New Zealand…Living Up To Its Reputation
Trout like you haven't seen.
It was December 2008, and the last of 12 days of fly fishing during my latest New Zealand adventure. The 25-minute helicopter flight from the Gowan River Valley and Lake Rotoroa Lodge to our backcountry stream destination would have been a treat by itself. As the helicopter cleared the ridge between peaks, the aerial view of the South Island river basin laid out before me was breathtaking. It was as if we were entering a lost world—one with only mountains, native beech forest and incredibly beautiful streams for as far as the eye could see. A few minutes later, we were flying up the narrow valley of a tributary stream off the main river. The water was deceptively clear—runs that appeared to be only inches deep from the helicopter were actually two- to three-feet deep.
The helicopter landed gently on a gravel bar along the stream and guide Scott Murray and I bailed out quickly with our gear. As we waved to the pilot, the helicopter floated back down the narrow valley and silence returned to the surrounding forest.
We wore dull colored clothing, from our hats to our boots, to better blend in with the surrounding foliage and avoid detection by the wary, wild brown trout that inhabited the stream. We quickly set up two 4-piece fly rods (2-piece rods don’t work well with helicopters) the 4-weight for dries and shallow nymphs and the 5-weight for deeper nymphs—and carefully headed upstream in search of our quarry. I stayed well back from Scott until he spotted a trout and motioned me forward. This allowed him room to spot and minimized unnecessary motion that might otherwise spook a hidden or cruising fish that could suddenly appear.
The first run we came to was long and flattened at its tail. As we waded into the tail, my eagle-eyed guide was surprised to spot two good trout upstream—one slightly to the left and the other off to the right. He rigged a short indicator nymph on the 4-weight and instructed me to try for the fish on the left. The first cast was good and the trout immediately moved toward the fly. But instead of eating the nymph, the trout, to our bewilderment, rose and ate the small yarn indicator off the surface. As the line tightened, the trout realized its mistake, spat out the yarn indicator, swirled and disappeared. Such indicator takes occur rarely and can sometimes signal that the trout are looking up to the surface for food.
Taking the hint, we immediately replaced the nymph and indicator with a dry fly, a size 14 mayfly imitation, and I tried for the trout still feeding upstream and off to the right. My first cast was a little short and didn’t get the trout’s attention. The second cast was on target. The trout rose and, ever so slowly, sucked in the dry fly from the side. Surprisingly, I did what I was supposed to and forced myself to wait on the hook set until those jaws fully submerged and turned back upstream. The big brown was solidly hooked and its first run upstream took me into my backing. After a long fight, complete with aerial leaps and both upstream and downstream runs, I finally was able to lead the strong, well-conditioned jack into Scott’s net. The scale on the net stopped at 7 pounds. The fly was carefully removed and the brown was quickly revived in the stream and released.
As usual, when the helicopter picked us up late that afternoon, I was tired and sore and smiling from ear to ear. We had hiked, waded, and boulder-hopped up several miles of stream, typical for a day of fishing in New Zealand. I only landed four trout that day—the smallest weighed 7 pounds and the largest weighed 8 pounds. I also hooked two more good fish, lost them when the hooks pulled loose, and missed three other takes.
The opportunity was there that day to land nine wild brown trout that would easily have averaged over 7 pounds, and three of those trout ate the dry fly. It wasn’t my best day of the trip and those weren’t even the largest trout I landed during the trip, but I think that day demonstrates the challenge, the potential and the wonderfully unique qualities of the New Zealand fly fishing experience.
Why New Zealand?
I’ve done my share (and perhaps a little more) of fly fishing in my home state of Colorado and around the globe (Patagonia, Alaska, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, the Florida Keys, the Ozarks of southern Missouri, and the U.S. and Canadian Rockies from Alberta to New Mexico), but New Zealand holds a very special place in my heart. Like a pilgrim returning to Mecca, I have made five fly fishing trips to that island nation since 2002—the latest in December 2008. All of those trips have been magnificent and yet they seem to get better with each succeeding visit. Since the early 20th century, many famous authors and anglers, from Zane Grey to Dave Whitlock, have made similar recurring journeys and heralded the wonders of fly fishing for wild trophy trout in New Zealand. In my experience, these two islands continue to live up to such high praise in every respect.
My fascination with New Zealand fly fishing derives from the whole experience. Sight fishing to large rainbow and brown trout in the country’s crystal clear streams is incredible and unique, but it’s about more than that. It’s about the challenge of enticing the take from a specifically targeted, large, wild trout with a dry fly or small nymph and landing it on relatively light (4x or 5x) tippet. It’s about controlling my jitters (big-trout fever), making the cast, getting the right drift to a feeding 8-pound brown, and properly waiting on the hook set (for what seems like an eternity) as I watch the trout slowly take the dry fly.
It’s about developing a trust and a partnership with my guide, learning from his instructions and experience, and being amazed at his ability to find large trout. It’s about covering miles of stream each day in one of the most beautiful and majestic settings on the planet without ever seeing another angler. It’s about marveling at the view from the helicopter, and the skill of the pilot, as we hover to watch a small group of wild chamois above timberline. It’s about meeting and getting to know some of the world’s friendliest people. It’s about sharing stories with other anglers and travelers from around the world over a wonderful evening meal and an excellent New Zealand wine.
There are literally hundreds of streams and lakes in the center of the North Island that offer world-class fly fishing for trout, particularly in the area surrounding Lake Taupo. On previous trips, I have been a guest at Tongariro Lodge (www.tongarirolodge.co.nz) near Turangi and at Poronui Ranch (www.poronuiranch.com) southeast of Taupo. While Tongariro Lodge has more lake fishing options, both of these lodges have access to many excellent streams and offer their guests first-class lodging, meals, guides and backcountry helicopter service. In March 2002, I hooked the largest trout of my life (a rainbow estimated at 13 pounds) while staying at Tongariro Lodge and fishing Lake Otomangakau. Unfortunately, I set too hard on the take, straightened the hook on the small midge larva imitation, and was left only with the memory of that huge trout leaping from the water.
During my most recent trip, I spent the first week at Poronui Ranch. In six days of fishing from the lodge, I landed roughly 100 trout ranging from 2.5 pounds to 8 pounds. A handful of those trout were nice browns and the rest, including the largest, were rainbows.
New Zealand guides generally like to boost a visiting angler’s confidence and tune-up his or her skills by starting the trip on a stream with good numbers of fish, even though it is likely that those trout, on average, will be somewhat smaller in size. This is a good approach for any angler beginning several days of fly fishing in New Zealand, but particularly for those who are new to sight fishing with a Kiwi guide.
On my first day of this latest trip, guide Dave Wood and I walked several miles up a small Lake Taupo tributary stream and I easily landed 40 rainbows, ranging from 2.5 to 4.5 pounds, using a mixture of nymph and dry fly techniques.
In the following days, we progressed to backcountry streams where the scenery was even more spectacular and the trout were fewer in number, larger and more wary. On my sixth and last day of fishing on the North Island, we flew by helicopter into the headwaters of a classic backcountry stream well known to hold large trout. On that day, I had eight takes split evenly between dry flies and nymphs, hooked five very healthy rainbows, and landed four of those, ranging from 5 pounds to 8 pounds. In March 2007, I fished that same stream with guide Mark Aspinall and landed eight beautiful trout between 5 pounds and 9.5 pounds, including an 8-pound rainbow that ate a large dry fly on my first cast of the day.
There are so many beautiful, world-class trout streams scattered throughout the South Island of New Zealand, I’m not sure an angler, even with unlimited resources, could fish them all thoroughly in a lifetime. The historic and world-renowned Lake Rotoroa Lodge (www.lakerotoroalodge.com), located in Nelson Lakes National Park, has become a favorite fly fishing destination of mine and I have been a guest at that lodge during each of my last five visits to New Zealand. This full-service lodge, with its spectacular view of Lake Rotoroa and the Travers mountain range beyond, sets the gold standard for comfort, dining and personal attention. Its professional guides are truly amazing. I’ve had the pleasure to fish with some excellent fly fishing guides during my travels and the Lake Rotoroa guide team, headed by Scott Murray, ranks right at the top of the list. A large number and variety of world-class trout streams are available to lodge guests, both by vehicle and helicopter, offering some of the finest fly fishing on the South Island.
I was a guest at Lake Rotoroa Lodge for the second week of my most recent trip, and I had some of the best large trout, dry fly fishing I have ever experienced. Heavy rain during the middle of the week limited our fly fishing for one day to a half-hearted survey of local streams. During the other five days, I landed roughly thirty trout in total (all browns)—fewer fish than during my stay on the North Island, but they were much larger on average.
Four of those five days were spent on backcountry streams where we targeted larger than average trout, but it was still surprising to realize that none of those thirty browns weighed less than 5 pounds, and that the average was 6.7 pounds. Five of those fish weighed between 8 and 9 pounds, including two well-conditioned jacks that ate dry flies (#14 mayfly imitations). It’s not often that an angler is fortunate enough to find 8- to 9-pound brown trout methodically sipping mayflies off the water’s surface, even in New Zealand. I felt privileged to even witness such remarkable feeding behavior in those majestic surroundings.
Unlike the size distribution of trout in most U.S. streams, large Kiwi trout (7 to 10 pounds) tend to inhabit remote, headwater pools where they are largely undisturbed and better protected from the severe flooding that occurs in many river basins. These backcountry streams offer some spectacular scenery, but they hold relatively few mature trout (perhaps a dozen or fewer per mile). They are fragile fisheries that need to be respected and preserved.
Excluding certain North Island fisheries that are open year-round, the New Zealand trout fishing season runs from October through April. The best Kiwi guides and lodges are booked early, particularly during the most popular period that starts after Christmas and runs through mid-March. Many experienced visiting anglers reserve their guides and lodging up to a year in advance.
Mike McClelland and his amazing staff at The Best of New Zealand Fly Fishing (www.bestofnzflyfishing.com) have flawlessly arranged customized itineraries for my last five New Zealand fly fishing adventures, including all flights, lodging, guides and ground transportation. They specialize in fly fishing, but their first hand experience and expertise in New Zealand travel planning extends to many other types of accommodations and activities, including golf, hiking, winery tours, sightseeing and sea kayaking. They are the most knowledgeable and professional travel agents I have ever used and their web site contains a wealth of information. Their toll-free telephone number is 1-800-528-6129.
Doug Monnig is an avid fly fisher and semi-retired power industry analyst living in Lakewood, Colorado.