Columnist is well and truly hooked

Mike Weddell practises casting on the Silver Stream ahead of the start of the fishing season...
Mike Weddell practises casting on the Silver Stream ahead of the start of the fishing season.PHOTOS: PETER MCINTOSH
Fly fishing has been described as the most fun you can have standing up. No doubt fly-fisherman, teacher, author and Otago Daily Times angling columnist Mike Weddell would agree. Next week, his weekly fishing column will enter its 40th consecutive year. Kerrie Waterworth asked Mr Weddell to cast back through his memory to reveal how he became hooked on fly fishing and share some of his best fishy stories.

Growing up beside the River Coquet in Northumberland in the northeast of England and watching his grandfather fish for salmon, trout and sea-run trout is one of Mike Weddell’s earliest memories.

However, it was sibling rivalry that sparked his life-long interest in fly fishing.

"I used to go with him [my grandfather] occasionally, and then my brother who was two years younger than me started coming," Mr Weddell said.

"When he caught a fish I thought ‘hell, if he can catch fish so can I’."

He never had any formal training in fly fishing but learned from others, particularly a World War 2 refugee in his village who had two daughters and was "an ace fisherman".

"My brother and I became his adopted sons. He taught me a lot about wildlife, to be very observant, trust your intuition and to make the most of your opportunities."

Mr Weddell started entering local and national fly casting competitions, and not only won the world professional title but was also named British all-round fly casting champion five times and set numerous casting records.

A fish temptation.
A fish temptation.

Jim Hardy, the last of his family to be involved in running the great Hardy fishing tackle business, watched Mr Weddell compete.

Mr Weddell was given Hardy fishing tackle to use in competitions; he worked for the business during his university holidays teaching casting and when he finished his degree in physical education Mr Hardy offered him a fulltime job as assistant promotions manager.

During the two and a-half years Mr Weddell worked for the fish and tackle company he read one book on fishing in Taupo.

"I thought ‘bloody hell, that is incredible’."

He also attended a fishing exhibition where the compere, actor Bernard Cribbins, "showed anyone who would talk to him photos of these huge rainbow trout he had caught on the Tongariro River and just raved about fly fishing in New Zealand".

It was not long before Mr Weddell headed down under.

For two and a-half months in 1979, he hitch-hiked and wandered up rivers for days on end.

"I thought everywhere in the South Island was amazing."

Mike Weddell’s kit of fly lures used to tempt a fish.
Mike Weddell’s kit of fly lures used to tempt a fish.

Mr Weddell also made a point of seeking out noted New Zealand fly fisher Bill McLay, who became a mentor to him and introduced him to his future wife Sue.

Mr Weddell returned briefly to England, where he wrote about his experiences fly fishing on the Greenstone River for the now-defunct International Fly Fisher magazine before moving permanently to Dunedin.

He recalled how soon after he arrived back in New Zealand he was fishing by a stream when a car drove past, braked and reversed. A man had got out of the car and walked over to ask if he was Mike Weddell.

"He said he had read my article in the International Fly Fisher magazine and had recognised the black tartan shirt I was wearing from the photograph in the magazine!"

In 1980, then-Otago Daily Times features editor Robin Charteris was looking for a local to write a weekly fishing column, and a 40-year association with the paper began.

"Robin contacted me and asked me to come in for a chat and bring with me anything I had written ... I brought some magazines and he took one look and said ‘can you do a column for next week?"’

Every year since then Mr Weddell, has written a weekly 500 to 520-word column on angling from October 1, when the fishing season begins, until it ends on April 30.

During those four decades, Mr Weddell has seen many changes at the ODT.

"When I first started writing the column I had to hand-write it and drop it in to the Allied Press building.

"It was quite funny as I remember the sub-editors would ring me up and say we have got this word here and it looks like ‘dun’.

"What is ‘dun’ and is that the correct spelling?"

Mr Weddell said he had kept a copy of every ODT column he wrote.

He was fairly certain he had never missed a week, and he had one or two favourites.

"One was actually a spoof.

"I started it with ‘as I approached the river this was the sort of day you dream about, the sun was shining, there was hardly any wind, the water was clear and I could see fish rising’.

"Then I carried on writing about how I caught fish after fish until I saw this really big fish slurping down flies.

"‘I cast my fly above it’, I wrote, ‘and as the huge fish came to the surface it opened its mouth and then ... my alarm went off."’

"Another favourite was when I wrote ‘it was a beautiful day and I was driving down south to the Mataura accompanied by Sarah Brightman who was in fine voice despite the early hours of the morning’.

"The following week a friend of mine came up to me and wanted to know who this woman was that I had taken fishing."

During those 40 fishing, seasons Mr Weddell had also seen profound changes in the environment.

"Forty years ago I used to drink straight from the streams and rivers, but you’d get sick if you did that now because of the E. coli."

He had also seen the effects of climate change and changes in land use.

"The rivers are now much lower and warmer in summer, and there is more silt entering the rivers and algal blooms in lakes that were never there before."

Mr Weddell said there were still places where the fish had "really good average weights", but not as many.

At 71 years old, Mr Waddell said retirement from full-time work had given him more time to do "the more important stuff", such as writing his ODT weekly column and books on fly fishing.

The working title of his current book was The Greatest Fly Fishing Book Ever Written, but he said he would probably change it "because I might write a better one later on".

He remained optimistic for the future of the sport despite reports there were declining numbers of adults taking up trout fishing and fishing licences.

His advice to the next generation of fly fishers was: "we live in a fantastic environment for fishing, and even though like everything else it is not as good as it use to be, you should take advantage of it!"

In his autobiography The Way The Wind Blows, Lord Alec Douglas-Home wrote "fishing is unquestionably a form of madness but, happily, for the once-bitten there is no cure."

No doubt Mike Weddell, and his wife Sue, would agree.

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