October 18, 2021
This article was originally titled "All it Takes is a Fish" in the Seasonable Angler column of the Oct-Nov-Dec 2017 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
The last days of another summer spent running up and down the trout streams of New Zealand’s South Island were nearing, and I was ready for a change of pace. I enjoy the complexities of trout fishing, but sometimes it’s nice to take a break from 18-foot leaders, lightweight tippets, multi-nymph rigs, and dandelion-seed presentations. It felt like a good time to head for saltier pastures.
Ben West is an old guide buddy of mine from Alaska who had been living the New Zealand trout bum lifestyle out of the back of his 4x4 for the past few months. Ben is a rugged Paul Bunyan-esque character who was long ago dubbed “Big Country.”
Big Country and I needed to fish together one last time before he headed back across the ditch, so we decided to head to the opposite end of the island in search of warmer weather, sandy saltwater flats, and yellowtail kingfish. Kingfish or “kingies” are members of the amberjack family with thick dark bands along the lengths of their bodies that meet contrasting bright yellow and sharply forked tails. The clean dark band encases their eyes and gives them the look of warriors who are painted and ready for battle.
They have elongated bodies, but plenty of girth to muscle their way around the great southern oceans without too much trouble. Yellowtail kingfish are fierce predators that can grow to more than 100 pounds and more than 5 feet in length. These offshore monsters can be difficult to target with fly-fishing tackle, so we decided to focus on the smaller fish that inhabit the shallow sandy flats around New Zealand’s impressive southern coast.
Yellowtail kingfish have been known as “ray riders” in New Zealand for as long as anyone can remember. They often cruise the shallow flats hovering over the backs of stingrays, and they feed on the small flounders, crustaceans, and whatever else rays stir up out of the sand in their own hunt for a meal.
After nearly 12 hours of navigating the narrow and winding roads of the rugged west coast, Ben and I arrived at our destination. The forecast called for horrible weather, and what we found was just what we were expecting. Time was not on our side, and unfortunately we had to take what the weather gods were willing to give us, which wasn’t much. I don’t mind fishing in powerful wind and saturating rain, but when the flats are so churned up from the turbulence that you can’t see your boots in ankle-deep water, it just isn’t going to happen.
So we did what any self-respecting fly fishers would do: We drank coffee by day and gin by night. We ate as much food as possible, and took naps like Labradors.
Day after day the wind kept coming and the rain kept falling. The easterly wind alone was enough to stir the sand flats into an unfishable slurry, but to add insult to injury, the local flooded rivers and creeks were pumping enough muddy water into the bay to ensure that nothing was going to change with the simple flip of a tide.
It was a lazy state of affairs. Each day we drove out to the flats just to have a look. We even spent a few hours with some other stranded anglers casting from a bridge in a nearby estuary. It was a feeble attempt, but it still felt good to make the casts.
Something made us decide to actually go fishing, but I’m not sure if it was cabin fever, desperation, or the gin. Clearly we were going stir crazy because on our last night, Big Country decided to gulp down an unlucky and sizable chorus cicada that had found its way into the kitchen. He likened it to some sort of sacrifice to the fishing gods. Who was I to argue? Cicadas are trout staples in New Zealand, and whenever they are consumed, the fishing seems to be excellent.
By the next morning, the sun was poking through broken clouds, and it seemed that the wind had switched direction. In my pre-coffee morning haze, I couldn’t help but wonder if the sacrifice had actually worked? After a hasty breakfast we headed straight to the flats and almost immediately began to find patches of clear water, but the wind and lingering clouds made it almost impossible to see anything. There was only one thing to do, and that was to keep fishing.
We spread out and wandered the flats in a zombielike fashion, hoping for any type of opportunity. After a lunch that we never ate, the tide changed and the wind picked up, but it didn’t matter because it was blowing offshore this time and we now had the other key elements—sunshine and clear water—on our side.
That afternoon we started seeing stingrays, and casting to them gave us some hope. We were finally seeing some of what we came for. But even with the target practice underway, it wasn’t until Big Country hooked his first kingfish that we were finally able to emerge from the black hole that the past week had held us in.
I made a lot of casts, started seeing some kingfish, and I even had a couple of refusals. Big Country landed another nice kingfish in the 12-pound class and while I was genuinely happy for him, I slowly slipped back into that dark place all fly fishers go when they aren’t catching fish. Maybe I’d just have to wait until next year. Maybe it just wasn’t going to happen.
But my optimistic side told me anything was possible. Sometimes amazing things happen at the very last minute of the last day. I’ve seen it happen that way before. With that thought in mind, I was able to push on. I could tell Big Country desperately wanted me to catch a fish, and that helped keep me motivated. The best fishing buddies are always rooting for you when things aren’t going your way.
At one point we saw some seabirds diving on bait a ways down the beach. By the time we got there, the birds were gone but we saw quite a few more rays cruising the shallows in that area so we robotically started fishing. I soon spotted a ray about 50 feet off, cruising directly at me in calf-deep water. I made my cast followed by a strip, and there it was—the flash, the pull, and then the enormous eruption of water on the surface.
It was shallow enough that I wondered how a kingfish of that size could have stayed hidden, and the fish seemed confused about which direction to turn. After a few experimental zigzags, he decided to head to the open ocean, and I watched my fly line quickly disappear followed by a whole lot of bright orange backing stretching into the horizon. Once he got that first huge run out of the way, we both took line at any opportunity, and the stamina of the fish was a constant reminder that I wasn’t on a trout stream. This was the type of fish that depended on any mechanical advantage I could muster, and with my drag turned up, and my 9-weight bent deeply into the cork, I was finally able to turn the fish’s head and use his forward motion to my advantage. I could finally see a way out of that black hole, and hoped that maybe today was my day after all.
Once I got the fish back in the shallows he made a few more desperate but short runs before Big Country was able to grab ahold of his tail. The kingie was a solid fish for the flats—likely in the neighborhood of 20 pounds. It was a big fish for us, not only in size but in circumstance as well. There were screams of excitement, hugs, and high fives followed by quiet contentment.
We took a few photos and watched the fish swim toward the deep ocean. On our long walk back to the truck, our boots felt little bit lighter, our smiles a little wider, and suddenly the whole week seemed worth the effort. All it takes is a fish, or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
Jeff Forsee (forseeflyfishing.com) is a guide on the South Island of New Zealand and head guide at Fish Mongolia.