Challenges & Rewards of Southland

My Recent Adventures Fishing in New Zealand

Fly-fishing is hard. Fishing a new river for the first time can be very hard. Fly-fishing the South Island of New Zealand on my own is one of the most challenging tasks I have experienced in the sport.  

We are based in Te Anau in the Southland Region.  Within a 100 mile radius (kilometers to the Kiwis) there are literally hundreds of streams and thousands of miles of river banks to explore.  On average, each of these streams hold anywhere between 50-500 fish per kilometer and a large number of those fish could be the fish of a lifetime.  In a sense it could be compared to finding a needle in a haystack when first starting to explore all of this water.

While fishing over the last couple of weeks I have discovered that three scenarios are likely:

-After finding a random access point on the map you start blind fishing upstream from the car and within 200 yards of where you started, you hook and land one of the most stunning Rainbows that you have ever seen.

-While exploring a world famous stretch of river, you spot heaps of monsters Brown Trout, that you estimate could range from 6-10 pounds.  Unfortunately, you spook more fish than you have the opportunity to cast to.  

-You spend hours studying topo maps and Google Earth and discover stretches of river that are bound to be promising.  After hiking 5-8 miles of river with some of the most picturesque and idyllic pools and riffles you end the day with sore legs, not spotting one trout.  

Through the last month I have experienced each of these situations and anything in between. Funny enough, the first scenario happened on my first day fishing on the trip.  Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes!

Besides the vastness of the area there are a few other factors that add to the challenge of fishing Southland.  Given the trout populations, gin-clear waters and the behavior of Kiwi trout, sight fishing is the most effective technique to target these trophies.  Sight fishing is a whole new ball game for me after fishing the Blue Ribbon Trout Streams of the west throughout my life.  First, you have to approach the likely holding spots slowly, with stealth, so you don’t spook any fish that might be there.  You have to find the best viewing spot to leverage the angle of the sun, eliminating glare, giving you the most visibility, all while not blowing your cover.  You have to locate the fish, trying to identify any movement, every rock, any shadow or slight disruption in the pool.  After verifying the trout – which could take seconds or minutes of observation – you have to overcome the excitement and nerves to make a good presentation.  If you have no response to the pattern, Kiwis believe in changing the fly after 1 or 2 drifts, all while not spooking the fish with a sloppy cast or movement of your shadow.  

At this point of the process the next challenge lies in casting long leaders (10 up to 15 feet) typically rigged with a heavy nymph on the end while carrying 30-50 feet of line at some points.  After spending all summer and most of the fall holding a set of oars, instead of the rod, the learning curve with casting this rig has been steep.  By following the advice that I give to most clients – slow down the cast and to have a long pause at the back stopping point –  I have become more accurate and precise with presentations. 

Aside from these challenges, there are numerous rewards fishing in New Zealand.  Just like any fly-fishing outing there is much more to the experience than catching fish.  There is the reward of the do-it-yourself adventure, the stunning beauty and scenery in the landscape, the motivation of what might be in the next pool or day dreaming about a pint and fish n’ chips to end the day.  But for me the biggest motivation and reward are the big smiles of my wife and daughter that greet me after an overnight exploring the backcountry.    

With about seven weeks remaining in our adventure I feel like I have barely scratched the surface of Southland fishing opportunities, but I have already learned so much.  I keep telling myself that putting in the time will pay off.  I must continue to build on these experiences, continue to explore new areas and keep cataloging bits of information learned through chatting with other anglers on the rivers or talking to friendly locals.  All the while, keep reminding myself to drive on the left side of the road.  Cheers, mate!

Evolving as an Angler

Recently I have been reflecting on how the sport of fly-fishing changes as we evolve as anglers. In the beginning all I wanted to do was catch one fish on a fly rod. After getting a few trout to the net I was concerned with numbers; catching as many fish as possible using any technique and fly pattern. Next I started hunting for big fish. Joining crowds of anglers fishing areas known for migratory large trout. Since becoming a guide I have realized that scenery, setting and company are more important than size of trout or numbers. Which still holds true for any day on the water.

Good Friends on a Beautiful River

Over the last year I have concentrated on perfecting techniques and have dedicated more time to fishing streamers. After getting over the hardest step of committing to streamer fishing, I have started to learn the nuances of streamer presentation and the thrill of an aggressive take on a large fly.

Streamer Eating Brown Trout

Following this last winter, after dedicating more time to fly tying, I have taken pride in catching fish on my own patterns. Inventing, or fine tuning, a fly pattern helps pass time through a cold winter, but once you start catching fish on that fly it is extremely rewarding.

The “McKinnie” Zonker

This evolution process is one of the big reasons that I am passionate about fly-fishing. It is an ongoing cycle and there is no final destination to the journey. This evolution can happen on any given day of fishing, just hoping for one fish to make the day; or it can happen when targeting new species, or discovering new locations.

My first Northern Pike on a fly from a recent trip

As my wife and I are expecting our first child in the coming weeks I have been reflecting on this idea of evolution and change. In a way fly-fishing brought our family together. Pursuing the sport prompted my move to Montana where I eventually met my beautiful bride. On one of our first dates we went fishing on the Gallatin River in the dead of winter. Now, with fly-fishing as my career, we have started our little family. I can’t wait to watch my daughter grow and eventually introduce her to the sport that I love.

Five Reasons to Experience Winter Fly-Fishing

Why wait till spring to get back on the water? There are plenty of trout to be caught throughout the winter when conditions are right.

First, you need open water. You can fish tailwater rivers with flows, and ultimately temperatures, controlled by a dam; or fish streams that are fed by natural springs where temperatures are consistent through the year.

Plus, winter fishing is much more enjoyable when temperatures warm up above 20 or 25 degrees. You can still get out on colder days, but you then start dealing with chipping ice off of the guides on your fly rod and struggling with trying to keep your feet and hands warm.

Here are some reasons to give winter fly-fishing a try.

The Crowds

Winter is the best times of the year to have the river to yourself.  This gives you the ability to explore more water and cast to fish that are not spooked.  Last week I visited $3 Bridge, one of the most well used access sites on the Madison River, and I did not see another soul. I was able to move freely and fish every prime hole or run in solitude.

Sleeping In

The best times for winter fly-fishing are usually between 11AM-4PM; once water temperatures have increased.  This can be a nice change from the summer when the best fishing is typically either at the beginning or end of the day.  You can take advantage of the extra time in the morning by sleeping in, making a hearty breakfast, or tying flies for the day.

Fly Selection

Since there are few bugs hatching in winter it is much easier on the angler to answer the eternal fly-fishing question, “am I matching the hatch?”.  The most commonly hatching insect through the winter months are midges. Outside of that, most trout are filling their diet by feeding on items that pack the most bang for the buck (i.e. Stone Fly nymphs, worms, eggs).   Most of your standard nymph patterns will do the trick; Pat’s Rubber Legs, Prince Nymphs, Copper Johns, San Juan Worms, or Zebra Midges.  Typically, I end up rigging a large Pat’s Rubber Leg followed by a small San Juan Worm or Zebra Midge.

Reading Water

Reading water can be one of the most difficult things to learn in fly-fishing. Trout will hold, and feed, in different types of water throughout a river depending on hatches, water temperatures, oxygen levels or time of day. During winter months trout will tend to hold in very specific types of water. They are looking for spots where they can feed without expending much energy and where the water is warmest. This will force trout into congregating, and schooling, in the deepest and slowest holes and runs, that in most rivers are easily identifiable.


Dry Flies in January

Nothing shakes a case of cabin fever like landing a fish on a dry fly in the dead of winter. As mentioned earlier, the main insect hatching at this time of year is a midge. Even though they are a small meal, size 18-24 flies, trout will still actively feed on them through a solid midge hatch. Get a nice dead drift with a midge emerger pattern, or midge cluster imitation, towards a group of rising fish and you will definitely find some action.

That dry fly eat could be just enough to hold you over until the prolific spring and summer hatches.