Fly Fishing NZ- Chasing Light

THE BEGINNING

All journeys begin in your head. They start with a thought. You imagine what it would be like to go somewhere and you begin to process it. Sometimes you do that for a while then let it rest. Then later on it resurfaces. The thought returns. Sometimes this goes on for a long while and other adventures/ journeys end up occurring instead. Then that particular thought returns.

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Several years ago I ordered a few books on fly fishing New Zealand (NZ), South Island. Every winter I’d pull them out and read another chapter, look at another road or topo map, highlighted some rivers, search the internet and imagine what it would be like to go there. Then I’d check the cost, look at my insufficient budget and promptly plan a less expensive angling adventure instead. Something closer and more manageable like springtime Rooster fishing in Baja, or a week or two just south of the border dry-fly fishing Silver Creek in Idaho or the Missouri river in Montana….all wonderful destinations in their own right.

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author along river, photo by roman

When I thought about a trip to NZ I first felt I’d have to go for a month, nothing less. Well life being what it is, I could never manage to string together thirty days. Finally I came to the conclusion that if I waited for the opportunity to spend a whole month there, it just might never happen. So I managed to put together two weeks and a few travelling days. It would be 13 angling days total in NZ. Not a lot of time but I felt possibly enough to shake off jet lag, orient myself, find my wading legs and get in synch with a few rivers. I felt that if  I could do that and if the weather cooperated, I may have a chance to fool a few amazing NZ trout with dry flies, and hey, maybe even a trophy.

I picked late February, early March as summer in the southern hemisphere would be coming to an end and transitioning into Fall. I hoped less anglers would be around as the prime time season would be winding down; I hoped that water levels would be like they are at home at that time of year: generally low and clear; I hoped for sun so I could sight fish; I hoped the trout would be looking up and willing to eat some of the terrestrial flies that I planned to tie and fish; I hoped for a shot at some special fish. I hoped for a lot.

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THE MIDDLE

I met a friend, Roman, the first week I was there. He had already been there for several days and had warned me from a distance to, “Bring your A game”. He had been catching but reported the angling was extremely challenging. Our time overlapped for a week and then I fished solo for my remaing week.

While Roman was in NZ he bungee jumped, climbed into a bi-plane, and sped our rental car around like a professional rally driver, leaving a good portion of the front bumper  somewhere up on Rainbow Station road. He fished with equal enthusiasm and caught some great trout. On two occasions I was fortunate enough to be close by and photographed some of the ones he caught. His featured rainbow and brown trout below were some of the best of the week. His confidence fly: a yellow humpy. He was a great angling and travelling pal.

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roman: fish on!

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roman with fish off of bank

 

It is much easier to sight fish when it is sunny so on my second week I tried to stay flexible and mobile. I watched the weather reports and went where the conditions were predicted to be most favorable. I chased the light…

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I also chased open terrain. It’s simply where I enjoy fly fishing the most.

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brown trout

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In the clear low water conditions the fish tended to be in and around the pools and along banks with some depth or those in close proximity to pools. I’d cover the shallow river sections quickly and then slowed down and was especially watchful in the prime areas. That’s where a good fish would be. If not, then it was onward and forward to the next promising pool. In NZ you have to cover ground. Often it is as much about walking as it is fishing.

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Spotting fish was all about maintaining concentration. Lose it and you’ll miss or spook fish. Scare a fish and you might not see another one for a long time. I scared my share, especially in low light conditions.

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great bank, early frost

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a great bank

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large bank brown

I caught all of my fish on dry flies, most of them being terrestrial patterns. Usually the smaller sizes were best. By the time we arrived in NZ the trout had been fished over by local and international anglers for 4 solid months. Also two out of the three rivers we fished were quite famous and therefore they probably receive additional angling pressure all season long. I found most trout to be quite selective and challenging. There were signs other anglers had been around but I rarely saw anyone during my 13 days there.

All trout caught were released.

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ant pattern

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others have fished here

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beetle pattern

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larger pattern: cicada

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Brown trout blend in well with any sort of river bottom and with bank shadows and coverage. Often they are difficult to spot. You have to go slow, watch, then watch more, and look for shape and any sort of movement.

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large brown in shallows after release, blending in

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another released brown

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subtle path, river to right

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Once March arrived mornings were quite cold, especially on a river I fished on a high plateau. By mid day things always heated up, even the fishing.

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early morning frost and fog, heading for a river

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cool march morning

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photo by roman

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all day fishing equipment

Holiday parks (campgrounds) were a bargain in a relatively expensive country. Here are some photos of small cabins I rented (below)…all parks had hot showers, some had a community kitchen and laundry facilities. Many of these units were booked by vacationers. Town Fish and Chip stands were also a great deal.

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small town coffee shop

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photo by roman

Other images…

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had to beach this big brute

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in open terrain sometimes you have to deal with wind

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END – LAST DAY

It’s my 13th day here in NZ, my last day and it’s coming to an end. The light is waning. I’ve got this 8 pound plus brown trout feeding on some tiny Blue Winged Olives (BWO’s) riding a bubble line on the outer bend of a large perfect curve on the famous river that I’m on. I’ve read a lot about this river but no one ever mentioned any sort of hatch in their reports. Yet here is this oversized trout feeding on them. It’s windy. It’s cold. I’m wet and I have been out in it for 8 hours without waders. I have a full box of carefully designed BWO flies back in my car a one hour walk away. A lot of good they’re doing me in the bottom of my duffel bag! The big fish took a good look at a small ant pattern I tossed its way but rejected it. The ant has duped several picky fish on this trip.It also came close to eating an Adams like pattern but didn’t. I decide I’ve got to hike back to my car, heat up, organize my luggage and head for the Christchurch airport 4 hours away. I’ve simply run out of time. Leaving a fish like that feeding is sacrilegious but I’ve seen some great fish in the past two weeks and made some connections. I tie on a fairly big cicada pattern and toss it above the trout knowing what the end result will be – he’ll take off! The cicada passes over him, his feeding comes to an abrupt end and he disappears. Game over. Now I can go back to the car and get warm.

On the drive to Christchurch I’m thinking of my time in NZ: All the large, beautiful trout; seeing them rise; the clear rivers and majestic terrain; Roman taking off in the bi-plane; the outstanding brown trout he caught on the bank; great breakfasts at the Wrinkly Lamb; the Aussies talking about a river in the shadow of a high peak north of a big lake where they spotted many large skittish browns; a small fly shop owner talking about the same river and warning us about the Quick Sand around it; another angler looking bug-eyed while describing his experience the previous day on a small river two hours away where he and his guide spotted a 3 foot long brown trout cycling in a pool and how he cast to it and the fish ate but the fly didn’t set; I’m thinking about a Fish and Game officer telling me about a river two valleys south where big sea run browns return and how his friend fished it recently and spotted several but couldn’t get them to take. I’m thinking about all this and that I need to try to get back to the south island and Chase the Light. That’s what I’m thinking. And as I said at the beginning of this post, “All journeys start in your head; they start with a thought”.

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coulee trout

I’ve been fly fishing the SW corner of Alberta for sixteen years. Although the region has many fine rivers and streams, in the last several seasons I’ve been focusing on just a few rivers that are some distance from the mountains out on the prairies. Fish numbers aren’t real high in these flows but they hold some remarkable, challenging trout. With scarcity comes value.

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prairie road

 

The rivers run through rolling grassland terrain, often down in valleys and canyons. It’s Coulee country and for most of the summer sun drenched, windy in the afternoons, and very arid. From a nearby prairie road, which runs straight like an arrow seemingly to the horizon, you wouldn’t think that there is a river anywhere. If someone told you there was, you certainly wouldn’t think it contained some well conditioned trout.

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The region has few trees. The ones that do make a stand tend to be stunted by the harsh, dry conditions. The openness of the terrain makes the fly fishing extra challenging as there is nowhere for an angler to hide. The blinding summer sun can be your friend or foe. It all depends on how you use it. It helps you spot fish but also makes you very visible. You’ve got to be strategic about where you stand; where you position yourself.

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The coulee shadows, only available early and late in the day, can help you stay stealthy. You can hide in them. The rest of the time you need to use the sun to your advantage. I’m always checking my shadow in relation to the water and when possible try to position myself between the sun and a fish that I’ve located. Sight-fishing is all about the interaction between light and water.

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When the sun is at its zenith it’s best if possible to approach a trout from behind or from well upstream to avoid being noticed. If you want to get in tight to a fish you often have to crouch or crawl. My stream-side mantra is “stay low and go slow”. Any movement is easily detected in the great wide open and trout will quickly bolt to the safety of darker water. Spook a trout and you’ve missed a chance, and on some days you don’t get too many. The catch percentages in the coulees often aren’t real high. In fact on many days they are quite low. Remember with scarcity comes value…

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Clouds may roll in and turn the river surface a silvery grey and therefore impenetrable to the human eye. This makes spotting trout almost impossible. The wind can turn gale force and challenge any weakness in your casting mechanics. A fly embedded in your cheek or ear lets you know who’s in charge. The swoop or shadow of an osprey or hawk over the water will make a trout you have been carefully watching flee. On some days you’ll feel you are being plotted against. You know it’s irrational to think this way… but you will. The old, ancient part of the brain will challenge and override the newer well-developed rational part. You’ll try to talk yourself out of this kind of superstitious, magical thinking but when everything seems to be going wrong and you can’t find or fool a single trout, you’ll succumb to it. You’ll feel jinxed.

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The rivers can have hatches and this can make things easier. When they don’t, or when they are stifled by the wind, you look for prowling/cycling fish. They often cruise the shallows searching where leftover flies and terrestrial bugs have collected. These fish are large, confident creatures but they still remain wary. They’re like coyotes who leave the hills at night in search of an easy meal in the back allies of a village. They have their territory and their daily routes. Watch their prowling patterns and where they choose to stall and feed, and it will pay dividends on an outing, or the next one. Spot a fish at one of these discovered locations on another day and you’ll feel a sense of mastery: that you are learning to read the river and the trout that inhabit it. It’s a feeling that is even better than catching.

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In certain spots you can climb the coulees. Up high you can scan a lot of water and locate feeding trout. At elevation hawks often dive and buzz your head at incredible speed. Sometimes they come so close I think they are going to clip the top of my fly rod off with the efficiency of a ceiling fan.

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When you can’t use height to your benefit you stand stationary at a good pool, again using the sun to your advantage for maximum visibility, and watch for movement. Fishing with your eyes takes concentration and patience. You have to manage yourself well in order to be successful. Fish like you’d imagine Obama would fish, not his successor. You’ve got to resist the impulse/ temptation to flog the water by repetitive casting. The old fishing books call it ” hoarding your casts”. It’s hard to do as most of us learned to fish on rivers that required casting over and over in order to make a connection. When sight-fishing you’ve got to do the opposite.

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These rivers summon all of your angling skills. Finding trout on foot in this demanding environment and then tricking them with a dry fly is in my mind one of the ultimate fly fishing challenges.

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Above are some trout caught and released while sight-fishing with dries this past season.