Wangapeka | Karamea | Leslie

posted in: Mini Adventures | 0

Hello Adventure gang this is Tyson, brother of badass adventurer Lorelei “Cashmere” Schmitt. You may remember me from the honeymoon hike on the Greenstone Caples track. I was the guy who twisted his ankle but also the one person who brought a fishing rod. I recently visited my sister and brother in law Jacob in the lovely country of New Zealand. While there I embarked on pretty lengthy solo tramp in Kahurangi National Park. My course was actually scouted 2 years prior after Lore and Jacob saw huge trout while hiking along the Karamea River and therefore determined TYSON MUST GO TO THIS RIVER!

After spending several fun filled days in Nelson mountain biking with Jacob and climbing massive hills/mountains via bike and one regrettable “hike a bike” incident, I was feeling ready for the challenge. The plan was to hike up the Wangapeka River/Track over the saddle into the Karamea River valley, down the Karamea then up out of the valley on the Leslie river/track up to the tablelands and end at the Flora car park. 7 days, 6 nights and roughly 100 kilometers.

The department of conservation has built hundreds of huts around New Zealand many in remote places. Lumber and supplies are flown in via helicopter and volunteers construct the huts.

First of all my New Zealand family is WAY more badass than me when it come to tramping. Lorelei and Jacob hiked/tramped the entire Pacific Crest Trail in 2015 You can even read about it. Things have changed and their daughter (my niece) Shirley isn’t quite ready for extended time off the grid so I was taking on this adventure solo.

Day 1

On Christmas morning the SchmcElwee’s and I drove about 90 minutes from Nelson to the start of the Wangapeka Track at the rolling river car park.

Riding to the car park with the SchmcElwees

Despite my pack being somewhat vetted by Lore and Jacob, I still brought too much stuff. In addition to all the necessary hiking items (sleeping pad, sleeping bag, small stove etc) I was also planning to fish…..a lot. I had 2 rods, 2 reels + 1xtra sinking line spool. (Can’t bring one rod, what if I broke it on my first cast after hiking for 3 days?)

A few other dumb things I brought:

  • 1 salami that needed to be refrigerated
  • 1 big SLR camera
  • 12 tortilla wraps (prob only needed 6)
  • 1 big bag of chocolate covered ginger balls that I ended up really not liking
  • 2 blocks of cheese
  • “Back up” fishing bag In case I lost my main pouch
  • Several other debatable clothing items

After arriving at the car park, I immediately spotted a brown trout in the pool right below us and knew I had come to the right place. The gang hiked in for a good hour or so with me to help see me off but I often peeled off to try and catch these massive trout. I continued to see fish as we passed nice deep emerald colored pools. The trout showed zero interest in my flies and often would spook (swim away scared) most every time I approached them. This would be a recurring trend. I said goodbye to my New Zealand family and continued on now committed to staying out here for the next week.

My New Zealand family sending me off.

After walking up the track a bit more I came upon a huge pool with a trout that was easily 10+ lbs. Realizing this trout would never have grown this big being stupid I actually just watched him swim around mesmerized. This might not seem not all that cool to most folks but I’m what you call “Fish fuct”

Fish fuct: a state of being in which fishing, observing fish or talking about fish takes all priority in one’s life.

Due to my affliction (Fish Fuct) I observed this trout for several minutes

After a few more failed fishing attempts at additional holes along the Wangapeka I realized I had an 11+ kilometer hike to the Kings Creek hut and I had only hiked about 2ks thus far. So I spent the later part of the afternoon hiking up steadily. About 2ks before the hut I crossed a swing bridge which is a little tricky with a large pack on your back and finally reached the hut around 7:30. Despite its large size (22 bunks) I was alone at the hut.

Kings Creek Hut

I guess not everyone goes hiking into the wilderness on Christmas. I quickly dumped my big pack and grabbed just my fly fishing items and tried to have one last go at it. I followed a small path near the hut that ended next to a 10 ft/3 meter waterfall. Below the falls I saw the river and 2 smaller trout in the pool below. I briefly considered getting around the falls by hanging down off a branch to lower my self down Tarzan style but wisely reconsidered. I started to realize accessing the river was going to be much more difficult than I planned for. More often than not the Wangapeka was basically 10-50 meters below the track on a sheer cliff or extremely steep hillside. This would prove to be another ongoing theme. I finally walked back the track about 5-10 minutes and found a small section in which I could get to the river. Once again my fishing attempts were fruitless. Day 1 zero trout.>

I returned to the hut to finally try out one of my dehydrated meals I purchased. For some reason I was excited to see how these tasted and what this “hiker trash” lifestyle was all about. It turns out the meals aren’t particularly savory but after hiking all day it’s amazing how good terrible food tastes. I finished eating and promptly crashed on the nice pads they provide in the huts. I think I fell asleep in less than a minute.

Day 2

I woke up very early in the hut and made a quick breakfast. Having not made coffee with freeze dried ingredients before I made arguably the strongest cup of coffee of all time. I sipped it much like Will Ferrell’s character “Buddy” sips his coffee in the movie “Elf”. It was beyond bitter and the powdered milk didn’t really cut it down much.

Like Buddy, I found my first batch of coffee quite bitter.

The good news was it had rained overnight which was must needed in New Zealand as they had been having a drought for a few months now. The bad news was it rained last night and therefore every root and rock I was to scramble over for the day would be that much more slick. I should mention that my right ankle has issues (hence spraining it the last time I was tramping in New Zealand) I twisted it severely many years ago running for a train in the snow in Boston and it is much more prone to twisting now. I also have a twice surgically repaired left knee. I tore my ACL skiing and later had my meniscus trimmed. The knee is never going to be quite right. It clicks, gets swollen at times and hurts when the barometric pressure changes. I once had it X-rayed only to find out that I have two decent sized screws installed that I wasn’t totally aware were in my body. So when it comes to scrambling around wet rocks and roots I have to be careful… especially when going to a remote valley that’s only accessible by hiking in for 2-3 days or taking a helicopter. Good times!

Today was a big day for hiking. I planned to hike up the Wangapeka 9 more kilometers to the stone hut. From there I had a 10 kilometer hike over the Saddle to the Helicopter flat hut then either down the Initial part of the Karamea or down a trail called “lost valley” to the Trevor Carter hut. Since I had so much hiking to do and the Wangapeka was slowly getting narrower and narrower and even more scarily inaccessible due to the giant cliffs on each side: I was not planning to fish while hiking today. I started climbing in the cool morning towards the stone hut. I quickly came upon another hut only this one is more historic. It was called Cecil’s hut. Built in the 30’s it had been restored and was really cool! It looked exactly like what you would think a New Zealand hut from the 30’s would look like. I debated internally whether it would have been cooler to stay here last night but eventually decided it would be a bit creepy to do alone. Having researched this track before the trip, several people mentioned feeling Cecil’s “presence” while staying at the hut. Cool to look at but I’ll pass staying there with a sheep herding ghost during a rainstorm by myself in a country on the other side of the world.

Cecil’s hut built in 1935

I continued up the track towards the stone hut wiggling around the aforementioned wet roots and rocks. The tracks here aren’t nicely bench cut trails but rather twisting turning goat paths that constantly kept me and my old man ankle and knees on high alert. They would continue to get more gnarly as the day wore on. After about 2.5 hours of steady up I smelled a nice wood burning smell and sure enough popped out at the stone hut a few minutes later. Inside the hut was a nice young New Zealander (kiwi) named Hamish. This was actually the second Hamish I had met this trip having surfed with Jacobs friend Hamish right after I arrived in Wellington. Hamish seems to be a popular name here. I thought it was reserved for the guy wearing a kilt in the Braveheart movie.

My new friend Hamish chilling with my overpacked backpack at the Stone hut.

Hiker Hamish was quite friendly and like me out here by himself. He asked me if I had felt the earthquake last night around 6:30? I didn’t recall an earthquake but I could have been distracted during my attempts at not catching fish. The Karamea valley is notoriously earthquake prone and I would later see some of the aftermath from these historical events later in the tramp. Hamish also mentioned the loud sound and earth shake could have been a landslide too. Either way it wasn’t making me feel more safe about my journey into this remote area. While hanging out we were greeted by a family of Weka. Which I thought looked something like a chicken/duck combo. They are quite curious birds and came right up to the hut several times either to check us out or beg for food (perhaps both).

Friendly Weka family at the Stone Hut

Hamish mentioned he was also planning on going to the Trevor Carter hut that night but intended to break off at the saddle to the “Biggs Top” route which would provide some outstanding views but also a very long and steep decent down to the Karamea. I decided to go the longer but less steep way to you know…avoid steep wet things.

I said goodbye to Hamish and began climbing up the saddle. The track now was getting steeper and steeper and I was having to stop every few minutes and take a couple deep breaths. Finally reaching the saddle I took a break and ate some crackers and also cut off as much salami I could muster before realizing I could no longer continue eating it since I was now away from all refrigeration for the second day. As I began making my way down the other side of the saddle I came across several landslides which required very careful navigating around and one false step could send you tumbling down the mountain. I had a few scary thoughts of “what if an earthquake happens right now?”

Please don’t have an earthquake right now.

Surely more of the mountain would slide off and I’d be riding it down like a toboggan with my over packed backpack attached to me. One slide in particular was quite hairy especially descending down the reroute. I resorted to my niece Shirley’s technique of kicking out the legs (she’s learning to walk) and sliding down on your back side (thanks for the tip Shirley). As I continued down I was feeling the effects of my giant pack and decided to get rid of some weight. My sister will not be proud of me for this but with tremendous pleasure and relief I threw the last bit of Salami as far off the mountain as I could. A true tramper would have at least buried this piece of waste but I must admit throwing a golf ball sized bit of Salami from the side of a mountain in such a remote area was extremely satisfying. (Deep sigh)

The start of the Karamea river.

After another hour or so I popped out into a clearing and there was the beginning of the Karamea river with a sign and everything. At this point the river was only about 6 feet wide.

It was funny to think I would be following it for the next 4ish days and how much bigger it would get as I worked my way down the valley. In the meantime I continued down the track and actually had to cross the Karamea 3 times. On one of the crossings my foot slipped a bit on the rocks and my feet and face got wet but somehow not my torso or legs. It was a downward dog type of spill if you’re familiar with yoga. The last crossing had a “V” bridge option. This is just like the swing bridges I had been on but only had one wire to balance on in the middle.

Not feeling the unnecessary wire walk.

Once again reason trumped my high wire ambitions so I crossed jumping from rock to rock but luckily without any downward dog type of spills. On the other side of this creek was the helicopter flat. I paused for a minute to relax only to start to feel the wrath of New Zealand’s dirty little secret.

Sand Flies

The Hobbits never tell you about the Sand Flies

The south island of New Zealand (particular the west coast) has the most ravenous and nasty insect I have encountered in all my travels. The dreaded sand fly. For those not familiar, these tiny little black flies try to eat you alive one small nasty bite at a time. When Captain Cook first came to New Zealand he described them as “mischievous animals” I would describe them as “tiny satans”. During the honeymoon hike 4 years ago I was attacked by these flies while catching one of the nicest and biggest trout I’ve ever caught. Such a great moment of my life that unfortunately was accompanied by about 27 bites on my hands that happened in less than 5 minutes. While I was “mostly” prepared for them this trip at the present moment I wasn’t. I decided very quickly to cross the Karamea one more time and head up the “Lost Valley” track that seemed to be the most direct way down to the Trevor Carter hut. While this route was indeed direct: as in directionally, it proved to be anything but in terms of tramping. First I climbed up for another 45 minutes (I thought I was done climbing) then I started down a very overgrown grassy but not at all smooth decent. Knowing my ankle issues I had to constantly push away grass so I could see where each foot was going. The route was suppose to be 1.5-2 hrs it took me closer to 3. The good news was once I broke through a clearing on the decent I spotted the now bigger Karamea valley and the striking Mt Kendall towering above it.

The lost valley was certainly “lost” but I know the Karamea is down there.

After slogging down the overgrown grass minefield I at last hit the Trevor Carter hut. Once again I was alone at the 12 person hut with no sign of Hiking Hamish. He was planning on continuing up the valley to do the other half of the Wangapeka towards the west coast so I figured he got over Biggs Top, descended then just kept going. What I thought would be a 8ish hours day of hiking had taken almost 12 hours. Still being “fish fuct” I dropped my pack at the hut and headed down to the river with my fishing gear. The Karamea was much bigger here and much more likely to hold trout. I pushed up the river a bit as dusk approached again spooking a few trout and killing any possibility of catching one. But the good news was there were trout! After my failed attempts I did spot one of the famous New Zealand Eel’s working its way down the river.

A now wider Karamea river complete with the native giant New Zealand eel.

This particular eel was no less than 5ft long and black! While not actually harmful I still didn’t like the thought of one of these swimming between my legs as I fished…yikes! The crazy thing is the eels are natural to New Zealand and the trout were introduced from Europe and America. What’s even more amazing is these eels are born in the ocean and migrate all the way to high alpine rivers and lakes. You can read more about them here if you’re a nature nerd. I retreated back to the hut accompanied by several hundred of the local sand flies.

The Karamea river and Trevor Carter Hut which is named after a young volunteer who tragically died in a car accident.

I quickly escaped inside and prepared another less the appetizing freeze dried meal. This one came out particularly bad as I didn’t put enough water in. Think half hooked ramen with frozen peas and carrots. Unlike the salami, I at least buried the last portion in a hole outside the hut. As the sun finally sunk down the horizon a storm rolled through the valley as I laid down to go to sleep. There was one bush just outside the hut that looked particularly scary and boogie man like in the sideways rain and mist. I had now hiked in for 2 days and was feeling very much alone out in this remote valley. Yes you could say “afraid”. Oh and I still hadn’t caught a fish let alone even had an encouraging encounter with one.

Day 3

Once again I woke up early and prepared for another day of tramping and fishing on the Karamea river. While my coffee was markedly better than the previous day it still was a big difference from my beloved french press at home.

The Karamea valley looking pretty glorious today.

Today the plan was to hike and fish 9.5 kilometers to the Thor Hut and potentially push on another 6 kilometers to the Venus Hut. I would be working my way down the actual Karamea river/valley which I knew had trout and fishing opportunities (at least I read there would be) I had planned for this type of tramping by buying special thick sandals and neoprene socks so I could “wet wade” while I hiked. I tried a few of the small runs in and around the hut with no success. I then crossed the now waist deep Karamea one more time and jumped on the track on the left side of the river. The track in this area was truly rigorous. Picture climbing up and down rooty hillsides with a giant backpack on. Now repeat that a few hundred times.

After pushing down for a half hour or so the track swung out near the river which was actually in a much more navigable open valley now. I looked and looked for trout with no success. I was about to give up looking for a bit but then spotted a truly large brown trout next to the bank hanging out above a log slowly sipping on unfortunate bugs that got stuck on the water. I very carefully backed off my view point and rigged up a dry fly. Moving at a glacial pace I very very slowly poked my head back out to see how I could try and fool this beast. With trees and bushes surrounding me a traditional cast was not at all doable. I thought about doing a “Slingshot” move. Basically you just hold the fly with your hand then bend the rod so the fly will pop out once you let go. As I pulled the fly back I stepped on twig and the giant trout immediately fled the area. I never even got a cast in.

Despite my continued difficulties trying to catch a trout I kept pressing on. Now that the valley was more open and flat I decided to just walk along the river banks and work my way down the river. I knew the track would be on the left side so I could always just hike up and rejoin it. Now out in the open I was able to spot several trout sitting ideally in the river. Walking with all my gear and my fly rod proved to be difficult. I dropped the bag several times to try and put some casts over the trout. I was finally able to get a decent shot or two at these trout. Yet even my well placed fly would float down over a trouts nose less than 6 inches below with no response. After doing this for an hour or so the sun had climbed high in the sky and as I made my way down the valley the river was starting to descend in to a rocky boulder strewn section. This was going to be extremely difficult to navigate with a giant backpack on.

Beautifully rugged. I think I’ll try and get back to the track now.

I decided to cut my losses here and get back to the track so I could hike for a few hours during the midday sun which is generally not the best time of day to fish for trout anyways. Getting back to the track proved to be one of the harder things I had experienced yet. The bush and growth around the river was very thick and unforgiving. I quickly realized I would need to put my rod back into its case. Since there was still water all around I kept the sandals on and bush bashed my way off the river. Finally reaching the forest I became engulfed in a labyrinth of twisted mossy trees and 10-15 ft high humps and standing water. I kept thinking at any moment I would turn around to find yoda standing there ready to teach me the ways of the Jedi. This hallucination could be influenced from my viewing of “The empire strikes back” for the 27th time during my flight over from America. After a solid 45 minutes wandering around the swamp I finally spotted one of the tell tale trackmarkers up the hill. I found my way to the track and promptly hugged the tree and trail marker. I had returned to some semblance of guidance out here in the wilderness. I changed out the sandals for my more sturdy hiking boots and pushed on. Now that I was full on in the valley I crossed several side streams and gullies as the track moved down the valley. Additionally there were many landslides sections with work arounds. One was so severe it had actually dammed the river below and created a small lake known as “moonstone” lake. This happened during the 1929 Murchison earthquake which registered a 7.3 on the Richter Scale. The going continued to be a lot of scrambling over wet roots and rocks. I utilized my hands and arms generously with more and more kicking out of the legs Shirley style.

One of the many swing bridges I crossed.

I finally reached the Thor hut around 2:00 pm. I paused briefly outside only to be attacked by the sand flies so I jumped into the older hut to decide what to do next. It was extremely hot out now. The sand flies were going bonkers and when I ran to look out at the river again it was very quiet with no visible fish. I decided I would push on another 6 kilometers to the Venus hut. The thought was I will set myself up to do “heaps” of fishing on day 4 as I would only have a 6K hike to the Crow hut which was suppose to be in the heart of the Karamea and great fishing. The track between Thor and Venus was more of the same except one section that was so treacherous the beloved DOC (Department of Conservation) installed a chain along the rock/cliff so you could shimmy along holding onto the chain and hopefully prevent yourself from falling into the river.

Time to chain it up.

After another rigorous 2 hours I at last came to the Venus hut. Once again I found the hut unoccupied. I wolfed down some snacks and was excited to try and get some backpackless fishing in. It was around 5:30 so I had a good 3 hours to get after it as well. There was one problem even though the river was right below the hut it was “right below” a 30ft\10 meter cliff. I walked around a little bit to see there were cliffs everywhere you looked. The venus stream itself was next to the hut but was crossed by a swing bridge over the aforementioned cliffs. I decided I would push down the river a little more and hope to find a way down. After walking for a good 15 minutes I finally found an “extremely steep hillside” but at least it wasn’t a cliff. Using all my scrambling skills that I had acquired over the past 3 days I was able to very carefully weasel my way all the way down to the river hoping I was in a spot that was fishable. When I finally emerged out of the bush to the river I was greeted by a boulder strewn river. This is prime trout habitat but not necessarily the easiest place to fish. I carefully worked my way out to little pockets of water by scrambling from rock to rock.

Plenty of “pocket water” and sand flies.

This was difficult to do without spooking fish, wearing sandals, injuring myself and while getting assaulted by sand flies. I was able to get out and fish these pockets but would often spook whatever trout seemed to be near with in a cast or 2. This continued for hours. After working my way up I finally came to a somewhat smooth pool and sure enough spotted another trout. This time I only kinda spooked him and after standing still like a statue for several minutes the trout actually swam back in front of me and I was able to float a nice looking fly right over him…….nada. I worked my way back to where I had come down the hill/cliff and continued to not catch fish. One of the reasons that sandflies are so tough when fishing is that you have to remain still and quite often have to switch your flies or retie the entire rig. When nymphing 2 flies with an indictor this is usually at least a 5-10 minute process that requires extreme concentration and precision. Sand flies are actually quite avoidable if you’re walking and moving but the basic elements of fly fishing (stealth, concentration, lack of movement) don’t mesh well with these nasty creatures, especially the whole “retying your rig for 10 minutes part). Even though I was prepared with a neck wrap/mask gloves, long sleeve shirt and hat those little bastards would attack my fingertips, nose or back when my shirt inevitably came untucked from time to time. Finally calling it a night I took a moment to appreciate just how beautiful my surroundings were then quickly scaled back up the hill/cliff to the hut. After I arrived I peeled off my wet clothes and revealed dozens of fresh sand fly bites that would nag me deep into the night in my sleeping bag.

Venus hut with some pretty clouds.

I ate another freeze dried dinner that was thankfully better than the last one then laid down in my bunk in the empty hut. In my mind I was thinking: I flew half around the world, took another plane to the south island, drove 1.5 hours to the wilderness then hiked in 3 days over extremely treacherous terrain, got lost in swamp then was eaten alive by “Tiny Satans” all to not catch fish. There is a real possibility that I’m gonna get skunked out here even though I committed to doing it for 7 days. Sweet plan Tyson.

Day 4

I awoke to a beautiful day in the Venus Hut which helped off-set all the sand fly bites I had itched throughout the night. My attempt at breakfast was my strongest showing yet. The coffee was almost actually drinkable. Since the Crow hut was only a 6 kilometer or 2 hour hike I would have plenty of time to fish. After my experience of scampering down the cliff the night before I decided to push towards the crow hut and hopefully find a spot on the river that was a bit more fishable. The track continued to be unruly and difficult but I was at least use to it at this point. Now 3 days deep I was truly in the middle of the wilderness and hadn’t seen anyone since hiker Hamish way back at the stone hut on the Wangapeka. About halfway to the crow hut the track goes over a large swing bridge crossing the Karamea. The river was now significantly wider than back when I encountered its infant beginnings 2 days ago. Luckily heights don’t bother me too much and my fish fuct mind was consumed with looking off the sides for trout not thinking about what a fall would entitle. Sure enough I spotted 2 large trout deep in the pool under the swing bridge.

Despite this I kept pushing on except following the track was a little difficult once over the bridge. I finally figured out you had to go back under the bridge then go up stream a few hundred yards, climb up a ridiculously steep rooted hillside and proceed to follow the orange triangles that had marked the route. After figuring it out I pushed on. I got the feeling I was getting close to the crow hut when I came upon a giant pool that with further investigation revealed no less than 15 big trout chilling in it. I debated whether to try and fish it when all of a sudden one trout jumped clean out of the water devouring a fly that was on the surface. Finally feeling a little hopefully I walked down the path a bit more with just my fly rod equipped with a dry fly. Once again to access this pool required some borderline rock climbing to get myself down to the river. Once I finally got down there I moved painfully slowly to inch up to the pool without disturbing the trout. I had on a nice 9ft leader with another 3 ft of tippet to make sure my fly was presented as delicately as possible. This time I was able to make a few decent casts out above the trout and watched intently as my fly slowly floated back with the slow moving water……still nothing. A few more casts and the trout moved away and I was once again left shaking my head. I had come to the conclusion that sight fishing for these huge brown trout was almost impossible and my sweaty, sloppy American fishing skills just weren’t going to cut it. Feeling defeated I climbed back up the cliff grabbed my pack and pushed on to the crow hut which was only about 10 minutes down the track. As usual I found the hut empty. The good news was the river was much more accessible from this hut and there was a nice view overlooking the Karamea. Right next to the hut was the crow river which flows into the Karamea and has a reputation for having good fishing as well.

I broke for lunch only to see the small swing bridge that crosses the crow river bounce up and down, meaning someone was coming! A minute later I was joined by Sue and Greg. Sue was from New Zealand and Greg from Australia. They had hiked in from the way I was to go out. Tablelands to the Leslie to the Karamea. They were a very friendly couple and were surprised to meet an American out here by himself. Apparently most Americans out here are rich guys that are helicoptered in with a guide. This lead to us discussing America. They were also happy to hear I’m not the biggest fan of Donald Trump. I would keep this blog post non political but I’m one of those “crazy liberals” that thinks people should get health insurance and we shouldn’t destroy the planet. I don’t know maybe keeping places like the Karamea wild might be worth it?!? Anyways we shit on Trump for a while which was nice then they carried on towards the Venus Hut that I had just come from.

Who’s ready for Sand Flies?

Now relieved of my pack I geared up with my 2 fly fishing rods ready to go down fighting to catch fish no matter how many sand flies tried to eat me. I walked down the track about 20-30 minutes so I could work my way back towards the hut that evening. In reality this is really the way to fish a river—moving upstream. While I was able to do this on the Wangapeka, I had kinda been going the wrong way “fishing wise” on the Karamea. Once again accessing the river required some cliff/super steep hillside scrambling. Once on the river I proceeded to break off my flies and had to retie my set-up. An hour passed with no luck. I then moved up to a nice pool at the end of a big run and spotted a big brown trout at the tail end of the pool. What happened? As usual I got a few nice drifts over this fish that were ignored and then he spooked. I’m a good 0-57 on my trout encounters at this point.

I then moved up to the faster flowing water and swapped my dry fly rod for my nymphing rig. As glorious as it is to catch a trout on a dry fly, I would still say I catch 90% of trout nymphing. I went ahead and started nymphing when an amazing thing happened….I had a legit hit on one of my drifts!?! I almost couldn’t believe it myself. Finally having some semblance of encouragement I tweaked my rig and put all my fishing wisdom into the next few casts. Sure enough towards the head of the run under some faster moving water I did the unthinkable…hooked into a fish! It was a feisty brown that took some time to balance fighting him while trying to get my line back on the spool. I also had left my net slightly behind me during one of my fly retying/sandfly buffett breaks. I was able to get everything sorted out and netted a good 18-20 inch Brown trout-probably 2-3 lbs. In most places in America that is a solid if not larger sized trout. On the Karamea that’s a smaller fish…but still it was a fish. I didn’t get skunked. The trip wasn’t an epic failure. I can face my fishing friends again without hanging my head in shame.

It happened. I caught a fish!

Feeling invigorated by my catch I worked my way back up the river. While the Karamea was much wider at this point the lack of rain and shallower riffles allowed me to cross it when needed. A few more holes and runs were explored but I did not hook into anymore fish. This section of the river was truly beautiful and having finally caught a fish I thoroughly enjoyed taking in my surroundings even though I had to see through the cloud of sandflies that followed me.

Looking back up stream

I worked my way back to the Crow hut prepared another dehydrated dinner and promptly laid down for the evening. I certainly had expected to be catching fish left and right while sitting in my cubicle weeks ago preparing for this adventure. The reality is the low water levels and conditions were proving to be difficult. This water was gin clear and the trout were old and wise. The fishing was hard and unforgiving. That said I did finally catch a fish and must say I slept much better for having done so.

Day 5

Today started with me realizing I was pretty dirty after being out here for 4 days. I had small bar of soap and the smaller crow river right next to me. I could get down there easily…so I stripped down to my birthday suit and jumped in. It was only about 2 ft deep so I had to work the angles to get myself cleaned up, and…yes the water was cold. I quickly jumped back into the hut dried myself off and started preparing some food. Once again I saw the swing bridge bounce out of the corner of my eye and was soon greeted by two young Danish fishermen. If they had come 10 minutes prior it would have been super awkward.< Peter and Christian rolled in ready to talk fishing and what had been going on out here. Their collective passion for fishing was truly remarkable, they were super fired up to talk to me about everything! It was almost like they each drank 4 cups of the first batch of coffee I made out here. The Danish duo had hiked in from the Leslie track and slept a few kilometers downstream in a tent the night before. They thought I was the “Czech” guy who had fished through the valley recently. They were also impressed that an American had hiked in not helicoptered in, and coming out here by chopper “is for wusses”. Peter had fished in this area a few times and said this was the hardest he’s ever seen it. The drought was making everything extremely difficult. He suggested I use a 18ft leader when dry fly fishing. (My 12ft was undersized) Christian encouraged me to fish the foam lines at the end of the runs but It was hard for everyone right now. They only got a few fish the previous day between the two of them and they were clearly experienced fishermen.The Danish duo were headed up stream so I told them about the big pool just ahead with a dozen+ trout in it. Amazingly Peter also couldn’t waiting to scramble down treacherous hillsides as I did near Venus Hut. His words “I like to fish the really difficult access places that are too hard for old guys, those fish almost never see a fisherman.” After more fishing talk Peter told me he worked for Orvis in Denmark. When I asked if he knew my friend Charlie Perkins who works for Orvis in their home base of Manchester, Vermont. He replied “Yes I took him fishing last month in Denmark, that pike he caught on the fly, I was with him”. I indeed remembered the picture Charlie had posted. So I met someone with a mutual friend on the other side of the planet 3 days into the bush. Is that amazing?!? or are there only so many idiots in the world who try and do this type of nonsense. We exchanged a few more notes on our respective routes having each gone where the other was going. Then my new Danish friends took off for the big pool up stream nearly skipping to get there. Whoa and I thought I liked to fish.... [caption id="attachment_5061" align="aligncenter" width="1250"] Danish Peter. This guy was totally fish fuct.[/caption]

Feeling like Vince Lombardi just gave me a pregame fishing speech I gathered my stuff to head downstream and continue to the Karamea bend hut determined to get after it! I had been told by the guys there were several big pools and runs to check out and the going would be easier than what I had just done. I had roughly 9.5 kilometers to the next hut or an estimated 3.5 hours of tramping. I spent the morning fishing several runs as I made my way down the Karamea. The river had grown wider with more water now that the crow river had joined forces. I continued to spot fish in the big pools but put more effort into nymphing the runs that proceeded the pools.

Unfortunately I still struggled to seduce more brown trout to my flies. After fishing 4 or 5 spots without success the sun had moved high above me. Today was particularly hot so I once again choose to get back to the shady track and move on to the Karamea bend hut. The track here was indeed less rugged than it had been in the middle of the valley. There was still plenty of roots and rocky areas to navigate but more spaces of gradual decline or incline in between. After a good 2+ hours the river really opened up and I could tell I was nearing the bend. First I came across a staff hut for the Karamea bend. Signs warned me to stay clear if any helicopter was approaching or taking off. After another 10 minutes of walking I came upon the hut itself. Today I would not be alone as a young German couple “Merlin and Sebastian” were currently relaxing inside the hut. After sitting outside briefly and once again immediately being attacked by the sand flies I could understand why they choose to hang inside. It was now mid afternoon so I also came in and took a break to eat some lunch. This hut was good sized at 22 bunks and like many others had some curious wekas about. Just outside the hut was the Leslie river which is also known to have good fishing. It joined the Karamea a few hundred yards down in the expansive bend.

Karamea Bend

Peter and Christian had encouraged me to fish in this area as the access was easier and river more forgiving. I rigged up both a dry fly and nymphing rod inside the hut away from the pesky sand flies and prepared to fish hard into the evening. My German bunk mates were impressed with my head to toe clothing coverage. As I made my way out into the evil world of sand flies they shouted out “you’re a determined man!” Once outside I decided to check out the Leslie a little bit before making my way down to the open bend. The Leslie was smaller but still had runs and pools that were more than capable of holding trout. I moved up stream and began working a run. While targeting one larger trout I saw to my surprise I hooked into a smaller fish I had not seen but quickly lost him. I still had my flies and rig but it was tangled so I would need to re-rig it. This as usual proved to be very difficult as the sand flies were extreme in this area. I finally got my self squared away and went closer to the head of the run only to immediately cast flies into a tree branch. I hadn’t even got one cast in with the newly fixed set up. What can I say even experienced fisherman do dumb things sometimes. Frustrated I once again set up shop back on the bank and retied. The sand flies were relentless. As I struggled I considered giving up and just going back to the hut and out of this misery. Finally fixed again I was ready to take my second cast of the hour. I put a really nice cast at the head of the run and mended my line nicely for the ideal “drag free drift”. God rewarded me for my perseverance as my indicator went down and I was into a nice sized trout. This fish was much bigger than my first fish and ran up and down the river taking line and trying to run away from me. It also jumped several times revealing it’s size and strength which were both impressive. After a very solid and fun fight I netted the brown trout. The fish was as long as my net and nice and thick. I would guess it was over 5lbs.

Beautiful fish. You can get a sense of the sand flies by looking at my arm.

In America this is a really big fish and I was stoked to have caught it after so much struggling and sacrifice. Like every other trout I admired the fish snapped a quick picture while keeping it wet then released it back into the river.

Quite often people are surprised that I release all the trout I catch. While I do eat fish more often they are salt water fish. When it comes to trout I feel like there are only so many in a river and I don’t need to kill or remove what few fish there are. Feeling relieved having now caught a 2nd trout I decided to head down to where the Leslie and Karamea rivers merged. I fished the confluence for a bit with no success. I moved upstream to a shallower riffle and was able to cross the Karamea so I could head downstream. This area was very wide open and had almost dune like features as I walked across the open banks. Further down the river also split into several streams here so I went downstream and tried several area’s that looked promising. While good looking and “fishy” the small split up streams didn’t produced a fish and I didn’t see any either….oh and there was one more thing..I cannot emphasize how terrible the sand flies were. This trip was actually my 3rd trip to New Zealand and in all my travels in this beautiful country no area had worse sand flies then the Karamea Bend. So I declare the Karamea Bend – “The Sand Fly Capital of New Zealand®” Despite no fish and sand flies I did appreciate the beauty of the spot. While much of the Karamea had steep hillsides and cliffs plummeting down to the river. This area was open and strikingly beautiful. I was able to get a better sense of the scenery and valley as I walked back to the hut.

At least the Sand Fly Capital of New Zealand® is very beautiful

When I arrived the German couple was already laying in their bunks even though it wasn’t quite dark yet, but another tramper had shown up. His name was Jan (Pronounced Yan) and like Peter and Christian he was also from Denmark. Jan was a serious fisherman and we immediately hit it off talking about the Karamea and more. Jan had also fished today up on the Leslie but had gotten skunked. He was impressed I not only caught a fish but a good sized one as well. Again me being an American but willing to put in the work to get out here impressed him too, which made me pretty sure that Americans in New Zealand are often wealthy and happy to pay for luxuries like a guide and helicopter service to access these very remote places.

Jan had been coming out to the Karamea since the early 90’s. He often carries a large pack out here so he can stay out for 16-20 days at a time! He said during the holidays and new years he will see other people out here but during November or say February he won’t see another person for weeks at a time. He also has a fishing tradition. He only catches 2 fish a day. If he catches them with in an hour he’s done, but more often than not takes several hours if not the whole day to achieve his quota. Jan recommended I fish early and nymph. He also told me that you’ll catch a lot more trout you don’t see than you do. While he has caught trout in the pools more often than not he catches them in the runs nymphing. I told him about all the trout I had spotted in shallow water and drifted dry flies over. “Those fish are basically sleeping you’ll never catch them.” Said Jan. “It’s worse with the low water conditions too”. Jan’s insight made me feel better about my struggles out here on the Karamea. I finally called it a night and crawled into my bunk.

Day 6
Merlin and Sebastian woke up early to get ahead start on the 18k track to the Salisbury Hut. I also planned to hike to the Salisbury hut today but not at 6:30 am in the morning. They left and I slept a restless hour or so before getting ready to start the day. Today would be my last day of fishing. The track would follow the Leslie river for the next 3 hours before climbing steeply to the Splurgon’s hut and onto the tablelands.

Jan had planned to hike up the Leslie a few Kilometers. Not wanting to cross paths I decided to just leave my pack at the hut then work my way upstream for a few hours and eventually come back and retrieve my pack when the sun got too high. I got down to the stream and worked my way up river. After a half hour or so I came to a nice looking run that was very similar looking to the run I had fished last night and caught a fish in. Luckily I didn’t break off my set-up twice but actually put another nice cast into the head of the run. Sure enough I was into a fish right away. This fish was BIG. I fought it for a good deal of time and when I first caught a glimpse of it I was sure it was the biggest brown trout I’d ever tangled with. Taking my time and trusting my drag I was finally able to net the first half of the fish as it was way too big to fit in the net cleanly. Older bigger browns have a very distinct lower jaw which is where my fly had ended up. I carefully used my fishing pliers to gently remove the fly and started to revive the fish.

YES!

Most fishermen are known to exaggerate but in my humble opinion this fish was over 6 lbs and maybe closer to 7. The fish last night was the length of my net 24″ this fish was easily 2-3 inches longer than the net. Sadly I actually think it was bigger than any striped bass I had caught on a fly this past summer in Massachusetts.

Ok one more picture go ahead and twist my sand fly covered arm.

It was very rewarding to release this large specimen back into the Leslie and watch it slowly swim into the cold deep run. I did a Tiger Wood’esc fist pump and continued moving upstream to fish for a few more hours. After trying another hole or two, I hooked into another nice trout about an hour later. While this fish wasn’t as big as the last 2 I caught. It had the most attitude! After countless jumps and runs I finally got it to the net. This fish was fat like a football and really fought hard.

Another feisty brown trout

Like every other trout I’ve caught, it was released to fight another day. I had now caught my “Jan” quota for the day. I pushed up and tried a few more runs without success but I was feeling pretty satisfied about my last morning of fishing. I scrambled up the side of the hillside and thankfully found the track relatively easily and headed back to the Karamea Bend/Sand Fly Capital of New Zealand®. It was strange I felt like I had not gone all that far upstream but going back took me a solid half hour of steady walking before I reached the hut. Outside was a group of people who were swatting away at the sand flies. I said hi but jumped inside to change. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just go into the hut? Anyways I changed into hiking gear and stowed my rods and other fishing gear and prepared to do the big hike out.

I moved back up the track following the Leslie as it steadily climbed up the valley. It was a really beautiful river and I could see why Jan had targeted it. Speaking of Jan I ran into him after hiking up for an hour or so. He was changing out his socks after a morning of fishing. Once again he had struggled but was happy to hear I caught not 1 but 2 trout including a really nice one. Before parting ways I asked him if he didn’t mind telling me how old he was? His answer “65”. I was stunned. He looked like he was in his mid 50’s. I told him that he was more or less my hero and I can only dream of coming out to a place like this at that age especially when you’re carrying food for 16+ days! He smiled and nodded and we shook hands. I hope to see him again someday.

I continued hiking up the Leslie for another few hours finally hitting a swing bridge that crossed the river. After going over the river I knew the track was going to cover some significant elevation and it sure did.

For the next 90 minutes I ascended steadily out of the valley. With my giant pack and the midday heat this was some of the hardest hiking of the trip yet. I would compare it to climbing stairs for 90+ minutes straight. I had to take breaks every few minutes just to take a few deep breaths. At last I finally hit the Splurgeons Hut. This hut was more of a shelter with an open front. The DOC had added some plastic sheeting that was currently rolled up so it remained open for now. Inside was a New Zealand couple hanging out with a bottle of whisky and a few books. They were very nice and didn’t mind as I crammed some crackers and peanut butter down into my very hungry belly. When I asked them how much further it was to the top the young man pointed to the ridge high up on the right. “You gotta still get all the way up there mate”. I looked up to see the top of the ridge that lacked trees and must be the gateway to these “tablelands” I kept hearing about. While the ridge looked rather high up and far away as I started walking towards it I at least knew where the top was. After a solid hour or so I started to get up into the tussock open fields New Zealand is so well known for. The tablelands were very interesting and a nice change from the dense growth in the river valley I had been in for the last 5 days. To the north the table lands continue for miles or I should say kilometers. The impressive Mt. Arthur Range was back to the south but now visible and towering to my right.

Finally made it to the Tablelands.

I walked through the tussock fields for another 30 minutes or so. The moon was coming up on the horizon and looked really cool against the native trees. At last I came to the Salisbury hut. There was a good dozen or so people mingling in and around the hut but plenty of bunks inside. Now that I was up on the tablelands there were many outdoor options so many more people. They often come to hike the Mt Arthur range or check out the tablelands. I later found out there is a significant cave network not far from the Salisbury hut too.

Salisbury Lodge. With the standard weka bird on the left. I had a lot more company this night.

I said hi to the the German couple I had bunked with at the Sand Fly Capital of New Zealand®. We exchanged a few tales of coming all the way up the Leslie Valley and up to the Tablelands. I fixed a small dinner and ate a few snacks too. Today had been a long day so I laid down and did some reading. Nearby a couple spoke loudly and ate their dinner. For some reason the sound of loud people talking while slurping on soup started to drive me crazy so I popped out of my bunk and took a walk with my camera.

Sunset walk was worth it.

Now free from the sand flies I actually really enjoyed sitting out in the field watching the shadows slowly come across the valley. This area was more similar to the tramping I had done on previous trips to New Zealand. I remember watching a spectacular sunset in Arthur’s Pass 9 years ago while sitting in a tussock field. I recommend trying it out sometime.

I retreated back to the hut and crawled into my bunk. It had been a long day with 20+ k’s of tramping and fishing and I was exhausted. Tomorrow all I had to do was hike out 4.5 hours to the Flora car park, where hopefully I would be picked up.

Day 7

I fixed my best cup of coffee of the trip this morning. As they say 6th time is the charm! I got going on the track probably earlier than I had to. While it was tempting to take a track over towards Mt Arthur then cut down to the car park I remembered how hard the struggle up yesterday had been. I just wanted to finish this thing in one piece. Luckily the tramping here was much easier than it had been out on the Karamea. In fact it was so easy two guys snuck up on me and scared the crap out of me as they ran by me without packs un announced. Apparently they are into “trail running”. I continued hiking and was feeling grateful for the experience knowing that I was basically almost back home to safety.

Civilization is only 2.5 hours walking away.

There were several cool rock formations and shelters as I got closer to the Flora saddle. One shelter was simply mats tucked in under a rock that provided a natural roof.

Cool rock formations on the way out.

The upper shelter was more developed and had a small hut that slept 3 people.

This one had a hut built into it.

After passing the shelters the tramp was relatively uneventful. I passed a half dozen families hiking out for day walks. When I finally reached the car park I was about an hour early. It started to rain so I hung near a small hut that provided some shelter. Inside a young man name Klaus from Austria was in need of a ride out of the mountains ideally back to Nelson. My brother in law Jacob arrived eventually with the car we had borrowed and we were able to take Klaus all the way back to Nelson with us. Klaus had been cave exploring but for some reason had left his group a night before they intended to get out of there. We dropped him off at the local hostel but refused to take the money he had offered. Jacob said “I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and was given many rides. I believe in Karma and I need to give it back”.

I like this hiker trash thing. I think I’ll try and do more of it especially if fishing is involved. Maybe next time I can try and find  a place with less sand flies.

 

 

 

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