Neville Bennett: Signalling a trout rush

Trophy Trout
Bob South
Viking Press, $34.95

Some years ago huge untapped resources of crayfish were discovered in the Chathams. A rush developed and the resource was raped. It was merely another rush, in a national history which has seen many rushes: seals, whales, Maori souls, Maori land, ships’ masts and spars, timber, pasture, flax and gold … In each rush private individuals made the most of a “free” public resource. Even when the resource began to dwindle visibly it made sense for an individual to redouble efforts to get a share of the remainder before it disappeared. This “tragedy of the commons” is therefore familiar in our history, and Bob South’s Trophy Trout could be an early signal of a rush upon our trout.

Trophy Trout could be read merely as a book about how important personalities of the media, politics and business worlds, domestic and foreign, are given a memorable experience by dedicated New Zealand fishing guides. But Trophy might also be interpreted in a context of the burgeoning popularity of trout‑fishing as an elite gratification. This widens the scope of the inquiry: no longer is it merely yet another success‑story in tourism, but a tongue‑in‑cheek reminder that tourism has costs: notably in eroding environmental ethical and societal values.

Sadly, trout fishing has become a commercial commodity, stimulated and packaged for élite consumption. Mass consumption began in Britain where a huge latent demand existed, but quality waters were largely limited to a few southern rivers jealously preserved by exclusive clubs. The upwardly‑mobile could fish only in remote areas. Then Alex Behrendt bought two derelict lakes, stocked them and nurtured the media with stories of stupendous fish caught by a selected clientele of admirals, judges and corporate executives. Sam Holland contributed a new breed of huge rainbow trout. Anglers could “stalk” tame leviathans using new devices ‑ “buzzers”, “nobblers” and “murderers”.

There are now hundreds of “fishing waters” (glorified ponds) where for about $80 a day an angler can fish any day, any time and be pretty sure of getting a big fish. (Some waters release 20lb trout; these hang around their familiar cages hoping for food; easy meat.) This huge industry is supported by massive sponsorships and competitive teams. Glossy magazines also stir up higher ambitions. The $80‑a-day person with $1000 worth of tackle is titillated with stories of the elite, who wield exclusive tackle while spending $ 1000 a day in lodges set by exclusive waters. The élite is not interested in tame fish; it wants our wild fish.

The ever‑widening distribution of trout and a burgeoning leisure industry are consequences of Anglo‑Saxon colonialism and business expansion. From a very small natural range of habitat (brown trout in northern Europe; rainbow a small part of North America) trout have inherited the earth. The British Empire took browns into all suitable rivers through the Americas, Africa and Australasia. A postwar wave took rainbow across the Atlantic into Britain. By the mid‑1980s there were over 1000 commercial still‑waters in Britain, with 800,000 anglers spending more than $1 billion. Since then rainbow have been introduced even into Loch Leven, the home of the most revered strain of brown trout! Naturally the media have responded to this market.

Publishers perceive that for ease of social mixing alone executives must know about flyfishing ‑even if they do not fish. Chris Hole’s Heaven on a Stick caters for “chaps” who want to chat about conditions in New Zealand, South Africa, Patagonia, America and Iceland. The Sotherby’s Guide lusciously displays the best brand names in tackle and clothing to keep you smart, “dry and warm, especially in such places as Alaska or Finland”. The guide also illustrates methods and 600 cosmopolitan flies which are replacing local patterns. They are arranged so the wealthy can quickly select patterns before flying off for a weekend in Eire or New Zealand.

Many clients deserve some sympathy. They are attracted to New Zealand because it has the best wild trout and offers a good chance of a trophy. But catching wild trout is difficult (unless trolling). A false cast is fatal. It takes years to become proficient. A client must first take lessons, spend thousands on tackle and then use a guide who tolerates their unfitness and poor technique and who can find complaisant fish.

Some guides don’t seem to like “Japs” or “Krauts” but have an asinine admiration for small‑part television personalities. Many clients never have time for unhurried sport. Their timetable leaves a day or so only to catch a fish to adorn their walls. (Horrible thought: are stuffed trout a respectable substitute for lions, tigers and big game? Do some people hunt trout, but would prefer a tiger trophy?) Their trophy will enhance a collection of status symbols ‑ Porsche, Gucci, Rolex, etc. Yet, inhabiting a world where everything has a price, they willingly pay heavily for travel, accommodation, guides and helicopters. (South Island guides charge $300‑$500 a day; choppers cost $800 an hour.)

Trophy fishermen are a separate breed. Ordinary fishermen hope to catch big fish, but their primary purpose is to enjoy the experience of angling. I enjoy escaping from the dry to some remote area where I create a minor miracle: I stalk a trout and persuade it to take for food a few scraps of silk and feather that I have tied into a fly. This purist practice has recently been brilliantly described by Murray Rodgers. Rodgers is not a trophy‑hunter; he is an angler whose sport is a rock, an element of stability in a world of rapid change. It is a quest for Eden, an almost unconscious attempt to discard the trappings of post‑industrial civilisation, commune briefly with the natural world and emerge refreshed.

Whatever the motives driving fishermen, a growing number of tourists and local people use fishing guides. Bob South estimates there are 150. Obviously they are at the interface of a niche market in the tourist industry reflecting a world trend of burgeoning demand for luxury hotels and lodges.

In performing his valuable service in writing about his chosen 17 guides, Bob South uses all his journalistic skills to reach a wider audience. Each chapter begins with a bang: the guide’s most interesting story. Then South etches in the guide’s background, locale of operation, methods and clientele. The style is descriptive, but South artfully builds a biographical profile by extensively using the guide’s own words; a layered portrait emerges revealing nuances of mood, background and character. There are some guides I would enjoy meeting and others I would not. More important, I began to ponder upon the pressure placed upon the amateur ethics of anglers engaged in a professional “industry”. How can guides uphold their integrity when a client demands a change in the rules?

In Bob South’s account it becomes clear that the guides are driven by fickle customer demands to action that infringes good taste. It is legal and ethical to troll for trout. But when five lines are trolled behind a personality‑laden gin-palace, catching 150 fish a day, the scale becomes unseemly and the practice may be unsustainable.

What happens when a client wants a bit of extra fun? Many guides join in. One clings to chopper skids; takes clients in choppers “hooning” around Lake Taupo, and has offered FFS (female fly‑in service) for drinks on board at nightfall. Kerry Packer flew a guide to Australia for consultation. The Huka Lodge was made a private retreat for two weeks. Kerry and mates flew to Taupo in a private jet and the fun began. The party used two choppers, we are informed, as platforms for shooting deer, goats and “anything that moved”. “Precious little” fishing was done, but the “comical and publishable” memories include hooning at Huka Falls in choppers and Kerry acting like a “new age Rambo” with two AR15 Armalites and a few thousand rounds of ammo. Kerry insisted on smoking in flight. The pilot objected but was quickly brought to heel.

The guide sums up. “It was a classic case of learning what most guides already know ‑ he that pays the bucks, makes the rules” (p153). Amen.

Neville Bennett lectures in history at Canterbury University.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, Sociology, Sport
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