Casting Doubts in New Zealand
by Nance Hellmrich
I am standing thigh-deep in the clearest water I've ever seen in my life, marveling the pretty saffron- and sage-colored rocks beneath my feet, when a voice to my left yells, "Strike! Strike!" I look up to see a red-faced man plowing through the sun-sparkled water like an alligator after a small dog. I follow his fixed and wild gaze to the end of my line. The indicator has gone under. "STRIKE!" he yells again, so close that I can feel his hot breath on my face. My adrenaline surges as I give the rod a quick tug. Then my mind goes blank. This is a bigger fish than I've ever caught in my life. I look backward to the riverbank where my husband stands, camera in hand. I give him a panicked look, hoping he'll rush to my rescue. Marcus' only response is an encouraging smile.
Marcus grew up here on the South Island of New Zealand. The son of award-winning chef-restaurateurs, he was dining on rack of lamb and fillet of trout before he was out of kindergarten. Like most Kiwis, he was born with a passport in his hand and took off to see the world as soon as he finished school. With professional geographers for parents, I too developed a keen interest in travel and pursued a career in writing to facilitate my wanderlust. For the love of fresh powder, I eventually moved to the mountains of Colorado, where I met and married Marcus. To stay connected with his family we began taking regular trips to his homeland.
This time, we had flown the usual route to Christchurch but, instead of heading south to Marcus' hometown, we rented a ruby-red Mitsubishi 380 and drove northwest past exquisite farmland, over the densely forested Lewis Pass, and through the town of Murchison to a fly-fishing haven that is so neatly tucked in the wilderness, finding it is an adventure in and of itself. Owen River Lodge is comprised of a series of white cottages set on sixteen acres. Conveniently located a hop, skip, and jump from the Marlborough wine country and far from the crowded tourism hubs, this magnificent locale offers more remote wilderness angling opportunities than one could fish in a lifetime, including over 30 blue-ribbon rivers accessible by car, and countless others just a helicopter ride away.
When Marcus and I arrive, we are greeted by Felix Borenstein, the lodge’s quick-witted proprietor. He invites us to sign the guest book and relax with a glass of wine on the lodge's outdoor deck. We accept his invitation and are served a local Sauvignon Blanc, chilled to perfection with hints of nectarine and apple. It doesn't take long to learn that Felix is the sort of man who would spend his last penny on a pheasant tail nymph. If you ask him about his career choice, he will shrug and tell you he likes people. But he really likes fly-fishing people. He’ll say, “It isn't all about the fish,” in a way that sounds sincere but the twinkle in his eye betrays him. For Felix, it is all about the fish. It's about huge, healthy, brown trout, the clarity of the water, and the vitality of the ecosystem that keeps these world-class specimens happily swimming in their secret fish paradise.
Felix will also tell you that everyone wears formal attire for dinner. Then he’ll crack a mischievous smile and admit dinner is more often a casual affair. The food here is prepared by the amiable Chef Jude, whose gourmet meals are blended with herbs and vegetables grown in the garden out back. Guests gather each evening in the main lodge dining room where the massive cypress-wood table is worthy of an entire evening’s conversation and the ambiance changes according to the crowd—which ranges from billionaires to working-class dads and their sons. The private guest cottages are appointed with a simple palette of fresh whites, creams, native woods and every essential you could hope for, including a flashlight for midnight trips to the hot tub. Outside, the banks of the Owen River burst with willows, white pines, and beech trees.
As the sun dips lower in the sky, its light filtering through the trees on the riverbank, Felix comments on how quiet it is in the country. Marcus and I can almost hear him above the rush of the river water, the lowing cattle, and the magpies’ haunting oodle-ee-oos. After a while, a towering, salt-and-pepper-haired fellow named Steve joins us. He is one of Felix's fishing guides. Our guide, we're told, will be another fellow named Steve. “All our guides are called Steve,” Felix says with a wry smile.
When the conversation turns to the details of our fishing excursion, Felix looks more amused than usual, and Steve is in on the joke. We are, it seems, an anomaly. Judging by the A-list names in the guest book, this lodge attracts the world’s most avid anglers—the kind with by-lines and gorgeous photos in glossy magazines. Despite a stellar childhood career in the girl scouts, I have never held a fly-fishing rod before in my life. And, although he grow up not far from here, Marcus is also a relative novice. Yet here we are, in arguably one of the best fisheries in the world, about to embark on a full day of fly-fishing with a guide whose obsession is so complete his license plate reads “FLYMAD”.
The next morning, we meet for breakfast and prescription-strength coffee. Felix outfits us in premium quality waders, felted boots, and sporty, polarized sunglasses. Then Steve whisks us away to a spot he’s picked out on the Maruia River. Getting there involves a half-hour drive, a brisk hike through tall grasses, and the breach of several farmers' fences but it's well worth the journey. The setting is so remote we feel immensely privileged to be there.
While Marcus and I begin working out the finer points of casting, Steve sets about sighting fish. Before long, he directs us toward a shadow in the water. I aim an inelegant cast and land too far left. Steve casts a few with his rod. Marcus and I study his technique and try again. It is Steve who hooks the first fish and we are amazed at the trout’s size and robust coloring. He releases his catch and points to another shadow. I cast my line and wait. Standing there in the sun, I am nourished by a warm sense that everything in the world is as it should be. Then, suddenly, Steve is at my ear. I've managed to hook the fish but he's still not happy. Veins are popping at his temples as he continues lobbing instructions at me. “Keep the rod bent! Reel the line in! Wait! Stop! Let him go! Okay, reel it in some more! Not too fast. Now, walk backwards!” I begin to think that I am the victim of a joke – that the boys are trying to see if I can walk and chew gum at the same time – when a magnificent trout comes into view. Marcus beams as he snaps photos. When I have made it to shore, Steve swiftly nets the fish and removes the small, black mayfly from his mouth. A gauge on the handle reads 4.5 pounds. I am giddy and relieved and incredulous.
By the end of the day, we have caught and released six trout. We have learned to cast, “mend” the line so it doesn’t pull the fly unnaturally, and gently land a fish. We have talked about hand-tied nymphs, wee wets and dry flies, airy-light carbon rods, and the brief lives of the tiny insects that rise from the river bottom when the sun warms the water. I have posed for photos that flatter the fish more than me and laughed at how waders are possibly the world’s least flattering item of clothing. On the ride home we agree that we should never tell another soul about this delightful, enchanted place. But we are lying. Some things are just too good to keep to yourself.
ENSEMBLE TRAVEL GROUP is an international consortium of travel agencies. This article was first published in the organization’s Ensemble Lifestyles magazine.