Fishing New Zealand’s South Island – October-November 2013

For my 30th birthday present, Rache bought us some cheap tickets to New Zealand. We’ve just returned, and all I can think about is going back! We flew into (and out of) Christchurch, and at a little over 3 hours flying time and for the same cost as your average flights from Canberra to Sydney, it’s a pretty attractive option for the keen angler, traveller and holiday-maker. Warning: this is a long and photo-heavy post, so grab yourself a beer or a cup of tea and (hopefully) enjoy 🙂

Cheeky Kea
Cheeky Kea threatening the rubber on the campervan

It didn’t take us long to get out of Christchurch and we decided to head north towards Kaikoura. I had read a bit about some of the east flowing rivers in the south of the South Island, but didn’t know much about anything north of Christchurch. The motivation for heading north first was the weather – the forecast was for around 200mm over a few days in the more southern areas. We we lucky in the end, as we had very little rain for the first part of the trip. It was obviously a different story to the south-east; more on this later. The first session I had was at a little river to the south of Kaikoura. It seemed strange to me to be fishing for trout within earshot of the crashing waves on the beach, but the friendly owner at the caravan park assured me there were trout in the river. I had a few casts with the spin rod but stupidly didn’t wear my waders, so was only able to go a small distance upstream. Resolving to relax and enjoy the scenery, I headed back to camp fishless.

Rache and I set up camp and decided to have a beer at one of the benches at the back of the beach. There were a few people fishing, but they didn’t seem to be having much luck. As the shadows lengthened and a few more people wandered down with fishing rods, the itch started to grow stronger and stronger. There were a few Pacific Gulls and seagulls diving off the back of the beach – a good sign no matter which country you find yourself in. It was also whitebait season, which is presumably what the birds were feeding on.

Further down the beach, I saw a big bend in a surfrod and knew the angler was connected to a good fish. I assumed it was a Kahawai, and was surprised to see him pull a long, silvery fish onto the sand. Perhaps voyeuristically, I took a few snaps with the 200mm lens and zoomed in on the screen to see the species. Barracouta! This was enough for me. I raced up to the caravan park to hire a rod and reel. A $10 rod/reel and a $5 metal slug was the only choice, so for $15 dollars I was ready to fish. I raced back down the beach and started casting, only to get that sinking feeling when you know you’ve just wasted money….the setup I had hired was horrible; what felt like 40lb line, and about 20 metres of it, made it incredibly hard to get the distance required. Once again, I raced up the beach to grab my spinning reel, a little 2500 sustain. Putting the 2500 on a 12 foot rod seemed a bit silly, but I was able to cast a mile and shortly after hooked into a good fish. I landed it, before being joined by Rache, and shortly after hooked an even bigger one. I held it up for a few shots before it angrily latched onto my jeans, resulting in a hasty and inelegant release. I was pretty pleased and while it wasn’t a trout, it was my first barracouta off the beach, and first fish in New Zealand.

My first barracouta off the the beach and my first fish in New Zealand. Note the ridiculous setup - a 2500 reel on a 12 foot surfrod! Sometimes you have to make do with what you have at hand
My first barracouta off the the beach and my first fish in New Zealand. Note the ridiculous setup – a 2500 reel on a 12 foot surfrod! Sometimes you have to make do with what you have at hand

The next few days were not very fish-focused, but I did stop into ‘Hunting and Fishing – Marlborough’ in Blenheim. The owner, Don Hansen, was an absolute pleasure to talk to (and do business with), and it was great to share some stories about fishing with him and his excellent staff. I showed Don a few photos on the camera of bugs that I’d seen in a few rivers and he showed me to the appropriate imitations.

I think Don said this was a stonefly nymph.
I think Don said this was a stonefly nymph.

Their advice was spot on, the gear was all excellent quality and the prices were competitive. I walked out a few hundred dollars poorer, but had some waders for Rache, a new 4 piece spinning rod, a bunch of flies and some wading shoes to show for it.

One thing about fishing in New Zealand is the fantastic availability of information. Everyone has some idea about fish and fishing and are forthcoming with tips and advice. The brochures, marketing, signage and access are incredible, and they’ve obviously got some pretty well-developed thinking going on at Fish and Game HQ. Graz has written a bit more about it, and in general fishing in New Zealand here, here, here and here. There are, however, a few ‘dinosaur’ laws, like the one that says ‘If the angler foul hooks three fish in a day, he shall cease fishing immediately’. I understand what this law does and why it exists, but you’d be better off promoting the use of barbless hooks. You’d have to be doing something pretty wrong to foul hook three fish, anyway!

After a few days walking in the spectacular Marlborough Sounds we headed towards the west coast. It was then that the volume of rain that was forecast (and had eventuated) started to become apparent. As we headed further down the Brunner River, which is a renowned fishing hot-spot, the water became muddier and it was apparent that it was pretty unfishable.

Eventually we started to get into some more forested catchments and the rivers began to clear, but there were still large volumes of cold, milky water spilling of the mountains to the east.

One of many rivers we drove straight past. If you wanted to fish every one you'd need a lifetime...maybe I should move to New Zealand
One of many rivers we drove straight past. If you wanted to fish every one you’d need a lifetime…maybe I should move to New Zealand
Clear and cold...probably not the best conditions. There was very little aquatic life in these small 'creeks'
Clear and cold…probably not the best conditions. There was very little aquatic life in these small ‘creeks’

We headed to St Arnaud and found a beautiful campsite on the shores of Lake Rotoiti, adjacent to the spectacular Nelson Lake National Park. We had arrived quite late and despite the rain I was into my waders and down the lake in about 15 minutes. Third cast with a little flashy spinner and I was on! My first NZ trout. I was totally chuffed and decided to knock it on the head to show it (read: show off) to Rache and cook it up for dinner.

A nice little brown from Lake Rotoiti. Hamish and  were discussing whether it might have actually been a little salmon...anyone know for sure?
A nice little brown from Lake Rotoiti. Hamish and were discussing whether it might have actually been a little salmon…anyone know for sure? Either way, it had beautiful orange flesh…delicious.
The stomach contents of one of the Lake Rotoiti fish...snails and some shiny long things...don't think they're caddis. Leave a comment if you can name them.
The stomach contents of one of the Lake Rotoiti fish…snails and some shiny long things…are they caddis? Leave a comment if you can name them.

The following morning I was up at sunrise and headed back down. For some reason I decided to take the spinning rod again. I figured that in the lake it would be good to get some extra distance and coverage of the water. I spotted numerous fish, but couldn’t get them to chew. I suspect, if I had taken the flyrod, that I might have been able to tempt a few of the shallow-water risers on a nice big dry.

Lake Rotoiti...stunning.
Lake Rotoiti…stunning.

A few years ago Rache and I watched the ‘River Somewhere’ episode where Tom Gleisner and Ron Sitch go fishing in the infamous D’Urville River. We were close, and decided to try to get up there from Lake Rotoroa. The trusty Lonely Planet said we would need to get a water taxi across the lake, which sounded pretty cool in its own right. On arriving at Lake Rotoroa it became apparent that it was well and truly flooded. Half of the camping area was underwater and it was funny to watch the swans swimming around the picnic tables.

It didn't look like we were going to get up the D'Urville. Next time.
It didn’t look like we were going to get up the D’Urville. Next time.

We tried to find some locals to see if the water taxi would be operating, but we both knew that the river would probably be too high to fish for a number of days. It seemed like a real ghost town, and we resolved to keep moving. On the way back, however, I had a cast in the headwaters of the Buller River, which is the outflow of the Lake. The water was still clear, and I was convinced I’d spotted a good fish sitting under the bridge. I think it was second cast and I was onto a nice little brown. It wasn’t the big one I’d seen, but I was pretty pleased anyway and started to get the feeling that New Zealand is filthy with fish.

Shortly after catching this fish I became snagged in a tree, and in my relaxed and nonchalant travel mood started yanking on the rod. In slow motion, the lure detached and appeared to become larger and larger until it slammed into my face. Instant adrenaline kicked in and I reached up, feeling the lure hanging out of my cheek, and promptly ripped it out. Not pretty, but effective. After hooking myself a few times in recent years, I’ve started to think this is the best technique. Get it out fast, as long as it’s not going to do more damage to something other than skin, flesh and the odd tendon. See this post for more on hook removal.

Not fun!
Not fun!

We continued south down the west coast and drove over numerous rivers, all of which I convinced myself held massive populations of trophy trout. I got a bit crazy in the end and started saying ‘hello trouts, bye-bye trouts’ whenever we’d crossed a river, and after a while I think Rache started to get the picture and we pulled over so I could have a few casts. I spotted some amazing geese, but no fish. Perhaps the most frustrating experience was when we pulled over to do the short ‘Blue Pools’ walk. I’d read in the guide that you could usually see large trout swimming around in some deep blue pools, and assumed that it would be a ‘no fishing’ spot. Something inside me decided not to bring the rod. We walked the 1.5ks in the rain and arrived at a high bridge across a beautiful stream. Immediately, I spotted about 7 trout in the deep water below. The biggest would have gone 12-14 pounds. I was incredulous; both at myself and at the size of the fish below.

The photos didn't do these fish justice. Some of them were HUGE
The photos didn’t do these fish justice. Some of them were HUGE
The most frustrating thing is that I would have been able to get down to the water and have a crack, had I brought the rod! Rache convinced me that it would have been a hollow catch...
The most frustrating thing is that I would have been able to get down to the water and have a crack, had I brought the rod! Rache convinced me that it would have been a hollow catch…
How many fish can you spot?
How many fish can you spot?

Eventually we made it to Lake Paringa, which, according to one of my trusty Fish and Game brochures, was full of big browns and the odd salmon. It didn’t take me long to get down to the water, and after a few casts with the flyrod I gave up and started spinning. Shortly after, when casting near the inflow of a beautiful little creek, the lure got slammed and I was onto a good fish. Eventually I had him by the bank: a beautifully marked brown of around 1.5kg and nearly 50cm long.

My first 'respectable' trout of the trip
My first ‘respectable’ trout of the trip
Some of the scenery...beautiful.
Some of the scenery…beautiful.

By this stage I was happy with my spinning efforts, resolving that spinning in New Zealand for trout is basically like shooting fish in a barrel. There are fish everywhere. I decided to focus solely on the flyfishing from that point forward, so in the morning was up early and wading the banks. I must have cast to 30 big browns, some of which were rising, others cruising and the odd tailer in the shallows. I had one…ONE…look at a parachute Adams. But nothing else. I was nymphing and fishing with dries, sometimes in a team and sometimes separately, but it was incredibly hard. I could creep up to within metres of these fish, present a perfect cast, and they’d just carry on their merry way. In hindsight (how often to we say that in fishing?!) I probably should have tied on a big wooly bugger, or even a little saltwater clouser (i.e perfect whitebait pattern) and I would have some luck. But the ‘purist’ inside me was determined to catch one on a ‘real’ fly. If Brett is reading this, hopefully he smiles.

Rache spinning on Lake Paringa
Rache spinning on Lake Paringa

Anyway, it was frustrating but it’s so beautiful there that it didn’t really worry me, and I still had plenty of time. Much of that time was spent doing nice relationshippy things. Glaciers, helicopters and kayaking, interspersed with numerous walks, meals and relaxing. All ingredients for a great holiday, but none particularly conducive to catching fish.

Helicopters and glaciers are cool, but it's pretty hard to catch fish from either.
Helicopters and glaciers are cool, but it’s pretty hard to catch fish from either.

Another session worth mentioning was at the spectacular Haast River. I’ll let the photos do the talking, but it’s worth mentioning that I started to get a flyfishing monkey on my back. I had become fixated on catching a fish on fly, and my inability to do so started to detract a little bit from my enjoyment. Sad but true! After numerous spookings in the crystal clear water, a number of horrible tangles and a breeze that decided to blow right when I wanted to flyfish (but at no other point during the day), I eventually wrangled the spinning rod off Rache, who was comprehensively outfishing me, and started catching a few fish. I have to admit, it was a pretty hollow fix.

A nice brown from the Haast River.
A nice brown from the Haast River. The lure in the foreground caught 90% of the fish during the trip. All of the others were caught on Tassie Devils.
Rache with one of the Haast's little brownies. These fish were almost completely silver, and were incredibly difficult to spot before they spotted you!
Rache with one of the Haast’s little brownies. These fish were almost completely silver, and were incredibly difficult to spot before they spotted you!

Lake Te Anau was pretty cool…I don’t want to bore you too much with too many stories, but I had a great little session spinning out the front of the caravan park. The photos can do the talking.

Picturesque
Picturesque
One of my better brownies of the trip.
One of my better brownies of the trip.
One of few photos of me holding a fish! A passer by stopped his car and jumped out and said 'nice fish! I fish in here all the time and I've never seen one that big!' I was pretty chuffed :)
One of few photos of me holding a fish! A passer by stopped his car and jumped out and said ‘nice fish! I fish in here all the time and I’ve never seen one that big!’ I was pretty chuffed 🙂

A few more days of holidaymaking ensued, but I still had the itch and after a long day’s drive we arrived in Alexandra, a quaint little town in the central southland area. The campsite was adjacent to a gorgeous little stream, which I was sure held some fish. After wading around for a while, I started to spot fish after fish. The river was absolutely full of fish, and I had one rise to a dry but just couldn’t hook one. I returned to the campsite and chilled out for a while, then as the light was fading returned to the stream to witness a ridiculously good evening rise. If I thought the river was full before I knew that it was simply filthy with ’em now. I tried about 10 different patters in a 20 minute period, with fish literally jumping around my feet, but couldn’t hook one. Once again, I decided to go and get the spinning rod, and first cast, WHACK. Second cast whack, fish. Third cast, follow, fourth cast, whack, fish, and so on for about 15 minutes until it became too dark. I left the fish frolicking around and went back to the campervan for a contemplative beer.

The river at the Alexandra holiday park was filthy with small rainbows
The river at the Alexandra holiday park was filthy with small rainbows

The last chance I had to catch a fish on fly was at Lake Tepako. Walking towards some shallow water, as the shadows were lengthening, I spotted a swirl, then a rise, then another, and as I got closer saw 4 or 5 nice browns feeding on a hatch of tiny orange flies. I’m not sure what they were, but the fish were completely fixated and were gorging themselves. I tried a few different dries, then a big stoneyfly nymph, and had a big hit on the nymph, but didn’t hook up. Ah well.

If you look closely you can see the little orange bugs. These fish were silly-fixated on them.
If you look closely you can see the little orange bugs. These Tepako browns were silly-fixated on them.

I had numerous other short sessions but these were probably the most memorable. Anyway, we eventually made our way back to Christchurch. When we had arrived two weeks earlier, it was dark, and we weren’t able to have much of a look around. Spending a few hours here was a pretty somber experience, although kinda uplifting too. The devastation from the earthquakes has to be seen to be believed. Every second building is a construction site, or close off from public access. Huge slabs of concrete, crubled bricks and steel girders lie around haphazardly. Most of the older buildings are gone, or earmarked for demolition. Despite the damage, Christchurch is coming alive. We visited container city; an awesome little cultural hub built from shipping containers. A great selection of fashion and food, and typically quirky and cool Kiwis. Walking around what’s left of the city, we crossed a small bridge and looked into the water. I spotted an eel at first, then my eye was drawn to some movement downstream. Right there in the middle of town was a large brownie, just chiliing out in the weeds. Rache said ‘what’s that? Under the weeds on the far bank’. I looked over to see a 12 pounder (minimum) sitting mooching under the bank.

Right in the middle of Christchurch
Right in the middle of Christchurch

New Zealand, the south island, and in particular Christchurch, is definitely open for business, and you can help speed their recovery from this awful natural disaster by going there and spending some of your hard-earned on an awesome fishing holiday. Do it! In hindsight, I had an amazing time and it’s great to relive all of the sessions I had through writing this blog. The funny thing is, I feel like I didn’t do much fishing, but reading back through this post, I can understand that Rache is pretty tolerant 🙂

I'm a lucky guy
I’m a lucky guy

Thanks for reading 🙂

Lee

flickandflyjournal.com

Hamish Webb, Dan Firth, Graham Fifield and Lee Georgeson have been fishing the south-east Australian region since 1987. Since then they’ve become avid sportfishermen who are constantly looking for new ways to challenge themselves. They are all scientists and conservationists who are passionate about the long-term sustainability of the ecosystem in which they live. They promote understanding and appreciation of the complex socio-political, economic and environmental issues surrounding fish, fishing and fisheries, while never losing sight of the various motivations that keep them coming back. In English, that means they love all things fishing and have a damn good time on the water, and that’s all that really counts in the end!

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