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Fishing with the poet | Writing

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The ballad of legendary poet Kevin Ireland, set on the Mataura River

The poet travels from Devonport to the far south of New Zealand a few times a year, to fly-fish for trout and catch up with old friends. He says he’s in his 88th year, but we tell him not to exaggerate — he’s only 87. We do agree on one thing though — that he can no longer stand all day in the river. So we aim to fish for only a few hours when the fall mayfly hatches might be at their best.

We follow the Mataura River south. Through the grim streets of Mataura town, and up to Wyndham. There I tell the poet that I will show him the building that houses the Wyndham Angling Club, one of the oldest angling clubs in New Zealand, with its small and beautiful building. However, I can’t find it, so we keep going, finally arriving at Fortrose where the river joins the Pacific.

I pass the cafe and head for the cliffs overlooking the ocean, past the windswept golf course and the dark trees that curl up against the salty winds that beset this coast. Today, however, the air is warm and the gray-blue ocean smooth, save for the giant rolls, unrolling like soil turned over by a massive plow. The pale, indifferent sky.

“Have you been here before?” I ask.

“Never,” says the poet. “What place. Look at these rolls – gorgeous.

We walk along the edge of the cliff where the river meets the ocean – to mingle with all the rivers that have ever flowed. Today, however, we see the river upside down, as the ocean pours inland, pushing plumes of sand and nutrient-rich salt water into the estuary. I point west towards the sand spit that protects the estuary from the force of the ocean. “I started my ascent of the river,” I said, descending first along the sand spit. I had covered ten kilometers before turning around and walking upstream. I spent my first night camping among these dunes, next to the last of the Mataura.

We return to the car and I point to Waipapa Point, where in 1881 the SS Tararua ran aground, drowning 131 passengers.

At Cafe Fortrose, we eat seafood chowder in seats that, in normal autumn, might be taken by foreign tourists, but that day our traveling companions were either New Zealanders or perhaps to be foreigners stranded here when our borders closed. Then we drive north through a strip of low hills, where the grass is grazed by sheep and dairy cows and the trees lose their stoop. The sky, blue earlier in the day, is covered with pewter-colored clouds and rain showers slide over the hills of Hokonui.

As we arrived in the late afternoon, the river looked unpromising, its surface choppy by a southerly breeze. We wait in the car, in no rush to start pulling on our waders, erecting rods and deciding which fly to use. Downwind of a line of browning willows, a few trout swirl in the shallows, urging us to action. The poet chooses a nymph with a large, easily spotted tuft of wool to indicate the catch – mainly because her eyes are no longer able to follow a tiny dry fly in the harsh late autumn light. Today, he likes to fish slowly, prospecting the water with patience.

We cross directly Kevin Ireland, facing the Mataura river, where it flows into the ocean; the tide pushes the sea water into the estuary

“I’ll fish below you,” I said, thinking that would be the best place to keep an eye on this tall man whose balance was failing. A few years ago, I had to pull him out of the river after he slipped, while stretching to make a long cast. I thought it would be a simple task to get him back on his feet. However, the combination of his weight and the volume of water that filled his waders, along with the strength of the current, made his exit less than a sure thing.

As we begin to fish, the cool breeze dies and low beams of sunlight stream through a window in the cloud. The temperature rises a notch, the swallows fly away, and my heart rises. I wade through the creek, stopping at thigh level, feeling the tenacious pull of the current through my waders and staring at the water. On a line of foam where competing currents collide, anthracite mayflies float a few meters, while they prepare their gossamer wings for the flight they are forced to take. Trout poke their noses through the shiny surface of the river and swallow the dunes. However, most make it past the trout and take flight, where the swallows dive, lift and dive again to catch them. I watch a trout sway in harmony with the current and I try to place my fly on the foam line, comparing it with the real thing as if it were a contestant in a beauty contest – and I wait, holding the breath, let the fly reach the fish.

We catch several trout: fat, olive back, three pounds. Later I will tell the poet that they looked like they came from the sea, such was their chrome beauty. I kill one because the poet wants to bring a couple home.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper to the fish, as I watch its colors of life fade. Above the sound of the river, I hear the old poet shout “I just snagged another – a beauty, but it turned out well.” He cares less now about landing fish than when we met thirty years ago. Hanging them up is enough. Moreover, a lost fish is free to become more wonderful in its imagination.

I look upstream towards the setting sun and watch the poet unroll his line over water that seems black and hard, like a seam of flowing coal. I grab my camera and walk over to him saying, “Go on, I want to take a picture of your cast.” The light is extraordinary. I click the trigger and watch the result. A ray of light strikes the poet as if he were about to be teleported to a distant planet. I try another shot, and the result is the same. I tell him I think he’s about to leave us, and he laughs his big laugh.

For reasons too subtle for my senses to detect, the mayflies abruptly stop their journey to the surface. The swallows and the trout disappear with the duns while the poet and I remain, for a moment, our long shadows on the other side of the river. “Look at that,” I say, pointing north to the Eyre Mountains and the wind-sculpted clouds forming on their western flanks. “We started at the mouth of the river a few hours ago, and here we are, looking towards its source.”

We crunch on the river gravel on our short walk back to the car. Then, “It’s a little awkward, but I have to say… you’re an inspiration, you keep going. Coming back year after year to slide and slide down the river. To stay positive. I need it as a model to approach the future. He laughs and says, “I like watching you fish – watching you cast.” Although I hope for more, I accept what he said is enough. I admire his poetry and his stoicism. I remember the first day a friend and I fished with him—how he waited until we were climbing a steep hill late in the day to tell us he couldn’t feel the sun on one side of his face. Later, when I heard that what he thought was the remnants of a hangover turned out to be a cerebral hemorrhage, I realized that he was not to be laughed at.

We take off our boots and waders to the car, as the setting sun casts a throbbing light on the river, fields and trees beyond.

The poet says: “What keeps me coming back are those moments of magic. The light and the river. Just being here to witness it. Downstream, I see the rings of rising trout growing on the slippery surface of the river. I think for a moment that you have to stay in the dark to fish for the weather vane, but I see on the poet’s face that it’s time to leave.

Later, at Balfour, among friends, we will talk about trout and the river. Later still, we will hear the conversation turn resentful about the pandemic. It will leave the poet, myself and a friend, entering a moonless night, wondering when we will be welcome in this house in which we have experienced so much joy.

For more fishing line, Upstream on the Mataura by Dougal Rillstone (Mary Egan Publishing, $39.99) is available at bookstores nationwide.