‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’. This is trout fishing heaven. This is New Zealand.
"Re-produced from an article originally published in Fly Fishing and Fly Tying Magazine."
Turquoise rivers, interspersed with long clear glides, pour through mysterious forests and thunder down lonely log-jammed gorges. And in this land of towering fjords, windswept tussock-quilted planes and virgin wilderness, trout of gargantuan proportions stir. The indigenous Māori, named this spectacular and isolated fragment of Gondwanaland ‘Aotearoa’ - ‘The Land of the Long White Cloud’. This is trout fishing heaven. This is New Zealand.
New Zealand’s legendary trout fishing is no secret and every season thousands of anglers flock from all corners of the globe to try their luck in what has to be one of the most awe-inspiring fly fishing realms on the planet. The visiting angler will probably encounter trout larger than they have ever seen or dreamt of before while casting flies beneath an all encompassing backdrop of snow-laden mountains and beryl-blue glaciers. But where on earth does the British fly fisher start when faced with the dazzling array of rivers and lakes in New Zealand? And what do you need to know about fly fishing in The Land of the Long White Cloud?
History and Trout distribution
Prior to the arrival of Polynesian fisherman around 1000 years ago, New Zealand remained a lost world, as swift ocean currents and geographic isolation conspired to ward off human colonisation for thousands of years. Dutch explorer Abel Tasman was the first European to set foot in this magnificent land, making landfall in the spring of 1642. Along with vineyards and some other good things in life, it did not take long before Europeans brought trout to New Zealand (c.1820). Tasmanian browns (Salmo trutta) came first, originally descended from Scotland’s Loch Leven, and migratory Californian rainbows hailing from Sonoma Creek (Oncorhynchus mykiss) followed shortly after. With no natural parasites or predators, an abundant food supply, exceptional water quality and favourable temperature regimes, trout grew rapidly and colonised the length and breadth of New Zealand in spectacular style. Today, rainbows and browns proliferate in the rivers and lakes of both islands, but rainbows tend to dominate in the warmer North Island and browns in the cooler South Island. For reasons unbeknown to science, both species reach an impressive average size of around the 3lb mark and much larger specimens (6-10lb+) are never far from your fly.
Diversity of fly fishing
There is a tremendous diversity of fly fishing available in New Zealand and the adventurous fly fisher will discover a glut of varied and tantalising fishing at their fingertips. In the heart of Southern Alps, clear boulder-strewn torrents meander like tendrils of liquid crystal as they seep through dense beech forests and filter across lush grassy planes. A chorus of exotic birdsong fills the air, and it is here, buried deep in this pristine wilderness that giant trout swim. If stillwaters or small stream fishing is more your cup of tea, do not fear, for vast aqua-marine lakes stud the country, as do a multitude of spring-creeks and sub-tropical sandy streams where silver ferns reach out and brush the waters surface. There is also the chance to cast a fly for salmon (Chinook, Sockeye or Atlantic) or sea run browns (sea trout) along the coast, in small streams or in estuaries. You can even try your luck for one of the shining silver rainbows that run the tributaries of the giant crater lakes in their bid to spawn.
Despite the range of fishing on offer, sight-fishing for broad shouldered trout in New Zealand’s desperately clear and wild backcountry rivers is considered by many to be the crème de al crème of fly fishing in New Zealand, or as the kiwis put it, “pretty good fushing eh”. It is probably this adrenaline packed style of trout hunting, more than any other, that has elevated New Zealand’s trout fishing reputation to the dizzy heights of ‘the ultimate trout fishing destination in the world’ or as the late angling writer Zane Grey put it, “anglers Eldorado”. Scouring the clear water for that elusive leviathan is like a quest for gold. Then there is the rush of blood as you spot and stalk your target and the euphoria as the trout miraculously rises up through the water column to engulf your fly. And that is only the half of it. Being connected to a rampant backcountry brown or a fresh run rainbow is like being harnessed to the proverbial express train. Hold them back at your peril.
Given the wide range of fishing on offer, choice of tackle is surprisingly straight forward. A fast-action 9ft AFTM #6 rod and a floating line is the perfect all round outfit. This gear has the guts to deal with large fish, bulky flies and stiff headwinds, yet retains a delicate touch when presenting small flies to spooky fish. Kiwi trout fight like warriors and it is not uncommon to land a fish a hundred yards from where you hooked-up so a reel with a powerful drag is a must. The key, to avoiding tears before net time, is to play these athletic trout with confidence, apply alternating side strain to keep the fish ‘off balance’ and, above all, keep a short line. Most trout that escape shoot round the back of mid-stream boulders, fly into log-jams or tear off downstream at astonishing speed; you either have to gallop after them in hot pursuit, or kiss good bye to what might be the fish of a lifetime.
With hefty fish on the cards and the extraordinary power they possess, it is important not to under-gun in the tippet department. A Strong tippet (6-9lb) will not only give you half a chance in what can be white knuckle battles, but also allows you to play fish rapidly, which is important in a country that prides itself on catch and release. Whether you are fishing on rivers or lakes, a long leader and a careful approach will give you the upper hand in the crystal waters of New Zealand.
The extreme water clarity down-under presents a unique opportunity to observe trout behaviour, and in particular their response to your feathered offerings. This makes New Zealand a great place to develop and design flies. On that note, I subscribe to the ‘GISS’ (General Impression of Size and Shape) principal and my ‘Kiwi fly box’ (see below) boils down to just a handful of flies. Whether fishing for opportunistic backcountry fish or for ‘keyed in’ trout on lowland rivers I tend to use only three nymphs in a variety of weights and sizes. As far as dries go I like to keep things simple too opting for just seven faithful patterns. For lake fishing, I look to just four trusty wets and streamers, unless there is an abundance of a particular food item. The ‘Kiwi Fly Box’ will suffice for most fly fishing down-under, but it never hurts to pick up one or two local favourites, and let’s be honest, filling your fly box with new talismanic patterns, like the infamous Kiwi Mouse Fly, is part and parcel of a good fishing holiday.
When river fishing I like to use a highly visible dry fly on a tapered 15ft leader with a nymph trailing some 3-4ft behind (NZ Style). The beauty of this method is that the dry, which fishes in its own right, doubles up as an attractor and sight indicator in one, while the nymph simulates dead-drift as it dangles tantalisingly in the water column. This ‘NZ style’ technique can also be adapted to trawl the deeps, which is important in these deceptively clear waters as fish are often far deeper than they appear, making delivering nymphs at the right depth tricky. This problem is worsened by swift currents which endeavour to wash your flies up and over your target. To deal with this hitch, most Kiwi’s use a heavy tungsten nymph, to penetrate turbulent water, and append a small (size 14-18) un-weighted nymph on a 16 inch ‘NZ style dropper’. The lighter fly rises up above the heavier tungsten and wavers enticingly in the current; this technique proves irresistible to all but the most stubborn of trout. A very subtle strike indicator, like a tiny pinch of sheep’s wool, also greatly enhances hook-ups when deep nymphing.
Lake fishing tactics are much the same as they would be in the UK, but I usually opt for only one fly, because in the absence of any flow to swallow up and disguise the leader in the clear water, a single fly enhances presentation. Spotting and stalking fish is a real possibility and pulling wets or streamers along the fringes of lakes, over weedy drop-offs, or around river mouths is a good speculative bet. Having said that a more crafty approach, such as popping beetles under overhanging trees to sighted sub-marines or carefully wading the shallows in search of marauding fry bashers, can be highly effective too.
The majority of Kiwi’s ‘wet-wade’. That is they wear thermal leggings with shorts over the top and a good pair of hiking boots. Wading like this can be a bit chilly at times, especially in snow-fed streams, but it is practical and the only feasible way to combine wading with long distance walking, even if you do look like you are on your way to a 1980’s rave! With such an emphasis on sight-fishing a good pair of polarized glasses is of paramount importance and yellow lenses are reckoned to be the best for sighting trout in the azure water down-under. Now you don’t need fighter pilot ‘00’ vision to be a good fish-spotter, but you do need more than just a good pair of polarised glasses because there is a learned technique to spotting trout.
The Kiwi’s seem to have built in trout radars and have got fish-spotting down to a fine art. The trick to seeing fish is to move along the river nice and slowly, focus on the riverbed, and let your eyes scan every nook and cranny. Be systematic in your search and look out for any irregularities in the colour or shape of the river substrate. Sometimes a lone pectoral fin is the only giveaway even though its owner may be a 6lb beauty. Once you have spotted something suspicious watch it like an osprey for any hint of movement. If in doubt have a cast; it is amazing how often ‘logs’ and strange looking forms respond to your fly with zest. As your trip wears on you will start to develop a 6th sense for seeing trout. Mystery shapes on the river bed will scream ‘fish!’ at you, even if you can’t put your finger on exactly why. It also never ceases to amaze me how often a torpedo shaped nose can be found stationed directly behind flat white rocks that stand out from the river substrate. Trout presumably use such rocks as a sort of sight board to amplify the visual ‘prey cue’ of oncoming nymphs swept along by the current. Look out too for climbable trees, cliffs, raised logs, or simply big mid-stream boulders, because getting high on trout cuts out glare and makes spotting fish far easier.
Once you have locked onto your target, stealth is absolutely vital. You don’t need to be some sort of magician or tight rope walker, but you do need to think strategically about the plan of attack and it is often a case of grandmother’s footsteps. Try to keep low and creep in at a slight angle behind the trout before you dare to take your shot.
Accessing and finding the water
Exploration and discovery is the secret to successful fishing in New Zealand. The superb countrywide Fish and Game licensing arrangement allows the fly fisher to roam freely among thousands of lightly fished rivers, streams and lakes. Legend has it that there are even virgin streams hidden deep in wilderness, where monster trout have never seen an artificial fly – I do not doubt it, but am yet to discover such a place and I have made a solemn vow not to tell anyone when I find this trout Mecca!
For me to reveal a long list of superb fisheries would tarnish what is the very essence of fly fishing in New Zealand: the adventure. You will find great fishing in New Zealand, providing you use your initiative and keep your ear to the ground, but you will only unearth the most magical fishing by finding it for yourself. After all, the thrill of discovery is hard to beat and getting a seasoned fly fisher to reveal their slice of trout paradise is like tying to get blood from a stone. While a guide is certainly not essential to finding success down-under, local knowledge can be worth its weight in gold and you are always likely to pick up nuggets of invaluable information when on the water with an experienced local. There is a profusion of superb kiwi guides down-under and hiring one for a day or two is a great way of finding your feet especially if your time is limited. A quality guide will also help you to get to grips with the local tactics and techniques before you set forth into the depths of the wilderness.
If going it along, the best way to sniff out memorable fishing and trophy trout is to cast your eye over a large scale map and home in on the small upper-reaches and tributary streams of larger trout-filled rivers. Next you need to find a route in. The D.O.C (Department of Conservation) maintains an extensive network of well marked wilderness hiking tracks which, more often than not, flank superb trout rivers. Well appointed D.O.C huts, each equipped with bunks and wood burning stoves, are dotted along the majority of tracks. Hopping from hut to hut, while fishing along the way is an excellent way of accessing remote drainages and wonderful fishing. For the less mobile angler, boating is a possibility on most lakes and there are plenty of lowland rivers and some excellent wilderness streams too that can be accessed either directly from the road or by 4*4; it is fair to say, however, that rod pressure is higher on such waters. Almost all rivers in New Zealand hold trout so you can’t go too far wrong, but you can increase your chances of success by exploring a region that has a reputation for good trout fishing, such as the West Coast, Nelson/Marlborough, Taupo, Otago or Fiordland (Southland) to name just a bunch. Like with most angling, the further off the beaten track you go the more likely you are to strike it lucky. Above all, do not be intimidated by fly fishing in New Zealand. The trout down-under may be large and sparsely distributed, but they are no harder to hook than wild trout in Britain. So whether it is the allure of casting flies at long horizons or the thought of stalking monstrous wild trout in sparkling water, why not pack your fly rods and try you luck down-under?
But when should you head to the other side of the world in search of trout? There is no ‘right’ answer to this question and it is really a case of horses for courses. During the early season (Oct-Dec) fish have seen few flies and nymphing in the backcountry can provide excellent sport. On the flip side, however, rivers can be unstable and flood prone at this time. It is not until mid-season (Jan-Mar) that conditions tend to stabilise and the terrestrial insect activity hits its peak. In the high-country, the spirited mid-summer crescendo of chirruping cicadas saturates the air and the trout gobble these chunky morsels up with abandon. As the season wears on, cooler conditions take hold and terrestrial activity decreases. It is during the late season (April), however, that the renowned mayfly hatches on some of the Southland rivers kick into life. In some regions, such as Taupo, the brave angler can even fish on through the icy clutches of winter for migratory rainbows. Although on the chilly side, winter rainbow fishing can offer sensational sport for solid bars of purple steel.
Before you head down-under...
One of the keys to success in New Zealand, for the roving fly fisher, is to get the map out and start your fishing adventure well before you step onto the plane. The internet provides a wealth of information about ‘where to fish’ in New Zealand and there are some good guide books too. For weeks before my first trip down-under, I put together ‘The Trout Fishing Bible’, which not only whetted my appetite for what was to come, but also proved to be an invaluable back-up when local advice or inspiration was lacking. A fantastic one-stop online resource is ‘New Zealand Fly Fishing for Trout and Salmon’ (www.nzfishing.com) which presents the prospective angler with a bounty of valuable information about all aspects of fly fishing in New Zealand. Here, you will find everything from detailed descriptions of individual rivers and lakes to survival techniques in the wilderness and how to avoid the spread of the ecologically devastating and highly invasive Didymo. If you would like to see photos of some of the rivers I have fished down under then visit my website: www.wildaboutfishing.co.uk.
What is truly enchanting about fishing in New Zealand is the wonderful sense of freedom that washes over you as you take your place in the ever changing wilderness. Time seems to stand still, but the clear indigo-tinted rivers continue to flow as they funnel between forest-clad slopes and disappear into mist-shrouded valleys. Only the roar of a distant waterfall or the chilling touch of the cold glacial water reminds you that this is not a dream; this is The Land of the Long White Cloud.
Authors website: www.wildaboutfishing.co.uk
• Biosecurity: Felt soled waders are now banned in the South Island and much of the North Island to prevent the spread of Didymo (rock-snot) between waterways. Read up on ‘Biosecurity’ in New Zealand before you go at: www.biosecurity.govt.nz/didymo
• Fishing Season: 1st Oct– 30thApr (most backcountry rivers open 1st Nov). Winter fishing season (for rainbows in Northland) runs from 1st April – 30th September.
• Fish and Game New Zealand: A Fish and Game license (c. £40 per season), allows you to fish all areas of New Zealand except Taupo. See www.fishandgame.org.nz for further licensing and backcountry fishing details.
• Department of Conservation (D.O.C.): D.O.C. centres can be found in most towns and provide detailed maps and advice for all wilderness hiking tracks in New Zealand (there is also an A-Z of tracks listed on their website www.doc.govt.nz).
• Travel and Visas: A Peak season return flight is approximately £700-£1000. UK citizens are granted a 3 month travel visa upon entry to New Zealand.
• Transport: Having your own transport is a must if you want to make the most of New Zealand. Ace Rentals (www.acerentals.co.nz) are a reliable and affordable company. Economy cars can be rented for as little as £8 per day.
• Accommodation: Wilderness D.O.C. huts are cheap (c. £3-£5 per night) and there are many D.O.C. campsites (c. £2-5 per night) throughout the country. Motels are also an option as are independent campsites but they are a bit more pricey.
• NZ films and DVDs: Bruce Masson’s excellent fly fishing series is available on the free to view Country Channel: www.countrychannel.tv. Superb feature length DVDs are also available from Bruce himself at www.fishingvideo.co.nz. This series will give you a good taste of fly fishing in New Zealand.