Ants for summertime picky trout…some tied with fine deer hair “outrigger” like legs.
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…
PHOTOS FROM A RECENT angling adventure. It’s the trout that pull you to a far away destination. Part of the tug is also the land. I prefer rivers in open terrain and when in New Zealand I search for that. They can be windy. They can have a lot of glare…but you might as well fish in places you like and the way you like…
Yikes, that was brutal! Don’t know if I want to do that again. Tough trip. Dry-flies blowing upstream! Tough low-light conditions for sight-fishing. A lot of walking. Many days it was just a long hard slog: 10 miles plus. And in spite of our effort few fish were spotted. There simply weren’t that many opportunities. I think I averaged less than one quality chance per day. I saw less fish than in past seasons. Terrestrial fishing was almost non-existent. Maybe the summer just wasn’t consistently hot enough in the regions that I fished? The angling was best when the sun was out. However, “blue sky” days were rare. Most of the time it felt more like winter than summer. In the end, I caught a few good brown trout on dry flies. Four of the best were spotted on a high plateau river that I’ve fished in the past. It is “known” water but receives less angling pressure than some of the other rivers I was on. Here are some photos…
I’m eating fish and chips in a small town hotel pub. It’s about my eighth serving this trip and I don’t even like fish. But the Blue Cod doesn’t taste like anything from the sea. Once I break through the thick batter the meat is light, flaky and delicious. The owner comes over, introduces herself and pulls up a stool. She asks us about our day; where we’re from; where we’ve been fishing; and how our meal is? It takes me several seconds to get in gear and respond. It’s like I’m in some sort of trance like, hypnotic state. That’s what walking a river all day and staring into clear water does to me. It’s like I’ve been in a long deep sleep; or under a spell. It takes me awhile to re-surface; to wake-up. And my mind is elsewhere. I’ve been reviewing the day. I’m thinking about the high station river we just fished, and that one fish.
Brothers of the Angle
We talk to the owner about our day. She tells us about her hotel and the small town we are in. Her husband is behind the bar pouring pints and watching the comings and goings in the pub. Two dairy farmers at the next table join the conversation when they overhear that we have been fishing. One leans over with his phone and shows me a picture of a brown trout he caught this year. My eyes pop and I say, “unbelievable”. The fish is freakishly large; it’s disproportionate. I imagine Goodyear or MetLife stenciled on its side. With my favorable reaction he proceeds to show me a dozen more photos of super-sized trout. He, and hundreds of other anglers, catch the giants on conventional tackle in a canal north of here in the central South Island near the town of Twizel. I drove along the canal a year ago and witnessed the angling scene. The trout position themselves just below a large salmon farm and feed on its effluent and residual food pellets. The location is like an aquatic feed lot; it’s a buffet. The canal is really the antithesis of the locations I have been fishing and a completely different angling experience. But in the end it’s still fishing and the dairy farmers are as excited about their annual pilgrimage to the canal as I am about fly fishing the regions and rivers that I have been on. And excitement, anticipation (dreams) and adventure is what fuels all anglers whether we are casting a worm, a red devil lure or a fly.
Roman gets up from the table and starts playing fetch with the pub owner’s dog, a Border Collie. It chases the tennis ball from one end of the bar to the other, darting between tables as patrons drink and have supper. No one pays attention. It’s obviously a common scene here. The Collie gets so excited with the game that it tries to leap up on the pool table. It doesn’t quite make it, slides off and lands awkwardly on the floor. I watch it for a second. It bounces up and is alright. People briefly look up at the disturbance, then go back to their pints, meals, and conversation. The dairy farmer shows me another picture. It’s a photo of a dozen or so of the giant trout, some 30 lbs plus, stuffed into the back of his pick-up truck. I say, “you eat em?” He smiles and nods.
The pub owner retreats to the kitchen for a moment. The dairy farmers go outside for a smoke. I have time to return to my spell and think about the day, the river and that one fish.
I was hiking a cliff when I spotted it. I almost missed it which is hard to believe given its size and the good lighting…one of the largest wild trout I’ve ever seen. Maybe I wasn’t expecting anything as I had just covered several km’s of river and had seen little. It was lying in the shallows in a little depression. A great spot. I watched it for a moment from my perch. It remained relatively motionless. You’re always hoping for some kind of movement; some sign of feeding. That means you have a chance. I made my way down to the river and got in behind and a little to the side of the trout; perfect positioning. My casts were on the mark. At first I tried a small terrestrial dry, then eventually some larger dries and ended with some wets but the trout wouldn’t feed. I left it alone for an hour or more and then returned. Same result. Roman eventually tied on a big blonde Zonker and tugged it in front of the fish. It simply cruised-off to deeper water where it disappeared.
The river is not known for having a lot of fish. It’s a long shot place. If I’m fortunate enough to return some other season, I’d probably have to donate at least two full days to it, maybe more, in order to give myself a fair chance. When you go to a river like that you really are swinging for the fence and you have to remind yourself that home run hitters also strike out the most. You’ve got to be prepared to get skunked. That’s kind of the deal you have to make with yourself before stepping into that river; the deal you make even before you make the long drive up there on the high station road. You go up there for the hunt, the space and the silence, and maybe, just maybe, one great fish.
It’s late. The owner is making her rounds and then goes into to the kitchen. Meal time is just about done. Her husband is still pouring pints. The Collie is circulating through the pub looking for a play mate. The dairy farmers are back outside having another smoke. The place is slowly thinning out. I look up at the bar’s big screen. Championship Sheep Shearing is on. I’m in Waikaka, NZ.
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.