We travel to New Zealand to fly fish for 2 – 3 months each year during our off season. We’ve developed this site to help travelling fly fishers, outline New Zealand fly fishing, and make sure that people have some useful information about the realities of fly fishing in New Zealand before travel. There are things that we all have to deal with and be aware of when travelling, and New Zealand has its share. The fly fishing can be wonderful, but it isn’t easy for most people, many days. But, that has more to do with the variable weather and its seasonal impact on stream flows and other angler use. The 10+ pound fish are a draw, but we want to make sure you know what you are getting into. This page is an ongoing work in progress, meant to help you.
First, we are not New Zealand guides. If you want to be guided, we recommend you hire a guide that is a member in good standing of the New Zealand Professional Fishing Guide Association. While some of the information here appears to eliminate need for a guide, nothing is further from the truth. As former long-time guides ourselves, we must emphasize that everyone should hire a guide or fish with an experienced sight-fisherman to start their time in NZ in order to be successful.
Important Links you can’t live without:
New Zealand Weather – If you’ve never experienced 625mm (25″) of rain in 22 hours before, you’ve not been to the west coast on the S Island. And if it’s pouring on the west coast, then the east side of the alps is likely dry, but the winds will be 100 to 160kmh and HOT! Seriously. No joke. Weather is king – no escaping it. The weather can be stunning – both sun and wet. Pay attention to the rain forecast map in particular, it’ll tell you when things are going to get wet.
The New Zealand Fly Fishing Forum – There’s a ton of hidden information on this site. Dig around the older posts, the link to the old forum, check out the photos and see what kind of waters there are. The folks are friendly enough, but like every forum out there you don’t just stop in and posture. Poke around, say hi, introduce yourself. Don’t expect to be spoon fed. Be the fisherman online as much as on the water. Hunt for the info. Nobody else cares if you catch a fish the way you care.
Water Flows – If you aren’t paying attention to the weather link above, you could drown. Don’t be misinformed. Pay attention. The weather forecast should already tell you what the river flows will be doing. NZ weather forecasters don’t miss a front dumping 200mm (8″) of rain on their 3 day forecast.
West Coast ; Nelson – Tasman ; N Canterbury ; S Canterbury ; Otago Region ; Southland
BioSecurity – If you are traveling with camping/ fishing gear, etc, you must declare it to customs and they will direct you to go through Biosecurity. They may confiscate something that isn’t clean, isn’t allowed, or they may just take it to clean it. Make sure that you follow the rules. Only travel with clean, dry gear. Make sure you know the rules before you travel so you know what you may/not be allowed in the country with.
Didymo – If you haven’t heard of Didymo, you need to get up to speed. You need to do some homework. It is an invasive that mats stream bottoms and has clogged many rivers in New Zealand. Some drainages have it, some don’t. BE SURE to do your homework to find out what waters have it and don’t. We suggest carrying 2 pairs of wading boots and wear one pair of boots for infected waters and another for non-infected. BE SURE to follow the Check, Clean, Dry procedures. The reality is that if you are travelling to fish, you will likely not have time to dry your footwear, which is why we suggest travelling with 2 pr. Do homework (online, local shops close to particular waters, etc) to find out which streams are known to be infected, then rotate footwear. And make sure that you leave your felt soled boots at home, they aren’t allowed in NZ.
John Kent: “South Island Trout Fishing Guide”. Buy this book. It won’t tell you everything but it’s the place to start for foreigners. Pay attention to the minor details and hidden info. The seasonal hints are KING. It only tells about 40% of the story but nobody else is writing a tell-all book so this is the place to start.
“Brown Trout Heaven” by Zane Mirfin: if you can find it, buy this book.
If you want free, detailed maps online – the entire country’s detailed maps are found here. Simply right click to save as so you can view on your computer while in the field.
Sexy Loops NZ page – A good page to detail more of what we’re talking about here.
Fish & Game NZ – Check their site for updates, emergency closures, fish studies, land use, etc.
Trade Me – The Bargain Finder / Auto Trader of New Zealand. Not much in NZ is cheap. It’s a small island in the middle of the Pacific. Add 40% to most imported goods, minus exchange, add GST. Used goods work well and Trade Me has people selling them.
New Zealand Fishing – A good site with all sorts of general information and adverts. Good news section.
Fisherman’s Loft – south of the airport 20 minutes in ChCh. Easy drive.
Fly Shop – In Methven, west of ChCh. Steve runs the NZ Fly Fishing Forum above, so maybe stop in to support that.
Stu’s Fly Shop – Along the Mataura at Athol (south of Queenstown).
Reefton Sports – Mid town on main street. You can’t miss it. Won’t have a ton of stuff but enough to get you by. And a lot of local knowledge.
Guides – There are many guides throughout New Zealand. Some are quite expensive – this can be based upon booking popularity, something specific like probability of catching 8+lb fish, or some other specialty. Ask prospective guides if they feel the pressure to get you on a 10 pound fish – if so, is this the kind of pressure you want to experience on your vacation? If so – great! If not, see if there’s another guide who simply takes you fishing, shows you how, and points out some of the other waters to try. Make sure you communicate well with whomever you contact, and try to properly convey what you are hoping for. If the guide ‘gets’ what you are looking for and you ‘get’ what the guide offers and it’s a match, then you’ll enjoy yourself. Bad guide experiences are 1/2 the guest, 1/2 the guide responsibility. Communicate with each other and treat each well – you might make a friend for life.
Sight-Fishing – This style of fly fishing is different than many other areas in the world. We have produced a DVD that introduces Sight Fishing Trout Rivers. The DVD examines what you need to know to be a successful fly fisher. This is the only commercial pitch on this site. For $25, the DVD can save you a lot of trial and error, allowing you to hit the water successfully upon arrival. If you would like to order our DVD, please visit our Jensen Fly Fishing site. The DVD is $25 and works extremely well with the information above. See our Sight Fishing DVD link in our main page menu.
Stripped Down: The Brown Trout Project. If you click the link on our main menu and don’t purchase the VOD or the DVD, chances are pretty good you’re going to kick yourself. The video is a mainstay for travel to New Zealand. It’s all about the brown trout and you need to watch the video. It’s not hard to fish NZ if you understand brown trout.
About how we fish & some things to consider:
We are not trophy hunters. 2010 was a mouse year, so too is 2014-15 for example, but we avoid the mouse rivers for the most part because we value solitude over all else. In 2010 mouse year we tried to get on a previously favorite river but – being a beech forest – there were 2 or 3 cars per 1km along the river during the mouse year. That should tell you how many people get ‘geeked-up’ for those trophies. However, our goal is to fish in solitude, to enjoy the fish that we encounter. Most fish we catch are 4 to 8 pounds. There are much larger in New Zealand, but we focus on the out of the way waters generally. They are simply more intimate and fun to explore. If we walk 20km in a day to engage 10 trout 4 to 8 pounds, we’ve had a wonderful day. There are endless possibilities to do just that. Sure, you might stumble onto a 10 lb trout by poking around less pressured waters but it isn’t what we’re hoping for.
Heli Fishing – We have not helicopter fly fished in NZ, though it is rampantly available. We did it at home a lot as we operated a back country guide service with heli-raft trips, and then a fly in fly-fishing lodge, accessed by float plane. We’ve done scores of heli trips to our home waters – the Ram R canyon cutthroat trout and alpine lake for golden trout. It can be a lot of fun but we don’t do it in NZ. We’ve heard from many that by mid season, many of the heli accessed rivers have seen way more fishing pressure than other waters. We drive, bike or hike. We have a modestly camperized 4×4 van in NZ but we don’t use 4×4 too often. We keep it simple because we love the exercise and the experience of getting to the waters. We value the journey far more than the event of another fish. That’s not putting the fish down, it’s about being there together. We’re not anti-heli fishing, just prefer otherwise. There are many excellent heli-fishing trips to enjoy to amazing back country waters. the hubs are in the Karamea, Nelson Lakes, Queenstown, Wanaka, Haast areas.
Spooky Fish? A lot has been made about spooky fish in NZ. The first day I fished with a guide, I had a 4wt rod, DT chartreuse line, and a 14 foot leader to my fly. I wore a blue breathable undershirt on the river. I got laughed at. Change this, change that, do this, do that. I wound up casting a 6 wt, WF, with camo line, an 18+ foot leader to a bushy Wulff with dropper. There was a stiff head wind. The first fish sighted was 10 feet away. So… how do those physics work? Fast forward to later that afternoon, I still wore my blue shirt, but now I was with my 4wt, dt chartreuse line, 14 foot leader with dropper. I haven’t looked back. I’ve worn orange and blue on these waters, it doesn’t matter. My chartreuse line has no detrimental impact. My 14 foot leaders don’t either. One year I landed 23 straight sighted fish, with Amelia doing a run of 15 later, we landed 38 straight browns 4 to 10 pounds with our set up. We counted because the fishing seemed easier and we were curious just what the numbers really were. After the streak, we didn’t bother. What’s the point? So, read all you want about spooky fish. They care more about approach and presentation than any color scheme. As long as you don’t approach the water like a flailing Titanic and you know how to lay out a line, you’ll catch fish. If a fish spooks, it didn’t “beat you” – it had no idea it was in a competition. It didn’t like something, was about to leave the run or hold on a feeding cycle and you miss-timed your cast, or you flat out pooched it. Try again. Sometimes we just don’t know why a fish spooks – or if it is actually spooked. Many browns simply move. We’ve caught many fish that moved downstream of us and we kept our composure, and cast down to it. The best laid cast and drift can see a fish spook thanks to a flash reflection off your rod or reel, or maybe the line landed on the water too hard, or maybe the metal on the curve of your hook reflected light. You can only control what you can control. Very few back country trout care about fly patterns if they haven’t been worked for a couple of days. Just like cutthroat trout in N America, these fish will often eat anything if you can get your fly to them.
“What flies should I bring?” is the #1 question. Bring your fly box from home, dries and nymphs with some streamers – add in a few cicadas and away you go. If you book a day or a few days with a guide, he’ll get into all those details, but for everyone else, don’t fret and don’t impose the fear of God onto the fishing. These are trout and they behave the same way your trout back home do. They face upstream, swim, and eat. Sure, they’re likely bigger than your home waters, but they still have to use the same micro habitats. Some might be tougher to get a take from, others will be very easy.
Where do we fish? What are our favorite waters? Let me convey a story. I had a fellow I guided on a tiny spring creek in Alberta, Canada. We talked about NZ fishing. He uses a guide from a small town north of where a friend of ours lives. My guest spoke of two fish his guide was catching – in the 8 to 10 lb range. They were in a pool just above a confluence of two mid sized waters, on the smaller river. He told me of how his guide would email photos or stories of these two fish through the season.
I thought about it and began the deduction. My friend had been telling me about these two trout he had been fishing through the season. He tried to drive me to them but the rivers were blown out. But, he gave me updates on the fish by email.
From what I could reckon, my guest’s guide and my friend were fishing the exact same 2 fish, as the access to the water I was thinking of was north for my friend, south for his guide. When I piped up and asked my guest if it was __X__ River, just above the confluence with the ___Y__ river, we both had a laugh. Here we were 16,000 kilometers from these two fish, speaking of the exact same two.
The perception on the internet and in travel books, magazines, etc is that there are lots of big fish. Once you begin to understand the biology of the waters in NZ, their constraints, the seasonal movements of fish, how productive the ecosystems really are, and a whole host of other factors, you begin to realize that it is a fairly sensitive ecosystem. There’s a reason you walk a long distance each day. There aren’t fish everywhere. It’s biologically impossible and we need to respect the resource. So, there’s your long winded explanation as to why we don’t name river names.
Freedom Camping – If you read a lot of literature, it’s made to sound as though the country is back woods and you can camp everywhere. It’s not, and you can’t. In fact, unless your vehicle is completely self-contained, much of the Southland District (Queenstown – Wanaka) has a Freedom Camping Ban – meaning you have to camp at campgrounds. They’ve had some serious issues with tourists simply parking and sleeping, then tucking behind bushes after their morning coffee. Hence, unless you are tramping / heli to the back country, they’ve amended rules. Other regions in New Zealand are going this way in the future. Be sure to check into the rules for where you are traveling. And per camping on private land – don’t do it. Again, stop in and talk to land owners. They are mostly friendly and all appreciate a simple permission and thank you. They’ll just as soon throw you off their property if you don’t ask. You don’t need the aggravation. If you are going to camp or cross private property, ask the land owners. You are a visitor in a foreign country. If you are given permission, as often is the case, leave the place in better condition than you found it. Ask land owners if you can help out in any small way to show appreciation. Don’t treat their land as your toilet or dump site. Pay attention to where you can and can’t drive 4×4. Don’t just drive across pastures. Ask first – always. 🙂
Sandflies. I used to cruise timber for the Alberta Forest Service in a foothills – mountainous region in Canada. Every once in a while I had to cruise cutblocks in the north-east area of our district where it’s a low elevation, swampy bit. The flies and mosquitoes are hideous. I remember one day, I swatted my hand in the air and grabbed at the black flies. On one swath, I swatted and closed my hand to make a fist on the flies. I grabbed 2 dozen, making black fly mush, and didn’t put a dent in the 10,000 flies swarming me. When I made notes on my clipboard, it was all I could do not to freak out for the insects crawling on me. I never thought I’d see anything worse. Then I fished the west coast of New Zealand. One day I found myself with an 8 pound brown rising in a trough 25 feet above me. It refused my fly and I had to change. My hands were black with sandflies, my shirt crawling, my neck hairline alive. I had already used a bottle of deet. Undeterred, the sandflies fed. I barely got that fly tied on. I was simply too rattled to fish properly and made an awful cast. The sandflies are hideous at times. And they hurt when they bite. And the bloody welts they leave itch to beat hell for up to 3 days. They are the reason fly fishers don’t wear shorts in NZ. The goofy looking ‘trend’ of long johns under shorts is self preservation against sandflies. You will want to drink bug juice. The trouble is, if camping, you’ll be covered in oily bug juice as you hop into bed at night. You’ll want a sleeping bag liner or a thin pair of pjs. Sandflies are worst on the west coast and in the fiordlands.
Mouse Years – We’ve hit one mouse year thus far, 2014 – 15 will be our second. If you’ve looked into New Zealand fly fishing, you know that a heavy beech forest mast produces beech seeds which fall to the forest floor and rodent populations explode. Hence, trout of 5 or 6 pounds become trout in the 7 to 9 pound class quickly. After a mouse year, the fish can drop weight, and while they typically won’t drop right back to pre-mouse year weight, they’ll definitely be lighter than peak weight. They have to use that mousey weight to spawn and compete with other bigger fish, and after the spawn they need to endure winters in very low productive, generally rain swollen or cold weather impacted waters. While mouse invasions are confined to beech forests, the trend is across the entire island of healthier, bigger fish because beech masts tend to come with more favorable weather trends, which means winters are a little warmer and the weather more stable – less negative impact on the trout. If you are specifically looking to fish beech forests to catch a monster brown trout, those opportunities do exist, but you won’t be alone. It has a cult following, a large cult following that spreads world wide. Popular rivers are very popular. Give the map to the right a look – the green is the beech forests. It’s not as though the entire south island is beech forests and the rivers that flow through them get their fair share of attention. But, you can find pockets of isolation. In the 2010 mouse year, in nearly 3 months of fishing, we did not run into any other anglers. That’s pretty special, but it took a lot of planning and deduction as to weather patterns and anticipated angler movement, as well as fishing waters that get very little mention on internet sites, guide sites, books, or in holiday parks/campgrounds. It worked.
Driving – If you’ve not driven on the left side of the road before, it takes 1/2 a day to get used to it on the open road. Don’t fret it. That said, 4 lane round-a-bouts get your attention. Leaving the CHCH airport is a 4 lane road with a series of round-a-bouts. If you feel confident driving manual, shifting with your opposite hand while driving on the opposite side of the road, you’ll do well. Otherwise, get an automatic.
Food – There is a food store chain called 4-square markets that exist in most small towns. It has everything you need and is pricier than the bigger towns where grocery chains like “New World Market” “Pak’n’Save” or “FreshChoice” offer far better selection. If you are in the larger towns or cities, there are fresh markets and wonderful produce. The dairy is very rich. Meat is definitely different – the cows are grass fed and some people find it tasting a little off compared to N America. There’s good availability of lamb, chicken, pork, and beef. Restaurants are pricey in the more remote locations – $30 each for an avg plate of fish & chips isn’t uncommon. Fine dining exists in fly fishing lodges or in restaurants in bigger towns and cities. If you’re fishing the back country you won’t be anywhere near fine dining.
Huts – There are a ton of huts available for you to spend the night. Some are on private lands, leases, but the majority of them are on DoC (Dept of Conservation) lands. Most will cost $5 to $20 a night per person and some as a dry shelter with a place to sleep. They are as simple as you can get. And many are right beside some amazing trout water.
Lakes – If you are any kind of stillwater fly fisher and understand hanging leeches under an indicator, know how to fish damsels, and are even half-decent with chironomids, there are a ton of good lakes to fish. Some of the popular NZ lakes see a lot of traffic, but they’re fished by trolling or casting spoons, etc. This works well, of course, but there is so much opportunity with fly fishing methods and so few are employing these tactics. If you buy the books mentioned above and love lakes, there’s a ton of water to explore.
Spring Creeks – If you understand New Zealand weather, and hydrology pertaining to mountains, foothills, and plains at the toe of the slopes, it’s obvious that there has to be many excellent spring creeks. They often don’t get the attention the larger rivers get, as the spring creeks don’t always hold 10+ lb fish. But, we’ve stumbled onto a few amazing, small spring creeks with 3 1/2 to 8 pound browns and rainbows. These are found on the west and east side of the alps. Google Earth reveals a lot of these. But here’s a little tip for you – always ask permission to fish the property. Pretty obvious. What’s not obvious is that you should then ask what time they herd the cows in for milking. Why? Because usually at 3pm daily, the farmers take their cows down a track beside the creek, then cross the stream upstream on their way in to be milked. 150 cows thundering beside a spring creek, then crossing it upstream of you will kill your day in a hurry.
Streams & Rivers – The first question you need to ask people when discussing rivers with the locals is if the river is clear or tannic-stained. If you love to sight fish, a tannic river is out on cloudy days and can be tough even on sunny ones. If you get the right angle, fish glow, but if there’s no bench to look out from, it can be tough for new sight fishers. If you’re told the river is clear, it’s likely to offer good sighting. Ask if it’s a popular one, if there’s brush along the edge (which might be miserable to walk through, but offers good back drop for cloudy day contrasts to sight fish). Don’t worry so much about lots of fish, just if there’s a few. If there’s few people and clear water and a few nice fish, it’s a winner. There’s a ton of fish movement with the varying seasons. Smaller waters see their fish leave as the water levels recede. You could do a lot of walking and not see a fish once conditions change. Of course, the river the stream flows into might have a bumper population for the summer months.
Massive Rivers – Rivers like the mighty Clutha, Buller, Grey, Waiau, Waimak, Rakaia, Rangitata, or Haast. Absolute monsters if it rains – and it often does. If you break them down into the braided channels, or look for rocky outcroppings along the edges, you’ll find fish, and often they’ll be big.
The best advice we were ever given was at the end of a series of wet weeks in New Zealand in our second year there. It was pretty brutal as every 18 to 36 hrs a big rain front rolled through, 5 weeks on end. We weren’t enjoying life in the perpetual wet. We stopped in at a farm house and asked permission. The farmer asked how we were getting on. We were catching fish but the weather had us down, contemplating not fishing until it cleared a touch. “You’re going to get wet anyway, mate. You might as well have a fish!”
You know? He was right. When you go, maximize every day you are there. If it sucks for whatever reason, have a go. When you get home and are day dreaming at work, you’ll be happy you did your best, that you took on every day and explored – even when things had you down.
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