The ‘Phow’ moment: In praise of catch and release

Dr Hamish Wilson

In the last couple of decades, I have watched many fishermen carefully release their trout back into the river. Then they often let out a great sigh as they sit back on their haunches and breathe out for the first time in several minutes. This particular sigh sounds like ‘Phow’, an exclamation that seems to combine ‘Phew’ (a feeling of relief) and ‘Wow’ (an amazing success).

The author and his father, Waitahanui River, 197
The author & his father, Waitahanui River, 1970

It is only in the last 20 years or so however, that I have learned how to catch and then release each trout. It was always winter when Dad took our family to the Waitahanui River near Taupo, and the trout were all rainbows. We used a sinking line to cast across and down the river, swinging a fly in front of the trout as they made their way upstream to spawn. We used a Red Setter fly exclusively, a large fluffy fly which probably imitates trout roe – or perhaps those fish just snapped at anything that moved. Once we had figured out the ‘lie’ in each pool where fish rested, we usually caught a few, and kept them to eat. My mother would bake the trout in the oven, or we smoked them to enjoy later.

I discovered summer fishing when my wife and I moved to Dunedin in the 1990s.  The brown trout is  quite a different fish to the rainbow and catching it requires a different technique. In backcountry rivers, each brown trout stays in the same pool over summer. They usually have their own particular beat. They patrol up and down, feeding on insect life in the water (nymphs) or coming up to the surface to feed on the beetles, adult mayflies, moths or cicadas that have landed there inadvertently. So I have learned about insects and their life cycles below and above the water, and how to ‘match the hatch’ with different fly imitations. It has been a steep and fascinating learning curve.

We have found these browns are tastier than rainbows, but I only keep the occasional one to eat, and then only if camping out at night or if close to the car and the chilly bin. Mostly, my fishing mates and I gently put them back, as there is something wonderful about the idea of fishing solely for the challenge of it. The approach here is to see the fish first, especially before they see you. It takes quite a bit of skill to spot the trout in this way and it is certainly exciting, being on high alert for hours as we wander up stream, scanning every pool and eddy.

Mostly however, the trout is the winner. The first glimpse is often a telltale bow wave as the trout charges away upstream, having been spooked by my careless movement on the bank. Or else I might scare the trout with a clumsy cast, too close or too heavy as the fly hits the water. Or else it blithely ignores my chosen fly, and the next one and the next one too.

The author with an 8lb trout, Canterbury, NZ, 2016

So to catch a brown trout after several hours of focused concentration is quite a big deal. And if it is a large one, then it is all the more exhilarating and satisfying. It has been fooled into eating my chosen fly, I have played it without the line breaking and finally it is in the net. Then there is the ‘hero shot’, posing with the fish for a photo. The hook is removed and I can gently let the trout slide from my fingers back into the welcoming water. And after all that build up of anticipation and tension and relief of a successful return to the river, there is the ‘Phow…’

I caught my largest trout in years in November 2016. The Phow moment is near the end of this wee movie:

This trip was the first time I had hired a fishing guide. He recounted some great stories about his wealthy American clients, each of whom was trying to catch one of the famed New Zealand trophy-sized trout – fish that weigh anything over 10 pounds. During one helicopter trip into the upper reaches, the guide spotted a very large trout cruising about a pool, rising for mayflies in the afternoon sun. Unfortunately, as the client cast towards it, he spooked a lesser fish they hadn’t seen. It, of course, rushed upstream, disturbing the larger trout which promptly sank out of sight.

It was the American’s last day in New Zealand, so he vowed to return. The following year, they flew to the same spot and walked upstream very carefully. There was the same trout, and again, there was another trout behind it. This time, he caught the lesser one and quickly pulled it down downstream so as  not to disturb the big one. Then he cast his mayfly imitation perfectly. The monster slowly rose up in the water column to sip it gently in. The fight was on!

But almost at the bank the line broke and the fish, slowly and deliberately, swam away. My guide said he often saw grown men in tears.

The next year, however, his client was back again. This time there were two smaller fish behind the bigger one. He catches each one in turn, drawing them carefully away. Then he hooks the large one. After a gigantic struggle, he eventually lands it, a beautiful hen trout of 13lbs. Now these clients don’t usually talk about money, but at dinner that night the guide couldn’t resist, and he asked his guest how much it had cost him to finally get that trout into the net. After a few minutes of calculations on a table napkin, the figure was announced: over $70,000.

This particular fish was thereafter named ‘Cash Sally’. Other trophy fish have names as well, such as Larry, Mo and Curly. Larry’s weight has ranged from 11 to 13lbs in the last 5 years. He has a distinctive pattern of brown spots (like a finger print) and he has posed on Facebook three times with three different anglers, a triumph of the art of catch and release.

For a lighthearted look at modern style catch and release, check this 5-minute movie we made in 2016:

It is a long way from those early days of trout fishing at Taupo.

Hamish Wilson is a GP in Dunedin, New Zealand. He also teaches medical students at the local medical school.

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