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Fishing: the art of prolonged expectation

Retired Taupo doctor Nick Bradford likes to keep an old pair of surgical forceps on hand. The medical instrument is, he says, the best possible tool to gently remove a hook from the mouth of a trout before carefully releasing it back into the river.

Nick in 1983, before he wrote an article imploring fellow fly fishers they ‘catch and release’. “This is most important in back-country rivers with a resident population of trout. In lakes it is not quite so critical for the fish population. This large trout was exhausted and unlikely to survive, and the Department of Internal Affairs at the time were interested in details of large fish from Otomangakau, as it was a new fishery. They collected scales from this fish to determine its age and growth rate."

It isn’t only human lives the long-time fly fisherman has sworn to preserve. Back in 1985, Nick penned a magazine article advocating a concept that was practiced overseas but seldom seen in New Zealand at the time.

“I wrote the first article in New Zealand on the catch and release of trout,” he says. “Up until that stage, people would mostly take all the fish they landed, irrespective of whether they were going to eat them. Sometimes, they’d feed them to pigs.

“But even catch and release can be abused. I’ve seen a picture in a magazine, showing a fishing guide landing his 35th trout of the day and I thought that was terrible. If you land three or four fish, that’s a good and pleasant day but to bother 35 fish for your own ego, I thought that was appalling.”

While the readers’ response to his catch and release suggestion was not universally warm almost four decades ago, he has seen a huge uptake of the idea since.

“It’s particularly beneficial in rivers that have small numbers of large trout and those fish are needed for breeding.”

Lake Otamangakau known as a wild trophy trout fishery

West African medic to first-time fly fisherman

Nick had never fly-fished before he came to find himself in Taupo. By then, the Englishman had completed his medical studies at Cambridge University. He trained in London and spent three months researching malaria and trachoma in Africa and another three months studying obstetrics in Norwich. When he returned to The Gambia, in West Africa, the newly-qualified doctor was appointed national head of both obstetrics and pediatrics. He was one of only six doctors in the country so he found himself seeing 160 child patients in a single morning. Or performing emergency cesarean section operations, using only ether as an anesthetic.

Back in England and unable to settle, some New Zealand colleagues suggested he fly south. So he and his wife Lottie headed to the Central North Island with two young children and plans to stay a couple of years. Countless fishing expeditions and almost half a century later, the Bradford family shows no sign of leaving. They quickly formed friendships and relished the outdoors lifestyle for their children, who have been walking and climbing in Tongariro National Park from an early age.

We came over the hill into Taupo on a lovely day in October,” he says of his first impressions. “The lake was flat calm and the mountains were covered in snow, the people were friendly and they told me there were fish in the lake.

Growing up in Essex, trout fishing was very expensive. When we first came here, we lived next to a Scots couple and he taught me how to fly fish and tie flies. One of my patients taught me how to fish the Tongariro River with a nymph, where you’re fishing upstream and letting it drift down. It’s a very effective method when the fish are running into the streams in winter, to spawn.

Seeing stars

Fishing tugged the eternally curious general practitioner towards other interests, too. He became an amateur entomologist, studying the insects that trout feast on and he took up a camera to capture the beauty of adult mayflies that flitted around the region’s rivers. Fishing also led him to the stars.

Nights offered the chance to find a stretch of water and still his whirring mind, fly rod in hand. This was particularly true in the years when his days were full of patients and when on-call weekends could mean 24-hour stretches of sporting injuries, births, deaths, emergency department duty at the local hospital, and the occasional rescue helicopter flight. On a busy Saturday, he might see 80 urgent patients and receive another dozen or so phone calls through the night.

However, off-duty evenings would often find him standing at the mouth of one of Lake Taupo’s tributary streams.

“At night, that’s when the fish come into the shallows. It’s quite a contemplative form of fishing, you fish by feel, using flies that resemble the smelt, bully and koura. If you do it on a clear night in winter, it’s very calm you start looking at the stars and thinking about the galaxy and the universe.”

In recent years, Nick has given up both fishing – “I’ve chased and bothered enough fish” – and medicine. However, he continues to turn his camera lens both towards the landscape and skywards, capturing black and white images of the Milky Way galaxy over Tongariro National Park’s iconic volcanoes. His framed prints sell in Taupo’s Kura Art + Design Aotearoa, but you can find his photographs here. 

Fishing as therapy

There is reasonably good research about the effects of nature therapy for treating people with anxiety, stress, and mild depression. They have looked at stress hormones like cortisol after people have been out in a natural environment compared to the city and found a reduction in those hormones.

You’re going out into a lovely environment. The stream is alive and it’s a lovely thing to walk beside some of these streams. But also, since have to concentrate so much, you tend not to think so much about those everyday things bothering you.

People think you need to have a lot of patience for fly fishing but that’s not true. You’re cultivating the art of prolonged expectation.

One of my favourite fishing spots used to be Whitikau Pool at the top of the Tongariro River. Originally, you had to walk 45 mins to get there so very few people went that far. But life changes and floods change things and that’s no longer a pool, it’s now a fast run. Nothing ever stays the same on the river, you have to relearn it again. Which of course is part of the pleasure. Fly fishing is a challenge, it’s not an easy sport but one that has many rewards.

Nick’s three favourite ways to fish Taupo

1. Night fishing. At night, that’s when the fish come into the shallows around stream mouths into Lake Taupo. On a still night, all is quiet and you cast and fish by feel while watching the stars and wondering about our place in the universe.

2. Winter fishing. When the trout run into streams in winter to spawn, this is quite an active form of fishing. You’re casting quite a small fly that resembles the insects that live in the stream and you watch the end of the line intently for just a hesitation or when the line stops coming downstream to indicate the fish has taken the fly. You’re concentrating all the time, you don’t think about work and the things bothering you during the week. On a clear winter morning, there is a crackling frost, and all the grass and leaves sparkle in the sunshine. It can be quite magical.

3. Back-country fishing. There’s a particular pleasure in fishing in the backcountry rivers around Taupo. This is where the fish are resident, so they live in the streams all the time and it’s also very active but in a different way. You have to get to your favourite river, which can be quite remote, walking carefully along the river and trying to spot the fish before it spots you. They’ve got very good eyesight and they’re not dumb, either. They can be very difficult to see sometimes in the river if it has a darkish colour bottom. Then you have to try to cast your fly to the trout without spooking it and watch closely to see if it will take a nymph or the dry fly. You need to try and imitate the natural insects as closely as possible.

Whichever way you fish, it should end with you putting the fish back in the water. You need to do it very carefully. Get the fish back into a net and preferably use an old pair of surgical forceps to get the barbless hook out gently. A fully evolved fly fisherman is interested in everything except the death of the fish.

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