A balmy evening greeted me as I hopped off the plane in Queenstown. A little later, beetles buzzed the streetlights as I walked down to buy a Furg Burger. A good omen, I thought…but I was in Southland. I was woken in the night to the sound of rain, heavy rain. My worst fears were realised as I travelled along the highway the next day in my little hire car. Trees were down in the exposed areas along Lake Wakatipu, which heaved like an ocean. When I crossed the famous Mataura River near Athol, the coffee-coloured water was confirmation there would be little fishing today or even tomorrow. The rivers were blown.
New Zealand stream trout are generally much larger than those back home in Victoria, but often with a lot more distance between fish. This places a premium on spotting and targeting individual trout. The present conditions made that impossible, so I headed further south to Te Anau.
The South Island is quite a narrow land mass and the Southern Alps above the West Coast separate the relatively drier and flatter eastern farmlands. As the rain generally comes in from the west and moves north up the coast, you can often find clear water by changing location – aided by Met Service forecasts and river height information on a smartphone.
Just outside Te Anau the mighty Waiau River flows out of Lake Te Anau and into Lake Manapouri. Being a tailrace it flows clear even after heavy rain, so I headed there to see what I could find. I was confronted by a huge bubbling torrent of water, but I was in no position to be picky. The Waiau is a daunting piece of water for someone used to fishing the little ‘twiggy’ creeks of Victoria but it was crystal clear. I tried it without success, although a friend enjoyed good fishing around the same time using a jet boat for access, so obviously the trout are there.
The next morning I awoke to sun and blue skies and headed back towards Lumsden. After consulting the ‘Bible’ (John Kent’s South Island guide book) I settled on what sounded like a lovely stream. I turned down a dirt side road which was blocked by a temporary fence to allow the cows to graze on the road verge. Turning the car around I spotted a man sitting on his farm porch staring at me. He looked for all the world like a mid-western American farmer – complete with beard, trucker cap and checked flannel shirt. His New Zealand accent was the only thing giving him away. “Excuse me, could you tell me where the burn is?” I enquired. “Are you flyfishing? Love my flyfishing,” came the response. It’s amazing that no matter where you travel in the world, flyfishers are a fantastic, helpful and friendly bunch. He went on to explain that he’d fished the burn three days ago, but the fish had already dropped back to the main river. He advised I’d be better off fishing there, and in fact there was an access gate right across the road.
I thanked him and sure enough, there was a faded ‘River Access’ sign, half covered by gorse which I had completely missed when driving in. The river still carried some colour from the rain but it was possible to spot trout in the sunny areas. They were high in the water and looking up. Finally, I could actually cast to a fish.
After previously seeing beetles, my first thought was to use a green Humpy. I stripped out some line and cast across the river to judge the distance. After two false casts I presented to the brown I could see clearly swaying back and forth in the current. The first shot was a little short, just behind the fish. I lengthened the line a little and cast again. The green Humpy landed a metre in front of the trout and directly in line. I held my breath as the trout approached the fly and opened its mouth, but at the last second it snapped it shut again and merely nosed the fly! To add insult to injury, the tippet momentarily got caught on top of its snout, spooking it.
I wandered along the bank spotting more fish and soon realised the trout were in tight along the banks. I decided a new fly was in order. As the adjacent farmland carried lots of sheep, I went for a blue Blowfly Humpy that had worked so well for me on previous NZ trips. After spotting a new fish, I carefully made my way down to water level, using an obvious overhanging bush as a marker – it’s a lot harder to see fish at water level. I cast the Humpy just ahead of the trout and it casually lifted and ate the fly. After waiting what seemed like ages, I lifted the rod and set the hook. The fish went nuts, and then the line went slack.
Few things in fishing give you the same sinking feeling as losing a good fish to a questionable knot. I’d tied on the tippet using a rushed Blood Knot instead of my usual triple Surgeons Knot and had paid the price. I took another Blowfly Humpy out of the box and soon found another feeding fish. Again I got another good cast out and this time it all came together. The hook stuck, the leader held. The fish jumped but the curve of the rod cushioned the shock. Just as I was thinking, “I’ve got you now!” the brown started swimming towards the undercut and some submerged logs. I turned the rod 90 degrees to apply some side strain and keep it out of trouble. Finally, the brown came to the surface and then to my great relief, into the net. I was exhausted mentally but the monkey was off my back, I had my first fish of the trip. It’s amazing how often after so many problems getting the first, the others come so much more easily – and they did.
Southland is an extreme place. Driving rain and snow one day, burning sun the next and chocolate-coloured water that clears to gin within days. And then there’s the wind. There are so many variables that can conspire against you, but when it all comes together it’s the best place on earth.