Off The Beaten Path on New Zealand’s South Island

By Robert Tomes. Featured in Mid Current Travel 

YOUR FIRST FLY FISHING adventure to the islands of New Zealand can be an intimidating experience no matter how much you’ve fished or where. First off, there’s the reasonable expectation of huge fish on light rods and small flies. That’s enough to get even the hardcore trout bum lying awake at night. Then there’s the very real possibility that the best-laid plans, your pricey international plane ticket and a grueling journey half way around the world — including the obligatory jet-lag — will be all for naught due to bad weather, blown rivers and other disasters.

My most recent trip to New Zealand this past winter — the seventh in my lifetime — reminded me of these varied challenges and left me more determined than ever to seek out new options for insuring a disaster-free trip to the land the native Maoris call “aotearoa,” the land of the long white cloud. Joining me on this particular adventure was a long-time fishing buddy who had always dreamed of making the pilgrimage down under and had high, if guarded, expectations given my endless big fish stories and unbridled enthusiasm for this country and its people.

One of the first orders of business was to help my fishing partner understand the Kiwi concept of stalking fish. As anyone who’s ever read anything about New Zealand fly fishing knows, the traditional upstream approach (also known as “walk & wade”) is the preferred and normally most productive tactic there. More trout “hunting” than fishing, it requires some serious patience as you sneak along the bank in search of an individual fish — or sign of a fish — before you even make your first cast. And it works because the water is always Tanqueray-gin clear, the fish predictably skittish and the opportunities limited by low densities of trout and food. This is not to say blind-casting won’t work on New Zealand waters (it does), but it’s how most Kiwi guides like to fish. Why? Because it avoids wasting time or blowing a good fish right under your nose.

So, with all this in mind, I went in search of some new and different options for this particular trip. I wanted to make our time down under a bit less intimidating, more productive and economical for my fishing partner. Fortunately, my first problem was solved with a couple of emails to my friends Wayne and Mandy Enoka of the perfectly situated Te Wanaka Lodge, and a day of fishing with guide Greg Dougherty of Alpine Fishing Guides.

Located in the Central Otago wine-growing region of the South Island, in the picturesque ski-town of Wanaka, Alpine Guides is one of the few guide services permitted to run commercial, fly-fishing float trips in all of New Zealand. (Note: commercial float fishing operations also exist in the Lake Brunner region on the West Coast of the South Island and on the North Island, near Lake Taupo on the famous Tongariro River). In operation since 1996, Greg guides various local waters including the famed Makaroa and Matukituki but spends most of his time floating the wide, fish-filled and largely inaccessible Clutha River. Known for its abundance of both wild browns and rainbows, this river turned out to be the perfect place to work out a few kinks after the long flight, enjoy some great South Island fishing, and at the same time get reacquainted with the ins and outs of handling large trout on light tackle. In contrast to a typical, often arduous New Zealand fishing day of hiking, wading and casting to trout (that may or may not take your fly depending on your presentation skills), a day’s float with Greg was relaxing and almost always productive. This mid-February day we floated some ten miles of the mighty Clutha in Greg’s comfortable, framed-rubber raft, mainly blind-casting large Cicada and other terrestrial patterns tight to the shore and any midstream structure or current seams that looked fishy.

This was the first time I’d ever floated a New Zealand river and I had a blast — pretty much like floating a river in the western U.S. but without any competition (as in zero) and larger fish on average. On certain shallower runs and riffles, we also spent some time out of the boat stalking fish by foot in the traditional Kiwi walk & wade approach. The results were impressive — “cracker” as they like to say — with most fish over 18 inches and many over 20. Larger fish — known locally as “double-digits” — are always a possibility here, especially in the fall (March through May down under) but we didn’t manage to hook any. Our fishing proved to be all that I’d hoped for and the perfect introductory course for my friend, and would be for anyone more comfortable floating than wading.

Robert Tomes is a freelance writer, regional editor of Fly Fish America magazine, and author of Muskie on the Fly (Wild River Press, Masters on the Fly Series, October 2008). Copyright © 2011 Robert Tomes and MidCurrent LLC.