This article is the first in a 4 part series to help the adventurous angler with planning a self-guided trip to New Zealand’s South Island. I’ve travelled and fished extensively around this portion of New Zealand over the past 9 years both on my own and as a host for several groups of anglers. I do not guide on these trips as it is illegal for foreigners to work in New Zealand without the proper permits and there is simply no way that I can offer a comparable level of expertise in terms of local knowledge and access as a professional New Zealand guide. However, there are more than enough opportunities for the angler that wants to go it alone and these articles should help eliminate some of the guesswork while also setting some realistic expectations.
Winters in Montana are cold, that’s why I typically head to New Zealand for a few weeks of chasing trout in warmer climates. Although we’ve got some great trout fishing here, there is just no place like New Zealand. The scenery, people, and vast amounts of clear water is enough to ruin an angler for life, at least that’s my excuse. Add to that mix an average size trout of 3-5 pounds that will eat a dry fly and I’m already on way back. It truly is an amazing, one of a kind destination that every angler should experience at least once in a lifetime.
New Zealand is a long way away from my home and the trout fishing is really quite different than what we are used to in the states and even in South America, so hiring a guide for at least a few days is the best bet for success early on during all of my trips. I typically rely on a guide to get me acquainted with a particular area and then spend the bulk of my time exploring and fishing a variety of waters on my own. Out of respect for the guide, I typically don’t return to the areas that they guide me on unless they truly don’t mind. There is more than enough water for everyone in NZ, but it always pays to respect the locals!
In my short time of almost 30 years as a fly fisherman, there is nothing that compares to the trout fishing in New Zealand. The waters are clean and cold. The trout are magnificent. Solitude is reality. The conditions and fish will test ones mental fortitude along with every phase of fly-fishing aptitude. No other form of fishing has given me such highs and lows while molding my outlook on fish, the environment, and myself as my days spent on the water in New Zealand.
Perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of panning that once in a lifetime trip to New Zealand is just determining where to focus one’s attention. I have travelled and fished extensively through the South Island, so my expertise is limited to this portion of the country. The North Island also has some fantastic opportunities and is certainly worth the trip as well. Both islands are incredibly diverse and offer everything from barren coastal prairies to dramatic mountain peaks covered by glaciers for millennia. So, where does one stat?
In the South Island, I recommend picking an area to base that offers close proximity to a variety of different water types and variable topographic features. The weather can be unpredictable and vary widely across relatively small distances so having plenty of options is always first on my list. I have found the areas around Murchison, Twizel, and Lumsden to be great bases of operation for all of my New Zealand adventures. Each of these towns has all the essentials such as lodging, groceries, and basic provisions, while offering 360 degrees of access to quality fishing.
I would rate these qualities as the highest priority when trying to put any trip together to New Zealand. The country is sparsely populated and having some semblance of a population center nearby becomes paramount once one realizes that there aren’t any gas station or restaurants open past 6:00 pm on a weekday, but the sun stays up until around 9:30. Options become highly appreciated when one of those legendary "Norwester’s" come up and blow 40 mph for 4 days and all of he rivers you have access to run NW to SE. Each of the areas I’ve mentioned has everything from large braided rivers to the tiniest of spring creeks, so there is plenty to explore despite the conditions.
Once I’ve picked the area for my next New Zealand adventure, the next phase is to develop a plan on how to go about fishing the waters. This is where a great Kiwi guide can make the difference between boom and bust. There are dozens of great guides that specialize in catering specifically to overseas anglers looking for the quintessential Kiwi fly-fishing experience. However, there are only so many of them and they are in high demand during the busy summer season from January –March. A guide is not necessary to catch fish in New Zealand for advanced anglers, but they will significantly shorten the learning curve, which becomes even more valuable when on a limited time schedule.
Once I’ve narrowed down my choices to a few centrally located towns and have hired a guide for a few days, next it’s time to start with the details. The proper equipment and knowledge of how it all works can mean the difference between success and failure.
New Zealand trout fishing is just like trout fishing anywhere else, except for the times when it is not! Having the proper gear is essential for success anywhere, but more so here than anywhere else. Striking the proper balance between having too much and just the right amount will make the difference between spending hours sorting through everything and valuable time on the water. Over the years, I have developed a system that has worked very well for me so that I feel like I have everything I need without the metaphorical kitchen sink.
It all starts with the luggage. Airline weight restrictions have made the Orvis Safe Passage Rolling duffle bags the perfect choice for carrying all my gear while keeping weight issues to a minimum. I generally use the vented model for all of my fishing gear and the standard duffle for clothes and camping gear. I typically check all of my fishing gear and I have never had any issues with getting all of my gear. I prefer to devote my carry on to things that I would have a hard time replacing in a couple of days such as cameras, prescriptions, a change of clothes, travel rod, and critical documents.
In theory, the fishing in New Zealand is quite simply like trout fishing everywhere else. The main differences are that the fish are quite large on average and the conditions are extremely variable. So, you need gear that is going to be versatile and dependable.
As far as rods go, I take a 905-4 Tip Flex Helios as my primary rod as the rod will do everything I need it to do and more. It’s a great rod for powering cicada patterns through the wind as well as making delicate spring creek style presentations. The typical cast in New Zealand is relatively short at 30-40 feet with plenty of opportunities well inside 20 feet. Perhaps the hardest aspect to master are those short casts with 12-18 foot leaders - the Helios 905-4 Tip Flex does a fantastic job of loading quickly to make turning these long leaders over relatively painless. I typically take a 906-4 Tip Flex Hydros as a backup for those insanely windy days and in case I decide to try some streamer fishing somewhere along the way. Finally, I always take a Frequent Flyer 906-7 with me in my carry on and throw it in my pack just about everyday. Nothing worse than being 6 miles from the car with a broken rod and the Frequent Flyer allows me to bring a third rod without taking up too much space.
Having the ideal rod is the most important part of the whole gear equation in my opinion. I prefer to pair my rod with a CFO III as it’s smaller than the more popular large arbor models, is lightweight, and has a terrific, yet simple drag design. The Wonderline Power Taper is slightly oversized, which also helps to quickly load the rod - in a weight forward taper and olive color is the perfect line for any situation in New Zealand.
Other necessities such as leaders, tippets, floatant, and flies are all identical to what I use in any trout fishing scenario. I take an ample stock of 9’ 3 and 4X leaders and simply add tippet to get 12-18 foot leaders. Fly shops are far and few between in New Zealand, so I’m always sure to have more than enough of the “consumables.” I use the Orvis Mirage for my tippet and am a strong believer in the advantages in both strength and low visibility of fluorocarbon. Gel and desiccant floatants are equally essential for dry fly fishing. I’m pack a couple hemostats, nippers, zingers, and a nail-knot tools. Finally, I don’t leave home without some white ploy cord to use as a strike indicator, Loon’s UV Knot Sense (comes in handy for everything from wader repair to fly repair), and a wide assortment of flies.
Recommended fly selections for New Zealand are typically pretty basic as the rivers are relatively sterile when compared to much of the waters in the US. However, I prefer to take a wide range of flies so that I feel like I’m covered in just about any circumstance. The basic aquatic bugs are Mayflies and Caddis being just about everywhere with Midges and Stoneflies being more important in a few places. Terrestrial patterns such as small hoppers, beetles, and Cicadas are also essential in the summer months. I have found that the fish aren’t terribly sophisticated when it comes to patterns, but I’m always prepared for the fish that is feeding selectively.
Flies don’t take up a lot of room in the pack and are absolutely essential to any success for obvious reasons. I recommend having a wide range of generic dry fly patterns in sizes 12-16. These would include various Wulff patterns, Klinkhammers, Parachutes, and Hairwings. In regards to nymphs, I prefer to use copper or black tungsten weighted nymphs in sizes 14-18. Again, generic patterns such as Pheasant Tails and Hare & Coppers tied in a variety of colors will cover most situations. I always have a few larger Stonefly and Damselfly nymphs in the box as well. Cicada’s, beetles, ants, and hopper patterns can all be effective as well so I have a box that is nothing but terrestrials. Fishing streamers can be very effective in New Zealand, especially in stained or high water, so I am always certain to have a box filled with Zonkers and BH Wooly Buggers. Mouse fishing is one thing that New Zealand is well know for so I will always have a few of these for fishing some of the Beech forest streams and lakes.
I know that this list is starting to look pretty impressive, but I can easily fit all of this into my Battenkill Pro Guide Vest without breaking my back. I use three of the Orvs Pocket Buddy fly boxes filled with a wide range of flies that I expect to use on any given day. My “backup” stash of flies are stored in compartment boxes that stay in my backpack, that way I’m not constantly digging for the fly that I need, yet have everything I might need with me at all times. This system of wearing a vest with a small backpack enables me to have all of the essentials close at hand while also allowing room to carry a raincoat, water, lunch, a spare rod, and camera equipment.
New Zealand has been at the forefront of much of the Aquatic Nuisance Species issues. Felt soled wading shoes are not allowed in New Zealand. The Riverguard Ultralight boots -with the studs removed - are a perfect boot for the long walks and little actual wading that I do in New Zealand. The studs are easy to re-install if I’m going to be doing a lot of wading or fishing a river with shale and bedrock ledges instead of the typical pea gravel bottom found in the majority of the streams that I fish in New Zealand. The Orvis Sonic Seam waders also make the long journey as they pack down easily in the provided stuff sack and come in handy on those surprisingly frequent cool, rainy days.
Rounding out my recommended list of gear is what I would consider the miscellaneous essentials. The sun is extremely harsh in New Zealand and wide brim hat isn’t always the best choice so I opt for a Buff and plenty of sunscreen for sun protection. Sun Gloves protect the tops of my hands from both the sun and the sand flies. Wet wading is the norm during the summer months, yet there are tons of thorny plants so I wear quick drying, lightweight pants on warmer days. Quality optics are absolutely indispensible for sight fishing in a variety of lighting conditions, I have come to prefer the Orvis Tri-Spectrum glass lenses in the Rose color above all others (many would recommend Amber of Copper lens colors). A reliable net that has a deep bag can make the difference between landing that fish of a lifetime and coming close, I use nets made by a Kiwi company called McLean’s as these also have a built in scale so that I can easily weigh the fish while minimizing handling.
Of course, having the best gear on he planet will do you no good unless you know how to use it properly. Practicing a 20-foot cast with a 15-foot leader in the wind before the trip will pay huge dividends. The ability to quickly convert from a single dry to a double nymph rig is invaluable as well. I also would recommend being proficient in tying both blood and double-surgeons knot so that you can quickly make leader adjustments. At the end of the day, this is all part of the overall experience so having the correct quality gear will greatly add to satisfaction when everything comes together and that seemingly sleeping log of a trout rises from the bottom to eat your Royal Wulff.
In writing this article, I have noticed that I only recommend Orvis brands and products. I have been using Orvis gear exclusively for over 10 years now but have access to every major brand of fly-fishing products. I use and recommend Orvis goods because they work very well and have been incredibly dependable for me over the years. These are my recommendations based on my experiences and there are certainly plenty of other viable products offered by other manufacturers, these just work very well for me so I can be confident in recommending their use to others.
What is it about the trout fishing in New Zealand that draws us in and makes an 8,000 mile plan ride to catch trout seem rational? After all, it is just trout fishing and I live in the heart of some of the finest trout waters on the planet. The Kiwi fly fishing experience, however, is closer to sight-fishing the flats for Bonefish than trout fishing here in Montana. In order to be successful at catching fish on a regular basis in New Zealand, an angler needs to adapt their techniques based on what they see in these clear waters.
There are dozens of useful articles and books out there on how to spot fish and what to look for. I’ve been blessed with good eyes and a lifetime of looking into water, so that part has always been easier for me than most of my fishing companions in NZ. A few things to keep in mind include trying to look through the water rather than at the surface. My eyes are always moving and looking for “unnatural” forms on or near the bottom. In rivers with very low fish densities, the ability to spot fish is the only way to find success. Look for movement, shadows, and shapes that resemble a trout such as logs and patches of weeds – I’m always amazed at how many of these end up being a fish after I’ve convinced myself it’s only a log!
In addition to the obvious fact that having good eyes is a plus, there are several things to keep in mind which will help stack the odds in your favor. Keeping the sun over your shoulders will improve your “window” into the water. Try to find elevated banks and patches of ground to get a “cleaner” view into a run or pool. This is where the difference between $15.95 and $150 polarized optics is most appreciated! Remember that shadows caused by your profile and even the motion of a false cast will spook these fish, so it is essential that you pay attention to where your shadow falls at all times. If you take your time and keep a low profile overall, you will have many more meaningful chances at fish everyday.
The approach and presentation is the deal maker in this type of fishing. “Willy Nilly” false casting is one of the surest ways of spooking any fish - especially in New Zealand – so this is when all those hours of casting 15 foot leaders into the wind on your front lawn becomes relevant. Once a feeding fish is found, take your time approaching the fish to allow for a manageable cast. Blistering line speed with 60+ foot loops won’t do you any good in these situations as all that movement overhead is certain to spook the fish. Ideally, make a few false casts well away from the fish to gauge your distance and then gently make the necessary cast so that your fly lands several feet upstream and slightly to the side of the fish. Try to make the first cast count as it usually doesn’t take these fish too long before they know something is going on. However, if the fish continues to feed, it’s worth the effort of changing flies and leader configurations. The goal here is to get a fly into the fish’s “window” with a drag-free drift and then see what happens.
The next little piece of advice has been hard-earned to the delight of more than one New Zealand Brown Trout. If you spot a fish, make a few reasonable casts, change flies a few times and if nothing happens…walk away! Oftentimes these fish will spook off to an undercut bank or deep hole, but sometimes they just sit there and do nothing when spooked. I’ve gone up to fish and poked them with my finger after spending over an hour trying to get them to eat. Sure, there are occasions when persistence will pay off but a half an hour or so should really give you an idea of whether the fish will eat or not.
Flexibility in your fly selections will pay dividends as well when determining your approach and presentation. Typically, I prefer to plan on casting a single dry fly first over a fish. If the fish is actively feeding and “swinging” in a riffle or run, I might elect to use a small tungsten beaded dropper as well. These fish will move a surprisingly long way (well over a rod’s length) to eat a fly at times so a well presented dry fly will usually tell me what I need to know in a few casts. There are times when a double tungsten nymph rig is the only shot you might have, so remember that this will need to land well upstream of the fish to allow your flies to settle by the time they reach the fish. Always take care to minimize false casts and the amount of fly line that end up in the eyesight of the fish in these situations. New Zealand trout have much better eyesight than the experts will lead you to believe.
The ability to spot fish, make a careful approach and well executed presentation is the name of the game in New Zealand. However, there are plenty of things to keep in mind that will help along the way. There is nothing that compares to the satisfaction of seeing that log slowly turn and rise to your fly when it all comes together. Below is a quick list of some things to keep in mind that will hopefully help you as much as they have me in my Kiwi adventures.
1) Cloudy days are not bad…head for rivers in narrow canyons or forested valleys.
2) Nasty weather tends to cause most anglers to head for small streams so solitude and fresh fish can often be found on even the busiest of New Zealand streams during these conditions.
3) If you don’t see any fish within an hour…go someplace else as the fish are either spooked by the conditions, someone else is ahead of you, or the fish have ESP…either these fish aren’t meant to be caught today.
4) If you arrive to a spot only to find someone else already there…go someplace else and never jump in ahead of them without talking to them first.
5) Blind fishing rarely produces much success in rivers with trophy fish, but covering a “juicy” run with a few casts never hurts.
6) Backwaters often have large fish cruising for damselflies and backswimmers.
7) You will occasionally see very dark fish that are lying right next to the bank…these are old and in poor condition so don’t waste your time on them.
8) Streamers work well in tannin colored streams, around river mouths, and in high water conditions and a few San Juan’s in the box isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
9) The best time for spotting fish is between late morning to late afternoon...early morning and evening light is typically very lateral resulting in long shadows and diffused light in the water (especially on clear days).
10) The wind is your friend.
New Zealand is really a special place to me and I hope that every angler with an adventurous streak gets the experience…hopefully just not when I’m there! The information that I have provided over the last month is by no means complete or definitive; the intention has been to give you a place to start. Regardless of the catching that you might experience in New Zealand, the fishing and country itself are worth the trip in their own right.
Getting the most out of a “Do it Yourself” trip of this scale is as much about managing your expectations as anything. I have personally fished over 100 days in New Zealand and have honestly only hooked a handful (one hand) of fish over 9 pounds – zero to the net. I’ve personally only seen one legitimate, wild 10 pound Brown Trout landed in all of my days fishing New Zealand streams. Very skilled anglers that have dedicated their time in NZ to finding and catching this class of fish land most of the Browns that are caught in the 10+ pound class.
The lure of New Zealand trout fishing will always be the chance of catching that once in a lifetime wild trout on a dry fly in a picturesque setting. The fishing in New Zealand is difficult and leaves little room for error. In general, fish numbers are considerably lower than one would expect. These trout have very few predators and a relatively long “growing season” so they get large and live a long life – they become wise and very aware of their surroundings (especially when something is out of the norm like an angler waving a stick at them). The odds of success are not good for the average angler and it’s amazing how quickly one can feel like an average angler in New Zealand.
The reality of trout fishing in New Zealand is that the experience is about much more than just the fish. There is no place that I’d rather be right now than standing on the bank of a backcountry stream, surveying the next run. The sense of being alone with the trout in this enormous landscape may be a little too esoteric for some folks, but it is the reason I return year after year to this fantastic place. Going even further down the road of esotericism, the waters of New Zealand are the places that I go to get my soul cleaned after a season of chuckin’ split shot and indicators!
There is no place that I could recommend more than New Zealand for an amazing fly-fishing experience. Allow yourself to experience the local culture, the uniqueness of the scenery, and the multitude of trout fishing opportunities that are only available there. If catching lots of double digit fish are the primary objective – Alaska may be a better choice. However, if a firsthand account of what fly fishing for trout is really all about – this is the place for you!