I’m into bleaching-out my photos lately…adding brightness. Dark times, why not add light…
Places. Special places. We all have them. They resonant with us for personal reasons. Many of mine are places with water, clear water, and fish. Places like the Salmon river in Malone, New York; a stream below an old covered bridge in Powerscourt, Quebec; a particular side channel on the Missouri river in Montana; coastal La Ribera, Baja; a Snook beach along the gulf coast, Florida; the Crowsnest River, Alberta. Some of the best brief, and not so brief, moments in my life have been standing, toes wet, in the middle of these places. Another such place is a river in New Zealand (NZ) that I wrote about it in my blog two years ago: https://troutondries.com/2017/11/18/high-plateau/.
In the High Plateau post I said there are rivers in NZ where I have caught bigger fish and rivers where I have seen more fish but in my mind the high plateau is still the most special. It’s the austere beauty of the place; it’s the wide open, wind swept, rolling grassland terrain the color of wheat, yellow ochre, and my golden retriever; it’s the long slow flat pools and bends; it’s the fact that I have to use all of my angling skills and sometimes fish to almost perfection in order to make a connection there; it’s the extreme wariness of the trout in the wide open land where an angler has no place to hide; it’s the challenge of the place…
This year I was fishing six hours away from the high plateau at the opposite end of the South Island. Due to flooding and road closures I was unable to visit it the first week. However, every day I checked its flows. I checked and re-checked morning and night. They were always high; less than ideal. The river would drop. My optimism would rise. Then the flow would spike and all hope would be dashed. The route up to the high plateau is also a scary, switchback dirt road with no guard rails. With the heavy rain the region had been experiencing I knew it would be muddy and slick. I’ve driven it before in wet weather. I wondered whether I could make it up there. All year I had planned to return. I even rented a more expensive AWD vehicle to make the journey. I hoped to fish the sections I’ve been on in the past and then cover a few spots that I have never tried. Man plans, God laughs…
On my second week of the NZ trip I decided to venture south to the high plateau knowing that my chances due to conditions (continued rain) of catching a good one on a dry fly would be slim to none. And that proved true. I made the long drive crossing one raging river after another on the way down. The large glacier fed lakes I circumvented were white-capped, ocean like looking in temperament, and threatening to flood the roads and tourist towns on their edge. The wind blew, the clouds were low, and I drove through storm after storm. I got a tiny cabin rental at a holiday park for the night and then early the next morning I tackled the muddy, slippery switchback road up to the plateau. What normally takes me thirty minutes took one hour. But I got there. I brought along extra food, water, warm cloths, and my sleeping bag in case I got stuck and had to wait for things to dry out. My first day there it rained. It was cold for summertime. Snow collected on the hills that fringed the river valley. Surprisingly, water clarity wasn’t too bad but it was much higher and faster than when I fished it in other years. Many pools I had fished in the past weren’t really pools due to the higher flow. I knew of one exceptionally big and long pool, with a back eddy, where I thought I might find some slow, flat water and possibly a rising or cycling fish if insects showed.
On the east side of the pool there is high ground. I’ve sat up there and watched the whole pool when conditions were ideal: blue skies and sun. No such luck my first day. I still went up. I could see into the water on my side of the river so I sat there and watched. Wild Hare grazed above and below me, most not noticing my presence. Eventually I spotted movement in the eddy: a large yellow toned trout feeding mainly below but occasionally rising. It was in the curl back of the eddy facing downstream. Sometimes, however, it would turn around and face and feed upstream. Its behavior suggested there was food but not enough for it to stay in just one tight feeding position. Due to its unpredictable movement approaching and fishing to it would be tricky. However, it was feeding and therefore I had a chance. And a chance is what it is all about.
When I dropped down from my perch I lost sight of the trout because of the grey skies and reflection. I had to wait for a rise. I chose an upstream position as most of the time the trout was looking downstream. I stayed real low, hugged the ground and waited for the a rise and then placed a small ant pattern nearby. I watched my impression and studied the mercurial surface for floating insects. There were some dark mayflies. Slightly larger than a Blue Winged Olive (BWO). I spotted a few even larger mayflies. Some but not a lot.
There was no response to my ant pattern so I let it drift back, gently picked it up and put on a size 14 BWO, tied parachute style with a black post for visibility. I waited for the fish to rise again and then tossed my second offering. I did this two or three times and then the rises stopped. I waited awhile then went back up to my perch to see if I could spot the fish again. After some time I located it. It was still in the eddy but down deep. I waited and watched but it never surfaced again. Eventually it disappeared. I had my chance. Day one.
I drove the slick winding descent home to my cabin and that night dried all of my gear with the little electric heater provided. Next morning it was sunny and I waited awhile for the road to hopefully dry-out. By mid-morning I made the journey back up to the plateau. This time it was a mix of sun and cloud. The wind was howling when I got up to the river. Flows were even higher due the previous day’s heavy rain. There was a car at the bridge so I drove on. As I passed through a large sheep station another car caught up to me. When I stopped to open a station gate the occupants of the car, anglers, asked me where I planned to fish. I told them. They said they’d fish the beat below me. I drove to the same location as the day before, however, there was a shiny pick-up truck with two long rod holders on its roof at the parking area. I arrived too late. In past seasons I’ve rarely seen another angler on the river. I usually have the water to myself. It’s one of the attractions of the place. Not so today. I would have to fish the top beat, which meant fast pocket water and rapids. With all the rain and high water it wasn’t a good sight-fishing option. I spent a fruitless morning on it and then drove the road back downstream at noon to see if the other anglers were still around. Their cars were gone so I jumped on one of the lower beats but saw nothing the rest of the day. That was day two.
On the way back to my car I spotted a rabbit that obviously had been crushed by an ATV. The nearby large sheep station appears to have been promoting tourism: a high end farm-stay type of business. I noticed they had half a dozen high performance looking ATV’s parked in a straight row outside of the guest accommodations. I had observed many tire tracks along the river something I had not seen in past seasons. Why they’d allow their guests to drive riverside, I don’t know. There are endless opportunities in the nearby hills. Tire tracks and ruts along a river are always disappointing to see. I’ve seen this scenario before at home. Mud ruts form, get deeper and grow, and fill with standing water. Subsequent riders follow the same path. The gouges don’t heal. They become permanent. The place starts looking used, abused and just plain ugly.
The third day I got up early and got to the big pool at 7:30-8:00 am. I had the place to myself. No cars anywhere. I had seen spinners hovering along the river the first rainy day I fished it and wondered if there was a morning or mid morning spinner fall. No such luck. The clouds were back but thankfully no rain. I watched the pool all morning. The same bugs hatched in the early afternoon but the fish never made an appearance. The flow was still high. I hung in until late afternoon, watched and when cold walked and checked the other nearby pools above and below but saw nothing. I thought maybe the great trout had been caught the day before and was down deep recovering; maybe it had been harassed and moved briefly elsewhere; I don’t know? I simply couldn’t find it again…
If you fly fish a lot you know that many days are like this, unlike what is generally reported in angling social media, videos, etc. People display their successes (I’m no different), rarely the times when they get ‘blanked”. When sight-fishing sometimes you simply just don’t see much; you don’t have a lot of opportunity; and you don’t catch. Sometimes you simply walk a lot; much more than you want to. Sometimes you get cold, wet, your nose runs and your fingers freeze, or you get blown off the water by extreme wind. It’s all part of it. I could have thrown streamers or chucked weighted nymphs and possibly improved my chances up on the High Plateau. Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s not why I traveled to the plateau.
If you’ve fished for a long time you probably have a fairly rigid set of parameters which you operate by. You try catching in a certain way, pick water that matches your angling style, often fish certain specific/select flies that you like. Your way or choices are no better than any other way people fly fish or fish in general. It is just the place that you’ve come to. It is where you are after a long refinement process. It’s what you seek. It’s what you look for when you head out for a day on the water.
Periods of heavy rain were predicted for the next day and the day after. The flow on the river I had fished my first week, six hours north, was dropping and so I decided to make the drive back there late that afternoon. I was, however, satisfied with my return to the high plateau. I got back. I got back and in spite of all the weather adversity I had one good opportunity with one of the river’s large wild brown trout. One opportunity was enough.
The high plateau! Still the ultimate challenge. Still the best place I ever fished. I hope to return some day.
It’s good to have places…
Fly fishing NZ. My fourth trip and another reminder that weather always rules the day. It can rule a week. It can even rule a whole month.
I arrived in the middle of December. The beginning of the month had been very wet. Flying the last leg from Auckland to Christchurch I could see all the major rivers on the north and south islands were high and muddy. The sediment they carried from the mountains to the coast stained the marine blue Tasman sea. It didn’t look promising. Most anglers come to NZ to sight-fish for trout. The key word being “sight”. It’s impossible to see trout in rivers that are a coffee colored torrent. And that’s what I was looking at from twenty thousand feet above. When I landed I learned that the main highway connecting the north to the south end of the island was closed as there were concerns the raging rivers had compromised one or more bridges south of Christchurch. It stayed closed for several days.
I started second guessing my decision to visit in December. In past seasons I fished in late February, early March. Even then, however, weather was still somewhat of a wild card. I remember when tropical storm Gita hit the south island a few years back. Flooding followed making angling challenging for several days in the Southland region. And several days in a two week trip is a significant amount of time. There simply are no weather guarantees in NZ.
A friend, Roman, had already been in NZ for a week before I arrived. His angling report wasn’t good. In spite of travelling many regions, routes and back roads he had not found any clear water. He had hooked one fish on a river that looked promising but then a deluge occurred and the door to opportunity closed.
He ended up calling a number of fly shops and was informed of a river that ran through an urban setting on the eastern side of the island that was clear. He checked it out. That’s where we met when I arrived. The information he gleaned saved our trip and he was rewarded with the trout of the trip: a big sea run brown.
One holiday park (campground) owner told me the river we were on is usually just a “trickle” in mid-December. It’s considered an early season angling location and best fished in October and November. With the frequent rain it still had a decent flow, was easy to crisscross and get to the prime areas. The best spots were where the river rubbed up against banks lined with willows. This is where we located fish and had our most productive angling. These treed sections also cast a shadow that broke the ever present river glare, especially when it was cloudy (which we had a lot of) and allowed us to look into the water and spot fish. We were sight-fishing when most rivers were on flood alert!
You learn a lot about a river when you walk and explorer it for several days in a row like we did. Some of the pieces of the puzzle start fitting together; you start noticing the tiny nuances…
We often fished within sight of a couple highway bridges their undersides sprayed with colorful graffiti and equally colorful messages. We fished to the sound of the morning and evening rush hour, car horns and sirens. We fished while locals with big wheeled 4X4 trucks occasionally drove up and down the gravel river bed often fording river channels above or below us. It wasn’t what you would describe as a pristine back-country angling setting. But the water was clear and that was the key. Finding clear water was like finding gold. And with the clear water we were able to find something equally precious: brown trout..
The trout were large and extremely challenging. When people say “any fly will do” with NZ trout that’s simply not true. Of course every river is different and has its demands and peculiarities and this can change as the season progresses. Maybe sometimes fly choice doesn’t matter; most times it does. These browns, sea run and resident, were as selective in their feeding as anywhere I’ve ever been and they were wary. I quickly learned that the “plop”of a heavy foam beetle fly, close or even some distance away, scared most fish. Trout lying in shallow riffle sections were also often spooked by large flies drifting overhead. I had to cast small, soft-landing patterns. I even connected with a few trout on a willow grub dry fly. The nuances of a river!
I had a three or four day stretch where I landed a good brown trout every day then went five or six days without catching a fish. Early on we had a couple full sun calm days followed by windy weather and frequent cloud cover. The quality of the lighting makes all the difference in the world when sight fishing. You’ll notice that some of or best trout were caught when it was sunny. During my dry spell I had a couple connections and break-offs as large trout bolted into willow branches to free themselves. I also had a few fish eat my fly but no hook-up. That’s all part of any outing/trip.
In my second week the river flow tripled due to heavy rain, Roman had left, and I went south in search of a clear back-country river. The back-country, however, was still under water. I returned to the river Roman and I had fished when the flow receded a little and managed one more fine brown trout. It was feeding in a shallow riffle section but couldn’t be enticed to rise to a dry fly. I ended-up sight-fishing with a size 18 PT like nymph, no bead-head, just some wire ribbing on the body for a bit of weight.
Some holiday park rental cabins…….
Since this is a DIY post my advice when planning a NZ fly fishing trip is bring a lot of flies, from minuscule to fairly large in size: emergers, dries and nymphs. I could have used my midge box on this trip. On one day a size 18 caddis pattern looked gigantic in comparison to what a brown trout was sipping on. Same goes for terrestrial patterns. Bring tiny to large ones. My most effective terrestrial pattern this season and in the past was a small foam ant. You might end up just fishing one fly on your trip. Or you might need to try a dozen different patterns on just one challenging trout. You never know. Because I was arriving relatively early in the angling season (less fishing pressure) I thought I could get away with casting big stuff on some of the rivers I had visited in the past. Well I never got to those rivers due to high flows and flooding, and where I ended up angling was all about small stuff: tiny dry flies and equally tiny nymphs.
Another adventure and some beautiful brown trout…
Time spent on a Spring Creek. One of the most beautiful ones in the world. Daunting when the hatches are poor. Daunting when the main one is tiny western olives, size 22. Small bugs, few bugs. Tiny and sparse. Not a great combo! Infrequent rises early in the week. Mainly small guys. I spent thirty minutes one day stalking a twelve inch rising fish. I had to crawl on my hands and knees through wetland to get above the trout, and to have a chance. And a “chance” is what it is all about. Once in position I fed line and watched it all: the drift downstream; the rainbow in just inches of water tip up and eat the ant pattern. Success on the Creek! Of course there was also Failure on the Creek. They go hand-in-hand. Each would be meaningless without the other.
Some days were grey. Some days were sunny. Some days were very windy. It was never warm and the fishing was never easy. A storm dumped two feet of snow at home so no complaints about being on the Creek. Flies sitting low or tied on emerger hooks and with a trailing shuck did best. That’s to be expected. Some Mahoganies made a welcomed appearance later in the week and rising fish became more frequent. The bigger fly made things a little easier. Ant and beetle patterns also took some bank fish. I never saw a rise that suggested a trophy trout.
I accessed the creek in several spots just off of N Picabo Road where I watched the water for rises from late morning until the shadows lengthened and the cold crept in at around 5:00-5:30pm. That’s when things shut down and I was reminded of what is coming: Winter… an angler’s worst enemy.
I had the lower Creek to myself. I never got to the more famous and busy upstream Preserve section where hatches tend to be more consistent and prolific. I had my dog Abby with me and canines aren’t allowed on the Preserve.
I catch bigger trout at home and more in other places but the Creek, surrounding region and towns have a distinctive/singular beauty.
Time spent on a Spring Creek…