I am often asked; “How hard is fly-fishing to learn?” Trying to display empathy I typically explain; “It’s not that hard. Once you learn the basics, it just takes practice.” I will also add: “It’s kind of like golf. You’ll never master the sport, but you will learn more every time you are on the water.” This explanation sounds pretty good, and holds fairly true to what I have seen in teaching beginners – but I haven’t truly experienced it myself until traveling to New Zealand.
From Montana, New Zealand is on the opposite end of the world. They enjoy summer during our winter, they drive on the left side of the road and Kiwis more often play on a Rugby paddock instead of a field or a diamond. Despite these huge differences they still use a fly rod to catch Rainbow and Brown Trout. I was thinking: “No way it can be that different than fishing in Montana.” I quickly realized that was not the case. Fly fishing in New Zealand requires a different approach and new skills. It’s completely different than fishing the blue ribbon streams of Montana.
“Bloody savage hook set, Mate!”
During the first week of the vacation we were fortunate to stay and fish with River Haven Lodge near Murchison on the South Island. On the night we arrived we were greeted by the news that another guest had landed an 11 pound brown that day. As we all toasted his trophy over glasses of champagne I started to have butterflies. Even though double-digit browns are not the norm, I was still flooded with excitement to go chasing a big brown of my own the next day. As much as I tried to manage my expectations I still had a hard time getting to sleep that night and sprung awake at the first sound of my alarm the next morning.
At breakfast that morning the owner of the lodge, Scott “the Trout” Murray, was on the phone touching base with other lodges in the area to see where guides had been fishing and what they planned for the day. I appreciated this extra effort in communication that Murray spearheaded years ago in his region. This quick phone call helps to protect the resource, prevents over-fishing of certain rivers, and overall, helps to create a better guest experience for everyone. Scott enjoyed a good laugh when I told him about the typical day at the Lyon’s Bridge boat ramp on the Madison River where 30-40 boats are launching each morning.
As I was heading to the river with Doug Corbett, my guide for the day, we began to chat about gear and what our game plan was. Through our conversation I was beginning to realize that this was going to be a new experience, and I began to share the feeling that a beginner must have when they first pick up a fly rod. Doug recommended I used his rods, a 5WT and a 6WT, both already rigged for the day. They were about the same as my rods until I began to look closer. The fly line on both rods was hand-dyed to achieve a drab, trout-camo, effect. Doug exclaimed that he has seen too many trout spooked by bright green floating fly lines. Tied to the fly line he ran a 14-15′ delicately tapered leader and a single hand-tied fly rigged on the end. I could appreciate Doug’s diligence in the set-up of his rods and in the organization of his fly boxes. I could see how he had been educated by chasing picky New Zealand browns over the last 20 years.
Sight fishing for big trout is why you go to New Zealand. The ability to spot fish is a skill that can take a lifetime to develop and for guides like Scott and Doug – it is almost like a sixth sense. The ideal conditions for spotting trout are clear blue skies, lots of sun, and little to no wind. That day with Doug on the Matakitaki River we had partly cloudy skies and a building headwind as the day progressed. Despite the conditions we still had opportunities to cast to a few big browns that morning. The first fish that Doug spotted, I was not able to put eyes on because of the glare of the water. I took his word for it and got into position as instructed. As Doug coached me on distance and placement of the cast I was truly fishing blind, not seeing the targeted fish and having a hard time tracking my small indicator with the low light and glare. I eventually got a drift through the desired location and Doug started yelling: “Go, go, go, set!” I excitedly yanked the rod, vaguely imitating a hook set, and I felt nothing. Doug hollered; “Bloody savage hook set, Mate!”
Just like that, I had missed the strike and the fish quickly spooked.
Before spotting the next fish, Doug had me take a few casts in a likely looking riffle, hoping we would fool a holding trout with our nymph. I began working upstream with the “little brown nymph” hanging about 8 inches below my tiny yarn indicator. Doug explained that Brown Trout will move up in the water column to feed and that the nymph ticking a rock could be enough to spook the fish. He assured me that if the indicator went down it had to be a strike. Sure enough, near the top of the run, the indicator dove underwater and I was hooked into a strong New Zealand brown. After a quick battle, the “chunky monkey,” as Doug described it, was in the net. It was a small fish by New Zealand standards, but my education was underway and the skunk was off.
As we moved upstream we eventually found a couple of pools that held the browns I had been dreaming about. Unfortunately, each of the situations played out the same, with both of the 6-8 pound browns getting the best of us. Even though I didn’t hook the fish it was amazing to watch them in their habitat and each situation provided huge learning experiences. One of the first lessons was the importance of a drag free drift. Both of these behemoth browns were sitting in spots with conflicting currents all around them. Land the fly in the wrong spot and instantly my nymph was dragging across the current and looking un-natural to the fish. When I would finally get the correct placement, and drift, the fish was more than likely wise to our presence. I also learned the lesson of changing presentation by switching flies, changing size and adjusting depths. We did not go more than two drifts without changing something in our rig. I would get a good drift down the feeding lane, but no response from the fish. Doug did not hesitate: “Change the fly.” When targeting each of these browns we made about a dozen changes before either spooking the fish or deciding to move onto the next hole. The excitement of getting the fish to look at the fly, or turn towards our bug, was more than enough to keep me engaged and determined.
Although I did not connect with either of these monsters I was able to walk away from the Matakitaki with a crash course education in hunting New Zealand Brown Trout.
“Stunner” of a Morning
Fast forward to one of my last days that I would be able to fish in New Zealand. We were now near the bottom of the South Island staying with a friend in Te Anau on the edge of Fiordland National Park. After leaving Murchison I endured a handful of frustrating fish-less days. I was definitely putting in my time and practicing the skills I learned with Doug on the Matakitaki. I had spooked more fish than I could count, did manage to trigger a few strikes but could not connect with the elusive NZ brown.
On this “stunner” of a morning I was heading out with Mark Wallace from Fiordland Outdoors Company who specializes in Jet Boat Fishing Trips on the Waiau River. Butterflies started to comeback as we got onto the water. Mark was talking about the healthy fish population in the river and he explained; “It’s a great river for beginners.” Fortunately it did not take long to loose the dark cloud that had been hovering over me on my last couple of days on the water. In the first hole we stopped in, Mark spotted a chunky rainbow cruising around feeding just below the surface. It only took a couple of drifts to fool this fish with our dry fly-dropper rig. After getting on the board, Mark decided we would head to a spot that was known to hold Brown Trout feeding in the shallows. We beached the boat at the bottom of a big run and started to stalk up the bank looking for fish. As predicted, there were about a dozen browns holding near the bank feeding, spaced about 20 feet apart. I quickly hooked the first one that we spotted. Without hesitation this healthy fish was ripping line off the reel, heading towards the other side of the river, and before I knew it, my line went slack and the fish snapped off my fly.
Mark headed up stream and spotted a bigger brown but it wanted nothing to do with either of our rigs. We both made a few good drifts and each presented a handful of different fly patterns to the fish. Before giving up, I sorted through my flies and spotted a hand-tied Hare’s Ear that Doug had given me after our day in Murchison. On the second drift my indicator dry fly disappeared and Mark hollered; “You got him!” After a quick fight I had finally landed the New Zealand Brown Trout that I had been thinking about for months.
Through this humbling experience in New Zealand I developed a new appreciation for some of the frustrations that all beginners go through. With the help of River Haven Lodge and Fiordland Outdoors I return to Montana as a better angler. To go back to the golf analogy, I now have a more refined chip shot and a few more clubs that I carry in my bag of tricks.