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'It's no real nuisance to be blind': How Toni Marks goes fishing when he can't see

by Sue Hoffart for Stuff.co.nz

Retired psychiatrist Toni Marks can’t see what the fuss is about. When strangers exclaim over his ability to successfully fly fish while blind and standing chest deep in the Tongariro River, he claims it’s the fish that do the work because they have to swim to him.

This story has been republished with permission from the author.

The 77-year-old has been visiting the Taupo region for 35 years to holiday and fish for trout with friends, including former flatmates from his medical school days.

“It’s no real nuisance to be blind,” he says of his career choice. “Sometimes, it’s an advantage."

Marks was in the final year of a medical degree when he learned his poor vision was much more serious than he'd realised. Within 10 years, his rare degenerative eye disease Retinitis pigmentosa​ had progressed to the point that he was completely blind. By then he was a qualified psychiatrist with a busy hospital job, a wife and a young family.

It’s no real nuisance to be blind,” he says of his career choice. “Sometimes, it’s an advantage."

It’s quite straightforward because it’s a talking branch of medicine and I can sense body language quite readily. The way a person talks and their cadence of voice can tell me about their posture.

Marks said patients were often more at ease with him because they could see he had his own issues.

During those years, fishing provided an escape from the intensity of a job that revolved around private practice as well as busy mental health units, emergencies and shift work in the public hospital system.

When he was called on to give evidence in criminal cases, work could occasionally intrude on his trout haunts. One snowy winter fishing expedition on the Tongariro River was cut short when he had to dash to Taupo Airport to fly home for a court case.

There were nights I’d be on duty and called out at three o’clock in the morning to go and see someone who was far from well and maybe needed to be admitted or committed.

But there’s no way you can think about work when you’re in the river. It’s a wonderful contrast. You’ve got to be concentrating all the time, you’ve got to put the fly where you want it, not get caught in the willows behind, stay upright when you’re up to your armpits."

An unintentional fisherman

Marks' trout fishing began unintentionally, on a family holiday at Kuratau. Toni was determined to give an eel-catching lesson in the nearby Kuratau River when he discovered the waterway held only trout, not eels. With fishing gear assembled from their rented bach, Marks ventured out with his son and daughter after dinner. 

The first fish I caught was at midnight and it was freezing cold. This beautiful 5lb trout. I knew I’d caught it but thought it was still in the water. I had dragged it what seemed like several hundred yards along the beach before I realised it was ashore.”

Daughter Lucy still enjoys fishing and, for several years now, has joined her father, uncle and their friends on the annual visit to Tongariro.

These fishing pilgrimages began in the mid-1980’s, when a friend invited the psychiatrist to join him for a long weekend away.

Marks relished it all; the camaraderie and storytelling, trips to Turangi Bakery & Cafe, the joy of learning fly fishing secrets and the pleasure of being on the Central Plateau.

We always come here. It’s probably the best fishing in the world, with the best pools in the world, just a few hours’ drive from Wellington."

Marks said the climate around the Tongariro River was wonderful.

The best days are when you get drizzle and cold, it’s perfect fishing. The fish tend to run upriver when you get a southerly.

"But you also get lovely, sunny days when one of the beauties is the birdlife. In my favourite pozzy on the Major Jones (a bridge near Turangi), there is usually a grey warbler on the other side of the river. There was a thrush singing from the tallest tree when I was fishing with my daughter in the late afternoon and it was utterly beautiful, with the music of the white water.”

Marks said he enjoyed the unpredictability of his chosen pursuit; the way a seemingly hopeless standing-for-hours morning can turn to a rush of adrenaline with the tug of a fish. While his catch is usually released, a few are retained to be salted and sugared and cooked in a portable smoker. 

Fishing while blind 

Learning to fly fish while blind has been no trouble.

Marks said he sometimes needs help to reach his preferred fishing holes, depending on friends to guide him down steep inclines or steer him away from tripping hazards on bush tracks leading to the river.

Learning to fly fish while blind has been no trouble for Toni Marks

He said they will tell him how far he is from the opposite bank and explain where any overhanging branches lie, describing distance in car lengths.

He described standing alongside a friend to cast down the face of a 9m cliff, jiggling the line when told a fish was approaching, then scrambling down the cliff to land his trout.

Like all good fishermen, he values local knowledge and will ask around to find out how his favourite spots might have changed since his last visit.

In terms of technique, Marks said fishing without vision is easy enough.

It’s actually not very hard. It just means I need to wet line, where you toss the fly in the water, so the fish does all the work for you. I don’t do nymphing, where you’ve got to watch for an indication of the fish taking the hook. I tried having my brother-in-law tell me when to strike, but that was a total fail."

I can’t dry fly fish, where you stalk the fish by creeping through the undergrowth but I’m happy to go to the Major Jones and fish on my own."

He also has a tip for anyone struggling to thread nylon through the eye of small or awkward hooks.

The secret, when you can’t see what you’re doing, is to use the tongue. The tongue is a magnifying instrument. People all round me put glasses on to do this.

It’s not just the fishing that appeals to Marks as a person who is blind.

At night, my friends want to go home but I don’t because sound becomes magnified. You get a reduction in the general noise, the temperature drops and there’s a clarity of sound when it’s cooler.

"Just as dark is settling in, the birds are all sorting out who’s going to sleep with whom and it’s all just exquisite. And there’s an evening smell of woodsmoke, when people are lighting log burners in houses nearby."

For the last five years, Toni and his fishing party have stayed at Tongariro River Motel in Turangi because he says, owner Ross Baker is “a beaut bloke."

"He and his wife Pip look after fishermen extremely well and they’re very good hosts.”

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