Once upon a fishery there was the Maitai River. It was a beautiful stream, overhung with willows, clear pristine water, silver gravel, and teeming with wild brown trout.
The fishery was important to generations of Nelson trout fishermen, especially junior anglers, because it was close to home, small, safe, and very special. Many other people in the community valued it also, as a place to visit, bike, walk, picnic, play, swim and enjoy.
As a boy, the river was the apple of my eye, a place of joy and wonder, and probably my first love. It was a valuable training ground where I learnt my craft as an angler, where early success propelled me onwards and upwards in what was to become a lifelong angling quest.
My story is not unique and many people in our community valued the Maitai River, and still do, but one day the river got sick, the trout disappeared, and people couldn't even swim in the river any more.
The Maitai has always been an iconic provincial treasure, a silver thread that winds through the heart of Nelson City to the Haven, but the sad environmental status of the river has drained much of the magic from the catchment for many people. For years I've avoided fishing there, preferring to remember the river as it was during those idyllic boyhood fishing days of the early eighties.
They were great days, exploring the river on foot, learning life's lessons and having all manner of fishing adventures. We'd fish the river whenever we could, at weekends and after school. Often during school holidays Mother Sherry would drop us off at the Maitai while she went to work in Nelson City, and where we would spend the day fishing upstream to be picked up later at a specified time on the valley road.
What went wrong with the Maitai fishery and the health of the river is a debatable topic. Was it forestry operations in tributaries Sharland and Packers creeks destroying valuable spawning habitat and nursery areas? Was it the Nelson City Council North Branch Maitai Dam? Was it the golf course with herbicide and insecticide use? Was it urban intensification and population pressure? Was it all of these factors and many more? Whatever the reasons, the river is still in bad shape, the latest drama of recurring bad environmental health being cyanobacteria infection, meaning swimming for dogs and humans is off limits.
Recently there has been much mention of the Maitai in the Nelson Mail. It heartens me that other people care about the river, as I do. The formation of "Friends of the Maitai' led by Ami Kennedy is a welcome outcome, and a group I hope many of us will join to do our part in the restoration of this iconic Nelson jewel.
The Maitai has been on my mind lately, and on Wednesday after coming home from a meeting about another river catchment, I just had to go fishing. No-one was home and I was like a little boy excitedly throwing gear in the truck and heading for the Maitai Valley, a little more than a 30km round trip from downtown Richmond.
Parking under a shady tree I pulled on waders known in the trade as a "full-body condom" to protect me while wading in the apparently toxic waters. I strung my rod together, retied the leader, and attached a size 14 parachute adams dry fly. For some reason excitement overcame me as I struggled to tie the knot with shaking fingers.
As I used the reflection in the truck window to rub sunscreen on to my face, I saw the man and angler I had become, and wondered what myself as a 13-year-old boy would have made of the gear I now wore, the knowledge I now had, and the fishing experiences I had enjoyed around the globe.
I realised that the humble Maitai was more than just a river to me, it was a living beast that had ignited passion and desire, a fly fishing stepping-stone that had created meaning in my life and kick-started a professional fishing guiding career spanning 28 years and counting.
Clambering down an overgrown bank, the stream was much the same as I remembered, although the water was darker, smelt bad, and the river was more slimey with algae.
It was difficult wading, slipping and sliding, on the treacherous slick bottom but I threw a few exploratory casts upstream in the eternal hope of catching a fish. I wasn't expecting much and after 20 or 30 casts in several nice slicks, runs and pockets, I was resigned to failure.
The next cast the dry fly sat up nicely and bobbed along a promising edge, as a trout rose from nowhere and sucked down the fly. I don't know who got more of a fright, me or the trout, but it was fun, just like the old days. The brown trout ran, jumped and splashed, giving me great joy as I admired the beautiful wild trout before release.
A man renewed, I realised that the river wasn't totally dead, and that life did indeed still exist in the Maitai River. I fished upstream, even managing to catch a few more, mostly small, but all colourful and in seemingly good health.
At the golf course, a shed has been built against the river and as I walked around it, a man from the shop approached me and told me I couldn't fish the river. "Why not, it's a public river," I said.
"It's our liability if you are killed with a golf ball," he told me. "But you haven't given me permission so you have no liability," I answered back.
"We don't want the trout under the bridge caught because the members feed them bread," he told me. "Well, I'm a catch and release angler and I'm not going away," I replied.
It was becoming somewhat of a Mexican standoff when I decided to introduce myself and explain how I was fishing the river for Auld Lang Syne. It turned out my new friend was a really good guy who invited me up on the bridge to watch three resident trout as we discussed the Maitai River of old.
Soon it was time to move on and we cordially shook hands, before I walked upstream 100m leaving the golf club fish feeding in peace.
I enjoyed my recent Maitai fishing experience and while I won't be rushing back to fish it again anytime soon, it was pleasing to know that at least some trout still exist in the degraded waters. I even scored a few golf balls for my kids from the stained river. The river banks looked good with many areas of thick riparian cover protecting the river, maybe even better than in my youth.
There were still pockets of good habitat for trout although much of the river was scoured out and could do with rehabilitation. Restoring a stream to health is not impossible and is routinely undertaken in the United States and Europe by individuals, organisations and communities that care.
Mike Ward is a colourful Nelsonian, a man of great wisdom, and in some ways light years ahead of his time. In the Nelson Mail recently he wrote that "Our planet didn't just overheat and the forests didn't just disappear and our rivers didn't just run dry and get polluted by themselves - these things happened because too many of us spend too little time thinking about the consequences of the choices we make".
Mike is so right, and we do need to choose to protect our rivers from harm and neglect.
While it's true that New Zealand lowland rivers, including our iconic local Maitai, have had one hell of a hiding over recent decades there is always hope for the future.
Bureaucrats, politicians and industry may well make environmental progress in the years to come but it is up to communities to take the driving seat and demand clean, clear and safe rivers from those who would pollute and destroy.
Here's hoping our community can restore and protect the Maitai River so our kids and grandkids can enjoy the river, just as we did.
- © Fairfax NZ News