Catcher on the fly

TO TIE FOR: Tom Maling, left, and Kit Maling with a Motueka brown trout. Tom fished using homemade flies with braided line.
TO TIE FOR: Tom Maling, left, and Kit Maling with a Motueka brown trout. Tom fished using homemade flies with braided line.

Lately I've been reading a book called The 1% Principle by New Zealander Tom O'Neil which explores how small steps can dramatically improve your life and potential. Prompted by the book one night I asked Aimee what she thought my passion in life was. Aimee just started laughing and told me "fishing and fly tying".

"When you look at your flies, your eyes start to spark," she told me and maybe she is right.

I've always loved the mysteries of fishing and attempting to solve the riddles of nature. Making your own flies is something you can do at home, escaping into another world where you can dream, fantasise and create. Some of my tying efforts have also caught a lot of fish for me, family, friends and my fishing customers ever since I first began fly tying as a 10-year-old boy and anything you can do to give yourself a 1 per cent edge is well worth doing.

This week Richmond's Kit Maling was insistent we go fishing. In three years of friendship we'd never been trout fishing together, and with Kit's son Tom down from Auckland, they were keen to give it a go. Rivers were high on Monday with the MetService's Daniel Corbett describing the day as "wet, yucky and windy" so we went anyway.

Conventional fly fishing appeared futile so we fished heavy Mirf-tied flies on braided line. Modern synthetic braided lines give superior bite detection and by using weighted flies tied to imitate crayfish and bullies, using rabbit fur and rubber legs, we enjoyed modest success in challenging conditions.

Some of the bugs we fished came to life in the water and looked so good that you could almost be tempted to eat them yourself. After lunch the weather deteriorated rapidly, with rain, thunder, and impressive lightning bolts shooting earthwards. It was time to go but we had proved that you can catch fish on flies in some pretty diabolical conditions.

Recent flood damage to the lower Wangapeka and Motueka rivers was impressive and we just keep getting these high-intensity storms which do so much damage to this nationally important fishery through scouring and sedimentation.

Poor land management hasn't helped and in many places we are fortunate to have introduced plants like willow, wattle, blackberry, broom, and gorse to hold riverbanks together.

All tributary streams were up and coloured, but streams that have almost always flowed clear after heavy rain, like the Pearse, Graham and Pokororo, were running deathly white and milky.

Luckily there is still the ocean to fish, and as our lowland rivers continue to implode locally and nationally, many of us will increasingly turn toward the sea. Saltwater fish love eating flies too and saltwater fly fishing is becoming increasingly popular around the world.

Modern travel has opened up a huge number of exciting new saltwater venues with sight fishing in tropical locales like Venezuela, the Bahamas, Florida, Mexico and Kiribati offering world-class fishing for large fish on light tackle.

Closer to home, tropical waters north of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia offer exceptional fishing only a few hours' flying time from home.

Wading the tropical flats with fly rod in hand has to be one of the greatest fly fishing experiences on earth. The azure marine water lapping white limestone flats of remote equatorial atolls is amazing. The water is clear and pristine, with fast, large and highly specialised fish adapted to shallow flats, beaches, lagoons and cays. Dropping the fly ahead of cruising fish, the fly is slowly or quickly stripped back to the angler until the fish pounces and a connection is made. Hooked fish bolt for safety with mind-altering speed and adrenaline-laced runs as the rod is almost ripped from your grasp and the reel screams in protest.

Modern saltwater fly fishing gear has come a long way since the ancient Macedonians first invented fly fishing, and high modulus graphite and other space age materials have allowed anglers to pursue fish never before contemplated with a fly rod.

Fish such as bonefish, permit and tarpon are coveted targets but nowadays fly fisherman also catch large sharks, sailfish and even marlin on the fly.

Saltwater fly rods are generally much heavier than trout fishing gear, with 8, 10, 12 and even 14 weight rods common in the salt, although the larger weight rods take a strong arm to cast all day.

Flylines help cast the relatively lightly weighted flies, and they come in many floating, sinking, and intermediate configurations, being attached to tapered leaders which connect flies to the flyline.

Leaders are usually tied with fluorocarbon material which has a higher refractive index than monofilament and is far less visible to fish in the water as well as sinking faster and being more abrasion resistant.

The flies themselves are amazing, most tied with dumbbell eyes, weight, flash, and colour, in different sizes and often on stainless steel hooks.

Fly materials range from natural fibres such as bucktail and marabou, through to synthetic flashabou, krystal flash and polar fibre. They imitate anything from crabs, sea worms, baitfish, snails, shrimp, squid, you name it.

Fish can be very selective and the closer you match what they are eating, the more successful you will become.

Some of the best known styles of flies are known as crazy charlies, gotchas, deceivers, clouser minnows, and even surface poppers. Some sink, some float, and all of them catch fish.

The tropical environment is extremely harsh with the need for plentiful sunscreen and bug repellent. Solid footwear is required to avoid coral cuts, rays, sharks or stepping on dreaded stonefish with their poisonous spikes. Most anglers wade the shallow flats equipped with sunglasses, long pants, long sleeved shirt, wide-brimmed hat, and buff (cloth face shield) to keep the relentless tropical sun and wind at bay.

Back in the mid-1990s I was privileged to fish the amazing waters of Kiribati in the equatorial Pacific.

Christmas Island was "discovered" by Captain Cook on Christmas Eve 1777 and was later a strategic staging area for Allied forces in World War II, before becoming an American nuclear weapons testing site during the 1950s and 60s.

Not much remains of this history but, at 360 square kilometres, Christmas Island is the largest atoll in the world with eye-poppingly beautiful lagoons and ocean-side fisheries, complete with coral reefs and hungry fish.

Bonefish were the prime quarry, a metallic and silvery fish with a downward facing mouth that is superbly adapted to shallow water environments.

Cruising the shallow flats in search of food, individual fish would spook at a bad cast, but when fortune smiled and the cast was good, hooked bonefish would bolt for the safety of the deep ocean sometimes ripping up to 150 metres of backing off a reel.

The other glamour fish were giant trevally that would appear occasionally as dark, menacing shadows along deep drop-offs. A quick long cast before stripping the fly as fast as humanly possible would see a mad dash by the trevally, a heart-stopping strike, and the angler attached to a fish that resembled a freight train.

Many fish could not be landed, with trevally regularly cutting flies off in the coral but it didn't matter because it's all about sport, and the angler who lost the most flies won.

Many Kiwi anglers will travel overseas to fish azure tropical waters in the years ahead and many Nelsonians, including Cameron Reid, Chris Jackson and Henry Sulser, already regularly fish the famed Pacific waters of Aitutaki for bonefish.

My next personal tropical fishing experience is the iconic waters of northern Queensland for exciting new reef, river and bluewater species. I've tied plenty of great flies, my eyes are beginning to spark, and I just can't wait.