The Other Fish

New Zealand’s lesser-known fly fishing opportunity.

by Miles Nolte

THE WIDE, DARK FIGURE—roughly the size and shape of a sunwarped Hula-Hoop—glided through knee-deep water, stirring sand. My cast was lazy, flirting with disinterest, bordering on ennui, having already hurled multiple empty offerings toward the creature.

The fly settled four feet ahead of the shape’s plodding progress. A series of short, erratic strips mimicked life, something small and helpless panicking along the swell-sculpted bottom. The dark shape wasn’t supposed to eat the fly. It was a visible target, a stand-in for a fish that had bewitched me; a fish that, until a few weeks ago, didn’t exist in the scaly stew of my piscatorial brain; a fish that may or may not have been hovering around the dark shape.

Kingfish are difficult to see; stingrays are not. Kingfish, however, often follow stingrays that patrol the shallow flats of Golden Bay and snatch up fleeing morsels dislodged by the bottom-feeding rays, so stingrays make good proxies for anglers stalking kingfish.

“What a grand prank, then: me on a sandy saltwater flat, nearly nipple deep, tethered to an uncatchable incidental species…”

When the dark shape accelerated and the line came tight, I wondered, for the first time in my life, what does one do when standing on a shrinking sandbar a quarter mile from shore, attached to a stingray by a fly line?

“Just damn.” Apparently, one swears.

The cartilaginous ray spun—stiff tail whipping, wings undulating, 8-weight folding—anthropomorphically angry. Attempting to land this creature struck me as foolish but tempting—assuming I could actually bring the thing in. I was a solid JV substitute in high school, but removing the barb without getting pierced by a bigger, more poisonous barb seemed like a dance beyond my athletic ability. Agitated rays wield their Godgiven maces with the grace and speed of steroidal hummingbirds.

“Be smart—break the leader,” but I hesitated. The locals I’d befriended around a fire the night before had assured me that the stingrays don’t eat flies.

“Nah, never,” Jake told me, elongating his vowels like any good Kiwi. I nodded intently, a Speight’s lager cooling my palm.

“They’re too smart to eat flies.”

What a grand prank, then: me on a sandy saltwater flat, nearly nipple deep, tethered to an uncatchable incidental species when, over the past four days, I had failed to successfully hook the supposedly catchable target species.

I had seen kingfish daily, blue-silver streaks with bright yellow tails, darting and slashing an impatient radius around the methodical rays; had watched them chase flies with predatory purpose, detonating the surface but somehow never finding the tiny hook point, that impossibly small space around which all angling orbits.

The fly riding out to sea in a fleshy maw felt valuable, or perhaps invaluable. It was the only one of its kind in my possession. The previous morning, three kingfish attacked the gray and black baitfish imitation, while every other fly I’d tried was treated like a panhandler slumped behind a cardboard sign outside a midtown subway station. My saltwater fly boxes sat on a shelf nearly 8,000 miles away. This was supposed to be a trout trip.

Never mind their invasive colonial history, trout hold the center of angling ethos in New Zealand. Fly fishers from around the world make pilgrimages to the South Island. They genuflect at the caudals of massive brown trout and await judgment. Should your leader, your fly, your cast, your drift be deemed worthy, you will be bestowed with that hallowed white flash when the fish accepts your offering. Should you be found wanting, the river will appear as Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to the nonbeliever— sublime in beauty and assembly, impressive in scale and sculpt, but lifeless. New Zealand is not known as a flats-fishing destination, and I did not come prepared for salty presentations.

As I stood contemplating stupidity and ecstasy, states I don’t find at all mutually exclusive, the tide kept climbing, and my reel kept steadily turning out line.

“Damn it.” My linguistic quiver had shrunk that morning. Though short on flies, I carried a fat sack of expletives.

One might wonder at this point, What’s a kingfish, anyway, and how did you wind up tethered to a stingray in the international mecca of trout fishing?