“Upstream on the Mataura”, by Dougal Rillstone, published by Mary Egan Publishing. Price $39.95. Reviewed by Tony Orman
Famous American conservationist Henry David Thoreau once said, “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.”
Most who have fly fished for trout for at least a few decades know what Thoreau meant. Douglas Rillstone, who as a kid fished the Mataura River near Gore undoubtedly knows what Thoreau was on about. His book “Upstream on the Mataura” tells of the wider delights from the mosaic of moving water with sunlight and shade, to the mountains, the farmers, the bird life – in other words the big picture beyond catching a trout or two.
A year or so ago, Dougal Rillstone decided to walk the 250 km Mataura’s course from the mouth near Invercargill, to its headwaters in the Eyre Mountains, reliving many of his fishing days over the years. He also adds a sobering touch with the detrimental changes that have taken place. For instance he details one stream, a tributary of the Mataura that was “a brilliant fishery” for 30 years or so.
“But it was clear by the turn of the last century, that its glory days were over.——the pace of land use change in the catchment of the stream accelerated —the tussock that swayed in the relentless spring winds that blow over the south was burnt and ploughed —within a decade the the burning had worked its way into the headwaters —ditch diggers sliced through gullies—kilometres of tiles were dropped into the resultant scars —–where water once seeped slowly from wetlands, it now either gushes from tile drains during rain or fails to flow at all when the rain doesn’t come.”
He watched with dismay as “the last fragments of native vegetation — were often burnt and the flaxes that thrived on the banks were eaten or smashed by cattle.”
“Some riparian facing was established — and in the unwanted strip of land thus crated, broom and gorse flourished.”
Increased sediment load smothered insects. “This once-great trout fishery —is a shadow of what it was when I first knew it.”
While the author vigilantly exposes the slow but steady decline, the book is far from doom and gloom.
It is a celebration of a famous trout river and there are sensitive insights into the river valley and its landscape, the moods of the weather, his angling friendships, local identities and communities based on his intimacy with the river.
Dougal Rillstone is a proficient fly fisherman. In 1998 he was the individual champion at the Oceania Fly Fishing Championships held in Australia. The book is divided into two sections, the first recounting his 250 km long walk from mouth to headwaters and then a dozen stories of memorable days, fish or no fish. It is an unusually based book with his trek paramount. His writing is a warm and absorbing recollection of his memories, allied with a record of his pilgrimage.
It is one of the best New Zealand trout fly fishing books for many a decade,with all the hallmarks of becoming regarded as a classic. Highly recommended.