Now You See It

Simon Chu focuses on spotting trout in New Zealand rivers

Working in the fishing travel industry and living between the United States and New Zealand, I am often asked what is special about the NZ fishery. It’s a great question. You can probably catch more trout and sometimes bigger trout in other locations but ease of walk-in access and opportunities to fly fish set New Zealand apart. However, for me the number one is spotting and stalking large trout in clear streams and rivers. Taking these fish on — one on one — is what I believe to be the pinnacle of the NZ trout fishing experience. Beyond the fundamentals of a brimmed hat, polarised glasses and a slow methodical approach, let’s look at some further tips for success when hunting these trout. WHERE TO LOOK Look through the water. Yes — sometimes a rise or ripple will give away a trout but generally they are sub-surface and you must focus below the surface and be looking at bottom contours and contrast. If you cannot see past the glare of the sun, then you need to change your angle. Even a head turn or tilt to the side can make all the difference. Look at parts of the river rather than all of it. Some rivers are daunting, perhaps because of size, speed or depth. Rather than look at the river as a whole, break it up into smaller portions and look into the prime lies first. Prime lies are where a trout can find food and shelter at the same time. The eye of a pool is great real estate, as are slower eddies where a seam converges. The rule ‘foam is home’ will give you an indication of where food is trapped in the current flow. When hunting trout, focus on places where the least amount of effort will generate the best feeding opportunity. I can think of some rivers where trout have particular habits and sometimes these lies can be peculiar to that waterway. Trout sitting in front of boulders is a good example, and on a couple of rivers I know, the browns particularly favour this lie — I always look for a fish or two there. Conversely, on many rivers in the South Island ‘the fish behind the white rock’ is a spot any guide or experienced angler knows only too well. In slow moving pools and backwaters, look for cruising fish. They may be swimming towards you as they search for food, so we need to be extra vigilant with our approach. Systematically scan the pool – looking close first. Keeping your head still until you’ve evaluated an area helps to lower eye-fatigue, and when you spot your fish you can then give it your undivided attention. You will get faster at this as your peripheral vision improves. WHEN TO LOOK Let’s cover the weather conditions in this part — overcast days versus high sun and temperature-based decision points. Understanding which rivers to choose, when, can really help with your spotting success. Cloudy overcast days result in flatter light, and on open rivers this means tough glare. On these days, bush-lined streams and rivers with hilly backdrops or steep gorges yield trout more easily. I like hunting on these rivers on rainy, overcast days, when I can see across the whole river and the contrast between light and shade is reduced. Rivers deep in Fiordland and on the West Coast come to mind. On very sunny days — ‘blue toppers’ — beech-lined forested rivers hide their treasures in dark shade. These are the days to head for the open plains in the high country and the braided rivers of the South Island. Here wind may keep us honest, but the high sun will help spotting immensely and, without shade, the fish will be easier to see, even if hiding deep. Wait for a current window on those deeper pools and look for shadow, movement or shape. If a river is in shadow and you are in bright sun, try moving into the shadow as well. When your eyes adjust you will be able to see much better into the shaded river sections. Seasonal and weather related changes in water temperature are often overlooked. In Montana where temperature swings are very pronounced — from completely frozen rivers to water above 28°C in the summertime — I have learnt to seek out different holding areas depending on the season. In the height of summer, fish seek out highly oxygenated flows, whereas in the colder seasons, slower deeper water will hold more fish. Consider this when walking a river in New Zealand — early season or even after a frosty morning the fish are more likely to start in the pools, and as the day or season warms up they will gravitate to the runs and shallower water. This also occurs when the availability of food increases through the day. Fishing the Mataura in autumn with a well-known South Island angler comes to mind. We started in the riffles but were too early to find fish feeding on nymphs, so we refocused our efforts on the slow deep water. We caught a number of fish before lunch and then as the day progressed and the hatch started, the trout moved into the shallows and started feeding aggressively. It was a wonderful day’s fishing. A trout best metabolises in water temperatures between 11 and 16°C. Keep this in mind when you start looking for fish. On very hot days, slow right down and look carefully in the riffles for trout. I really like that calf-to-waist-deep water where small boulders break up the water hydraulics and provide cover and good food-lanes to fish. I’ve actually taken to carrying a thermometer as part of my overall kit and it is remarkable how much I have learnt about where the fish are. On one local NZ river I’ve found springs where the river has braided and runs underground. It upwells several hundred metres later, providing cold, clean water downstream. Needless to say those pools are full of fish when the summer temperatures are high and the river levels are low. When a trout is in a riffle or fast water, it may seem like you are trying to find the image in one of those Magic Eye books. Don’t fear it. Trout in the faster water are generally feeding and will move more confidently to a well-presented fly. To help you, consider the sun and where your shadow is lying. You will have much better vision if the sun is behind or directly above you. Consider which bank to hunt from, as the side directly facing the sun will always have the most glare and smallest windows to spot fish. I have a pool (Last Chance Pool), which is perfectly set up for a last look and cast. It’s right where I park the car, and with low light and willow backdrop it has saved the day more than once! HOW TO LOOK Go slow, move slow, slow down. Did I say go slowly? So you are walking the bank and staying off the skyline. You are hunting wild trout and, if like me, height challenged. Use rocks or the riverbank to your advantage. My taller friends have an edge when spotting but you can change angles and use bankside resources to gain elevation. Height allows more of the river to be scouted, but the elevated angle can also lessen glare. But please be aware of your silhouette on the skyline. Use cover and try not to perch on the edge of a high bank giving away your position and scaring your quarry. As the day goes on and the sun lowers, standing well back from the edge may also help and allow you to get closer to trout without spooking them. Look for shape, movement and colour. Take a note from bird-watching and use the GISS principle to draw your eye — general impression, size and shape. Confirm your target and watch for movement. It helps to compare your suspected trout with a known stationary object and look for any change in distance between them. Sometimes looking away and then back will help refocus the eye and assist in confirmation. (Hopefully your fish hasn’t swum away!) Different stream substrates may require time for your eyes to adjust. For example, I’ve found when moving from an open greywacke stone river, where white and greens dominate, to a West Coast river with its darker hues and tannin gold colours, my brain has to rethink the cues I am looking for. A great tactic here is to really watch the fish you have just released — note how it melds back into the stream bottom as it swims off. Depending on which side of the river you are on and how the sun is placed, the same fish may project dark, or very light in colour. This relates to whether the sun is reflecting off the fish or creating a shadow. A nice healthy brown will often appear as an elongated green image in the water. You might see this easily with the sun at your back, but that same fish would show as a dark shape from the opposite bank, as it casts a shadow and less light is reflected. Sometimes a trout will give itself away through the flash of its mouth, or a hint of silver in an otherwise deep run. Sometimes the fish is so obvious that you could count the spots on its side. But I’ve cast to countless rocks that I thought were fish. Or sought confirmation from a friend on whether a suspicious shape in the water was a fish or not — we discount it for a rock — only for both of us to watch it swim away… Darn!! I always enjoy a shared adventure and four eyes are always better than two. Hunting, spotting and stalking fish is great fun and a skill that is enhanced with practice. Just remember — if in doubt, cast it out!

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.