They appear out of the mist in a small beat-up truck that has metal cage like kennels bolted to the flat-bed. A man and woman jump out and flip the latches on the cages. Several dogs, all Border Collies, bolt through the doors like thoroughbreds at the start of the Derby. The woman makes sharp whistling sounds and the dogs immediately respond. They push the sheep herd in the wanted direction. It’s a well rehearsed, beautiful choreography. Everybody knows their moves, even the sheep. The man and woman make eye contact with me and nod. They see me for what I am, an angler. I nod back. I’m probably on their property; their large sheep station; their ranch. They have thick woolen hats on. She’s in a bulky sweater. He’s in a tattered work jacket. It’s early in the day, cool and drizzly yet like all herders I’ve seen here in NZ, they are in shorts and high Wellington type boots. Their foot wear, like their truck, has seen a lot of miles. They head off on foot with the dogs and sheep leaving a trail in the wet grass, and disappear over a hill. I go down to the river. As I walk I keep hearing whistling in the distance. I’m on a high country station somewhere in Central Otago. I feel I’ve been here before even though I know I have not.
I’m up early checking and getting my gear together; my morning ritual. It’s still dark but the campground is alive. Touring cyclists are going through their own preparations: tinkering with their road bikes, their specialized shoes and cycling packs. They are as excited about the day ahead as I am. Some are already on the road. I can see bicycle lights strobing in the distant dark.
A fellow camper drops by. I can tell he’s an angler by his outfit: shorts over synthetic long-johns. It’s kind of the official uniform here for people who chase trout. His name is Remi and he is from France. He fly fishes NZ three months a year and has done so for several seasons. He asks me how the fishing has been. I reply, “slow for me”. He says it’s been, “slow” for him too and that other anglers are reporting the same.
Remi feels we are here “too late” in the season. He also feels there are “too many anglers” around. I tell him I was here last year at the same time and the fishing was excellent. He says, “the same time?” I reply, “the exact same time”. He looks puzzled
Remi and I talk about NZ rivers and trout. He’s a great resource given all the time he spends here. Then I head out to fish. Light is starting to flood the valley and I want my last day to be a full one. I’ve run out of food and first head for a local coffee shop that opens at 8:30 am most days. Sometimes it opens at 9:00 am. That’s small town NZ…open late, close early. I grab a couple of muffins, a large flat white (coffee) and a thick chicken sandwich. I’ve still have three large Smitten apples in the bottom of my backpack and a liter of water, so I should be good for a full day.
The muffins are gone in an instant and I think about what Remi said, “We are here too late…there are too many anglers around”. I didn’t want to hear that. I already feel jinxed on this trip and my angling confidence is low. Just before I arrived in NZ tropical storm Gita blew through and with it came heavy rain, high and dirty rivers. And the trout seem to be “off”. Many we have come across in the shallows seem to have lock-jaw and are inactive. Spotting fish has also been challenging with the heavy skies. Those that are feeding seem to be down deep and on nymphs; very tiny nymphs. When the water starts to clear and optimism returns we get another deluge. At times on this trip I’ve felt like hanging up my wading boots. I’m taking the weather personally which of course is irrational. But anglers are like farmers…much of our success or failure is dependent on what is going on above, in the sky.
The morning is still cold as I arrive at the river after visiting the coffee shop. I wet wade through a side-channel on the way to the main flow. It’s bright outside but there is high thin white cloud that is casting a milky glare on the river. I can still see through the surface but not a great distance. I feel I’ll be able to spot a fish in the shallows or one tight to the bank if I go slow and search carefully. Wishful thinking? I don’t know. In spite of walking 7 to 15 km a day on river stones and through thick clumpy Tussock grass for the last twelve days, with little sight-fishing success, I still have the energy and the desire to find a great fish. There are few things in life that I have this much resolve and patience for. I still have today. I have 8 more hours ahead of me. I’m going to put in my time and search.
It’s already windy which means this afternoon it could really blow and make angling and trout spotting tough. Morning might be my best shot; my best chance. At the first river pool and run that I come across I spot a large trout lying in the shallows. I’m shocked. Luck like this just hasn’t happened on this trip. It’s not moving much. It’s decision time: small nymph or little terrestrial dry? My hands shake at the sight of the impressive trout. I decide to go with what I’d toss at home. I cast and the beetle drifts a little, and I mean just a little (a few inches), to its left. No response. I cast again and this time it passes slightly to its right. Again, no response. After 2 or 3 more casts I get it right, the fly lands dead ahead of the fish and tracks right to its nose. His very large head tilts up and eats. What?!!! I can’t believe it. I set the hook, it holds and I eventually land it. When I take the trout out of the net to get a photo it lies motionless. I admire it for a moment and then without warning it bolts. I lunge with the net but it’s gone…no picture…I can’t believe what just happened.
I try to compose myself and continue on upstream and within 10 minutes spot another large fish on a bank in shallow water. Another chance. It rises to the fly, I land it and this time get a few photos. Then a little later I locate another great one on a bank. It also surfaces but the hook doesn’t set and it disappears into deep water and doesn’t return. I’m OK with that. I’m getting chances. More opportunity sight-fishing with a dry-fly in the last few hours than I’ve had in the past twelve days.
The wind picks-up and then starts to howl and spotting fish becomes almost impossible by mid day. A bit of wind riffle on the water can actually help you see better. Too much, and it’s like someone has pulled down the window blinds. I persevere, spook one and then don’t see any more all afternoon. I return to my vehicle at 5 pm. I’ve walked all day and searched the water well. I’ve seen no other anglers. My best day angling of the trip. The door finally opened today. I had been standing there knocking on it all week and then it happened; it opened, just for half a day, but it opened. There was opportunity…two wonderful trout spotted and caught on dries. It’s why I came here.
Roman and I threw streamers when the water was dirty and big dries when the sky and water started to clear. When the rivers finally settled we had some opportunity to sight-fish. We probably caught less than a dozen trout but they were good ones. Quality over quantity. It is what fly fishing in NZ is really about. Here are more photos of rivers, landscape and trout. Some of the fish pictures below are of the same trout featured above but taken at different angles.
I’ve been looking forward to reading about your trip to NZ. It’s a nice piece of writing and I enjoyed it. I liked the stories of the sheep herders and the guy from France, and how you persevered through what must have been tough fishing conditions. You can’t control the weather, and what it can do to the water, but it looks like you sure made the best of it. Great photos of fish, water, and scenery.
Hey Vic: Thanks for dropping in and for comments on New Zealand post. Really enjoyed your post on the passing of Lefty Kreh on vicbergman.com/blog/ Nice photos of him. Like the one of you and him. He is really Fly Fishing Royalty. Nice tribute…you are lucky to have met him. I’ve always wanted to meet Lefty and Nick Lyons.
Bob, you’ve capture the NZ experience well. Thanks for taking me along. The van accommodations looked nice and cozy, but how does one manage without coffee ’til 8:30 a.m.?
Les: Thanks for comments on NZ post. Amazing place….for sight-fishing. Van is the way to go if you are fishing: mobility, stay close to rivers’ etc. NZ lodging is often all booked up yr in advance….tourists everywhere. With van you can drive away from bad weather and fish good weather; unless of course you get a tropical storm that covers most of the island(s)…LOL.
Managing to wait until 830am (coffee) is challenging. Larger towns I found coffee at 7am…that fit my early bird schedule. Look forward to your Spring post from Montana.
Sounds like you had a great trip. I love the photos, both of the scenery and the fish.
Douglas: Glad you enjoyed the photos of NZ trip: special place for a trout angler….been out of town so will check in on your blog: the watercalls.ca and see what is up. Again, thanks for dropping in.
I love your posts. I’m also an Alberta angler and have been visiting the South Island of NZ for 5 seasons in a row now. Every year your posts remind me of my own trips, but I don’t take as nice of photos as you do! I also landed two days after Gita this year, which had my plans totally thrown for a loop. Then we all had to deal with another heavy front only a couple days later. Tough go for weather. Glad to hear you had one of those special days, even if it was just for half a day. Nice writing 🙂
Brandon: Thanks for taking the time to comment on blog: writing and posts. The photography comes easy but the writing does not; it takes me some time to put a story together. NZ is inspiring for a trout angler, so words come a little easier. You are lucky man to have spent 5 consecutive seasons fishing those great rivers. I hope to return next yr and hopefully have better weather. I landed a week after the tropical storm but like you still had some heavy fronts come through which meant elevated water….my second week things settled down but fish still kind of “off”. I’m presently writing another brief post/story on past trip. Will finish it by this weekend or next…so check it out. It’s always nice to get feedback…thanks for taking the time.
I loved your next NZ post, and all of the subsequent posts around southern AB this spring have made me miss homewaters as I’m abroad this summer. Quick question for you: when tying your emergers and small dries for NZ, what hooks have you found to be the right balance of strength for the big trout while also still being decent for flotation? I’ve gone back and forth on this often after bending hooks out of hot fish in small streams, then getting frustrated by poor flotation after a batch of 2X heavy shanks…
Bob, I like this post about NZ very much, amazing photos!
Humberto, Thanks for comment on post and photos. Just checked your blog: achalabrookies………amazing you have a copy of Halford’s dry fly book! Pretty special. A classic!! Nice photos on your blog of small stream fishing in your region of Argentina….like the banner photo on your blog and picture of you casting in the late light on most recent post.
Thank you for your blog Robert, NZ looks like a place I would like to visit after my Africa trip, what is the best time to go there?
Peter: I’m certainly no expert on NZ; only fished it 2 twice…and just 2 weeks at a time. Not a good sample size. The angling season is long, late nov/Dec through to end of March…even April. Most visiting anglers fish jan and feb as NZ summer, warmest, also busy. I’ve only fished it end of Feb and early March…kind of transitioning into their Fall on South Island. I hear december before Xmas is good as less anglers around, fish less picky. I guess a lot has to do with how much time you have and what type of fly fishing you like to do…if you are versatile and enjoy fishing subsurface with nymphs and streamers then any of above months, good. I go when I do, hoping for low, clear water so I can fish on top with dries/terrestrials.
Google: best time to fly fish NZ and you will find several articles describing the angling seasons and what type of fishing to expect each season…hatches, etc. Also, check out Jensen Flyfishing, their NZ page…lots of info. Hope this is helpful. Thanks for dropping in.
Brandon: Re:hooks. I have the same dilemma! I too am in search of a super strong but not too heavy small fly hook, esp emerger type. Most of my small dries I tie on daiichi hooks, wide gap…I find them reasonably pretty strong and float well…. When it comes to emergers I fish a lot of Klinkhammers and use a daiichi brand but are not happy with them: bend out and hook up rate poor. On larger patterns size 16 and up I do better with a quality standard wide gap dry fly hook and when I put it in vise I put a slight bend in it myself. Sometimes I tie with a quality scud/ emerger hook but then flotation is an issue depending on pattern/ style( how much hackle or polypro, or both, I put at the head). If you find a strong light emerger hook let me know.
Brandon: TMC 9300 is a heavy dry fly hook…going to buy some and try em out.
Thanks bob – good to hear I’m not the only one facing the dilemma! I have tied most of my emergers for NZ this year on Hends BL 510 (or other Hends 1X Strong nymph hooks) as they are lighter than the 2X Strong but still heavier than typical dry fly hooks. I’ll let you know how they go next winter! Enjoy the PMDs.
Brandon: Ok, thanks for hook tip: Hends BL 510…I’ll take a look at them.