Those were the days
Story by: Zane Mirfin - Photo by: Zane Mirfin
Hanmer Springs is a great place to visit. Known best as an alpine holiday retreat with wonderful thermal pools, it is a fabulous venue for all manner of pursuits.
The town itself is awesome, with oak-lined avenues, forest walks, good shopping, fine restaurants and bars, and plenty of accommodation options. There’s a lot of outdoor adventure available in the form of bike trails, jetboating, bungy jumping and even Mt. Lyford Skifield.
Myself, I like Hanmer for the trout fishing nearby. By road, it’s easy to access the headwaters of the Waiau and Clarence river systems, but what makes Hanmer a really good base for guiding foreign anglers is the great helicopter access waters. Magical rivers such as the headwaters and tributaries of the Rakaia, Waimakariri, Hurunui, Waiau and others beckon enticingly. We’ve even fished for sea run trout and kahawai in the surf by chopper or flown over the West Coast mountains into the large rivers that drain into the Tasman Sea.
The real attraction of fishing the waters of North Canterbury is the abundance of large brown trout. The eastern rivers are big sky country, with stunning vistas of alpine peaks, tussock-clad valleys and mountain forests.
Protected by the weather and wind, fish grow large in clear rocky streams, and many trout are sea-run nomads from the Pacific Ocean. The dreaded nor’wester wind is feared by all fly fishermen.
When the wind howls it can reduce experienced anglers to tears, but when conditions are optimal the quality of the fishing experience can be unbeatable.
Some of my favourite memories are with Los Angeles fly fishing hotshots Skip and Ken.
On one heli-trip, Skip broke three rods for the day – with my help, when my pack dropped on a spare rod while Skip fought a big fish. We managed to make a composite rod out of the three, with the help of some insulation tape, and kept on fishing. Skip landed 11 fish weighing more than 3.5 kilograms that day, but the fun part was when he obtained an ‘‘I’m In Training’’ badge at a restaurant that night, which I was made to wear for the rest of the trip.
My last trip to Hanmer fishing this week wasn’t so successful. I drove down the night before, only seeing the rivers of Tasman district in the headlights. Arriving at 1am, everyone was snoring when I quietly bunked down. Morning came fast and it was great to catch up with Otago guiding mate Selwyn Shanks, who owns Centrefire McCarthy’s Flyshop in Dunedin, and Americans Paul and Walt. It was a cracking day and I was on the phone at 7am to the helicopter company. It was Christchurch Show Weekend and we assumed anglers would be out in force; we also knew the wind was coming.
The plan was to fly into St James Station for the day, and even as we flew in we could see the vehicles heading for the Waiau River area. Purchased by the last Labour government for about $40 million, St James Station is a magnificent piece of real estate, with towering mountains, rocky gorges and broad meadows. There were no fisherman around, but it was clear that things had changed.
There were worker tents pitched at the Henry confluence as the last bridge was constructed across the river for the current Government’s vision to provide cycle trails. Bike trails had been constructed and roads had been improved to allow four-wheel drive access to the public. It was clear that fishing here was never going to be the same.
The wind was strong and the fishing results modest that day between the two parties, but we did land fish to 3.6kg. Fish numbers appeared to be down, the fish smaller and more skittish, and much of the magic waned as we encountered boot prints and recent signs of other visitors.
Flying out, we were in for a shock, as people had turned up from everywhere. There were cyclists, pig hunters, anglers in the river behind us, even a tent city. I’d hardly ever seen other people in the St James before, so this was a totally new development.
As we flew out to spend the next day in the waters of Molesworth, I realised that I had probably seen the best of these rivers, from a fly fishing perspective. The past few decades of no-one much around had been a bubble before better roading, improved public knowledge, DOC management and the internet.
In many ways, improved public access to St James Station will be a bonus for Hanmer and introduce a new type of recreationalist to the area. The bike ride will be wild and epic, and improved vehicle access for hunters and anglers will be appreciated by most. I’ve always supported improved public access to our wild lands and no one can complain about access issues to St James again.
Progress is good, I guess, except when you’re a hardcore fishing bum like myself. Alas poor St James, I knew you well.