Fly Fishing New Zealand is, Well…
The sand fly bites have healed. The snappy-voweled Kiwi accent is difficult to recall. Bags are empty and stored in the garage. And, I’ve already recounted all the excited travel stories I can tactfully tell at work and with friends. Interest in the oral tradition is waning these days. New Zealand’s fog shrouded mornings, bright afternoons, and gape-mouthed brown trout are sadly dissipating into cloudy shadows of once-tangible moments.
So, it’s time to get it written, before I forget anything more, the record of the most frustrating and sublime fly fishing trip of my life. How can it be both? The meanings of the two terms seem entirely negatory, distant at the very most. They are. But this adventure was just that, an alchemical collision of disparate scenes and emotions that yielded pure gold. And that is the magic of special places and waters and creatures pursued with rod and fly.
Fish the South Island? Ok
Early February 2014, my friend, business partner and fellow guide, Bryan Eldredge, floated the idea of a fly fishing trip to the South Island of New Zealand. Besides having a habit of being awesome, Bryan is the kind of guy who gets exceptionally stoked about fishing. He seemed extra caffeinated when he suggested this trip. Fly fishing New Zealand’s South Island is not just any trip. This is written in permanent Sharpie on every trout bum’s bucket list. For Bryan and I, deep down brown trout bums, it was scrolled in bold right at the top, with a double-spaced line below it.
Through earlier fortuitous turns of life, Bryan’s family had become well-acquainted with Stefan, Meike and family, of Palmerston, South Island, New Zealand. Without going into the details of the acquaintance, I’ll simply leave it that they are also habitually awesome and Bryan had been extended a standing invitation to visit. I would be the lucky tag along.
Bryan is a professor. His work/life situation is perfect for summer fly fishing trips, which makes me jealous. However, the rest of the year he is extremely busy so the logistics would require substantial effort.
Bryan had schemed with his usual energy and he had it figured out. His upcoming spring break, an understanding wife, along with some serendipitous fiscal luck and artfully arranged off days, combined to create just enough window to sneak off to New Zealand for about 10 days.
The timing was even less ideal for me. This sort of trip usually requires at least months of planning, not 20 days. I had just returned from a family trip to the Caribbean and had looming projects at work. My vacation days would be shot and my co-worker’s patience tested. Of course I was going.
So, once I secured an “OK” from work and generous assistance from my travel agent/wife (Thank you a million times Em!), I had 3 hectic weeks to plan. I would soon put a line through the “South Island” on my bucket list.
Information Firewalls and Thrown Bones
If you’ve got a YouTube video on fly fishing New Zealand, I’ve seen it. If you’ve written a blog post on do-it-yourself fly fishing on the South Island, I’ve read it. The problem is that these sources are shrouded in a secret haze of ambiguity like I’ve never seen, like an information firewall. Come on, isn’t there one D-bag hot spotter down there willing to give up all the South Island fly fishing secrets? If there is, neither I nor Google can find them.
Luckily, at about the time I was gathering intel, I happened to write a smart-A blog post on fly fishing films. One of the responses I got to that bit of tongue-in-cheekedness came from Peter Christensen, a Danish film maker known for Only the River Knows, one of the most ambitious and interesting independent feature films to come out of the F3T and IF4 genre (review to come). Peter and fishing/film making buddy, Rolf Nylinder, of Kokkafee Media and FrontsideFly had spent days and months in New Zealand filming and fishing for their film. So, I volleyed back a hopeful request for suggestions on where to fish. Peter was incredibly gracious. Even though I’m sure he didn’t give me all his NZ wisdom nuggets, he gave a few priceless map markers for which I am sincerely grateful. These are incredible rivers I can’t forget. Thanks Peter.
Additionally, our fellow Orvis Endorsed Guide, Dave Jensen, of flyfishalberta.com, also silver-plattered some helpful pointers. Dave and his wife, Amelia, great people by reputation, seem to live their dream to the fullest. They operate a lodge and guide service in Canada most of the year, and spend the Canadian winter on the South Island.
Dave shared a tidbit of wisdom I couldn’t forget. Paraphrasing, it went something like this: Until you see it, you won’t believe how few fish are actually in these rivers. Ok, that sounds, well, not great. But, he also followed that up with the reassurance that trout are trout, they need to eat, and you’ll know what to do when you find one. He also suggested some (surprisingly mundane) flies and provided a great deal of travel info that was valuable for first timers like us (take new boots or clean every speck off of your old boots). Thanks, Dave.
Otherwise, our knowledge of where we might fish was mostly limited to what we could piece together from blogs, general info sites, videos, pics and anecdotes. That would give us a good start, right? We quickly learned that we were not in Kansas anymore, or the Rockies, or Utah, or anywhere familiar. This place is different.
On Land in the Land
Bryan, and his nephew Stephen, an even later addition to our ad-lib crew and a good dude, had arrived ahead of me, earlier in the afternoon. They had been to a fly shop, local eateries, fished a glacial-murked river fruitlessly, and had checked in to our musty little hotel. I felt behind. They had even mostly figured out how to drive on the left side of the road.
The little hotel wasn’t much in terms of accommodations, but it had plugs for device charging and beds; enough for 3 jet-lagged trucker-hat-topped ruffians. We tried to plan the next day’s fishing. Sleep overcame.
Light was beaming through the hotel window. We had awoken late. It was odd for 3 super-pumped first-timers in trout paradise, but nobody really cared. Seventeen hours of travel will do that.
We took the time to visit a bake shop for breakfast, and then a neighborhood grocery store for essentials. We know ourselves well enough to know we needed food and diet caffeine. We also appreciate the whole experience of things. But, we were also in NEW ZEALAND. There were giant brown trout within reach. We could not maintain tourist mode for long.
The Impossibility Called Choosing a River
Even just minutes outside of Christchurch, the pastoral scenery, uniquely plumed birds, eucalyptic smells, and the innumerability of Kiwi sheep already had me entranced. Only the sight of water would pull me out of this Peter Jackson shoot and into the real world.
We furiously dissected digital maps and drove. So many rivers. The roadside landscapes revealed even more waters, smooth-surfaced sloughs and thin ribbon streams snaking through shrub-lined fields, nameless and fishy. We had incredible options, but this was a stress-filled decision. We were likely to get it wrong.
Around an hour in we crossed another river. I had heard its name, in a trout photo caption I thought, so we turned off the highway and traced the tree-sheltered meanders upstream.
We found a bridge, parked, and walked 100 meters of stream bank. It was small, clear, and cool, with an overhanging canopy. It remains as beautiful a stream as I think I’ve ever seen, but we weren’t feeling it. Difficult as it was not to leap into waders, we drove off. This may have been a mistake. Who knows? I need to go back someday to check.
That drive was an experience unto itself, urgency and anxiety overcome by utter beauty. A picture is framed by each car window and it is breathtaking. Each angle of the compass shows a verdant field with giant hedges, rounded Shire-ific hills, sheep, stone fenced yards, country homes, more sheep, enormous cloud shrouded mountains, sheep, and so many streams and rivers, so so many. Which should we fish? Daylight was not long.
Fishing on the Fly
Deep into the Canterbury highlands we crossed another smallish stream. It was out in the middle of incredible nowhere. I almost pulled the e-brake. We had to stop. We had to fish. This was our river. I don’t even remember its name (not that I would share). Really though, it’s name didn’t matter. There were tens of other streams like it; a diamond clear ribbon of water pushing east over rain-tumbled gravel. Perfect.
I got to the water first (a bad habit). Parallel to the parking area was a long slow run about 3-4 feet in depth. It looked perfect. I zipped out some line and blind cast to the several likely spots at the tail of the run before I came to my senses. This water was so clear, I could have easily seen any fish large enough to care about down there, and they weren’t there. All I was going to do was potentially scare one. I stopped casting and started watching.
Bryan and Stephen materialized by my side (I had been staring hard). We cautiously moved upstream, watching. Shockingly, a fish moved. It was as if the New Zealand Travel Board had hand-placed it there, right in that first run by the road.
The thick buck brown trout was nearer to our side of the stream at the head of the run, just behind some current-changing rocks, jarringly tangible. He was more gray than gold, typical for New Zealand streams with air-clear water and grey stone bottoms. Trying to maintain sanity, we watched him methodically eating nymphs and showing an occasional flash off his deep sides. Unexpectedly, another larger brown also materialized in the jumbled currents, just upstream of the first. This second fish was also swaying, eating a nymph here and there. It was game time.
Bryan took the first crack with a large dry fly, a PMX I believe. His cast landed just over the first fish, out in the current. The trout spotted the bug, angled a pectoral fin, and slowly lifted in the current. In no hurry, he turned downstream after the fly. His side flashed sunlight, no 12-incher. I was almost giddy-dancing as the wide flat snout approached the fly, then, nothing. The fish simply stopped and settled back into its feeding lane. The refusal – heartbreaking.
Bryan continued to carefully present the dry, and even added a nymph dropper. There was a half-hearted follow or two and then nothing for a dozen casts or more. A big old reality bomb built up pressure and eventually exploded. Even though we could still see him down there, the fish was spooked.
This wasn’t a huge trout. By New Zealand standards it was ‘wee’ (later confirmed by Stefan in an offhanded, bubble-bursting observation), but it was our first sighted fish and our first taste of rejection. It bites when they don’t.
Bryan shrugged and gave me the go ahead for a Hail Mary. I had on a different dry fly, a largish Klinkhammer with a pale green thorax. “Maybe that fly would make a difference,” I thought or said; can’t remember. Anyway, as expected, the fish ignored 3 or 4 drifts. “Spooked,” I mumbled, justifying our first New Zealand failure. The second fish was now gone too. Game over.
I put a last compulsory cast into the current on the far side of the fish. Suddenly, as if it had never suspected anything at all, he was rising and getting closer and closer and painfully . . . slowly . . . closer until . . . mouth. My reflexes worked, not too fast, not too slow. The line snapped tight. The hook held. I couldn’t have suppressed the annoyingly toothy grin if I had wanted. I didn’t want. My first South Island brown trout and the first of the trip was hooked.
Soon I was holding a solid 19 or 20-inch New Zealand brown trout. We see a lot of browns this size here in Utah. One of our favorite rivers has mostly fish this size. But that trout had a look and a shape that rather factually stated, “I am a bad-arse brown from New Zealand.”
We worked our way up about a mile and a half of stream walking, stalking, and doing a little blind casting (American anglers just can’t resist the urge). We saw 3 more fish over that distance. Two spooked and Bryan had a miss on a big slow-take brown. That was our last chance of the day. If you are used to fishing trout-packed tailwaters in the States and wonder, yes, this is really what New Zealand fishing is like.
As usual, we had spent more time on the river than we should have and hadn’t made it as far down the road as we thought. So, we got to our hosts’ house way too late to appease my sense of social propriety, especially in a place where everything seems to shut down by 5 PM. We felt bad. Everyone was in bed except for Stefan, who is the local police chief. He was working from home, waiting for us and listening to radio dispatches.
Luckily, Stefan is a fish-head much like us, so he seemed to at least understand. We chatted for a half-hour or so and retired for the night. We awoke and met the family the next morning. It’s incredible how authentically accommodating they were to 3 disheveled American anglers. I think it is partly the accommodating nature of Kiwis in general and partly that these are specifically gracious people. Thank you Meike for the intro to Milo, and to Stef for the cod wings. I’m a sucker for chocolate flavored warm bevies and smoked fish, not at the same time.
Daylight showed off the town of Palmerston. It’s a quaint hamlet reminiscent of the 60s in America, only with an accent. It is bucolic and friendly, nestled in sparsely wooded coastal hills. The train and main coastal highway run through town. There’s a pub or two, the obligatory fish-n-chips joint, and a collection of little shops and businesses all in a row, like Kiwi Mayberry. The stores seem the type that are operated by local families who have always owned them. There’s even still a little bookstore. I know; I gasped too.
Over breki (breakfast) Stefan pointed us towards a few of his favorite nearby waters, the term “nearby” used loosely. The South Island is much larger than you can ever understand by map. I have read that there’s a Northern Hemisphere bias to most projection world maps that makes Southern Hemisphere land masses appear much smaller relatively. I believe it. Meike explained it well as we planned our day: “This is not just an island, it is a land.”
New Zealand, but Different
With a sleepy late start again, a long drive, and a few confusing turns, we got to the river some time after noon. From the map alone you could tell that this river was different from most Kiwi streams. It calmly meanders across an agricultural plain, with oxbows, sparse clumpy willows along the banks and an occasional larger stream-bank tree. The water was stained a slight red-brown.
We geared up to the tune of cicada buzz and hurried to the bridge for a look. To our surprise, there were occasional mayflies popping and a couple of rising fish. Bryan brush battled into casting position through some willows and promptly stuck a feisty 14-incher. Nicely done.
I started up the left stream bank with hope dialed up to “high.” This stream is not unlike some waters at home. The grassy banks form undercuts, sweeping curves leave back eddies on the inside bends, and smooth runs compress into subtle current seams. Because the water was a bit dark and the layout was familiar I started blind casting to banks and seams (the “silly American” is strong in me). Nothing.
I worked upstream casting away and luckily, a gulp betrayed a rising fish before it spotted me. The fish was patrolling the edge of some swirling foam in a bank-side eddy, near an overhanging willow. I shifted into stealth mode and panthered up the bank to a casting position. The fish was visible, cruising slowly and almost randomly within eddy swirls. He was facing me at first. “Not good,” I muttered. I believed New Zealand fish to have 20x falcon vision and I was sure it would spook if I moved. So I waited.
Luck intervened and the fish eventually pivoted back upstream and positioned itself on the upstream edge of the seam, looking away. This was my chance for an undetected cast and drift. Target acquired…ready… fire. The solid fish slurped my fly with un-Zealandish abandon. This was a different sort of fish from the first. He was bright yellow, sleek, big-finned, and aggressive. I snapped a quick selfie and sent him home. Suddenly, the hopes for this place were hyperactive.
Up the bank a little more, and under another willow was a moving dorsal fin. I theorized that fish were positioned at the stream bank bushes on purpose. What better place to wait for clumsy cicadas from heaven. Unfortunately, as I prepped for a presentation to the big dorsal, the wind was advancing a serious challenge. I missed bad. I’m blaming wind and a 16-foot leader. I couldn’t get the fly where it needed to be. I missed again, and again, and finally I wind-hauled at the end of the forward cast to straighten the leader and slapped it all down hard. Fin and fish disappeared into the rusty deep.
Bryan and Stephen eventually appeared and we began a slow careful walk and stalk. Each of us would occasionally cast to likely spots (silliness again). We watched every willow, bush, grass clump, overhang, eddy and seam for fish, but the wind was now more than a problem. It was the victor. We saw no more fish. Bryan resorted to a streamer and had one solid strike from what looked like a great fish but elements wrested away the remainder of the day. There are no guarantees here.
Lamb, of Course
We took the next day off. Stefan’s mother, who had visited Bryan’s family and become acquainted, kindly invited us over for an early afternoon dinner. Real home-cooked food on a foreign fishing trip. Yes, I’ll do that.
Dinner was exceptionally tasty lamb, potatoes, home-gourmet side dishes I can’t pronounce and 2 desserts. They showered us with gifts, including greenstones (significant and not cheap). Thank you, thank you, thank you.
In addition to the generously tasty meal, the conversation, and the gifts, the view from their deck, overlooking Dunedin, was incredible. Dunedin is the South Island’s second largest city. This doesn’t make it particularly crowded or metropolitan, it only means that Dunedin has a few people around to testify of its incredible charm. It is a great example of a refined culture dealing with a wild landscape and place and coming out as something entirely unique. The city buildings say Europe, while the breaking grey ocean and the beaches of the area reminds you that Antarctica is not really all that far.
This whole experience was a real slice of authentic Kiwi life. Stef’s father is Maori and his mother is European, excited, kind, and in every sense of the oft uttered Kiwi term, awesome. We learned in conversation that you’re either a Vegemite or Marmite person. This was a Marmite house. Since I had tried Vegemite, I had to try Marmite for comparison’s sake. I am neither a Vegemite nor a Marmite person.
There Are No Dangerous Animals Here and Other Unbelievable Things You Hear in New Zealand
We borrowed camping gear and relocated to an area about 4 hours east up in the Southern Alps for a few days. As was becoming modus operandi in this immense land, we took a little too long getting there. Looking back, stopping for ice cream, stopping for wi-fi, stopping for pictures, and stopping for Coke Zero at a reasonable price (a real challenging find), didn’t help timing.
We abandoned our camping plan at some point after dark figuring we’d just quickly find a hotel. Take a note: This cannot be done past 8 PM in New Zealand, period. Don’t try it. Luckily, we found an all-night McD’s with wi-fi and set up our mobile base of operations. Mostly, and in reality, we all just kinda scrambled around on the internet trying to find a campsite. Bingo, and oh yeah, Lord of the Rings just happened to have been filmed here.
We arrived at the campground late into the night and eventually located an open spot. The potential reason it was still unoccupied: a couple of snarling, glowing-eyed, murderous night creatures in the bushes. I had myself convinced for most of the night that the black rodent monsters outside the tent were the menacing ROUS of Princess Bride fame. (later Stefan laughed at me and identified the creatures – New Zealand Possums).
It was foggy when we awoke, which blurred the view. That was a bummer, but this was to be a good day.
Clouds from Both Sides and Other People
Our research had pointed to a particular river in the area. Although the information was cryptic, it lead us to believe this could be someplace special. The drive alone confirmed the assumption.
We ascended along a sharp ridge as clouds thickened around us. The gravel road was narrow and steep. We soon became entirely enveloped in dense mountain fog. Sheep would appear, like specters, here and there in the mist staring bewildered as we rolled by. It was eerie and awesome and odd.
With no warning, a speeding truck materialized from the mists, barreling down the middle of the road. It swerved to what felt entirely like the wrong side of the road, so did we. At the last minute Bryan somehow corrected course and we passed without accident. Heart attacks and head injury averted, we pushed on until we finally popped through the cloud ceiling and onto a spectacular sun touched mountain-top landscape.
This was another world entirely. The fog, below us now, stretched for miles like a sprawling white sea lapping in gaseous slo-mo against the hillsides. Sharp tall peaks with intermittent snow proudly perforated the white expanse in almost every direction. You can see this photographed, but until you’re there in the middle of the enormity, it defies an accurate description.
The road eventually crested a high ridge and began to drop, back down and through fog, switching back and forth descending the grassy slopes. We broke below the fog and rolled down into a wide mountain valley. The yellow-tan grassland is cut by the winding path of one of the most beautiful trout rivers you can imagine.
We drove upstream and found an appealing two-track river access road then, horror. There was another group of anglers standing right in the middle of our siren river. We briefly participated in an awkward staring match we knew we couldn’t win and then put the pedal down on a deliberately fast 3-point turnaround. For good measure we shot back a small cloud of gravel and dust. We motored up another 5 or 6 kilometers with urgency and apprehension. Would there be more anglers? Is this the austral Provo River?
We found the surprise people to be just an unlucky aberration and identified a likely stretch of empty water. The put in was just below a gorge where the road left the river. It would afford us a lot of river distance and interesting water.
At first inspection we immediately sensed that this river would be fun. The water just looked fun, short swift rapids, long smooth runs, boulders, drop offs, deep cuts, pockets, grassy undercut banks, and snow-chilled clear clear water.
As usual, the must-fish jitters had us blind casting inexcusably. We beat up the first couple of runs with no luck except for one lucky refusal from a nice fish that was one-and-done.
Hundreds of meters in I finally snapped to my senses. Sanity restored, I climbed the far bank and started slowly moving upstream watching the water, the New Zealand way. Not long into my careful inspection of the water something showed. Something I can’t recall exactly, maybe a shape, shadow, tail flip, or just that subtle change in hue that says salmo trutta. Some life was down there in the shady meter-deep depression behind a rock, something that had secured my attention. I pulled hands over the sides of my sunglasses to shade out every last bit of distraction. But, the water was rippled and dark in that spot. I couldn’t conjure it again.
I motioned to Bryan. He was still blind casting through a nice piece of water downstream. He started up toward me. When he got within earshot I explained what I thought I’d seen (hoping it was real) and pointed him towards the spot. He worked his way up through the cool knee-deep water to a workable casting position.
Bryan’s false casts unrolled as smooth as I’ve ever seen. The distance looked perfect, then he shot some line. The fly landed 15 feet left. I looked at him puzzled, and uttered a long “uhhhh” as I searched for words. Blank stare met with blank stare. Bryan sensed that something wasn’t right and asked if it was close.
“Um, not that rock,” was all I could come up with.
“Oh, you mean that one over there?”
“Yeah, that one.” We mutually acknowledged our misunderstanding with a single nod and he was locked on target.
I hoped this miscue hadn’t scared the something that was or wasn’t there.
Bryan gathered for another shot at the irregularity in the river. His cast was dead on. The dry-dropper rig landed a perfect 6 or 7 feet upstream of the depression in the river bottom. He began to strip slack. The paired flies rode the currents perfectly and, right at the meridian of riverine mystery, the dry fly stalled, then sank.
Bryan brought the line tight with a sharp lift of the rod tip and the deep bend in his Orvis 5wt began to pulse. It was a fish. Instincts took over. He exaggerated the rod angle, sending an increase of energy down a taut line, over each tenuous leader ligation, and into the trout. The fish begrudgingly lifted off the bottom sending a pulse of yellow-gold light our way; it was a big brown. My first guess was 20+ inches and deep so I sloppily fired up the camera to catch the fight on film. It looked like a decent fish through the lens but the throbbing runs and corresponding bends in graphite reported the truth – it was a brute.
I jumped down the bank to net the fish, camera still rolling. The closer the fish got, the bigger it seemed, then it was in the net and still growing. What a trout!
Bryan had stuck his new nymph, the Hellion, right in the snout of twenty-six inches or so of powerful New Zealand brown. This fish had it all, shoulders, belly, thick red-margined adipose, alligator jaws and attitude; one of the finest examples of a brown trout that I have ever seen. Yet it was even more than that. This magnificent fish was the sublime reward for the years of staring past the surface into the deep dark spots behind all those rocks.
Light, Land, and Their Source
True to New Zealand form, a few other opportunities eluded us as big fish were missed, and the wind blew and blew. Bryan’s was to be the only significant fish of the day. However, our drive down the hill turned into something almost as impressive as that giant brown.
To begin, the bumpy trip was eventful. We helped some locals get their VW van out of the mud and ran into some tight spots ourselves as we forded the stream and squeezed around rock falls. Road hazards in the rear view, we crested a pass and began a steep descent into another bank of thick mists below.
Even without the fish, difficult as this is to imagine, there’s something about New Zealand. I live in a beautiful place, a pretty great state. I see mountains of similar elevations to those in New Zealand almost daily, but it’s not the same, or even that similar. The New Zealand landscape is new, in geological time frames anyway. The forests and green valleys are old. And then, there are the mists, old and new at once. The way the low clouds move over the land transforms your entire sense of this immense place into one beautiful mystery, a mystery you are happy to leave unsolved.
As evidence, the emergence from the bottom of the fog pulled back the curtain on one of our most impressive vistas yet. Sunlight split the clouds with rays of alternating intensity. The beams shot through vapors and illuminated fields, hills and the watery twists of the river we intended to fish the next day. The simultaneous simplicity and enormity of the light-touched scene concluded God.
We were refreshed and ready the next morning and our arrival on the water was uncharacteristically early. Morning fog still greyed the hillsides but the whole sky was an evenly lit mist. Surprisingly, this turned out to be very good light for seeing fish, no hard shadows nor glare and enough illumination to see deep.
We walked through a sheep field— which is redundant in New Zealand—and came upon the river. It cut through grassy pastures leaving a 5 or 6 foot raised bank. Peaking over the edge, we immediately spotted a stout brown. What the…? No trekking? No long stalks? No strategy necessary? Nope, you just walk up to this river and there’s a fish, we thought…
The brown trout spooked before we could practically blink, long before we could cast. We spotted another fish just upstream, feeding over the clean gravel bottom. Someone breathed. It spooked. This repeated itself several times more. We split in search of less cautious quarry. I walked up and around some trees and came back to the water’s edge very slowly. With only a hat and 2 eyes above the bank’s edge I spotted 2 feeders about 40 or 50 feet down from me. They were almost obscured by overhanging trees and, by all indications, had not spotted me. My distance and angle made me think this could be my chance. I cast about 25 feet or so and started feeding out line for a stealth-mode downstream presentation. Before the fly got anywhere close, of course, both spooked. Seriously?
I located a bit of choppy moving water with big rocks and spotted a fish holding deep under the inconsistent surface. I was behind him, the water was broken; for sure I could approach and catch this one on a nymph. Nope. Spooked.
We were seeing fish, but what did that matter? We were going to scare every single one. Deep frustration settled in and pushed down on the scene like the morning fog. This place is a giant Ferris wheel of angling emotions. The highs are incredible but it always seems that you end your ride at the bottom.
Yet, there were fish here, quite a few of them in fact. That small hope fueled at least a little more persistence.
I could hear the distant sound of a rapid and figured if there was a place on the river to get close to a fish, it would be there. It wasn’t far and it was a gorgeous looking spot. A fast current tumbled down hard over cobbles and took a left turn into a big pool. The heavy current split the pool in half with a nice seam on each side. On my side of the river (right) was also a nice soft spot and a slight eddy that curled back upstream at the far right edge. Near the tailout of the deeper part of the pool I could see 2 decent fish. Each was moving they way fish move when eating nymphs. Miraculously, they didn’t seem to be scared…yet.
I readied my dry dropper rig, a klinkhammer and tungsten beaded SOS nymph for a dropper. My first cast drew a fish over for a look but no take. “Ok, good sign.” Yes, my head-voices were practically audible. Or maybe I was talking to myself. Frustration will do that. My second cast landed right where I thought it should. Both fish spooked.
“Are you serious? How? How the…?” I almost screamed it.
Here was finally a river with a reasonable number of fish, but they were completely uncatchable.
I stopped fishing to regroup. I needed something to save me. I scanned the rest of the big pool. There was one more fish, very visible, at the edge of the eddie and current on the far right. The bottom under him was a light-colored sand and fine gravel. It seemed to magnify the fish. I could see his every move, which meant he could see mine. Even though I was a good 30 or more feet from him and directly behind, I assumed I was screwed. But, this fish was fortuitously positioned just right of the main current and just left of the area where the eddy started to pull water back upstream. It was a great feeding lie, the best in the pool and it was a nice spot for a presentation and drift.
Bryan and Stephen showed up just in time for what I of course assumed would be a front row seat to witness the continuation of my sad-clown comedy of errors. I carefully placed a cast timidly out toward the fish. It landed left in the fast current and zipped back downstream, ignored. My next cast was better, just left of the fish. He turned toward my nymph and glided over for a look. I saw his mouth open. New Zealand water is that clear. It looked like he ate, so I set.
Yes! There he was, and the fly held. He was immediately heavier and stronger than I expected. I didn’t know if I could stop him at first as he powered out into the fast water. I was able to keep him out of a drowned bush and he made a few more strong runs upstream but I soon had him over the shallow gravel and in the net.
What an impressive fish. Just over 22 inches, stout, strong and, as Stephen put it, he looked “prehistoric.” It was an impressive fish, but more than that, I was just happy to feel for a moment like a fly fisher again.
Stephen stepped up to the run and caught another fish from the faster current. A solid 15-incher. Bryan headed up to fish more fast water. We thought we were onto something, fast deep runs. Turns out even this formula wasn’t easy.
One bend upstream I came upon a pair of very long browns gliding about and occasionally rising. I wanted to catch one of these fish badly so I deliberately took my time. I spent 10 minutes or so inching into position, watching and waiting for the right time. Finally, one of the long browns slid to the left and began to rise. I laid out as smooth and as careful a cast as I could contrive from almost 50 feet downstream. At first I was just ignored, then a cast or two later they spooked. The pattern had resumed. Thank goodness for anomalies. They often save the day.
Trout Acting Like Trout
Our afternoon began by trying to find a quick bite on our way to another spot. Nope, not to happen. It was only 2 or so in the afternoon but apparently lunch places close early too. Kiwis like their schedules. Hopefully, their fish would like something.
We headed for the lower river. It was slower and wider and there were innumerable trout by South Island standards (meaning we saw 5 or 6 from the bridge). We dug deep into our remaining food items, slapped together some sloppy PB&Js, and headed for some sweet looking water.
Bryan and Stephen started working a beautiful deep greenish pool just up from the bridge. The current came in from the left and pushed up against a decent sized cliff. The pool formed by this collision of fluid and immovable solid was probably 10 feet deep, enough to shelter an entire school of fish in my mind. Bryan rigged nymphs and was soon connected to an energetic and sizeable brown that went airborne and tarpon-shook the fly. Our bad luck was intact.
As I watched Bryan and Stephen work the pool a riser showed itself within range on a flat below the pool. I got a downstream drifted Klinkhammer into his view and hooked up with a stout little 13-incher. It seemed a little too easy, especially considering our morning on this same river.
I began to stroll upstream and noticed an interesting feature that I assumed would hold fish. The current stream flowed down a steadily curving channel on the right side of the gravel stream bed. The left side had once hosted another watery braid, but this one was now without current, filled with still water. A sparse raft of yellow leaves mingled on the still water side. The break between still and moving waters was a perfect place for lazy feeding browns and as I observed the scene I saw a fish rise right where one should.
I cast my little olive Klinkhammer and got a short strike. Right at the last minute something hadn’t been right. This seemed odd fish behavior in New Zealand, especially considering it was a small fly, size 16 and reasonably close to the little gray-green mayflies that we had seen hovering at the bridge. I continued to work this fish and about 4 or 5 casts later it succumbed to temptation. This fish had fight but wasn’t huge, maybe about 17 inches or so. It was thick and sleek at the same time, sparsely spotted with a dull yellow hue.
This is where it got interesting. This same seam continued to produce brown trout, one more on a dry and then a couple more on an SOS dropper. No walking miles, no stalking, just cast and catch. Additionally, they were all nice browns between about 15 and 19 inches. At home I would have snapped pics. Here, no way. Bryan and Stephen had gone upstream and were now out of sight. I wasn’t going anywhere. This was the most fish, by far, I’d seen in any one spot all week.
I worked the remainder of the left seam with a dry dropper and then covered the medium deep water on the left side of the main current. This produced 2 more solid fish. I’d stumbled into a honey hole.
I noted a couple of rising fish on the far seam across the river. The water was slow against the far bank the width of about 2 meters until it met with the main current, forming perfect seam for feeders. It was fishable with a reach cast across and down. Pretty soon I was hooked up again. This one was strong. I was able to eventually finesse him across the current and into the net – an absolutely beautiful 21-inch female.
Then the real fishing got started. More fish started to rise, but these were oddly picky. I eventually pulled the dropper off and went straight dry. I fooled another eventually but most of the sporadically rising fish clearly wanted something else. There really weren’t many naturals on the water but every so often you’d see a mayfly sailboat by. These particular mayflies weren’t exactly like anything I knew, a little like PMDs, except in a light gray. I dug around in my tailwaters boxes (lucky I’d thrown these in) and found one of my go-to flies for picky eaters, an extended body bug I call the Better Baetis.
Armed with a new weapon I started to work the risers on the far side. The Better Baetis was a good match and I went into a pure happy zone for an hour or so. Altogether I think I landed somewhere around a dozen or so from this one section of river. I had walked a total of a quarter mile, far less than the usual 7 or 8 miles, and had caught fish. These were great fish too, not New Zealand Nessies, but not bad. 2 or 3 of these beautiful browns broke 20 inches and most were between 15 and 18 – another made day.
Recapping on the way back to the truck, Bryan and Stephen had each caught several fish too. It was a great day on a great river, not the typical sight-fishing stream, but it’s always nice to shake it up. Here in the States we call this kind of experience “actually catching fish.” It’s refreshing. Kiwis should try it sometime.
True New Zealand
We awoke to usual fog and relished another crazy-interesting drive through the scenic South Island hills. This area looked every bit like the Shire from Lord of the Rings, even featuring a crop circle of happiness (below). This river would be a river that Peter Christensen, mentioned earlier, had recommended. Peter did not steer us astray.
This was another small-medium sized stream, but had a character all its own. The water flows shallow and smooth over dark bedrock in most areas and then tumbles into deeper areas with clean light gravel. The contrast is fascinating. When fish are over the gravel they are neon-easy to spot. When they are in areas of dark bedrock you just don’t see them unless they rise. This is assuming there are any fish at all in the particular kilometer of stream you find yourself watching.
Yes, this river was another that would required long walks. We didn’t spot our first fish until we were nearly a mile from the access. We promptly spooked that one, all 3 of us pitching an arsenal of dries and nymphs; nothing. We didn’t see another trout for another 1/2 mile or so, but this was a giant darkly hued brown cruising haphazardly around a slow pool. We spooked this one too.
We had split up and were walking both sides of the river to maximize our limited fish viewing opportunities (every missed fish might mean another mile). To my utter surprise and delight, just one pool up from the last sighted trout, a fish slowly broke the surface. I skidded to a stop like there was a “stop” sign and a dark-spectacled cop waiting for mistakes. I focused intently on where I had seen the rise. A half minute or so later a huge snout appeared like a slo-mo Kraken in a 3D epic. This huge self-assured sipper was on my side of the river, straight upstream and just off the bank. He rose a few more times. The easy steady feeding pattern helped me keep it all together; it was go time for the fish of the trip, the one.
I breathed deep and pragmatically surveyed the lie and my surroundings in order to strategize an approach. It was going to be pretty straightforward, 25 feet or so directly up the bank. I am a right-hander and was kneeling on the right bank about 3 feet up off the water with another 7 or 8 feet of bank above and behind. I would need to be careful with my backcast and would need to reach a bit to the left on the presentation to be sure the line would land off the grass and brush. Then of course, as usual, I would need to be careful not to get too close and would have to land the fly softly and on target with 16 feet of leader, but otherwise, you know, no big deal.
I carefully butt-slid down the steep bank to stay low and then knee-shimmied into a decent position. Grass stains will come out of waders eventually, maybe. I didn’t care. I could see the fish clearly. His snout – dorsal – tail rises gave me a sense of this scale, a deep-sided, darkly-hued brown at least 25 inches long, maybe 30.
I carefully worked a small pile of fly line off the reel and laid it loosely in the grass. I reached for the leader, keeping the rod angle low, and followed the smooth monofilament down to the fly, the same pale green Klinkammer that had worked perfectly on the first fish of the trip. Releasing the fly from my hand, I began a nice smooth backcast and promptly dumped fly and leader into the grass and thistles behind me.
Mild expletive on the air, I shamefully crawled up the bank to free the fly and then ever so gracefully slid again down the bank to where I’d left the rod and line in a pile. Of course Bryan was getting this all on film. Great.
The fish was still visible, but hadn’t risen for a while. I wasn’t sure if he had seen me go up the bank, but he was still there and I was going to make this next presentation better. I got the line and leader and fly and rod all in order again and carefully started another cast, shortening the stroke a bit to keep the line high on the back cast. Then I focused on my target and set down a careful forward cast – missed right. With a frustrated slow breath to refocus, I started another cast. This one landed perfectly on the seam about 3 feet up from the feeding brown. Yes!
The short drift seemed to take forever, but as it came into the trout’s view it triggered a response. The fish rose slowly. He opened his ample mouth and waited, sucking in water, air, and finally fly. I counted, “1, 2, ok, set it!”
The rod bent deep into the taper, the line and leader tightened against the weight. The brown lifted to the surface where it pulsed and splashed with a deep hollow glub, and then, there was the fly. It was in the air and not in the fish. The rod, line, leader and hopes of an epic New Zealand brown trout all went limp.
I could not believe it. I dropped the rod, fell straight over backwards into the grassy hillside to pout. The sky was deep blue, so was my heart. I sat up, spiked my hat, and threw a little stream-side toddler tantrum. Frustrated with my luck, I laid back in the grass and stared at that empty blue clear sky. That was it. That was my fish.
After several moments of misery I looked up at Bryan and Stephen. They gave me a palms-up hand gesture and look that seemed to simultaneously say: “1. What happened? 2. Oh well. 3. It will be ok.” Thanks guys, but it’s not quite ok. That fish was a beast.
I sat up, grabbed my hat off the ground and looked down where I knew the fish wouldn’t be.
No lie, no hallucinating, no fisherman’s recollection, he rose again. Within less than a few minutes of being stung, hard enough to turn him sideways and bring him to the surface, he rose and ate. How the..? Who cares? The game was back on.
I crawled forward carefully to retrieve my mess of fly, line, leader, and rod from the grass. The fly was stuck in a thistle. The line was tangled. Why wouldn’t it be? There was absolutely no way to foresee this resurrection of rising fish, so I’d tossed it. But it happened. It was happening. The universe was handing me a very hungry and heavy brown trout who was graciously unaware of the danger of artificial flies tied to mono and linked by a line to a rod and biped.
After significant untangling I finally got things back in order and got back into position. My mind cleared and focus returned sharper than before. I’m sure my tongue was sticking out of the side of my mouth. Like my dad, my tongue just does that when I concentrate – baseball, tests, tying flies, backing up trailers, etc. There are plenty of embarrassing pictures of the both of us in the tongue-zone.
Even with tongue-out focus, the next cast just sucked. It was just bad, meters to the left. There had been a bit of wind but I think it was mostly the utter shock that I still had a huge brown rising so close to me and after he had “tasted iron,” as one of my favorite old clients would put it.
I put another cast just above the big brown. It drifted right into his waiting jaws. I think I was more rattled than I was ready to admit. My hook set was too fast. The fly popped right out and sailed past me into the bushes. With a swipe of his ample tail the beast moved upstream a couple meters. He settled in just upstream of a good size rock. Spooked.
Missing a fish like this, a second time, just leaves you numb. No hat throwing, no deep sighs, no whining necessary. He was just gone this time.
I could still see the fish hunkered down there in his new lie. He was not feeding anymore, but still within reach. He had eaten once after a miss. Maybe I could force feed him a nymph? Just maybe?
It was worth a shot since I’d probably have to walk another mile before I got another chance anyway. So, I clipped off the Klinkhammer and tied on a good size PMX with a trusty SOS nymph about 2 feet behind. I wasn’t even really considering catching this fish now. I just wanted that nymph to get as close as possible to his beak to see what might happen. I stood up because I sort of didn’t care, also it would make the casting easier.
I dropped the new flies just upstream from the fish’s new lie. Maybe, just maybe, he would open up and let the nymph in if I could ensure no effort would be required. That was a complete misunderstanding of the powerful primal urge this fish seemed to have to eat. That’s right, as the 2-fly rig came close the jaws opened up. The beast was again zeroing in on the dry fly… and… and… gulp.
It wasn’t even a surprise when the hook didn’t hold this time; just a big fat disappointment. I couldn’t even floss him and foul hook him with the nymph. This was clearly THE UNCATCHABLE.
Insert the baseball adage we’re all thinking here and it was over. I was out. I threw my hands up and wished the big brown the best, a long and happy life of eating everything in sight with no consequences. Long live the beast. It was the fish of the trip.
Frustration and Commiseration
It was another long walk, through thick riparian grasses and brush. I was spent. Tired from the day, the sun, and tired from this infernal knee deep mattress of weeds and thistles. These were evil foot grabbing plants, sent straight from Hell to torment my every step. Maybe I was actually just a little more exhausted and angry about the missed fish than I cared to acknowledge. Whatever, I’m going with Devil-weeds. We kept trudging.
Eventually, Bryan spotted a rise, coincidentally just upstream from where he was blind fishing a run (old habits can pay off). It was another large fish, more yellow than the last and at least in the mid-20-inch range. Bryan put a long cast over the spot where we’d last seen the fish and got him to come up for a half-hearted refusal. A couple casts later the big yellow brown turned, followed, and sucked down the dry.
Bryan hooked it cleanly and the fish bolted downstream at an angle toward the far bank. It looked like an incredible fish and moved like one, but at the end of the run the line just went limp. The hook had mysteriously come free. We deservedly commiserated for several minutes. Missing fish, losing fish, is worse here than anywhere I’ve ever fished.
It’s generally true in fly fishing and life that if you stick it out, you’ll eventually figure it out, or just get lucky.
As we continued our upstream trudge up the left stream bank, a generously giant brown came flying out of the water not more than 30 or so feet away. It stopped us all in our tracks. Did that just happen?
There was absolutely no subtlety about this fish. He exploded through the surface film and seemed to hang in midair, 2 or 3 feet above the river surface, flaunting his dark spotted sides in great detail before absolutely cannonballing with a deep kerplunk. We assumed he was chasing something. Or was he being chased?
The place was ideal. A ridge of bedrock ran parallel to the current. The hard black rock was a foot or so underwater but the right edge dropped abruptly into a thigh-deep gravel channel where we’d seen the fish. Stephen was on it.
We couldn’t see the fish so we approached with caution. The first several casts didn’t turn up anything. Stephen took a careful step upstream and a few more casts went by without a fish. The “guide” in both Bryan and myself is rather annoyingly always there. We went into problem solving mode and suggested a cast just a little beyond the splash spot. The fly landed, drifted a few feet and then, like a whale coming up for air, a shadow appeared.
The dark form slowly rose and assumed all its details until the spotted olive-gold snout was all but touching the fly. Nobody breathed. Then, with a hiss of escaping hope, the fish seemed to lose interest. Hope and the fish sank as it let the fly pass, a clear refusal. A gap of several feet widened between fish and drifting fly. Then, with a puzzling resurgence of interest, the fish curved its body gracefully to catch current and with slow tail sweep followed the drifting fly downstream. The process seemed to take forever, suspense building the whole time as the gap closed. A bulge in the surface tension formed and then broke to reveal a wide flat snout just behind the big terrestrial. Jaws opened bright white in the sun. The fly and a bunch of water and air tumbled down into the abyss. Stephen handled it perfectly, counting to 3 and allowing the fish to turn before setting. Zzzzzzip. The hook held.
The big yellow brown energetically tried to dive under the rocks along the shelf. It looked like he might saw off on the r0ck. With two guides now shouting instructions Stephen was able to work the fish back into the gravelly channel. Another fish suddenly appeared from the rocks. The second fish chased the hooked fish for several meters, back and forth. Imagine this for a second: a 2-foot+ brown, being chased by another brown at least his size. Surreal.
Stephen was able to get the hooked fish near the surface and the chasing brown spotted us and darted downstream. It passed in full view over a shallow gravel bottom, not small.
We aren’t sure which of these 2 fish was the one we saw initially, but Stephen’s fish was fantastic. It sported an enormous head, big spots, long toothy jaws, a full 27+ inches of vibrantly spotted brown trout. (Just to be clear: TWENTY-SEVEN inches!) It was the longest fish of the trip. Watching this incredible rise, follow and take was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve ever had on the water. And the hook held. This is the entirety of the fine line between despair and delight. Out spirits were renewed.
Pretty much every day in New Zealand is made before you even fish. You’re in New Zealand. That fact alone makes every minute nearly as surreal as a Dali canvas, but far more beautiful. This day was now made. But, we weren’t going to let opportunities escape so we kept marching upstream and watching, knowing well that we were now on bonus time.
Eventually another fish appeared. This one rose in the dead middle of the river. The water here was smooth and steady. My turn again, even though I had probably in fairness used two days worth of my turns on the one single fish I had so entirely screwed up.
Bryan directed me into position. The fish sipped a few times. It was moving several feet side to side in the slow current following the almost imperceptible seams and micro currents. It was difficult to know where it would rise next. I made 5 or 6 casts until the fish and fly finally wound up in the same line at the same time. The rise was quick and the hook set held. The fish lept twice with exceptional vigor. It was a stout female brown about 22 inches long. Bonus.
Another similarly sized fish showed itself in this same long slow run. Bryan got into the river. Stephen and I watched it feed back and forth in the current. Looked like a sure thing. But, before Bryan got a cast over it, we spotted another fish, near the left side of the river. It was huge. We nearly forced Bryan to stop casting to the first fish, at least if, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Forget that fish. This one is huge.” means that to you. Neither fish ever ate and both eventually disappeared. Lesson learned – fish to the feeder.
Last Ditch Effort
We got back late, again, thoroughly exhausted. The next morning was another lazy one. We chatted, told stories and worked out a plan to get me back to Christchurch. Bryan and Stephen would be there a few more days, but this was my last day to fish. I wanted to go somewhere awesome, but I also needed to get to Christchurch that night for a 5 AM flight the next morning. My only option was a shuttle that picked up in Palmerston in the early afternoon. So our options were limited to near town.
Like most towns in New Zealand, there’s a river right in Palmerston. However, in its current incarnation, actually calling it a river is a stretch, a big stretch. It could have once been a river before large-scale agriculture diverted most of its water. It is probably occasionally still a river after days and days of rain. It may even be a river at other points along its course. But, the “river” at this point in time was a ditch, my last ditch.
There was probably a flow of only about 15 CFS. Even at that, the water was spread thin over a wide stream bed. In most places it was only 6 to 12 inches deep. It was a beautiful setting in places (it’s difficult to escape beauty in New Zealand) but there just wasn’t much water to speak of.
Even practically dry, all of our sources assured us that there are ‘really big’ fish in this water and we had a couple hours at most before my bus, so we fished. We walked downstream far enough to allow us to see what we had to work with as we fished back upstream. We saw some sheep, again redundant in New Zealand. We saw fascinating shore birds picking through the shallow water and river rocks. Some ducks launched off of a flat stretch of skinny water. But fish? Here? I had my doubts.
To be fair, there were several stretches of essentially still water that were deep enough to hold fish, but approaching wary browns in these situations proved to be just too hard. We saw one 15-incher spook and slowly move up under a fallen tree and we busted 2 big fish in perfectly flat water. One left a wake across the dead water and buried itself in the weeds. An uneventful end, especially for such a magnificent trip, but also fitting. New Zealand doesn’t give away its treasures easily.
Before I knew it, certainly before I wanted, I was on a bus to Christchurch chatting with an elderly Kiwi farmer and then in the air bound for Australia and eventually L.A. and then home. Dreams of giant browns in a magical land started the minute I closed my eyes on the plane. They haven’t stopped.
Why We Fly
Enough time has now passed. Details are dissolving as the dreams distance themselves from reality. I can’t bring them all back, those singular moments within morphs of back-lit clouds, the fresh beech forest smells, the cicada hum, and the full significance of clear southern rivers. Travel to special places always goes down this way. The blissful entirety of the richly detailed scene is gone as soon as you are.
Yet there’s a sense of the place that you cannot forget. It’s fixed somewhere within the brain, or deeper, beneath the conscious, guarded fondly at the edge of recall and being. It includes all the frustration and joyful tight-lined triumphs. It’s the misted essence of enchanted hills, rain-clean rivers, courtesies and bold brown trout. To come away changed, transmuted and imbued with this sense, this is the reason you go fishing in special places.