Fly Fishing with Eels

A Flylords Adventure Story from New Zealand

Fly fishing has its animal hazards. In Tasmania and Australia, snakes are a concern. In North America Rocky Mountain headwaters, grizzly bears, wolves and cougars are rare but an ever-present concern. If you head out to fly fish arctic char or famed trophy book trout rivers of the Hudson Bay region, polar bears might treat you like a Scoobie-snack. 

One of the first things that attracts you to New Zealand trout waters is the propaganda that there are no snakes, no big animals to eat you, and about the worst thing that can happen is you get stuck in a sheep drive and have to wait 45 minutes for two or three thousand sheep to move a few kilometers up valley.

The reality in New Zealand is that yellow-jacket wasps come in droves in the beech forests and, as a guy that is deathly allergic, you hide out in your tent when your fishy-smelling fishing pants attract two or three dozen wasps while hanging about the campfire.

And then there is that other critter that gets your attention, and rather quickly I might add. We’ve had plenty of encounters with these good buggers.

Amelia and I were standing waist-deep in a slow flat of a small, tannic tributary stream. We were under a heavy canopy of willows on a particularly dark, cold, drizzly afternoon in hopes of being able to spot a cruising, willow-grubbing and rising brown.

It had been a great day as the browns weren’t shy in long cruises under the cover of darkness. We came upon one gorgeous 5lb brown and watched its cycle; we observed the consistent low point in the run and stationed ourselves with the tripod and camera about 2 rod lengths below the bottom end.

Amelia set up the tripod and began filming those gorgeous, wandering willow-grub rises of this brown. After a couple of cycles, it dropped downstream further than anticipated and we both stood dead still and quiet as it rose below my rod tip before sliding upstream. This went on for some time as my casts landed left as the brown veered randomly left and right as these browns are prone to do.

Unpredictable at times, to say the least. It was the 5th or 6th cycle and it again began to drop toward us. Under her breath, I heard Amelia say “Dave, stop that”. I was motionless and replied, “Hey, we gotta be quiet. Stay still”. I saw Amelia kind of kickback at me, thinking I was teasing her. I saw her look down. My fixation was on the rising brown, making sure it didn’t get too close. Being there were two of us there, Amelia’s perspective was a touch different. She thought I was tapping her leg.

She thought I was tapping the tripod to bug her. But when she finally looked down, woven around the tripod legs and then around her right leg was the thick body of a giant eel. She saw the head of the eel tapping at the inside of her knees. Her arrival on the opposite shoreline was instant as she squealed like a, uh, well, girl. To be fair it was the second-largest eel we’ve seen in 13 full trips to New Zealand, 4 1/2 feet long with the head of a badger poking at her. To the important part, she spooked off my rising brown. 


Longfin eels are native to New Zealand rivers and are amazing creatures. They gently go about their business of foraging and scavenging, really. They’re fascinating to watch, so effortlessly pushing about rocks and organic matter in river and stream substrate.

If you stand on point, working a rising brown on the S Island, you’ll inevitably find a curious eel sneaking up behind you to see what you’re all about, your motion and scent leading their curiosity. They’re harmless, really, if you’re agile enough to brush them aside or walk away. If you really want to watch them work, pack a can of tuna at lunch and toss a chunk into the water just above a dark undercut bank or deep pool. Within minutes two or three eels will pick up the scent and come to investigate.

As I mentioned, they are curious both about movement and scent. My last fish on the last day of our annual 3-month trip a few years back clearly piqued the curiosity of an unseen eel. I chased that 10lb brown up and across the stream and back to land it. Being the last day of three months wearing them, no doubt my pants were a touch fishy and of rich scents.

I landed that 10+lb brown and was excited, relieved it came to the net. I love to hold big browns by the tail with one hand while I support the fish’s weight by positioning my thumb and middle finger at the muscle joint of each pectoral fin.

This leaves my index finger loose underneath the water. At the moment I was lifting that big brown out of the water I was oblivious to anything but a quick camera shot and keeping the fish wet and then headed home. I simply didn’t see the eel coming in toward me, underneath the trout. My dangling digit was simply too interesting to that eel. Having a random clamping of my index finger by a hard mouth with rubbery, yet aggressive, sandpaper startled the hell out of me. Stay safe out there folks!

Article and photos from Dave Jensen, follow along with Dave and his wife Amelia on Instagram @jensenflyfishing.

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