Backcountry Heist in New Zealand

Like so many trips thwarted by COVID, finally the stars aligned to redeem those much-rescheduled airline tickets, and late last month, my wife and I made the jump across the ditch.

The start of the journey was however pretty disastrous. A delayed arrival and seriously delayed baggage, saw us miss the connecting flight from Auckland to our destination: Nelson. The backup plan to fly to Wellington and have an overnight stay there, sounded great on paper. Yet there were zero (null, nil, nichts, niente) beds available in Wellington (!!) and thus we had to spend the first night like students, sleeping in the back of a hire car on the outskirts of Wellington. How’s that for a Kia Ora?! So, take plenty of time (a day would be nice) between any connecting flights. You’ll hear or read the announcement: ‘We are short staffed’ everywhere in New Zealand too, so they are clearly just starting up again after COVID. Be prepared for that. 

So, more importantly, how was the fishing?

Readers new to flyfishing may be surprised to learn that reports of easy fishing for heaps of large brown trout in the backcountry of New Zealand may be somewhat exaggerated. Just walking into a remote stream to land a bruiser isn’t always realistic… unless you complete multi-day tramps that leave you smelling like wet newspaper. In this vast wilderness, some of the best rivers can’t even be reached by tramping tracks. And they could easily be flooded by the time you finally get there. And then there are the sandflies…! 

As this trip had been rescheduled a number of times, my answer to at least some of the above challenges was to plan a HEIST: Hire Eyes, Information, Supplies and Transportation. To avoid backcountry disappointment, a luxury shortcut is to outsource to the local experts. Hiring eyes to spot these hard to find fish is always a great benefit, but information about what’s flooding and what’s not, that is particularly valuable during these La Niña years.

Backcountry paradise

So, with expert help from the team at Stonefly Lodge, on day one I made a chopper flight out with a guide deep into the Kahurangi National Park. On the flight to the river, plans were made and changed high in the sky, as the target river we flew over was indeed unexpectedly in flood and the back-up river was, surprisingly, too low. The third option looked high, but the guide had another appraising look at me and said, “Yeah, you should just be able to wade it.” I guess my Dutch length comes in handy in the backcountry! And so the chopper dropped us at a small pebble beach island and left us gazing at some of the finest backcountry wilderness river you can possibly imagine. Game on.

Beautiful backcountry.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, since my last pre COVID visit, not much had changed in terms of technique to fish for these large brown trout. The rig set up was a 9’6” six weight, with 2x leader to 4x tippet. Two small, drab nymphs in size 16/18 were preferred. This meant that all my shinny UV and hotspot nymphs I had been furiously tying on trophy-rated jig hooks, were ignored by the guide. The large browns here are still single-minded, meat & potato eaters. Yup, black bead, hare & copper or pheasant tails will do just fine. The system was completed by the trusty NZ strike indicator set a few feet above the first fly.

The way we rolled was that the guide walked upfront, with eagle eyes scanning the clear waters for smudges or the subtle movement of fish. The angler follows at a respectable distance, like a disciple in awe of the master, but really, it’s so as not to spook any fish that happen to be spotted at close range. When a trout is located, a rapid series of helpful instructions are given, like, ”See that white rock? He’s just behind that!” You frantically spot the MANY white rocks and smudges until there is a shape that looks about right. Cast a few feet above that and let the nymph rig drift over the fish. The guide then calls it in from a spot above and ahead of the angler, where he has better views of the fish: “The indicator is going over him now…. The fish is moving up…. Get ready…STRIKE!”

One of several great fish on a perfect day.

This day proved epic, with multiple fish of over 7lb landed and 8.5lb being the largest fish. So despite what I said above, it was easy. No exaggeration…

Reality check

However, as the saying goes, we are only as good as our last catch. And the next day I had to eat some humble pie. We did a very big hike into the same National Park, to fish a section of a river which had just come off a flood. It was probably a foot too high and a day too early. The wind had picked up, the temperature dropped and suddenly, and by lunchtime, we had only seen – and missed – one fish.  

The afternoon proved a total heartbreaker with 9 more trout sighted, yet only 2 hooked (yep, the largest ones) and both broke off. One broke the leader on the hook set, and the last of the day ate the nymph and made the rod bend when he came on the reel. We were high-fiving and letting the fish pull and dive deep like those large browns do. And then, with a twang, the line flew back to me on the breeze. The bush fell silent, blood rushed to my ears, and the world stopped turning. The actual fly hook had broken. Ho-Hum. 

Now there is one thing worse than mulling over lost trophy fish, and that is mulling over lost fish whilst heavy rain is thrumming on the roof all night. Isn’t that the sound of this season? The next day, it was good to see the local experts at work. There was no magic stream they had access to. When all rivers blow out, they face the same challenge you and I face, and they look for small streams which one normally drives over; what I label Australian stream size; maybe 10ft wide. We found good fish here too, but the going was hard and the numbers were low. Small stream tactics from Australia came in handy here. So if you visit NZ, have a detailed map with you, don’t be afraid to jump into the feeder streams of the bigger rivers when things get tough.

A ‘small’ stream option after rain.

Front country

But you can’t fish the world’s best forever, and the marvellous coastline, specialised crafts and the good food of the Nelson region beaconed. On the road, I did fish some shorter sessions on my own, exploring the region’s iconic rivers with map in hand. Of course, not having the eagle eyes of a guide and in mostly overcast conditions, the traditional stalking approach was not working for me. This is something to factor into the trip if you can’t have a HEIST. What to do if you struggle to spot trout on your own? One option is to visit rivers that hold a higher volume of smaller fish. (Mind, a 4lb fish is small for New Zealand yet they are so much fun to catch.) New Zealand’s Fish & Game have a great website that describes their fisheries in quite rich detail. In other words, find an easier option.

Then I did something highly controversial: I Czech-nymphed. ‘In New Zealand’s South Island?‘, I hear you call out. Blasphemy! And yet, and yet. The tannin waters were perfect for those UV hotspot flies, and I picked up nice trout in the likely spots (slow water, drop-offs, back eddies). On the Motueka, I first fished a beat with the drab, unimaginative flies under an indicator. Blank. Then I got 3 fish of 2lb in rapid succession on the Czech system using my flashy flies. From the same beat. It showed that this approach is a very useful tool to have with you when spotting conditions are not ideal. Which they rarely are all the time. And I now wonder how many good fish I walked past on all those prior trips to New Zealand. So, keep that in mind as a handy alternative to hiking a million miles to spot those fewer, larger fish in the backcountry. You are still immersed in the same stunning scenery, and you can get the same smiles at the end of a good day’s fishing. That sounds like a winner to me.

Some car-accessible rivers with relatively high fish numbers do allow effective ‘fishing the water’, rather than relying on spotting.

Overall, on your next NZ trip, I would suggest expecting (and making sure you can deal with) delays getting to and around New Zealand, pack a Czech nymph rod, and some flashy flies to complement the traditional setup, and you can have a ball no matter what the weather throws at you. And plan a HEIST if you can. Good luck!