This article was recently published in the Fishing Wild Magazine
Title: Waders are for Sissies
Subtitle: Extracts from a New Zealand fishing diary
Text and photos by Leonard Flemming
A customs declaration form was handed to me. The Asian air hostess slinked away, her tight figure snaking under her second-skin batik outfit. I stared at the questionnaire, but all I thought about was sleep. The glamorous photo-book dreams of the evergreen beech forests and incomprehensibly big trout suspended in blue, snowmelt rivers were gone. It felt like my central nervous system was suffering mass cell death from the lack of slumber. I thought my skull might crack open from the pounding headache. My eyes were sensitive to anything brighter than night. The flow of thoughts in my brain had slowed to a trickle such that my wallet nearly got left at the airport internet booth. I was a mess.
Nevertheless, I tried to understand the questions. I had been advised that the customs paperwork was the most critical part of actually getting to fish New Zealand. My uncle’s words played in my head: “Make sure to fill in that form carefully. And be honest!” I wasn’t worried about honesty, but my favourite leather fishing boots and three fly boxes brimming with self tied flies I had in my bag gave me sweaty palms. Besides 10 lb browns, I’d heard as many rumours of tackle confiscations and especially the labours of months of tying efforts, at NZ airports.
A beagle and I snuffled out my duffle bag simultaneously at the baggage collection point. The dog wasn’t looking for a pat. Instead it picked up the smell of ‘foreign flowers’ from inside my bag. A stubby airport officer removed my boots from the bag and inspected the soles. I had brushed the rubber well before packing. “Nope, no mud or felt here, good to go,” he said with a smile and sent me off to customs.
Customs went smoothly too, almost. My final destination, Methven, was incorrectly spelt as “Methland” and mistaken for “Methlab” in my effort to explain the error. “We don’t need microbiologists in our country making crystal meth,” the lady joked after I told her of my profession and that a Kiwi on the flight had helped me with the spelling.
“There!” I shouted as a trout rose to an insect floating on Lake Stream. The big fish feeding strongly in the tail-out of an S-curved pool came unexpected.
I had told the Methven tackle dealer, Steve Gerard, the previous day that I was simply interested in catching fish and not necessarily big fish, before he explained how to navigate the Hakatere Valley to reach Lake Stream. “And don’t forget to phone the landowner the day before you go,” he insisted from behind the counter when I walked out the door with a bag of hooks, feathers and furs that cost me two-thirds of the price I could get it for back home in South Africa.
I decided to try one of my best PTTCMs (personally-tied-trout-catching-morsels), a #16 Cellophane-wing mayfly, and tied it to a 5X tippet. After the long hike in, the water cooled me when I waded chest deep to reach the opposite bank where I could conceal myself. Sharp tussock shoots painfully prickled my man boobs as I belly crawled to a high bank ten feet downstream of where I had spotted the fish.
I took my chance with a single whip cast when a gust of wind rippled the surface and spoilt the fish’s view. The fly settled three feet above the trout and the enormous fish swam straight to it and gulped it down. “God bless the queen” I chanted to myself before lifting the rod sharply and feeling the weight of my first New Zealand brown trout.
Being net-less, it took five attempts to tail the trout. It was an embarrassing lesson that I was glad no-one was around to watch. To think that I could land big trout fishing without a net like I did at home was just plain dumb.
The soft-spoken man took my hand and greeted me humbly, “Allan Kircher, haya? We can take my truck, it’s a rough road to big water.”
“Umm, I didn’t bring waders,” I announced sheepishly.
“Kiwis don’t use that,” he mumbled with a grin and opened the trunk of his 4×4.
When I had returned to the tackle shop to buy a net and reported my success on Lake Stream, Steve had recommended that I meet Allan, the trusty Methven fishing guide. I rang him up and like a gentleman and familiar comrade he agreed to take me fishing.
Once again we crossed the Haketere Valley, but this time we headed west towards the Rangitata River. When we reached the other side of a high hill, the braided river system lay beneath us in a wide limestone valley surrounded by towering mountain spires. “That’s Mount Sunday, one of the beautiful scenes that featured in The Lord of the Rings,” Allan pointed out with the same pride in his voice as other Kiwis when describing their countryside. I glanced at the grassy hill dwarfed by the plane of grey gravel, the giant arms of turquoise water threading across it. It was a kind of vastness one could compare when pointing out a ship on the horizon of the sea. I suddenly felt very small, hobbit small. “It’s a fair hike, but the weather report was fine,” Allan remarked as we pulled over into the parking area at the bottom of the hill.
I was shivering with excitement and could barely thread the olive floating line through my guides when we reached the river bank. I tied on my favourite mayfly and we crossed the icy, aquamarine water.
Allan spotted the first fish. The autostereogram that was a rainbow trout washed in reflecting sunlight became visible to me when the feisty twenty incher rushed to the surface to eat Allan’s Blue bottle humpy. He skilfully kept the energetic fish close to the surface where I quickly netted and photographed it before moving on to the next run. There we found a big brown hovering like a lead-grey torpedo in the shallow, fanning tail-out. My mayfly settled above the trout and as expected, the enormous beak broke the surface to sip in the fly. Almost half-an-hour later I lifted the 7 lb cock fish from the water for a quick photo shoot and video release. We ended the day more than three miles upriver from where we started with four fish each, the biggest a 28 inch, 8 lb brown taken on a tiny, weightless Hare and copper nymph that I fished New Zealand-style below a dry.
Just the little time spent with Allan, seeing through his skilled eyes and learning from his knowledge of trout in South Island rivers and stillwaters were so fulfilling that it made the financial knock I took to get to New Zealand already feel worth it. And that’s without adding-in the memorable fish I wouldn’t have caught without Allan’s assistance.
I followed the Maruia River from the Buller junction in search of a forested section. With the tip of my finger brushing my laptop screen I slowed down halfway towards Maruia Springs on Google Earth. That must be it, I thought as my sweaty finger-trail ran over an area where the river swung away from the road and into a beech forest, just like Allan had described it. My eyes wandered off over the mountainous landscape and I spotted numerous “foresty” areas along the rivers in my view. I licked my lips and scrolled across South Island. A droplet of drool was about to hit the keyboard when I jumped up from the coffee table to prepare my gear for the next day’s fishing trip.
“Oh thank you, thank you so much,” the old lady accepted the pack of chocolate cookies and took her grandchild by the hand. They walked back to the Wendy house that was standing like a cherry on a cupcake hill at the end of a dirt track I had followed for six miles. I swung my hiking pack onto my back and started walking down the steep driveway towards the Maruia River valley. I left my car behind with my mind focused on fishing, knowing that under watchful eyes the car and valuables inside it stood a better chance against hooligans that were reported over the radio news flash after they hacked apart a police officer with machetes.
I awoke to the good-morning squawks of a magpie sitting in a beech tree above my tent. The dim light revealed a dark cloud of sandflies bouncing against the doorway mesh. I cursed them while scratching the red itchy-bites that covered my hands, my neck, my forehead and my lower legs. I remembered the words of a Kiwi, “Sandflies, they’re not that bad, just cover up.” But my experience with sandflies the previous day was worse than the tsetse flies of Tanzania and those blood suckers even kept the Swahili people out of the African bush.
One might think it was the biting sandflies that ruined my fishing, but it was the marauding possums that kept me up all night that did it. I rubbed my crusty eyes and peeped out of my tent to look for my rod. I spotted the slim, green SAGE XP leaning against the tree. My attention was drawn to the rough cork handle which was full of possum teeth holes.
I was shattered; I could not believe it as the sun revealed more tooth marks in the gloss finish of the rod. I tried to focus on the fish rising in front of me, but the uneven cork handle spoiled my concentration. It was nearly noon and my net was still dry. I managed a decent cast and the 5X tippet unfolded neatly, placing the tiny yellow foam beetle ahead of a trout. The water bulged and the fly was sipped under. Twenty minutes later I had a big Maruia hen in arms reach, but a shoal of eels were after it and wove a black cocoon around the trout as they tried to steal a piece of my catch.
In a desperate attempt to save the fish, I pulled it from the sloshing frenzy of black ‘watersnakes’ snapping violently at it. The pressure on the rod was too much for the weak spots created by the possum bites, which ended the whole thing with a broken rod. Although I managed to release the hen unscathed, I was highly peeved at possums and eels, and myself for leaving the rod outside the tent. I left the Maruia River and drove to Nelson where I maxed my credit card on a new rod, loaded up on insect repellent, and got a night’s sleep at a backpackers, without possums.
My bum-slide approach was suddenly disturbed by voices behind my back. The scrawny chap and his wife barely greeted me as they splashed past me and sent the school of browns scurrying for cover. I had spent the last hour studying the group of fish feeding freely in a Larry River pool and was about to present a carefully selected fly to them when the two European characters waded like elephants into the water.
“What are you doing!?” I asked abruptly.
“Vee vuant to fish dis riever,” the man replied as if no harm was done.
“Oh for fff…can’t you see I’m fishing here!?” I tried to contain myself. The two humans stared at me as if I was a nutcase.
“Yes, of course, but vee vuill vualk a bit up de riever”, the unreasonable response came again. I bit down so hard on my tongue when I saw the map in his hand I could taste the blood mixing with saliva in my cheeks. We both knew that this upper section was one party’s beat and that I had right of way.
They turned away from me and carried on spooking fish upriver until I couldn’t see them anymore. It took me the next hour to get my thoughts off a killing plan. I kind of liked the mental picture of where I stood as the victor with the man’s casting arm in one hand and the other raising a panga with his wife’s head on the tip.
I paid Allan a visit to show him some fishing footage. Amongst the photos was a shot of a very big brown I managed to catch in the Boyle River. When I hiked along this river earlier in February, the landscape had changed dramatically after Antarctic storms hit South Island for the most part of a fishless January. Many West Coast and Marlborough rivers, including the Doubtful River, had come down heavily in flood, forming oxbows in their lower sections and so wiping out large parts of beech forest.
The Doubtful landscape was transformed into an intimidating place. Giant, prehistoric looking beech trunks lay scattered across the valley. I imagined how the destruction might have been caused by a dinosaur stampede that crushed the forest. It wasn’t the thought of running into a T-Rex around the next bend, but the absence of fish that made me retrace my footsteps, in great doubt about the Doubtful, and head up the Boyle River above their junction.
I came across a very deep, even flowing glide well below the tail-out of a pool. After watching the water for a few minutes, it was clear that there were no fish feeding near the surface.
Most Kiwi anglers suggested sight fishing for the best success. Tips from my experienced South African friends correlated with this, mainly to save time due to the many footsteps walked between fish in New Zealand rivers. But that piece of water was just too good to walk past. It reminded me of a ‘thump’ section of Witte River in South Africa. Whenever I cast a dry on that stretch it got thumped by a brown and usually a fish whose photo was properly boast-worthy. So long story short, I cast my favourite search pattern, a large CDC parachute Adams, at the head of the glide and watched how the biggest brown I had ever seen thump it.
“You’re a lucky man. That doesn’t happen often,” Allan remarked as he looked closer at the fish on his computer screen. “It’s huge and only a jack,” he carried on.
A big storm was on its way and the wind had swung to light southerly before sparrow fart. It was my first day off after an eight day grinding shift on the Holmes dairy station in Rakaia and although I could feel the early onset of a migraine, I had good reason to leave my alarm clock on the usual 3:30 am get-to-work time. My working holiday in New Zealand was running out and I wasn’t prepared to miss this rare opportunity. My rod tubes were already stacked neatly in the car trunk when I threw in my backpack loaded with fresh flies and ham-and-cheese sarmies.
The dense growing tussocks crunched underneath my boots as I broke the iced stems on my still-half-asleep walk to the small Hakatere lake edge. My brand new stretch fabric gloves protected me well against sand flies, but they were useless in the sub-zero morning hours. I clumsily threaded my floating line through the guides and tied a large, natural Zonker to 3X tippet.
The first cast shot out smoothly and the beaded streamer landed with a plonk in the oily lake. Black swans breeding on the lake disappeared like Laugh Ness monsters in the mist hanging over the water while I watched them, counting down my fly. My purple-stiff hands barely felt the line sliding across my right index finger when there was a sudden pull that parted the 3X from the fly. I cursed the thing that left a big swirl and a limp tippet then I tied on another Zonker.
The next cast didn’t go out so smoothly. Frosty air froze the wet line to the guides as I tried with more effort to throw the same distance. The pull came immediately after the fly landed. I struck carefully and the slack jumped from my stripping hand and disappeared into the peat-stained water. A brief fight followed by a fish that made short, powerful runs rather than the blistering runs typical of a rainbow, or fish that jumped like a brown.
My heart pounded in my chest as I lifted a colourful, 5 lb brook trout cock to the surface before scooping it to safety in my net. After a quick photo shoot of my first brookie with my camera on tripod, I was lucky to catch another. Then, at about 8 am and half-an-hour after I started fishing, the first rays of sunlight hit the far bank of the lake and the brook trout were history. It was time for a breakfast sandwich.
The rod tip tapped the surface of the sunlit water as my arms dropped after every bite of bread. While sitting in the sun reminiscing and devouring my food, I noticed that submerged, quite close to me, a dark face was giving my rod tip the evil eye. An eel had sensed the injured minnow splash that my rod was simulating and readied itself to ambush its prey.
With sinister intent I dropped the zonker on its nose and without hesitation, the eel attacked. Surprised by the sting of the hook, the eel dashed off to the nearest hole in the mud bank I was sitting on. I dropped my rod tip and hauled it to the surface with a straight stick.
Realising that its opposition had the upper hand, the eel wrapped itself in a tight ball around my leader and excreted a mass of slime. I netted the slime ball and picked up a big rock. But the slimy grin displaying the conical teeth and the nasty bubbling snarls coming from its nostrils were too much for me and I lobbed it back into the water after pulling the hook from its jaws with a pair of pliers. After all, it was the possums I wanted to kill and not the eels.
I discovered the Opuha main stem earlier in March when an Antarctic front forced me to stay in the Canterbury area. I noticed a trend with all the big low-pressure systems that frequented South Island. First they flushed any fisherman’s hope to visit the Oreti River down south, then they flooded all waterways west of the Southern Alps, and lastly, they’d ease out over Nelson and Marlborough, usually raising the rivers just enough to spoil a five day fishing trip. North Canterbury and Central South Island, if not untouched, became cooler with scattered rain, but there was always an opportunity to go fishing. As on my previous visit to the Opuha, the MetService predicted a peach of a day in Fairlie.
The Opuha North branch was already occupied by other angling parties wading upriver when I crossed the bridge where I had planned to leave my car. Remembering the anger I felt on the Larry River, I left them in peace and instead I risked hiking up the South Branch, which turned out to be one of my best fishing days in New Zealand to date.
The browns were smaller than those I had seen and caught in other South Island rivers, but they were plentiful in the fast runs formed by the steep gradient dropping away from the bright pink roots of the willows in the valley. The trout were fond of a #16 red and copper brassie nymph that I fished New Zealand style under a dry.
I returned to my car after nipping this fly from the jaws of fish number ten, which took the fly and disappeared into a clump of ghetto medusa roots. I felt lucky when I scooped it with a net-full of yellow leaves, blue gravel and bits of pink roots after digging deep into the tree-base undercut.
A shortcut through the alien vegetation bordering the river off from the adjacent farm saved some time on the long walk back. I was bulldozing my way through black wattle thickets when I suddenly stood on something crunchy. Jumping back in my trail I peered down at the mossy ground where a carcass lay curled up. I removed the leaf litter and realised what I had found. On the ground before me lay a possum skeleton.
Revenge was sweet when I noticed numerous possum skeletons while tunnelling further through the bush. That evening I joyfully learned from the assistant Holmes farm manager that I wasn’t the only person seeking payback for these creatures. The NZ DOC (Department of Conservation) sets up bait stations with poison pellets throughout South Island to cull the problematic possums.
My camera focused on a large brown that was holding in a feeder stream of Lake Wanaka. Even though the river season was something of the past, many lakes, including Lake Wanaka, were still open for fishing. But I was not interested in catching this brown. I had my fair share of trout. My tally of fish 20-inches-and-above that I caught and released in the five months I spent fishing in my spare time between working and travelling through South Island was well over sixty.
As the brown was joined by a larger fish, I continued videoing the trout playfully bumping each other, a gesture likely to be the start of a spawning dance between the two. I was spoilt like a gluttonous three year old losing his appetite for sweets to the taste of stomach acid and ironically, trouts were no longer a part of my dreams.
March and April were my most productive months as the weather conditions stabilised and the fishing improved. My last fishing mission ended on the Oreti River where a footpath the size of a small stream ran parallel to the river bed. The foreign anglers that constructed the footpath were long gone and I spent three days greedily picking out my fish with not a European soul in sight. I packed my rod away after releasing my last fish of the season, an 8 lb Oreti brown which I took home with a selfie.
A number of fish from the family Salmonidae can be targeted in NZ; this includes: rainbow trout, brown trout, brook char and Chinook salmon.
The fishing seasons for the different salmonid species vary greatly between the twelve regions controlled by Fish and Game councils.
Depending on the weather and the flow rate of rivers, fishing for the two trout species may be good any time between 1 October and 30 April. December and January are considered the prime tourist months and the heavy traffic on the rivers can spoil a fishing trip. The season for brook char is open from 2 November to 30 April.
Salmon can be caught in rivers and in the estuaries where some of the bigger rivers enter the sea. January is usually the prime season for salmon fishing in NZ.
For more information, visit the Fish and Game website (www.fishandgame.org.nz) to plan your trip according to the regional fishing seasons and river closure notices; the Fish and Game website also gives important information about sportfishing regulations and the management of Didymo algae.
Keep an eye out for Antarctic storms and wind speed and direction in South Island on www.metservice.com
I fished comfortably in quick drying trousers and breathable long-sleeve shirts. A buff and gloves made of stretch fabric are handy for protection against the sun and sandflies. A warm pair of gloves is recommended for cold spells. The weather is unpredictable throughout summer and a water proof jacket should always be carried on fishing outings; also pack in warm fleece jackets and tops (especially hooded tops) and keep one of these in the trunk of the car. Note that all clothing should be drab in colour – olive, pastel brown, grey and faded blue blend in well with the background landscape of NZ rivers.
I can recommend a comfortable pair of leather hiking boots with rubber soles – test the rubber on a wet surface before packing them for a NZ fishing trip. No felt is allowed in NZ to prevent the introduction of foreign algae and to further prevent the spread of Didymo. Wear thick wool socks with the boots to avoid blisters on long hikes and also to protect the lower legs from sandflies. Waders are optional – I never felt uncomfortable without waders.
A fast action 5 or 6 wt outfit is my first choice for char and trout. This will enable you to cast in the strong head winds that are frequently encountered in the open valleys. If you are planning to fish for salmon, I would recommend a 9 wt casting rod and 9 or 10 wt switch rod.
I fished a weight forward, olive floating line on all the rivers and lakes. A standard DI3 sinking line in olive or black may be necessary to gain depth in some of the lakes. Although I didn’t fish for salmon much, a #2 natural streamer (imitating the whitebait) swung with a sink tip line across and down the river current would be the standard technique. Big sea-run browns may also be caught while fishing for salmon in the estuaries. Standard 30 lb Dacron backing should suffice. A reel with a smooth drag system is recommended for all the species.
Trout flies should be tied on strong hooks (medium- to heavy-wire) – I found that the Tiemco range (especially TMC 9300 in #14 – 16) were perfect for dry flies, and Kamasan B170 and Gamakatsu S10 in #14 – 18 worked well for nymphs.
I used 4X and 5X monofilament tippet material for most of my dry fly and nymph fishing, but fluorocarbon in those diameter classes may be handy when fishing nymphs to skittish fish, or when the nymphs need to sink faster. Tippet in the 2X to 3X class would be suitable for fishing streamers to trout and salmon.
Hunting & Fishing New Zealand (www.huntingandfishing.co.nz)
Flyshop NZ (Methven – www.flyshop.co.nz)
Advice and guiding
Allan Kircher from NZ Backcountry Guides (www.fishingandhuntingguidenz.com)
Steve Gerard from the Flyshop NZ (Methven – www.flyshop.co.nz)
Camping in the designated DOC camp sites cost approx. $ 6 NZ per adult per night. Camping at some of the sites is free of charge. Fishing huts should be booked through the DOC as well. Rates at backpackers vary between $ 20 – 100 NZ per night per person or for twin cabins.
I stayed in the Wharariki Holiday Park (www.whararikibeachholidaypark.co.nz) when I travelled through the Nelson region. The Aorere River is close by and there are stunning beaches to visit in the area.
Another place where I overnighted a few times is the Glendhu Bay Lakeside Holiday Park (www.glendhubaymotorcamp.co.nz) on Lake Wanaka. The lake has a good brown trout population and the Matukituki River is nearby.
For more information on accommodation, visit the New Zealand tourism guide (www.tourism.net.nz).
I bought a sedan in NZ and sold it for the same price before leaving the country. This is the cheapest way to travel through NZ if you are planning on staying for more than a month. Look for used cars on trademe (www.trademe.co.nz); it is also useful to sell a car on trademe. The cheapest deals on rentals I could find in NZ were from Jucy Rentals (www.jucy.co.nz).
- A current and valid overseas driver licence or driving permit issued in English
- Kiwimaps New Zealand Travellers Road Atlas
- Insect repellent
- Hat or cap
- Spare rod(s)
- Washing powder for washing boots before fishing a new area or river
- Animal furs and capes in your luggage
- Felt soles
- Drinking and eating and driving