Many of you know that I recently took a trip to New Zealand. I've been wanting to fish the South Island since I was about 14 years old. Early on I was lured by the pictures of large brown trout, which I assumed must be everywhere and easy for anyone to catch. Later I learned that isn't the case. In fact, many of the rivers have low densities of fish and if they have received any fishing pressure they can be as challenging to catch as trout anywhere on the planet. These days there are more fly anglers than ever heading to New Zealand and the difficulty of the fishing has increased as a result.
A lot of us want lots of big fish that are easy to catch when we pony up big money to go on a fishing vacation. I'm certainly not immune to this desire. New Zealand certainly has large fish. However, there are locations where you can catch more and larger trout with less effort and money. So why did I choose to head to New Zealand? 1. It is possibly the best place around to spot and stalk fish before catching them. I'll be talking about this in a future post that will also be in Gink and Gasoline. 2. Each fish you catch in NZ is an individual challenge. There are no short cuts. Skillful presentations, kilometers of walking, and a keen fish spotting eye are required to be successful. If you don't bring your A game, it's easy to go home with a white stripe on your back.
After all was said and done, I had some great days in NZ. There were days where the conditions and the fish cooperated and I caught solid numbers of fish. There were other days where I walked 15 - 20 kilometers and found either few fish or the most stubborn fish I've come across. Let me share a couple of experiences from two of the rivers I fished.
At the beginning of my trip, I spent a week fishing with my long time backcountry fishing friend Connor Murphy and my new friend Zbynek Tuma (Zee). Then I drove 11 hours north to pick up former Irish fly fishing team angler Tom Drinan from the Nelson airport. We had three days to fish together before he had a conference to attend. There were two rivers on our list that we wanted to target. Sadly, one of them we never did fish as a late snowstorm had dumped over a foot of snow in the headwaters in the days before we arrived. This left the river high and off color for the three days we checked it. We were hoping to sight fish to some of the island's larger trout here but the conditions thwarted our efforts and left us searching for contingency rivers on the first and last day.
During the 2nd day of our time together, we went to a small lovely river which required a two hour drive and a lot of hiking to get to. The one other time Tom had fished there provided an exciting final 90 minutes of fishing when he and his friend reached a stretch of the river where the fish numbers improved dramatically. We hiked straight to this stretch of river, around 5 km from the car, before we started fishing.
Unlike the larger river we planned to target, this river was small with a watershed much lower in elevation. Despite the repeated storm systems which had been visiting the island during my stay, this river was low and clear, which created very technical conditions. In addition, we occasionally saw boot prints along the river suggesting other anglers had been through within the last few days.
Compared to some of the other rivers I had fished to this point, there was no shortage of fish in this river. Most of the better pools, runs, and glides had one or two fish in them. However, I can only compare these fish to trained spies constantly surveilling their surroundings for danger. Many of the fish could be seen from a long distance. Yet, as soon as we approached them and got into fishing position, often on our knees, they would turn downstream and slowly swim a surveillance lap. Then they would calmly pass by our position and look us straight in the eye before turning back upstream and swimming into the deepest water they could find to sulk. The jig was up and we had been found out....again.
For the fish we spotted who stayed still long enough to take a shot, they spooked at casts with 20 foot leaders which appeared perfectly subtle and accurate. Near the end of the day, alternating turns, Tom and I had each spotted and taken shots at 15 - 20 fish. Neither of us had caught a fish. There were a few near misses but largely we weren't even close to getting most of the fish we saw to eat.
I was feeling thoroughly beaten. Outsmarted by the pea brained brown trout I don't normally have much difficulty catching. It's amazing how years of practice and success lead to confidence only for that confidence to erode in spectacular fashion within the course of a day.
As the day drew closer to an end, we approached a pool with a boulder neatly placed in the glassy tailout. On the upstream face of the rock, there was nice trout riding the cushion with very little effort. It was my turn to take the shot. While my confidence was shaken by this point, this fish looked different. Instead of hugging the bottom, it was suspended a few inches below the surface. Suspended fish usually are feeding fish. I thought the fish might eat a dry fly so I re-rigged from the naked double nymph rig I'd been fishing to a dry with a light nymph dropper.
I intentionally made my first cast to the right of the fish to avoid the possibility of lining and spooking it. Unlike previous fish in other rivers, it refused to move several feet to the fly. I knew my next cast had to be spot on. I also knew it was my last chance and would end in the fish eating or spooking into the depths. I softly laid the cast three feet upstream of the fish and with a curve to the right to avoid drifting my leader over the fish prior to my dry fly. In a sequence I will never forget, it languidly drifted forward and performed the slowest sipping rise over my dry fly that I have ever seen. It looked like a perfectly filmed Gilbert Rowley slow motion clip, yet it happened in real time.
I waited until I saw the leader move after the fish closed its mouth before setting the hook. Following some early rock avoidance drama, the rest of the fight happened smoothly and I landed a large and in charge male brown trout. My day had gone from dismal to blissful in the span of a few minutes. It had all been worth it. I had finally been victorious. I had lost a host of early battles but my war had been won. What it took to catch this one fish made it so much sweeter than if it had been delivered to me on a platter. However, the cherry on top for the day was yet to come.
Several pools later, after a couple more unwilling fish for both Tom and I, I spotted two fish. One was near the top of a pool and the other in the tailout of the next pool above it. I snuck into position in between the two fish and knelt down. I made a cast at the bottom fish. It rose up and took my nymph. I promptly missed it!
Tom was generous enough to let me take a shot at the other fish as well. I made a cast and it didn't react. This fish was deeper than the last fish. I figured my pheasant tail hadn't gotten close enough to entice the fish to eat. I replaced it with the same fly but one bead size larger. My next cast proved it was the right decision. The fish lazily slid over and gave me the white mouth wink. I set the hook before waiting for the dry fly to sink and connected with the largest brown trout of the day. Then came the 10+ km walk back to the car. Thankfully those two fish made the walk a lot easier, though it's never easy following Tom's giant stride.
Fast forwarding to the end of my trip, I spent four days fishing a new river with Zee. This river was on the itinerary earlier in the trip but we skipped it due to high and off color water. The first pool of the day made me wish I had more time to explore than what remained.
After walking for 90 minutes, we started searching for trout at a long pool. I scanned the water thoroughly and spotted a large fish at the head of the pool on the shallow side of the shelf which entered it. I had a 20' long leader with a single nymph attached. I made a 45' cast from my knees and placed the fly four feet in front of the fish as softly as I could. I also put an aerial mend into the cast to maintain a dead drift. It wasn't necessary though because the fish lunged forward to intercept my nymph before it had much time to drift. The fish turned it's head signaling a take. I set the hook and the eruption began. I landed the fish at the bottom of the pool after a nice ride.
Zee was still rigging his rod so I went back to the top of the pool. To my surprise, another fish slightly larger than the first had occupied the same lie. I succumbed to a weak moment and violated the rule of taking turns. I repeated the same cast and the same exact sequence ensued. However, this time the fish did four cartwheels through the air before sliding into the net. In my first two casts of the day I'd landed over 15 lbs of brown trout. I made sure Zee had the next few turns as I certainly didn't need karma to come back to bite me later.
The rest of that day was similarly successful. Zee and I spotted and caught fish at regular intervals. The trout ate our flies easier than we expected given the consistent pressure that this river receives. By the end of the day we both had caught over ten fish with several more that tipped the scales well into the trophy category.
The next two days were a bit more challenging on different stretches of the same river. The weather was gray, the temperatures were colder, and the spotting conditions were challenging. We still managed to catch good numbers of fish for NZ but without the ease of the first day. The highlight of those two days was the one cast I got at the largest brown trout I've ever had the fortune to see. It did a double 360 around my nymph before sliding into the depths and disappearing. I was left shaking.
The final day on the river, and my last full fishing day of the trip, the weather turned sunny at last. The water temperature warmed as a result and the fish behavior changed dramatically. By mid-morning trout were easily spotted in a variety of water including riffles no more than 10" deep. As their metabolism responded to the change, they were on the feed. The best part was that they also became willing to eat dry flies.
The day really could not have been better. Compared to the rest of the trip, the fishing was easy. When I spotted a fish, I knew if I did things right it would eat. By the end of the day, Zee and I had landed over 30 fish, a stellar number for a river where fisheries sampling has estimated only 15-20 fish per km. It was the perfect way to cap off a trip that will provide memories for years to come.
The juxtaposition of these two rivers and experiences encompassed the reasons I love fly fishing. Whether the fish come easy or with great effort, whether they are large or small, whether it's one or many, whether I catch them from a stream surrounded by strip malls or the backcountry of New Zealand, there is excitement and fulfillment to be found any day on the water. As long as I'm fly fishing I'm alive and well.