Backcountry Wilderness and a Fitting End

I’ve been in New Zealand a while now, but my time is coming to an end and I’m getting ready to move on to Japan and South Korea. I have really enjoyed my time in New Zealand - it’s hard not to with the spectacular scenery, friendly people and the best trout fishing on the planet. On the trout fishing front I’ve grown more confident as I pick up the skills to catch trout here. I particularly feel that my spotting skills have improved significantly. You have to be able to spot fish here and I may even have turned into a bit of a sight-fishing snob, refusing to cast a fly blindly into the deeper pools like I did when I first arrived. I will certainly be looking to spot more fish on my onward travels in the rest of the world because little beats the thrill of spotting a fish, casting to it and catching it. If I had to be picky, the only thing missing from my time here was a truly large, trophy fish. It isn’t the be-all and end-all, but nobody comes to New Zealand without entertaining thoughts of catching a whopper, do they?

With the season drawing to a close and the cold and dark inexorably creeping closer I agreed to go on one final fishing trip with Nick Moody. Nick has been reading and commenting on this blog for some years and it was good to meet him in the flesh. When I did first meet him it was during the tense Cricket World Cup semi final between New Zealand and South Africa (the less said of that the better). I’d just bought some beers at a bar but Nick was keen to get outside into the near dark to see me do a bit of grass casting - it was his way of testing my casting ability. Pass it, and he’d be happy to have me along with him for four days in demanding backcountry conditions. Fail it, and I guess he’d suddenly have had some lawn cutting or painting to do. I’m glad I swiftly passed and could get back to the cricket! 

To give ourselves the best chance at catching a decent fish we settled on a backcountry river somewhere in the Canterbury region. It was over the Easter weekend but we hoped the poor weather forecast, complete with predicted gale force winds and rain, would deter all but the hardy.

[Not a particularly interesting video, taken at my campsite the night before our trip, but it shows the reason why we chose this venue. I spotted four of the little critters at one stage.]

We expected a crowd. It was the last holiday weekend before winter and this river lay in the heart of New Zealand’s “mouse year” region. In case you don’t know, a mouse year happens once every 5 - 10 years in New Zealand when beech trees produce a bumper crop of seeds leading to a corresponding increase in the mouse population. Being territorial creatures, mice travel and cross rivers when they find them. When they take the plunge, they take their chances with the trout! In a mouse year a fish which would normally weigh 6 or 7lbs becomes a 10lb fish, all weight and bulk in the same length of frame. I’ve heard mythic tales of 16 and 18lb trout this year. This particular river had been hit hard by anglers all season, precisely because its fish had grown exceptionally big on mice, and now at the end of the season the trout had gained something of an education in the ways of fly fishing. They would be a tough challenge to catch. On top of that, trout start to feed less as the days shorten, and they begin to pair up before the approaching spawning season. 

As it transpired, we were fortunate. We only encountered three other fishermen all weekend, and we also encountered several feeding fish.

Sunrise in the backcountry

Setting forth

The basic gist of our plan was to walk up the valley laden with our packs, spending three nights camped out on the banks of one of New Zealand’s most productive trout rivers. I can’t begin to describe how privileged I was to have the time to do so. If you’re into fly fishing, this has to come close to a life time fishing highlight. I’m not sure I will ever top it. The scenery was beautiful and down in the valley we were ensconced in the sounds of nature, the river and a surprising solitude given the lack of anglers. At one point Nick pointed out a New Zealand falcon flying downstream with a small bird in its talons. It began to pluck at its meal with its beak as it flew. Nick also commented on what must have been some pretty effective stoat trapping in the valley - judging by the constant chorus of birds (my favourite sound being the melodic bellbird).

The fish were evident from the start, all large and fairly easy to spot. It quickly became apparent that they were spooky as hell, ever wary of even the tiniest amount of drag. The first cast really counts here, get it wrong and you watch a trophy size fish slink away into the depths upstream. 

Friday and Saturday saw some wind, meaning that we sometimes had to alter our casting approach, but Sunday was perfectly clear. It was on Sunday morning that we tasted our first real action, when I tempted a huge fish to take a carefully presented nymph. Nick was standing on the bank and saw the fish lift in the water and take my fly. The indicator had not moved by then when he shouted 'strike!' and I lifted the rod into an immovable weight. The fish was hooked! This is the largest fish I had ever hooked and for a second or two it simply did nothing but offer a solid immovable resistance. My initial reaction was that I had snagged a rock but by then Nick was letting out several “yahoos”. The fish then moved and breached the surface like a porpoise, showing its broad head and enormous shoulders. That image will be imprinted in my mind forever. Nick, who in my peripheral vision seemed to be dancing for joy high up on the bank, excitedly shouted “it’s a trophy!” whilst the fish continued to move upstream into a higher section of pocket water. I kept the line as tight as possible but felt just a moment of slack and within a second the fish was off. Nick was crestfallen and slumped to the ground holding his head. He later estimated that fish at 14lbs. I was a little crestfallen too - who wouldn’t be? - but not very fazed by it. It felt great to deceive and hook a trophy sized fish for the first time and I wanted to do it again! 

The weather on Sunday was perfect

That was pretty much it as far as fish action was concerned over the first three days. We spotted several large fish and we got to know the river and the spots where the fish were holding fairly well. We probably each had a shot at 4 or 5 fish a day, but typically they would be spooked by the second cast or more rarely by a clumsy approach.

We based ourselves for two of the nights at one of the huts and this was my first experience of the meeting, talking, eating and camaraderie that comes with sharing a hut with strangers in a remote river valley, mostly trampers and hunters. Helicopters buzzed into the valley daily and at first we were fearful they were dropping anglers ahead of us but later came to learn they were dropping deer hunters on the slopes above the tree line. On Sunday we noticed fresh boot prints in the sand and a couple of what appeared to be spooked fish lying stock still in the margins. Later that day we spotted anglers several kilometres in the distance ahead of us. They had walked through, probably fishing 'our' water, unknown to us.

As we approached the final morning of fishing on Monday, we took stock of the weekend and the obvious lack of fish in the net. We discussed the pressure and stress that comes with casting to large trout against a diminishing time period and Nick was clear to spell out a new set of rules for approaching fish, chiefly, to skirt around any fish giving the appearance of not feeding. He wanted us to have the best shot at landing a fish on our last morning so we targeted only the happy feeders. 

We met two young anglers coming up the river and they politely agreed to give us enough room to fish in the time we had left. In passing one of them mentioned that he had caught “too many double figure fish to count” from this river this season alone and he advocated a sparse unweighted nymph fished behind a heavy point fly. He reached into his fly box and showed us what he meant by revealing a tiny #20 hook with only a shred of dubbing wrapped about it. I was grateful for his openness when most anglers in New Zealand keep their cards very close to their chest.

Just as the time was approaching for us to leave and collect our packs for the long hike back to our cars, we came to a large fish. We had spotted it two days before. This time I spotted it in the same place, holding in fast water beneath the slight cover afforded by white, frothing bubbles. Back then it had been my turn to cast to it and it had been difficult in a strong downstream wind. I eventually let it be after deploying a side cast and never really feeling that I my fly had sunk down to the appropriate depth. As fate would have it, it was again my turn to cast and there was little wind this time. I realised this would be the last fish I would cast to in New Zealand and I mentioned this to Nick as I entered the water, feeling the weight of pressure. The lack of wind meant I could get downstream of the fish this time, and cast a team of two nymphs to it (including a sparse unweighted fly). This time I could achieve enough distance with the cast for the team of flies to sink to the bottom. Nick stayed on the bank to mark the fish and I was ready to strike at his say so. Three casts resulted in no interest from the trout and Nick said he couldn’t see the fish any longer. I must have spooked it. I resigned myself to the fact that my fishing season in New Zealand had come to an end, with no trophy fish to show for it. It was a crushing feeling in truth.

I said to Nick that I wanted to practice the cast again but in truth it was in the hope that the fish had only momentarily moved and was still there, somewhere. I cast the team of flies again, this time right into the fast water where the water was breaking white and where a trout might be disguised from view. Within a second or two my indicator stopped dead. Instinctively I lifted my rod, feeling an unyielding resistance, and just like the day before, it was hard at first to tell whether I had snagged a rock or tree log. Then the line came to life as the fish panicked and started to move upstream. I cannot begin to explain the emotion I was feeling. Nick was yahooing and dancing on the bank like a madman. My sense of elation was heightened by the sense of despair I had felt just moments before, one extreme becoming another. This fish also attempted to leap from the water, its vast bulk meaning it too could barely porpoise out of the water, displaying its head and the enormous bulk of its spotted shoulders before disappearing beneath the water. I desperately hoped the fly was well hooked this time and concentrated hard on keeping an unrelenting pressure in the line. The fight was like no other I have experienced. The fish relied on its sheer weight, doggedly choosing to sit in the current whilst I applied side strain. For minutes at a time the trout lay completely stationary before it could be persuaded to move. It lasted a long and very tense 25 minutes - the longest 25 minutes of my life! We had dropped back downriver with the fish as the line pressure finally began to tell on it, and, in a small sheltered bay of calm water, Nick was finally able to net the fish. Relief and elation flooded over me. I allowed myself to let out a yahoo-oo! and we high-fived boisterously. 

This was the most fitting end to my time in New Zealand that I could possibly imagine. The fish had taken the sparse unweighted nymph and in a quiet moment I thanked the young angler. And then I held my breath as Nick said “are you ready?” before he lifted the fish in the net to check its weight. The scale settled just over the 10lb mark. I had to check the reading myself just to be sure. I had done it!

Then to immortalise the moment with a few rapid burst snaps. A lift from the water, and then back into the water again, for the trout to recover and swim away.

Unfortunately Nick wasn’t able to catch his own trophy before our time on the river expired. I wished he had, as he fished well and deserved a good fish. At least the two of us didn’t go fish-less over the four days. Then began the long hike back to the cars through beech forests which were alive with the sound of birds (and swarms of sandflies if we cared to linger). We emerged at the road after dark and hitched a lift back to the car park some distance away. We were lucky to get a lift within minutes as the clouds started to spit rain around us. In our enthusiasm to catch fish we had probably left too late but I’m glad we did.

 I’m already thinking of returning to New Zealand next season - I’m hooked!


  1. Great post! Sounds like a fantastic experience and congratulations on catching a big 'un!

    1. Thanks Kate! If anyone knows how happy I am it's you - thanks for being the sandfly fodder.

  2. Justin
    A trip of a lifetime and the scenery is worth it even if you don't land a monster trout. Nice post--thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks Bill. I highly recommend a trip to NZ.

  3. It's the 1080 rat poison that DOC drop that meant there were so many birds still alive in the forest Justin, it kills the rats and stoats, which would munch all the birds otherwise, when their populations also explode in a mouse plague year. Once the mice numbers drop off, they turn to eating birds and chicks. There is no stoat trapping up there to my knowledge.

    1. So stoat 'poisoning' rather than stoat 'trapping' is more appropriate - thanks for clearing that up.


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