Making Sense of Southland

After numerous trips to other parts of New Zealand, Peter gets it right – and wrong – during late spring in the south of the South Island.

Right in front of me, in the middle of a shallowish run at the top of a small pool, was a brown trout about 2ft long. It was unmistakeable as it held position, standing out clearly against the relatively small stones in the eerily clear water. I retreated, checked my rig, calculating the weight of the nymph needed to get down a foot or so, and the length of the dropper so that the nymph wouldn’t impede the floating Parachute Adams. Getting into position, I cast down the river, letting the line and leader straighten, then loaded the rod, sending the rig up towards the fish. The first cast was a little short, the second a little wide, but the third was just right.

The fish drifted confidently to the left, opened its mouth, and clamped down on the nymph before I raised the rod. The fish then went barrelling down under the willow I was standing beside, then kept going with me in frantic pursuit.

I was delighted and much relieved when the wonderful brown slid into the net, and I could breathe again.

Having unhooked the brownie, I decided to move from this small stream, one I had neglected to fish until my last morning of a two-week Southland trip, and head for the justifiably famous Mataura River.

Beautiful water on the middle reaches of the Mataura River. Does it get any better?

The Mataura has runs, riffles, glides, drop-offs, backwaters, undercut banks, shelter provided by willows, relatively easy walking, wonderfully abundant trout averaging close to two kilograms, frequent hatches, plentiful aquatic life, and dreamily clear water.

Pulling up at an angler access point I had not previously explored, I was quickly on the river, peering into a deep pool where six to eight dark shapes cruised down deep over the sandy substrate. I spent twenty or so minutes trying without success to get a fly down deep to these fish. I possibly succeeded once when I thought one fish moved towards where my nymph should have been, but my strike was fruitless.

Moving upstream to the top of the pool, the current ran swiftly from right to left, the left half of the river appearing to be about chest deep over sand. The right side of the river was rocky, offering fish plenty of camouflage and, most importantly, a gentle current. “Trust that you will see one”, I kept repeating to myself for a minute or so, until a ‘rock’ moved right to left, materialising as a fish. Of course, once you can see a trout clearly, it stands out unmistakeably, but until then they are almost ghost-like. Seeing this fish, I realised there was another one 5 metres above it.

Once again, I went through the ritual of checking the rig, calculating the weight of the nymph needed given the depth and rate of flow. Once again, casting down the river, I let the line and leader straighten up before launching the lot upstream. The fish sidled right, opened and shut its mouth, and I raised the rod. This time, however, the strike must have been a nanosecond too soon and all I hooked were a couple of scales as the frantic fish darted off into the main current.

Despite the second outcome, I headed back to the car (and then up to Queenstown Airport to collect my wife for a week of touring) in a state of satisfied happiness. I had lived the dream that had been playing in my mind since the start of the Covid lockdowns – and through four booked and cancelled trips to the south of the South Island.

I had started to make sense of Southland.

Where are the fish?

I spent a fair bit of time in the first three or four days looking in the wrong spots. In the stronger big river flows, the browns – at least the ones I could see – tended to be in the slow sections. They were often located where there was a gentle, gentle current out of the main flow, even if the depth was only knee deep or even less. This wasn’t as much of a factor on the smaller steams, where they could be anywhere.

From a soft, shallow edge.

In either case, the trout didn’t mind holding over sand or fine substrate – much to my surprise, as I expected they would feel vulnerable in such spots. Not so. On the bigger rivers at least, as I became more experienced at spotting the trout, it became worthwhile to leapfrog from one such place to another, skipping the faster sections and the deep channels – places I would certainly focus on in Victoria. Upon reaching a ‘good’ spot, I had to move slowly, stop frequently and tell myself that there would be a fish there and mostly, this was the case. Every backwater also needed examination, even if the backwater was very small and indistinct. The trout loved them.

Of course, if there was a hatch, the fish came up for the emerging and duns, revealing themselves in the bubble-lines and especially in the protected bays of willows. I have no doubt that like in Australia, just before such times, the fish move to these areas in anticipation of the hatch. Often, these trout were visible from 20 metres away as they mopped up tiny dun after tiny dun within an area four times the size of a dining table, their heads poking right out of the water as they clomped down on another insect. Between rises, the trout were often visible as they patrolled their particular spot, cruising less than a handspan below the surface. Getting a fly to such fish was engrossing and challenging, but not impossible.

In the spring creeks, the trout were difficult to spot because of the abundant weed growth, especially if there was little sunlight. Searching from a high hillside helped, even if you were a long way from the water. This goes against the grain of my previous experience in Australia, but over there, the fish are large by my standards and easily visible from a distance. Remove the surface glare, increase the angle into which you are looking, move slowly, stopping frequently and, at some point, a fish will reveal itself. Simple!

Elevation can help spring creek visibility on a cloudy day.

Similarly to the main rivers, when the fish started to rise on the spring creeks, often at a very respectable afternoon hour of about 2:00pm, a section of river which had seemed dead suddenly thrummed with life, fish bulging hither and yon. Exciting stuff, but it was still not easy to fool them. Small terns dipped over the water during the hatch, and much to my surprise the fish didn’t bat a fin.

How many ways can you lose a fish?

The trout being large in Southland, anywhere from 1.5 kilograms and up, any fault in gear or technique will result in tears and swearing. I lost fish because of hastily-tied knots, by standing on the line at the wrong time as the fish tore across the river to the safety of willow roots, when the line inexplicably broke at the tippet ring, when the shank of a brand new fly broke, and when the hook opened slightly on the strike. I have been attending ‘Missed Fish Anonymous’ since my return and this has helped!

The line breakage at the tippet ring is interesting. Investigation online on my return to Australia indicates that tippet rings have their critics. The consensus is that the rings made of round profile steel are superior to those made of oval-shaped steel. I photographed my tippet rings with my iPhone and enlarged the image many times hoping to discover what had happened. My tippet rings were made of round steel and perhaps were a little abrasive. Next time, I will certainly pay the extra dollar or two for one of the most reputable brands such as Hanak. Or maybe I will ditch the rings altogether and just tie careful triple surgeon knots. Whatever I do, I will be retying my final knots after each fish and replacing the tippet simultaneously to eliminate nicks and the possibility that knots and leaders get stretched by Ferrari trout.

The hook straightening scenario is also an interesting way to lose a fish. Maybe ‘interesting’ isn’t the appropriate word. I have tied flies for the many years and tried lots of different brands of hook. In preparation for this trip, I tied plenty of flies in advance, specifically choosing a particular brand of barbless hook because of their wide gape and design. However, one such hook having opened up a little, next time I will be selecting hooks made from the slightly thicker wire as insurance. Big fish call for a rethink.

The jury is out about the wide gape hooks too. On one hand, it probably increases the likelihood of the hook finding purchase, but on the other, it probably increases the likelihood of straightening. Whatever I do next time, I will be certain to check my hook each time I lose a fish on the strike, so I don’t end up missing three in a row due to such a rookie mistake of failing to check. Thank goodness for ‘Missed Fish Anonymous’!

Trout like this will soon find any weaknesses in your terminal tackle.

It’s also clear that some tippet is better than others and that some fluorocarbon becomes brittle with age. One of the benefits of the trout guiding business over the last three of so decades is the fact that the guides themselves try and discard as useless a range of gear in quick succession. Along with other brands, the guides I know tend to back Trout Hunter tippet and fluorocarbon. Given that tippet has become thinner and thinner over the years, the space between success and failure has become smaller, so it makes sense to begin with a well-credentialed brand, then tie your knots with far greater care and with many more wraps than the thicker, more forgiving tippets of the past allowed.

What about flies?

Small is definitely the go in Southland. Being a lifetime flyfisher in my home state of Victoria, most of my flies, both dry and wet (other than streamer patterns I use in lakes) are size 12 and 14. Sometimes my selection will be larger and sometimes smaller, but size 12 and 14 are my go-to sizes. In Southland, when I was there in spring, most of the flies I used and which other people were using, were either size 16 or 18. This can create a degree of insecurity for an Aussie used to fishing with larger flies. Will the fish even notice the fly as it drifts past? When such doubts arise, it’s important to remember that the water clarity is completely different to Australia and therefore the trout can indeed see the tiny flies from a distance. I once overheard a fisheries researcher in Australia say there were two reasons the fish in New Zealand were so big: the water temperature remained at an optimal level for much longer than in Australia, and the clarity of the water enabled the fish to harvest the available food much more efficiently.

Most of the time I used two flies, the first being a Parachute Adams and the second being a dark nymph with a dark bead. Most of the Parachute Adams flies I used were size 14 or 16. Once again, these were still easy for the fish to see and simultaneously easy for me to see on most occasions. When I lost sight of my standard Adams, I changed to one with a brightly-coloured post. I don’t think the fish can see the post from underneath, so why not use a bright colour?

Mind you, there was the occasion when fish buddy Sam and I were sitting beside a deep, swirling pool having a rest and a chat when a log of a fish started cruising around within centimetres of the surface, taking dun after dun. Sam cast his Parachute Adams with skill and I tried to do the same, to no avail. I decided to go and find another fish. (Looking back, I now think the afternoon rise had started, but we were not quite tuned in to this phenomenon as it was so early in our trip.) With considerable dedication, Sam trimmed the pink post on his fly down to almost nothing and cast again, resulting in an immediate head-thrusting take and a fish of well over two kilograms. Coincidence?

Sam with a nice one – perseverance pays off.

There was also the occasion on a spring creek when fish were bulging everywhere and I could hardly tempt one. I even returned a few days later to find the fish behaving in exactly the same way. In preparation, I had tied some light size 14 nymphs which I proceeded to cast with great skill (or so I thought) in front of a succession of fish. No response. In hindsight I would like to have had smaller flies, plus a number of small soft hackle flies. My fly size selection was influenced too much by my experience in Australia.

On that particular occasion, a couple of boys in their early teens came wandering along during the hatch, and over half an hour or so proceeded to hook two wonderful fish on small Parachute Adams flies. Reminding me of myself in the past, they offered free advice. ‘Just work on getting the drift exactly right, bro.” I’m pretty sure my drift had been fine, yet I had still experienced refusal after refusal. My most recent theory, notwithstanding the experience of my two young friends, is they too were getting refusal after refusal and that very small, very soft hackled flies were required, and such flies needed to be dropped within 10cm of the target. Given the numerous times the fish were bulging, getting the drift precisely right at precisely the right moment in the fish’s rhythm of rising and falling in the water column, would have been achievable.

And did I say all the trout took small flies? I am forgetting the times fish took the size 10 heavily-weighted nymph which had been tied on merely to get the smaller, trailing fly into the strike zone. And I am forgetting the father and son flyfishers from Lichtenstein who fished the upper Oreti River with large blowflies and who caught five or so trout on each of the two consecutive mornings they fished there. And by the way, they defied conventional wisdom, which suggests sneaking along the bank looking for fish. Instead, they got into the river itself, and carefully drifted their large flies through all the likely spots (and there are plenty), catching multiple trophies.

Walking into the upper Oreti, where bigger flies can work in late spring.

Naturally, I won’t talk about the possibility of catching fish in about February on large cicada flies either, as this is another whole new season in Southland. In fact, I met an older retired couple who went to Southland for two separate months each year, leaving a car permanently in New Zealand for the purpose. When questioned, John and Christine said they generally fished in November, returned to Australia for Christmas and to see the grandchildren, then returned again to New Zealand in February or March. As they said, “Totally different seasons.” They were certainly living the dream.

Early spring in the Taupo region in the North Island or late spring in Southland?

You certainly catch more fish more easily around Taupo and the rainbows there are simply spectacular in looks and athleticism. However, in Southland and across the South Island, it’s great to use a lighter rod, cast small nymphs and dries accurately, then catch splendidly dogged, powerful browns. Both places should be on your bucket list. See The Terrific Tongariro – FlyStream

Did I make sense of Southland?

I found the fishing frustrating, tiring, challenging, exacting, absorbing, satisfying and exhilarating. Sometimes all within the same session! Simply put, it was wonderful.

I haven’t put all the pieces of the jigsaw together yet. But as I said, I have made a start.


  • Flies: size 14-18 dark nymphs, some with a single dark bead head and some with a double. Also, some with a bit of bling. Some also with no weight for the bulgers and as a second fly off the back of a heavy bomb. Size 14 and 16 Parachute Adams. Size 16-18 Huberts Red. (This tiny dun floats well and is surprisingly visible.) Size 12-14 Blowflies. Size 14-18 Soft Hackles. Size 14-18 CDC Emergers.
  • A 5 weight 9’-9’6” rod is perfect.
  • For accommodation, we found Mossburn Country Park affordable, clean and well located. It is cheaper to book directly.
  • Book cars as early as possible and save thousands.
  • Carry all your gear in a waterproof pack: coat, lunch, water, sun hat, sunscreen, beanie, gloves, fishing gear. The weather in spring is extremely changeable and you can leave your accommodation at 8:00am in fog and rain, arrive at your destination and find searing sun, then 20 minutes later be back in fog.
  • Take a copy of South Island Trout Fishing Guide (John Kent, Penguin Books, 2009). A great starting point.
  • Download the MetService app. Select the region, then negotiate your way to the chosen river, then to the rainfall graph of the past week. It will save you a lot of driving and time. It’s rare that all the rivers are in in flood simultaneously.

    Even with Southland’s famously dodgy spring weather, there’s always somewhere to fish.

  • If the rivers are all in flood, head for lakes such as Mavora Lakes. It is amazing to drive up to the edge of one, say to yourself, “Now, can I see any fish?” then spot one within a minute.
  • Leader length. Long is best to allow for the clear water and the depth. It’s also best to avoid false casting directly over fish.
  • You can purchase your licence online for $250 a season and there is no monthly option – ouch.