I visited New Zealand in February and March this year (2010) amidst an 8 month ‘round the world’ backpacking trip. New Zealand is a breathtaking country, with rugged snow capped mountains, imposing glaciers, picturesque turquoise lakes, and best of all, trout streams made in heaven. The south island, in particular, has trout streams in abundance and many of them hold extremely large trout going well into the double digit range. This is hardly new information, New Zealand has long been known as the ultimate destination for sight fishing to trophy sized trout and much has been published on this topic. But therein lay the cause to some trepidation on my part. I am a ‘river rookie’ so to speak and had some doubts as to my ability to successfully fish to the notoriously wary trout of New Zealand. As a kid I remember reading a few books on the subject - “Stalking Trout” by Les Hill and Graeme Marshall was fashionable reading in South Africa a decade and a half ago - and the book described how locals would sand the gloss off their rods, use dull coloured fly lines and stalk trout on all fours, all leaving me in no doubt as to the enormity of the challenge.
For these reasons I decided to hire a guide for a day and quite by chance I was introduced to Michael Scheele who has guided on the Ahuriri River for 15 years. Michael is a man of many talents, being a well known fly fishing artist and a lead singer in a local rock band back in the 80’s. It turned out that Michael and I share similar philosophies on fishing and conservation, and I couldn’t have asked for a better companion on the river.
The Ahuriri River is a world renowned fly fishing destination. But leaving aside its famed piscatorial inhabitants it is, in its simplest form, a beautiful freestone river in a flood plain of sun whitened boulders. It flows through a wide, flat pastoral valley, a rich emerald green watered by the irrigation sprinklers I could hear in the adjacent dairy fields. The lush valley starkly contrasts with the dry, barren brown of the surrounding corrugated mountains. I fished the river very near to the town of Omarama, equally well known for its perfect gliding conditions. The lower reaches of the river, before they empty into Lake Benmore, are generally shallow and fast flowing whilst the upper tussock-lined reaches where they enter the valley from the hills are wider, deeper and slower moving, quite the opposite of a standard river’s character. The usual rules obviously don’t apply here, as equally surprisingly, the further you venture upstream, the fewer the fish become in number but the larger they become in size. These are the really big, intelligent fish, genetically loaded with an overdose of survival instinct which has allowed them to grow to such extreme sizes, perhaps quarry for the next time I visit New Zealand, hopefully a better and more experienced river fisherman.
To really set the pulse racing, Michael told me on the drive over to the river that two weeks earlier a local angler had caught and released a double figure brown trout in a stretch of the river just above the town bridge. Michael had seen a photo and he estimated the fish at close to 13lbs. He also mentioned that late February/early March is when cicadas emerge from the ground and, helped by the wind, find their way on to the water sending the trout into a single-minded cicada feeding frenzy. I sometimes buy a lottery ticket in the hope of an early retirement but at that very moment in time I would have passed up a six figure jackpot hoping for a cicada hatch in the vicinity of an unfussy 13lb trout.
I rigged up my Orvis Helios 8’6 5wt, after some discussion about whether Michael’s 9’ 6wt was more appropriate. It can blow quite hard at times in New Zealand but the day was calm with clear skies, and besides, I’d carried my rod half way across the world and I wanted to use it. Michael tied on a size 14 Humpy Blowfly (or Bluebottle as it is also known) with a Copper John size 16 tied to the hook shank of the dry, in the New Zealand style. The Bluebottle became my “go to” fly in New Zealand, imitating an ordinary bluebottle fly and the trout seemed to rise to these freely at times. I was expecting a long leader to be employed given the bright conditions and the general hype surrounding the awareness of New Zealand’s trout but we went with a standard 9’ leader with about 2’ of tippet to the dry fly. The water was crystal clear and fishing is generally by sight however we also covered the likeliest holding areas with speculative casts in the event the trout‘s camouflage got the better of us, especially as some of the deeper runs are a little harder to see into. We worked our way up the river in this way, pausing only to watch a pair of Black Stilts, New Zealand’s rarest wading bird, busying themselves at the water’s edge. Within twenty minutes I was into a fish, a 1½ lb brown trout which took the nymph. It was on one of the speculative casts, and watching the dry coming down the eye of the pool, just outside of the faster current, we both saw it dip under the water ever so slightly and I set the hook. It was my first New Zealand trout, and as I released it I sensed Michael was relieved. I can’t imagine the stress a guide faces to ensure his client doesn’t go home fishless. Michael was happy, not just because I had ‘got off a duck’ in cricket speak, but because the trout promised a good day ahead. In fact, Michael was so confident, he quipped that I wouldn’t catch anything smaller that day.
It was a long pool and we carried on fishing it up to the head where I got a lovely 2½lb brown on the dry. I was beginning to realise that the trout fight hard in New Zealand and this particular one didn’t lack for energy. I eventually coaxed it into the net and released it just a little sad that I had left my camera on the opposite bank for what turned out to be my best fish of the day. The brown trout in this part of the world are a distinctive colour, a mix between olive green and caramel, adorned only with plain black spots. I’ve caught brown trout in Slovenia with Smarties size orange spots on their flanks, and brown trout in Wales with deep red spots but there’s something ‘raw nature’ about the look of New Zealand brown trout that makes them striking in their own unique way.
I was happy with my introduction to fly fishing in New Zealand. There weren’t any magical fish of over 8lbs, the type you see in glossy magazines and books and dream about, but I learnt more about rivers and how to fish them thanks to Michael’s guidance. I was happy to catch what I did, to fool others I didn’t succeed in netting, and to be totally outsmarted by some as it’s all a valuable lesson in the end. I was happy being out on the river.