The Other Fish

Golden Bay curls below Farewell Spit, a gnarled finger of sand and scrub jutting off the northwestern tip of the South Island. It’s isolated and remote. Visitors have long ventured here in the summer months for an even quieter slice of the downtempo lifestyle for which New Zealand is renowned. The past few years, however, have seen an influx of a particular type of tourist—one who carries long, supple rods and reads water.

My wife, Amy, and I had scheduled a few days in Golden Bay for hiking the spit or the Abel Tasman trail and lying on the beach under the partial shade of open books. On our first drive up the coast, I spotted loose knots of figures standing almost still hundreds of yards from shore. Their posture and pace gave them away. Normal people don’t walk fully clothed into the ocean and stand still. That’s when my plans for the week changed.

“Each morning felt fertile, success imminent.”

In the United States, anglers who speak of kingfish are referring to king mackerel. I had no idea what a New Zealand kingfish was until I wandered the flats for several hours that first evening, watching the tide suck out toward Wellington, seeing lanky starfish exposed in slow-motion retreat. There, in front of me, a juvenile yellowtail amberjack cut just below the steady wind chop. I stripped out line, cast, and watched the fish continue toward the sunset.

STRANGE WATER OFFERS A CHANCE TO RESTORE all the imaginative opportunity that was sucked out of us in middle school science class: observe variables, create hypotheses, test, revise, repeat. Instant feedback, biology, predator–prey relationships, and the web of ecosystem interconnectivity, my inner eighth-grader turns out to be far more motivated by the prospect of a bucking fly rod and salt-crusted shirt than deducing the average volume in a sack of marbles.

Day one, I discovered what a kingfish looks like. Day two, I spotted a group of fish following a stingray. My prey variables were limited to a handful of saltwater baitfish imitations that found their way into my trout streamers, so I began proffering each of them upon the backs of cruising stingrays, pursuing any sign of progress. Late into the second evening, I got a kingfish to accelerate in the direction of a black and gray baitfish imitation.

For the next four days, my life swam with stingrays and kingfish and half-formed hypotheses. Rise before dawn; wake Amy to share a few moments of the orange and magenta sky lighting up the bay behind our rented bungalow; carry my fly rod to the fluid edge of earth; scan between the near horizon and sand in front of me; seek out hovering black shapes blurred by wind, water, and sand; cast all around them.

Each morning felt fertile, success imminent. At midday, I would return, soaked to the neck, fishless but certain that I had learned something. Amy and I would eat lunch on a salt-weathered deck overlooking the bay glittering under the sun’s zenith.

Evenings, I’d repeat my pilgrimage. On day three, I began getting strikes. Another angler I’d met on the beach told me the kingfish were primarily feeding on immature flounder that the stingrays flushed from the sand. A dull pair of pocketknife scissors let me trim the gray and black streamer to match the ovular silhouette of a small flounder. When the streamer was allowed to sit on the bottom in front of an approaching stingray and then stripped aggressively, the kingfish not only chased, but ate–or at least attempted to, sometimes.

My fourth morning walled me in to the true scientist’s nemesis, a hard deadline. We had to be in the Owen River valley that night. This was the last opportunity, but I swaggered confident, knew how to find the fish, knew what they were eating, knew how to imitate those baby flounder.

Perhaps my theory proved a bit too successful, because that uncatchable stingray now carried my one good fly off the edge of the flat into the merciless rising tide. Beside me, a kingfish tailed aggressively, reminding me of a tired guiding joke, “Why do fish jump? Because they don’t have middle fingers.”

I fought the ray—knowing that I’d never land it, unsure that I even wanted to—just to feel the life of it, to remember that learning about the world necessarily involves being immersed in it. When the leader did finally break, I walked back to the bungalow and packed up my rods. Time to go trout fishing.

Miles Nolte still regularly thinks about the kingfish he never caught.