November 13, 2023
Editor's note: Flyfisherman.com will periodically be posting articles written and published before the Internet, from the Fly Fisherman magazine print archives. The wit and wisdom from legendary fly-fishing writers like Ernest Schwiebert, Gary LaFontaine, Lefty Kreh, Robert Traver, Dave Whitlock, Al Caucci & Bob Nastasi, Vince Marinaro, Doug Swisher & Carl Richards, Nick Lyons, and many more deserve a second life. These articles are reprinted here exactly as published in their day and may contain information, philosophies, or language that reveals a different time and age. This should be used for historical purposes only.
This article originally appeared in the January 1977 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine. Click here for a PDF of the print version of "Tramping for Trout in New Zealand."
There's a certain knack, my New Zealand friends had warned me, to spotting trout in the clear streams of their South Island. The water often takes on a jade-green tint where it deepens over a bottom of angular light-colored stones, offering near-perfect camouflage for resting trout. The hot February sun laid bare every inch of the pool before me as I watched from a shaded bank, wishing I had that knack. There were no fish in sight, only shadows on the bottom cast by pieces of shattered ledge-rock. One of the shadows moved slightly. It had to be a fish holding in mid-depth, but even by estimating the angle of the sun, I still couldn't see the fish itself. I took a few steps slowly backward and eased my backpack off out of the fish's view. The eight-foot glass pack rod went together quickly, and I carefully approached the pool once more.
I cast a small Dun Spider across stream and considerably above the shadow. The fly floated calmly down the run; the shadow didn't move. Now at the tail of the run, the dragging fly started to skitter across stream, bouncing frantically on long, stiff hackles. The shadow on the bottom became a downstream blur, then a violent splash, as a rainbow of about five pounds smashed the tippet as though none were there.
That kind of thing had happened relatively often to my wife, Paula, and me as we backpacked around the southern end of New Zealand's South Island, but I still wasn't used to it. I stood watching the morning sun blazing against the island's jagged Southern Alps, and then, gradually, my heartbeat slowed to near normal. Paula and I shouldered our packs and continued slowly along the stream toward the mountains, moving carefully and looking for fish.
Contrary to the legend that's been prospering ever since the late 19th century, New Zealand trout of monstrous dimensions don't attack your fly from all sides like a school of half-starved sunfish. The average size of the fish we encountered during our four-month trek was certainly much higher than that in our native Wyoming, but the fishing was often just as tough, if not more so.
Our Wyoming trout fishing had been helped greatly by our love affair with backpacking, which takes us often to infrequently fished areas and better fishing. In deciding to go to New Zealand, we applied the same thinking, since we'd heard that backcountry fishing there was better than at roadside, even in that mecca for fly fishers.
We had several pieces of information that led us to head for the South Island. The most famous New Zealand fishing area is the Lake Taupo-Rotorua region on the North Island. This area is also the most populous and heavily fished. We knew that the South Island was mountainous with miles of remote country, including one of the world's largest national parks. We wanted to fish where we'd see few others, so we headed for the South Island, particularly the southern end.
New Zealand's Southern Alps form a spine down the length of the South Island, ranging in height up to the 12,349-foot Mt. Cook. Warm, moist air from the Tasman Sea to the west is forced upward by the mountain range, producing an annual rainfall on much of the island's western side of 50-300 inches and, consequently, a thick, rain forest.
On the eastern side of the mountains, there's considerably less rainfall, some areas getting as little as ten inches annually. This close proximity of wet and dry areas, coupled with large numbers of glacially carved fiord-like lakes in the southwest, offers lots of productive fishing possibilities.
When backpacking this region, you can expect to ford a number of rivers and streams, sometimes on a hanging footbridge, sometimes by wading. You should remember that even a moderate rain can cause a dramatic rise in stream level in this country of steep and rapid runoff. Rather than cross a swollen river, wait until it goes down. Most will go down quite rapidly, becoming passable overnight. This will also influence where you pitch a tent, if you're using one. Make sure to put it above any obvious high-water marks. Many streams are bordered by broad gravel bars that look like good tent sites, but which are covered with water after a good rain.
We didn't encounter any requirements for camping permits in the national parks we visited, but it was necessary to register your itinerary with the local Park Board office where you could also pay a $2 (N.Z.) fee for nightly use of their backcountry huts. Their offices are usually located at each park. The office for the immense Fiordland National Park, for example, is at nearby Te Anau.
The trails we followed were not generally marked or blazed. They were, however, usually well defined and the thick bush made it almost impossible to stray very far from them. We fished both the wet and dry sides of the Southern Alps and had fine fishing in both areas. Most standard American patterns worked well to imitate the mayflies and caddis of the South Island rivers, insects which were generally comparable to those we'd encountered in Wyoming. The single most productive pattern was the Adams, in a variety of sizes, and we're now busy tying the dozens of them we promised to anglers we met in New Zealand.
Although we had the most fun stalking fish with drys in low, clear water, it was often necessary to use either nymphs or streamers on a sinking line to cover larger, deeper pools when no fish were visibly feeding. Once again, most of the standard American patterns we carried were successful.
We're in the middle of a Wyoming winter now, but I still often think about the seven-pound brown that came from beneath a waterfall in a South Island tributary stream to take a small Spruce Streamer. And of one of our New Zealand friends who urged us to recite "God Save the Queen"–our friend's device to avoid striking too early–when we saw a big rainbow come to a dry fly in clear water. And I think the most, I suppose, about how we can get back there again.