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Reflections on New Zealand

Across the Tasman on the South Island of New Zealand is arguably the best dry fly fishing in the world. A three and a half hour flight lands in the centre at Christchurch with great fishing to the north, west and south. In my view the costs and benefits are better value than Tasmania. Don't get me wrong, the fishing is different to Tasmania, and by saying this I am not disparaging tassie, but pound for pound or dollar for dollar, the south island is a great deal.

Just think, anyone else in the world has to travel forever to reach New Zealand and for us it is a short economical hop. Costs in NZ are very reasonable with car hire the biggest item. Food, fuel and accommodation are reasonable considering the exchange rate.

Compared to other places in the world there is a great sense of freedom with open roads, a fabulous panorama of landscape and a sense of wilderness with brawling snow fed rivers that break out of their beds to tear across the river valley in multiple braids. Lower down in the wide farmlands the rivers spread out and meander around with broad reaches and long open glides suited to extensive hatches.

Small streams cut through deep gorges that fall out into the deeply braided sections that can fall five metres in two hundred. Eventually lowland small streams ease their way across the flats in deep channels of gin clear water with masses of cold water weed, cress beds and overgrown banks of buttercup and celery weed. These spring creek/chalk stream like waters are full of fat two to four pound average fish. These small streams are everywhere and usually a bridge on the outskirts of small towns indicates a stream of this type.

Water quality is outstanding. The clarity of most streams is remarkable to say the least. You can observe nymphs crawling over the leading edge of rocks fifteen feet ahead as you wade upstream. This means one thing only. The fish can see you at great distances.

Other types of water include pale, aqua blue rivers with tiny suspended particles of glacial flour that mean the fish are contrasted, particularly the browns. Visibility is reduced but contrast is increased. Water that is coloured grey by rain and rising does not mean you cannot fish the margins of this water with success. Even during snow falls the fish can be found with relative ease in many waters.

Lakes and storages are generally crystal clear and the shallows provide fantastic polaroiding opportunites. Driving can be hazardous when the road is adjacent to the lake edge! Large hydro works abound with lakes and connecting tailwaters that provide water protected from floods and rain.

Catching trout in the south island to catching trout anywhere else. The fish have the same food and behave like trout in the same manner, responding to nymphs, wet flies, hatches and terrestrials as trout do here. The difference is that they are on average much larger and the water is much clearer. They will take your flies in exactly the same way.

Hatches occur frequently. Duns can appear in the middle of the day, much like they do in Tassie. Remember the south island is on much lower latitudes than Tassie. Christchurch is on the same latitude as Hobart.

Evenings are long and drawn out with the rise lasting until 10pm in mid-summer and the hatch itself lasting two hours. Most of the locals, and visitors alike, fish gentleman's hours. Finishing at 5pm in time for drinks and dinner, whereas aussie desperados who are there to fish till they drop will stay on until the evening rise.

Fishing through the day can start early with hatches occurring between 7 & 8am, but usually the timing allows you to arrive on your chosen water about 9.30am so you can be in position for when the sun comes on the water.

If the weather is kind and you have a bright blue sky then this is why you came to NZ. Bright light and clear sky means sight fishing. Polaroiding big trout in clear water must surely be the pinnacle of the art of fly-fishing. Here it is between you and these large fish. Any false move and you are done. They will lie 'doggo', aware that you are there, and refuse everything you offer. Untroubled by your presence they will simply ignore every tactic in your fly-fishing armoury. Sometimes when a bad cast, or presentation spooks them, they will cruise slowly up the pool. Subsequently, everything in that pool has been spooked and your only option is to move on.

When you can see them nymphing and moving around you know that they haven't pinged you yet. They sit on station or patrol a short area. The white of the inside of their mouths is visible as they take nymphs. Long leaders and small flies with delicate presentations will see them slide to the top to take a well chosen dry fly. As the head appears at the surface with a 'porpoising' roll you will find your heart in your mouth.

Stalking and casting to actively feeding fish in the seven to eight pound class that rise to a dry fly has to be experienced once in every fly-fisher's life. If it happens to you once you will need to do it again and again.

These huge brownies, some that are often larger than those described above, occupy the prime positions in the pools. In the flat water either side of the main current, in the eye of the pool where the main current enters and in the bubble line. Fortunately you don't have to resort to a nymph very often but occasionally a strongly feeding fish will refuse to rise.

Clearly this is the cream of the fly-fisher's art with no margin for error and people travel from all over the world just to have fish of these dimensions rise to their dry fly. The crystal clarity, the highly muscled fish in fast water and fine tippets result in a ferocious fight that might see the backing several times before being netted three pools down. Long distance releases are common.

In the height of summer the cicadas are in the grass. These small, fingernail sized terrestrials cone in a variety of colours and as is often the case getting the colour right can be the difference between success and failure. These cicadas are taken with gusto and the big trophy sized fish are well tuned to their arrival on the water.

Sometimes a rushed take by a big fish leaves your cicada pattern bobbing on the surface, a complete miss! Other times the cicada is sipped down as gently as they would take an emerger. These cicadas allow you to prospect and blind search for fish when a thorough inspection of the pool with polaroids fails to locate one.

On days of overcast sky or wind ruffled surface a cicada will do the job bringing a fish up when all else is unlikely. Stimulators, cicadas, hopper patterns and the like will all work when prospecting and blind searching.

The geomorphology of a stream will indicate the reaches where these trophy fish are to be found. As NZ is geologically very young, large scale erosion by glaciers and severe floods from snowmelts means that most streams are heavily braided with multiple courses across the valley floor and the fast water cutting new courses down the steep incline on its way to the lowlands. These braided sections of the rivers contain lots of fish. This highly mobile freestone environment generates enormous quantities of nymphs and a subsequent growth rate in the fish. Six fish to the kilometre, average two-three kilograms.

This sort of information sends a chill up my spine. If I cover five kilometres of river in a day I will have the potential to see thirty fish averaging four kilos! Not all will be visible, not all will be feeding, but out of thirty maybe one will be feeding and visible and this is all I ask. Then it is down to me alone.

Six pounders are common and will slam a cicada or hopper pattern or sip down a dun or emerger. They can be spotted and sight fished too and a day stalking, prospecting and presenting to multiple six pound fish in brawling fast water can leave you gobsmacked.

The rainbows are awesome, even the small ones around the two pound mark. They can cart you down three pools, peeling line off your reel at blistering speed. A memorable fish that swam relentlessly upstream against the current and the full bend of my five weight Loomis as though it was untroubled turned out to be five and half pound when he went into the weighnet. I had seen the backing go out and stumbled over rocks for 200 metres upstream before fighting him to a standstill. He gulped a huge #10 Royal Wulff in a rapid full of pressure waves before taking off upstream like a locomotive. These fish have awesome power.

New Zealand may be the land of the long white cloud but on a hot, clear day it can be the land of the fierce and relentless northwest wind. Buffeted by huge gusts and with no chance of even a short lull to cast in, you will need to use your road map to seek shelter or to drive to a stream where the wind will be behind you or over your shoulder. Casting into the wind will cause your line to slap and the leader to pile and presentation to fail, spooking the fish badly. Usually there are a few fallback positions where fish can found sipping terrestrials on a willow-lined river protected from the full force of the wind.

God grant me one more day that has no wind, hatching duns and one rising fish out of thirty. One that has a head like a 'Sherrin' football and is one of those average 2-3 kilo fish where you get six to the kilometre! That's not much to ask for!

Oh yes, and the company of a friend and witness who may happen to have a camera so that I can capture his triumph too.

~Geoff Hall

To see the latest NZ Trip report click here!