South Island Early Season Tips

Nick has some top suggestions for making the most of this very good but underrated time of year. (Pictures: Jeff Forsee)

Opening Day is a tradition for most South Island anglers – the prospect of fishing to trout that haven’t seen an angler for 6 months is very alluring. In rivers which are known to hold big fish, early season can be the best time to fool a trophy, before they wise up due to angling pressure as the season progresses.

While the first few weeks of the season have mouth-watering appeal for flyfishers, they are usually accompanied by extremely challenging conditions. High water, strong winds and cold temperatures are the norm rather than exception. Maybe that’s part of the reason early season is not popular amongst visiting anglers. Even so, it’s puzzling why more flyfishers don’t take advantage of what is often the best fishing of the year.

Despite the weather challenges, early season can produce some of the best trout of the year.

Perhaps the prospect of blue skies and fishing big dry flies which supposedly come later, are more appealing for the majority of international visitors. However, I also think early season conditions intimidate many. Here are some ideas to quickly set you on the path to success in those first few weeks.

The Weather

Aotearoa is the Māori name for New Zealand, and it means Land of the Long White Cloud. The South Island weather is the 2000-pound elephant in the room, omnipresent and ruthless, yet a flyfishing topic rarely addressed. New Zealand weather will regularly take your hopes of calm, sunny conditions and stomp them into a thousand pieces. And that statement can apply for any week during any month of the season. I see visiting anglers, especially those from places with consistent, continental weather patterns (yes, I’m looking at you, people from Perth and Adelaide!) viewing the weather charts and gasping in horror at the bands of yellow, red and purple.

A warm fire will still be there when you get back from fishing.

Don’t be scared by the weather, and you are not ‘unlucky’ if it isn’t perfect. It’s always changeable here! You should take comfort that these fisheries are under a constant barrage of rain and floods all year and the trout have perfectly adapted to living in those conditions. The idea that trout shelter during rain events couldn’t be further from the truth. Floods dislodge worms and wash in large insects, while coloured water helps trout hunt small fish more effectively. Floods are a time when the biggest fish in the river are hunting with reckless abandon, while at exactly the same time, many flyfishers are in the local pub, cursing their misfortune and crying into their beer.

Windows of Opportunity

Of course, there is a safety element involved and rushing to a river in a remote setting as it’s beginning to flood, carries with it all sorts of dangers. What you need to aim for are the small windows of opportunity which will present during spring weather. One day without rain is enough of a window for a river to drop and be clear enough to fish. On trophy waters, one big fish out and feeding is enough to make the trip a success. Small windows are all you need – and probably all you will get. It’s a mistake to wait around for days of perfect weather, as most likely, it won’t happen.

High-ish water, but still safe and fishable.

The best time to go is after the rain event has passed through. Even though the river may still be in flood, if you know there is a patch of clear weather coming, then all you need to do is wait for the river to start dropping.

Knowledge of the fishery is a key part of predicting how quickly a river might drop and clear. This is where guides and local anglers have the advantage. However, there are some shortcuts to obtaining that knowledge. Do your research on river level monitors before you arrive. You will be amazed how many rivers are monitored, and that information is freely available to the general public via local council websites.

The same goes for rainfall monitors. They are everywhere, and can give you great information on how much rain has fallen in the headwaters. And have those websites bookmarked on your phone, so you can check them anytime. It is a bit of work, but guides check those websites constantly and so should you.

There are lots of remote rainfall and river gauges to let you know what’s going on in the headwaters.

If the river you want to fish doesn’t have a river level monitor, then check if another river valley nearby does. If they have headwaters in the same mountain range, it will give you a fair indication of what is happening. In lieu of that information, you can look at the structure and length of the river. If it is relatively short and has a steep gradient, then you’d be amazed how quickly it will clear. The same applies if it is mainly lake or spring fed. By the same measure, places to avoid in volatile spring weather are long drainages with lots of tributaries. All it takes is for one tributary to be blown out and the whole system will become unfishable.

Go Big or Go Home

The water is coloured and big trout are feeding enthusiastically. This is not a time to go into your shell and fish tiny nymphs or dries. That may be what the fish take back home but you are not on your home streams now. Throw caution to the wind and go big, and when I say big, you’d amazed how big you can go. One thing to remember is that trout here are large animals. A 10 pound trout has a mouth much bigger than a human and if they are feeding without caution in coloured water, they’ll have a crack at lots of things if they look edible.

A box of springtime meals.

Try to imagine all of the insects and animals that are being washed into a flooding river in the NZ backcountry. Start with worms in every colour and description imaginable! I’ve caught fat brown trout in the first week of the season that were throwing up mouthfuls of worms: they were literally loaded to the gills.

Centipedes, millipedes and spiders all get washed out of the bush during floods and trout will happily guzzle them down. Then there are the in-stream insects which will also get dislodged in high flows. Big stonefly nymphs are top of the list of juicy morsels that become available in a flood. The Dobsonfly or creeper is large stream insect which looks like a centipede, and they are also an important part of the trout diet. Meanwhile, small fish get washed around and disoriented in high water and become vulnerable. The common bully, small trout, lamprey and small eels are all potentially on the menu.

The common denominator with these prey items? That’s right, they’re all big. But otherwise, they come in a whole variety of colours and shapes. It is my belief that trout feeding in high, coloured water are more opportunistic than in low and clear conditions. That translates to them being easier to catch. Another benefit of hooking a big trout on a big fly is that you can assert more force without bending the hook out.

Coloured water allows you to up the breaking strain of your tippet. I’m using 7lb tippet as standard in spring conditions, yet I’ll often increase that to 10lb if I think I can get away with it. All these factors combined greatly increase your chance of hooking – and just as importantly, landing – the trout of a lifetime.

Big trout can eat big food – and flies.

While we are on tackle, it is worth addressing the issue of leader length. I’m sure if you’ve done some research on NZ or visited a couple of times, you’ll be familiar with the crazy long leaders that gun anglers use over here. Do those 18 to 22 foot leaders make a difference? Yes they do, but in context. Firstly, you need to be able to cast them. If you literally can’t get the flies in front of the fly-line because the leader is too long for your ability, then there is no point persisting. Cut the leader down a foot at a time until you can handle it – or get some casting lessons.

Long leaders are especially effective in low and clear conditions that we often face in summer and autumn, but in high spring flows, you can get away with shortening things up. For myself, I find 14 foot is a good compromise: I can still get my nymphs deep with a slack drift, and I’m not driving myself insane by trying to throw a 20 foot, two tungsten fly rig into a 40 knot nor’wester. If I’m mostly fishing streamers, I’ll cut right back to 12 foot and beef the tippet up to 10lb.

Keep Your Powder Dry

Water temperature is pivotal in determining trout feeding behaviour. When the water is very cold, the trout will be sluggish and unwilling to feed with any vigor. This can make them especially hard to catch. In early season, often the water temperatures are low in the morning, however spring is also blessed with long days in this part of the world. The river will begin to warm from mid-morning right through to early evening. Somewhere in that window, the water will get to the optimum temperature for the fish, and they will start to feed with enthusiasm.

In my experience, that window for feeding is often in the late afternoon. If you want to make the most of that window, you are best to start your day on the water later than usual. At times, I’ll delay hitting the river until 10am but then fish hard out until last light. This is a tactic that many of NZ’s best guides use to great effect, and it just so happens that you also get a mini sleep-in as a bycatch!

Another strategy to extract the most out of the last part of the day, is to walk downstream during the morning and then fish your way back upstream to the hut or your car. This means you’ll be able to fish those last few hours rather than be hiking back to base. A good walk in the morning is also a great way to warm up on the often bitterly cold mornings in October and November.

Using morning for walking can give the water time to warm a little.

Personally, the spring period is my favourite time to fish in the South Island and hopefully these few simple but very effective tips can help you step out of your comfort zone and take on the challenge.


 At this time of year, the wind and cold seems to drain you of energy quickly. Having good clothing is essential and a layer system that works for you is important. Staying warm and comfortable will mean you are ready when your chance at a trophy presents itself. I’d rather spend big on the right clothes than on tackle, because if you can’t feel your hands, then even the best rod in the world won’t be of much use to you.

 I’ve used Simms clothing for over a decade now and can’t fault it, they are the gold standard in flyfishing apparel. For early season in the South Island, I’m using a thermal layer for top and bottom, then Simms G4 waders with a shirt and Simms Exstream puffer jacket with the final layer my trusty Simms G4 jacket. This combination has worked really well for me in even the harshest early season weather. Throw in a pair of fingerless gloves and a beanie just in case.

Dressed up.

FLYSTREAM FACTS: Reygaert’s Early Season Flies (Go Big)

Simons Ugly Green/Red, size 10

Kyle’s Creeper, size 8

Squirmy Worm (red, pink, orange), size 8

Galloup’s Sex Dungeon, size 2

Dore’s Glister, size 4

Worms and big wets.