Hard Time Tactics

Bob Wyatt rises to the challenge of the South Island's farmland streams.

by Thursday, 21 September 2017

89Hard Time Tactics2We see a lot of excited reporting of how good the trout fishing is in New Zealand’s South Island, and most of it is true. By any standard the trout streams are right up there among the finest in the world. There’s just no question of that. Sure, there are still places in the world, very hard to get to and extremely expensive, that will provide an experience somewhat like the way it was fifty years ago, but that’s a rare thing most of us won’t see.

The South Island is accessible to the ‘ordinary angler’, whatever that means. One thing it means is that resident Kiwis and visiting anglers of more or less ordinary means can get good fishing without pricey guides and lodges. It’s been a boon to visiting anglers from Australia, for example, who generally regard New Zealand as an important part of their annual fishing program. Cheap fares and good contacts make it an easy option for some great fishing, especially on the well-known and increasingly busy rivers such as the Mataura.

This is all good; if everyone behaves themselves there is still plenty of room and lots of fish for everyone. Kiwis grumble about the sometimes heavy fishing pressure, and they can be forgiven. Anyone would feel the same. But that’s only a part of the deal over here. The real issue is not the loss of easy fishing, but the need for more angling skill. The superb fishing available on South Island streams is sometimes only accessible to those that can really fish

The early season is generally pretty easy going. Up to Christmas, angling pressure on the South Island is still relatively light, the mayflies are hatching, and the trout are on the chew. A pair of weighted nymphs drifted through the riffles under an indicator will put a lot of trout in the net. Your ‘ordinary’ unguided angler with basic skills can get some truly great fly fishing. Equipped with the great gear we have these days, and informed by the wealth of fly fishing information available on the Internet, you can arrive with high expectations and expect to realise at least some of them. 

As the mayfly hatches wind down and if weather is agreeable, the cicada shows up — several bush varieties and the tussock cicada. This hatch makes for some of the easiest fly fishing you will find anywhere. Get a fly out on the water somewhere and a trout will usually find it. In fact I know a couple of guys who do just that. Their casting sort of plateaued about the time they hit puberty, and the job involves little more than somehow getting a thirty footer out there among the rising fish and waiting. Basically your worm fishing strategy. It produces plenty of trout because the trout’s foraging situation favours it. 

TOO HARD

As summer progresses things begin to get a bit trickier. While the trout have been gorging on fat cicadas on the lakes and backcountry streams, the wily, sophisticated, educated, pressured, whatever, fish of the lowlands have been concentrating on another food source, the willow grub. This coincides with the influx of most of our visiting anglers. The hot summer days of January and February make for excellent, if demanding, opportunities for those with a more developed skill set, but for many anglers, fly fishing is suddenly in the too hard box. I’ve seen several visiting anglers, and not a few Kiwis, end a long planned for trip completely bemused by the unexpected difficulty of catching these farmland trout. 

When faced with the on-stream realities of these tough situations, all that theory seems to evaporate, and no amount of fly changing seems to help. There are only two possible explanations. One is that we’re just crap anglers, which one can plainly see just isn’t the case. Just suit up, put on your game face, and look in the mirror. No way, right? 

The real reason, we all agree, must be fishing pressure. Our eyes begin to narrow as we seek to apportion blame. A blame target is usually available, some small satisfaction, maybe, but we’re still skunked. It’s one reason why the backcountry streams with those big, spooky, but generally accommodating trout are so attractive. The trout, especially if one is guided by someone who knows where they live, are simply easier to catch with basic fly fishing skills. The only real problem facing you is another party spooking the fish upstream — just a workaround for a good guide.

I’m friends with a few fishing guides, all of whom are excellent anglers. It might surprise you to know that after a full season of watching visiting anglers screw up, what many of the guides do for some R&R is to go fishing. And where they go isn’t the pool and rapid backountry rivers, it’s the gentle gradient streams of the farmlands. The interest lies not in the size of the fish, which usually run two to three pounds or so, but in the demands they make on one’s angling skills. It’s no place for training wheels. 

WILLOW GRUB TIME

Between the early season mayfly hatches and the somewhat unreliable, weather-dependent cicada emergence,
there are the brown grass beetle and green manuka beetle hatches, which provide some relief. But there’s just one main game on the lowland rivers — the willow grub. You either love it or leave it. The experienced fishers I know love it. If you can catch willow grubbing trout with any frequency you can confidently bark with the big dogs. This isn’t about nutting out another sure fire killer willow grub pattern at the tying bench. It’s about casting and presentation skill,
period. 

The really interesting thing about willow grub feeders is they aren’t particularly spooky. This gives us plenty of shots and repeated chances to make good on poor presentations. With one of the many proven willow grub patterns this is probably the best of all situations for someone intending to raise their presentation game. Believe me, it will serve you well all through the season, and especially for those tough autumn spent-spinner feeders. Once you have mastered a few flat-water presentation tactics on willow grubbers and mayfly spinner feeders, trout fishing generally just gets better.

CASTING SKILLS

Good fly fishing is based on good fly casting. If there’s one piece of advice to offer anyone starting to get serious about fly fishing, it’s to enjoy your hours tying flies but spend more time outside in some casting practice. And that doesn’t mean distance casting. Get two men on a park lawn with a fly rod and you are immediately witnessing a contest — two middle aged idiots with flushed faces attempting to bust out hundred footers with their 5-weights. It’s a guy thing. We just can’t help it. 

Distance casting practice can of course be a good thing, especially if you are a lake or saltwater angler. But it will give you absolutely no advantage when faced with a willow grubber at twenty feet, which is precisely what you’ll be doing in high summer on a trout stream. You quickly realise that you should have buttoned off on the power just a tad, and spent a few minutes on that bum roll cast of yours, maybe combined with a slipping reach mend. By the way, if you don’t have that little move in your casting repertoir the hottest willow grub pattern on the planet won’t help you. 

There are other casting moves to raise your short game on ‘difficult’ trout. A couple of sexy single-handed Spey casts are essential for close quarters with little or no back cast room on the willow lined streams of summer. Having complete control of your casting plane is essential, in order to get that fly under those overhanging willows. That and a slipping reach mend, maybe combined with a dynamic roll or single handed Snap-T. Or a curve cast. You didn’t try those out there in the park did you? 

Just managing these presentation casts is one thing. Managing them with finesse is another. This isn’t about looking good but about not spooking fish. A big splashy roll cast, five or six pointless false casts, or a ripped pickup will put fish down for some time. As mentioned, the good thing about willow grubbers is they are remarkably resistant to being spooked, but even they have limits. If you consistently cast over them or splash your leader near them they eventually go down. Be patient. Give them a few minutes and they come back up. The good anglers I know proceed slowly and are quietly efficient in their casting, always. Less haste is the unspoken mantra. 

Managing drag, of course, is job one (FL#88). If you can’t manage drag you won’t catch fish, except by accident. Some trout are enthusiastic enough to grab a dragging dry fly but as a rule they ignore it. Casting is more than just getting a line out there – it’s positioning your line and leader so the fly drifts naturally over the trout. This goes for wet flies and nymphs too, not just dries, something many anglers forget. A subtle life-imitating drag on a nymph is often a good thing, but for mayflies and willow grubs it’s normally game over.

PLAYING POSITION

The classic approach to a feeding trout is from behind. The old wet fly downstream swing has enjoyed a revival recently, but for those low water mid-to-late season trout it means the fish is likely to see you, and certainly see your line, before or at the same time as it is supposed to be looking at your fly. So we traditionally sneak up on trout from downstream. A high percentage of the undisturbed and feeding trout will be found in the shallow edges of the stream, often in only inches of water. 

It might seem obvious, but if so, why do so many anglers saunter up to the water with their eyes focused at mid-stream? This is a common northern hemisphere thing, on freestone streams with broken surfaces. We can get fish here the same way by concentrating on the riffles, but many anglers, maybe most, begin by standing in water, often no higher than their boot tops, that they should have fished first. Combine this with a hurried progress from pool to pool and you have the recipe for a skunk dinner. Slow and stop is the way. If the phrase ‘watch and learn’ has any meaning at all, it should be applied to fly fishing. By simply standing still for a few minutes before you are within casting range of a pool tail-out you will discover much of what you’ve been missing all these years. 

Of course, if you are fishing with a mate who charges up the river ahead of you it’s a done deal, he will have spooked everything anyway. But avoid the foot race and stay put. The trout, if there is a feeding situation, will soon return to their positions and resume. Be generous. Let your buddy charge ahead. Give him a half hour head start. Chill. Open your eyes.

When you do see that wee snout poke up through the surface just a few feet from where you are quietly sitting, you might still give it a minute or two. Determine its feeding pattern. Plan your approach. If possible drop back, go wide and try to get side-on to the fish. The trouble with the upstream presentation on flat water is that the trout sees the leader first. The straight upstream cast will probably spook him, and even the commonly suggested forty five degrees will often put the leader or its shadow into his window. A side-on approach can keep almost all the leader out of the trout’s scope of vision, especially in shallow water. Try to keep the leader and fly to one side, between you and the trout, not across him. Watch out for line shadow on sunny days, a sure-fire fish spooker. You’ll discover that so-called refusals to the fly are nothing more than avoiding the tippet. This saves a lot of fly anxiety.

If you can’t sneak up to a point side-on to the fish without being seen, try to inch your way into position. The sudden appearance of your bulky figure will send it packing, obviously, but a dead slow sneak will often allow you to get nearly on top of a fish without spooking it. You don’t need the warrior camo and face paint. Keep your rod tip down and to the side, and your arms still. On slick water at a tail-out, cast the moment after the fish rises. The trout’s own disturbance will give your presentation a bit of cover. These little tactics will add at least a couple of the most difficult fish to your bag every trip and maybe save a blank on a tough day. A couple of fish is way better than no fish. Slow down. On those slick glassy pool tails, moving slowly can’t be emphasised enough.

Expanding your casting repertoire with a few competent presentation moves, and learning to quietly insinuate yourself into the stream environment, rather than attack it, will remove several situations from your too hard box. So-called technical fly fishing takes on a different meaning, not so much about the gear but about technique. It becomes more efficient, more productive and, while more demanding, it is totally absorbing and way more fun.

From FlyLife issue 89.