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Trout Bum in the Bush

An article about do-it-yourself fly fishing in New Zealand, first published by Fly Fishing and Fly Tying magazine.

Fly Fishing in the mountains of New Zealand's South Island often has a lot more to do with bushcraft then with actual fishing. The solitude, the dangers and the ruggedness of it all seem to be the attractions. Indeed they become infectious, and once bitten you can never shrug off the urge to return.

'Living bush', as it were, is almost as important as the end result. The end result being loosely quantified as 'trout'. More specifically as 'bloody big trout with even bigger appetites'. Average weights of five pounds, six pounds and bigger are typical. The only way to find the best fishing is to sling a pack on your back and wander. A few bush skills will almost certainly be required, such as the ability to light a fire in the middle of a rain forest. (Why not practice at home under the sprinkler? For further development of this very important skill you can arrange for your girlfriend to throw buckets of water over you.)

A rod licence is all you need in order to fish New Zealand. An annual one costs NZ$55 which is about 20. Buying some hut tickets (or a hut pass at $58) can be a good idea. Back-country huts, although basic, can save the need to carry a tent, and they are positioned in some surprisingly remote locations. They can give you shelter when conditions are really bad. Having to spend all day in a small tent due to foul weather can become claustrophobic.

The weather in New Zealand can be a problem. Basically it rains. Parts of the West Coast and Fiordland are the unhappy recipients of up to eight meters of rainfall annually. So take your anorak.

For the wary minded and the experienced, NZ bush is actually quite a tame place to be. There are no animal dangers such as in Tasmania (snakes) or Canada (bears) or Northern Australia (crocodiles) to give a few of the more interesting examples. So the only real risks are hypothermia and drowning. Those and the quicksand, the steep climbs, and the German girls.

Trout in NZ are reputedly difficult to catch. This is complete nonsense. They are both crass and unsophisticated. Especially so in the backcountry. Rarely are they selective and never in the extreme. Mind you they are rather spooky. It's high stakes stuff when you've spotted a trout, knowing that one false move will spook, you will probably get one chance of delivery only, and the next fish, assuming there is another, may well be a mile upstream and you're short of food (I find being short of food gives me an edge). It was in such a state that I entered the mouth of the Ugly.

Ugly encounter

The unfortunately named Ugly River is a tributary of the Karamea, high up on the West Coast. I had followed the old gold mining trail, the Wangapeka Track, from the small township of Little Wanganui.

I got into the Ugly pretty late on in the day. It was my tenth day in the bush, and it had been a gruelling one. I had just tramped down from the Roaring Lion River (ten hard hours) precariously avoiding quicksand around the Earthquake Lakes and negotiating some serious bluffs. There was no track. This was a route. Sort of.

My newly acquired boots (I had swapped my old pair with another joker in the Roaring Lion Hut) had proved sound. All I wanted now was a trout, a smoke and a good sleep.

About one hundred yards above the confluence I spotted a fish (only browns in this river). He looked about five pounds and just right for my hungry mouth. So I set up the rod and bunged a nymph at him.

At this precise point in the proceedings I was ambushed by sand flies and lost concentration completely. The fish took and I struck too soon (something I appear to have down to a fine art). By this time the light had seriously faded, and I saw no more fish and so I had to make do with cheese crackers, which was all the food I had left. Apart, of course, from the emergency token packet of dehydrated dog food, but Christ, things weren't that bad.

The dawn saw me awake early. Sandflies are obviously nature's alarm clock.

The Ugly's a gorgy river high up, but contains a good head of trout. They fight like demons shooting up and down rapids. I hooked and lost eight, one of which was trophy proportions (over ten pounds and getting bigger at every telling).

I was becoming desperate, and rapidly losing what sanity I had. It was then that I became reckless. The next fish hooked ran down through the rapids and I stripped off and followed. One moment leaping (like a puma) from rock to rock, the next splashing (like a turtle) through six feet of water, the next leaping, then wet again. Exciting stuff. This fish was obviously thoroughly enjoying himself. After much exertion on both ends, the fish was eventually tamed. The scales showed four and a half pounds, and I reckon the smallest hooked that day.

I had better pause briefly to allow you to return from the telephone. Naturally I am assuming that you have just this minute booked your flight, and are now wondering what tactics and flies to use.

Tackling up is of course a very personal affair; one man's broomstick is another man's wand. However the general consensus, in the South Island at any rate, is a nine foot, fast action, six-weight. It's a good all round compromise. For tramping you need a four-piece. And a spare. Through clumsiness, stupidity and falling from a great height I broke one rod five times in six months. An enviable feat.

For leader material, breaking strains in seven and four pounds double strength are fine (for lowland rivers such as the Mataura you might just need two and a half pounds).

Six of the best

There appear to be two sorts of fly anglers: those who carry every fly in the world and those who carry half a dozen. I admit it I come from the first category. Having admitted this, I shall also concede that nearly all the trout I caught in NZ fell to less than six patterns. Such is the chaos I refer to as my life.

One of the problems poised by the NZ trout is depth. Getting a fly down to fish through three feet or more of fast water involves heavy leading. I am not talking heavy by English standards here either. I am talking enough lead to knock a man flat. Or a fish.

For nymphs I use hare, seal and opossum patterns in sizes #6 through #16, with size #8 being most useful early season and #14 later on. For dries, yellow humpies in similar sizes. The first time you see a six-pounder rising to a size eight humpy you may forgive yourself for screwing the strike. It is very impressive.

Along with the odd rabbit lure, cicada pattern and mouse imitation these are all you will need for most of the time. Although I did have good success with a black Bobs Bits (#12) which is a damn sight better manuka beetle imitation than you will find in any tackle shop.

  • Hook: #10-16
  • Tail: cock fibres
  • Body: dubbed seals or sub
  • Rib: mono
  • Wing: poly yarn stub

A little note about cicadae: if you can't get a nymph down to a fish (and often they require it about six inches above their heads), then try a big dry, such as this. They tell me that trout will move through more than fifteen (!) feet of water to take these large beasties. (About ten foot is the most I have witnessed).

Spotting fish in New Zealand is actually rather easy for us 'Poms'. I suppose it comes from stalking small browns in murky waters. Whatever it is, after a short while, you will probably find yourself spotting fish just like the Kiwi guides. Which is encouraging.

If you have ever watched a video on the South Island trout fishing, the chances are that the Hunter Valley was included at some point. It is a beautiful place. The scenery is breathtaking. When I was there, it was enhanced by the presence of fresh snow on the mountain peaks... lovely. The fishing was even better, and I had the river to myself, indeed possibly the whole valley.

It was typical heavy nymph work to visible fish. The trout averaging slightly over the six pound mark, mainly rainbows featuring, with the odd brown putting in a token appearance just to say hello.

brown trout

I used to think poorly of the rainbow trout. No more. A wild rainbow is every bit as fine as its cousin. Some would argue finer. And they fight better too. I was spooled on this river.


The Hunter River has a high reputation, even by NZ standards. It is one place I would recommend for the newcomer to NZ trout. But be warned, Otago, some of Fiordland and Southland districts were devastated by January Floods in '94. It is reckoned to take between three and five years before these rivers have fully recovered. (note that some of these rivers as of last season still have not recovered to former glories, but they are damn close now ('99))

Indeed it took me quite a while to recover. Eighteen inches of rain fell on my tent that night. I remember every inch, as I tried to get to sleep. Mavora Lakes where I was camped came right up through the floor to meet me. Which conveniently brings me around to the lakes.

In most NZ lakes you can clearly see every pebble through twenty feet and more water. If you can see pebbles and you know what fish look like (they look like big pebbles) you can stalk them.

Tactics are very simple in theory. There are two ways to go: dry on the surface or nymph hard on the bottom. The nymph in this case is fascinating.

First you find your fish. Then you pretend you never saw him and let him swim away. Once gone you cast your nymph to land where he first appeared. If he is a rainbow you will never see him again, which isn't very clever, so for the purposes of this discussion we shall assume him to be a brown.

Ten minutes later, just when you have given up all hope of his return, you spy him working the bank towards you. Your nymph is lying, waiting in ambush, on the sandy bottom. Just as he approaches, you give it the tiniest of twitches. The fish, it is hoped, will spy this subtle movement, and, thinking fishy thoughts, swoop gleefully upon it. Whereupon, after the suitable delay, you strike.

I find the dry on the lakes less interesting, perhaps because it is easier. Due to the fact that the fly does not require time to actually reach the bottom, it is possible to cover fish instantly. It is necessary, however, to cast the fly a good distance ahead, ten yards is not too much, and allow the trout to discover it all by itself. Hitting them on the head, as it were, only spooks them.

Unfortunately, for confirmed Stillwater men, the NZ lake trout have a tendency to be on the smaller size averaging about three pounds. The exceptions are lakes in the backcountry. Often caused by earthquakes and other destructive phenomena, they hold larger fish. Dead lake on the Milford Track is one of these and is simply mind-blowing; it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest to find that the average weight here is more than eight pounds.

I should have spent more time on this lake, but no, my American friend and I had to investigate the northern branch of the Clinton River. It was here that I had one of my more unsettling bush experiences.

It will come as no surprise to 'those in the know' that it rained. Fourteen inches in a three hour period to be precise. We had set up camp on a lovely little island. After thirteen inches our island was a lovely little island no more. It was a river.

Picture two very wet anglers sitting up a tree, reflecting on why on earth they involve themselves in such a pointless pursuit, and whether the fish will feed particularly well when the river drops.

They didn't.


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