IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF A MASTER
In the illustrious company of CDC guru Marc Petitjean and trout scientist Michel Dedual, Derek Grzelewski fights trophy rainbows and other demons.
by Derek Grzelewski
Have you ever been on a fishing trip, as long-planned and much anticipated one, where nothing goes right for you? It starts as you step out of the helicopter and give yourself a good one on the shin. You promptly trump this with another act, standing on the loose end of a vine with one foot, and tripping over the noose you’ve thus created with the other. You want to break the fall with your hands but they are full of camping gear and heavy supermarket bags, and your backpack, well, it’s just big and inert enough to prevent a recovery. Your companions help you up and give you puzzled looks. And you, too, wonder: what’s going on? Is it just me or some nasty local taniwha (according to Maori mythology, a being that lives in deep pools of rivers) who clearly does not want me here? Maybe it’s both, because things get even worse. On the river, you tangle up, spook every trout you see, and hook yourself with your own fly (the one you have not yet debarbed). By contrast, your companions are having the time of their lives.
After we had set up camp in a forest clearing on our first evening in the headwaters of the Rangitikei, Michel trotted off to hunt and only minutes up the creek bagged a decent-sized sika deer. He brought it down, dressed it and hung it from a tree. Then, going down to the creek to wash his hands, he spotted a fish rising in the camp pool, ran back for his rod and hooked the 6lb trout first cast. One pool below, I was with Marc, watching him fight an equally magnificent rainbow. When night fell, all I had to show was a limp, a grazed elbow and an increasingly foul mood. But once we were back in camp, the fire, wine and good food worked their wizardry. I stared into the flames, sipping another glass of red and thought, hey, anyone can have a false start, a bad day, and mine was just about over. Earlier, I had even spilled some wine on the ground, a peace offering to the taniwha (if there was one). I certainly did not want to fight it for another day.
The upper Rangitikei, clear like spring water, snakes through the volcanic hills of the Kaimanawa Forest Park, North Island, New Zealand. The fishing here is hard and honest, every fish a major victory – and that’s providing you are at your best, sharp and assertive. Tomorrow, I promised myself, was a tabula rasa (blank state) I would fill with perfect casts and beautiful fish. No pratfalls and blunders. I fell asleep with visions of rainbows racing each other for those beautiful CDC dries Marc was tying.
I have to tell you about Marc. This was, after all, his trip. He had travelled halfway around the world for these five days on the Rangitikei, and Michel especially did all he could to make it a memorable outing. Once on the river, Marc needed no help at all. As Louis Pasteur said, “Fortune favours the prepared mind,” and Marc was more prepared than most. “If you define the problem, the solution is often obvious,” he told me that first night, apropos of nothing. “People often get irritated with themselves and they don’t know why. They never take time to precisely identify what’s bugging them. If they did, the remedy would be self-evident.” Wise words, but lost on me at the time.
The next morning, I scooped a large mayfly nymph out of the river with my stainless steel mug. Aquatic insect life in the Rangitikei is so prolific that every time you dip a pot, a plate or even cupped hands in the water you capture one of the little beasts. No wonder the trout grow so large here. I took the mug back to camp and Marc examined the critter closely, then whipped up a dozen or so imitations in three sizes. He also tied a handful of CDC dries, his generic mayfly pattern with an added white parachute post for high visibility. The post was made from the tail hair of Michel’s deer. Though we had brought enough flies with us to start a riverside tackle shop, in the end these two patterns were only ones we used. The Raigitikei fish either took them within the first couple of casts or they took nothing at all.
If you have not heard of him before, Marc Petitjean is the man responsible for the Modern-day global renaissance of CDC flies, both dries and nymphs. When he is tying, his hands are a blur, a testimony to some 25 000 flies he has produced each year during the past decade, using up over a quarter ton of Cul-de-Canard plumes. Marc also brought the Swiss-army-knife kind of technology and engineering to the world and the bench of fly anglers. His vise, vest and fly-tying tools, once you’ve seen them for the first time, instantly fall into the must-have category. His bobbin holders, for example, as easy to thread as striking a match, are in such demand he simply cannot produce enough of them. His fishing, too, turned out to be as elegant as his gear.
In the morning we started up the river. With good sunlight and the background of mossy cliffs, the fish were easy to see but, for a while, catching one seemed beyond the abilities of any of us. Browns you could not touch. Even lifting a rod to initiate a cast was enough to send them off at speed. One in three of four rainbows offered a fair chance and these odds did not take into account human error or gaucherie. I had only two opportunities that day. On one, I hung up a cast and by the time I untangled the fish was gone. On the other, an unexpected gust of downstream wind dumped my 16ft leader on top of the fish. It was like throwing a rock at it: one moment it was there, the next it was gone, dematerialised. Was this mongrel of a taniwha still following me? I gritted my teeth and took solace in watching the faultless travails of my companions. Despite the odds, Marc had eked out two beautiful fish, and Michel had another one.
For a day on the Rangitikei it was really good going, and all this happened before the godsend of the evening rise. With the onset of the nightly mayfly hatch, the fish, so difficult during the day, suddenly became bolder and more visible, even a little careless. Regardless of whether or not you had touched a thing all day, you could relax, confident that with the slightest modicum of skill the twilight half-hour should produce enough opportunities to be converted into fish. Unless, of course, you had your demons for company and made a foolish gamble, as I did.
On the classic South Island dry-fly rivers I fish regularly, if there’s going to be an evening rise, it’s fair to assume it’ll happen in the slower, smoother, bottom third of a pool. So, as we divided a long cliff pool into thirds, I chose that very section. Then, all my gear ready and double-checked, I set out to wait. And wouldn’t you know it, the Rangitikei trout do not rise in the tail of the pool. They rise at the top end, just below the white water of the riffle. In the dimming twilight, some 50m above, I heard a heavy splash followed by Michel’s laughter echoing down the cliff bank. “Hah! She is a beauty, this one!”
It wasn’t long before Marc had a fish too. In the space of an intense 30 minutes, they landed half a dozen fine rainbows between them while absolutely nothing happened at my end. It was almost dark when, finally, a fish rose some 10m in front of me. Instantly I had the CDC mayfly in the trout’s window of vision. Another rise and, moments later, a violent tug against my line. Then, where the rise had been, a hefty fish leaped, flashing silver against the gloom of the forested cliffs. It bounced off the surface twice, then buried deep into the inky water, tearing off fathoms of line. Now I had it on the reel, under control. My throat was lumpy and dry. Man, finally. I had a fish on. I was back from the la-la land of botchery and blunder. The reel sang. These were the sweetest moments. Then, would you believe it – twang! – the fish broke me off. “The world’s strongest fluorocarbon” snapped like tying thread pulled too tight. I wanted to sit down on the bank and howl.
The next morning we packed for an overnight bivvy and headed back up the river. Half-heartedly I plodded behind the others, deriving what pleasure I could from watching them fish. I hooked a nice fish early morning – first cast, good take, no problems. But then the little steel micro-ring which connected my leader to the fluorocarbon tippet, well, it… Yeah, I wouldn’t believe that either. Still, there was another sure-bet evening rise. This time I’d have a whole pool to myself. I claimed the one near the camp – long, deep, well structured, untouched for days. “Good Choice”, Michael approved. “Every evening I’ve spent here we’ve always caught really nice fish.” Then they both went a couple of pools upstream and I was left alone. I built a small fire away from the river and, much later, after it was completely dark, I watched the lights of my friends’ two head torches as they groped their way back down and across the river, towards my fire. “How did it go?” I asked when they arrived. “Fabuleux” Marc exulted. “We had a double.” “A trophy?” “No, a double hookup,” he corrected. “We got others too, four or five altogether. And you?” Well, what could I say? All evening not a single fish rose in Michel’s never-fail pool. The most troubling thing was that, by now, I wasn’t even surprised.
The night was rough. It rained, softly at first, then harder, and our little tarp leaked and sagged and flapped in the wind. Despite all that, I slept well, totally at peace with myself. The previous evening by the fire, I had had a little tête-à-tête with the demon. “Listen you son of a bitch,” I told him. “Enough is enough. I can take a day of this, two days max, but not the whole trip! Why don’t you stop being such a sadist and let a guy catch himself a fish or two?” Word by word, I worked myself into quite a soliloquy, unloading my sorrows and grievances – after a time, at no one in particular. It was like a psychotherapy session minus the shrink. The North American Indians call this sort of thing a sweat lodge, only that they really sweat their stuff out in an improvised steam sauna.
I don’t know if this in any way defined my problems or made the solution obvious, but I woke up feeling fresh and free. The rain had discoloured the river but not too much. We could still spot the fish but they could no longer see the ruse of drifting artificials. Marc and Michel quickly had a fish each, then there was a long, barren stretch without much holding water.
Partway through it we hesitated whether to go on. It was nearly midday and we had a long descent ahead of us. The vis was poor at times. Gusts of wind played havoc with our casts, spooking fish, and the sky darkened again, threatening more rain. Both Marc and Michel were happy to head back. They already had an impressive tally of fish. And me? Well, by now I’d sort of given up on ever catching one here. Still, we lingered, teetering in indecision. Was that really it then? The end of the trip? Then someone said, “Hell, why not, let’s go up another couple of pool.” This was a turning point for me, though clear and obvious only with the benefit of hindsight.
We were coming to the first large pool in a while when from up ahead Michel called. “Dereque! Here’s one for you. He’s taking everything that’s passing by.” Great I thought. How’s that for a show of confidence in my skills. But maybe I needed a fish like that, a real dumbo, one that would take a cigarette butt if you floated it past without drag. I got into position, took a deep steadying breath and cast. There was not the slightest hesitation in the trout’s swaying dance. It took my nymph, then another natural, then another still, then, suddenly feeling the tension of my line, erupted out of the water. It jumped again and again, flapping all the way up, like a salmon trying to leap over an obstacle. Wonder of wonders, nothing went wrong. The knots held, the hook did not come out, there were non tangles. I beached him in a little bay of sand, a solid Rangitikei rainbow, all spotted chrome and crimson fire. Unhooked, he was gone in a flash and I was left breathing hard, my hands still trembling. Meanwhile, Michel was into another fish and was briskly leading it downstream, with Marc following, taking pictures.
I wanted to be alone, to relish the moment and my turnaround, so I went upstream, no more than a dozen paces. There I saw it, at the bottom between two boulders – a long, dark smudge, soft and swaying with exquisite fluidity. I felt strangely calm, absolved from my dog days of bad luck and gaucherie, with a mind that was pure and unafraid of messing up. I put a single cast ahead of the boulders. As if in slow motion, I watched the fish veer to my side, and take. Next thing I was running downstream, hotfooting it over the stones, taking up the slack as I ran. My line wrapped around the reel handle but I caught it just in time and had the fish on the reel, sword-fighting it left and right against its furious runs.
Then I was kneeling over it in the same sandy bay and I felt my companions peering over my shoulders. “Très bien fait!” Marc enthused. “Fabuleux!” “You ever caught a fish that big?” Michel asked, a lopsided grin stretching his moustache. “Well, sure…” I started but then took another look at my trout. He wasn’t particularly long, but he was deep and broad, with brilliant metallic skin that seemed too small for him. “How heavy you think he is?” I asked. “A ten,” Michel said. “Naw! You sure?” I was incredulous. “Ah, easy.” We had all, years ago, dispensed with carrying scales, so there was no way of verifying this. “I think you can trust his judgement”, Marc said later and I had to agree. In his work as a trout scientist for the Taupo fishery, Michel gets to handle and weigh a lot of trout. But I shall never know for sure if the fish was a double, and maybe it’s better that way. It was certainly the biggest fish of the trip.
The last morning, I walked with Marc up a tributary which entered the main river not far from our camp. We did not see a fish but, casting blind into the most likely spot, Marc landed one more fabuleux rainbow. At this we took down our rods. The helicopter would be coming soon; it was time to go. Before we left, we each scooped up a handful of creek water and touched our hands together like goblets – a toast to the Rangitikei. I had spilled some of mine on the ground, another offering, this time not to appease but to thank. The demons, whether local or personal, were as playful as they were generous. Their pranks and antics had really made my trip.
THE HISTORY OF CDC
Attention to details and Swiss-army-knife style of engineering have always been a hallmark of Petitjean’s equipment and flies.
It appears that Croupion-de-Canard flies (bastardised into Cul-de-Canard, cul being a slang word for a duck’s backside where its waterproofing gland is located) have always been something of a French-Swiss specialty. Fribourg, where Marc lives and works, is not far from Vallorbe, a town where the Moustique du Jura (the Jura Mosquito, a.k.a the Vallorbe fly) first “hatched” in the vise of one Maximilien Joset sometime in the 1920s. Or possibly another local, one Charles Bickel, was the first to tie them. Perhaps they invented them simultaneously but independently of each other. No one can tell for sure. But it undoubtedly all began in the low-lying limestone mountains of the Jura, whose rivers are known for small but difficult brown trout. From there the CDC story, as pursued by Marc Petitjean, moved to Marjan Fratnik, a fisherman of the Slovenian rivers – notably the Soca – and their marbled trout, who came up with the Fratnic Fly, or the F-Fly. Over the years, others added their small refinements until Marc himself had a revelation.
So far, CDC was added to float those flies made with more traditional materials. But Marc thought, why not make flies exclusively with CDC? After all, it was a perfect material: light, dense, naturally buoyant and lifelike, aerodynamic to the point that it folded up streamlined during the cast, then sprung open again as the line slowed down, parachuting the fly so it landed in a most natural way. That thought was the beginning of the modern CDC revolution and also of Petitjean Fishing Equipment, a top-end boutique business which has kept Marc occupied since 1986.
“It was a liberating idea,” Marc said. “Suddenly you didn’t need a hackle to float a fly; the CDC body would do it. And then I thought, why not make CDC nymphs as well; they look and behave so much more lifelike than those made from other materials. On it went from there: Magic Tool and split threads, CDC oil, flies for salmon, bonefish, bass and tarpon. You’ve seen how well the flies work. People convert to them the moment they see them in action.”
True enough. The night before our departure for the Rangitikei we helped set up one of the three fly-tying demos Marc was giving in New Zealand, this one at the National Trout Centre south of Turangi. The Taupo fishing folk have their ways and preferences and, clearly, a small dry fly is not among these. So, the first part of Marc’s instructive show, supplemented by a large-screen video close-up of his hands at work, was received politely but without much enthusiasm. Only when he started tying streamers, especially the white marabou smelt pattern featuring his Magic Head at the front of the hook, did someone ask: “What’s the little umbrella for?” “You’ll see soon enough”, Marc said, and indeed the audience was in for a surprise. The Magic Head is a tiny silicone funnel the size of your pinkie’s nail which, when cut to shape and balanced with the rest of the streamer, imparts a remarkably lifelike side-to-side movement to the fly as it is stripped through the water. It works particularly well with the marabou, which fluffs up every time the fly stops.
Later that night, there were gasps of awe and disbelief from the crowd lining the bank of the Centre’s trout pond as Marc pulled his smelt fly through the water, illuminated by a single video light on high stand. One gentleman, whose visiting card proclaimed him a “trout fishing enthusiast”, almost had to be restrained to prevent him from jumping into the pool after the fly. “This is remarkable,” he kept repeating. “In all my years of fishing I’ve never seen an artificial fly look so realistic. What’d you say this little umbrella was called? Can I buy some straightaway?” Just like that, all the Magic Heads were sold out and a back order list started to fill up. As Marc said, you had to see it to believe it, but once you’d seen it, you didn’t want to use anything else.