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Monday, March 8, 1999 Published at 12:17 GMT

Casting a spell in New Zealand

Gone fishing

By Kieran Cooke

Declan edges along the river bank, quiet as a monk in a cloister. He descends into the cool water. There is hardly a ripple. I splash in behind, struggling to keep my balance on the slippery stones. He points to a patch of water under a willow tree. I squint into the dark pool, but see nothing.

There is the flick of an arm. The fishing line arches out: the fly lands on the water, soft as a falling flower petal. A splash, a running of the reel, the rod bent almost double. A large, flapping trout is brought to shore.

In the dying hours of the day, we are high up in the mountain country of the South Island of New Zealand. In the distance the snow clad peak of Mount Cook is turning purple, etched against a cloudless, twilight sky.

Declan carefully extracts the hook from the trout's mouth. "There is a pressure point just here, by the tail" he says. "Press it and the fish calms down". Sure enough, when the trout is released, it stays still for a few seconds: then, with a flick of its powerful tail, off it swims.

I am not a good fisherman. I try hard. I have taken lessons in the delicate, esoteric art of flyfishing: embarrassingly, one session ended with a doctor having to extract a fly hook from my ear. "Why don't you take up something less dangerous, like parachuting?" he said.

But here, on my first visit to New Zealand, I felt I must at least try my luck on some of the world's great rivers. But that was not the real reason why I found myself standing, at sunset, up to my waist in an icy mountain stream.

Encounter in Hong Kong

I had come to meet Declan -- and this is where the story becomes a little complicated.

One evening long ago in a seedy bar in Hong Kong a man in a big hat had told me a tale of travels in New Zealand. In the high country he had come across one of the finest flyfishermen he had ever seen. A Chinese man, he said, by the name of Declan Wong.

"But that's not the only thing" said the man in the hat, wiping the froth from his beer off his top lip. "He's also a magician, does all those disappearing tricks, pulls birds and coins out of the air. All that sort of thing."

For some years I thought no more about it, dismissing it as a wild tale, the product of an over lubricated imagination -- until recently, when, on the first day in New Zealand, I wandered into a fishing tackle shop in Christchurch.

On the trail

As I paid for my hooks and line I asked the man behind the counter if he had heard of the Chinese fisherman? Yes, he said, there was talk of someone like that, living up in a town called Twizel, in the high country.

I headed inland. The south island of New Zealand is like England's Cotswolds, Wyoming in the US, Connemara in Ireland and the coast of Norway all rolled into one. Neat green fields quickly give way to scrubby, parched mountain plains, then it's on to snowy peaks and deep ravines and fiords.

Twizel is a small town, full of wood framed bungalows with roses and dahlias in manicured front gardens. It had been a temporary settlement for builders of a nearby hyrdo electric project but then, when the workforce decided to stay on, it had become a permanent fixture. Around the town, lakes and rivers are a startling, surreal sapphire colour, caused by silt washed down from mountain glaciers.

The magician of Twizel

It was not hard to find Declan. Everyone knows everyone else in Twizel -- it's that sort of town.

The man in the Hong Kong bar had the story half right. Declan is Chinese, at least on his father's side. However his mother is descended from Mohawk American Indians. Declan, well over six feet tall, grew up in New York. Two of his brothers are well known actors in Chinese films.

[ image: The fine art of fly-fishing]
The fine art of fly-fishing
My Hong Kong contact had also missed out another detail; as well as a flyfisherman and magician Declan is a skilled Chinese chef, as accomplished with a wok as with a fishing rod or a deck of cards.

Declan -- the name came from an Irish priest, a friend of the Wong family -- shows no surprise at seeing me. Perhaps magicians have a sixth sense about those sort of things.

We go fishing. The ozone layer is very thin here, the air crystal clear, the day so sharp you could shave with it.

As we sit tying flies to lines, I ask about the magic business. Declan had studied under some of the great magic masters, working at his tricks for up to eighteen hours a day over a ten year period. He had given shows, not only in the US but in Japan, Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia.

The lady in the box

Later, over a dinner of smoked trout, rice and Chinese dumplings, I meet Brenda, Declan's wife. She is another interesting mixture: her mother is from a family of Maori chieftains, her father arrived in New Zealand long ago from Belfast. She once helped Declan with his magic shows. "I was the lady in the box" she says.

Eight years ago they came to visit her relatives in Twizel, Declan discovered flyfishing and the rest, as they say, is history.

"Flyfishing and being a magician are not that different" says Declan. "You have to practice hard -- and both depend for success on the skillful presentation of illusions."

Outside a big moon shines in a brilliant star-lit sky. Declan spreads a black velvet cloth on the table. Cards cascade down, in perfect formation. Coins are pulled from the air. Objects disappear and reappear.

I know it is all an illusion, but -- like the trout -- I take the bait.

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