Nick wonders why the amazing stillwaters of New Zealand’s South Island are so often overlooked.
Dan had travelled over half the circumference of the globe to be here, so I could hardly begrudge him the satisfied grin that had slowly spread across his face as he powered the dingy back to camp. We were in the backblocks of a Fiordland lake and had just finished an action-packed session on some chunky rainbows, the highlight of which was Dan’s 7 pounder; easily the largest rainbow he had ever caught. On the way back to the boat ramp, Dan asked me why we were the only boat on the lake when the fishing was this good? I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for him then – and I still don’t now!
Stillwaters that, if they were anywhere else, would be heavily fished, go practically ignored by flyfishers. Perhaps it’s just a symptom of having one of the best river trout fisheries in the world.
The larger water bodies of the South Island all hold trout and mostly in good numbers. Some of these lakes are massive: Wakatipu, Te Anua, Manapouri, Hawea to name but a few. However plenty of the smaller lakes also carry a good stock of trout. As a general rule, if a lake has a river flowing out of it or into it, then it probably carries a reasonable head of trout. The South Island fishing regulations handbook is a great reference for checking if waterways hold trout. If a water cracks a mention in there, it almost certainly has fish.
I’ve used the term ‘stillwater’ in this article rather than lake, because there are numerous small ponds/ backwaters/ oxbows/ lagoons, etc. which have great fishing but may not even have a name. To say there’s a lifetime of fishing on these South Island stillwaters is an understatement. If Benjamin Button was a flyfisher, even he would have his work cut out for him, such is the extent of the opportunities available.
Compared to the relatively intimate environment of a river, the vast expanses of a stillwater can 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. It’s really not that complicated.
When fishing a stillwater for the first time, look for places which will hold high concentrations of trout and focus your energy on these. Hotspots include river mouths, weedbeds, and shallow banks near deep water. Remember, each lake will have different characteristics and therefore different food sources for the trout within.
By far the greatest challenge facing the stillwater angler in the South Island, is to resist the temptation to fish the rivers! I think this is especially so for the visiting angler with a limited number of days. It is a massive call to go to an unknown lake fishery on a perfect blue-sky day, when you know your favourite river will be firing.
My observations are that most anglers fish stillwaters here as a fallback when all the rivers are blown out. This is usually as a cold front passes over the island with the copious amounts of rain and wind that often accompany it. Therefore, the stillwaters are fished when they are at their very worst. Hence, they don’t get the accolades they deserve. If you really want to see how good a fishery is, you should go on a blue-sky day with no wind.
Summertime provides perfect conditions for enjoying dry fly fishing on stillwaters. Conversely, I find spring to be a difficult season to fish these waters. The trout are often cruising in the shallows, but they can be very hard to tempt. Then, as summer arrives, the water warms up and trout feeding activity with it. Terrestrial insect activity also ramps up and the trout are totally dialled into this new food supply. Beetles and blowflies keep the action flowing but when the cicadas hit the water in late January, things really take off.
Another advantage of summer is the long hours of sunlight available. With the sun high in the summer sky, and you have perfect spotting conditions for many hours of the day.
If the stillwater has large weedbeds, it is almost guaranteed to have good numbers of damsel and dragonfly nymphs. Trout predate heavily on these excellent sources of protein. Damselflies will hatch in large numbers during warm, calm weather in January and February. The trout can become fixated on them, launching into the air to grab the big insects as they fly just above the surface. While this can provide exciting sight-fishing, these trout can often be hard to fool. They are so focused on the adult damsels above the water, they will ignore an imitation fished on the surface.
If fishing all day isn’t enough, warm summer nights can also provide excellent opportunities – especially on larger lakes. The biggest trout are often nocturnal feeders, and stripping a mouse pattern slowly across a calm lake surface will draw their attention from a long way off. The explosive takes will stay in your memory.
The sight-fishing that is so gratifying to the river angler can certainly be experienced on stillwaters, especially in sandy bays and along rocky shores. Brown trout in particular will swim in very shallow water when feeding; often just a few centimetres from the bank. Ambushing cruising fish is as challenging and exciting as any river sport. These trout are not easy and have plenty of time to inspect your offering.
Once a target is found cruising along the shoreline, the angler must get well in front of it to set an ambush. Make a cast to an area which will be intercepted by the advancing fish. Once the fish nears the fly, give it a few twitches. This simulation of nervous or fleeing prey will often draw the trout’s attention.
Access and transport
Access and transport are vital ingredients for successfully fishing the larger lakes. You need to be able to move around to find the fish as they will often be in different parts of the waterway depending on conditions.
A boat can really open up the angling possibilities. Boats give you the ability to access remote areas as well as the chance to fish steep shorelines. Travelling anglers have the option of hiring boats from many of the urban centres. This takes some planning, but it will get you in the game. Many of the larger lakes also have boat transport options which can take you to places which are close to impossible to access otherwise.
Rafts and kayaks are very handy, especially on smaller bodies of water. I have two Waterstrider one man rafts which are made by Incept in the North Island. They are perfect to fish out of and also very handy for accessing different shores. I also have a full size, three man NRS raft which is a dream to fish from, although at close to 100kg, it is not an option to carry in anywhere. The last few years the Alpacka rafts have become very popular and are a great option for travelling anglers as they are lightweight and pack down very small.
Over the last decade I have dedicated a fair chunk of my angling season to adventuring deep into Fiordland and exploring the stillwaters of this vast wilderness. While the rivers in Fiordland are great trout fisheries, they can often be fickle due to their susceptibility to large-scale flooding events. The lakes are often the retreat position for many trout and as a result, they tend to be much more consistent than the streams. All the lakes I’ve fished in Fiordland are crystal clear and in summer produce outstanding sight-fishing on dry flies. Terrestrial insects make up a large portion of the trout diet here and the fish go wild in cicada season, even though it only lasts a few weeks each summer. A Fiordland brown trout swimming just under the surface hunting cicadas is one of the great sights in flyfishing. I’ve seen them so fired up, they will eat a small bit of twig thrown onto the water.
In such an enormous expanse of wilderness, access is always going to be your greatest challenge. Lately, I’ve opted to use helicopters to reach these places. Flying vs walking means we can bring rafts or kayaks, which in turn means we can move around and fish different shores at will. The lakes often have flat, grassy shores which are perfect for camping and an absolute luxury in Fiordland. Flying and rafting also enables you to bring chilly-bins (eskies), real food and maybe a cheeky bottle of wine – this is adventure fishing at its finest!
If you are an overseas angler who loves to fish NZ, this article may be a source of frustration – COVID has kept many anglers away from this amazing fishery. But it won’t last forever (I was saying that 2 years ago!). Use this time to pore over maps and select the stillwaters that take your fancy, do your research and make plans. Preparations are the biggest part of being successful on South Island stillwaters, so when the borders finally open, you’ll be ready to experience one of the great, unpressured trout fisheries of the world.
FLYSTREAM FACTS – Some stillwater options
To whet your stillwater appetite, let me mention just a few of the options I regularly enjoy down this way – a tiny fraction of what is on offer.
Lake Ohau – One of the main lakes in the Mackenzie Country. It’s a huge bit of water, but it holds an excellent population of browns and rainbows which cruise the shallows. The head of the lake, where two major river systems enter, is always a great place to fish. Numerous backwaters and shallow bays can yield some big trout which will readily slurp down a cicada or blowfly imitation.
Lake Sylvan – This small lake in the backcountry behind Glenorchy is quite hard to fish from the shore, as it’s entirely surrounded by beech forest. I hike my Waterstrider raft in, which opens up the entire lake. It is stuffed full of small to medium brown trout that launch themselves at dry flies. This fishery is completely unpressured and a nice elixir for the soul.
Lake Monowai – A Fiordland lake with a reputation for producing very large brown trout. Access is by boat or kayak (it is small enough to safely kayak around but be aware of the weather). My tactic is to sight-fish the shallows in the afternoon, then retire to a lakeside hut for coffee and food before heading back out and fishing through the evening and into the night. Stripping mouse patterns amongst drowned timber in the last light of a summer evening can produce heart-stopping takes from huge trout.
Lake Waituna – This shallow coastal lagoon which occasionally opens to the sea holds a good population of brown trout that are usually in great condition. Weed proliferates in the warmer months, making it challenging to fish, but the trout are still there and feeding hard. It is very difficult to get good sight-fishing conditions due to the coastal cloud which plagues this area, but the trout often give themselves away as they swirl after baitfish. A well-placed streamer invariably gets a response.
Aparima backwaters – The Aparima River is a well-known trout fishery in Southland. However, a number of gravel extraction operations in its lower and middle reaches create lesser-known pits that fill up with water and become bolt-holes for trout in flood conditions. Trout live in these ponds year round, and often the biggest fish in the system call them home. Sunken beetle imitations fished on long tippets and well ahead of cruising fish, are deadly.
Loganburn Reservoir – This is a tannin-coloured lake situated in the alpine tops of the Rock and Pillar Range in the Otago backcountry. The scenery is spectacular. The lake holds really well-conditioned brown trout which can be hard to tempt. The highlight of the angling year is when small tussock cicadas start to hit the water in early February. The fish respond with gusto and slurp cicadas with reckless abandon. Loganburn holds some of the hardest fighting brown trout you’ll ever encounter.