By Josiah Pleasant
There is a storm raging outside. A cyclone to be precise, spinning out of the Tasman Sea and pummeling the South Island of New Zealand with high winds and torrential rains, filling the rivers past their banks and turning the normally turquoise waters of Lake Wakatipu into a surging mass of slate-grey waves. The scene outside the clapboard cabin takes me years back and half a world away, to salmon fishing amid the Pacific Northwest squalls my dad taught me to respect as harbingers of both life and death.
Internally, my body is still recovering from a storm that I didn't expect and couldn't see coming. A week before I was scheduled to fly from my home near the foothills of the Ozarks to this pristine corner of New Zealand, doctors found an inflamed mass in my gut that had to come out immediately, along with my appendix and parts of my colon and intestines. Over the next month, the storm in my body eroded some 40 pounds from my slender frame.
Storms do that. They sweep away the sediment and reveal our foundation, and our reaction to them defines our path in life. If we're founded in relationships and purpose that endures, we can face storms with confidence. One of the first things I did when I came to after surgery was to call my good friend Marty Fraser in New Zealand, not to cancel the trip, but to delay it a couple of months until I was strong enough to fish the backcountry. I knew that there, in the company of good friends and in the beauty of creation, I'd find true healing.
The journey took me halfway around the world, via planes, trains, and automobiles, but it truly began when I paddled my Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Sport Kayak across one of the deepest lakes on earth (Wakatipu's shores are more than one thousand feet high in the foothills of the Southern Alps, while the bottom of the lake is hundreds of feet below sea level). The four-and-a-half-mile crossing gave me exclusive access to a series of islands and estuaries that, to Marty's extensive knowledge, no one had ever visited in an inflatable kayak, let alone one light enough to travel across the Pacific as checked baggage.
Being a student of trout and salmon habitat throughout my life, I knew the kayak would open up new opportunities in this freshwater estuary, home to salmon, trophy brown trout and rainbow trout. Over the next several days, it would allow me to get to outer islands, the far side of multiple river mouths, and fish open water.
Two former students of mine from Harding University, Jacob McCall and Mark Anklam, worked in New Zealand for the past year, and we'd arranged a reunion together with Marty and a third former Harding student, Garrett Bender. They drove 30 miles around the lake to meet me as I paddled across. After exploring a few of the islands I met up with the crew to hike into the backcountry. I'd been here three times before, though never with a kayak. I savored my time in this spectacular country, and looked forward to a potential reunion with another old friend, a 12-pound trophy brown I'd caught twice before. As we climbed into the foothills, though, it became clear that months of drought had taken its toll on this normally rich habitat, and the trout had long ago fled for deeper, cooler water.
My friends left too, one step ahead of the typhoon spinning our way. Theirs was the last car out before the storm washed away three substantial sections of road. They had planes to catch and jobs to get back to; I was committed to experiencing the storm and the results it brought about. How apropos that I am writing to you now, sheltered in the backcountry from an epic storm, in anticipation of how this very storm will bring trout up from the depths.
There is always purpose in the storms we face.
When the worst of the storm had passed, I gratefully geared up to journey back into the wild. The storm had turned turquoise rivers into surging brown jetstreams, easily depositing 60-foot beech trees along their banks. On my first cast into the turbid waters where brown river torrent met turquoise lake, a brown trout engulfed my streamer and took off, screaming line into the current. I quickly went into the lake up to my chest to help make up distance between this incredible leviathan and my rapidly disappearing backing.
After successfully steering this king of browns out of the churning river current into the still waters of the lake, I finally began to regain line lost. Ten minutes later, after incredible runs and dives, I was confronted with the stark reality that this incredible trout, approaching 40 inches in length, was not going to fit in the travel-sized fly fishing net that hung from back of my vest. I carefully calculated in my mind how I would need to approach the trout as it tired. In agonizing slow motion, an immense flash of white underbelly announced that this monarch of the depths had turned about 15 feet in front of me. I ever so gently eased forward, being careful not to make a splash or sound, and, to my dismay, the largest trout I have ever encountered exploded with a single thrust of his tail, dislodging my hook.
My mind briefly wished that my adventure companions had been around to witness this dance between recovering fisherman and wise old trout, and that the storm hadn't deprived me of the chance to recharge my GoPro. Then I remembered my father's admonishment that some memories aren't meant to be recorded or witnessed by others. Rather, they are meant to be etched in our minds and hearts.
With epic confirmation that the storm had brought trout up to feed, I switched gear and paddled my kayak out into the lake, where the river's turbulent brown flow met the clear blue lake. Sure enough, my first cast with a Trout Magnet crank resulted in screaming drag and another monster brown diving across current. After several minutes of spinning my kayak through roiling current, I finally made visual on another beast of a trout. As adrenaline coursed through my body I reminded myself to wait for this powerful fish to signal its surrender, having learned from my earlier heartbreak. After several close runs around my kayak, I realized once again that my travel net gave me little chance of successfully landing such a large trout—an awesome but exasperating problem to have. As the mid-30 inch brown lay broadside, seemingly acknowledging the end of our battle, I dipped the net and quickly placed my off hand over the fish to try and hold him against the net. Although he had tired up until this point, the feel of the net and reach of my hand led him to explode with a thrashing ferocity, and he fled into the depths.
Having twice experienced heartbreak on the lake, I decided to hike upriver to see how the trout reacted up above, as well as to provide the confines of the riverbanks to assist with landing.
I was elated to see that the rain had brought the river back to life. Bone-chilling water coursed in rivulets around some of the troutiest outcroppings, boulders, and pools that I have ever encountered. I stealthily approached the bank on my hands and knees, effectively staying hidden in the shadows of the ancient beech trees that afford a willing fisherman a fighting chance at making an accurate presentation to a trophy trout unannounced. With my adrenaline pumping at just the sight of the first prime stretch, I made my first cast upstream, just above a beautiful torrent carved boulder, carefully stripping line in to keep my line out of trout vision. Time slowed to a trickle and euphoria surged as a trophy brown exploded from the shadow behind the boulder and immediately took off across the river. After several runs that broadcast the sweet music of my screaming drag, I approached the tiring trout with my net, chest deep in the river, and brought the approximately 8-pound brown to the shore for a quick release photo. A feeling of immense gratitude coursed through my body. What a blessing to recover body and spirit in such a place.
After taking a few minutes to soak in the experience in prayerful gratitude, and to re-tie my surely stressed knot, I made my move to the next rivulet. A quick scan while hidden behind the trees revealed another trophy trout. Brimming with confidence from my first approach, I again cast upstream above the boulder where a hook-jawed buck calmly fed. A turquoise-silver flash launched forward, defying the current that coursed on either side of his boulder—I was on with yet another trophy brown! Still numb from my last fish, I entered the coursing river once again, in step with this beautiful fish's every run, turn, and head-shake. Using the current to my advantage after another powerful approach I was once again able to bring a beautiful ambassador of cold and fast water to the net. With sand flies buzzing all around my glasses and faceshield, I bid adieu to this beautiful brown with the streaking sunset declaring the beauty of this place and moment above me.
The next day, a jaw-droppingly beautiful morning beckoned me deep into the backcountry, through deep-water crossings, steep canyons, and secluded stretches of pristine river. I explored a whole new watershed, and was astonished and encouraged to find a complete absence of bootprints in such epic habitat. As the red and fallow deer hoof prints increased, the sense of being in an untouched landscape became more visceral. After climbing a sheer rock face I found a pool laden with multi-colored stones that looked sure to hold a mature trout. My first cast and drift was true and another massive trout was on! After several minutes of carefully moving in rhythm with a beautiful light spotted brown I stepped into a side channel carved out of limestone from years of current. Up to my waist, I carefully netted another trophy brown, deeply content with my decision to scale mountains in search of untouched waters.
At the end of my trip, after a few magical days with old friends and nearly a week alone, I charted a course five miles across the lake to a river I'd never been to and that to my knowledge had very seldom been explored. After the lengthy paddle through a steady rain, sheer cliffs and a river mouth appeared in the mist. The silhouettes of three Whitetail Deer, thought to be extinct in this river valley, set a summative image for this trip. I was thoroughly enjoying the day, feeling blessed to enjoy life and overcome the odds and doubt that I had faced. As I approached in my kayak, the deer, unaccustomed to human presence, watched inquisitively as I glided along the shore. I embraced the moment, calmly enjoying a moment of pristine beauty, and the hope of adventures to come.
View the complete video documentary here:
— Pleasant was initially featured as the first profile in our My Backyard Adventure series.
— Check out his hack for quickly cleaning trout.