New Zealand (vol. 1): The Happy Return

The eighth and final instalment of a catch-up series about my second trip to New Zealand in 2015. I have renumbered the series in date sequence and this is the first. 

18 - 23 October 2015

I was introduced to David Karpul by a mutual friend who was aware of my plans to return to New Zealand for a second time in 2015. A fellow South African living in Australia at the time, David wanted to fly over to New Zealand for a week's fishing prior to an eventual return to his homeland. Would I go fishing with him? Absolutely. And so, whilst my time in the USA was winding down with a final trip in Idaho and Oregon, I began to correspond with David and make plans. With only five days for fishing his brief was simple: to find trout within a reasonable distance of the airport at Christchurch. I knew of just the place from my visit six months before - the meeting point of five rivers at the base of a mountain range a few hundred kilometres north west of the city. 

This is an account of those five days although, as you will read, there wasn't much in the way of action at the sharp end of a hook thanks largely to some adverse weather and an injury to my wrist. There was no lack of effort though, and I remember the week for the camaraderie with David which developed from a single shared thread - a passion for fly fishing.  


I arrived at the airport in Christchurch after a long haul flight from Los Angeles to Auckland, where David collected me in our compact Mazda rental car. With fishing licences and food bought we headed for the hills, following the road for two hours whilst getting to know each other - and realising that we'd get along just fine. Eventually we reached the trout utopia I had chosen when we descended the winding road into the valley where the five trout rivers converge. Unfortunately, we'd arrived after a nasty front of weather and were met by the sight of the first of them in a muddy flood. We continued up the valley but all the remaining rivers were running high and brown. As Robert Burns put it, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.  We needed a plan B, and fast, so we doubled back an hour in the direction of civilisation and stopped at a near deserted campsite situated in a stand of tall pine trees, where we could consult our maps and the internet.

Day 1: High in the Heavens

When I woke up the next morning my right hand wrist - the one I use to cast a fly rod - was painful. Somewhere along the journey from the USA I'd hurt it whilst swivelling my heavy backpack onto my shoulder. Fishing for me today would be touch and go. We cooked our breakfasts and brewed our coffees on the grass of the campsite, still wet with dew, when a rooster with luxuriantly glossy hackle feathers came to inspect our commotion. We cracked corny jokes about taking the bird along with us for food and fly tying material and then set off with the morning sun still to crest the pine tops. 

To reach our chosen river we ascended a vertigo-inducing gravel road for 2,000 feet, taking care with our petite rental car. When we reached the summit of the escarpment we found a desolate and exposed valley where the wind tugged at our caps. So high in the heavens that trees were unable to take a hold in the soil. The barren, sage brown grasses hinted at the reason we had come to this almost unearthly place. The rain gods aren't as generous east of the island's mountain divide. A lively river flowed through the valley, carving deep into the land to expose rocky grey cliffs.

We parked our car where a ramshackle bridge spanned the river, and from the lofty vantage of the bridge we spied the ghostly silhouette of a large fish in the pool upstream. David set up his rod and scrambled to the riverbed where, with me shouting directions from above, he cast repeatedly at the goliath without troubling it. The current was strong and I suspect his fly was never seen by the trout.   

We followed an interesting looking tributary a little way upstream and were rewarded with the sighting of a large trout where the water deepened as it flowed through a miniature canyon. We dropped to the ground to remain concealed and watched as the trout obliviously cruised the modest confines of its pool in search of food. It was very exciting to watch a large and active fish in such slim water and we hatched a plan of attack. I remained frozen to the spot and acted as fish spotter whilst David circled back to approach the trout from downstream. This was a wily trout and after a handful of David's casts, it seemed to stiffen and then it ceased to cruise. It knew we were there and the game was up. 

We spent the remainder of the day walking along the cliff tops of the main river, searching the smoky green water for trout, but seeing none. The water looked far too good not to hold trout and we probably walked past a fair few in the murkiest water without knowing it.

Day 2: Empty Water 

We drove south into the night to reach the river selected for the next day. From the twists and turns in the road as we approached our destination I knew that we were driving in serious mountain country but it was difficult to get a true sense in the darkness. We pitched our tents in the headlights of our car and I fell asleep almost instantly.

It was a bitterly cold night. When I woke in the morning my tent and the grass around it was covered in frost. The cold somehow made our adventure feel more tangible. The still dark shapes of mountains dominated the landscape in every direction, as if we had been swallowed by them. We made coffee and oats for breakfast as the sky lightened, eager to hit the water we could hear nearby.

This river flowed through a gorge with steep sided cliffs and pockets of deep water at their base. Wading was somewhat gruelling as we crisscrossed the shallower sections to make headway. Soon after setting forth we saw a trout emerge into the light in a long pool shadowed by the cliffs. There was something ethereal about its appearance, as if it was an apparition. The trout performed a loop and then returned to the darkness of the shadows. We watched the water for an age afterwards but the fish never emerged from its lair beneath the cliffs. Perhaps it had spotted us. Perhaps it was a night feeder, and we had witnessed its final circuit. 

That single spectral trout transpired to be the only sign of life in the gorge. We waded through miles of pristine water seemingly devoid of fish. It was pretty dispiriting! My wrist was still hurting and I didn't even have the chance to see if I could make a viable cast with it. 

The scenery was gorgeous and that at least offered some small reward. After two rain free days in which only three trout had been sighted, we decided to head back to the valley of five rivers where at least I knew that trout thrived in good numbers. We'd take our chances with the weather conditions. 

Day 3: Rain

It was another cold night in the tent, nestled in the embrace of snow-capped mountains. Puddles of rain water had frozen overnight. I had underestimated how cold early spring was in New Zealand. 

Determined to find obliging trout we chose the clearest of the five rivers even though it was running high. I hadn't fished it before and exploring virgin water is something which truly excites me. Initially the skies were clear as we began our hike up the valley through a mossy beech forest, but within an hour heavy clouds blew in and it began to rain. It was a steady fall which never let up for the rest of the day. 

We spotted an enormous trout in a deep pool downstream of a suspension footbridge. By now I'd realised that I couldn't cast with my injured wrist and essentially acted as David's trout spotter and very poor guide. This trout was animated and periodically rose in the water without ever breaching the surface to swallow something we couldn't quite see from our perch on the cliff edge. David doubled back and came upriver to where an enormous rock which stood taller than his head shielded him. He shimmied up the rock and lay flat on it and from that place of concealment awkwardly lobbed fly after fly to the trout without any joy. It was frustrating to witness a trout feeding so assuredly yet remain in the dark about which species of underwater creature it was locked onto. 

When David had given up I allowed my fly to drift downstream and it seemed for a moment that the great fish had moved to it, but my strike met with no resistance and the commotion finally alerted the trout to our presence.

One hundred metres upstream of the footbridge where the river made an abrupt turn to the left we found another trout feeding in the same way. Here the water was around 5 feet deep, much shallower than the previous pool, and we were able to work out that the fish was taking very large and very mobile 'swimmer' mayfly nymphs. Perhaps a #8 or 10 hook would've done the trick but neither of us had thought to carry such a pattern in New Zealand. Just like the first trout, this one would not move to any of the innumerable flies which David presented to it perfectly well. My experience until then had been that New Zealand's trout were opportunistic feeders but this was a rare example of selectivity. 

We sat on the wet grass to eat our lunch and watched the trout in quiet awe as it continued to chase the swimmers. After our meal David produced a #6 double bead stone fly pattern out of nowhere and tried it on the trout as a last resort. In a moment of inspiration he imparted movement to the nymph and we were stunned when the trout took it - and crestfallen when David's tippet snapped seconds later, as the trout ran from us in a display of raw power.  

Day 4: Too tempting to ignore

David and I hadn't been able to put the trout which we had seen in the small gully in the tributary on the first day out of our minds. It had been haunting us ever since. We felt with the right cast and a fair amount of luck the trout could be caught, so we decided to return to the river at the top of the world, and did so full of hope and optimism. 

With real excitement David crept into a casting position along the shore and I took up my spotting position on the elevated slope once again. There really is something so invigorating about hunting a large trout in such skinny water, as if the mind is fooled that it is easier to catch. Sadly, the water was barren and the fish was nowhere to be seen. We watched the water and waited for ages but it never materialised. By now we were at something of a low ebb and took it easy for the rest of the day.

Final day: Mission accomplished

The pressure was on to find David a fish on his final day. Despite the frustrations and adversity of the days before, David continued to smile. I have yet to meet a more laidback person! 

The weather front had finally dissipated from the valley of the five rivers and not a cloud was to be seen in the sky. The day felt propitious, as if the last vestiges of winter had finally been shrugged off. We felt that the river we'd fished two days previously would now be in fine fettle 48 hours after the last of the rain, and it was. The stars began to align. 

When David's moment came, it was a moment of gloriously unintended simplicity. The pool at the base of the mountains held a good trout and when David sent his nymph in its direction another trout, unseen until then, took it confidently. Even though the interloper was much smaller, it fought like a cornered tiger and took David 60m downstream where I could finally net it. It wasn't quite the stamp of fish which David had flown to New Zealand for, but at that moment he and I would've taken anything! 

That fish brought our time together to a close. I was sorry that the early season conditions hadn't been better for David but he took it all in his stride, and was great company for the week.  

Next: (Vol. 2): West Coast Redemption