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Zane Mirfin Fishing Articles 2015

Dry fly magic

Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, 12 December 2016
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West Coast Gold: California’s Dale Kinsella doing what he likes best – catching wild brown trout on the dry fly. Dry Fly Magic: A selection of traditional, attractor, and terrestrial dry flies
Fly fishing is a wonderful sport, first documented by the ancient Macedonians in the 4th century BC.
Since then, the ongoing evolution of our sport has been richly chronicled with classic literature and there are more books published about fly fishing than any other recreational pursuit.

British anglers and authors were instrumental in the worldwide dissemination of fly fishing knowledge and learnings. They even transported their beloved brown trout (salmo trutta) all over the world to create new fisheries for others to enjoy. Along the way fly fishing methods, predilections and prejudices transformed the sport into somewhat of a cult. Anglers fished flies on the surface and deep below, they fished upstream and down, and along the way there was debate, argument, and even the advent of purist anglers who would cast only to rising trout with a surface dry fly.[Dry Fly Magic: A selection of traditional, attractor, and terrestrial dry flies]
ZANE MIRFINDry Fly Magic: A selection of traditional, attractor, and terrestrial dry flies

Leading the charge was Frederick Halford (1844 -1914), the doyen of the dry fly on the English chalkstreams and author of many books including the seminal Dry Fly Fishing in Theory and Practice. Halford, but mostly his disciples, decried the use of subsurface flies despite the success of iconic angling authors such as G.E.M Skues (1858 – 1949), and followed much later by Frank Sawyer and Oliver Kite. Dry fly fever travelled the globe, including the birthplaces of American fly fishing such as New York's Catskill streams, where American anglers added many new innovations and technical advances in dry fly fishing, and continue to do so to this day.

Today, modern anglers can fish any way they want, but catching free-rising trout on the dry fly has never been surpassed. Dry flies come in many forms, ranging from precise imitations of mayflies, caddisflies, and stoneflies, to attractor patterns, emergers, even XOS terrestrial patterns tied out of spun and clipped buoyant deer hair. Perhaps the most familiar generic dry fly pattern has a tail of feather whisks, a dubbed fur body, hair or feather wings, with the most important feature being a genetically bred rooster hackle wound at right angles to the hook shank to provide flotation.

Famous examples of the hackled dry fly include the English Greenwell's Glory, March Brown, and Red Tipped Governor or the American Adams, Hendrickson, Cahill or Quill Gordon. Kiwi anglers evolved their own patterns too to meet local conditions and match the hatch on local insects. Traditional New Zealand dry fly patterns include Twilight Beauty, Dad's Favourite and Kakahi Queen (imitating the big local mayfly Coloburiscus humeralis).

Lately I've been out and about on the trout streams of the northern South Island, always searching for dry fly opportunities. Our clear headwater streams and sizeable trout are a magnet for local and overseas anglers and there is nothing more exciting to get the pulse racing and the blood pumping than seeing large brown trout hanging suspended near the surface in limpid green emerald pools. 

Some of these fish look for all the world like legs of mutton as they hug the foam lines picking off hatching mayflies, with every curve of their body and fins on show, as they tip upwards with a flash of jaws. There's just nothing like fishing a dry fly to a rising trout, with a delicate cast, the fly cocking gently upstream, and the fish moving upwards and delicately sipping the artificial down. It's like being some type of voyeur in a fishy world, watching a big trout sip the fly like a lovers kiss.

A brief pause and the hook is set with an explosion of water and hopefully a screaming reel. Iconic American dry fly angler, Vincent Marinaro (1911 – 1986), author of A Modern Dry Fly Code and In the Ring of the Rise described it well when he wrote that "some anglers say that trout fishing is a contemplative sport but it never is when you stick a tiny dry fly into a big unsuspecting trout".

Longtime New Zealand dry fly aficionado Dale Kinsella is a man of the same mould, and a man who travels each year from the urban jungles of Los Angeles to fish the South Island wilderness. Dale has been making his personal pilgrimage here for 25 years, and although he will fish a weighted fly if necessary, it is the lure of large rising trout and fishing the dry fly that really excites Dale.  This trip we fished the wilderness streams of Nelson, Marlborough, West Coast and North Canterbury, working hard some days but catching great trout along the way. We dodged strong winds, rain, drought and flooded rivers, flying with four different helicopter companies, and having many adventures along the way including me slipping on wet rocks while netting a fish and belting my elbow on a boulder.

But the best memories are always of the trout caught on the dry fly, skilfully finessed to the surface, and fully appreciated as the magnificent piscatorial creatures that they are. There are many ways to catch fish in streams or in the ocean, but a rising trout taken on a small dry fly is undoubtedly the most intimate and special experience.

As a professional fishing guide the best part is getting to do it all again tomorrow. Sometimes, nodding off into exhausted slumber at night, I can almost smell the Jet A1 fuel, hear the whine of helicopter turbines, imagine boulders the size of houses, and fantasise about elusive wild brown trout coming willingly to the dry fly.

Reflections on Thirty years of Guiding

Zane Mirfin, Wildside Column, Nelson Mail, 28 November 2015
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Longtime fishing client, Paul Brower of California, enjoys success with guide Zane Mirfin in November 2015.

In 30 years, things can change a lot and they certainly have, but when I first strapped on my fishing guiding boots back in November 1985 I didn't understand that.

All I was interested in was trout, and I'm pleased to say that despite all the changes over 30 years I'm still vitally interested in trout and the rivers and environment they inhabit.

Along the way it has been my good fortune to have enjoyed epic adventures, visited amazing places around the globe, and been privileged to have met and enjoyed incredible people.
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Even the fish looks young: Zane Mirfin and Greg Fay of Montana back in the good old days.

At 18 I'd already done a lot of fishing and had regularly fished the backcountry waters of Nelson and West Coast. Word of early success led to an invitation to work as an apprentice guide for Nelson Lakes Guiding Services Ltd, based at St. Arnaud, owned by Sharon and Tony Entwistle and their business partner the late Ron Mackay.

It was a great start and an excellent introduction into the fledgling guided fishing business.

Tony Entwistle was an excellent mentor, superb teacher, a man of great patience and knowledge who in years to come went from boss, to fellow guide, to business partner, but best of all trusted and valued friend.  Tony and Ron trusted me out on the water with their customers and fortunately people caught trout with me as their guide. .

It was a great summer job before heading off to the University of Canterbury but I got to meet all sorts of local characters and guides breaking into the new industry. I was much younger than all the others, often a decade or two younger but was accepted well, and have pleasant memories of guides still out there working local rivers like Peter Carty, Lindsay White, and Craig Simpson.

 By the next summer economic fortunes had changed and my job was gone so I started work for the new Department of Conservation, cutting tracks on Mt. Arthur and the Tablelands, under the tutelage of the legendary Max Polglase, and where I first got to meet the hermit of the Karamea Bend, Snow Meyer.

But then the phone rang, and Bob Haswell of Lake Rotoroa Lodge was on the end. "Come and work for me" Bob said and I was a fishing guide again. It was a great adventure at Rotoroa, staying in various shacks and baches, guiding overseas anglers by day, and socialising at night.

Bob Haswell was the consummate lodge host, smooth, confident, and assured. I can remember Bob taking me into the office to show me his new machine that sent written messages over the phone line. "It's called a fax machine" Bob proudly told me and it was a vast improvement over replying to customers with handwritten letters. In some ways, Bob's demonstration of the fax machine was a seminal moment in guiding because it demonstrated how technology was going to change all of our lives forever. In years to come there would be other significant technology changes such as computers, email, websites, even social media like Facebook and Twitter, but in some ways that fax machine was the beginning of the end.

Technology changed communication but it also revolutionised travel, fishing equipment, and tourism forever. Agriculture changed too, from predominantly sheep and beef, to forestry and dairy farming. In the process, the yin and yang of environment and economy got out of kilter and the world we have inherited today evolved, and not always for the better.

I went overseas, travelled, fished, but no-one ever wanted to employ me so I kept guiding, learning my craft, developing a base of fishing customers, and always exploring.

 Most of all I spent time in the United States, fishing a dozen or more states, even guiding in Colorado for four summers.

My time in Colorado was special and boss man Bill Fitzsimmons had fished with me at Lake Rotoroa Lodge. I thought I'd be doing another winter season at Rainbow ski-field manning the lift when the phone rang. "Can you be here in a week?" Bill asked "I've got a ton of work for you".

I remember flying into Aspen, looking down at the snowmelt-flooded Roaring Fork river and the Frying Pan tailwater fishery, and then, the next day I was guiding on them. According to Bill it was a "baptism of fire" but I coped well, producing miraculous draughts of trout for anglers. In later years Bill even invented a special product for me that he called "the longest day" where I guided three separate guiding trips with three lots of customers a day.

Taylor Creek Flyshop was the largest guide service in North America, near the bustling tourism towns of Aspen and Snowmass. Famous sportsmen, celebrities, and actors came into the shop regularly. Joe Cocker told Bill his shop music was "crap", the Fonz was a great guy to talk to, and Goldie Hawn was stunning. One time I was running late driving up to the trailhead when the dark tinted Warner Brothers van pulled up alongside my stalled Ford escort station wagon. The window came down and Kevin Costner stuck his head out and grinned "Hey Zane, have you still got that piece of $%#& car!"

They were great times but eventually I outgrew Colorado and stayed home. I tried to escape guiding training in real estate and farm forestry but my heart was in fishing guiding. I flew the length of the South Island in helicopters searching for trout and most of all I learned.

Of recent years I've diversified into saltwater charter fishing and hunting guiding to keep fresh and invigorated. The trout fishing resource may well be on the verge of collapse but I still thrive on the challenge of being like a modern day Rumpelstiltskin, spinning straw into gold. Along the way I've been fortunate to accumulate a beautiful wife, four kids and a mortgage. Life may have changed, and many of my mentors have gone to the giant troutstream in the sky, but the enjoyment remains.

Thirty years is a long time to go fishing but who knows what the future holds? Maybe I'll be the last guide standing.