My second day in New Zealand could not have been more different from my first. After staying up late and drinking way too much bourbon with our new friends at Cedar Lodge, I awoke from a mediocre night’s sleep with a formidable hangover. The wind was howling outside, and a front was moving in from the West. Taking a look at the bad weather and considering my poor condition, we decided to let the fish have a break and make the day a “travel day.”
I had 2 weeks to fish the South Island and wanted to see as much as possible. This would not be an easy task considering there are several lifetimes worth of water to explore, so we decided to concentrate on getting a quick look at the different zones. We figured we could head south, back through Queenstown and make it down to the Southland Region. From there we could fish our way back north up the West Coast Region to Christchurch, where we would be catching our flights home.
So much of the South Island reminded me of my time in Argentina. Like the Andes in Patagonia, the
Southern Alps rise fast and steep from the Ocean, squeezing out moisture as it slams into the range
head -on. Large natural lakes are abundant in the interior of the range, and big rivers drain the lakes to the dry side of the island. And like the dry side of the Andes, the East side of the South island can
generate some impressive wind. Any fishing attempted today, with this amount of wind, would be futile.
After stopping in Queenstown for groceries and some pies (think pot pie or empanada… Delicious-
usually filled with meat and cheese, available fresh at gas stations and cafes everywhere) we made our way into Southland where steep mountains gave way to rolling hills. Farmland and lush green pastures dotted with countless white sheep were intersected here and there with medium sized streams . The wind seemed to be dying down a bit, and Evan knew a spot that he had fished earlier with some friends that he wanted to check out.
It was getting late in the day by the time we reached the small river. My hangover had become
somewhat bearable by now as we strung up our rods. We headed downstream where I spotted a good
sized fish feeding in some willow branches hanging into the current. I got the fish to eat but quickly lost him in the branches he was taking shelter in. We saw a few more fish, but between the wind and the bad visibility, we couldn’t get anything going. We found a campground to pitch our tents nearby and Evan cooked some pasta for dinner. Not bad, but as I crawled into my tent for the evening, it was
increasingly obvious that my first 24 hours in New Zealand- guided fishing by helicopter and gourmet
dining- were long gone.
I appreciate the challenges that come with “do-it-yourself” travel. Anglers attempting DIY fishing trips need to understand what they are getting themselves into. Without a local to take you directly to the “hot spot”, you will have to waste a lot of time figuring out where- and how- to fish. With no guide to tell us what to do, Evan and I were now left with nothing but a guide book and some maps to help us figure out where to fish next.
We had gotten a tip from my Uncle Jackson (Evan’s father) about a small meadow stream in the
mountains that had huge browns hiding in under cut banks ready to eat a dry fly. It had been years
since Jackson had fished the stream, and as we pulled up to the parking area for the fisherman’s access we found, it was obvious the secret was out. There was a car parked in every beat marker.
New Zealand has come up with a genius solution to deal with overcrowded rivers. Because there are so few fish there, one angler fishing upstream of you will pretty much render the water you are fishing
useless. So, on popular rivers like the one we were trying to fish, each access point has multiple beats
(stretches) with a sign and a map to explain the boundaries and rules. Anglers wishing to fish a beat
park in front of the designated sign, signaling to other fisherman that the beat is occupied. We drove to several different access points that morning before finding a unoccupied beat.
The wind had picked back up, and by the time we hit the water is was a full-blown gale. We spotted a
few fish, all of which either spooked or refused our flies. It was obvious that these fish- unlike the fish
we were catching on our day of heli fishing, were familiar with people trying to trick them. These fish
were smart- and with the wind howling, Evan and I were taking a licking. We fished hard, covering
about 8 miles of river. I had one big brown come out from a undercut bank to eat my Cicada dry, but by the time the fish got to the fly, it was dragging, and his mouth opened and closed just a quarter inch behind the fly. I didn’t even bother setting the hook. Almost completely dejected, we fished are way back to car. I spotted a fish down deep that I fished to for a while, though he was completely uninterested. Evan went upstream to hit one last pool before we were going to hang it up for the day.
A few minutes later I heard him shout and I looked upstream, surprised to see his rod doubled over. I yelled “need the net?” and got no answer. Assuming it was a small fish I slowly made my way up to him. But when I got about 100 yards away I could tell he was tangling with something serious. I sprinted the last 75 yds and arrived -huffing and puffing- with my net ready at my Cousin’s side.
Kiwi fisherman do not relate size of fish in length as Americans do, but rather in weight. In my time
there, I caught some beautiful fish that may have gone 24-26 inches but were skinnier and not as heavy. Other fish, like the one Evan was currently hooked up to, had shoulders, hips and a beer belly. At first glance, judging by it’s length, the fish didn’t seem that huge. It was BIG, no doubt- at least 2 feet long –but after 15 minutes, Evan still could not get the fish’s head up. I waited patiently with the net until I decided to take a shot and get the net in front of the fish. I timed the scoop well and the fish spooked and swam right into the back of the net. When we weighed the fish it was obvious we he had fought so hard. 8 pounds! (for those of you who have only guessed a trout’s weight but have never actually weighed one, think 12 pounds).
It was the biggest trout of Evan’s life. We took pictures, hugged and high-fived and headed back to car to celebrate. We drove up the dirt road for a few miles before coming to a lake we had decided to camp at. Already in a great mood from Evans catch, things got even better when out the car window as we drove along the lake, sitting by a campfire, we saw our friend Matt, the chef from Cedar lodge. We pulled over and started to chat and no sooner Bobbi and Eli pulled up as well. The Cedar Lodge staff was taking a bit of a vacation themselves. It was good to see them. We camped together, shared some more stories and retired to our tents as it started to rain.
Evan and I awoke early the next morning. Our plan was to fish the same river as the day before, but in it’s upper reaches where the river was isolated from vehicle access. We wanted to make sure we would get the beat and parked our car in front of its sign before anyone else got there. Sure enough, we were the first car there, and parked our car in-front of the sign for an isolated beat of water. Feeling adventurous and confident from Evan’s catch the night before, we signed ourselves up for a giant day by choosing this remote beat. We would need to walk 6 miles to get to the lower boundary of our beat from where we would fish the 3 miles of river allocated to this stretch then walk the other three back to the car at the end of the day. We loaded the packs with plenty of food and ibuprofen and set off.
The river was beautiful. It’s a small stream that meanders through a large valley with mountain peaks all around. Though the walk was long, anticipation grew with each step. By the time we got to our beat we were rearing to go. The fish, however, were not. We spotted fish here and there as we worked our way down stream, spooking many of them. We got a few casts at fish before they saw us, and they were completely uninterested. Any confidence we had form Evans fish the night before was now totally shaken.
We finally got to the bottom end of our beat. Now the only thing left to do was turn around and fish our way back to the car (6 miles away) through the same water we had just walked and had not even gotten a strike on. We decided to take a break, have some lunch and come up with a strategy.
Fresh out of ideas, I suggested the only strategy I could come up with- and its one that has served me
well in the past- keep fishing! We were determined to beat these fish into submission or die trying.
Walking back up stream, as the light across the valley started to get a bit lower, we were now seeing
some fish get a little more active. Had the water been too cold all morning? Was there some kind of
hatch happening now? Do they feel more comfortable in low light? All these questions were going
through our minds as it was obvious the fish that we were seeing were definitely more excited. We
even got a few to look at a dry fly and I hooked one very large brown on a nymph that wrapped me on a rock and broke off. We were still skunked but we were making progress! And we were seeing more fish now, too. Fish that were likely hiding under banks, logs or rocks earlier in the day were now coming out of their hiding spots.
We found one fish in a shallow riffle on the inside of a bend pool. I put a cicada dry over him and he came up, looked at it for a few seconds and then refused it. Finally, someone to play with! I changed flies a few times, each time getting some interest but no commitment. Not seeing any bugs on the water to imitate, I decided to try one of my go to pain-in-the-ass-fish patterns, a small beetle. The fish came up and sipped it on the first cast. After some tussle, we had the fish in the net. After about 9 miles of walking, and 8 hours of fishing, we had finally caught a fish!
We worked our way upstream with a new found sense of excitement. From a high bank, I spotted a
huge brown sitting on an undercut bank on the far side of the river. This fish was feeding. Problem was he was holding in a seam only about 8 inches wide between the bank on his right and the fast current on his left. Any kind of a drift was going to be nearly impossible. It was Evan’s turn this time and I stayed on the high bank to spot for him. Evan made the decision to cross the river below the fish and fish up to him, attempting a cast straight up the seam along the bank. This would require all 25 feet of his fly line and his 12 feet of leader landing in a perfectly straight line in the narrow sliver of slow water just along side the bank. His first few attempts were good, but not good enough. The fly would land a inch or two too far to the left, catch the fast current and be out of view of the fish. Or his line would land a few inches too far to the right – on the bank itself - and the fly would drag.
But persistence paid off and eventually Evan made the perfect cast. As I watched in amazement, the
small dry fly landed in front of the fish, drifted perfectly downstream and the fish slowly came up and
sipped the fly. Fish on!
What happened over the next 10 minutes is a bit of a blur. Evan and I ran up and downstream, around
rocks and back and forth across the stream. Without any sugar-coating, we yelled instructions and
obscenities at each other. There is nothing like having the fish of a lifetime on your line- after working so hard to get him on there, you are completely aware of how weak your 5x tippet is, and how easily your size 16 hook can come loose. In the time it takes for that fish to hit the net, you will talk to God, Buddha and Allah just to cover your bases. You will promise to stop drinking, swearing, or whatever it takes. Just please let me land this fish!
Evan and I were both holding our breath as the fish slowly started to get tired. Evan eventually got the better of him and I slid the net under the 10 pound beast. Screams of joy and laughter echoed across the otherwise quite and peaceful valley. We started the long walk back to the truck, with smiles all around.
What a day. 12 miles walked, 2 fish landed and a memory that will last a lifetime.