Escape to New Zealand

Fly fishermen traveling to New Zealand generally fall into two categories, the first timers and the seasoned veterans. The first timers, especially those who try and do it on their own, will have the hardest time and often leave for home disappointed. For the seasoned veterans, it’s another story because they either fish with experienced guides or have gone through the learning curve with past experiences.


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Photo: David Lambroughton

New Zealand has a vast landscape and on the North Island you’ll often find yourself fishing in beautiful grottos with water dripping off thousands of ferns. This tropical setting runs down to the northern end of South Island, but things quickly change as you run into the Southern Alps, which split the island north to south. If you drive down the west coast of South Island, it gets wetter the further you go. The beech tree covered mountains get bigger and steeper and the rivers cross through the valleys into the Tasman Sea.

You can go through the learning curve on your own and waste a lot of time as I did on my first couple of visits, or get professional guidance which makes all of the difference.

Draining all of these landscapes are at least 400 rivers and streams worth fishing. Add longer growing seasons with milder winters and extremely pure gene pools of browns and rainbows, and you have a perfect recipe for large trout. A unique factor in New Zealand fisheries that works for the angler is that the larger fish usually work their way into the more stable headwaters of rivers where forage is more reliable. Finding a couple of large fish and getting a fly in front of them is much easier looking into a crystal clear pool than casting in the lower sections, which are generally inhabited by smaller fish.

Being a fishing guide in New Zealand has to be one of the most difficult and frustrating jobs in the entire fishing world. The good ones work hard to build their business with repeat clientele that know the drill and don’t require “New Zealand Trout Fishing 101.” Their days begin and end watching accurate weather graphics on the morning and evening newscasts. They watch the barometer, follow the highs and lows off the Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea, and plan their days around the ever changing climate.

Besides trying to put their clients on rivers where they don’t have to cast into a headwind, guides pay close attention to where people have been fishing and where they have not. Most guides will keep close tabs on 10 to 15 rivers and try to put you on water that doesn’t have any footprints, meaning that it hasn’t been fished since the last freshet. On cloudy days, guides will often focus on smaller rivers with nice green backdrops that make spotting fish easier, as well as clearly seeing your fly or indicator, rather than looking into the reflective shine from a gray sky.

On top of this come the biggest flies in the ointment and required fitness and casting skills, which are of more importance than anywhere else in the trout fishing world. Choosing water that matches your skill level is crucial as well. A half dozen three to five pounders in a day on a river known for having “good biters” might be a much safer bet than pushing the envelope on a big fish river whose inhabitants often require a perfectly accurate first cast. In New Zealand, presentation is generally far more important than fly pattern.

More often than not, you’ll be able to see the fish from the bank as you work the good sun angles, but not from the best casting position. So you mark the spot and quietly get into position. Your spotter or guide then takes over, giving you all the necessary instruction. “Place the next cast four feet up and two feet to the right.” Or, “He had a look at it so change the fly.”

When the fish of a lifetime is happily feeding and swinging in the current 30- to 40-feet away it can be a tense situation, especially if you make a bad cast or strike too soon on the slow motion rise of a truly big fish. This is how the game is usually played in New Zealand. You can go through the learning curve on your own and waste a lot of time as I did on my first couple of visits, or get professional guidance which makes all of the difference.

One of the things that has always grabbed me about fishing in New Zealand is that you get to fish with the equipment you love the most. Light rods with floating lines and standard small dries and nymphs are the ticket here. During the course of the season I fish four and five-weight rods fairly evenly and use a six-weights for larger rivers or on windy days.

As for waders, be sure to bring the lightweight stocking-foot style. You will appreciate them when a cool southerly drops the temperature, or you park yourself in a pool for the evening hatch. Most of the regulars wet-wade in lightweight nylon pants. The rivers are generally not that cold and long walks in waders, especially on summer days, are not fun. You also want to pay more attention to your wading boots and how they fit. Something else to remember is that felt sole shoes are banned in New Zealand to help stop the spread of didymo. Studded rubber sole boots are the choice, as they dry quickly, travel better, and have been favored by guides and regulars for years.

I’ve come to look at the New Zealand season in three parts. The early season (November 15 through Christmas) is hard not to love. It’s springtime, with snow on the mountains and wildflowers everywhere. This is when many of the big fish hunters show up to rivers like the Rangitikei, Ngaruroro or Ruakituri on the North Island, and then head to South Island to focus on the famed Karamea River tributaries. Some even head to the Oreti or waters flowing out of Fjordland National Park. In the early season, the smaller tributary streams will have good numbers of fish as well, and you can often do just fine by fishing the obvious small pools blind, allowing more fishing and less hunting. Remember that from Christmas through mid-January the country is largely on vacation. There’s more traffic on the road and more footprints along the rivers.

By the end of January the true summer season arrives and continues through February. You’ll wear shorts the entire time, rain or shine. This is the most popular time for overseas anglers to arrive, likely because it’s the best time for North Americans to shorten their winter. It is especially the time for sunblock and sun gloves as you drink your way up the rivers. During this time more of the fish are looking up and the best dry-fly fishing has arrived, but they are getting harder to fool and demand drag-free drifts.

The late season, March to early April, has much to recommend itself with. For Americans, it has a September feeling about it. The nights are cool and the rivers are low and clear and easier to cross. Sporadic hatches are winding down, but large bushy dries like hopper patterns will never work better. After a summer of feeding, the fish will also never look better. During this time, human traffic is also quite low.

With all the fishing opportunities New Zealand has to offer it’s hard to ever say goodbye. It’s like taking the best trout fishing destinations from around the world and condensing them into a picturesque landmass, creating the quintessential fly-fishing experience that inspires nothing but zeal.

Traveling To New Zealand

Most inbound flights from North America land in Auckland. Be sure to arrive with “cleaned” sporting equipment. They like that word in customs as anything that gets introduced to New Zealand, like seeds from wildflowers or weeds, possums, stoats, etc., have all thrived just as the trout have. After customs you can rent a car or as most anglers do, recheck your tagged luggage and take a five minute walk over to the domestic terminal where you can catch a direct flight to more than a dozen “trouty” cities on both islands in this California-sized country.

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The Best of New Zealand Fly-Fishing