Saturday, 4 September 2010

South Island, New Zealand

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.

And the next 5 fish I caught whilst steadily moving upstream were all much smaller rainbows between 8 and 10 inches. It’s funny how life just has a habit of working that way.

We later came to a promising looking pool where Michael spotted a fish lying up against the left bank. Michael said it looked 4½lbs but I had no way of telling as I couldn’t spot it. Trout are underwater chameleons as far as I’m concerned, and spotting fish is something I’ve realised I have to work on if I’m to become a more successful fisherman. I guess it’s a skill that will come the more time I spend on the water. A pair of polaroids might help too and I’ve recently bought a pair. At least Michael could see the fish and he directed me where to cast, 20 feet upstream and 3 feet from the bank. There’s a certain pressure you feel in situations like this when one bad cast can send the fish packing up river and putting it off food for a day or more, but I sensed Michael was happy with the cast and within 2 seconds of the dry drifting back on the current it dipped and I set the nymph. It could have been a nuclear submarine for all I know because without ever showing itself it took off upstream with such ferocity it surprised me. In that moment it dawned on me what a good fish this must be when the tippet suddenly snapped and the fish was gone. The fish had stripped the loose line back on to my reel in no time at all in much the same way a bonefish reacts when hooked, and the fly line had wrapped around the butt of my rod bringing a sudden end to the connection between leader and tippet. It’s hard to find positives in moments like that, but I was happy with the execution of the cast, and pleased that the fish was convinced enough in the presentation to take the fly.

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.

We had been enjoying ourselves so much that we hadn’t kept an eye on the time. It was about 4pm, and as we headed back to Michael’s truck to get our lunches, we came across a 6lb brown actively cruising a shallow side tributary fed by a trickle of a stream. We had spied it from the top of a bank, about 3 metres above the pool, and this time given the size of the pool and the depth of the water I could see the trout with ease. There’s something about a 6lb trout in a plain view which gets the heart rate going. Michael tied on a size 20 nymph and I crawled down the bank out of sight to approach the trout from behind while Michael stayed hidden on the bank to call out casting directions. This trout had obviously seen the likes of me before because no matter how gently I cast into the pool, it steadfastly refused my offering despite first having a good look at the fly before casually swimming to the deepest part of the pool and thereafter refusing to budge. There’s a reason why trout like this get this large, and in hindsight, given how easily we could see the trout, the smallest movement by me must have been magnified to the trout. It was fun trying though.

We jumped in Michael’s truck for a 30 minute drive to the upper section of the river for an evening session on a public access section of the river. Disappointingly though, two other fly fisherman had just fished the entire beat. Not only would they have set trout alarm bells ringing throughout the beat when they passed through, they also told us they had not so much as even seen a trout. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Michael tied on a cicada pattern, hoping to rouse the trout from their slumber with the promise of a cicada feeding spree. But it was not to be. I was content just soaking in the secluded atmosphere of the river in this section, nearer to the snow clad mountains slowly turning a dark shade of purple as the sun sank beyond them in a golden shower of light, rather like an African sunset.

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.

A few days later we were driving along the scenic road to Milford Sound, one of New Zealand’s premier tourist destinations. Along the way, before you get to the tunnel, you drive along the Eglinton River for some distance. The valley here is narrow with steep granite mountains hemming you in. It’s a pretty little river too, as clear as glass and with just a hint of turquoise blue, the type of blue you get when snowmelt adds to a river’s volume. It’s hard to take your eyes off the river as you drive along the road following the river’s course, despite the other outstanding scenery on offer. I found myself sizing up all the likely looking runs whenever the road joined the river. We stopped along the way for lunch, and while it was being prepared I couldn’t resist putting my rod together and having a few casts.

I had no hesitation in tying on a Bluebottle and a Copper John below it. The water was running fast and strong, kicking up a strong riffle over the rocks. A powerful wind was blowing straight down the valley and I struggled to cast into it with even the tightest of loops. Getting nowhere, I decided to take a break and I ate my lunch on the river bank, frustrated at my proximity to a wonderful looking trout river but not being able to cast effectively into it. Just as I was about to leave, a fish rose on the opposite bank with an audible splash, just outside the main current. I bit off the nymph and contemplated my cast. Not only was the wind a factor, but I had to cast over the strong current and avoid any drag long enough to cover where I had seen the splash. I moved to a point almost parallel to the fish and I cast low into the wind hoping to get under it. The fly was quickly carried over the spot and as I lifted the fly off the water to repeat the cast a large, dark shadow rose up from the depths to the point where my fly had been only moments earlier, before returning to the river’s bottom. I couldn’t believe it! Had the fish been spooked and my chance blown? I flicked the fly back and again, almost in slow motion, the trout rose up from the depths and sipped in the fly. The fish had a power in it that I could instantly feel transported all the way through my cork rod grip and into my arm as it fled downstream. Whilst the current was strong and helped it along its way, it soon stripped me into my backing, the first fish other than a bonefish to do so. It leaped and ran, leaped and ran again, until I eventually got it to the side of the bank after what felt like a lifetime. It was a thick-shouldered rainbow trout of about 4½lbs, my record on a river and one of my favourite catches since I started fishing, made all the better for doing it all on my own. At that moment, watching the fish swim away, I understood the poetry of fly fishing.


  1. Awesome story and a great rainbow at the end of it.

    I really like it how you are humble and honest about your fishing strengths and... those areas in which you are still learning.

    This is such refreshing prose after reading many books by guides and 'fishing personalities' where they always claim flawless super-hero performances.

    It was really great to see my own island's fishing through foreign eyes.

    Thank you.

  2. Hi Nick. Thank you for your very kind comments. New Zealand is one of the most beautiful countries I have visited!