THE GORGE INCIDENT
It was a typical late season, early morning in the South Island. Fog lay heavy over the hills but you could see that it was going to burn off once the sun got high enough to do it's job. That wouldn’t be for a few hours yet though and until then, it would be cold and very apparent that summer was gone.
I was spending some time on a photoshoot with a cool bunch of guys from Costa Sunglasses and teamed up with Matt Jones for this leg of the trip.
Our mission: To try and get some different takes on chasing some big backcountry browns that NZ is known for.
We had our plan for the day and after stocking up on food, smashing some breakfast and grabbing some coffee's we got on the road and headed out. As this was our first day on the backcountry shoot, Matt and I thought it would be a good idea to stop off on the way to our chosen river for the day at a particular gorge and see if we couldn’t show the crew a decent glimpse at some typical South Island fish. The great thing about this place is that there is a bridge right across the middle of the river and this gives you an awesome vantage point from where you can usually watch a few big fish hanging out.
Today was no exception and we got to watch 4 or 5 very good fish swinging around in the current chomping away happily. The main reason there are always fish here is that there is really no way to get a fly to them. No way down to the water from either side and nowhere to fish from if you could get there. The water is deep too, probably 10-15 meters right the way through it and it's a big river to boot so a lot more flow than it looks from above.
As we stood there and watched, we started shooting the shit of how to get a fly in front of them and ideas began to flow. The only way we could see it happening was if we could find a way down a little side creek to the edge of the gorge, about half way up it. From there it would be a decent swim across to the other side where it looked like you might be able to climb onto and over a rock ledge and then get a long cast over to a couple of the fish sitting at the head of the run. That's if you didn't miss it and get swept down the gorge and out the bottom!
Matt and I said all this kind of tongue in cheek at first but the everyone else seemed to really like the idea of what we were saying and Andy Mann, the photographer was digging the angles from the bridge. So, we found ourselves stood over a gorge at 8 in the morning, hatching a plan of how to make this work for real and what to do in the event of any of this actually working out in any way.
This is what we came up with:
Matt and I would bush bash our way down into the side creek somehow and then work our way down and into the gorge.
From there, Matt would climb up onto the top of the gorge cliff on our side and position himself to guide me onto the fish. I would take my flies, lanyard, some spare clothes and a towel in a waterproof bag, along with my rod and try to swim straight across to rock ledge we were eyeing up from the bridge above.
If I made that, the plan was to haul myself out of the water and climb over the ledge to a flat spot, where I would change into dry clothes and sort myself out to fish. For anyone that doesn’t know, April in the South Island is cold, a gorge early in the morning before the sun is on it is cold and the water is COLD! Change of clothes was going to be paramount in not getting hypothermia.
If I got that far, then the plan was for Matt to spot for me from his vantage point and guide me on to getting my flies in the right place and if I managed to hook something, then we figured that we would just wing it from there.
With that sorted, Matt and I headed off and found our way through the bush and down into the creek and ten minutes later we were down by the river's edge. It's amazing how different things look when you are actually on the water. The river now looked much bigger, colder and faster than it had from 40 feet above with a coffee in hand. Matt clambered up the side to try and find somewhere to spot from and I sussed my way forward from here. I opted for holding the backpack in one hand and the rod in my mouth which would give me one arm and two legs to try and swim with. I had a few feet swimming in quiet water before I hit the main flow and wanted to use that to build up some kind of momentum and speed but that went to shit as soon as I got neck deep......the cold took my breath away instantly and I found myself split between just trying to get some air in my lungs and not sinking straight to the bottom.
I kicked hard, turned onto my back and went for it. Once I hit the main flow, it became obvious how fast the water actually was and I found myself further downstream than I wanted to be straight off the bat. I had one shot at hitting my ledge or else I would be swept down the whole gorge, out the tail and would have to find my way back out and try again. The odd lungful of water and quickly tiring limbs made things a bit more challenging but I kept thrashing and kicking and after what seemed like minutes, I was close to something I could grab hold of to drag myself out of the frigid water.
My fingertips found a bit of rock just as my arms stopped working and I dragged myself up and out onto a small ledge. I threw my rod and bag up and over and got myself onto higher ground. I underestimated just how cold it was going to be and dove in to the bag and grabbed a towel, got my shirt off and dried myself as best I could. Dry top on and feeling happier about things, I turned my attention to fishing.
I couldn’t see anything from where I was so was totally reliant on Matt, who was perched up high opposite me and had good visibility from his position. We got to work and started getting some good drifts over the fish. A couple of refusals, fly changes and not so easy drifts later and still no eats. We went heavier, longer, smaller, bigger and every different combo we could think of and then it finally came together and the indicator sunk and a strike was met with heavy resistance and a flash of silver as a good fish turned on it's side and headed deep.
We hadn't really thought this far ahead but before we could start making a plan the fish bolted downstream at a hundred miles an hour. We quickly decided that I would jump in and try to swim back across to Matt's side where he could get to us with the net.
I sucked it up and leapt as far out as I could in a vain attempt to get a decent head start on my swim. I hit the water, immediately couldn't breath and also realised that I couldn’t swim with a rod in my hand and a big fish dragging me downstream. I kicked and kicked and got pretty much nowhere and then missed my mark and resigned myself to the fact that I was just going along for the ride.
Now I was doing my best to keep my head above the water, trying to keep tension on the fish and working out what I was going to do from here. There was one massive rock in the middle of the gorge between me and the tail and the fish had headed straight for it. I drifted close to it and reached out to try and stop myself for a second and regain a bit of composure. Hanging on with one hand, I still had some tension on the fish and took a couple of shallow breathes. Matt had started to follow me down stream and was getting closer. I worked my way around the rock a bit to try and get a better angle on it but things had gone a bit too solid. It had wrapped itself around and underneath and although I tried hard to follow it around and get the angle I needed to free things up, I was met with that sickening feeling of slack line and game over. From there we drifted down and kicked out way to the side and out into shallower water and somewhere that we could get out safely.
High fives and smiles all round despite not winning this round and we worked our way back up to the bridge where everyone was waiting and loving what just went down. An awesome start to the week.
All that remained now was for me to go back down to the gorge, swim back across, grab my gear and jump back in and swim my way out again.
By the time I got back up to the bridge, I had a towel and some dry clothes waiting for me, which was more them welcomely received. No fish this time but we did get some cool shots and a memory that will last a lifetime.
All pictures courtesy of Andy Mann