Simms Ambassador, Brant Oswald Reflects on his 2015 Trip to the South Island of New Zealand.
For most folks, the concept of a Montana fly fishing guide conjures up a vision of someone sitting in the rower’s seat of a drift boat. Don’t get me wrong, I love to row, and there aren’t many better experiences in angling than standing in the front knee braces, watching a dry fly drift into a juicy piece of water on the Yellowstone. But hike/wading is a very different experience and requires different fishing (and guiding) skills than float fishing. As a guide who specializes in hike/wade trips on the Paradise Valley spring creeks, I often feel my fellow guides wonder what I do every day without a set of oars in my hands. Over the years, my guiding style has come to emphasize sight fishing more and more, partially because it is so effective (and fun), but also because it allows me to introduce clients to a new set of angling skills. So it was natural that I would end up in New Zealand, perhaps the premier destination in the world to sight fishing for trout.
I should make it clear that a few visits don’t make me an expert on New Zealand fishing, but my time on the South Island in the last five seasons has given me enough experience to offer some ideas to prospective travelers. New Zealand’s trout fisheries are incredibly varied–from huge glacial lakes to small mountain tarns, from giant rivers to meandering willow lined meadow streams to tiny spring creeks–so there is no “typical” river or day of fishing. Of course, New Zealand offers plenty of fishing opportunities in gentle terrain, but for many, the quintessential New Zealand experience is a hike along a backcountry freestone river, hunting for big trout in runs and pools of almost otherworldly clarity. This style of fishing doesn’t always entail a strenuous hike, but it often means a daily walk of several kilometers, an occasional clamber over big boulders or logs, river crossings in fast water, and bushwhacking one’s way through native beech forest, so it does help to be reasonably fit if you plan to fish these rivers.
When my own guide clients in Montana ask what I have learned on my trips to New Zealand, I am reminded of one of the long overnight flights from San Francisco to Auckland a couple of seasons back, when I struck up a conversation with an American couple who were traveling to the North Island for a beach vacation. After hearing about my planned busman’s holiday, they asked an insightful question: “Is the fishing in New Zealand like the fishing back home?”
I’m guessing they got a longer answer than they wanted. Of course, the answer is both yes and no. Some aspects of trout fishing and trout behavior are universal, and figuring out the similarities and differences cuts to the core of my fascination with New Zealand fishing. I have learned a lot about Kiwi trout fishing in just a few seasons, as I have been lucky enough to fish with some of the best guides in the Nelson Lakes/West Coast region of the South Island. Sharing time with guides like Lindsay White and Boris Cech and Peter Carty has let me in on knowledge built from their decades of fishing and guiding experience.
So what have I learned? As many anglers have heard, compared to most North American fisheries, one can expect to see far fewer fish. This is not a destination where one should expect to rack up big numbers. On a typical day on a Kiwi freestone stream, an angler could expect to see a dozen fish (but remember those fish will average 3-6 pounds!). On some days, you’ll see lots of fish; on others, when the fish have not moved into feeding lies, even expert eyes may not find many targets. The cliché that one walks a kilometer between fish is sometimes an understatement, but you may also find a good run with several fish feeding within casting range. The combination of very clear water and stocks of fewer but larger fish is what makes this a sight fishing game.
On a good day, with minimal screw-ups, an angler will hook several fish and land a couple. Of course, there will be banner days when an angler might land more fish, but I have forced my guides to suffer though plenty of days with no fish in the net at all. If you need big numbers to make you happy, I’d head to the South Fork of the Snake rather than the South Island.
At least on the freestone backcountry streams, New Zealand fishing is not based on consistent hatch activity, so the fish are typically not selective feeders. As someone who spends much of the guide season dealing with fussy fish, very light tippet, and constant changes of tiny flies, it is a refreshing change. Fly selection is often pretty basic. In mid-summer, much of the dry fly fishing revolves around cicadas–the Kiwi equivalent of hopper fishing in the States. The list of typical summer dry flies includes beetles, blowfly patterns, and some attractors and impressionistic dries. Anglers should also carry a range of sizes in basic nymph patterns like the Pheasant Tail and Hare & Copper.
For fish that have few natural predators, they can be shockingly spooky. The key to success is a mix of good spotting skills, a careful approach and an accurate presentation–on the first cast–with minimal false casting.
The other standard cliché about NZ fishing is that you must say “God Save the Queen” when striking a dry fly fish. That’s not exactly right, but even experienced American anglers will have to adjust their timing. A big Kiwi fish can be amazingly methodical about how it inhales a big dry fly, and watching the biggest trout you have ever seen rise to the surface can give anyone an itchy trigger finger. In five trips, I have taken the fly away from more big fish than I care to think about, but I’m getting better….
What makes New Zealand such a great hike/wade destination? The answer is pretty simple. Much of the fishing is on streams too small to fish from a boat, and even on bigger rivers, the spookiness of the fish would make float fishing a marginal enterprise. So hiking and wading (“boots and shorts” fishing to the Kiwis) is the only option in most cases. Add in some of the most dramatic scenery in the world, and you have a wonderful place to hike and fish, even when the fishing is tough.
Although there are exceptions, the general fishing season runs from October through April. New Zealand has a temperate climate, so fishing can be excellent at any point in the season. Early season trips (before Christmas) are likely to involve more nymph fishing than dry flies, and expect your rain jacket to get frequent use. But fishing pressure is minimal, and it will be easier to book dates with the best guides in the off season. Most foreign anglers visit New Zealand in January, February and March. This is mid-summer into early fall in the southern hemisphere, and these months offer more settled weather, a higher proportion of dry fly fishing, and a chance to escape winter in North America or Europe. But it also means more tourist anglers and fishing pressure. By American standards, fishing pressure is minimal, but in peak season, you should expect to see other anglers, especially along streams with easy road access. And in fisheries with smaller populations of big fish, finding unpressured fish can be a key to success.
Since it is “just trout fishing”, packing for a New Zealand trip can be pretty basic, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First of all, if you are flying on an economy fare, you will be restricted to one checked bag with a 50 pound (23 kg) weight limit. If you are traveling for 2 or 3 weeks, that means you need to pack lightly and wisely.
Remember that New Zealand, in its efforts to minimize the spread of Didymo, has a ban on felt soles. When entering NZ, after clearing customs, you will have you gear inspected if you have declared (as you should) that you are bringing in fishing equipment. The NZ Biosecurity folks will ask when the wading equipment was last used. If it is clean, completely dry, and you assure them it has not been used for several months, they will usually take a quick look and pass you through. If you have used it recently, they will put it in a big plastic bag and wet it down with a detergent solution (since Didymo is their main concern) and give it back.
If you are in need of new waders or boots, buying them in preparation for a NZ trip is ideal, as having brand new wading gear makes this inspection quick and painless. Also be sure to pack your duffle so that you can get to the wading gear easily for the inspection.
On my 2015 trip, I found the Simms Vapor boot is a perfect choice for a New Zealand trip–they are light to pack (even when damp for the trip home), and the soles provide plenty of support and durability for hiking, as well as good traction for wading.
On a mid-season trip, you’ll probably encounter outstanding weather, but you’ll want waders for cool, rainy days for sure. On my 2015 trip, it had been unseasonably warm and dry all through January, but on our first day, we fished in a steady rain, brisk wind, and temperatures in the 50s. So waders and rain jackets are absolute necessities.
On nice days, consider wading Kiwi style, with shorts worn over long underwear like the Simms Waderwick™ Core Bottoms. This provides protection from sun and sandflies yet dries very quickly. If you prefer not to dress like a local, lightweight quick-drying pants like the Simms Guide Pant or Superlight Zip Off Pant work great.
When choosing lightweight fishing clothing, avoid bright blues, purples, and “flower colors” as they will attract bumblebees. You don’t have to wear camo, but avoiding bright reflective colors will make it easier to approach fish undetected.
Sunshine is a huge help in sight fishing, but protection from UV exposure is especially important in the southern hemisphere–use good quality sunblock and wear a brimmed hat. I have used the Simms Solarflex Guide Gloves and Sunhood on my last two trips, and they provide protection from sandflies as well as UV radiation. The new Fractal Camo Loden is a perfect NZ color.
The 2014-15 season was a “mouse year” in New Zealand, so I didn’t want to miss the chance to see big South Island browns when they had even more food to bulk up on. As the guides had predicted, the average fish was larger than what I had seen on previous trips, and the fish were in prime shape. The story of my biggest fish of the trip started when guide Boris Cech asked if my friend Ken and I were willing to invest a day hunting for a big one. We gladly accepted the fact that we might not have as many shots, but Boris hoped to give us a handful of opportunities at some truly big ones. (If you are interested, the specific location was a small tributary of a big river on the South Island.)
The day was pretty typical. Ken had a shot at the first fish, which refused to eat. Boris found our first big fish in a small rock ledge pool, where the fish was holding fairly deep next. The shot was fairly easy–a relatively short cast with a big dark cicada pattern. I managed to give the fish time to engulf the fly and a few minutes later, Boris had scooped up a beautiful 9 pound hen, my “best ever” New Zealand fish by a pound. Ken got another shot or two and had a run of bad luck–a couple of misses on strikes that looked OK and a hookup on a nymph that lasted only a second or two.
When my turn came around, Boris had found another big fish in a small pool very similar to the one I had fished earlier, but the fish was holding very deep. We could tell it was a big fish, but it was so deep we couldn’t see exactly how big. I put the same cicada pattern over this fish, it rose slowly to the surface, taking what seemed like an eternity, and gulped down the big fly. Inside my head, I was coaching myself to wait for the fish to turn down with the fly, then made the lift to set the hook, but it was a complete whiff–the fly just pulled out, without any contact with the fish. Now that we had seen the fish close up at the surface, we knew it was one of the fish we had come for.
A little backstory is in order here. One of Boris’ traditions is to challenge clients to a deal: if they catch a double digit fish (over 10 pounds), he gets to shave their head. With a group of middle-aged guys with minimal hair to lose, we all agreed.
We watched the fish settle back into the pool, and to our surprise, it didn’t seem spooked. With a characteristic shrug and grin, Boris said “Let’s try another dry fly.” He chose a cicada-sized beetle pattern, and we repeated the process. This time, the fish rose again, put its nose right on the fly, tracked it for several feet, refused it, and started to descend again. About halfway down, almost as if we were watching the fish change its mind, it turned, came back to the fly, and ate it. I set the hook, which held this time. I think I recall Boris making the helpful suggestion to not lose the fish. “It’s a big fish, Brant,” he said, “but I don’t think I get to shave you.” On 4X tippet, I could put a lot of pressure on the fish, and in a such small stream, the fish couldn’t make a long run as long as I kept him in his pool. I steered the fish away from a rock ledge in the center of the pool, and we slugged it out for a minute or two. When I started to slide the fish toward Boris’ net, he announced with another grin that I had an appointment at the Boris Cech hair salon. The fish pulled the scale down to an even 11 pounds. Not a bad day for a trout fisherman, eh? 20 pounds of brown trout in two fish, both on dry flies. And if you don’t believe in luck, you weren’t with us that day, watching me miss a fish of a lifetime, then having it come back to another dry fly, refuse it, and then come back to take it after all.
If you are thinking about a trip to New Zealand, I’d offer a few final thoughts to make the most of the trip. Budget as much time as possible, as weather and water conditions can be changeable, even in high summer. Rain can make most of the streams in an area unfishable, and it pays to have enough time to wait for conditions to turn around. If this happens, I’d suggest finding a pub and getting a Kiwi to explain the rules of cricket.
If you rent a car, keep it in the left lane. Try not to turn on the windshield wipers when signaling a turn, as it will identify you a tourist.
Don’t expect to catch fish in big numbers, even with a guide. Don’t get down on yourself when you blow a shot at a fish. If you do, it will feed on itself and you’ll usually find yourself in a slump. Just shake it off and look forward to the next opportunity.
Although one can fish New Zealand as a do it yourself trip, book some time with a guide. Especially if you are limited on time, their knowledge of local rivers and spotting skills will give you many more opportunities at fish. And don’t go back to fish the same water they showed you the next day. I find Kiwis to be some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever met, but that’s not the way to promote pan-Pacific friendliness.
Don’t “jump” another angler. If you see a car parked along a stream, assume they are fishing upstream and give them plenty of room for a day’s fishing.
There is so much water in New Zealand that you’ll never fish it all in a dozen lifetimes. But if given a chance, I’d spend as much of this one as possible hiking up some beautiful valley, knowing the next big fish is right around the corner.