High Summer on the Mataura

Andy is already planning next summer’s trip to the Mataura River.

I’ve been flyfishing for close to twenty years now, so while I’m not likely to make the Australian flyfishing team, I can usually work out how to catch a trout and get a cast to where I need to, without losing too many flies in the trees and bushes.

Years ago, I started having a trip to New Zealand once in a while, going to different places on the North and South islands, usually with mate Ted and occasionally with other guys. Places fished during what were to become annual New Zealand trips, included the Tongariro, Tauranga-Taupo, Whakapapa and Whirinaki on the North Island; and the rivers around Twizel on the South Island. All these locations had their pros and cons, all had seasonal variations, and all had days of great and average fishing.

Then, about 11 years ago, came a watershed moment (so to speak) when Ted suggested we try the Mataura. It’s become a river I’ve returned to every year since. My plan here is to share our experience fishing there each year at the end of January or in February: where to go, what to do, and what to expect.

Getting there

This part is simple: fly in to Queenstown, hire a car and drive south. You won’t need an SUV other than for space and comfort, as access to fishing is either roadside or an easy walk from the road. Oh, and if you have the option of parking your car in a field, don’t if there are dairy cows present: they’ll eat everything like wipers and trim, and lick and rub against the rest. (Don’t ask me why they do this!)

Queenstown isn’t a bad place to start the trip.

Stay anywhere you fancy between Garston and Wyndham and you won’t be far away from the fishing. There are plenty of small towns with pubs which rent rooms, local motels, or B&B options.

Start with a guide

The best piece of advice I can give anyone fishing a NZ river for the first time is, get a local guide to show you what to do. I learnt this early on; for example, Will Spry in Twizel does an excellent ‘Take Two’ experience.

Yes, it is an expense, but if you are just flying in and going fishing, I would highly recommend getting a local guide on your first or second day to give you a general idea where to go, and how the trout are currently behaving. The experience will have a couple of benefits. Firstly, you are probably going to (though not guaranteed to) catch fish, so you build confidence. Secondly, you will learn what sort of water the trout are holding in, what sort of flies they are taking, and what sort of fishing you can expect in any given area.

With a little help from a guide.

What to expect

To me, the Mataura is two different rivers: the upper river (in my mind, above the confluence of the Waikaia) and the lower river (from around Gore down to where the river meets the tide). There is also a section between Gore and the Waikaia confluence which I’ve rarely fished, so I can’t really do it justice here.

Upper Mataura

On the upper Mataura, there probably isn’t a section of river that local fishing guide Stu Tripney doesn’t know. I’ve fished with Stu on and off over the years on several rivers and I’ve always had a great day out. Plus, he has some amazing flies.

The beautiful upper Mataura in February.

The Upper Mataura is relatively low and clear at this time of the year, though it can still be quite boisterous in places. The trout have seen a lot of flies by this point in the season, so long leaders and finer tippets help. A Bluebottle, Adams or a cicada pattern will all catch fish, as will most terrestrial patterns in a size 10-14.

Willow grubs are prevalent at this time of year and imitations need to be in your fly box. Nymphs are also okay if you resort to the dark arts! Overall, there’s generally nothing too technical about the type of fly used on this stretch.

Action on the upper. (Scott Xanthoulakis pic.)

One thing I have found, is that takes on the upper river need a quick strike; any hesitation usually results in a lost fish. This is in contrast to the lower river during this mid/late summer period, where a “God Save The Queen” pause – or even longer – tends to be rewarded. It’s no wonder that fishing both parts of the river on the same trip can really screw up your rhythm; mostly that means me lifting too quickly on the lower river – my instinctive strike is to lift immediately after a take.

Trout from the upper Mataura tend to be a bit bigger than those in the lower reaches. (Scott Xanthoulakis pic.)

Lower Mataura

On the lower Mataura, guide David Murray-Orr reigns supreme. He’s a retired farmer, with martial arts black belts, who got his pilot’s license a couple of years ago and is fluent in Japanese. Not bad for a guy in his seventies!

The fishing is totally different in this area, as is the river. Generally, the Mataura is now much wider and flows much more sedately through farmland; too deep to wade in some places, though still crossable in many spots.

As low as you can go: where the Mataura meets the sea.

The trout in this section are more tuned in to the lifecycle of mayfly than they are in the upper river. Flies must be small, size 16 or 18, and a grey mayfly dry, a red or brown spinner and a grey nymph – with and without a bead – are needed. With these three flies, you will be able to catch just about any feeding fish you present well to. However, without these flies (or at least without something in a size 16 or 18) you will struggle.

The trout need to be active for the best chance of success. If there’s a mayfly hatch on, the fish and the insects will be obvious. This might happen for 30 minutes a day, or not at all, or for ten minutes a couple of times a day.

Meanwhile, the riffles and drop-offs will hold nymphing trout, and I’ve certainly done my fair share of nymph fishing when needed over the years. (I was even dubbed the nymph-o-maniac on one trip as I nymphed across a drop-off, walked out of the water and then nymphed it again straight after!)

A typical brown from the lower Mataura.

A spinner fall can be a blessing or a curse. I’ve seen one or two great sessions when the river was alive with fish rising to spinners which willingly ate my fly for 30 minutes or so. I’ve also experienced terrible sessions when the water boiled with trout rising to spinners, yet they completely refused anything I threw at them.

An evening rise is quite possible on calm nights and when it occurs, you can expect to catch rising fish until 10pm or later.

Perfect conditions for the evening rise.

While most trout in the lower Mataura will be smaller than their upper river colleagues, I do favour the lower river. The ever-present pulse of the river as it flows around my legs, the gentle presentation of a small dry above the rise of a trout and the pause before lifting the rod, are somehow much more satisfying to me than the hustle and bustle of the upper river.


We’ve had trips booked a year in advance which have been all but washed out by heavy rain and floods. This area is a long way south (about as far south as you can go short of Antarctica or Tierra Del Fuego) and the weather is often cool and very changeable.

In summer 2018, the Mataura was as low as anyone could remember, and then heavy overnight rain and rendered it unfishable for a couple of weeks and a road bridge was washed away.

Not what you want to see on your Mataura trip, but there’s usually a worthwhile Plan B.

So what to do when this happens? One option is to leave the fishing for a bit and be a tourist. For example, the Catlins National Park is well worth a visit and the coastal drive is also spectacular. The local tourist office will be able to give other advice.

If you fancy sitting in the pub while waiting for the rain to ease, there are plenty to choose from! The Kiwis love their craft beers as much as we do, so sample a few.

You can also brave the elements and look for clean water. There are lake options to the east such as Lake Onslow. If it’s cold and raining in Southland, the hydro lakes will probably be hypothermic, but the water will be fishable.

The nearby lakes are an option if the streams are blown out.

There are plenty of small streams in the area, many of which will be too low to fish by the end of January, but they generally come up and go down quite quickly (within two days) and a freshening rain can bring them alive.

A flood on the Mataura can be no more than a nice fresh on some of the tributaries.

Another rainy weather option is to take a longer drive and find unaffected rivers in another catchment. If needed, it’s handy to be able to up stumps and head to another district altogether. We tend to think of New Zealand as quite a small country, which it is compared to Australia’s landmass. However, it still takes a while to get around. Fishing the Marlborough region one year (and not doing all that well) we decided to relocate to Twizel. But upon arrival we found there was no accommodation – it was Waitangi Weekend – and we ended up driving to Gore. About eight hours driving all up, but it was worth it as we found much better conditions and more willing fish.

Wind can have a big influence on how the Mataura fishes, and the ‘wind from the east, fish the least’ adage applies. Nor’westerlies are another issue for many parts of the South Island, and even on the Mataura this wind can be a major pain in the butt. However, this is where the local knowledge comes into play. In any wind direction, there will be a good spot to fish. Working out where that is can be both a challenge and fun.

Time for the pub!

In summary

  1. Get a local guide for a day to tune yourself in, or even try a hosted trip.
  2. A rough rule is, big flies for the upper Mataura, small ones for the lower.
  3. Terrestrials rule the upper, the mayfly lifecycle the lower.
  4. A quick strike for the upper, a longer pause for the lower.
  5. Have a Plan B worked out in case it rains. (It almost certainly will!)
  6. Enjoy!

A ‘Plan B’ fish from a small stream.

FLYSTREAM FACTS – Guides and Accommodation

We’ve found good Mataura trip accommodation at the Garston Hotel (upper river) and at the Oakleigh Motel in Gore (lower river).

For guides, I recommend Stu Tripney for the upper Mataura and other rivers like the Oreti; and David Murray-Orr for the lower river and small streams.

FLYSTREAM FACTS – Gear and Flies

Wet wading often works in summer, but it can turn cold even in mid-February, so take waders as well as good wading boots. (Remember, felt soles are prohibited in NZ.)

Bring a 4 weight and a 6 weight rod. A 9 foot 6 weight will cover most fishing needs, but using a 4 weight can be a lot of fun.

Flies – Upper Mataura

Bring terrestrial patterns, mainly in size 10-14. The local cicadas are quite small and black, although around the higher altitude lakes they can be small and bright yellow. Carry the usual weighted and unweighted nymphs associated with freestone rivers. Willow grub patterns are a must in the height of summer.

Flies – Lower Mataura

Carry plenty of size 16-18 mayfly and spinner patterns; plus bead-head and unweighted nymphs in the same sizes. (David ties his own, available from the Motor Camp in Gore.)

4X to 6X tippet is needed, with a 12 foot leader as the ideal set up for the finnicky fish. For more forgiving fish/water, a 9 foot leader should be okay. (I cast much better with a 9 foot leader!)