Jock's Stream

(This is a story written a few years ago by Ron Giles at a time when farmers were being pressured by angling organisations to fence off waterways to protect streams from farm animals. A story that is still topical today as dairy farms are an increasing threat to stream quality and fish habitat.)

It was a balmy March day with the sun about to drop behind the distant western hills.That meant there was an hour of daylight left as the solitary angler knelt by the bush-fringed stream. The snout of a trout broke through the surface film in the slower water by the bank and a small ripple spread outwards. A hint of a smile creased the angler's grizzled face. He carefully unhooked his fly from his split cane rod and peeled off a few feet of the waxed silk fly line. There was not much room to cast - a tangle of manuka trees behind him and flax bushes lining the banks in front of him. A delicate roll cast avoided all those obstacles and landed the fly just above where the ripple had appeared. The tiny dry fly landed delicately on the surface; righted itself, then drifted slowly down with the current.

Once more a snout poked up and the trout sipped in the morsel. The angler raised his rod as the trout was turning back down. There was a satisfying stop in the upward motion of the rod as the hook caught.

A surprised brown trout shot off upstream intent on burying itself in the tangle of tree roots at the top of the pool. Anticipating this escape tactic, the angler quickly lowered his rod to where it was parallel with the water. Clamping his hand on the reel, he applied side strain and arrested the fish’s flight.

The trout retreated to the stronger current in the middle of the pool and sulked in the depths. It then swam around for a while but with its usual bolt hole no longer an option, it seemed to run out of ideas and the fight was mercifully quick. The angler scooped up the fish in his net and gave it a quick rap on the head with his hardwood priest. Slipping the fish into his creel, he rose and pushed his way through the streamside bush into the farmland.

As he strode across the paddocks, he thought about all the good days he’d had on this bonny stream. It looked like they were finished for good. Only that morning the farmer had told him that he was going to cut down all the streamside bush. The farmer had said that with the new Government lifestock incentives and the good prices for wool since the war, he needed every bit of land that he had in full production. Jock had pointed out the dangers of denuding the stream vegetation but it had all fallen on deaf ears. Despite Jock's vehement protests, the farmer was determined to proceed.

It was nine o’clock in the morning when John pulled into the farmhouse driveway. He had spoken to the farmer he’d seen working in a paddock back down the road. The farmer had been happy to give him permission to fish the stream at the back of the farm but he had seemed quite surprised that anyone would want to fish ‘the ditch’ - as he called it. John was starting to doubt if it was in fact the same stream that his father had fished all those years ago. But he was pretty sure it was. Old Jock might not remember what he’d had for breakfast but his memory of his old fishing haunts had always proven completely reliable.

John had always regretted that he had not spent more time fishing with his Dad. The problem was that he had preferred to go surfing when Jock took off on his fishing excursions. Still it would be good to fish this stream and swap yarns with his Dad tonight. It was a pity that Jock’s bad hip had now curtailed his fishing these days.

Walking through an old orchard behind the farmhouse, John noticed that the farm was in a state of serious disrepair. The orchard had not been tended for years and the trees were old and festooned with lichen. Small bunches of unripe fruit hung here and there on those few trees that had not yet died or fallen over. An unruly mass of grapevines concealed the far fence and threatened to choke the opening. John climbed over a decrepit gate and followed a fence line that cut through a paddock littered with pieces of rusting farm equipment. Thistles seemed to be the predominant crop and the whole farm had a distinctly uncared-for look. It had obviously been converted to dairy farming some time back as there was a large herd of Fresians two paddocks away.

Fifteen minutes later, John climbed up a slight rise and stopped dead. Below him was an ugly, muddy creek. Its banks were covered in blackberry and gorse and the slow-moving, clay-coloured waters were clogged with weed. In many places, the banks had collapsed from the continued onslaught of cows clambering down to the stream. The stream had been forced to detour around these fallen slabs of clay and it now meandered aimlessly. The reduced flow of the water meant that there was no longer the strength of current to wash away the collapsed banks. Clumps of rushes had sprung up on the old bed of the stream and the boggy clay was plugged by the feet of the cattle coming to drink.

Further down, an old corrugated iron water tank lay on its side in the creek; a trickle of rust staining the water below. A white plastic bag had caught on the tank’s jagged edge and was swaying to and fro in the current.
‘That’s about all that will be swimming in that mess,’ muttered John, turning on his heel.

It was with a feeling of deja vue that John turned the Pajero into the disused driveway. It must have been nearly thirty years since his abortive attempt to fish his Dad’s favourite stream. He was not sure if this second effort would be any more successful but he’d promised his son that he would take him to rivers that the boy’s grandfather used to fish.

Old Jock had died before Cameron was born but John had passed on some of the old man’s trout fishing gear which the boy treasured. Cameron was always pestering him to take him ‘to where Poppa used the cane rod’.

They’d spent most of the day fishing a river where the fish were not too difficult to catch, in deference to his son’s burgeoning angling skills. It was only a surprising inclusion of Jock’s old stream in a newly-published Trout Fishing Guide that had persuaded John to show the boy 'Poppa’s favourite trout stream'.

John had spoken to a dairy farmer just down the road and found out that the farmer had bought the farm that the stream flowed through, a few years ago. He had been happy to give them permission to fish the stream and mentioned that there had been one or two other fishermen through in the last few months.

John and Cameron got out of the car and then started assembling their rods. It took longer than usual as the boy was all butterfingers with excitement - so much so that John had to take over the rigging up of the boy’s new graphite rod. Cameron had wanted to bring Jock's old cane rod but John had managed to convince him that it was better left where it resided - on the wall of the family room.

Walking past the site of the original farmhouse, John stopped to get his bearings. The old orchard had also been cleared away and the place looked very different. Ahead of them were well-fenced, lush paddocks that were free of thistles and weeds. After 15 minutes walk, the two anglers climbed up a small rise.

There in front of them, fenced off from the paddocks, was a corridor of native trees; mainly manuka but also pittosporum and the odd rimu and lancewood. None were fully-grown, but they obviously had been planted many years before. Through the branches they could catch glimpses of glistening water, rushing between steep banks.

Pushing on through the trees, they stopped a metre from the bank. There in front of them was a beautiful little stream, bubbling its way over mossy rocks between between the bush-covered banks. Although the light was fading, John could see that the water was crystal clean and free of rubbish. The stream no longer meandered but flowed strongly with the classic sequence of pools and small rapids in between.
Cameron stuck close behind his father as he moved up to a wider pool with slow water on the far side. They crouched down in the flax bushes on the bank and studied the inviting-looking water. After a couple of minutes of peering at the pool, the boy was becoming a bit restless but his father whispered to him to stay quiet. He pointed to the eye of the pool, indicating that the boy should watch that area closely.

Just then, in the silvery mirror left by the setting sun, a snout appeared.