Footprints & Orange Peel

Ask any experienced South Islander about the fishing in late March and they’ll probably describe it as ‘tough’. With the rivers low and clear late in the season the resident browns are at their spookiest. By the end of summer most of the accessible fish in the popular streams have been disturbed on a regular basis and some will have felt the sting of a hook or two. I’ve never subscribed to the increasingly popular ‘intelligent trout’ thesis but I can tell you that quite a few ‘sitters’ encountered on this trip seemed more than a little gun shy. These fish, it seemed, had Degrees in Cunning from Cunning University.

My approach to sight-fishing in the clear fast waters of the South Island has generally involved a robust Royal Wulff or Parachute Adams in tandem with a size 14 bead head nymph, and I was armed with a good selection of variants on the Hare and Copper, Pheasant Tail and Flashback themes. Adjustments in the weight of nymph and length of connection (to allow for variations in depth and flow) were as technical as things got. The real skill was in reading the water and spotting the fish—the hunt. A well-placed cast, upstream in front of the fish, and a short drag-free drift was normally good enough to complete the formalities. A bad cast and it was all over; a good cast and the fish would invariably have a go at the fly. 

TRACKER GUIDES

Based at Owen River Lodge we had dozens of freestone streams from which to choose, all fishable and within an hour’s drive. Even better, we had harnessed the lodge’s best guides for four days, and the weather was absolutely perfect. No howling nor’-westers, no black clouds, no driving rain; just warm days and blue skies all the way.

I know not everyone can afford guides, but if you can, I highly recommend them. You’ll learn more in a day with a guide than you will in a month on your own, and you may even catch a few fish. They know the rivers intimately—where to gain access, where to find the fish, what to use—and their sight-fishing skills are often exceptional. But this trip demonstrated yet another guiding prerequisite. Before driving down riverside tracks they would examine the ground, sniff the air and search for broken twigs. On soft sand along the riverbanks they would study footprints with a native cunning normally associated with Aboriginal trackers or faithful American Indians.

LATE SEASON PARANOIA

All this concern about who’d fished where and when might, I concede, have some scientific relevance if you have read John Hayes’ research papers on angling pressure and its effect on sight-fishing in backcountry streams, but I’m beginning to think that the whole country has become obsessively paranoid about the impact of visiting anglers. Aussie do-it-yourselfers and their ilk from other countries are increasingly branded as destroyers of sensitive fisheries. 

Don’t get me wrong. I understand their concern and if I were a guide I wouldn’t want to be following anoth-er group of anglers—skilled or otherwise—up a crystal clear backcountry stream. It makes sense to rest water for as long as possible between vis-
its to allow the fish to regain their composure. In fact, before heading through to Murchison I had fished a spring creek on the West Coast near Hokitika with a couple of unguided Aussie mates. A mutual Kiwi friend had introduced them to the creek a few days earlier and they’d caught and released five big browns on their first visit. They took me to the same beat without hesitation and it was, undeniably, a magnificent stretch of water. I did catch a nice fish on a drifted nymph but shared their disappointment when most of the places where they’d seen fish previously were suspiciously devoid of residents. It had all the hallmarks of a stream that had been ‘hammered’. 

I politely suggested that it was a ‘once-a-week fishery’ that needed to be rested, and that perhaps this was demonstrated by their scores of 5, 0, 0 and 1 on successive days. 

ENDLESS LEADERS

Fast-forward to a tributary of the Motueka River under the tutelage of an experienced guide, and I had, as always, decided to observe, follow and obey. If I hire a guide, I let him take me fishing. A desire to keep Bill’s camera bag out of the water was the only constraint we had set.

The first response from our guide on the day was to extend my spring-creek leader to twice the length of my rod. That was 18 feet of leader for starters, connected to a #14 Parachute Adams, with a further 3 feet to a size 16 tungsten bead-head nymph. Bill’s little Delatite stream rod was only 7 ft 9 inches long, and he ended up with a leader nearly two-and-a-half times the length of his rod—further than he would normally cast on small streams back home. Four-pound fluorocarbon was the tippet of choice.

As the guide explained, the long leader allows you a more or less direct approach up and over the head of the fish with little chance of it being spooked by the falling fly-line. It all made perfect sense, except that it was a dog to cast, especially on a short line with the rod not fully loaded. The leader and multiple flies also created some management issues when scrambling through the blackberries and matagouri bushes. I like to hold the fly in one hand with enough line outside the rod tip to make a quick cast—but with tandem flies on such a long leader, this was not possible. 

I had spent all summer casting single dries to polaroided lake-fish using a 10–12 ft leader, and likewise Bill was accustomed to fishing dries on even shorter leaders back home. Even when we didn’t fish like total klutzes and managed the perfect drift over one of those dark shapes swinging seductively in the current, we soon realised that a take was no formality. Repeated head-shakes and gasps of frustration from our guide were followed by what became a predictable response: “We’ll have to go smaller, and finer.”

A quick extension to the leader added a second trailing nymph—an impossibly small and sparse size 18. That’s 18 feet plus 3 plus another 2 feet of leader I kept telling myself as I made undignified attempts to land the whole caboodle six feet or so upstream of the next fish we spotted. This one had its nose resting behind the whitest rock in the run, just so it could give my passing flies an even closer inspection in the gin-clear water. 

TEN FEET TOO LONG

Invariably I over-shot the mark on my first attempt and this would be met by a predictable grumble from the guide: “Ten feet too long.”

“Der,” I was thinking as I struggled to compensate for the extra 10 feet of leader. Mental note for next article: an experienced caster judges casting distance by the feel of the weight of line being aerialised outside the rod tip, not by watching a size 18 nymph whizzing backwards and forwards through the air!

Anyway, despite the overwhelming pressure of a guide on one shoulder and a photographer up my backside, I did eventually hook a solid fish on day one and was soon reminded of how strong the browns are at the end of March with the water getting cooler and the fish in prime condition prior to spawning. That’s at least one good reason for a late season trip to this part of New Zealand. 

As I steered the trout towards his waiting net, the guide casually mentioned that he couldn’t remember whether he had added a 2 or 3 lb
tippet to the size 18 nymph. That little remark extended the fight by at least another ten minutes. 

Next it was Bill’s turn and he hook-ed something considerably bigger on a fly that was even smaller. His short little stream rod was bent like a pretzel with the fish in denial that it had actually been hooked. Even the guide throwing rocks to shift it off the bottom, and threatening to swim out and dive under to net it, failed to reduce the fight time to less than 30 minutes. At seven-and-a-half pounds it wasn’t a bad fish, and Bill’s biggest ever trout. Maybe that qualifies as a second reason to fish the top of the South Island at this time of year.

REGULARLY DISTURBED

At our request the next day was planned around catching more fish, rather than chasing what I regard as a largely guide-driven ‘ten pound dream’, and we ended up on a popular, public-access stretch of the ‘Mot’ (Motueka River). By late March this beat must have seen more anglers than an inner city tackle shop, so half a dozen fish to 5 lb from the first run at 10 in the morning seemed a surprisingly good result. It also vindicated my belief that visiting anglers practising catch and release can’t be doing too much damage to productive trout waters in this part of the world. Maybe it supported that other Hayes’ research ‘finding’, that trout behaviour may be less affected by angling pressure on more heavily fished waters—i.e. they may even adapt to regular disturbance by anglers.

On this day I learnt that not only did I have to unroll two tungsten-bead micro-nymphs and a woollen strike indicator on an impossibly long leader, but I had to ‘check’ the cast to get everything falling correctly into place; and maybe even wriggle the rod tip a little to throw some curves in the line to delay drag. Oh, yes, and don’t forget to mend!

Bill likewise copped a lecture on not being a klutz when presenting a size 18 dry-fly on a 20-ft leader to a sipper under overhanging vegetation on the nearside bank. He responded profoundly by suggesting that fly fishing wouldn’t be so much fun if we were actually good at it. At least I thought it was funny. 

The lesson for the day was that you don’t need a bloodhound or a GPS or a helicopter to catch plenty of 4 and 5 lb trout in this part of New Zealand. All we needed was a Fish & Game access sign, a conveniently placed fence stile, some nice looking water and a sandy bank with so many footprints that we didn’t know whether we were coming or going. There was even some bloke swimming his dogs on the other side of our most productive run!

THE ORANGE PEEL INCIDENT

Next day was back to those elusive trophy fish amidst the beautiful surrounds of a beech forest gorge in the Kahurangi National Park. It was a day best remembered for ‘the orange peel incident’ and later for ‘that photo’.

The fresh piece of orange peel that Bill noticed among the polished river stones went a fair way towards explaining why we had not seen a fish before 2 p.m. By this time we had lugged Bill’s camera gear over a marathon course of slippery boulders with the guide becoming increasingly stressed about not finding any trout on a day when he knew that his clients could at least cast.

The orange peel confirmed his worst fear that our secret creek had been violated by a recent visit and the fish were off somewhere having therapy. 

‘That photo’ confirmed our guide’s spontaneous joy when, after retreating downstream to a more accessible river, we did eventually find a fish that I was capable of catching.

PRESSURED WATER

Our last day involved a lot more track sniffing and footprint examination on a west-flowing tributary of the Buller. This time we did see fish—big fish, and plenty of them—but our smallest nymphs and best-behaved presentations were steadfastly ignored. It certainly smacked of ‘pressured water’ as merely disturbing one fish in a run would set off a chain reaction that sent others scurrying for cover. The ‘intelligent trout’ doctrine was definitely gaining momentum until Bill’s final act, when a massive stonefly nymph fished under an indicator on a thankfully short leader produced seven pounds of angry trout, saving the guide’s considerable reputation in the dying minutes of the day. 

As we scrambled our way back via a little used Hobbit track through the dark, moss-drenched forest, we were mentally kicking ourselves for not having tried something big and bold much earlier in the day. Had we all fallen for the propaganda about educated late-season trout demanding ridiculously small flies? Perhaps these XOS browns were just on the lookout for a decent feed . . . 

While I was pondering and debating such unresolved mysteries and weighing up the pros and cons of fishing the top of the South Island so late in the season, Bill was quietly taking photos and capturing more than enough reasons to visit this part of New Zealand at any time of year.

Thanks to Felix and his staff (www.owenriverlodge.co.nz) and guides Steve, Steve and Craig for their patience. 

We promise to try harder next time.

From FlyLife Issue 48.