In 1991 New Zealand, boys and girls biking from school with fly rods was as common a sight as our yellow school buses clogging the roads
By Skip Clement
I’d been warned about noise, what trout can hear, and how to traverse the benthic compositions of New Zealand waters by Paddy Clarke, my first guide in NZ. He managed a 35,000 acres sheep station on North Island near Taupo.
During our hour-long drive and two-hour walkabout on the sheep station, we’d passed up or forded several inviting streams in his vintage Land Rover that had no springs – my arse and spinal cord serving that purpose. Our destination was a river [forgot name] that was the border dividing the sheep station and thousands of acres of indigenous Maori lands. We would fish a single tributary of the hundreds that fed the shared border river.
It was January, like northern hemisphere June, but down under [yes, the toilet flushes/drains the other way], and I was sure I knew more than most about freshwater fly fishing for trouts. But then, things happened, I got exposed to reality, and my prior experiences in my home state of Pennsylvania and destinations like Montana and Argentina seemed parochial. So it turned out I hardly knew anything, and some of my mentors, read or known, didn’t know that much either.
- My trip down under to New Zealand lasted an entire fishing season of more than five months.
- New Zealanders, BTW, are the most hospitable people I have ever known.
- And saying, ‘I just had three beers.’ – Means you’re drunk – alcohol-rich beer.
I met Frank Murphy, Paddy Clarke, the inimitable Hughie McDowell, and numerous other fly fishing guides on my six-month sabbatical. Many were European tournament fly fishers and Commonwealth tournament anglers. All great anglers and fly tyers.
Hughie McDowell tied innumerable number #18s and smaller dries for me using only his two hands with thick blacksmith fingers. Tools: a hook, some deer hair, and thread while standing in the water facing a stiff breeze – never saw anything like it before or since. He was also the fly fishing champion of Ireland.
Passing the time we squared off occasionally for a target game – 30/35-feet away. Hughie could hit the target, repeatedly, after one false cast. I never beat him.
The New Zealander guides in the ’90s were better than most US freshwater guide counterparts, in my opinion – the exception American west guides and Florida Keys guides. However, I don’t believe the disparity of guide scholarship exists today.
What Fish Hear
Water has a density greater than air; around a thousand times denser than air. Sound in the finned environment travels about a mile a second, or roughly five times faster than in the air. So, the importance of sound to the survival of a trout has, over the millennia, lead to unique ways to detect ‘sound.’
Hearing – you can’t be serious; cleats?
- Inner ear – they don’t have an external ear, their body tissue is the same density as water so sound passes unmuted to the inner ear.
- Near field up to about 25-feet [+/-] fish can use particles for a bounce back and forth and heard in the inner ear. The inner ear also detects the far-field, and their swim bladder amplifies it.
- Lateral line – Some fish can detect and catch prey within 10- to 20-feet by using their lateral-line system. But especially to detect nearby moving prey or predators, and to avoid running into objects at night or in the darkness of turbid or deep water.
What an angler needs to know about trout
‘Putting cleats on wade boots is ridiculous; it’s like arguing over what kind of cup improves drinking hemlock.’ — McDowell
- Fish will bolt if a sound is unnatural to it, but fish will get used to road traffic and other human-made noises if they are the repeated. However, clomping along with cleats in your wade shoes is plain ridiculous. Slam a fly on the water and forget about a redo – they’re all gone. However, plop a damselfly on the water and you’re good.
- The idiot brother-in-law dropping stuff and clanging around on the skiff deck will chase fish for a long way off.
- All of the above should alert you that your cast, fly selection, and all critical retrieve need to be planned out. Oh, and greenish-blue fly line and leader material are less visible. Don’t kid yourself about fluoro.