One Little Issue With New Zealand Droughts

It seems that each year the wonderful S Island of New Zealand starts with a few good weeks of fine weather (read: relatively dry with some sun and warmth) that is followed by the monsoon season that kicks in early to mid November and lasts until about Christmas. Some years you simply don’t want to be on the west coast at all in that time. The Alps get some precip as well and remain fairly well lubricated. The eastern side of the island is in a bit of a rain shadow, mind you, getting the drying winds and warmth that come out of the dried fronts battering the west coast, but rarely do the westerly fed rains reach spill-over magnitude. The southerlies provide a good deal of the precip received along the east side, and those southerlies can take a 25C day and turn it into a seriously nipple-tightening wet, 8C day with sleet or snow. If you don’t get a good mountain snow pack during the winter combined with spring rains, the drought can hit from the mid alps-eastward early in the year.

mid Nov and this trib was at 1/3 normal flow.
Mid Nov and this trib was at 1/3 normal flow.

This year is one of those years, and when we arrived mid November the vast majority of the small streams we specifically travel to New Zealand to fish were simply too low, too warm to hold many trout. One stream a friend fished 10 days before we arrived held 25 fish for him. We found 8. The flow was down by about 2/3 and so was the fish count – they dropped to the main river. It didn’t get any wetter and the fish have no reason to come back up to these waters before spawning May onward, so these were knocked off the list before we arrived. Not a good start.

We’ve always tried to time our trips so we can fish the wee tributaries to start before heading out to progressively larger waters as the fish drop out and/or the terrestrials show up. Both brown and green beetles start to fly in late Nov to early December and there is a host of moths, cicadas, and willow grubs that make appearances and get trout moving.

Drought poolHigh country or back country rivers are also exposed to drought conditions and it’s quite often tediously predictable at what you will find. The population will be higher as the tributary fish will have dropped. Sometimes 1 km worth of good fish stack into the only deep pools available. Some nose into the drop off at the head riffle and feed a little. Several go doggo along the edges – more do this each day as the water heats up each afternoon. Some completely zone out in the back eddy. One or two will remain active in the tailout wash/seam. It’s common to find 6 to 15 fish in one pool when water levels drop and warm as they do every year.

In this case, we spotted a trophy fish in the deep tailout seam, feeding. We set up the camera and got footage of it taking high riding nymphs. It moved upstream every minute or two to go on a territorial chase, moving other fish out of its feeding zone. Amelia had to time the approach properly – move in while the fish was upstream under the current seam along the rock on its chase, then remain dead still as it faced us as it came back downstream. She did a good job. The problem? The trophy obviously caused a commotion and two other fish came back downstream with it. The trophy chased one-off but a smaller brown stationed in the tailout, literally 1/2 rod length from her. She could have poked it. I was shocked it didn’t spook, from my vantage it was literally beside her. The trophy went back to feeding, the fish in the tailout wouldn’t leave and was now in a fine feeding station. If Amelia moves, the fish in front of her spooks and attracts the trophy fish and all is shot.

Amelia New Zealand droughtNo matter, that trophy isn’t going to be caught, so she flipped a roll cast of leader and takes the smaller fish in the tailout. As it zips about, the trophy spooks and upstream of us the entire run is now shot, alive with fish zipping all directions – except for the 5 or 6 doggo fish that you could net by hand if you were so inspired. The one she caught is a good fish, don’t get me wrong.

However, when you walk an hour to find a fish then find a dozen in one smaller pool, catch one – maybe two, only to have all the others spook, to then either wait an hour for the rest of the fish to calm down or choose to walk another hour to find the next pool with 10 fish in it to then simply repeat the cycle – it gets a little tedious and doesn’t leave much to the imagination. And if there’s one thing we don’t enjoy, it’s predictable fishing.

I know this sounds spoiled but when your favorite waters are empty and you move to your next layer of preferred streams and they’re doing the above, you begin to wonder if there’s anything exciting or new to discover or if you’re going to simply plod from one stream to the next only to find the exact same outcome. When you know the fish are stressed, are stacked together because they have to be, that heat and oxygen aren’t doing them favours, it’s tough to continue to fish for them, to harass them and stress them further. It gets seriously tedious. When this is the reality for 2/3 the island and day in and day out is the same exact thing, well… once life gets predictable, you have a choice to make.

Compound the above with the severity of dairy conversions the past several years and what New Zealand’s dairy farmers are doing to the spring creeks and small streams flowing through their lands – the spirit of adventure gets kicked out of you. We’re home 2 weeks early.

2 thoughts on “One Little Issue With New Zealand Droughts

  • January 23, 2016 at 2:06 pm

    Its hard for us to look at the picture of the river behind Amelia and read “drought” on the same page. I guess its all relative, but this side of the Indian Ocean, we start off way drier than New Zealand in a normal year. A glance around some South African websites will show you pictures of totally dry river beds….not a drop of water. Our worst drought in 111 years! We are grateful for every little ten inch Trout we see at this stage. While it pleases me to see news of the snowpack in the midwest of the states and in the Sierra Nevadas, we sure will be glad to see the end of El Nino!

    • January 27, 2016 at 8:51 pm

      It is all relative. More importantly, once there is too little water or too much heat to hold a trout, whether a stream has water or not is irrelevant.We’re certainly in that same boat!


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