seen shoals of whitebait and yellow-eyed mullet being pursued by kahawai and trout.

“The trout were huge,” they said. “But the kahawai were just around the two or three-pound mark.”

We listened intently as they went on to tell us valorous anglers who pit themselves against the wild spring tides to land trophy trout on surfcasting gear. I wasn’t too sure of the legalities of catching sea-run trout without a licence, but I forbore criticism in the interests of a good story.

So there we stood, fuelled with food and expectation as we waited for any sign of activity on the water. The sun set and darkness came before the first signs of disturbance showed on the water. In the light of headlamps we tied on small spinners attached to soft baits and cast them on the waters.

I have a special fondness for young kahawai, hotsmoked in shaved oak. It’s a moist fish when cooked like this. You don’t need a smoker, a covered roasting pan will do, with the oak, or manuka if you prefer a stronger flavour, in a thin layer on the bottom. Just set the pan on a gas flame for about 12 minutes and it’s done. I prefer to bone out the fish completely before this, and salt it well. Treat trout the same way. I lay them skin side down on a wire frame above the shavings.

All we had to do was catch the fish.