The land of clean, cold waters, where fly-fishing dreams come true.
“Why won’t they take?” I asked. “They’re obviously feeding hard on nymphs.”
I had fished over two brown trout (one 9 and one 10+ pounds) nonstop for over six hours while they fed on the bottom 30 feet away in very clear water. Nada.
Finally I said to guide Nigel Birt: “My nymphs are drifting too high in the water column. They won’t come up to take. Do you have a split-shot?”
The split-shot were in my vest back in the car. Nigel ran a half mile and back, returned with the vest, and we added a BB-size split-shot 18 inches above the fly. On my next cast, the trout’s white mouth winked and Nigel cried, “Lift!” When the brown jumped 10 feet away we both said: “Oh, my! He’s big!” He weighed 9 pounds even.
Farther up the pool, the larger brown fed in deeper water. On my first cast he rose in slow motion from the depths to meet my drifted nymph and I lifted and tightened. He ran and I worried about the 3X tippet, but near the far shore I turned him and thought, “I have a chance on this fish.”
I fought him and he came three times to the shore. He was tired. Then, as I reeled him toward our feet and the net, he turned suddenly and dashed away and the leader parted—a clean cut above the tippet section, above the knot—no pigtail. My first New Zealand 10+ pounder swam away.
“That’s why the 10-pounders are 10-pounders,” Nigel murmured.
Later, 200 feet upstream I hooked and landed an 8-pound brown, almost as an anticlimax. Two 8- to 9-pounders and a 10+ pounder, hooked on three casts in the last hour of the day—two landed.
“This is the best day of my guiding life!” Nigel shouted. “Give me a hug!” He swore me to secrecy on where it had occurred. It was somewhere on the Wai. [Nigel Birt’s web site is backcountrynewzealand.com. The Editor.]
Superlatives have been used to explain New Zealand culture and experiences, but they need elaboration, especially for fly fishers who have heard rumors of large trout sighted and fished in clear waters and majestic surroundings. Following a month of exploring New Zealand’s South Island trout streams, I have some things to report that should be of importance whether fly fishers intend to visit the island nation, or not.
Amidst all its pastoral beauty, New Zealand has more unspoiled trout streams per area than any other country on earth, with European brown and North American rainbow trout introduced in the late 19th century. Trout now occupy virtually all New Zealand waters.
This piece looks at some of the most representative streams on the South Island and reveals New Zealand’s least-known secret: It’s the best place in the world to enjoy the widest offering of outdoor sports amid the most dramatic land- and seascapes.
South Island waters range in size from tiny highland streams born on “burns” to canyon freestoners, meadow meanderers, and broad Alaskan-looking rivers full of boulders and vast graveled expanses. The water clarity ranges from peaty to (predominantly) gin-clear, but these waters all have one thing in common: wild trout. With good reason, the North Island is called the “rainbow trout island,” and the South the “brown trout island,” but there is much more to tell about South Island streams.
These are spate waters: They flood and drop quickly and trout must adapt behaviorally to that fact. On many rivers they simply migrate from place to place to survive (for example, in full spate “survival adaptation” might include taking up temporary residence in a flooded sheep pasture). Such movements mean that trout locations can be unpredictable depending on seasonal water levels ranging from flood to drought.
The other weird phenomenon is the inverse relationship between the size of streams and the size of trout: the smaller the stream—the farther up the headwater—the larger the trout. Thus heli-fishing to remote headwaters is the crème of Kiwi trout sight-fishing.
Rainfall determines the movements of fish and the “fishability” of the streams. The Milford Track area (southwest), for instance, has an average of 300 or more inches of rainfall per year, while the Middlemarch area (southeast) has less than 30 inches of annual rainfall.
Kiwi fishing guides note that New Zealand is surrounded by water, and its fickle weather is determined by that. If you don’t have rain today, expect it tomorrow. The weather generally moves from west to east, but don’t bet on it. A guide’s day begins with a hopeful peek at the weather maps the night before. If a storm is headed into his fishing area, he dodges to rivers as much as two hours’ drive away from the rainfall.
It takes about three hours to drive across most of the South Island and about ten hours to drive from Nelson (north) to Te Anau (south). In between, there are more than 70 world-class trout streams.
If the Te Anau area streams are flooded, head east to the Dunedin region or north to the Omarama region or farther north to the Buller River drainages or the freestoners and spring creeks around Hanmer Springs.
The South Island is a moveable feast: You find the trout wherever the streams are fit to fish. In fact, the trout move widely within stream systems, even in relatively stable conditions. Professional guides know about these movements because they are on the streams around 100 days per season.
The best-kept secrets on the South Island are its trout lakes. Visiting fly fishers are almost exclusively stream fishers. They ignore some of the region’s best sight-fishing to large cruising and feeding brown trout. Someday this exceptional sight-fishing will be discovered by visiting anglers.
Quantity or Quality?
There are rivers where you can catch lots of trout (30 or 40 per day)—the Waiau and lower Waimakariri are examples—but guides consider that just a numbers game of secondary interest. Experienced fly fishers prefer “quality streams,” which are difficult to reach (except by long walks or helicopter) with fewer but larger, lightly fished, wild trout.
On these streams, you fish in a stalker-hunter game, preferably using drys or, often necessary, nymphs, both cast accurately with spotting and coaching by your guide. The headwaters of the Buller, the Mararoa, the Dingleburn, the Karamea, and the Waimakariri are a few examples. Expectations: Five landed trout (average 5 pounds with occasional 8- to 10-pounders) is a good day with a guide on these streams—more is outstanding.
New Zealand guides are the best in the world at spotting trout in broken water, and they sight-fish exclusively. In fact, the demanding nature of New Zealand trout fishing determines the guide’s value and pay. Experienced anglers may spot a few river trout themselves, but a guide can spot trout consistently under often difficult light and flow conditions. The difference in a day of sneaking along streambanks and searching (“polaroiding”) is about 1:10: one fish spotted by you for every ten by the guide. And spotting is just the beginning. The guide advises on your exact positioning before you make your cast. This is the quintessential team effort in fly fishing, comparable only to guided flats fishing for bonefish, tarpon, and permit, only different. More demanding. More subtle.
Be prepared to wade arm-in-arm with your guide—the rocks can be treacherously slippery. Learn to sneak behind your guide—give him stalking and spotting space and wait for him to motion you forward. Always stay low and away from the bank. As guide John Gemmell of Riverview Lodge observes, “Why is it when cows or sheep walk along the bank, the trout continue to feed, but if a man peeks over the bank, they vanish?”
Hunting, stalking, and spotting trout with a guide continues all day—there is no rest except when you plop down and gobble a sandwich. New Zealand guides spot, wait, and watch trout, sometimes for a long time before they advise and consult with you. They look into the inner souls of trout, and each is different, idiosyncratic. They understand trout and earn $600 per day plus tips. They are the most highly paid trout guides in the world, and they are worth every penny. Don’t go onstream without one, and search out the best.
Lodges and B&Bs
The Mataura River is one of the South Island’s most famous trout streams and it runs approximately 12 miles through the historic family-run Nokomai Station sheep ranch (nokomai.co.nz) at the foot of the Garvie Mountains. The lodge reaches 27 trout streams by car (and helicopter) within an hour’s drive, including some of the best stretches of the Mataura.
Its three modern one- and two-bedroom stone cottages have king beds, laundry, kitchenettes, TV, and offer excellent meals or fully stocked housekeeping. Wade fishing is relatively easy and the sight-fishing excellent, and the trout are large and take drys well.
There are many activities for nonfishers, including horseback riding, day trips to Milford Sound, flight-seeing, mountain biking, and hiking. Guides are all seasoned veterans and include Nigel Black and Len Prentice.
Kokonga Lodge (kokongalodge.co.nz), owned and operated by Dorothy Piper and Malcolm Edwards, is located on the east side of the South Island on the Taieri River in the central Otago region about an hour northwest of Palmerston. The Taieri is a meandering peat-colored river with excellent dry-fly and nymph fishing to large brown trout, spotted by guide Selwyn Shanks, owner of Centerfire Sports fly shop in Dunhedon. The new six-bedroom, six-bath lodge overlooks the Kakanui and Ida mountain ranges and guides fish 15 excellent river reaches within 1.5 hour’s drive of the lodge. The fishing is drive-to and easy walk-in with an average six to eight fish (brown trout) per day, averaging 3 to 4 pounds.
This area is also ideal for nonfishing partners, with mountain biking and hiking along the old Otago Central Rail Trail and Dunstan Trail (80 miles) or along the old Taieri roadbed.
Lake Rotoroa Lodge, located on the Gowan River inflow to Lake Rotoroa, 1.5 hour’s drive south of Nelson, has defined the best of the South Island trout fishing and accommodations for more than 20 years and, since its updating, it has reached new levels of lodge excellence with sight-fishing on 30 drive-to rivers and other remote streams reached by helicopter. Its guides, led by Scott Murray, are among New Zealand’s best. Its rivers, virtually all gin-clear, include the many drainages of the Buller and as far away as the Karamea (flying weather permitting). Its fly shop includes 20 full sets of wading equipment with high-quality rods, reels and flies.
Meals are memorable at this lodge and the renovated quiet bedrooms include modern bathrooms with heated floors.
The Hanmer Springs area streams have earned a reputation for large river brown trout, and John Gemmell of Riverview Lodge (riverviewlodge.co.nz) for over 25 years is the expert on these waters, as well as the lodge host with his wife, Robin. On a previous trip to Riverview Lodge I caught two (weighed) 9-pound brown trout and on my most recent trip took seven brown trout up to 6.5 pounds. Riverview has the South Island’s most scenic lodge location, on a bluff overlooking the Waiau River (home of large trout). Its homey interior, stunning gardens and views, and friendly professional staff make fishing, lounging, and dining at this lodge special. Gemmell and his experienced professional guides fish more than 30 remote rivers, both by four-wheeling and heli-fishing. Gemmell is a fish-hunter by instinct and experience, and his fish-spotting instincts for large trout are impressive.
The incredible high-mountain scenes from The Lord of the Rings movies were shot near Grasmere Station Lodge, located 1.5 hour’s drive west of Christchurch on the Waimakariri River surrounded by imposing mountains of the Craigieburn and Arthur’s Pass national parks. The mountains are a birthplace of rivers and the trout fishing they provide, but you must four-wheel, walk, or heli-fish to reach the trout treasures. It is trout sight-fishing at its best: You work for each fish while hiking along rough terrain and into steep valleys where trout (average 5 pounds) feed eagerly in food-poor freestoners.
Queenstown is the tourist center of the South Island with shops, boutiques, restaurants, outdoor adventure booking offices, hotels, and some exceptional B&Bs. One of them is White Shadows (whiteshadows.co.nz) east of town a short drive from the old gold-mining village of Arrowtown. This exceptional B&B hosts four guests in modern California style post & beam elegance.
Examine a map of South Island rivers. (Map available at flyfisherman.com/maps.) There are so many within an hour’s drive of Te Anau that it is a base of operations, and offers everything that makes South Island special, including guide Dean Bell. Over the past 15 years, Bell has earned a reputation as one of New Zealand’s best, if not the best, guides. Here are a few outstanding area rivers to consider: the Oreti, Mararoa, Eglenton, and Waiau, and others unmentioned. This is hunting/stalking, sight-fishing on clear streams for large brown trout and rainbows. Bell has extraordinary eyesight, even by New Zealand standards, and his fishing advice defines the sport.
John Randolph is the editor-in-chief of Fly Fisherman.
NEW ZEALAND Travel Tips
When should you visit New Zealand? The short answer is before your legs, lungs, and eyesight get any older.
Different times of the season each have something to offer. In the early season (November 15 through late December) the fish are well rested and never bite better. Beautiful lupines fill the river valleys, and rental cars, lodges, motels, and flights are all much easier to book.
Christmas through mid-January is a good time to avoid, as the kids are out of school and the country is on vacation. January 15 through February is the most popular with visiting fly fishers because it is the height of New Zealand summer, and probably the best time to get out of the Northern Hemisphere.
March through mid-April is a bit of a sleeper. The rivers are low and clear, and it’s a great time to fish large drys like Dave’s Hopper. Also, the big nor’westers of summer that can “blow the dog off the chain” are largely over.
Your Gear Bag
No matter what season you choose, you want to arrive ready to fish and not waste time trying to find what you forgot. Here’s what I pack:
Rods. Four rods in cloth bags, all packed inside a 4-inch-diameter, 30-inch PVC pipe. This saves weight and space. You have a two-piece luggage allowance, and you need all of it for an extended trip. I have taken 28 trips there, and Air New Zealand has never lost my luggage.
Bring a 4-weight for spring creeks and no wind, a 5-weight for regular fishing, and a fast-action 6-weight for larger rivers and windy days.
Waders. You’ll wear waders most often in the early or late season, during the evening hatch, or when a southerly blows up the island, which can easily drop the temperature by 10 to 15 degrees. Most New Zealand fishing is wet wading because it’s more comfortable—the water is generally not cold, and long walks and bush bashing in waders is no fun. I wear quick-dry olive nylon pants. Wet cotton can chafe if you walk in it all day. Some pants have built-in mesh underwear, and many fly shops sell synthetic wet-wading underwear.
Wear neoprene socks to keep your feet warm and blister free.
Wading boots. Didymo (Didymosphenia geminata) is a freshwater diatom (a type of alga) first reported in New Zealand rivers in 2004. It is considered an aquatic nuisance, and New Zealand is doing what it can to prevent its spread. Didymo (also called rock snot) comes and goes with seasonal floods and freshets, and most guides report they have seen no negative impact on fish size or numbers—it’s possible that it may even prove beneficial to some insects. For more information, go to biosecurity.govt.nz.
Anglers are required to clean and dry their wading boots and waders before going from one river to another. As of Oct. 1, 2008, felt-soled boots are banned in New Zealand.
When you enter New Zealand, you are required to fill out a form that asks you to report any equipment (such as boots, flies, waders, wading staffs, and reels) requiring certifications. To find how to qualify your equipment, see biosecurity.govt.nz.
Some visiting anglers have had their flies and other equipment temporarily quarantined, or shipped back to the U.S. at their expense. To avoid this, consider bringing new wading boots, buying your waders and flies in New Zealand, and having all your used equipment cleaned (with an accompanying signed certification form) according to the New Zealand rules.
Hiking and wading South Island streams is physically demanding, entailing hikes as long as 3 to 5 miles over heavily bouldered streambanks. This hiking and wading requires strong legs, ankles, and foot arches, and wading boots of the highest strength and fit quality. Some anglers buy one boot size larger than their shoe size to allow room for orthotic inserts as well as the neoprene socks.
A strong wading staff can be essential. However, guides say that metal-tipped staffs click the bottom as you wade and scare wary trout. Ask your guide’s advice on when and where to use your staff. If you have no staff, use a stout stick for balance.
Fly lines. Floating lines are all you need on the South Island, and most companies now make the right color—olive. You can also dye the first 15 feet of your favorite line a dark green, brown, or black. Don’t dye too much, or you will have difficulty seeing the belly of your line and predicting when you need to mend. I use this type of dyed line for all my trout fishing.
Fly patterns. Get a copy of Norman Marsh’s classic book, Trout Stream Insects of New Zealand: How to Imitate and Use Them (Stackpole Books, 2005). It’s all there: the mayflies, caddis, stoneflies, midges, terrestrials, everything. But of course you can distill it all down to fit into one simple fly box. Here are my favorites:
Frank Sawyer’s Pheasant-tail Nymph is a global killer, and all its many variations catch fish in New Zealand. For finicky trout, I use a Pheasant-tail Emerger I tie on a #12-18 Tiemco 2488 hook with a pheasant-tail body, CDC thorax, and a couple of CDC feathers pulled over the thorax as a wingcase and flared forward. It’s a fly that sits half below and half above the surface, like Mike Monroe’s deadly Paratilt.
It’s wise to bring two rows of #12-16 Goddard Caddis. I tie them with small rubber antennae instead of the stiff quills of the original pattern.
When a full caddis hatch is on, I usually go to a simple gray or tan CDC caddis with CDC dubbing and a few CDC feathers for a wing.
Bring a row or two of terrestrials—spiders, ants, crickets, beetles, and small hoppers, and don’t spare the rubber legs. You can fish these flies all day, especially during the second half of the season.
Casting in New Zealand is demanding. Before visiting, practice casting with a 13- to 21-foot leader and yarn fly. If you cannot cast the fly into a hat, get some casting instruction, and practice, practice, practice. If you blow the first cast on most New Zealand brown trout, the fish tighten, stop feeding, and sulk or drift away into deeper water.
Once you can cast into a hat at 40 feet in calm conditions, try practicing on windy days. Casting accurately in the wind is challenging even for elite casters, and wind is a frequent foe in New Zealand.
It took awhile for me to learn to “speak Kiwi” and to appreciate all the colloquialisms you hear when you have a “chin wag” with the older New Zealanders. Someone could be “happy as Larry” or “mad as a snake.” Your new fly rod or mountain bike could be “smart as paint,” and if something is easy, it’s “a box of birds,” and if people really get mad they “spit the dummy” (because before a baby screams and yells, it spits out the pacifier).
When you are fishing, not all the trout will take a fly—eventually their movements become stiff, and in the end they become welded to the bottom . . . gone “doggo” is the Kiwi term.
During my last language lesson—when I was staying at a B&B, and before I headed out one morning with some friends—I told the older woman who owned the place that if anyone needed to move my car, “I put the keys on my nightstand.” To this she replied with a smirk, “Young man, in this country it’s called a bedside table. A nightstand means something entirely different.”
You would be surprised at how many big-name professional golfers are keen fly fishers. Golf and fly fishing seem to attract the same kind of person.
If you enjoy combining golf with your fishing, or you travel with a golf-loving nonangler, New Zealand is the jackpot. It has more golf courses per capita than anywhere else in the world.
The best courses are near the larger cities, but from a fly fisher’s point of view, the “best” courses are the hundreds of small country courses. They can fit into fishing trips beautifully—maybe your legs need a break after five or six days of heavy hiking and fishing, or maybe rain has put the rivers out for a day or two. Golf is like rainy day insurance.
These country courses are uncrowded, and there are no tee times. Just pull up and give them about $10 to $15 (NZD) for a round. Often, no one is there and you just put the money into an envelope and drop it in a box.
In addition to golfing, New Zealand has many other nonfishing activities, including: mountain biking; hiking (the Milford Track and many others); jet-boating and rafting rivers and fjords; wine tours; ocean tours; horseback riding; bungee jumping; Lord of the Rings movie safaris; and garden, museum, and goldfield tours.
If you spend some time on the South Island of New Zealand, you learn to love everything that goes with it. You will love driving hundreds of miles and never seeing litter along the roadways, never seeing a no-trespassing sign (always ask permission before crossing someone’s property and the farmer will be happy to have a chin wag with you and often offer some good fishing advice), and everyone you pass, whether they are on a tractor, in a car, or watering the flowers, will wave and you should wave back.
Knowing that such a place as the South Island still exists makes life better.