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Brass Monkey Salmon Fishing

by Rex N. Gibson

In early June the word was out; there had been a release of salmon into the Ohau C canal near Twizel. Initially we were told that it was 2,000 fish. Social media “experts” were soon quoting twice that number. TV3 news showed a picket line of anglers “from as far away as Invercargill and Christchurch” trying their luck. CSI Fish and Game staffs were reminding anglers of the “limit of two fish over 50 cm per day”.

Being a busy lad I could not organise a trip until the release was about 10 days old. On a cool, but fine Tuesday I set off for Twizel. The Twizel area was bathed in a light, slowly lifting, fog. Anglers were positioned along the canal. Most were standing, “zombie like”, with either a faraway look in their eyes or were stepping up and down in the same spot whilst blowing into their hands, clasped prayer-like in front of their face. A few bait fishers had rigged up their rod in a holder with a small budgie cage bell near the rod tip. They then retired to the relative home comforts of their campervan or SUV. I spent four hours patrolling the south bank opposite the salmon cages; with a paddle tailed soft bait as terminal tackle and all I got were cold toes and a realization that fingerless gloves were not the ideal garb in these temperatures. I drew consolation from the fact that I never saw anyone else land a salmon. Perhaps they had all been cleaned out, I thought? Even my new luminous soft bait drew no response when the early darkness descended. Several fish rose from about 5 pm on, and all appeared to be small trout.

The next morning’s conditions were a revelation. The temperature was minus 7 degrees Celsius and the fog only gave me about a two car length visibility. Incredibly some drivers were travelling without their car lights on; but that is another story. I drove along the canal bank at grandma speed looking for black ice to the Ohau B power station parking area. I fished the north side of the canal. Around 9.30 am an angler landed a 20 lb brown trout near the outflow from the Ohau B dam sparking a mass angler migration to that area. I chose to move slowly downstream towards the salmon cages casting every five metres or so. The canal bank had a beauty of its own with the frozen toi-toi and briar bushes glistening whenever a little daylight filtered through.

Left: Frozen Toi toi in its foggy shroud Right: Frozen briar

I quickly noticed that every second or third cast was only going out about five metres. My first thought was that my warm, but slightly bulky driving gloves were affecting my casting technique. The answer was more basic. The line was freezing in the rings. This was taking only a few seconds to happen. Even when I dislodged the little lumps of ice from the rings they stayed clinging to the braid further hindering casting. Dipping the end of the rod in the canal every now and again helped as long as I shook the water off a.s.a.p.

By noon I was fishing the area between the two sets of cages. I had moved to the downstream end of the gap to avoid a bait anglers’ line. The air temperature by this time had risen to the day’s high; zero degrees. The carex grasses dangling in the water had shed some of their frost as the water temperature was clearly several degrees higher than the air. Another six bait fishers arrived shortly afterward and by 1.30 pm there were six salmon, most about 6 lbs, on the bank; fortunately one of them was mine.

The expression “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey” comes to mind. The British explanation for the expression was that cannon balls were always stored on a brass plate known as a “monkey”. It was usually triangular and the balls formed a pyramid on it. In extreme temperatures the brass and iron expand and contract at different rates leading to the balls falling off the monkey. A U.S. Navy study suggests otherwise.

They claim it is a crude hyperbole which relates to the fate of brass castings of the Japanese 3 wise monkeys, specifically when a fourth monkey was added with his hands protecting his nether regions. However the expression predates Japan’s (trade) opening to the West in the 1850s. In case the ladies feel left out there is a similar expression from yesteryear: “Cold as witch’s tit in a brass bra”.

In 1650 the English General Cromwell referred to a type of cannon as “short brasse munkeys”. Other writers of that period also refer to monkeys as a type of cannon, and it has been stated (1663) that the “tail of the monkey” was the lever used to aim the cannon. You make your own mind up.

I digress; my salmon hook up occurred when the lure was about half way through its semi-circular drift back to the bank and as I played it another angler materialised, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, from out of the persistent eerie fog and began casting close to where I had hooked mine, and only about 10 metres from the fish; so much for angler etiquette! Despite that I was able to get my prize into the net after a spirited struggle, all 9 lb 6 ozs (4.3 kg) of it; all flesh and bone as the stomach was empty.

My fellow fog-dwelling anglers were an interesting group. Two confessed that their “first love” was Lake Coleridge. We freely shared views on the fishing issues of North Canterbury and the mysteries and peculiarities of canal fishing. Two others who arrived proceeded to seed the canal with fish pellets before tossing in their heavy sinkers and baited hooks. One individual looked like a patched member of a motorcycle club with his 4XL greatcoat and rip van winkle beard and plus his obedient younger “prospect” in toe. They did not seem to mind the cold; but then they had better natural padding than the rest of us.

The vagaries of canal fishing, if nothing else, gave those assembled in the frozen gloom a common topic to divert our attentions from the digit numbing cold that the Twizel basin fog seemed to press down on us right into the afternoon.

I packed up about an hour later ready for the trip home. The highway fog was still a “pea-souper”. Fortunately it lifted at the Mary Burn stream and the sun was reinstated in its rightful position.