by Andrew Collings
It was a cold night in front of the telly and for no apparent reason my partner Lyndsay was more engrossed in the TV than anything I had to say for myself. It was one of those moments where the response to “I’m leaving you for the woman next door” would probably be a disinterested “that’s nice”. I retreated to tie a few flies and then had a better idea. I called out “Hey, you reckon I’m one of those guys that need a fishing holiday on their own once a year?” The reply was a muted and dispassionate “yeah”. As she answered I clicked the submit button on return flights to Queenstown. Shouting out the awesome news she suddenly became a little more interested in what I had to say.
I had very specific needs and goals for a number of reasons but the key planning considerations were:
10 days. I would love to go for longer but I’d miss my family too much and they might just disown me even if I could somehow handle it.
Tight budget. I wanted to fit the whole thing under $3000 so no extravagant lodges, guided trips or heli-fishing for my NZ experience.
Walking not very far. I don’t much like walking, it’s not that I’m against it but knee injuries from sports means that it gets uncomfortable after a few kms, I can handle the distance of a full days fishing but not a great deal more. So no backcountry adventures, it had to be drive-up day fishing.
With these factors in mind and after research, more research and then a little more research on the side I ended up deciding on concentrating on the Southland fishing region, and to base myself at Mossburn Railway Hotel. Cheap bunk style or single room accommodation is very very reasonable there and includes brekky but more importantly it is within 30 minutes of more waters than you could possibly shake a 6 weight at in 10 days. For it’s reputation, I also thought that concentrating mainly on the Mataura river for the duration would be a great way to cut my teeth in NZ. The added spice of witnessing one of the famous “Mad Mataura Rises” was all I needed to push me in that direction.
From reading countless articles and forum posts there were some other factors that I also close to mind, particularly the many horror stories of blanking and/or catching a tiny handful of fish for many days of NZ fishing. My hunch for the possible reason for this was people trying to “do” the whole Island on a driving tour and stopping to fish every river they had ever heard of. Most of these stories seemed to have a single factor in common, they were self –guided and, they probably don’t fish that well anyway! But sadly, sometimes nor do I. I have my days but I am very much a keen amateur that simply doesn’t have the time on the water that I feel I need to improve exponentially. So this all lead me to thinking that I had to get a guide early in the trip for a day to set me on my way. That’s a big wedge of money in one hit, a quarter of my budget but as I will explain it was probably the single most important key to the trip for me. Plus, spread out over 10 days the cost seems manageable. Go for a fortnight and 2 days guided fishing works out around $100 a day.
It didn’t take long to see that most recommendations for a top guide in the area pointed straight to Chris Dore, I was lucky enough to book a day with him the 2nd full day of the trip and the advice and tips his website and personal emails provided payed off way before I even got there right down to the packing list, what to tie and a whole lot of other info about the area.
Jumping off the plane and into a pair of waders, putting my foot down hard until the first bridge I saw, seeing a few big trout mooching around, hooking one (but sadly and enticingly losing it) on my first cast and going on to get 2, one being I’m guessing 5 lbs before it got dark and speeding off to the pub in time for fish and chips and a jug of Speights. That was the dream. Of course the reality was very different. I had the steak. It was a dream start alright.
The next day I had a few near misses, a lot of spookings and hooked and lost a great fish that was rising during the afternoon. Duns were coming off all over the place. It wasn’t quite mad but there were several fish rising and one in particular was mopping up mayfly like a couch potato eating out of a KFC bucket. I went home ultimately fishless but had hooked a few and counted myself unlucky. Note, though that apart from spookings I am talking about fish encountered blind or that were rising and easy to spot.
Cue my sightfishing school with Chris. When I talk about the ability to sight fish I don’t mean see the occasional trout and have a cast at it I mean actually fish to sighted fish and only those fish. Of course I have read countless articles on the skills required to polaroid and spot fish and occasionally have done it successfully but if I am going to be brutally honest I had a mind set before I went to NZ that it was “hyper advanced” stuff. Stuff for the pros, and mere mortals like me could do fine by blind fishing (usually indicator nymphing) likely looking water and picking off the risers. My story of the trip will highlight how I completely came out of that mindset.
Chris heard about my catches and decided that I must be able to cast at least half decently to get a couple so he changed his mind from fishing the Mataura and, with fair weather forecast, decided on a trip into the “trophy zone”. I had heard about the place, about the big fish sure but also the big fish that are spooky and deal out many a skunking. Well, to say the day was revolutionary for my fishing mindset would be a huge understatement.
The approach was to slowly stalk likely water from the best bank depending on height and/or glare. The side of the river with the more pronounced drop-off or gutters cut out by rocks were scrutinised carefully. If water was skipped I would have an explanation of why – water that was carefully watched I knew why we were watching it. This commentary from Chris allowed me to confidently skip many a stretch in the following days that I might have wasted time on. Deep water held fish more often than not and I was seeing fish in these spots after they were being pointed out. Slowly throughout the day I began to see them quicker and, on the odd occasion was seeing them before Chris pointed them out to me. At these times I can only assume he had his eyes closed or was simply being kind to me.
The fishing was clinically organised. Depth and current assessed, fish behaviour watched for feeding signs, and then the most likely fly or fly combination tied on. The fly choices ranged from deep nymph, indicator double rigs, dry dropper or straight dry. Patterns often started as naturals and then became more and more about inciting a fish to strike. Surprising to me was the addition of a streamer or “frightening” bloodworm red patterns on the bottom dropper but early in the piece I saw that if a fish was lying low and not moving a great deal this would turn their head.
So the fish we cast to? There must have been 15 opportunities through the day. Some fish were generously offered a shit cast, or I was a little too visible when getting into casting position and that folks, was that. By shit cast I don’t mean fly line on their head but once the next cast or the next one after that were on their way you sensed that the fish was already alerted to my presence. The basics of flyfishing were multiplied and magnified to such an extent that they became the secrets of advanced fishing. You know the easy basics like, keep your presence away from a trout, make a good presentation? To make a single tiny mistake meant a gone fish. To make matters worse the gone fish was always big! But in the end, in a way I got some success. Firstly the success was a good presentation, a take and a terrible strike. Secondly there was a step further only to get a bit too hard-ass on a fish too early and break off. Chris may have sensed that I was getting a bit stressed by this point and mentioned it was early and that you could still look back and see the car park.
So, the first fish! A pool known for a 10lb resident was carefully scanned, just at the drop off into the pool a good fish was seen holding bottom and due to my casting position pretty hard to keep track of. Higher to the side Chris was keeping tabs on the fish and called my cast, with a double nymph rig, to a rock that was more obvious to me than the cryptic brown trout. I failed. Luckily short and wide enough to not matter, my next cast was on the money, Indicator down, I could strike, hook the fish and hold my rod high. It was on! I was getting line on the reel while it thrashed around and I could begin fighting it. The fish worryingly toyed with the idea of heading downstream over the next fast water but with some changes of direction and pressure I kept to the slow, shallow water we wanted. Chris talked me perfectly through the nerves and netted the fish expertly. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and we quickly took some snaps of an 8lb brown trout. Quite an amazing experience, and to think that in the same pool a resident double figure fish lives, AS WELL is almost a bit scary.
The rest of the day went much the same, some chances, some fluff-ups and some takes, the “important part” of getting a fish to have a go at the fly happened a few times but was it quite late in the day that I carried along to the “formalities” of actually hooking and landing another. Picture this. Sun comes out and we walk slowly looking into deeper water on the opposite side, out of nowhere a fish rises, I say almost rhetorically shall I chuck this at it? (a blowfly humpy) the answer was “errr, yeah sure Andy!”. I put the perfect cast over, landing about a metre upstream from where the rise was. Then, a huge pair of crocodile jaws break the surface and snap down on the fly. I strike, I’m on, and an explosion in the water is the tell tale that it’s a fit, big fish. Just a classic classic experience and, honestly if this was the only trout I ever caught again on the trip I’d have to be happy. The scales weighed in a pound less than the morning, but for me it was the more fit and beautiful fish.
So the rest of the trip? Well I was trained up and keyed in right? so I would go on to catch a sack full every day right?? Nah, not quite but guess what? Not much blind fishing occurred (and to be honest the blind fishing was a waste of time anyway). Another 8 full days and I blanked one day – back in the trophy zone sadly. I feel that I did enough to have a different story that day with 1 fish pricked after it took my nymph, 1 that I struck to on a dry-dropper that –duh- was turning for the dry and not taking the nymph as I believed as I struck too early, and one heart-stopping chase-down of a big streamer that momentarily loaded the rod only to disappear into thin water.
On a few different rivers though(I spread myself around a bit even against my plans and better judgement) I caught 1 or 2 fish each day, and each one felt like a “medal” fish. Medals that I had to do so much to spot, to creep up on and fool with a good presentation. And not least, mentally, it took a fair bit to get over the mistakes and near-misses that led me to the fish. They were all special moments, really really nice fish and the snaps I took don’t really do justice to southland browns – I decided to release all fish quickly after one selfie irrespective of photo quality – but they were all mini stories in themselves and each fish caught (and each lost) are printed in my memory.
So the story could end there but it won’t because I have the last day. Oh man, that last day! If you could imagine a day to end the best fishing trip ever it would be hard to better the stuff that went down that day. I did not have a nymph tied on once, most of the time I had my own drys on, I experienced the mad Matuara rise I desperately wanted and I caught upwards of 15 (hell, maybe 20?!) fish over 2lb. All those fish were seen, watched and cast to crisply and perfectly. The one’s I muffed? Well there are better than I around that could have caught 40 fish that day! It ended it up with a huge dark cloud, and I mean huge and dark, that I mistook for the cover of dark at 5.30. Imagine my dismay when I got to the car and checked the time! But it was enough, I did not unpack and turn back when the sun came out again but I’ll probably wear a watch next time.
That day was great but it wasn’t quite enough because I’d like to fish the Mataura river as my local every day. It wasn’t enough because I would like to have tea and a beer at the Mossburn pub as my local. It wasn’t enough because I like to drive around listening to Radio Hauraki, that station seems to have channelled my music tastes almost perfectly. But alas, it had to be enough so it’s back to JJJ, Tasmania’s plucky little browns and a long year of saving up for the return. As for the budget for those that are interested in getting into some over there on the cheap – yep, kept under but my one big bit of advice is get a guide for a day before you factor in the rest and work around that.