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Summers in Aotearoa: Exploring the Remote Rivers of New Zealand's Southland and the West Coast

Anglers from around the world organize expeditions for some of the most beautiful, challenging, and rewarding trout fishing in the world.

Summers in Aotearoa: Exploring the Remote Rivers of New Zealand's Southland and the West Coast

(Brian O'Keefe photo)

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The Māori were the first inhabitants of Aotearoa, “the land of the long white cloud.” Legend has it that they were guided to what we now know as New Zealand by Kupe, the great navigator, about 1,000 years ago. They were expert boatmen, hunters, and gatherers. They wove fishing nets from flax, carved fish hooks from stone and bone, and they hunted moa—the world’s largest flightless birds—using snares and traps.

The Waitaha iwi (tribe) are one of the South Island’s earliest Māori inhabitants. According to traditional accounts, Rākaihautū led his people to Te Waipounamu using a giant adze for protection and chanted incantations to pass safely across the sea from the North Island to the South Island in the area of present-day Nelson. The Waitaha iwi made early settlements here, and in the Southern Hemisphere summers, they used fair weather for hunting and fishing expeditions to the West Coast and to the Southland, where the combination of snow and terrain made travel difficult in the winter.

During the warm summers, the Southern Alps was a paradise, with native whitebait, longfin eels, and shortfin eels from the ocean swelling up the rivers of the West Coast, and upland moas roaming the fjordlands and alpine valleys in the area of what is now Mount Aspiring National Park. Later, many tribes settled along the West Coast and in the summer, moved to hunting grounds in the central South Island.

These southern rivers and streams were also home to the most valuable mineral and trading item of the Māori. Precious greenstone—most often found in and along these South Island streams—was called pounamu by the Māori. It was used for spears, hooks, and tools, and often passed from one generation to the next as portable wealth.

Today, fishing parties from around the world organize expeditions to this same spectacular region of stunning mountains and ethereal rivers, not to haul nets full of whitebait or to collect greenstone, but to stalk rainbow and brown trout in a region widely considered to have the most beautiful, challenging, and rewarding trout fishing in the world.

Illustrated portrait of a Maori man from the late 18th century. Man with feathers in his hair and tattoos on his face.
Portrait of a Maori man from the late 18th century. Hand-colored engraving by Thomas Chambers after original artwork by Sydney Parkinson, a botanical artist on Captain James Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand on the Endeavour in 1769. This man likely visited the Endeavour on the coast in Whareongaonga, Gisborne. From: Parkinson, Sydney. A journal of a voyage to the South Seas. London 1784.

Visual World

My first view of a West Coast river was of a wide pool flowing so gently over a uniform cobble bottom it almost looked like a lake. There was current, but not a single wrinkle marred the surface of the water, and you could see through the water as if it didn’t exist. A long, ancient log created a black strip running the length of the far side, but it was settled deep in the light-colored sand, and the river took no notice as it flowed past.

I was with Carl McNeil, a native Kiwi and the founder and owner of New Zealand’s homegrown Epic Fly Rods, and Cedar Lodge guide Nick Johnson, as we walked cautiously along the top of a high cutbank. We scanned our eyes over a parking lot-size piece of water, moving slowly while looking for shadows or movement that might betray a trout. We found one near the top of the run—I wouldn’t call it the “head” of the pool as there was no change in depth or current speed that would normally attract a trout. The fish was just “out there” hovering just above the sand and below a flat pane of glass.

“I dunno mate, it doesn’t look good,” Nick confided. “You’ll have to climb down the bank and try to get closer to him. In water like this, the cast will have to be perfect. You won’t get a second chance. You’ll have to deal with this high bank and grass on your backcast, though. It’ll probably catch your backcast, and you can’t wade in flat water like this. That trout will hear you coming from a mile away. You could also try from up here, but that’s a bit of a long cast, that one.”

A series of images of a fly angler fighting and landing a fish.
(Brian O'Keefe photos)

I chose to make the longer cast from my vantage point high on the cutbank. “At least I won’t spook the trout,” I thought to myself. I stripped the line from my reel and stacked the loose coils neatly in a bare spot where they wouldn’t wrap around the tall late-season grass. While still kneeling, I made one short forward false cast, shot line on my backcast, and fired a long cast that may or may not have been on target. We’ll never know because the trout saw something in the air he didn’t like, and was gone well before my line hit the water.

“Maybe you should have got a little closer,” Nick commented wryly. “C’mon, let’s find another one in a better spot.”

We walked upstream to where the channel hit a rock wall and changed directions, and just as the turbulent, churning water began to settle, Nick spotted another fish. He described it as a “smudge” and I had to strain for a full minute before I could claim to see the gray shape nestled on the bottom between two rocks. After a few casts, the smudge wasn’t there anymore. “That must have been a very large rainbow for us to see it down at the bottom in water that deep, and that roily,” said Nick.

Recommended


A fly angler standing on the bank of a river hooked up to a trout, with another angler standing by with a net.
(Photo by Brian O'Keefe)

We walked upstream, quickly passing through a neck of shallow riffles, and came to where a tributary merged with the main river. There was a swirling eddy the size of a dance floor where the currents melded, with a downed tree at the calm center of the centrifuge. Nick scanned the entire area before crossing the tributary and continuing his march upstream.

I was 40 paces behind Nick, and I was about to follow in his footsteps across the smaller stream, when I saw to my left a massive brown trout entering my field of vision. I dropped low to the ground, frozen to mimic a piece of the landscape. The trout was just inches below the surface—and while most trout hold a position near the bottom, scanning the overhead currents for food—this fish was surfing the foam line and browsing for whatever it could find near the surface. I watched it meander in a clockwise direction in from the main river, into the current of the tributary, past my position along the bank, and then rotate back to near the main river where the back eddy took him upriver to start his merry-go-round again. When the fish circulated into the main river, it was difficult to see, both facing and moving in an unexpected direction. That’s likely where the trout was when Nick crossed the tributary. When I was about to cross, it drifted within about two rod lengths of me before passing downstream.

Scenic photo of a fly angler wading in a river below snow-capped mountains.
(Brian O'Keefe photo)

I shouted to Nick, and he crouched on the grass on the other side for two or three minutes while we watched the trout make another full circle. I timed my next cast so the trout would be out in the main current when I was casting. He couldn’t be spooked by the line, and he would drift up on the fly when it was already on the water.

My plan worked, up to a point. I looked into the white maw of the two-foot trout as its massive head broke the surface and the alligator mouth closed down on my fly. The fish was facing directly at me when I lifted and set the hook. Unfortunately that’s about the worst angle you can have to set a hook on a trout—especially a big one. Somehow the foam terrestrial glanced off a few big teeth and popped out of the gaping misshapen jaws of the trout, and the trout bolted for deeper water.

Finally, at the top of a long run lined by sod clumps both in and out of the water, there was a shallow riffle at a bend in the river, and just on the inside of the bend—in water that danced in wavelets like meringue—we could see a large trout in a classic feeding position. The fish was facing upstream in bouncy water, and occasionally moving to one side or the other to at least look or feed on food items passing by. Here finally was a trout that looked catchable. He was a light-colored brown trout that somehow gave off a faint pink hue in the afternoon sun. I thought I’d imagined that, but Nick said he’s seen that same glow before from other trout on this river.

An underwater photo of a large brown trout.
(Brian O'Keefe photo)

My fly, a bit of foam and rubber legs that could have been a hopper or cicada, landed just 2 feet upstream and 2 feet to the right of the fish on the first cast. In this type of water, the fish didn’t notice the line land behind him, and while he turned 90 degrees to the current to clamp down on the fly, I still had enough angle to pull the fly to the back corner of its jaw. My hook-set sent the fish on a water-spraying run up into shallow riffles where the trout nearly beached itself, and then downstream into the deep water and sod clumps where the fish was either intentionally trying to wrap my line on roots or debris, or else bury itself in a hidden underwater panic room. After a few minutes of levering the fish from under the sod clumps, Nick made a long reach with the net, and we celebrated finally getting a fish in the net. At 25 inches and perhaps 6 pounds, it might have been the smallest fish we’d seen that day, but still a fish worth celebrating.

Catching trout may not be easy on New Zealand’s South Island, but it is the most rewarding and visually stimulating trout fishing anywhere. I’m sure there is no other place on the planet where you can make only a handful of casts, and have the best day of trout fishing in your life. If muskies are “the fish of 10,000 casts,” South Island brown trout are the fish where you get one cast, and you better do it right the first time. What you need here is precision, not endurance.

A collage of images of fly fishing in New Zealand.
(Photography by Brian O’Keefe & Carl McNeil - Epic Fly Rods)

Cedar Lodge

Cedar Lodge is cradled in the deep, glacial Makarora River Valley, right along the river and just a few minutes from the village of the same name. It lies literally in the shadows of the Southern Alps, and is within striking distance of about two dozen trout streams, several of them among the most iconic rivers on the South Island. The closest to the lodge—in the area of Mount Aspiring National Park—are the well-known but remote Wilkin and Young rivers, and in the opposite direction, rivers like the Dingle Burn and the Hunter. It’s also a short hop to fly over the park to fish the rivers of the West Coast in the roadless area between Haast and Milford Sound, home to New Zealand’s most famous hike, the Milford Trek. The rivers here include the Turnbull, Okuru, Waiatoto, and other smaller rivers that eventually flow into the Tasman Sea.

The fishing here is hunting. You don’t cast blindly and “cover the water.” There is far too much water and not enough time. Everything is precise, strategic, and designed to produce the most exquisitely beautiful moments you can experience while trout fishing.

A lodge below large mountain peaks.
(Brian O'Keefe photo)

The Makarora itself also has large trout, but Cedar Lodge guests rarely fish these waters, as the guides and guests focus on the remote rivers in the mountains that are not accessible by road. At Cedar Lodge, a helicopter picks guests up on the front lawn of the lodge promptly at 8:45 each morning and returns at 5 P.M. You’ll fly in one of two helicopters, the workhorse Airbus Heli H125 (formerly the Eurocopter Squirrel), which takes up to five passengers plus a pilot, or the McDonnell Douglas MD 500E, which takes up to four passengers plus a pilot.

Some people think heli-fishing is easy, and relatively speaking it is. It gives you glorious access to places that would take days and days of hiking. There are no other ways to get there. But you don’t often catch fish right where the helicopter lands. To have a successful day in New Zealand, you’ll need to walk at least 3 to 5 miles. The more water you can cover, the more trout you’ll spot, and top Cedar Lodge guides like Paul Wright, Pete Stevenson, and Alex Scott can keep up quite a pace while keeping one eye on the water. Come prepared to hike in rugged terrain in often hot, arid conditions.

When the helicopter returns at the end of the day, the incomparable Cedar Lodge host Alexandra Hill meets you just outside of the rotor wash and hands you the cocktail of the day—something crisp and thirst quenching after a long day of fishing. Every cocktail was something special I’d never had, many made with edible local flowers frozen inside clear ice cubes, local kiwi, or other fruit. Alexandra plans your trip itinerary and makes every moment at the lodge as comfortable and relaxing as possible.

An angler holding a large brown trout on a river.
(Brian O'Keefe photo)

Head guide Scottie Little sniffs out the local weather and water levels each day, gains regional intelligence on where the contracted pilots in the area have been flying, and more importantly who else has been flying. Are they hunters? trekkers? other anglers? Scottie makes the call on where the guests and guides are heading the next morning, and is careful about resting the water between visits. Usually, guests visit beats that haven’t been fished by Cedar Lodge in several weeks, and Scottie tries to make sure no one else has been fishing there recently either. Reaching remote waters is part of the equation, but unpressured water is the key to finding trout that are a little more settled and catchable.

Scottie has been a guide in this area for more than 30 years and has run some of the top lodges on the South Island. Eleven purchased Cedar Lodge in 2019 and Scottie became lodge manager when it reopened to the public in December 2022 after New Zealand opened for international travel following the Covid-19 pandemic. Scottie is funny, engaging, knowledgeable, and one hell of a golfer.

He has a small pitch-and-putt course set up around the perimeter of the helicopter landing pad, so if you want to drink cocktails and swing clubs with a golfer who has a handicap of 1, Scottie is your man. He can help with your golf swing just as easily as he can help you fine tune your casting.

You can play golf on those long days of summer until the sun sets behind Mount Turner, and wait until one of the darkest night skies in the world—free of light pollution—presents a view of the stars, constellations, and galaxies you’ve never seen before. You won’t see the Big Dipper, but you will see the Southern Cross and observe the Milky Way with a brilliance unlike anywhere else in the world.

Two men kneeling watching a helicopter land near a river.
(Brian O'Keefe photo)

Custom Experiences

Eleven owns off-the-grid luxury outdoor adventure lodges in Colorado, Iceland, Chile, Bahamas, and most recently Alaska. It’s owned by Chad Pike, who founded the company in 2011, and personally developed a portfolio of resorts around the world with luxury lodging and diverse outdoor experiences. They do everything well, but their fly-fishing and heli-skiing programs are incomparable, likely because Chad Pike is a passionate expert on both fronts.

In the world of Eleven lodges, Cedar Lodge is a small, intimate experience, with four guest suites with king-size beds and en-suite bathrooms. All rooms have king beds with the ability to split the kings into two twins for double occupancy, so the maximum occupancy is just eight guests. Nothing here is canned or out of the box. Cedar Lodge staffers pride themselves on custom experiences tailored for anyone, so if you want to have your midday lunch on a glacier, they can arrange for the helicopter to pick you up. There’s nothing they can’t plan for you.

On my trip, the helicopter dropped us off high in an alpine meadow, and we hiked along a tributary stream Scottie himself hadn’t visited in more than a decade. I wanted to “explore” something that was relatively unknown. Over the course of the day, we made our way downstream to the mighty Wilkin River and fished far enough downstream that we made it to a regular ferry pickup spot, where a jet boat company made daily pickups of trekkers coming off a popular hiking loop in the area. Instead of a helicopter pickup, Scottie arranged for a jet boat to pick us up, and Alexandra arrived in the jet boat with the cocktails! These boats take 12 people, have a 450 HP V-8 engine, can run about 50 MPH in 4 inches of water, and through boulder gardens, over gravel bars, and through canyon water with amazing dexterity. I’m sure they aren’t environmentally friendly, but they sure are fun, and the boats run four times daily whether we were on the boat or not. It’s how people get around in some roadless areas of the South Island . . . the bigger rivers are the roads.

As with everything at Eleven, the cuisine at Cedar Lodge over-delivers with meals outdoors under the sparkling lights of the patio, and thoughtful wine pairings from Alexandra, who is experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to the South Island’s deservedly famous vineyards. She also has a knack for making the tablescape look as beautiful as the valley around it, with braided grasses and fresh wildflower arrangements from local fields.  

An underwater photo of a trout being held in the hands of an angler.
(Brian O'Keefe photo)

Chef Gordon is a memorable part of the whole experience at Cedar Lodge, and he will melt your senses with fresh fish from the West Coast such as tarakihi, hoki (blue grenadier), snapper, and tuna; New Zealand beef and of course mutton; spiny lobster and scallops with the roe on; fresh potatoes and vegetables from local farms, and of course New Zealand’s most famous dessert, pavlova.

Chef Gordon is a Tonga national with one English parent and formal culinary training in the UK. Gordon owns a small private island in the country of Tonga, and it is a nursery area for humpback whales. In the off season he runs his own whale-

watching tour business, and battles giant trevally on heavy tackle outside the reef. He grew up fishing in the salt water, but he’s grown incredibly fond of trout fishing on the South Island. Each night after dinner or just before breakfast, he’ll try to glean fishing stories from the guests to fuel his own daily fly-fishing adventures in the daytime on the Makarora or nearby tributaries.

Everyone who visits the Makarora River Valley and the entirely roadless Mount Aspiring National Park falls in love with the beauty and history of this place. Scottie, Alexandra, and Gordon are just a few of the staff members who visited the area on a vacation, then chose to stay and make a life in one of the most beautiful regions of the world, and share that place with others. You too will be forever changed by the waters, the mountains, and the people here on the island of Te Waipounamu.

Recommended Gear

The sun is intense in New Zealand, and UV protection should be a primary concern. Sand flies can be bad in certain areas but if you wear Simms BugStopper pants, sunshirts, and gloves, you will have no problem with the sun or the insects. You can also do it yourself and treat your clothes and a hat with Sawyer spray-on permethrin. Biosecurity in New Zealand is stringent. Bring new, unused gear or carefully clean and dry your waders and boots. Declare these items upon entering the country and tell the agents you have taken all possible precautions. Wet wading without waders is the most comfortable option most days in New Zealand.

Book Your Destination

Cedar Lodge is operated by the adventure travel company Eleven, which also owns bespoke fishing lodges in Chile, Bahamas, Colorado, and Iceland. They are outstanding places to bring a nonfishing partner, as the level of comfort, dining, and other activities is unparalleled. elevenexperience.com


Ross Purnell is the editor and publisher of Fly Fisherman.




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