Special friendships spawned on the river

ZANE MIRFIN
Last updated 11:14 10/03/2014
Mark Manson

SURPRISE: Skip Herman was rapt to land the catch of the day.

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Local trout fishing can be hard work over summer. With drought upon us, low flows, warm water temperatures, and every angler searching for the last best place, trout can be masters at keeping their heads down and their lips intact.

There are still trout to be caught though and many days have exceeded expectations in a tough fishery. It's all about hunting the cooler water and thermal refuges, and there's no substitute for knowledge, experience and long hours on the river. As always at this time of year there have been wonderful moments of eye-popping glory amid many hours of fly fishing drudgery.

The past few days out on the river as a fishing guide were certainly educational. After decades in the game, most of my guide days now are with people who know me by professional reputation, have fished with me before, have been recommended by others, or have found me direct on the internet.

But this week, I had my arm twisted behind my back and talked into doing some travel agent-organised jobs. Agent jobs are the mainstay of the general tourism business, but I must admit that I've never really enjoyed guiding people who don't know me from a bar of soap and have no prior relationship.

It's a tough job guiding anglers you don't know and it can be very stressful, especially if things aren't going well on the fishing front. A river can be a lonely place as a guide, and many times over the decades I've felt like some sort of modern day Rumpelstiltskin trying to spin straw into gold.

You can't make chicken salad out of chicken dung, and often as a guide you are battling circumstances beyond your control.

Often anglers are sold a fishing trip by an agent without being fully briefed about what they are getting themselves into and many times they will have inflated expectations about what they can realistically expect given often poor mobility and limited fly fishing ability in a challenging and declining fishery.

Add micro-management by demanding agents, infighting and egos between people in the same tour group, competition from rival operators in the eternal race for water, poor weather like rain, wind, or drought, and it can be a match made in hell.

Fortunately there were no great dramas this week but it made me really appreciate the great anglers I have met over the years and made me resolve to stick with ones I know and like, fishing the places I prefer to go.

Fishing is supposed to be fun and you should always appreciate the good times you have with valued family, friends, and customers. Just last week I was fishing with US angler Skip Herman from Chicago. Skip and his awesome wife Meg first fished with me more than 20 years ago on their honeymoon to New Zealand. It was an unlikely trio of bride, groom, and spotty youngster leading them around the trout streams of Murchison but we got on like a house on fire and Skip has kept in touch ever since.

We even caught up in the US a few times during the 90s when I was working for Taylor Creek Flyshop, out of Basalt, Colorado on the banks of the Roaring Fork and Frying Pan Rivers.

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One of my great memories was staying with Skip and Meg at their condo in Vail, better known as a winter skiing resort town, but in the summer also a fine fly fishing destination.

Skip took me fishing multiple days on the waters of his private club on the Eagle river with great midday mayfly hatches and superb dry fly fishing. By night we BBQ'ed steaks, visited the sights of Vail, and even attended a concert by one of Skip's favourite bands called Little Feat, with their keynote song to fame Rocket in my Pocket. Skip has now graduated on to Bruce Springsteen Concerts, travelling the world to watch "the Boss", even managing two Springsteen concerts in Australia and two in Auckland this trip.

Skip and I were even talking about what I've learnt from Americans over the years, driving back from fishing the other day. Spending so much of my adult working life with overseas anglers Skip observed I'm fortunate to have been influenced by many successful and talented people. He's so right and Skip is definitely one of them.

In fact, I'm probably half American in my thinking and when I look back on all my trips to the US and Canada it was almost like going into the future as a young man. Back here in New Zealand I'm still learning but the wisdom, influence, kindness, generosity, friendship, and mentoring freely offered by many special Americans, but also Brits, Aussies, Africans, Austrians, Swiss, and Scandanavians, has been gratefully appreciated, both on and off the water.

What I like most about Skip in particular is his attitude. He is always happy and always upbeat. Even a recent health scare has failed to dent his optimism.

He is a pleasure to guide, revelling in the moment, and his excitement at catching rising trout lights up any fishing day. Skip is a dry fly aficionado, taking special joy at watching a trout come willingly to the floating fly. One trout this trip, hung suspended under a deerhair cicada fly on a limpid green backcountry pool.

It couldn't make up it's mind whether to eat the fly or not, and Skip and I even had time for a conversation, before the fly sank below the surface and the white flash of the jaws signalled a take. Skip's rod bent double and his reel sang but the best part for me was watching Skip's smile and laughing at his child-like pleasure.

We had some great days in the wilderness, fishing a different catchment each day by helicopter, but perhaps my favourite day with Skip was fishing a deep and boulder-filled gorge virtually inaccessible unless in severe drought. In the chopper, I asked Skip, 60, whether he wanted easy walking or hard, and he told me "Let's go where the fish are" so that's where we went.

Out of the air, boulders never look so big but when we started walking upstream it was like climbing a giant staircase. The water was magnificent, emerald green, with trout cruising the depths like an aquarium, but between the pools were giant boulders, lots of giant boulders. In several places, access upstream was virtually impenetrable, but we got through by crawling through the holes in the boulder fields stacked there by the 1929 Murchison Earthquake. We even joked that no bureaucrats had yet placed earthquake warning signs on the rocky tunnels we climbed through.

Skip revelled in the location, and the fish were only a bonus. We laughed and discussed many things, but our shared history, memories, and experiences of fishing trips past added a special richness and value for us both. Life is short, and like a quality single malt whisky, you should always appreciate the special times you spend with special people.

On Skip's last fishing day, we'd caught some beautiful trout on dry flies, and the day just disappeared. Before we knew it, the helicopter was coming up the river searching for us.

We shut the helicopter down to try one last pool and Skip rose the best fish of the day which was a great way to finish. Skip debated fishing another pool but there is always next year.

"My professional advice is to walk away a winner on your last cast," I joked to Skip and he agreed. It had been another epic adventure with Skip and I can't wait to go fishing together again next year.

- Nelson

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