I already know the potential backlash that could come. Don’t. Just enjoy the article and recognize the tongue in cheekiness. Pick up a few things along the way – there’s a few hints in here. We love New Zealand. This is just letting out that light-hearted cynical edge, a take on one aspect of New Zealand we’ll simply avoid in the future. If you’ve never fished a New Zealand mouse year – do it. Plan on it. Book it. Hire a guide and have FUN! It’s awesome when you haven’t seen or caught brown trout like these before. But….
I’ve had months during this year’s trip to New Zealand (and since returning home) to smith my thoughts about the most epic Mouse Year you’ll likely experience – the one that is happening right now in New Zealand. To sum up my feelings:
We first started travelling to New Zealand thanks to an old Canadian tv fishing show, the legendary Red Fisher, who filmed his trip to New Zealand back in the late 60’s. As a kid who loved fly fishing in the 70’s I saw a re-run and it always struck me how gorgeous the South Island was in that video. I was hooked and it stuck with me until I was able to travel. Gorgeous water, gorgeous scenery, not too many people. That became (and remains) my New Zealand “why”. Truly, the fish are the bonus, though they are an important component.
For about a month each fall in Alberta, I love to sight-nymph in deep runs (8 to 10 feet). I do it specifically to catch the exact same fish in the exact same holes on my favorite river. One fish I caught 11 years in a row from the exact same spot at the same time of year. It’s a neat story about the river and the fish and that’s my ‘why’. It’s user-friendly because sight-nymphing cutthroats is kind of like hand-feeding squirrels in Central Park – surprise! – he did take a nut out of your hand! Who saw that coming? I use a naked, heavy double nymph rig then flip, drift, repeat. Flip, drift, repeat. I generally get a take from 90% of those cutts. But to fish like that for any more than 6 or 8 times a year for any other reason than to visit old friends and tell an ongoing story would be tedious, to say the least. And if you feel the fishing style is tedious and your heart isn’t into it, it just ain’t fun. And no fish, no matter 5 or 15 pounds, is going to change that.
For me, I hate knowing in my fly fishing. I love unpredictability. I love not knowing the end result of my fishing. The trouble is that unpredictability gets harder to find the more experience you have with an activity or interaction with an animal. It’s why we fish heavily timbered, grassy, or heavily weeded water – the cast isn’t a given and if you are lucky to get the cast you want in tight, intimate locations, once hooked up the end result isn’t a given. We love to explore new waters, seeking one or two fish just to see if anything is swimming some distant tributary. Add in a good deal of exercise in getting there and you have our attention.
But when fish are in deep runs or in heavy, deep water, it’s universally quite difficult to spook them or put them off. Browns, cutts, bulls, rainbows, etc, they are all so cocky, proud, and feel both sure of themselves and safe in the deep water – especially if they are well fed, fat, and happy.
Enter the Mighty Mouse Year brown trout. The first thing you’ll note is that 75% of those previously edge-holding fish are no longer on the soft, shallower edges. You know, those small 4 to 8 pound fish. Well, they don’t have to hold in soft water for how much energy they have, how strong they are. They are simply so well fed that they can use any part of the river they want. But here’s the thing… on a mouse river there are precious few fish that small. Most start at 8 pounds and scale upwards. Think small dolphins that surf ship waves for fun.
Walking up to a deep-holding, proud brown that is feeding, if you play the game well, you’ll get a take on 90% of the fish.
The formula for mousey water is both consistent and universally repetitive. Walk the run upstream to its head, picking off the obvious edge fish with a large dry to support a two or three-foot dropper. You won’t miss seeing 8 to 12 lb fish holding on the edge. And if it’s not doggo-full from last night’s mouse fest, 80% chance it takes the nymph. Once at the head of the run, use your wife/husband’s rod that’s rigged up with a massive streamer and launch the biggest, heaviest streamer you have in your box upstream into the heavy current coming into the run. Pulse it downstream, below you, through the depth of the run. No doubt the active or awake monster brown will come and chase. I had one trophy brown miss an 8 inch streamer 4 times before heading home. It likely won’t take solidly and will eventually return to its lie, which is generally 1 to 4 yards out from the main seam drop-off. You would never have seen it originally because it’s a mengey (and that’s not ‘mange’ as in coyote. Mengey is an appropriate Kiwi term pronounced “Men-Guy”. And that’s French “Guy”, not American “guy”), drab, grey color and was holding deep under fast, heavy water. As it goes home you’ll say “well, that makes sense” to yourself. Now that you have it spotted and have a good fishing partner, he or she will have a rod ready to go: heavily loaded with a naked, double-nymph rig with two splitties on a 14 to 16 foot leader. Launch it as far above the fish as you can keep it in line with the fish and let ‘er sink. When you see the fish sway a foot or two to the inside, set the hook. There you go, hoo-ray, you have a trophy+ brown trout. It’s mechanical as hell, you’ll likely do it for 9 of the next 10 fish, and you’re likely to get that take. But if you miss the take from this massive brown, don’t worry. They are proud-as and feel as safe-as, so if you miss the take, launch again with the same nymphs, you’ll likely get another take. Or, in the case of one trophy I got this trip, miss it 6 times and land it on the 7th take. If they aren’t going to spook, if they are going to take eventually, and you know what’s going to happen, the only difference is the fish’s size. But how big is big enough? Some people love big, and bigger is never big enough. For me, big for big’s sake just ain’t sexy.
If you are on a river where you can’t catch anything less than 8 lbs because of the mice, is 10 lbs big enough? Do you need a 19lb brown trout? How special is it to catch HUGE, if small for that river is universally bigger than anything any other brown trout river in the world can produce? And if you know how to fish and know how to approach the mouse year fish, isn’t it kind of like watching Barry Bonds smacking pitches from Snoopy? There’s little to the imagination.
What happens after that is kind of moot, honestly, save for the one in ten+ fish that fight spectacularly, the two in ten that fight in precariously heavy water, or the one in twenty that turn and get the dry fly or upper nymph hooked in a fin – now you’re fighting a sheet of plywood with fins in current. If all that is going to happen after you hook up is that the Fat Bastard rolls over, will tire out eventually… or if the current is the only pressure and you net it (or not) on its way being swept downstream past you – is that exciting? Certainly watching the actual Fat Bastard is a more entertaining 5 minutes than fighting a mengey Fat Bastard Brown.
There. You just had a better 5 minutes than fighting a 10 pound, mengey brown wallowing between boulders. 😉
And these mousey fish are quite ugly fish that are only astonishing for their size. They simply grew too fast, didn’t spend enough time in the river environment, and have no color. There are very few classic, buttery browns. They’re fat, have stretch marks, and are a pasty grey-brown. Kind of like Fat Bastard’s belly, honestly. If these browns had hair and opposable thumbs they’d be the ones chuffin’ drumsticks. Yeah, mengey alright.
The worst part of it all is that if you lose one or break one-off, there’s no worry because there will be another fish waiting, likely bigger. Drift dives by NZF&G showed 65 large trout per Km through a few rivers as fish stacked into cool waters with heavy mice. There simply is no relevancy to size and anything special or unique goes out the window.
The epitome of all things Mouse Year came as we fished one river early in the trip. During our hike in, three choppers flew over, each about 10 minutes apart. We watched from a vantage as they landed, lifted, landed, circled, landed, lifted, circled. Eventually they dropped their anglers off. One chopper couldn’t find room and had to head to the next river. We decided to drop down to the river way earlier than planned just to get on at least a bit of water. Not long after stepping in a guide/angler that we hadn’t seen came upon us from below. He’d had the chopper stop and talk to them, commenting that the choppers were having an extremely difficult time finding space between groups as there were also 3 foot angling parties on the water ahead. All that in about 20km of water. If you know New Zealand, this was not what New Zealand is about.
(And don’t get me going on about the choppers. I can’t begin to describe the helicopters. Honestly, every time we fished anywhere near a mouse river, the way every day started off I felt like Radar, just that the incoming were seeking to inflict wounds.)
In the central area we fished, each day the black chopper flew past and often the white one came soon after. Many days I saw the black one two or three times flying over the waters we fished on route to the mousey ones. That worked for us! But eventually I grew a little tired of seeing them and began singing an old Bruce Cockburn song in my mind. Particularly the last line of the song.
But on that particular day, having had our interaction with the guide and seeing the heli traffic and being apprised of the foot traffic ahead, we settled to stay put. Amelia & I were on our extended trip of 10 weeks and honestly weren’t too upset given the reality of what was happening. We gave way and were left with the run we were working and a bend above. That’s it. That’s how tight it was.
But consider this: we spent our entire day on that run. We landed 6 fish for a total of 53 pounds of brown trout (I can’t recall the exact #, nor does it matter). Let that sink in. As remarkable as that was, as the season wore on that has proven to be chump-change for many waters.
It was sublime, artificial, ridiculous. None of the fish were caught by anything other than deep, heavy, naked nymphing. The crown moment came as I was getting into position to cast to a fine brown holding deep on a gravel wash. I stepped onto a shoreline boulder to get in good casting position. As I did, two massive, dark trout that obviously were digesting last night’s mouse fest and were doggo under the rock parted, one went up and the other lazily sauntered about 5 yards downstream and stationed. I began to cast to the original fish, obviously not getting deep enough, soon enough in the heavy current. I watched the fish I’d stepped on turn from doggo-dark brown to a lighter color. I was going to add split shot to get down to the upper fish but on a few successive drifts I let my nymphs drift to the fish I had stepped on. Obviously the long drift got my flies deep enough for it. BOOM! Fish on. He could have cared less of my existence. That’s one way to get a trophy brown. We were all thrilled. After landing it, it was Amelia’s turn. The original fish was still there. She added the split shot I had intended to, and she launched the bombs at the fish. A few casts in, the fish sways left. BOOM! Fish on. We fought it to the same spot I landed mine. We were all thrilled. We came back. On the exact gravel wash where Amelia caught her fish was yet another large brown. Our friend Jack’s no dummy. On went the splitties to his deep, naked nymph. BOOM! He landed his the same spot AJ & I did ours.
We really couldn’t spook a single one for how proud, confident, cock-sure they were in the heavy current. I can’t say it was terribly exciting for me, knowing that we would get a take from virtually every fish lined up on. The last fish that day I spent an hour and a half on, fishing blind for the glare while AJ & Jack called out. I missed two or three takes before finally landing it. Spooky? Hardly.
Protracted over 10 weeks, deep, naked nymphing to the same end result, give or take an 8 or 18 pound brown, boy it gets tedious when you know what’s going to happen (and I mean the fish, the people, the choppers, the style of fishing, the whole experience). We don’t travel to New Zealand for that, so we swore off mouse influenced rivers. We wound up spending a total of 4 more days on mousey-ish (lower edges of) water in 10 weeks. But for a few fish that sucked in a dry, all the mouse river browns were taken deep, naked nymphing. LAUNCH, mend, drift. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. REPEAT if you miss. Rare was the fish you didn’t get multiple takes if you missed. A friend asked how many doubles (10+ lbs) we landed this year. I had to look. It was 9 in all. And that was trying to avoid mouse waters. Many, many people have had 10 to 20 doubles already.
It’s one thing to stumble onto a massive fish as opposed to going where you know such fish exist during a mouse year, or heading to fish sea-runners like those found in Argentina. Those simply offer little intimacy, honestly. Picking off mice fish or sea-runners is simply trophy hunting, something I’ll never do. It’s far too contrived. Location, exercise, gorgeous water, scenery, bird life, exploration all dwarf the importance of fish size. We get giggley in the exploration of the unknown, the tiny waters, the out-of-the-way waters. Some days a 2 lb fish is the crown, other days you find something astounding. Last year I caught a massive trout of about 18 to 20 lbs (honestly there was no difference between my 20# dumbbell and it, but nothing is official as it shattered my 14# scale). It was incredibly special because it was a freak of nature. Amelia and I were simply out exploring and happened across it. It was in a stunning location, it was by chance, and it took the dry fly. If you haven’t seen our Stripped Down: The Brown Trout Project, it’s the first fish in this video. We weren’t looking for trophies, we were looking for out-of-the-way water at the peak of summer.
The upside! Where I absolutely love the mouse year is when I get notes from friends that do, indeed, love it. There are epic stories likely not to be shared too widely of 15 to 20 pound browns that simply are epic fish stories. These friends play the game, they hunt these fish down and do what is needed to catch them: deep nymph… deep nymph… or deeper nymph. Several have shared 15 to 18 pound fish caught from 2 to 4 am, spending the night fishing the runs with big mouse patterns. That’s epic. For them. Because they love it. I love these stories, the excitement, for them.
During the trip that we had that one run to fish because of the choppers and anglers, during that trip our friend Jack caught his first trophy brown. We spent some good time in a tough current spot, but that fish was going to take. It was so epic to be there for him, to take a photo of his first trophy, his epic moment that – based on his abilities – likely should have happened long before. That’s epic.
But for me, when it comes to the Mouse Plagues in future? We’ll be in New Zealand. If a friend wants to mousey-doodle, we’ll do it. Otherwise we’ll be taking on some out-of-the-way wee stream, seeking unpredictability, finding intimate moments with trout 1 to 8 lbs on some Tussock, Toi Toi, or flax lined stream… or wallowing the back of some paddock lined spring creek. All in hopes of smaller, colorful, hard-fighting browns. Because, when it comes to Mousey Waters… well…
PS – as it turns out, the definition of self-deprecating humor is when you realize that this year’s trip’s chosen fishing shirt is eerily similar to your boyhood hero’s weekly TV show shirt – from some 50 years earlier. Ah-boy…