Peter Elliott relates a remarkable tale of tackle lost and found in the Mohaka wilderness.

A few years back I bought a Shimano fly reel to use on a lovely four-piece, 6-weight Adam Scott rod. I figured the 5/6 was good quality Japanese tech and I was keen to use it on an upcoming trip into the bush south-east of Taupo.

In December I joined three experienced angler friends on a fly-in to the Upper Mohaka River for four days’ wilderness fishing. It was my first visit to this fabled water, which had been talked up for years around many a table, so I was eager, if a little naïve.

Pete with a lovely Mohaka fighter.

A week of rain prior to our trip saw the river high and discoloured but, according to the helicopter operator, still fishable. More downpours delayed our departure by a couple of hours and we could only get access to a nearby hilltop instead of the standard river drop at camp, which was now flooded.
This alternative site was so small we had to fly in two at a time in a much smaller ‘copter. Mark and I watched enviously as a clattering Robinson 44 took off with our grinning mates, Phil and Steve. Damn! They were going to be on the water before us.

The boys were less perky when we finally dropped through the cloud to the tiny clearing. They had lugged all the heaviest stuff down a precipitous, muddy hill to the hut and had then had to climb near-vertical mud faces all the way back up to help us bring down the rest of the supplies. My jibes about their fitness levels were barely tolerated.

It was thrilling to see the river up close, even if there were doubts about the weather and its fishability. We settled in, assigned bunks, unpacked and began stringing floating lines.

Right in front of the hut was a beautiful set of runs and riffles spilling out of a rocky gorge with a larger, spreading pool that narrowed into a run up against a sheer cliff wall. It was dark-green, deep and looking decidedly fishy. I decided to try my luck.

A re-rig beside pristine water.

I flicked a couple of false casts and fired out a hare and copper beneath a small white fluffy indicator. It drifted just on the edge of the riffle and in the feed line. Nice!

I mended and let it swing past and then ran out more line to let the fly drift for as long as possible. There was a bit of bobbing but nothing to strike at, just the faint, gravelly bounce of a weighted fly on the bottom.

Exhibiting buck fever, I then pulled down against the rod tip and snapped off the top 15 centimetres of my Scott. With my first cast, on my first trip to this legendary water, I’d broken my rod. Disaster!

I was screwed for fishing and faced spending the worst four days of my life being ribbed to death.

Fortunately I had a tiny kit for replacing loops on lines, which included super glue. With difficulty I removed the top guide from the broken tip section and after much scraping away of graphite, refitted it to the shortened rod. It was now five inches shorter but worked – just.

A glimpse of heaven from the chopper.

Unfortunately, the guys discovered I’d screwed up and got me back for my earlier comments about their fitness, and then some. My mojo was definitely gone, my casting wooden and I was all thumbs. I finished day one fishless.

Day two and the river was still up and discoloured. I was wading a stretch about 500 metres downstream from the camp when my new reel started playing up. The drag wouldn’t tighten and line raced off the spool. I could find nothing obviously wrong with it, but at lunchtime I headed back to camp to have a closer look.

Under the drag knob was a tiny stainless nipple sited atop a spring which pushed it into a series of dimples on the underside of the drag. This created the ratchet noise, but I couldn’t get it to stay in place. By removing the nipple I got the drag to work, but without the clicker. Fine by me, I went back to fishing.

Loading in on trip two.

Later, standing in a long, swift run, I was retrieving when the spool fell out of the reel cage and splashed into the water. It was slippery underfoot so I couldn’t chase it as it was carried away from me, flashing over and over in the current.

Knowing we were to fly out at around lunchtime, I determined that I was going to get myself a fish before I left. 

By now I was fairly annoyed with this new reel. But all I had to do was retrieve the entire line and the attached spool, pulling it in while letting the rest of the line run downstream through the rod. No worries.

Left to right: Steve Driver, Mark Worthington, Phil Worthington and Peter Elliott at the Mohaka Hut.

The end of the backing line appeared but no spool…no spool? The backing had either come undone, or I had just forgotten to tie the line on to the reel. It was obvious which scenario was going to be apparent to the chaps. Damn it!

Aghast at my seemingly endless stupidity, I gathered up the line and trudged back to camp with an empty reel housing and an emptier feeling inside. It was day two and I was still fishless, but worse, I was unable to fish my own gear at all.

The ribbing was merciless, despite my gloom.

Vittles on the campfire.

Day three was even worse because the pity started and I was given spare equipment: a 7-weight Redington rod and reel combo that had wonderful feel and power, but I was rattled by my mistakes and failures and remained fishless on day three, too.

My mates’ alternating needling and sympathy for my abject performance was intolerable: “We’ll put you in the best water tomorrow, Pete,” or “I won’t fish until we’ve got you on the board,” and “Everybody has a day like this…but not usually three!”

Knowing we were to fly out at around lunchtime, I determined that I was going to get myself a fish before I left. Sleep was a stranger.

Day four dawned. I grabbed the loan kit and headed off alone before the others were up. Thirty minutes later I had a four-pound rainbow on the bank and three men cheering me on. The rogues had sneaked after me to watch!

Steve hooked up.

But I was happy and relieved. I dropped another fish, but things were improving. At lunchtime we flew out, vowing to come back at the same time next year. I’d be ready.

The following year everything went without a hitch. The weather was sensational while the river was low and clear and full of big, strong rainbows and browns. We used a single chopper and enjoyed some of the most memorable fishing of our lives, including my first wild fishery ten-pound rainbow. Brilliant!

I had the right equipment for the river and the days passed in a happy blur of fish and wading, sun and glinting water, bush and beech leaves, billy tea and laughs – a trip filled with camaraderie. It was truly miraculous.

With the river lower than the year before, we were able to explore kilometres of untouched water. On day two, Steve and I headed away on a long trek. At some point during the day Steve lost his tackle box containing a couple of hundred dollars worth of new flies. Steve was disconsolate that night and vowed to go back and have a look, but with the bush-bashing, river crossings back and forth, and clambering up and down various banks, cliffs, rockfalls and blackberry, there was virtually no hope of finding his lost fly box.

A red wine while dinner cooks.

Sunday morning, Mark and Steve headed off down river while Phil and I headed upstream. Both parties had sensational fishing and we were exhausted upon returning that evening. But Steve was excited and he told Mark to relate his tale.

Climbing through dense bush, Mark had lost his footing, slid and rolled down a steep bank and crashed to the water’s edge. As he dusted himself off he looked down, and there beside his foot in the moss and stones, was Steve’s lost tackle box!

But Steve was still beaming: he told me that when he was wading in the river, way down below camp, he’d clambered out over a gravelly wall cut flat by recent storm flows, when he noticed a glint in the side of the bank. He brushed away some sand and grit and pulled a crusted metallic object out of the bank.

It was my lost spool.

It was gritty and grey and covered in what looked to be some sort of lichen-ish growth. But it was definitely my spool. The chances of finding it were infinitesimally small. But there it was!

I cleaned it up; rubbed away at the growth on it and put a little oil in the works. It went back into the reel seat with a firm snick and spun as free as the day it was made. It has never played up again.