West Coast best coast
Sometimes you’ve just got to hit the open road.
Last week I hopped in my Toyota Hiace campervan, threw on my Spotify road trip playlist and sublimely slotted my way through the Southern Alps to the West Coast near Haast; head cocked out the window the whole way, watching as tan tussocks gave way to podocarp forests the colour of pounamu and light flecked off the snow-encrusted peaks that lined the highway. I was on a mission to find a sea-run brown trout.
Known as ‘Ghosts of the Coast,’ sea-runs have a reputation for being fickle and secretive – there one day, gone the next.
I called Baylee Kersten, the West Coast Fish and Game Field Officer, to get some local knowledge and a few tips about tackle to use. He also gave me a plethora of spots to try, with the caveat that the whitebait season was in full swing and I’d do well to play nice and steer clear of the other river users.
It felt good to be living by the tides again after the relative predictability of the lake. I planned my day around the tidal movements, starting off at the mouth of the Haast as the tide was incoming, then switching between the estuary of the Hapuka and the Arawhata as the tide swung to outgoing. It was a belter of a day. Just like Wellington “on a good day,” except the skyscrapers, cafes, and clueless crocodile bikes were replaced with mounds of driftwood, fresh ocean air, and silence.
Following Baylee’s instructions, I cycled between a silicone smelt pattern and a black woolly bugger on a 10lb fluoro tippet. I cast and stripped, cast and stripped, with nay a bite. Then, two things happened. First, as I attempted to rock-hop from one rock to another and stretch my legs to complete the manoeuvre, my waders split cleanly from my belt to my knee, like paper being shredded. I only realised something was wrong because there was a splash in the kerfuffle and I suddenly felt glacial-cold water where it’s not necessarily very comfortable to feel it. (My crotch, for all those left wondering.) The second thing that happened was that I hooked a fish. It wasn’t a big fish, and I don’t think it was a sea-run, but she was full of beans and gave my ticker a good workout as she cartwheeled in the air and dove deep into the rocks trying to escape.
I eventually got her into the net, took the smelt fly out of her mouth, and admired her unique colours and patterns in the way only a trout fisherman can. Then I released her. What a feeling when a plan actually comes together! For the first time in a while, I didn’t feel like a fishing kook. (Though my waders might beg to differ.)
As I drove back towards Haast I decided to stop in at one of the rivers for one last cast (you know how it is) and as I pulled off the road I felt the front wheels sink into deep, gooey mud. Fuck. I hesitated for a second and then put it in reverse and meekly tried the accelerator. Spinning wheels and mud slinging everywhere. I looked at my phone and realised I was out of service. Double fuck. Thankfully, one of those whitebaiters I was trying to avoid happened to be driving past and pulled over to help.
"You all good bro?"
"Nah, I'm stuck," I said with a sheepish grin. "Have you got a tow rope?"
"Yeah bro I've got a rope. You're not from around here, ay?"
"Nah, I'm from Wanaka."
At this point, he couldn't hide his laughter. "All you fullas from Wanaka and Queenstown in your fancy waders, always coming over here and getting yourselves into trouble."
I didn't really know how to respond to that as I stood there in my shredded $800 waders beside my vehicle that was up to the hilt in mud.
"Haha, yeah," was all I could mutter back. Still a kook.