NEW ZEALAND: PART ONE
A year ago, my Cousin Evan told me he was quitting his job and going to New Zealand to fish for 3 months. I promptly congratulated him and told him id love to tag along for a few weeks if he would have me.
New Zealand has been at the top of “my list” for a long time. I cannot say if it was the promise of huge trout in crystal clear water or the endless mountain wilderness that captured my imagination more. Or that it just felt so foreign. Almost as if it were on a different planet!
And so, as I flew over the South Island heading into Queenstown, I peered out the airplane window with the enthusiasm of a child seeing Disneyland for the first time. Flying over endless mountains, glaciers, and river valleys, I could barely contain my excitement.
My cousin Evan picked me up at the airport. I was tired and jet-lagged after the long trip, but adrenaline kept me going. And driving through windy mountain passes on the wrong side of the road helped to keep me awake! Luckily, Evan had gotten accustomed to the driving, and I was able to enjoy the view. We drove north out of Queenstown a few hours and arrived at a small fishing lodge on the banks of the Makarora river. Cedar Lodge is a small, 4 room fishing operation in a ideal location to fish some of the South Islands most remote waters. And the Helicopter parked in the front yard will help get you there!
We met our hosts Bobbi and Eli, a young couple from Idaho that had recently been hired to run the lodge. Matt, the lodges Chef would quickly great us as well. Soon, we would be enjoying a delicious dinner prepared by Matt, drinking South Island Pinot Noir, and talking about what river we would be taking the helicopter to fish the next morning.
If your wondering how a lowly fishing bum like me finds himself in this scenario, you are not alone! I went to bed that night feeling like I was in some kind of dream. Just a day ago I was home and now I’m in a fancy fishing lodge about to go heli fishing!
I’ve never been in a helicopter. I have seen them fly overhead, and of course seen people in movies fly around in them. Most of them seem high-tech and roomy. I did not realize they made tiny ones. I’m not a small man, either. And jamming myself into the front seat of the little helicopter was not easy. I must admit I was a bit nervous, but our pilot seemed confident and was very friendly. I reminded myself he was a professional, took a deep breath and buckled my seatbelt. As we started to take off, our guide (also named Nick) who was in the back seat with Evan jokingly asked if he could fly today. Our pilot said, “sure mate, its easy- like balancing a cue ball on the tip of a pool stick.”
And so, we lifted off and headed up the Makarora Valley. Seeing the mountains of New Zealand from a helicopter is and experience I will never forget; Gin-clear rivers below, glacier capped, rugged mountains and waterfalls all around. We flew up the river valley until we gained enough altitude to cut through a narrow mountain pass and into the next river drainage.
We entered the wide, wind- swept river valley from a small side canyon. The first look I got at the river we would be fishing was enticing to say the least. Meandering through a large glacier plain, the river looked exactly like the classic New Zealand trout stream. Clear water, long riffles, and occasional deep pools.
Through the headsets, the guide and the pilot communicated about the best place to land. Our guide Nick was interested in fishing a beat that had not been hit in a while and figured with the current condition and the lack of angling pressure, fishing should be good. We landed on a small grassy bank next to the river, hopped out and got our stuff together.
We got rigged up and started walking upstream. I had told Nick that Evan and I were accomplished anglers and guides but like all good fishing guides he knew better than to trust our summation of our own talents. He put me in a riffle and had me fish up it blindly, drifting a fly along a seam that to me looked mediocre. I realize now he wanted to see how I fished and let me warm up a bit before he put me on a good piece of water. Within a few casts a fish came up and ate my dry- nothing to write home about, a brown maybe 18 inches or so- but it was my first New Zealand trout! And I must have passed my fishing skills evaluation because after I released the fish, Nick quickly said “lets head upstream and find a big one.”
The first thing that American anglers must get used to is that there are very few fish compared to home waters. It’s not uncommon in a US river to spend several hours in one run, with feeding fish in front of you the whole time. In New Zealand, each run typically holds one fish, sometimes two but many times none. And because of the “unstable” nature of a lot of the rivers (unstable is a term they use to describe rivers that flow through wide flood plains where rock slides and flood events continuously scour the river leaving few pools and many miles of shallow, featureless water), good runs could be separated by a quarter mile or more of un productive water.
The next 8 hours were spent repeating the same motions. Nick would walk the banks slowly, looking for fish as we worked our way upstream. Evan and I took turns casting at spotted fish. I learned a few hard lessons right off the bat. When it comes to trout in Kiwi country, you cannot be overly cautious with how you approach to them. Our guide Nick was dressed in full camo, and for good reason. Fish in New Zealand apparently have eyes on the back of their heads. One step too close and the fish would spook. And because many times you would spot a big trout in a completely random spot (the side or tail out of a pool, often in very shallow water), we would have to work slowly and methodically, scanning the entire river for a fish.
When a fish was spotted, presentation was everything. We donned the standard South Island rigs, 12-14 ft stout leaders with a single dry fly at the end. With the clear water and the surprising lack of insects to distract the trout, your first cast always promised to get attention. And a bad toss or an untimely mend would spoil the deal. It was important to evaluate the currents and anticipate how your fly would drift- or why it could potentially drag BEFORE you made your first cast. The first shot at the fish was always your best chance.
It was getting late and I was starting to dread the long walk back to where the helicopter dropped us off. I figured we had fished about 3 or 4 miles of water and it would take 2 hours or so to hike back. So you can imagine my joy when our guide nick pulled a radio out of his pack and called the Heli pilot. “we’re ready Steve, come get us.” 5 minutes later our chariot arrived. We climbed in and took off. Flying back down the river valley, a few hundred feet in the air, it was impossible to not look for fish out the helicopter window. Yes, the fish are so big they can be spotted from a helicopter!
The winds had picked up so our pilot decided to take a different rout back to the lodge. He maneuvered the chopper through a tight mountain pass, with waterfalls gushing down steep rugged mount sides right out the side window.
Bobbi and Eli were waiting for us back at Cedar Lodge. Grinning from ear to ear, Evan, Nick and I cracked open cold beers and toasted to an incredible day. And it was not over yet! Our chef Matt, learning the night before about my passion for wild game meat, fixed us a meal ill never forget. With full belies and happy hearts we sat around the outside table late into the night, drinking and telling stories.
Eventually it was time for the party to end. I strolled back to my cabin, quite tipsy, and took a moment to gaze up into the stars. The jagged peaks all around were visible in the crisp starlight, and the sounds of the river echoed across the valley. Something came over me and for no good reason I yelled into the nighttime sky, “Holy shit, I’m in New Zealand!”