Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Scoot n' shoot

Saturday. With a sick daughter and a bunch of chores stacked up and not getting any of my attention during the waterfowl season, I had a list of things to get done. On top of which I needed to help Tim with moving some of his furniture into his new house. While SWMBO went to an early meeting I got stuck in; clearing a few errant tasks before she returned. Then a trip across town, furniture moved. Back home. Grass cut. Leaky sunroof on truck sealed. Strafed decoys (grrrr) repaired (WHO shoots irreplaceable Body Language decoys anyway????). Another Grrrr just for good luck. By late afternoon I was pretty much on top of stuff. 

SWMBO could see the look on the Black Piranha's face. She was restless. She wants to hunt hard at this time of year. It wasn't actually my suggestion that the dog and I go hunting. I put a call in. Craig said that birds were thin on the ground and very flighty. Today he, Mitch, Mick and Jethro had worked hard for one bird bagged. None the less, I packed dog and human lunches, prepared my vest with an ammo top up, GPS and added a small folding knife and a couple of OSM (One Square Meal) bars. I'd felt fit the previous hunt, so no dramas on that front. 

Its a three hour drive to Craig's and I'd want to be there close after sunrise, mainly to catch the birds out sunning after overnight rain. Just after 8 am I arrived and caught up with Craig and Kathryn. Craig gave me a rundown on the previous day's activities. He'd seen 3 birds and shot one, the other guys hadn't taken a shot. He gave me a pointer on where to start and after parking the truck I set off behind a very excited Labrador retriever. We'd gone only a short way beside the river when with a huge amount of quacking and wing flurrying a mob of ducks took to the air. Layla sped her pace, nose to ground and I was convinced the duck scent had wafted up to her.... no marks out of 10 for me when she bumped a rooster that gave me no chance to shoot. Mental uppercut. Chance blown... but he'd flown down river rather than across, so maybe we could pick him up a little later. 

This stretch of river is great for bird holding, for exactly the same reason as its a pain for fly fishing - overhanging cover. Trees, blackberries, steep banks, deep water. Ugly, ugly, ugly for angling. But oh such beautiful territory for pheasants. The grass was damp so any scent held would be recent. We approached a corner shaded by a large macrocarpa, beneath which was strewn fallen sticks, grasses and flood debris from a high water event. We worked around and into the shaded area. When the bird launched he'd put the tree between us and away he flew making a small series of clucks. Back where we'd come from; clearly he was comfortable on his home turf. I'll use that against him later in the season.

And now we left the tree cover for more open area, with the river separated from the stock paddock by a fence. The fence was festooned with growth, good cover for holding birds. and we hadn't gone far when Layla lit up - there was no doubt that she'd hit a pheasant scent. I got into position while she drove hard into a patch of dead blackberry and a cock bird burst out. He'd cleared the far bank when the oz of #5 hit him flush. Layla marked him, then launched into and swam the river, dragging herself up the far bank, nabbing and bringing the bird back. All in all some really good work on her part. 

Wet dog & bird

2 wet tails

On we went covering a range of territory by the river, all the while ducks and grey teal flushed ahead of us. Through a copse of young trees we pushed, no pheasants at home. Every patch of gorse and scrub was covered. No pheasant. finally we arrived at a bend of the river. Here it turns 90 degrees, and a large tree sits prominently on the bend. And here in the past I'd been undone by a nice bird. Layla was hot. We closed in together and the bird that exploded was safe within a few seconds of flight, I simply couldn't get a bead on him and he made cover. Not only that but across the river, another bird took to the air, cackling his goodbyes to me. 4 birds seen in the first 90 minutes. 

We worked back towards the truck taking an alternative direction but saw nothing further. With plenty of time on my side I'd figured on trying for birds I'd seen a few weeks ago. At the road we came up behind Craig who was moving his cattle into a new paddock. I stopped and let him know my intention to head to the next farm and try the gullies I'd hunted last time. I parked the truck and was donning my hunting vest and figuring out my next move over a refreshing drink and cheese roll, just taking in the scene. Sunny day, slight breeze, cool air, just a lovely winter's day. As I watched a hawk cruise low over a turnip crop to my surprise a cock bird spooked by the harrier leaped,  flew 100m and set down in a gorse clump. Gun ready. Bringing the dog to heel we moved over as quietly as we could, even so the bird took to the air with a huge cackle well out in front and my shot only winged him so he hit the ground running. Over the brow of a hill, through a fence. Layla stopped dead at the fence, unable to get through. Puffing, I arrived on the scene and boosted the dog over and she took off, nose down... and was gone for enough time for me to have to cross the fence myself and go looking. I found her in the next gully, wandering back with a very live bird in her mouth which I retrieved her of. 2 birds in the bag! 

My legs were feeling it now; as opposed to the last hunt I was feeling pretty shattered. I'd figured a plan but had slightly miscalculated my path and ended up climbing up through a steep gully that I'd intended to push down through ... Layla had hit no scent at all on the way up, yet last trip we'd bumped a few birds here. At the top I took a few moments to get my breath back. Time for my final fling. A hillock coated with gorse. Sheltered at its high point by a large tree, providing dry cover. North facing slope to catch the winter rays. Food, warmth, shelter from the wind. And as I knew from last time, a hangout for at least one bird that had flushed unseen with that throaty wattle warble of a cock bird. Quietly with dog at heel we entered from a steep bank above the tree, dropping down into the shaded shelter zone. And Layla's nose hit the ground, she pushed in through the gorse cover and emerged before circling back. The way she charged in to the scrub the second time, I knew she'd seen the bird... and she pushed it hard so that when he boosted from the gorse thicket he presented that perfect oncoming overhead shot that gunners love so much and at the shot he folded, stone dead. Beautiful. 

Done before lunch, finished with a highlight bird. As I wandered back to the truck, Layla continued to hunt, and I stayed close as she covered thickets of gorse. From a prominent point a cock bird saw us and jumped at least 200 m out, undoubtedly one of the birds I'd been told about - spooky and flighty.

At the truck the dog and I shared lunch and talked about the morning's hunt. She agreed that she needed to work closer in early in the day. I promised to touch up a bit on my shooting, that second bird had been a bit of a rusty effort. We both agreed to split the ham, tomato and cheese rolls 50:50. She agreed that a swim in the river to wash some mud off her coat was a good idea, and that for me to throw sticks for her to grab was even better.

After that, we headed home.


Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Bird season

Fish and Game NZ has some really good staff. Really, really good. Our local Gamebird Manager is one of them. According to word around the traps, he’d been the pivotal guy in thinking about the where’s and how’s of a gamebird season happening post the Covid-19 lock down – what would be allowed and when. I’m sure that the trepidation I’d felt around the relaxation of NZ’s lockdown level was shared by each and every game bird hunter; many of whom had already endured missing the deer roar due to lockdown restrictions. Daily the Covid infection stats were posted – and daily the hope levels rose in direct inverse proportion to the ever-declining numbers being posted. And then – the season was posted. We’d start on May 23 and go through until the final weekend in June.  On the one hand we’d get a longer than normal season, on the other, the trade off is that we’d encroach on the all-important start of the breeding season as birds paired up in June. Its worth reflecting here on all the birds had endured; a wet breeding season (ideal!) followed by an enduring country-wide drought  and in our region, mass outbreaks of botulism. The drought had in no way abated and the stream feeding our ponds was as low as I’ve ever seen it, not at all helped by the massive leak in the weird that directs water to us. We’d patched it as best as we could but the hole was massive so the fix is definitely temporary. Camo day, where we dress the maimais was hurriedly arranged and thanks to Matt & Larry we were able to source enough ti tree to get it done a week before the season. Still no rain. Guys were saying that with no water they simply wouldn’t hunt this year. Our water was a brown murk, quite unlike the black clear tannin stained water we usually have. No, nothing about this year was going to be usual. Our Aussie contingent were barred by closed borders. Ducks were simply absent from the swamp. Nothing at all about this seemed normal, yet still the big day loomed.

Week 1

I’d drawn up the shooting roster for our crew, and it goes like this. No hunter can open on a pond they’ve hunted opening day on within the previous 2 years. And, no pairing can be the same. With reduced crew it would be a challenge and I ended up pairing 2 oldies (Tom - mentoring his grandson Connor, and dad) which generally isn’t ideal. I’d intended to shoot only mallard drakes. At shooting time, it was pretty quiet, a few shots from up and downriver rang out. My first visitors were protected grey teal which alighted on the dark water with a ‘swishhh’, quite unlike the splashy touch-down of our dabbler species. Our ponds are loafing destinations so generally don’t hold overnighting birds in numbers, hence our shooting starts a little later than other places. The sky brightened and birds began to appear, however it was 7am and with nothing in the bag as yet I decided to take a grey duck that ditched into the decoys and presented an easy going away shot. I was a bit nervous about my shooting, as I’d really not used up much ammo in the off season. I needn’t have worried as I shot pretty well on incoming ducks, finishing my bag with 5 mallard drakes, a couple of greys and a couple of mallard hens. In between my shooting, I’d watched duck after duck pitch into the pond Andy was tagged to hunt – but he’d decided to join up with Paul and they had a steady stream of ducks go in. I called Matt over to shoot while I called and he soon filled out his bag. 

Gimme 5 girl!

Our combined bag of 75 birds for 8 hunters was a pretty good return. The following morning Andy and I teamed up and hunted Watson’s, where we bagged 15 for the morning before we left to get the ducks cleaned and help the members departing to pack up. The birds had decoyed well overall, despite it having been a quietish morning for us. Matt reported that he should have easily taken a limit but finished on 7 or 8 birds, I can’t quite remember. We processed and packed the birds, keeping aside the fat mallard drakes for plucking. The birds were in great condition on the whole, with many sporting layers of fat between flesh and skin. As we cleaned the birds, ducks continued to flight and circle the ponds. I estimated an easy task to finish my bag off that afternoon, but was proven quite wrong as I didn’t pull the trigger at all, partly because with an impending northerly blow I’d planned to setup on one particular pond that offers protection and cover from a big northerly blow. With dad and Matt’s help we moved the setup and got a really juicy looking spread worked out. With 2 jerk strings, and 30 FFD’s set in to observe the impending wind, it felt like a winning setup. And so it proved. We took turn about shooting (the maimai is tiny and not really suited for 3 people and 3 dogs). 

The wind grew and rain spattered down; passing ducks either pitched in or circled a very few times before committing and the tally grew nicely. By late morning we had 21 birds in the bag, and both dad and Matt elected to return to the hut. Within minutes a large group of ducks passed and responded to my hail; cupping up they swung in and I took 3 to finish up my 10. Matt soon returned but action had slowed somewhat as had the weather so we lifted the decoys and reset them in the Puru, where Matt and dad would mostly hunt the rest of the week.

Week 2

With most of the crew absent for the second weekend, we’d invited Richard, Tony and Chewie for the weekend. Chewie was able to arrive mid week; meanwhile I watched the forecast closely. A stiff easterly was forecast at sometime on the weekend so I made the call to stack out The Park, a fine pond with a large maimai and plenty of cover from the easterly wind. We could shoot 3 up and take turn about without any dramas. I rolled in on Thursday night; Tony and Richard would arrive Friday. We had a good little hunt on Friday before the fellas arrived. Saturday was spent in the maimai for 20 odd birds with a lot of story telling going on; and finally the wind arrived on Sunday morning, providing an amazing hunt including a good bag of spoonies. As we began to pack and tidy, we were visited by a few of dad’s mates who we invited to shoot the ponds while we were away and at that stage season’s tally was just over 250 birds, a strong return for 17 day’s hunting.

Week 3

The third weekend saw a change of scenery. Richard and I met up at Parakai and headed out to the farm, picking up an extra quad to complement Richard’s. Matt and Dave arrived shortly afterwards and we headed off to setup our decoys in a well picked over maize paddock, sewn with what we later discovered were radishes. With not a kernel showing we didn’t really expect a frenzy of birds.

That evening we were in our blinds early. As the light began to drop, birds took to the air. The first 4 to pass split into pairs and buzzed in. It was simply amazing to see the aerobatics and while we missed 2 of them it was pretty satisfying. The next group were even more spectacular, peeling in on cupped wings. The final paid dropped in out of the murk as I called and called to encourage any passing birds and we took them both. At 6 the hunt was over, we collected our 7 birds and headed back to the hut. A spotlighting mission for fallow failed to turn up an animal, and it was late in the evening by the time we turned in.

We rose well before dawn to hunt deer, Dave and Richard heading to an adjacent farm while Matt and I headed to a nearby spot. We parked the quad and waited for the sun to come up… waiting, waiting.. and with enough light available to be able to discern our prey we began our stalk. The first gulley system held nothing, and as we glassed the cover we failed to come up trumps. At the head of the gulley we alighted a ridge and I poked my head over, spotting a mature fallow hind. We hit the deck, where I chambered a round into the Howa mod 1500 .223 and set upo the bipod. Crawling forward I settled the cross hair on the base of her neck and cleanly dropped her. Matt hissed that there was a spiker there as well, and while he wasn’t confident with the shot I got the scope on him as he stopped moving… only to take 3 hurried steps into cover. Matt went back to collect the quad while I dressed out the deer, after which we traversed the farm to see if we could find another animal. With no luck as it turned out. Back to the hut. Food replenishment.

Post breakfast with Dave leaving and Tony arriving, Matt and I set off to walk up a pheasant while Richard headed up to collect Tony and say goodbye to Dave. There’s a favoured bank adjacent to an overgrown low-lying paddock, that provides shelter from the wind. Matt took his old boy Zulu to the top while I pushed Layla in from the bottom. 2 pheasants took to the air almost immediately, but I couldn’t discern gender; and Matt didn’t see them. We continued when from under a bush a grey duck burst out; the little Merkel boomed out and the 1oz of #5 caught the bird flush. Shortly another pheasant pushed out well ahead of us, landing out in the paddock and then another popped, back tracking and avoiding Matt’s shot. By the end of the bank we’d seen between 4 and 6 birds, dep[ending on whether you were speaking with me, or Matt. I called him up on the walkie talkie and told him I’d try and cut in on the bird that had taken to the paddock. In the stiff breeze Layla caught his scent amongst the heavy rushes, and bumped him cackling into the air. And I clean missed, twice! Not a difficult shot by any means. Layla chased the disappearing bird before returning to give me the stink eye.

At the hut Tony settled in, while Matt and I headed up to collect our decoys and scout a spot for the evening’s shenanigans. We selected a low paddock with new surface water and got our decoys and blinds set up with the prevailing wind coming over our left shoulders. It was a pretty ideal setup. And so it proved, the afternoon hunt was a cracker with nicely decoying birds, greys, mallards and the occasional parrie joining the pile. What a productive wee spot! After our evening meal it was time to saddle up and head out for deer again. It was a spotlighting mission, although with a huge moon overhead I thought it may be possible to read a book without any artificial lighting. Tony and I took a deer each and I missed another. It was a tired group that arrived back at the hut to a clamour of dogs and we hit the hay. I slept like a baby for what seemed like only minutes before the alarm called us back… and soon we were in our blinds again. Matt had opted to take a rest; he works strange shifts so his internal clock would be pretty stuffed up. The hunt was interesting, and we picked up a dozen birds before the flight was over. Packing up is always a bit of a downer after a great hunt, but with a concerted effort we cleaned up the birds, got the hut ship shape and packed our gear. With quads fully loaded we made it back to the trucks.

Week 4

With my birthday falling on the Saturday, I’d promised the family that I’d take them out for a family dinner. Not that I’m particularly interested in town, or town stuff, but fair is fair. My parent has pencilled in a visit on Sunday but had called to wish me a happy day and let me know that they couldn’t visit. I guess that my wishful thinking paid off when SWMBO told me to go hunting! A quick call to Craig and it was set. Layla loves hunting pheasant and having missed a whole season due to my long convalescence she’d got pretty rusty in terms of working in range – I’d spent a fair bit of last weekend’s pheasant walk telling her about her parentage. I’d set the alarm for 4.45 but was awake before 3am so decided to get up and go. Dog fed. Me fed. Coffee made. Thermos filled. Lunch, electrolyte replacement drink, snacks. Craig’s place is a fitness test – would my preseason exercise pay off? My last haul around his farm had left me sore and half crippled (that was pre op and my hip was playing merry hell). The drive down was pleasant, the Huntly bypass cutting out traffic jams and shaving 15 minutes off the trip. I’d stopped in both Pirongia and Otorohonga for mini breaks and an ill fated attempt at a snooze. I felt pretty bloody tired when I rolled into Craig’s at 07.30. Old mate Tim was there, as part of his extended road trip, and it was great to catch up. The boys had hunted the day before for 4 pheasants between them and Craig explained that the birds were both flighty and well spread. I mentally prepared a game plan. 1. Avoid the well-trodden easy areas (i.e. tackle the hills and steep gulley’s) 2. Go as fast but quietly as possible 3. Go into the crazy little nooks that most people would walk past

It felt great to stretch out, and soon Layla was covering ground like crazy – and if she’d been a naughty so-and-so the previous week she was now listening and working with me. And, in one of those nooks described in 3. Above the plan paid off. Layla snookered a cock bird in a thick clump, driving him against a rock buttress and despite him putting a small tree between us my shot caught and dropped him. And in that moment the world was perfect. The months and months of graft and rehab had paid off, I was back walking the hills behind my girl and we’d delivered. What a bird! Heavy, large spurs, a trophy!

Back on the trail. It would be a couple of hours of scouting before we next found birds, during which time we routed goats and at one stage what I thought to be a fallow. I glimpsed a white flag tail entering the bush. Finally at the base of a steep gulley 3 roosters jumped, well out of range and set sail. Given the steepness of the territory I felt that they may not have crested the head of the gulley, so set about climbing up and out before circling to the top of the ravine. There I sent Lalya in and she quickly bumped a hen bird. After an age there was a clatter of wings and a rooster boosted. If I say it was a long shot I’m not fibbing, but the bird dropped like a sack of spuds. I sat on a tuft of ferns listening as Layla (panting heavily) worked her way down towards the bird. After several long minutes I heard her return, gasping for breath through a feathery load.  She topped the ridge and lay down for a rest before picking the bird up and bringing it to hand. If the first bird had been satisfying, this one was marvelous for the dog work alone. And man was she a happy girl, grinning from ear to ear! 

A circuit back to the truck brought no further birds. Coffee, re-hydration formula, snacks for dog and handler. Then off again. We’d be moving through heavily hunted territory, so I didn’t really bother about covering too much of the ground; instead the dog and I crossed the river and set off towards what I hoped were greener pastures. The cock bird that jumped was a marginally difficult shot, but I’d hit harder and really should have done better than emptying 2 barrels well behind him… given that I’d been told that this area had been hunted the previous day my guard was too low and I’d been caught out. That’s the largest part of the the deliciousness of pheasant hunting; the adrenaline surge invoked by the clattering of wings and cackling as a bird launches. The area that I’d hoped to provide the limit bird was empty but given that I was still feeling pretty fit I decided to roll the dice on a final circuit involving climbing to a high point, and then working down through a dense gully. It’s a bugger of a walk as a good part involves crouching and avoiding overgrown gorse and scrubby ti tree. Layla was out of my sight for most of the first part of the expedition but finally we arrived at the head of the gully. Its of paramount importance here to remain totally quiet; no whistling the dog, careful footsteps. Layla lit up and headed up into the thick scrub. The bird that popped was dark but otherwise indistinct and totally silent, I picked it to be a battle-hardened rooster. And further down the dog picked a hot scent that led slightly back uphill. I turned to follow the hound and had taken no more than 3 steps when a cock bird took to the air 30m downhill of us. I took one snap shot but it was futile. At that, with 14km under the belt and with midday approaching I called it. With a 3 hour drive home, arriving completely exhausted didn’t appeal.


Sunday, April 5, 2020


I was away when the lockdown was signalled. I’d taken the chance to grab a weekend to target big brown trout in the Tongariro. For context, the boys had been getting stuck into the brownies but I’d been on other tasks for a couple of weeks, so couldn’t really do much. Karl’s place was free, and Rob had made contact as he’d be staying there as well. Rob’s more or less full time guiding now, and the closing down of borders had put paid to his season with customers pulling out. Its been the same across the whole guiding industry here, overseas customers drawing a line through their trips with cancellations abounding. Rob’s one of the most talented anglers getting around the place and we’d never fished together so decided to team up for a spot of relaxation. With half a day off work I got into Turangi early enough, grabbed some groceries and headed to the Pest Palace (as we know Karl’s place). Rob rolled in soon after and with the dog fed and watered we got ourselves ready for a swing mission.
We chatted about anything and everything as we pulled on waders and set off down the track. The water was cool, low and clear and I set the Sage Troutspey HD #3 up with a skagit head and slow sink tip, a 10lb leader and a lightly weighted fly to swing the soft edges. The stars were brilliant and Elon Musk’s satellite chain soared across the sky, brilliantly lit against the unspoilt darkness. We swung the pool from top to tail. I felt sure that if a brown was present, then surely it would have taken. Having said that, the Commonwealth Fly Fishing champs had just concluded, and our pool was definitely a beat in the comp, so maybe every fish in the pool had been disturbed. We made our way back to the truck and set off for the lower river for the final 2 hours. As I waded out to fish the Troll Hole as we call it, a sizable brown swam slowly from the shallows in the glare of my headlight. And that was the only fish I saw all night.
Back at base we had a cuppa then hit the hay. Neither of us were keen for too early a morning so it was daybreak before we emerged. We headed to the lower river. The crossing had changed since summer, with a deepened gut that will be troubling come high winter flows.
. perhaps this part of the river will now be cut off? Immediately and despite overcast skies, we began to spy large browns, deep torpedos under the banks and mostly safe from our attempts to get flies to them. The banks were overgrown with tall grasses and blackberry and as we smashed our way upstream our energy was sapped. 

At the deeper pools we stopped and swung flies deep into the emerald green, where eager and fresh rainbows took the flies and raced downstream. After the reticence of the browns, fat and fresh rainbows taking the swung flies was a welcome break in the hunt. By the time we returned to the car we were ready for coffee. 

The coffee stand serves a high standard of caffeination, and with coffee and a muffin onboard we were ready for the next part of the day after a rest. As darkness approached, I made my way to the chosen. At the head, a chap was already in position with a Spey rod in hand – the Speymeister himself – Greig was already in position. We elbow bumped per COVID precautionary greeting #4, or something like that. As we chatted, another bloke approached and promptly set up in the tail of the pool. That’s the Tongariro for you. Greig had a slow sink tip and very lightly weight black rabbit tube fly. I set up with a lightly weighed sculpin with a yellow body. As the sun dropped, we combed the water. Skagit casting in complete darkness requires consistency and trust as you can’t see the anchor form, and as we were river right a reverse snap T sufficed to get the fly out. The first hint that Greig was hooked up was the surface splash of a weighty fish. Greig, also fishing a #3 Sage Troutspey HD, laid into the fish and reeled in and stepped downstream to help him. I tailed the beast in the shallows and we set to work with the tape measure, laying it along a healthy 26.5” jack fish before attempting to secure some photos. I didn’t do a very good job of that and was quite disappointed in the result. We fished on and soon I had a hit and played a smallish rainbow to the bank where she promptly spat the hook. After another hour the effect of the day (and previous night’s) activities was taking its toll and I reeled and walked back to the car parked near the town bridge. I knew Rob would be there somewhere lurking around and he called out.

The next morning we’d decided to keep close so we’d be able to get out of town early. Overnight, NZ Government’s COVID-19 plan had been enacted, non-essential travel would be closed down under later phases. Swinging the own pools coughed up a couple of fresh little ‘bows, while a couple of fish attacked the fly but missed the hook point. It was pretty relaxing with not another angler in sight apart from Rob. We caught up and wandered back to the house. Packed and tidied it was road time.

Great weekend Rob

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Next stop

The world has suddenly gotten very complicated.
When we left for Cuba, the COVID 19 outbreak was pretty much contained in Central China’s Hubei province, in the city of Wuhan. Travel bans were not being talked of to any extent. 4 weeks on from our return and the universe is upside down.
I know a few kiwi dudes who’ve fished Cuba. Good mate Nik had hosted live-aboard trips to the Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud). Dougal (71 permit notched up) has been several times. Ian went a couple years ago with Nik. When old mate Simon moved to Montana a couple of years ago it was to chase dreams and a woman, maybe not in that order or maybe they are the same thing.
Si’s ended up working for Yellow Dog, as their specialist for NZ and Cook Islands, but had the opportunity to take his regular guests and friends on a trip to Cayo Cruz and reached out. It didn’t take too much convincing to get a bite and a confirmation. Jas was also in - we fish together a lot and generally have each other covered for stuff like flies, lines, other bits n pieces that we may need or have forgotten. Slowly our itinerary came together. The party comprised 11 guys, 2 expat kiwis, 7 US citizens, then us. The trip outbound was arduous. Auckland – Houston – Totonto – Cayo Coco, bus ride to Cayo Cruz. Roughly 36 hours. We arrived 18 hours before the rest of our contingent, giving us time to settle in to what was quite a nice hotel, take a swim in the pool, and get the lay of the land. We’d taken an AirBNB in Toronto to try and grab a few hours sleep but were both a bit wired. The shower was good! The -12 degrees c outside at 3am, was not good!

That evening at dinner we ran into the very few other guests staying, Vicky and Barry, a worldly English couple, 3 Finns and then we saw a very familiar face. Matt Harris, the famous fly fishing photag and a mate were at the bar. Before long, we had a robust discussion going that involved numerous rums, a few packets of the local Hollywood cigarettes and over the hours we discovered mutual friends, places we all knew and talked through permit tactics. They’d had a tough week with very little permit action, and given their experience in permit chasing it sounded pretty dire. But the one thing I know about fish is that one day they are down and the next up; and no matter what, they have to feed at some point. Matt and his bud left the next morning, and our fishing week was on.

Jase and I paired for the week with our guide Coba, who works for the Avalon outfit. They are an efficient and well drilled operation and our hotel was only 200m down the road from the marina. Our skiff, a 16’ Dolphin was armed with a 70hp yammie 4 stroke and made for a super-efficient fishing platform. The marina was in an arm of a channel that drained large flats and the tidal movement was impressive to say the least, I estimated 4-5 knots of current when in full flow.

We found ourselves in a rotation-based program, each morning fishing an assigned area then in the afternoon the guides had freedom to take us to any location they saw fit to based on their knowledge. Mangrove cays with channels, large coral flats, enclosed flats – we saw it all on our travels throughout the week.

I had the first permit shot, at a pair that swam out of the mangroves and over my alphlexo crab without paying it any attention. I was pretty hyped but felt I’d made a reasonable cast so was disappointed that the fish paid not a jot of attention to the fly. Our first Cuban bonefish each came soon after. The flats were varied and wonderful, from ankle deep to maybe thigh deep and the bones were quite unlike the big shy South Pacific versions we’re used to. Cabo wanted that fly to land in the fish’s face… and they ate. On one occasion, we stalked a large bone cruising with dorsal and tail out of the water. Coba told me to hit the fish on the head. I put the fly a metre ahead and he got quite annoyed. The cast that should have spooked the bejesus out of the fish instead elicited a massive strike and the bone carved rooster tails of water through the mangroves. 

We went hard on our drags. A 16lb leader while not unbreakable, does take a fair hammering to part so stopping these mangrove fish before they hit cover was the name of the game.

On arrival back we were greeted with the news that Simon and Bob had each caught a permit; both fish had been riding on rays and had accepted well-presented alphlexos. That night we celebrated, but to a lesser extent than the evening before…

As the week rolled by, so did our permit chances. We found cruising fish and with a combination of wind, fast moving prey and Coba’s refusal to pin the boat it was horribly difficult to fish effectively with a tight line. He began to express frustration and if he was frustrated it was nothing compared to what I was feeling at times. But I wasn’t there for any other reason that relaxation so I let it wash over me. Jase and I continued to tally up the bones at a great rate and had some amazing catches. 

My personal favourite was when I left all of my gear bar my rod at the boat and walked along a brush covered bank separating an estuarine flat from the open sea. As I moved along slowly, a pair of bones approached and I laid out the cast perfectly. The fish raced each other when I twitched the fly, and (for once) the larger fish engulfed the fly. I struck and the fish ripped out into the backing, the first to do so for the trip. Its second run was equally hard, out again ripped the backing loops and the sound of GSP singing in the guides rang out. I worked the fish hard and then it ran again… straight to a snag offshore where it holed up. The only thing that saved that fish for me was that it was exhausted. It had tied itself to the snag with a series of half hitches, and as it struggled, I could see the snag pull down then spring back. Reeling as I went, I waded out and the fish attempted to swim between my legs.. at that stage I realised my only course of action would be to lift the snag to shore which I did, with fish trailing. I called to Coba to bring the camera and he arrived soon after. The fish swam away gamely after being digitally entrapped.

We found that the afternoon tides were better for finding permit as the week wore on. The wind never relented however, so that challenge remained with us. Those glorious afternoons… flats so long that it would take up to 2 hours to drift down one. On our final afternoon (by this time Simon had caught 3 permit) we finally found our ray riding permit. Jase was on the rod and made a good cast but the fish always seemed to be facing away from the fly.

On one occasion we came upon 2 lemon sharks mating on a flat, stirring up coral and sand and swimming with them was a good-sized jack – Jas dropped his fly into the melee and the jack slashed at it and missed – but our presence disturbed the sharks who moved off. These sharks were ever present but were not aggressive and at one point where we’d rounded up a school of bones and were taking turns at picking them off, I jumped from the boat to cast at a bunch. Stupidly I’d taken my boots of so was stuck where I was. After they moved out of range, so had the boat and I saw Coba hitting the bottom with his pole. Later when onboard he told me that 2 decent sharks were bearing on me but they were most likely simply curious.

The evenings were balmy and the more or less constant breeze kept the mozzies at bay. Nocturnal activities include the 24-hour bar, playing pool or bowling, or fishing for the pet tarpon that lived under the pier where the boats were moored. The bar and pool joints seemed contrived; a play at mimicking some cliched western culture and it felt out of place, but certainly reflected the ambition to became a thriving tourist mecca. A shame really, but the same time understandable as Cuba tries to raise its people’s standard of living.

Still, the fishery is world class but for us as the week progressed, the permit remained in the category of struggle street. We saw only a few ray riders and it became apparent that those were the catchable fish, whilst the cruisers were just that, cruising.

Our trip home saw us with a free day in San Fran, and it was an honour to be able to visit the Golden Gate Angling and casting Club, where friendly locals were happy to hand over rods for us to use. It was truly in the spirit of angling brotherhood, and a morning that I'll never forget. The historic clubhouse was a museum of angling treasures and the casting ponds were a spectacle. 

Long may the angling adventures continue. Next stop..