Lands of Hope and Doubt

Rob Slotemaker in a fly fisherman’s dream

Fly fishing requires patience and perseverance, particularly when casting into a stiff Canterbury westerly.

A big brown moved gently back and forth in an easy current, rising to snatch small mayflies from the surface. This was a brute of a fish… easily into double figures. Such dream fish encounters are rare and can bring on a case of the jitters, even for seasoned fishermen. The wind was problematic and the fish was obscured by glare to the fisherman. This required a tag team ‘spotter’ approach from the far bank.

After a few failed casts, it was decided the fly line needed to be overcast 3 or 4 metres up an inside channel, close to the river bank and well to the left of the fish. This allowed the leader and tippet to land wind blown backwards and sideways about a metre in front of the fish. The cast was ugly and unconventional, its roughness disguised in the windy conditions. As the wee size 14 Dads Favourite fluttered and landed in slow motion, the big fish slowly surfaced and engulfed the tiny morsel. God Save the Queen and the fish and fisherman were together as one.

Draining the mountains just south of Lewis Pass are the Doubtful and Hope Rivers. We had seven days to tramp and fish these backcountry rivers and, by leaving our vehicle at Windy Point, we could tramp up to the Doubtful River, then we could cross the Doubtful Range via the steep Lake Man track to fish the Hope River, and complete a loop back to our vehicle.

The area is served by well marked tracks and comfortable huts. We made it to the two-man Doubtful Hut just before a large group of North Canterbury Deerstalker Association hunters. No matter, they were well equipped with tents and bivvies. As we also like to hunt, they were great guys to yarn with over a brew and were very giving of their time and knowledge of the area and game numbers.

We spent three days fishing the Doubtful and four days fishing the Hope, with an overnighter on the Doubtful Range tops, under a week of clear skies. Let it be said though, with low and clear river conditions and westerly head winds every day, the fishing was extremely challenging. Fish were ‘spooky’ but not uncatchable with good presentation and fly selections. Demanding days and well earned rewards, but not for the faint hearted… remember the patience and perseverance bit.

Using fine 6lb tippet, the big fish held the best hand. It could not be harried or hustled… could not be out muscled or out gunned.

Only gentle persuasion and time would win this battle, or it would be tears in the teacups tonight. Eventually, time prevailed and we coerced the fish over the lip of the net… and the scales pulled down to 11 and a bit pounds. A huge fish that simply filled the net but more importantly the soul. A snapshot of our dreams lay in the folds of that net. We had been truly blessed.

Held gently upright again in the current, the fish regained its strength and  swam slowly away upstream out of our grasp. The connection broken now… but not forgotten.

We had time to lay on the river bank in the warm afternoon sun and soak in this backcountry paradise— no doubts now, but freshly filled with hope.

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