The alarm jangled the last fits of sleep, dancing on already excited nerves, which didn’t really need much waking up at 4am believe it or not.
Rich caffeine was poured carefully down our dry throats to wash away the last ribbons of tiredness as we checked our eight weight floating outfits over with stern glances. I decided to replace my six foot long 15lb tippet, and tie a sizeable fresh No.8 black rabbit on the end. We were, after all expecting to do battle with monstrous rainbows, some over the magical ten pound mark, in exceedingly shallow water. In the pitch black pre-dawn inkiness, a black fly has all the killing prowess of a Vampire Lord!
A couple bits of toast, spread thickly with butter, were unceremoniously biffed down our gullets as we donned warm thermals and fleeces, as many layers as you could fit under your waders. It was, after all, the height of winter in New Zealand’s North Island, and whilst nowhere near as cold as the minus 40’s of Alaska and Canada, we were expecting a frost. We were to be fishing from deck-chairs, sat on the white sand beach just above the waterline, so one could expect numb fingers and toes due to the static, relaxed, nature of our pursuit. This was winter fishing in the Bay of Plenty, where some sixteen lakes play host to what we call shoreline fly fishing, where large numbers of behemoth rainbows return to their spawning release points.
Shoreline fly fishing in New Zealand
The cosy fishing hut sits right on the beach, so we literally stoke up the fire for our return, then stumble out the door fully geared up, grab our chairs off the deck, and quietly walk onto the shoreline. By law fishing in New Zealand begins at 5am, and finishes at midnight. The best times to catch these brutally big bows is during the hours of darkness when the wallabies graze behind you, the possums screech with violence, the owls hunt silently, and vampires come out to harangue the deepest darkest corners of heaven on earth.
Chairs are flipped open into position on the sand right at the water’s edge and with 15 minutes to kill until kickoff I sat listening intently for any telltale swirls that would indicate the giant fish were in, right on the beach in less than one foot of water, slashing and chasing each other. In the pitch black of early morning there is little to rely on other than your senses. It creates an atmosphere unlike any other in flyfishing that I know. Your ears are your quarries enemy, your touch and feel is your friend (unless the cold destroys it), your muscle memory is your only guide for a reasonable cast….not that you have to cast far, as the trout are often milling right at your toes, or just back a touch in the tiny rip created by the small stream that trickles into the lake at your elbow.
A muffled flash, followed by an extended glow in the pitch black, indicates the presence of another angler down the beach a little – probably one of the old boys who enjoy the solitude and escape this most unusual piscatorial pursuit offers from his nightmares of war, or tragic loss, or impending death. I love the company to be found here – such humble wisdom that can only come from years of forfeiture.
A short chirp from my timex heralds the first 5am flight, so line is stripped from the reel and placed carefully beside my boot. To not place line with care is folly, and will surely result in a tangled shot, or line underfoot. Every movement has purpose and reason. Consistency is key, and with three strokes my own little vampire flies true to seek its first victim.
After letting the cast settle for a good few minutes, in case its landing had spooked away the fish, I begin a painfully slow retrieve. Think the slowest retrieve you have ever done, and then halve it again! I picture the individual fibres pulsing and wriggling, rather than the entire fly swimming and darting. I play the role of a small crayfish, or tiny baitfish, through my fingertips themselves, a deep involvement that is only shattered by the freight-train thwack of an apex predator smashing a hapless morsel.
My entire environment changes, my peace and deep concentration instantly destroyed. I leap from a near state of zen and fly from my chair, leaping to the right side to stay clear of line flying recklessly off the sand. The only consistent after being bitten is the pitch blackness of night, and the full gallery of stars applauding the entertainment unfolding on the otherwise deathly-quiet beach in the dead of night during vampire hours.
The slack line has been stripped away by the angry trout and comes tight against the drag, which starts screaming for mercy, howling like a wolf as the victim runs fruitlessly. Energy ebbs and the battle takes a turn toward my point of ground. My little vampire has found its mark and my victim soon gives up the ghost, now heading toward shore and its imminent demise. I wait patiently as it plows a line up and down the beach, waiting for that one false move as its nose points towards me, then I put the pressure on, heeling into the 15lb tippet and guide it straight onto the sand. The side of my boot steers it away from escape and a quick tap on the head fills it with the same colour as our surrounds. Darkness.
I hang the beautifully proportioned nine and a half pound rainbow on the same stick I’ve used for years. I allow myself a brief inspection with my headlamp to appreciate the sheer glory in hand. To swing a light for too long, or dare to shine it on the water will incite glowering glares and hisses from the other anglers, a cardinal sin in the temple of the nightstalkers.
I catch my breath for it’s a beauty. A long, straight lower jaw, culminating in a vicious hook dictates it as a Jack, a male, and a trophy to behold. I know from previous encounters that the inside of the throat will be stained orange from eating crayfish, it’s flank gleaming silver, and its stripe almost as colourful as its name suggests. Moreover the swim bladder will be an iridescent purple, and its flesh a deep orange/red/cerise and lined with the fat of condition. Trout for the table simply do not get any better than these ones at this time of year, and better still, being from a ‘Put and Take’ fishery I have enhanced the fishery by knocking a few out each year, allowing the others to grow even bigger! In a country where one cannot simply ‘buy’ trout, so such a specimen for the table is graciously received.
I quietly return to my chair with a humble nod that it was a nice fish to the one enquiry beside me. The speed of the swishing lines through the inky air from the other anglers suggests an increased urgency. After all, fishing is one of the few sports in the world where the success of another member of the team is not necessarily enjoyed by the rest of the team! And after all, it will be light soon, and these lost boys of the night will have to retire to the doom of the real world once again.
I go through precisely the same process again of placing my line carefully beside me, perhaps a little more line this time to reach a bit further out, three false casts and let my vampire fly with the celerity of a speeding silver bullet. I sit, I relax, I practically meditate whilst inhaling the impending dawn around me. All the while bimbling that tiny object of the trout’s desire back towards me.
A strong, hard pull nearly rips the line from my cold fingers and I’m on again, although this time the fish thrashes and barrels over the surface not two rod-lengths from the shore, erupting buckets of spray and thrashing the surface to a foam. My process of war is consistent, and this one too joins its schoolmate on the same stick I’ve used for years….
Success is sweet as sunshine, which is just starting to raise it’s cheery face. Soon all that will be left to mark our presence that morning will be our boot marks on the sand. As with the rise of dawn the fish fall away from the lake edges and we depart, looking forward to the swoop of dusk when we will surely fly again in the face of the adversities of night fishing those magical vampire hours.
Miles Rushmer is a fly fishing guide in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. Contact him at email@example.com.
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