Fiordland Salt Fly

The lower South Island of New Zealand is justifiably famous for its trout fishing, but saltwater fly fishing down this way has never really taken off. The reasons are manyfold, with cold-water species that don’t naturally lend themselves to the fly, a lack of large harbours and flats, and some pretty hostile weather all colluding to keep salt fly off the radar in these parts. Despite this, a small crew of South Islanders have quietly been going about their business and achieving some sustained success. I’m fortunate that I get to meet many of these folk when I tour the country with the RISE Fly Fishing Film Festival. The stories of their successes fired me up to give salt fly a concerted crack in my home base of Fiordland. Located in the southwestern corner of the South Island, Fiordland is home to some of the country’s most dramatic scenery; a massive expanse of wilderness where mountains plunge steeply into the sea and rainfall is measured in metres. The scale of the place is almost beyond comprehension and the scenery is equally ominous and inspiring. The entire South Island experienced a very dry spring and summer this past 12 months and while this wasn’t great news for the farmers it did provide the perfect conditions for extended fishing trips into Fiordland. I was lucky enough to manage several trips and each one was a unique and exhilarating experience. One thing I learned over the course of those trips was that the fiords, or more specifically the water within them, change temperature and salinity markedly according to the prevailing conditions. Predictably, this has a big effect on fish species and their distribution. It was a massive learning curve and I’d be naive to think that I have any kind of proper handle on it just yet. Equipment Given the terrain and difficulty of access it was plainly obvious that a boat was required to properly explore the area. I decided that a new boat and motor were in order and safety was very much at the forefront of my decision-making. Stabicraft has been making boats in Invercargill for three decades, so I figured that if anyone makes a trailer boat capable of taking on Fiordland it would be them. I settled on the Stabicraft 1600 Frontier, a 16-ft aluminium centre console, just big enough to handle the rough stuff and also small enough to comfortably tow behind a regular 4WD through numerous mountain passes. I didn’t want an underpowered boat so I went for the upper limit and put an 80 hp 4-stroke Honda engine on the back. After adding a quality chart plotter and marine radio, the good ship Pure Fly was ready for action. Kingfish Kingfish, in many ways, are the stars of the show in the Fiordland sports fishery. They grow big, pull hard, look stunning and take a fly joyfully. Understanding when and why they turn up in the area allows us to appreciate the importance of water temperature and how that affects our prospects of catching fish on fly. The main handicap for saltwater fly anglers in the fiords is the average depth of the water — in the middle of a fiord we are regularly sounding 150 metres plus of water depth. To target fish on fly we really need them to be in less than 10 metres of water, preferably in the top five metres. The majority of kiwi sportfish species that hunt in the upper water column prefer water temperatures above 15 degrees. Through the long South Island winter, water temperatures are usually in the 8–12 degree range, but luckily, as spring kicks in, a warm-water current starts to move its way down the South Island’s West Coast. Kingfish are often moving with this warmer water, keen to explore and exploit new concentrations of baitfish. When the kingfish turn up you know that the kahawai, skipjack, albacore and bluefin tuna should not be far behind. While the capture of kingfish in the fiords has been documented for decades, this past summer was exceptional in terms of the sheer number of kingfish present and also that they were around from October right until the end of May. While the vast majority were rats — fish between 65 and 85 cm — there were also quite a few fish that were considerably bigger. On my boat we had a number of fish over 10 kg and saw a few 20 kg plus models landed on other boats. The scale of the fiords is pretty overwhelming but if you apply the same principles to these kingfish as everywhere else — good structure with plenty of current — it soon becomes apparent where the hot spots are. All sorts of techniques worked for us during the summer, although the one that definitely didn’t work was blind casting at structure — there is just too much water to cover, and throwing a 12-weight for hour after hour just destroys the experience. We found that trolling bibbed minnows until we hit fish was the most effective way to locate kingfish. We would then switch to the fly outfit. That might seem like cheating, but beats the hell out of hours of blind flogging. We also had success with a light berley trail, and on one occasion pulled a small kingfish off a marker buoy. The absolute highlight though was finding large schools of kingfish working baitfish, when a popper and floating line would bring multiple hits and heart in mouth action. Skipjack Tuna Late in the summer, when the sea temperature peaked, the fiords had some unusual but very welcome visitors. It was the first day of a spell of settled weather. Jeff Foresee and I had made the long drive into Milford Sound in darkness and launched the boat as the first rays of sun were breaking through to warm the fiord. It felt like it was going to be a fishy kind of day. We had heard stories of kingfish captured in the preceding week so our spirits were high. The mouth of the fiord is more than 20 km from the boat ramp so by the time we had made it out there the day was beginning to warm nicely. Nearing Dale Point we noticed a large number of birds working. My first thought was kingfish and the pulse began to race. As we neared the melee it became apparent that the fish working the bait were not kingfish but some kind of tuna. As one burst from the water, the distinct horizontal lines towards the tail confirmed that they were skipjack. Skipjack tuna are a highly migratory species found worldwide in tropical and subtropical waters, usually preferring the warmer surface waters. New Zealand is the southern limit of the skipjack tuna migration and they are common in the North Island through summer. However, chatting to the local professional fishermen it would seem that they are only occasionally seen in the waters around Fiordland. Dick Marquand, who sport fished these waters extensively in ’80s and ’90s, confirmed that skipjack were a rare catch in those days too. The unusually high water temperatures had certainly contributed to the large numbers of skipjack around and with plenty of bait on offer they stayed for a good number of weeks. I had multiple long days on the water in near perfect, glassed-out conditions fishing in a light shirt and targeting busting tuna on small flies surrounded by the magnificence of the Fiordland mountains — it was a surreal experience. Kahawai Arripis trutta, known as kahawai in New Zealand (Australian salmon across the ditch) are a bread and butter sportfish here. They are caught in good numbers around the top of the South Island and down the West Coast. Even the East Coast, which tends to have lower water temperatures, is a consistent producer of large schools of kahawai especially around the river mouths of the larger systems (FL#81). Strangely enough, Fiordland generally does not attract large schools of kahawai, with small pods more commonly encountered. This summer was an exception to that rule. When the skippies turned up, big schools of large kahawai were in tandem. Exceptional fly fishing for surface feeding kawahai followed for many weeks. Albacore Albacore are Fiordland regulars, usually turning up in mid-January and staying around for a few months. They are very much a pelagic species and hunt in water depths over one hundred metres. They rarely enter the fiords so to encounter them you need to go outside to at least a kilometre offshore. Again the best method to find albacore is to troll hookless skirts or lures until you find the fish. Once you hit a patch you can bait and switch or establish a berley trail. I have seen albacore hitting baitfish on the surface, so given the right conditions — a flat sea being the most important — sight casting could be a possibility. While there are usually plenty of albacore around I have not had great success on fly with the species. I’ve had them in the berley trail but couldn’t get them to eat the fly. Aaron Horrell of Cromwell has been targeting albacore on fly for many years out of Haast and has had a lot of success so they are certainly a target species. Odds and Ends The fiords seem to act like a safe haven for many different species as they push their way up and down the coast. One day we happened upon a school of very large jack mackerel that were rounding up bait. They were great fun on the 8-weight. Blue cod will also hit a fly but you have to get it right onto the bottom for them to have a crack. They are not the best fighting fish but they sure taste great and I have a soft spot for them. Blue cod regularly get up to 4 kg in the more remote parts and when they are that big they will pull a bit of line. Barracouta are regularly encountered — often bust-ups that we hoped were kingfish turned out to be barracouta. While they are much maligned by South Island anglers, they put up a reasonable scrap and provide a bit of action between the more desirable species. Just don’t take them home, as their flesh will inevitably be full of worms and inedible. Safety Whenever writing an article intended to inspire I feel it should always be tempered with caution about the reality that anglers will face on a similar adventure. In the case of Fiordland that reality is a stark one. This is an extremely remote and wild place that lies right in the teeth of the Roaring Forties. The wind is a constant threat even on the calmest of days. The sheer mountain ranges that surround the coast exacerbate the power of the wind — even an afternoon katabatic wind here can whip the inside of a fiord into a milkshake of foam and wind. If you come here, be prepared for the worst. Engine failure is the most unanticipated threat. Ordinarily in such a situation you would throw the anchor over but here you might be in 70 metres of water just 20 metres from the shore. Ultimately the safest way is to always fish with another boat within radio distance. All the usual safety devices are non-negotiable for a Fiordland trip — a good radio with a large antenna, plenty of life jackets and EPIRBs. The Future While it has been an exciting summer of discovery for me, I have so much more to learn to be able to consistently catch fish on fly around Fiordland. There are certainly periods, especially after heavy rain, when you are pretty much wasting your time. Learning when to go in order to target the most productive periods will probably be the next big step forward. There is also much work to be done to crack the code on a few species that are common in the fiords and have great fly potential. The one that gets me most excited is the blue moki (Latridopsis ciliaris), a close relative of the striped trumpeter that lives along the coast in relatively shallow water, feeds on crustaceans and can grow to 10 kg. Expat South African angler J.P. Samuelson has caught a number of blue moki off the Kaikoura coast on shrimp flies, which is very encouraging, although he tells me they are extremely fussy feeders. The professional crayfishermen are a great source of inspiration and information about the area. One of their Fiordland legends is of large hapuka coming into shallow water around waterfalls and river mouths to rid themselves of gill parasites. It is always recalled with a twinkle in the eye so each story needs to be taken with a grain of salt, but I’ve heard it enough times to believe that there is some truth to it. I’ve hooked hapuka on conventional gear and couldn’t believe how powerful they were. Sam Mossman caught one on fly out of Milford in the early ’90s in around 20 metres of water. For me, a hapuku on fly in less than 5 metres of water would be the absolute zenith of the Fiordland salt fly experience. Fiordland is probably the most inconsistent saltwater fishery I’ve ever put time into. It blew hot and cold for the whole summer. There were days when the inner fiords seemed totally devoid of life and we were lucky to scrape a couple of blue cod for a whole day’s fishing. Yet on other days the whole system was bursting with baitfish and marauding predators. Luckily a trip into the fiords rarely feels like a waste of a day and the fish are truly the icing on a pretty spectacular cake.

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