There is no word in the English Language to describe the smell of a river. But sometimes it’s our job to name the nameless. If an angler who designs a new fly gets determine its name, then so should a wordsmith provide an appellation for an olfactory sensation devoid of one. A New Zealand river smells like the memory of old, dried fish. Is it salty? Is it sulfuric? Slightly. Yet stronger than its mineral musk, a river is redolent of clean rain. It is fresh with a crisp sweetness like wind. The name I would give this scent is thistrine.
A few days ago, a guest at the lodge asked me to join him on his fishing expedition for the day. At 8am we boarded the helicopter bound for the Rangatiki—generally conceded to be the most beautiful river in this region. While I was not allowed to fish due to licensing reasons, I was able to observe this magnificent landscape and the anglers that attempt to tame and decipher its wildness.
The summer here has been rough—filled with gales up to 60 mph and heavy rains. The river takes on a turquoise and yellow hue after the rain. While this is pretty it’s not good for spotting fish below the surface of the water. The guides’ job is to spot the hint of a fish below the bubble line or in the depths of the pools. While to me, the fish were often indistinguishable from a submerged boulder, Sean Andrews, or Spotter Sean, was able to see the flicker of their tails—a flash of silken grey beneath a veil of blue. On our journey, I was instructed never to travel upriver and to be as quiet and still as possible.
The guest had the face of an addict—obsessed with uprooting the illusive, New Zealand trout from the river. He’s been a guest here for over 30 years. Only a compulsion so ingrained it’s buried within your very soul would draw you to a place for three decades. He fished with ferocity. You’d think that the fish New Zealand is famous for would be native to this region—but in fact, Rainbow and Brown Trout were introduced to the region in the early 1900’s. Only the slippery eel and the tiny smelt are true New Zealanders.
The pursuit of a big fish—it’s what drives many anglers to the river. A double-digit creature. Often found in deep pools, you have to dredge for these behemoths and the search is slow.This guest preferred the action of dry flies that floated along the drift of the river. When a trout decided to strike you could see it, openmouthed and leaping.
The thrill of reeling in a creature, writhing and struggling against its capture is alarmingly exciting. It feels unnatural to crave the struggle and fight—the will of one living thing pitted against another. And yet when I saw each trout snared on his dry flies I felt a rush.
Ugly Rudimus. What a name. That is the name of the fly he used. Local to Montana it’s comprised of elk hair and fine, shimmering strands of metal.
Wading through water is hard work. You’re up to your ribs, your belly button, lunging against the current and attempting to push firmly against the ground with force so you don’t slide. I felt awkward in the river, like a newborn deer, gangly and unsure of my footing in a new strange world. I held onto Sean’s pack often as we crossed the rivers—swallowing my pride.
New Zealand is a volcanic country and the signs of the tumult below the earth are everywhere. Bright fire red stones gleamed from the bottom of the river. They looked like dragon eggs or molten bits of sun. When I returned from the river I’d written this on a scratch sheet of paper:
Keys to note:
- Burnt hands of the guide from months, years on the river, red and so sunburnt they gleam, not wrinkled, almost like they’ve been rubbed in butter
- Looking from river to land makes the earth wobble and undulate
- Black rocks = slippery
- Ben Hall Copper Hare Fly
- Drifts, lines, the read of the river is a language
- The pursuit of a big fish