Off-Peak Opportunities in the Deep South

Nick says you don’t have to wait until spring to get back into some fine NZ flyfishing. 

The recent announcement of a travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia has brought many a sigh of relief on both sides of the ditch; from Aussies hanging out to get back to this amazing fishery, and from kiwi guides, lodges, hotels, restaurants etc. who have desperately missed international clients. Even kiwi anglers have missed our Aussie mates (although few would ever admit that)!

For anyone looking at booking a trip to the lower South Island in the next few months, I’ll run through some of the options that will present themselves. The chances are that most Aussie anglers will be flying into Queenstown either for a fishing break; or perhaps on a ski holiday with a few days fishing added on. It will be off-peak, but there is still plenty of first-class fishing available during these months.

Late Season Hatches

Autumn is when the most consistent hatches of mayfly occur on many South Island rivers. While the South Island fishery is not regarded as a ‘hatch-driven’ fishery, we still experience some great mayfly hatches. These hatches consistently bring fish to the surface to feed.

Dusk on the Mataura.

In the south of the South Island, the river most famous for hatch fishing is the Mataura River in Southland. During the mayfly hatch, the river can boil with feeding trout: what the locals call the ‘Mad Mataura Rise’. Star of the show is the Deleatidium mayfly. It’s a small, dark mayfly which is very common on the lowland streams of Southland. On the best days, you can expect to catch fish nymphing the runs from first thing in the morning. This will be followed by a solid hatch of duns starting around 11am as the water warms, and which lasts until about 2pm. If the wind is subdued, you could subsequently be in for a solid fall of egg-laying spinners through the afternoon until last light. Chironomid midges also come off in good numbers in autumn, so mixed hatches are common, adding to the technical aspect and challenge of this fishery.

Most of the Mataura is open until the end of April, so if you’re quick, you’ll just get in for the last week. The good news is that parts of the lower Mataura River – those downstream of Mataura township – are open through May and also provide awesome hatches right through until the last days of May.

Many of the lake tributaries in the south are also open until the end of May; these include all the tributaries of Lake Te Anau, Lake Wakatipu and Lake Manapouri. In April or even May you may also be lucky enough to experience a Coloburiscus hatch on these rivers. These are large duns (not dissimilar to south-eastern Australia’s Kossie Dun) and can be represented by size 12 flies. It’s very exciting to cast one of these big mouthfuls to a rising trout. It is by no means a regular occurrence, but due of the size of the mayfly, and the need for trout to put on condition prior to spawning, Coloburiscus duns can lead to spectacular action. A hatch will drag even the largest trout to the surface for a couple of hours in the late afternoon.

Spawning Runs & Extended Seasons

As mentioned, many of the tributaries of the big southern lakes are open until the end of May. Fish will begin to run into these rivers from the beginning of April on their annual spawning run. This can provide sensational fishing, especially after a recent flood event when fresh fish will move into the system. These fresh-run trout are often quite easy to catch and can sometimes be quite large too.

Then there are the rivers and lakes that are so remote, they have no closed season at all. Fish & Game keep these waters open year-round because difficulty of access ensures that they will never be overfished, even during spawn runs. These waters can be targeted in a number of ways but all require a big effort to access. My favourite method of transport is by ocean-capable jet boat. A jet boat is the perfect machine for accessing NZ’s shallow freestone rivers, especially those that flow out to sea along remote sections of coastline.

Wilderness access.

One season during June, we explored a little-known lake and its tributaries using a jet boat. The adventure required a 30km ride along the South Coast and then a trip upriver to the lake, 20km inland. The lake is massive and generally very deep, and the residents tend to be difficult to catch as they live in such deep water. By going in June, we ensured that the majority of the lake’s trout would be in the spawning tributaries. For such a large lake, it’s unusual in that it doesn’t have any big tributaries; only a number of short feeder streams.

We found the browns and rainbows stacked up in these crystal-clear feeders. Sight fishing with streamers, we experienced amazing action on fish up to 8 pounds. Although this trip occurred during the first few weeks of winter, we were fortunate enough to strike mild weather and the fishing conditions were pleasant.

Some remote backcountry streams down south are open all year.

Southern Lakes

It’s a symptom of having one of the best trout fisheries in the world that the lake fishing often goes begging. Lakes that, if located anywhere else in the world, would be heavily fished, are practically ignored by flyfishers. The lakes of the deep south provide a treasure trove of opportunities for fly anglers and are a welcome substitute if the rivers get blown out.

Compared to the intimate environment of a river, the vast expanses of a lake can often be daunting to the inexperienced. However, your quarry is the same animal and is governed by the same basic instincts: namely to eat and procreate in the safest way possible, while expending the least amount of energy. Trout really aren’t complicated animals! These basic principles will hold you in good stead when fishing lakes in the winter months.

River mouths are a great starting point as fish will be entering or leaving on their spawning migrations. Trout will gather where the current of the inflowing stream enters the lake, often in surprisingly shallow water. At this time of the year, the fish are frequently interested in things other than food and in order to entice them, the fly will have to be right in their zone. Often this means the use of a heavily-weighted fly or a sink-tip line.

The lakes offer endless off-season possibilities.

The sight fishing that is so gratifying to the river angler, can also be experienced on lakes – especially the smaller lakes and around river deltas on the larger lakes. Ambushing cruising fish from the lakeshore is challenging and exciting. Once a target is found working the shoreline, the angler must get well in front of the fish. A cast should then be made to an area that will be intercepted by the advancing fish. The fly must not be moved, and should instead be allowed to sink through the water column. As the trout nears the fly, it should be given a few twitches. This simulation of fleeing prey will often draw a savage strike from the fish.

Late August and all of September is a great window for sight fishing cruising brown trout on lake edges in the lower South Island. The browns will be looking to stack on weight after spawning and will be feeding with vigour. Again, stream mouths are often the best places to start. These areas can really go off just after a heavy flood, as a large number of fingerlings will be washed into the lake and the browns will be right on the edge of the dirty water waiting to crunch their hapless prey.

Whitebait Time

Whitebait are juvenile galaxiids which have been living in the sea. Once they mature, they migrate, in huge numbers, back to the rivers of their birth. This mass migration happens during late winter/early spring; the peak months being August, September and October. Whitebait are a high-energy food source which are actively predated upon by trout. Trout congregate in estuaries to await the arrival of the migrating whitebait. Each tide will bring in fresh schools and the trout will ambush them as they make their way into the river. The good news is that the vast majority of estuaries in Southland, Otago and Westland are open year-round to trout fishing. That equates to a huge amount of water, almost all of which holds a good population of brown trout.

River mouth.

In some rivers, whitebait runs represent the best opportunity for trout to put on weight after a lean winter. As a result, large numbers of trout will congregate in the river’s tidal zone to feed. Some fish will even come from far upstream to be involved in the feeding frenzy.

Sight fishing with streamers to large trout as they crash bait schools is sure to get the pulse racing. A great plus of this style of fishing is that it can be done in any type of weather; in fact, often the best results come in stormy conditions. It offers a perfect opportunity to capture a decent fish and presents some of the best ‘shoulder season’ fishing around.

Sea trout.


Some of the big tailwaters in close proximity to Queenstown are also open to fishing through the winter months. The most impressive of these options is the mighty Clutha River. At 338 kilometers, it is NZ’s second longest river, flowing south-east from Lake Wanaka down through Central and South Otago to finally discharge into the Pacific Ocean 70km south of Dunedin.

The Clutha holds a large population of both rainbow and brown trout, and also serves as a highway for trout travelling between the many lakes contained within this enormous river system.

With a mean flow of over 600 cumecs (cubic metres a second) the Clutha is a massive river. Spey fishing is a great way to combat the large flows and cover as much of the river as possible. Double-handed rods are valuable for long casts and to get big flies deep, opening up the potential of the larger rivers. In winter, pods of rainbow trout are pulsing through the river as they run to their spawning grounds further upstream. The secret to intercepting these fish is to cover plenty of water until you find a pod, then you’ll often hook a number of fish in a short time.

This fishery is very accessible from both Queenstown and Wanaka, making it a perfect option for people on a ski holiday who want to add on a little bit of flyfishing. A multitude of Fish & Game access points mean that even half days, before or after skiing, can be productive and fun.

Get Down Here

These examples represent just some of the flyfishing opportunities on offer during our so-called ‘off-peak’ season in the deep south – opportunities I’m looking forward to showing plenty of Aussies over the coming months. If you are keen to scratch that NZ itch, there’s no need to wait until October to come and enjoy one of the best trout fisheries on earth.



For a South Island flyfishing adventure you’ll never forget, get in touch with Nick Reygaert at Gin-Clear Travel in Te Anau.