The best laid plans of Mice and Men
Oft go awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
To a Mouse (Robert Burns, November 1785)
IN HIS FAMOUS POEM, Robbie Burns laments the fact that, while out ploughing a field, he wrecked a mouse’s nest. It was just before winter, and with the mouse’s chances of survival slim, the poet apologises, saying that he meant it no harm. Then, after repenting for the actions of mankind towards his furry friend’s kin, he comes out with the most famous and often quoted part of the poem, “The best laid plans …”
It’s a pretty despondent ode, reflecting on an obvious low-point in Burns’ life. But it does contain some wonderful insights – particularly about mice, men and plans …
2014 was a great year. Among many things, it was another year I spent above ground – which is always a great feeling. It was also the Chinese Year of the Horse – which I’m sure all those horsey people enjoyed. But what it should’ve been was the New Zealand Year of the Mouse. Because during the fourteenth year after Y2K, the mouse population exploded in the beech forests of Aotearoa.
“Why?” I can hear you ask. Well, let me enlighten you …
Every few years, beech trees decide to flower en masse. The result of this flowering (called a ‘beech mast’) is enormous seed production, leaving the forest floor covered with food for the local mice and rats.
So you can imagine what happens. Male mice are getting fat and feeling rather amorous, the females are healthy and fertile, and by autumn there are literally gazillions of these furry little critters running around. In fact, I heard one old-timer describe the event: “The entire forest floor was moving” – such are the numbers!
One outcome for the trout fisherman is that these mice (which enjoy the odd swim) provide trout with a massive source of protein. I mean, they’d need a fair few mayflies to compete with one fat mouse!
A friend of mine once found 16 mice inside a trout he caught!
So … what do you get when you combine adventurous trout fishermen with fat mice, beech forests, mountain-bikes, rivers and enormous trout? A mission into the remote Mokihinui back-county, that’s what!
It was only after some arm-twisting (not!) that I said yes to my good mate Henry and his brother Sam for a West Coast foray into monster trout mecca. The massive Mokihinui River spills out into the Tasman, north of Westport, and starts its life many kilometres inland surrounded by beech forest. Being clever fellows, Henry (aka Crafty) & Sam had figured that the trout up the ‘Moke’ would by now be of Godzilla proportions, just itching to take one of our ‘mouse-flies’. The timing was just about perfect, and stories of the brown beasties lurking in the shallows were already making grown men quiver at the knees.
Ah yes! The best laid plans …
So there we were. The end of the road. After a long drive south, stopping only to pick Sam up from Murchison, we’d made it – and my clever mates now decided on pedal-power for the final leg of our journey. Riding mountain bikes with 20-plus-kilo packs (waders, rods, wading boots, clothing plus five days’ worth of food’n’beverages) on our backs sounds like hard work, right? And it WAS! (Although much better than walking.)
But the good news was that it started to rain …
In fact, we arrived at the Mokihinui Forks Hut completely drenched and absolutely stuffed. For the last couple of kilometres, the slightest hill had me off my bike, pushing, and cursing my lack of fitness. The hut, however, was a welcome sight – and having recently been refurbished, it was warm and comfortable and dry.
While the rain did dampen the spirits slightly (especially as we watched the river rise!) we quickly remembered why we were here when a resident weka darted under the hut and came back out with a mouse.
Ah yes … the mice! The weka was fat and healthy, and made a quick meal of the rodent. It was easy to imagine how fat and healthy the trout were going to be …
We spent the evening feasting on canned whipped cream and brandy snaps (sounds a little dodgy, but tasted great) before rounding off the night with a game of Cosmic Wimp-Out – one of the best dice games in the universe!
The next morning we awoke to more rain – good, solid West Coast rain. And, by now, the river was in full flood, and the hut toilet was underwater. So, to fight off cabin fever, we had another game of Cosmic Wimp-Out – only this time, the loser had to strip naked and swim across the flooded flats below the hut.
This seriously upped the stakes, and after a tense, stressful game, Sammie lost. What followed were some of the funniest moments I’d witnessed in ages – and it’s all on camera!
Later that afternoon, we pulled-up stakes and rode to a new hut a few kilometres up the south branch. Goat Creek Hut was built in 1957 and was full of character … and mice. We were hoping that, up here, the river would clear quickly once the rain stopped – so we could be into the action first thing in the morning.
While the rain had stopped the next day, the river was still running high, making the fishing pretty tough. The Mokihinui is largely ‘sight’ fished – meaning you spot the fish first, which is fairly easy in this usually crystal-clear river. However, we battled on, criss-crossing the braided shallows, but without much luck.
It was during one such crossing that I had a ‘life-flash-before-eyes’ experience. Sam and I were buddied up, trying to cross a section close to the hut. Being a bit of a lightweight alongside my two hefty mates, I was struggling to keep my footing in the swift current. Sammie was doing everything he could to keep me upright, when things started going pear-shaped. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking of Henry – who rushed out from the other side, grabbed the rod I was hanging on to and pulled me to shore – the outcome might’ve been disastrous. You don’t float too well with waders full of water …
We spent that evening in a bit of a sombre mood – partly because of the river levels, and partly because of my near misadventure. Soon though, the antics of another local weka had us thinking about other things – including how we should spend our last full day on the Moke.
A plan was hatched, which included a predawn start and a ride back to the Forks Hut – our launch-pad for this final assault.
The day dawned a cracker, just as we’d hoped: blue skies, and the river almost back to pre-flood flows. It was going to be an epic all-day mission, with trout eager to swallow our mouse flies, hungry after the last few days of flooding. The predictions were coming thick and fast, and records were definitely going to be broken.
Ah yes! The best laid plans …
As it turned out, records were definitely broken – but for all the wrong reasons. Crafty managed to entice a few good-sized brownies to his net (as a sometimes fishing-guide, he knew all the tricks-of-the-trade). But both Sam and I struggled to even hook a fish – let alone land one. And on the Mokihinui, that’s a record, for sure. Maybe Crafty spooked all the fish upstream of us? Who knows? And most disappointingly, our never-fail-during-a-beech-mast mouse flies scored us a big fat zero.
In my expert opinion, I think the mice had all drowned – and most of the trout got washed out to sea in the flood, and are now sitting off the coast of Australia.
However, while our best laid plans didn’t quite go as planned, the ‘promised joy’ did arrive – just in ways not expected. The adventure; the wild, majestic setting; good friends; laughter; surviving near-death experiences; and watching Sam go over his handlebars on the ride out.
We just couldn’t have planned for that!