Often, achieving a dream or goal marks a turning point. Sometimes even with no return. I cannot deny that New Zealand’s experiences have forever changed me as a fisherman and a human being. Not in vain, when you have spent twenty years imagining yourself there, you can only expect two things: that it is not up to par, which happens more often than we can sometimes imagine, possibly as a result of the high expectations that we set for ourselves; or that the experience itself is of such magnitude, that you do not return being the same as when you started your trip.
Only a few things are as personal, unique, and diverse as dreams. They come in all colors and shades. Also, in terms of fishing, of course.
We all dream of the same thing: big fish in quantity, heart-stopping fights… I’m sure you know what I mean. However, I find the richness in the nuances and what surrounds those fish. Those ingredients make the difference between a good dish and a delicacy. Fish are nothing more than an excuse to travel and get lost in some of the most beautiful landscapes on our planet. Right?
New Zealand is rich in landscapes… and, of course, fish, big fish, but we will get to that later.
I invite you to accompany me in my dreams, traveling around the South Island and experiencing, through these lines, the nuances that captivated me forever. We don’t have to share my dreams, but if I’m sure of one thing, it’s that in New Zealand and its countless rivers and valleys of all kinds, there’s also a dream for you.
The trout was introduced into New Zealand waters in the remote year of 1867 from Tasmania, where they had been introduced a few years earlier and traveled from the United Kingdom. Nearly two centuries later, New Zealand has become one of the world’s premier fishing destinations.
Its unique orography, an abundance of water, and temperate climate join other factors, such as a low population density or a great respect for nature and outdoor activities, offering to fly fishermen from all over the world the perfect trout fishing destination. I can’t describe it in any other way. The variety of river ecosystems can only be described as infinite on its two main islands, separated by the Cook Strait and occupying a distance of about 1,600 km from North to South.
What motivates you? A mountain freestone river? There it is. A plain river with riverside trees? No problem. A river with blue waters in the middle of a tropical jungle? Of course. Chalk streams? Sure. Shallow water lakes? Indeed!
The peculiar geography of the country, with mountains that exceed 3700m in altitude, means that the country not only has an immense variety of landscapes but also of climates, which has shaped the character of its water masses and river basins and allows us to enjoy all kinds of scenarios in a relatively small territory. A universe to be explored.
Generally speaking, New Zealand has a reputation for being a demanding destination. And, at least in the South Island, if we generalize, it is true. Densities per km are low.
The size of the fish are large, and the conditions we will have to face are usually challenging: wild fish are perfectly adapted and aware of their environment, with an unusual ability to detect any foreign element. A shine, noises, wrong moves… and it is game over. A bad presentation, a false cast too close, drag… sorry, try the next one.
And, as I mentioned earlier, the conditions will only work in your favor sometimes. We will have to face adverse weather conditions and winds that will put our casting technique to the test. We will have to face physical exhaustion. Getting out of the car and stalking a fish is not the same as doing it when you have 15km on your legs and a heavy backpack on your back for several days. And, of course, we will have to be solvent-fighting fish of sizes well above what is usual in our waters.
If we figure out how to deal with all these problems, we can get rid of blanks regularly. And it is that as the local guide Chris Dore told us, “quite often, the game is about that.”
Solitude, adventure, freedom:
The essential ingredients. There are places in the world where you can get lost with a fly rod in your hands and not see anyone else. New Zealand is full of them. The price to pay, there is always one, is to be willing to take certain risks and inconveniences.
From here, sitting in my office, I miss the weight of the backpack with everything I need for a four-day expedition. The hours looking at maps and weather forecasts. I miss the austerity of my camping mattress. The sound of rain on the tent and your wet socks waiting the next morning. I miss my dehydrated meals and energy bars. I miss filling the car with pasta and noodles for ten days. Also, the pain in my legs the returning day to the car after having fished 30 kilometers of virgin waters. The fucking blisters and my burned face. The quick “showers” in the river. The ice-cold water.
And the wind? That Northwesterly… Hell, it even got weird when it wasn’t blowing. The doubts, the glances to my partner, the “could we ford the rapids that way?” “If we swim, we both swim.” I don’t miss mosquitoes and sandflies that much. Your company 24/7. Great condiments for freshly heated soup. Even with a smile, I am nostalgic about the times we ventured into a river, walked for days, and did not find any trout. That is also fishing in NZ.
New Zealand is synonymous to sight fishing. Its waters, whether amber, turquoise, green or blue, are clear as crystal and make up a unique setting for the fisherman eager for sight fishing thrills. However, one should not be fooled by YouTube videos or Instagram stories. Anyone can spot a suspended fish in a crystal clear pool or one moving from left to right in skinny water in full sun, but those are the fewest.
Most of them rest or hide in much less obvious places: strong currents, ripples, changes in depth, seams, back eddies… and, of course, we don’t always have visibility on our side. The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind ripples the surface almost constantly. And as incredible as it may seem, for most anglers, these fish go unnoticed.
There is no way to explain how to spot a trout—half practice and experience, half innate talent. However, specific guidelines can always be followed. Valid from New Zealand to anywhere in the world.
Fish and walk slowly. Analyze the most appropriate areas where they can find refuge or a greater food supply; there, fish even slower.
Try not to touch the water if not needed. Avoid making noises, moving stones, or scratching them with your boot studs.
Always move using the terrain and the light in your favor. Use elevated areas to get a better angle. Look for the orientation in which the sun gives you a clear sight with less glare. When in doubt, cast. Sometimes stones or logs move and take.
An easy, simple cast:
A trophy trout well over 10 pounds lie in the soft water between two runs. You are finally there; you have spotted it, and you have managed to enter the best position to make a “simple” cast without making mistakes. You are where you have imagined yourself so many times. You just have to present the fly 10 meters away. A cast that, on paper, would be within reach of anyone. A cast that often becomes impossible for 90% of the anglers when adrenaline rushes through their bloodstream and their hearts beat at 150bpm.
With the sandflies eating you and the wind blowing, you muster all the calm you have inside to execute that cast. You stop, the loop extends, and the fly lands sweetly 4 meters from where it should. Or hit it just in the head. Or it lands and drags instantly… Or everything works out; the fish raises its fins and decides to take the imitation. You set it… and water.
Believe me. I have been there. I’ve been all those fishermen. And I made those mistakes and many others. Nothing is as simple as it seems in the videos. All that remains is to put your backpack on your back and cover the distance that separates you from your next opportunity. And, of course, learn from mistakes.
MICE, an unexpected ingredient
The opportunity to fish in New Zealand during a mice season is something that is not planned. This cyclical phenomenon occurs every several years, sometimes up to 10, and is related to the flowering of beech trees, which are influenced by the weather and temperature.
When these trees produce seeds, the rodent population explodes, and within that, the predator population. Or, in the case of trout, their weight.
Do you mean that we will enjoy surface fishing with mouse imitations? No, at least not during the day. Mice are rodents with predominantly nocturnal habits, and if we want to have results with this technique, we must fish during the hours of darkness.
During the night, mice, either by accident or in search of other areas, fall into the water, and the kiwi trout give a good account of them.
Three-kilo trout have been found containing more than a dozen mice in their stomach. Heavy digestion, no doubt.
Although night fishing is allowed in New Zealand, it is something I do not enjoy at all. Being in the Mecca of sport fishing and being forced to blind fish, it’s just not for me. However, beyond the weight gain, a year of mice has more implications for fishing than we could think.
First of all, the fish change their behavior in a remarkable way. They become more nocturnal, and of course, if the hunt went well the night before, it will not be uncommon to find them completely inactive digesting their dinner. You know: happy nights, sad mornings.
Second, the abundance of easy food makes them much more reluctant to make efforts to eat insects. In my experience, wherein an average year, we fish dry flies. The fish respond with generous movements to our presentations. In a year of mice, we are forced to fish in tandem or sight fish with nymphs, often with relatively heavy nymphs that go deep to where fish are resting. On the other hand, I cannot deny that not even in my best-wet dreams could I have imagined holding such a large number of trophy fish in my hands, well over the 10-pound mark.
River X in a random valley
I refer to it as River X since, in New Zealand, they display special protectionism with its waters. On infrequent occasions, you will see the name of a river published on the internet. The foreign fisherman can judge this fact as excessive zeal. Still, it is an excellent habit that I have been exercising in my home waters for many years, and it would be alright if we all made our own. Our rivers and their fish would appreciate it. Let’s not take it as a gesture of selfishness but instead of respect and protection of our most precious resource.
We decided to start the route at night with the help of our headlamps so that we could start early the following day. Before leaving the car, we do not forget to indicate our intentions and leave a small piece of paper on the dashboard, as is the culture of this country: “Two fishermen fishing upstream for four days.” And the date of the day in question.
In a country with such a quantity of trout waters, in which fishing virgin water is the key to success, the most profound respect prevails for the comrades, always trying to minimize the options of coinciding with other fishermen.
We advance together upriver for three days. In the second, we are about to be forced to turn around. After advancing for a kilometer along the bottom of a deep canyon, we found a pass that seemed too strong to wade through. I have to admit that if my friend hadn’t been 10cm taller and 20kg heavier than me, I would never have been able to overcome that torrent. With our backpacks on our heads and letting the current drag us down while we jumped diagonally, we managed to reach the other bank.
The reward is immense: as we leave the canyon, the valley opens up, and we finally have miles of crystal-clear water upon us, quite possibly untouched for weeks. That night, while preparing dinner, we don’t think about the kilometers that separate us from the car or our house on the other side of the world. We can’t get our minds off what we would find in those waters the following day.
At dawn, the rain and wind in the tent woke us up earlier than expected. One of those stormy fronts that are ahead of schedule has decided to complicate our last day of fishing. With snow falling on the peaks and rain and wind whipping through the valley, we enjoy one of the most epic fishing days of our lives.
Despite knowing that every kilometer upstream would have to be retraced the day after, we devour kilometers upstream without caring about the water and the cold that got into our bones. Each pool, every bend, and each current is more attractive than the last. We sign the best possible end to more than two months of tramping by the rivers of the South Island. That day, in that mysterious river, under the New Zealand sky falling on us, we both managed to get the best trout of our lives on the dry fly.
There is no doubt that there is a destination, a dream, and an approach for every fisherman.
In New Zealand, I found mine, but that doesn’t stop me from admiring the number of virtues and qualities that make each of its rivers a place to live, the essence of fly fishing, whatever that may be for the reader.
For someone who has lived and felt fly fishing since childhood, recovering those sensations, those emotions, that thirst for exploring, those nerves, that anxiety, and even those beginner mistakes, is priceless.
It’s being a child again. It’s returning to when everything was new, and you spent the nights awake thinking about tomorrow’s fishing day. When the rivers stimulated your imagination, and the fascination for water was born, when everything was a dream. Now, I call it New Zealand.
Article from Focus on the Fly Media, Alvaro Santillán. Find him on Instagram at @focusontheflymedia.