The College of Nymphology

Story by Mark Hume with Photography by Nick Didlick

The College of Nymphology has convened on the banks of the Buller River and the professor, dressed in chest waders, a camouflage vest and battered boots, is holding forth. It’s all in the drift, he’s saying. You have to think in three dimensions now. You have to see how your flies are fishing. You have to visualize how they are moving through the run. Tony Entwhistle, a legendary brown trout guide who lives in Nelson, on the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island, is at my elbow. He is looking deep into the river, into the hearts of the trout.

Oh! he says. Did you see that?

I saw nothing but the inscrutable, glistening surface of the Buller, a river as clear and as intoxicating as a chardonnay from the wine growing plains that lie below us to the north. But Entwhistle, a 17-year veteran who’s suffering from guide burn out at the end of a long season with too many clients and too many big fish, says the strike indicator on my leader hesitated.
It didn’t vanish under the surface, like a bobber being pulled down by a hungry trout. It paused, he says, for a nanosecond. And that was a trout. Maybe 8 pounds.

If it hesitates, if it twitches, if it sinks, you’ve got to strike instantly. A trout will only have it in his mouth for a split second, then he’ll spit it.
Try again he urges. And don’t feel bad. The Buller is a tough school. It’s where you go to get your masters in nymphing. And it has a high drop out rate.
As we drove towards the Buller that morning, going up through the Golden Downs forest, towards the tiny village of St. Arnaud, Entwistle had warned that the Buller is an unforgiving river. This is where you separate out your fishermen, said Entwhistle as we passed through a plantation of pines that gave way to groves of native beeches.

There are many rivers around here that are much more forgiving, that are much easier to fish. And some of them have bigger browns too. But the Buller is interesting it’s a challenge. And it’s my river. It’s the one I know better than anyone.
You become a nymph fisher on the Buller. It’s not easy to do. It might take most people two years trying by themselves. But you should be into trout today. It’s all in the drift. You’ll see.

Entwhistle guides on about 15 rivers in the Nelson district. He drives into the back county, hikes to the head waters, choppers into the wilderness rivers of Abel Tasman National Park. And he finds his clients lots of big fish, enormous fish, as the pictures on the wall of his Nelson sport shop attest. On the day we have chosen to go to the Buller, one of his guides will put a visiting American angler into consecutive trout of 8, 12, 10 and 16 pounds on another system.

How did we choose the Buller on this day? Part of it was that Entwhistle looked at the sky, felt the vibrations and just knew it was the place to go. The other part of the equation was that we had said we wanted to learn, we wanted to understand how to fish for New Zealand browns, rather than just being guided into fish. We told Tony that we wanted him to fish with us, to show us how it’s done, so that we might be better anglers when the day was done.
So naturally, he chose the toughest water. His water.

We pulled off the highway onto a broad grassy margin and rigged our rods together, asking about flies and leaders and strike indicators.
Across the road a black and white border collie leaped from the back of a farmer’s truck and went streaking across the pasture, to herd a group of nine alarmed sheep into a contained circle. When the sheep were paralyzed with fear, or indecision, the dog lay on its belly in the grass, panting with satisfaction. Job done.
We climbed the fence, tramped across a field, the river far away from us in the wide valley. We heard it first, like a wind in the forest, then saw it, sparkling between grassy banks. There were expansive gravel bars, showing how the river doubled in size whenever it went into flood. Today it was low and clear. It sang, but there were no trout showing anywhere.

The leaders were tied at about 12 feet, with a copper headed Hare’s Ear at the end and a Buller’s Nymph for a dropper. A few yanks of white yarn were tied in at about the 6 foot mark as a strike indicator. The yarn was trimmed to match the approximate size and shape of May fly wings, so that when it passed overhead it would attract trout, rather than spooking them.

The rule with an indicator is make it big enough that it keeps floating and as small as you can see, said the professor.

The fish we were after were browns. The Buller lies in the middle of a region rich in wild trout rivers.

The first brown trout in New Zealand were released here in the 1860’s and they now make up the finest wild, brown trout fishery in the world, said Tony. We were fishing for them here 20 years before they were catching browns in the Catskill Mountains. So there is a lot of history here.

There is also a lot of mystery. One thing that still puzzles fisheries scientists is why the fish here, and elsewhere in New Zealand, grow so large on a diet that is made up mostly of small, drifting insects.

Studies in North American rivers suggest trout can’t grow larger than 11 inches by drift-feeding. But in the Nelson district, trout commonly reach 19 to 27 inches feeding on nymphs, cicadas and just about any other bug that washes into the stream, including something known as the big green cockchafer.
Studies have shown that the trout grow rapidly during their first four to five years, then grow very little, because the amount of energy they need to expend to catch insects hits a balance with the amount of feed available.
How fast do they grow?

In August, 1868, brown trout fingerlings that had been brought as eggs from Tasmania were released in the Maitai River. By May, 1870, they were 18 inches long. By the following November six months later they were 5-6 lbs. And in March 1873 a trout of 10 lbs. was taken from the river.

Brown trout were first released in the Buller River in 1873. They took to it. Now they are found throughout the system. Like browns everywhere, the big fish like to hold in deep, clear runs, close to the bottom where they don’t have to work too hard, and where the bigger insects will drop gently out of the current to them. They do not rush about feeding wildly. They sit and wait, tilting up slightly or gliding softly a few feet to intercept drifting bugs or trout flies. The take, even by a huge trout, can be almost imperceptible.

There was one, says the professor, as he watched the strike indicator drifting slowly back towards me. Had I blinked? Had my gaze wandered? Or was this guy pulling my leg? I began to think I was being subjected to some sort of New Zealand ritual, where the guide torments his clients by making up stories about missed fish.

Two more misses and I was ready for some proof.

You fish, I said to Tony. Show me how it’s done.

He waded up beside me, pointing with his rod tip to an invisible fold in the current.

You start in there, along the shore, then work the seams out, he said, making his first cast, then stripping the line back quickly so he was always in close contact with the strike indicator. He worked across the stream in segments, then took three steps up and started again. It was like steelhead fishing in reverse: instead of wading down, casting out and swinging the fly back in, were going up, casting progressively farther out until hitting the main drift, through the deepest part of the pool.
After a few minutes, the professor raised his teaching staff sharply. There’s one, he said calmly, as the rod bowed deeply and began to vibrate. Small one. A baby, he said, bringing a three lb brown quickly to net.

He worked up the pool a bit more; took another. Then another. I stuck to his left elbow. And after half an hour, I believed I could not only make out the current seams, but I could tell when the strike indicator hesitated, as, 10 feet below, the nymph softly entered the maw of a waiting trout .
After an hour of studying at the master’s elbow, he left me to work with photographer Nick Didlick, who had been trailing along the bank behind us, showing immense patience as he worked with his cameras instead of his fishing rod.

They moved up ahead, leaving me waist deep in a run where the water flowed smooth and quick over a clean gravel bottom. As I followed, casting to a seam along the bank, then gradually working each successive cast out, I began to see in the third dimension. I was the fly, suspended in glowing water, the stones moving in a soft blur beneath me. I knew the trout was there, somewhere. The sense of its presence was electrifying. The tiny May fly wings of yarn tremmored. I brought the rod up, felt a sharp moment of resistance then it was gone. Damn.

I waded up, tried again. And again. The next time the May fly wings trembled I lifted quickly, but not as hard, felt the hook go home, and then the rod was yanked violently forward as the fish surged away in panic. He turned after a few minutes, ran down with the current, went past me, and turned again, coming into the slower water behind me.

I had been silent through all this. Nervous, feeling on the edge of losing it, thinking about coming all this way to New Zealand and maybe going home without a fish. This was the first one. I had to have it. The fish pulled away for one last run. Then yielded. Tony appeared out of nowhere, smoothly slipped a net under him, laughing.

No whoops? No yells? he asked, as he passed the three lb trout to me to release.
I was too afraid I was going to lose it, I said.

Well done, he said. No you’ve got it. Come on, I’ll show you something.

He led me up along the bank, weaving in and out of hawthorn bushes that caught at our fishing vests, until we could see the head of the pool, where the golden waters spilled down over boulders into deeper water. Close to our side, in water that was less than knee deep, hard against the shore, lies a very big trout. It seems to be made of amber. Its fins barely move. As we watch I see it turn its head to take a nymph that has spilled down over the rocks above.

You must cast, says Tony pointing carefully with his rod tip,right there. He indicates a patch of water the size of a dinner plate. Nothing else will do. Cast to the left, he explains, you scare the fish. Cast to the right, and the main current whips your fly away. With every cast, every wave of the rod, the chances of spooking the trout increase.

This is what I have traveled thousands of miles for, crossing the international dateline and watching endless videos on airline screens, so that I could have a chance at a big fish like this. I dreamed about it all winter, I obsessed about it as I paced up and down in the Quantas jet, as all the other passengers slept in the darkness over the Pacific. Now it is here the moment of truth and I suddenly feel clumsy and unprepared. Tony has seen it all before, the near panic, the fumbled fingers, the incoherence. Finding fish for him is easy the hard part is talking an angler through it all and getting him to connect.

He orders me back down the bank and into the water in a place out of the trout’s window of vision. As I get ready I realize my line, as it delivers the fly, will flicker across that window.
Don’t false cast, Tony advises. Put it straight in there.

Yeah. And don’t get nervous either. Don’t fall, or cast into a hawthorn bush, or slap the tiny fly down on the water like it’s a sausage.

Fishing is a contemplative, relaxing sport that at times becomes a pressure cooker, where total concentration is as important as when you take a penalty shot in the dying moments of a tied game. You can’t look at the clock, or the crowd, or into the eyes of your opponent. You can only look at the ball. At the goal. Then you shoot. If your focus is total, you will perform on instinct alone. It’s your only chance.
The line sails out, turns over, throws the fly up to the base of the rocks where the brown trout lies. I cannot see the fish anymore. The water has suddenly become a blur. I have trouble finding the line, hanging loose from my reel.

He’s turning on it! Tony hisses from somewhere in the hawthorn thicket.

Finally I find the slack line, frantically pull and feel nothing.

Above me on the bank there is a collective groan as Tony and Nick watch the drama unfold. The trout has missed the fly.

I stop breathing for a moment. There is a shaft of sunlight falling on a far, green hill. Nearby a cluster of sheep, their coats thick and ready to be sheared, feed in a meadow of belly-high grass. The river murmurs contentedly in its bed, like a dreamer.

It has taken 24-hours of traveling to get to New Zealand from Vancouver, to turn the seasons upside down, just for a chance to cheat winter by catching a big trout in the sunshine. How terrible to come all this way and blow it.

Okay, says God, speaking through the hawthorn bush. He’s back feeding. You get another shot. Then he laughs. As he drove us to the river that morning he was burned out from the season, questioning whether it is foolish for a man to try to make a living from something he loves, but now he is enjoying himself, he’s having a great time. And I am a shambles.

The next cast is way, way too wide; so far out in the main current the trout doesn’t even see it.

Don’t be afraid, says the voice, which is now inside my head, put the fly right on the fish. On the dinner plate.

The fly turns over in a tight loop. It falls out of the bright, blue New Zealand sky, hits the surface without a sound, is caught by the current. . .
Now! shouts the guide. The rod lifts, bows double, the line stretches a great head comes out of the water, swirls and is replaced by a huge flapping tail. The trout is so large that it can’t find enough water to fight me in.

I believe there may have been some screaming at this point. Someone may have started dancing, up there amongst the hawthorns. I was concentrating on the fish, which had now come out of the shallow pocket water, catching the full flow of the Buller against its flank, and surging down past me. I lifted the rod high above my head as it went past, trying to keep the line tight. The fish was confused, disoriented, unsure of what had suddenly happened. So was I. And breathless.

Tony came running back through the hawthorns, vaulting down the bank, freeing his net as he came. He took the fish as it ran by, holding on hard as it churned away in the webbing. When it calmed I could see the tiny nymph neatly pinned in its jaw.
The trout was silver and golden and brown and cold to the touch.

Five-and-a-half pounds, said Tony as we slid it back into the current. Let’s go find a big one.
Then he gave me a high five, which, on the Buller River, is how the guides award degrees.