Story and photos by Alberto Rey
A father-son relationship is strengthened during a fishing trip to New Zealand, as the young man prepares to leave home and the elder contemplates a new phase in their lives.
My only son Diego is 17 and will be leaving home in a year. The impending change is what put us inside the small, thin-shelled, plastic and aluminum cabin of a Robinson R44 helicopter.
We are slowly descending into a valley in New Zealand where the Māori hunted herds of South Island giant moa to extinction. Today, the river that flows between two chains of mountains in the Southern Alps is teeming with brown and rainbow trout that Europeans introduced in the 1800s.
Seated amid the thunder of rotating helicopter blades, I think back to an argument my wife and I had 17 years ago. The young man seated in front of me is the result of that spat. I was in my early 40s when Janiel and I had our only real disagreement; it centered on the idea of having a second child. We had a beautiful, healthy girl, and another child was important to Janiel. Although we realized that the odds for complications had increased as we’d gotten older, she was convinced that everything would be fine and that I needed to trust her. Her assurances were not very comforting, but it was apparent that our marriage would be defined by the decision.
Diego and I have a bond that goes beyond genetics. As the pilot lines up our landing spot along the clear glacial stream, I realize that our connection has become more significant as he has matured and come closer to leaving home. His mother and I are edging toward the final third of our lives while our offspring are just beginning theirs.
Fly-fishing has strengthened my relationship with my children, especially my son. It has connected us to a world of spirituality and beauty, and our time in nature has brought out the best in us. We have experienced a clarity that transcends our daily routines.
Throughout the year, I create a small travel fund from the money I make selling my artwork, writing and guiding. Our good fortune does not escape me. I realize how different my son’s life has been from mine, and I wonder how it affects his thinking and worldview and decisions. I could ask him, but it’s not that easy. Unlike my wife and daughter, who talk nonstop for hours on a road trip, my son and I are content to talk only after a shared experience, such as fishing.
Moments after the helicopter drops us off and disappears behind a mountain, Chris Daughters, our guide and the owner of Cedar Lodge, begins dissecting the river for us. He explains where the fish will be positioned in the current, the best flies to use, and how to approach and cast to the long, dark shadows.
My son and I cannot retain much of anything; we are in awe of the valley’s beauty and the snow-capped mountains that surround us. In this moment, we realize how fortunate we are to be in this setting together.
For the next four days, we are flown by helicopter into stunning sections of river that provide wonderful fishing. The wealth of riches is hard to comprehend. “This is sick,” Diego says, grinning broadly as he surveys the mountains and the clear, crystal stream racing past our feet.
New Zealand is like many other remote fisheries: Less fishing pressure equates to more fish caught. We have arrived in November, during Thanksgiving, when there is virtually no pressure, and conditions are just about perfect, which is unusual for early spring. To improve our chances, we fly to a new location every day, a routine that is typical at Cedar Lodge.
We consistently find fish measuring more than 18 inches, and most take our flies. Some are aggressive, others selective. Perfect presentations are sometimes ignored. On other occasions on the same beat, a poor cast causes a fish to chase a fly across pools and through riffles.
My son and I have done quite a bit of steelhead fishing, so we are excited about fishing for something unique to us: the elusive and beautiful New Zealand brown trout. As luck and conditions would have it, we land mostly rainbows, but the saturated colors of the few browns we catch is embedded in my memory. Halos of white slivers surround rows of dark brown dots that crown bright yellow bellies. The dots extend from the tail to the iridescent blue cheeks behind their eyes.
Daughters understands our adventure. He, his wife, Shauna, and their two children moved to New Zealand from Eugene, Oregon, for the fishing season. Other guides might have taken the more economical approach and lived away from their families during the season. These expats found private tutoring for their children and got involved in the lodge’s operation as a way to spend more time together. The family dines with clients, making for a welcoming environment.
Family fishing is important to me. As soon as Diego could walk, he joined me on the stream that runs behind our home. When he was 4, he began working on his version of fly tying. He landed his first steelhead — with a little help — the same year.
By the time he was 12, Diego would spend as many as 10 hours fly-fishing for cutthroats on Montana streams. On our long-distance adventures, I tried to keep him within eyesight but also gave him space and a sense that he was fishing on his own, making his own discoveries. We have fished throughout the U.S. Northeast, with trips to Italy and Iceland.
Months after our return from New Zealand, there are moments when my son mentions, out of the blue, how much he enjoyed our time there. We both have a store of memories. And I remain haunted by the vision of several large trout that rose to my flies, following them downstream for a few feet, their noses right beneath the hook, before slowly turning away.