Fishing in the Land of the Long White Cloud

Johannes Bebe

“STOP!!!!!” I crouched down to a painful knee-bending squat, trying to hide my profile in amongst the very low surrounding bushes. “Do you see him?” asked my fishing buddy Tommo. Together, we have found ourselves in this position time and time again on many a river. I scan the crystal clear river below. A narrow strip of blue tucked into a gorge, you could almost jump across the river. Peering out from the bushes, high a top my side of the steep, I look down for any sign of fish: a dark shadow, an unnatural movement, a flick of a tail, a flash of a side. “Nope, I can’t see anything from here. Where you looking?” From the across the gorge I here a reply, “see that line of submerged boulders, just behind the waterfall?” Sure enough, well after another five minutes of intense staring into the riffled water, I see a dark shape move out to intercept a drifting nymph, “got it, it’s huge, should go double figure!” With no sense of hesitation I hear, “it’s your turn, I will spot for you from up here.” With nervous excitement, I begin to scramble my way down the steep slope. Sliding on my butt down a steep vertical, I catch my foot on a root and almost do a somersault. With this near fatal mistake, I take a deep breath, pick up my hat and begin to carefully crouch my way down to the bottom of the gorge. “He still there?” I ask again from my knees. “Yep, he just took another nymph, he’s feeding steadily,” Tommo answers. Now level with the river, all I see is the glare from the sun. “Can I move up any?” I ask shifting weight from one knee to the other. “You can probably move up another three meters, but stay low.” The steep sides behind me I am forced to cast backhand, “how far out is he? I can’t see a thing.” “Okay, just cast as far up as you can into that waterfall. I will try to call a strike for you.” I launch the first cast out. “You need to cast another five meters out and a little to the left” Tommo replies to my attempt. I go again. “Better but I don’t think it got down to him.” I really punch it out there; I mend the line right a way and try to watch through the glare for any pause in the line. “STRIKE!!!!” I pull back and up to feel a nice solid tension coming from deep below....

I remember first reading about fly-fishing in New Zealand; and it seemed that all the stories involved one person peering, belly down, over a cliff to the water below. At the same time his buddy at river level would be casting to a fish he couldn’t even see, waiting for the call to strike to come from above. This just seemed absurd to me, as my fly-fishing was pretty much limited to fishing the small creeks of southwestern Wisconsin. Even on a dream trip out West, I never came across any situation like this. But after being lucky enough to live for over two years in New Zealand, I found myself belly down peering into the waters below on many occasions.

Living in Wanaka, a small ski town surrounded by angling opportunities all year, I was able to fish many of the South Island’s rivers and lakes. I found my time fishing down under not only truly memorable, but the greatest education in fly-fishing I could have ever received. New Zealand is a place where every day the crystal clear waters, and the big fish they hold, teach you a lesson in casting, presentation, and strategies in fly-fishing. It is definitely not a place where you can expect to go and catch heaps of fish on any day, not to say that it cannot be done. Not only can the unreliable weather be a factor, but also for most American anglers not used to fishing crystal clear waters, it can be a real test of your abilities. The days of blind fishing likely runs are replaced with stalking and casting to spotted fish. To truly succeed in this different style of angling, team fishing is a must. You can definitely go out yourself and catch fish, but your success rate increases exponentially with a set of extra eyes. I cannot begin to tell you how many fish I caught that I would have missed if it were not for someone else calling the strike. More importantly, these trout down under do not hang around for impatient and careless anglers. Time after time, I found myself stalking a fish like a ninja, only to have it suddenly swim off before you get a line out. Even when you are able to get a fly out, perfect casting and presentation is a must. Sloppy casts, mends, or dragging drifts can pretty much guarantee that you will be watching the fish dart off to the depths of a pool. Meeting many a traveling angler of varying skill levels, it was not uncommon to hear the disappointment in their voice as they talk about how hard it is to catch a fish. No matter what skill level, if you are on a tight time schedule, I highly recommend hiring a guide for your first time out at least. It can be the difference between you having a memorable trip or swearing that you will never return to this “stupid” country again. If you absolutely are against hiring a guide try meeting some locals who can take you out. Kiwis are usually more than willing to take you along fishing with them. Unlike the U.S., it seems like everybody fly-fishes in New Zealand. All in all, fishing in the Land of the Long White Cloud, is truly taking a step back into wilderness and should be a must for any serious angler.

Some General facts about fishing opportunities in New Zealand.

As far as trout fishing, the South Island of New Zealand offers angling opportunities for Brown, Rainbow, and even in a few lakes, Brook trout. The open season begins in some provinces the first of October. By the first weekend in November, the rest of the rivers and lakes of the South Island have all opened. Most lakes have year round fishing and can be quite rewarding, especially on calm, bluebird days. After New Years, the rivers get more crowded as schools are out for the holidays and families plan their vacations, which usually involve some fishing. The season continues on to the end of April and then closes most places for spawning season. The last weeks of the season you can find some great fishing in smaller tributaries and streams that become crowded with spawning browns. Night fishing can also be very productive. Some of my greatest catch rates have come from evening rises. The Clutha River, which drains Lake Wanaka, can on most nights come alive with fish rising everywhere to intercept egg laying sedges. Just don’t be thwarted by the many tangles a first time night fisher encounters; or for that fact, the occasional bumping of an eel against your legs. Wherever your interest in fly-fishing lies, New Zealand can offer it all. For the more adventurous you can hike hours up into wilderness valleys and spend days fishing to trout, that although skittish, with a perfect presentation are less picky on the type of fly. Needless to say, this true wilderness fishing is becoming limited, with the influx of helicopter guides bringing clients in all season. However, you can still find many rivers that remain relatively untouched, it might just take some research and meeting the right people.

Concerns for the future of fishing in New Zealand

There are a couple worries that come to my mind when thinking about the future of the New Zealand fishery. One is the state of the remaining true wilderness streams. Over the past decade famous wilderness rivers have received a huge amount of fishing pressure from guides bringing clients in by helicopter. And with no catch and release areas, this has truly hurt the quality of fishing. The Fish and Game council has introduced a trial regulation on one great wilderness river called the Greenstone. Before the season starts, anglers have to apply for ballots to fish the Greenstone between January and March, the height of fishing season. Who receives a ballot is left up to a lottery and the ones who missed out do not get to fish one of the best rivers in New Zealand. I was however lucky enough to obtain a ballot. Having four sunny and calm days, my flat-mate and I hiked up the valley, and between the two of us caught 30 fish, mostly on dries, all ranging from three to seven pounds. I even caught the same six-pound brown trout twice five hours apart on different flies. Needless to say we had an amazing trip, however, I think it is about time New Zealand begins to consider introducing some catch and release areas rather than restricting angler numbers on it’s truly wild streams. I know a couple of rivers that have a no helicopter zone, which seems like a great way to keep the fishing pressure off. There is nothing worse than hiking five hours up a valley to find a helicopter there with four clients already fishing the water. It has happened to me on a couple occasions and I can’t begin to tell you how often I wished I had a rocket launcher.

Finally the most troubling of all news is the finding of didymo, also called rock snot, in some of the South Island’s best rivers. Rock snot, is an algae that grows to cover the stream bottom like a carpet. It has the consistency of tissue paper and can suffocate all invertebrate, thus starving and ultimately killing off fish populations. There is no cure to rid the rivers yet and what is even scarier is how easily distributed the algae is. All it takes is one cell, naked to the human eye, to be transported to a new waterway. It is believed to have possibly come from overseas anglers, specifically North America, where it has already been found. At the beginning of this season, there have been a handful of popular fishing rivers that have been found to contain rock snot, and it even closed a couple of rivers for the whole season. Anglers are now asked to disinfect all gear before switching between infected rivers and uninfected rivers. Most anglers are buying two full separate outfits, including waders, using one for infected streams and one for uninfected streams. It will be interesting to see how detrimental to the New Zealand fisheries these algae will become.

Overall, New Zealand is a land of glacier fed rivers, friendly locals, and enough sheep to make any man try and tackle one at some point in their trip. Rightly listed in the top three must do trips for most fly-fishers, New Zealand offers anglers a chance to stalk big fish in crystal clear waters. All the while, being surrounded by some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery in the world. Stepping back into this relatively untouched wilderness, can offer many an angler a truly relaxing and rewarding journey. Finally, and most importantly, New Zealand’s many rivers and lakes allow you, not only as angler, but also as a steward of the outdoors, to step into our arena and immerse ourselves in one of the greatest “universities” this world has to offer.

For additional information about fly-fishing opportunities on the South Island of New Zealand you can check the Fish and Game website at