Ice Cold at Lake Alexandrina – Tangerine Holden, Mackenzie Country

Joe Bennet with his four fish from Lake Alex.

Ice Cold at Lake Alex – A newcomer with his barbaric method!

by Joe Bennet

Joe Bennet with his four fish from Lake Alex.
Joe Bennet with his four fish from Lake Alex.

The first thing I did when I came to New Zealand was to buy a tangerine Holden Belmont, the ‘Orange Roughy’; the second was to take it fishing.

Driving in England had not prepared me for the gravel roads of the Mackenzie Country and it was with caution that l steered the great and battered bonnet around ruts and boulders to the crest of the little hill. l pulled on the brake. Below me glinted Lake Alexandrina. In its depths, they told me swam an unimaginable wealth of trout. l had no idea at all how to catch them but I had Bernie and John to show me. The wind rose that first evening so we sat in the bach with gin and Bernie’s extraordinary fishing stories.

But at four a.m. the next day I peered from my bunk to see the tops of the pines as still as a painting and the lake a black mirror. l could smell the trout.

Ten impatient minutes later after John and Bernie had fluffed around with thermos flasks and other needless items we eased the dinghy out onto the silent magic of the dark lake and I volunteered to row. Five minutes later surrounded by froth and not very far from shore John relieved me of the oars.

On a favoured line drawn between the white rock and the fallen fence we anchored and I had my first taste of the deep-water wet fly method. A Yellow Mrs Simpson looking less like a fly than a milliner’s adornment, a heavy sinking line, an inexplicable water-filled bubble, a weird lasso-like casting method and a slow tugging retrieve from the depths through hands that rapidly froze. l began to understand the finger-less gloves that Bernie and John wore.

The sun was just putting a pink icing tinge on the crests of the mountains when there was a whoop from Bernie. “Fish on.”
In the whole of the language, these were Bernie’s favourite words. “Rainbow,” he said. “smallish”.

New Zealand map showing location of Lake AlexandrinaFrom the bend in his pumping rod and the strain of his back, I reckoned that his idea of smallish differed from mine.
The fish stayed deep under heavy pressure, the thick dark line scything the black surface. John readied the net. Then in a sudden eruption thirty feet from the boat the fish rose like a geyser, arched, shook and smacked back down. It was twice the size of any trout I had ever seen, “Yeah, smallish,” said Bernie.

When the trout dived under the hull she caused a merry boat-rocking dance as we straddled Bernie’s following rod, but she duly came to the scooping net and then lay gasping on aluminium. A glorious, proud, deep, rosy rainbow of about three and a half pounds. I yearned to catch one.

“Coffee,” said Bernie and he poured himself a smoking cupful from his flask. My hands were numb from the cold black water and my backside was numb from the cold metal seat. “Any chance of a cup?” I asked Bernie. “Gotta catch a fish first,” he grinned. l thought he was joking. He wasn’t joking. No fish, no coffee.

The sun was inching down the far mountain side, as rosy and desirable as the fish in the bottom of the boat. The lake stayed black. l shivered and cast my borrowed gear time and again.

John’s turn. Another magnificent rainbow, the best part of five pounds, dived and bored and jumped and thrashed but came eventually to the net. For me, nothing.

“How do you know when you’ve got a bite?” I asked.

“You know,” said Bernie and John in unison. Obviously, these super, fat fish did not nibble delicately in the manner of the roach and rudd l had spent my youth fishing for in the slow rivers of southern England. Where I came from much of the art of fishing lay in bite-detection, in the accurate interpretation of a shudder or wobble of the fight quill that you have been watching all day.

By the time the sun had crawled down to the far edge of the lake to light the fringing willows, and the lake colour had gone from black to purple to royal blue, Bernie and John had two fish each, they’d drunk most of the coffee and l was approaching hypothermia.

With the change of light, fish started to flop on the surface, often rising fully clear of the water, shaking with what seemed to he sheer exhilaration in living, and then crashing back down. Most rose quite close to the boat as if to inspect us or to laugh at my frozen, fishless, coffeeless condition.

‘They’re not feeding,” said Bernie when I asked why we didn’t cast to these risers but instead kept the baits down deep.
“Let me try some float-fishing, I suggested.

John and Bernie looked askance at each other with the amused tolerance of a keen but misguided child. l drained my plastic bubble, leaving only enough water to add casting weight, fixed it about a yard above the hook and tied on the most worm-like ‘fly’ in Bernie’s fly-box. It wasn’t worm-like at all, looking more like a fat green grub, but it seemed somehow a good meaty bait.

“Not a bad choice, actually,” said Bernie. “It’s a dragon-fly larva. They love ’em!”

A fish rose twenty yards away. John obligingly rowed the boat in its direction. I cast. Plop. And almost immediately the little bobby float dived away out of sight. l struck and yelled with delight. They were right. You knew when you had a fish on. This rainbow, my first fish in New Zealand waters, careered about the surface of the lake like a rodeo attraction. l did everything wrong but somehow the hook held and Bernie eventually slid the grateful net under about four pounds of glistening fish flesh.
l asked. Is there any coffee left. As it happened there wasn’t. But there were fish left, plenty of them, still dancing on the surface. My companions gave up fishing to help this newcomer with his barbaric method from a different hemisphere and in twenty minutes I had four fish in the boat. l should have put them back. I have done since, but then in the thrill of first capture, I couldn’t bear to.

When finally the sun rose high enough to peep over the hills and warm our backs it seemed to stun the fish. All movement stilled. We rowed gently back to breakfast and the bach.

On the grass beside it stood the tangerine Belmont, its huge bonnet ready to move me off from Lake Alexandrina on another fishing trip in this island awaiting exploration.

more recommended stories