Sandflies, Trout & Road-Slugs

Andrew Harding pulls off the ultimate South Island road trip

You’re living the dream Harding! It resonates with my peers all the time, but that’s certainly not the case. An extended New Zealand fly-fishing road trip is within reach of everyone; you just have to make it happen! For me, this year, it meant re-lining the bathroom walls, painting, and spending extra time with the kids before I departed on a month-long trip around the South Island with long-time fishing buddy Dan Thomas.
In fact, we’ve been doing this trip every year — for the last 27 years!
You don’t necessarily have to have a huge budget to pull off the ultimate fly-fishing road trip either; it can be done on the cheap. Of course, a campervan (road-slug) puts you right there with a house on your back, with all the comforts you’ll ever need and more. However, the initial outlay for even a basic self-contained motorhome can run from $20k to half a million. Renting is a more realistic option for most, but don’t expect much change from $3–$4k for 2–3 weeks in the peak season of January through March. After Easter, these rates drop significantly as ‘off-season’ pricing starts. Marry this to one of the best times of the year to fish this country with the least amount of angling pressure — April — and you’ll be in for a fantastic adventure.
A campervan maximises your time on the water. There is no rushing to and from your accommodation, laborious check-ins and check-outs, unloading luggage, and no phoning in advance only to hear the dreaded, sorry we’re full. A ‘house on ya back’ also allows unplanned destination changes. It’s not unusual for Dan and I to have a quick glance at the weather at the end of a day on the river and relocate to greener (and drier) pastures on either side of the Southern Alps. We often drive through the night — when most South Island roads are devoid of traffic — and wake up to a riverside vista with instant access. And often at no cost, due to New Zealand’s excellent and extensive freedom-camping infrastructure for self-contained vehicles. It’s all at your fingertips by way of a mobile app.
Its size, lack of people, and great fishing make the South Island the logical choice, not forgetting the one aspect that seals the deal for me — the utterly breathtaking scenery. Sure, we catch more fish, and often bigger fish, in my home waters of the North Island, but those snow-capped, towering peaks and endless beech-lined river valleys take some beating. They can shove their bloody sandflies though!
Planning a basic itinerary can be a nightmare if you’ve not done this type of trip before — there is simply so much water and so little time — where the hell do you start! One of the best tools you can utilise is John Kent’s South Island Trout Fishing Guide. This book, whilst not always accurate given it’s been many years since an update, provides a great starting point for access to a myriad of rivers and lakes you’ll encounter. Even after doing these trips for 27 years, it’s still a guide we refer to on a daily basis, mostly for access information.
Typically, a quick trip across Cook Strait sees us base ourselves around the top of the south for a few days. I’m not one for naming fragile fisheries — those are rivers that will go to the grave with me — but I’m more than happy to point out the better-known and more productive ones to give you a starting point for your trip.
Nelson is a fly fishers paradise. The fish are large and plentiful, but make no mistake, these fish are hard — very hard — and very pressured. The Wairau Valley, situated out of Blenheim, is a vast, braided system full of trout. Don’t be put off by these seemingly barren, intertwining river braids — the fish are there, and in good numbers and size. Look carefully and you will be rewarded.
From the top of the south you can then enter the vast Reefton catchment — as close to the ‘Wild West’ of bygone days as you’ll get. The Inangahua and its tributaries attract anglers the world over, and for good reason. Some huge browns live here!
A hop, skip and a jump from Reefton is the mighty Maruia. It has a high population of trout with a sandfly population to match! From nearby Springs Junction, you can either scoot east over Lewis Pass into the holy grail of New Zealand trophy waters — the Hope, Boyle, Doubtful, and Lewis (and the subsequently large numbers of anglers they attract!) or perhaps shoot south to the massive Grey River system. Its huge number of tributaries — many being significant fisheries in their own right — offer ample opportunity, whatever the weather.
The Grey District is very freedom-camping friendly, and has a fairly open policy of being able to camp almost anywhere if you are fully self-contained, which you should be! This is a great initiative and often where we spend our money on fuel and food in return.
If the weather turns to poop, don’t overlook the lakes. Head to the Brunner region, one of our staples over the years. Lake Poerua has become a favourite haunt to stalk the most beautifully coloured and marked browns in the country, with excellent shoreline access available from your vehicle, and easy wading. As with many lakes, the uglier the weather, the better the fishing. It’s not uncommon to hit double-digit catches if you’re on your A-game here. Lake Brunner itself, and smaller lakes — Lady and Kangaroo — also offer fantastic stalking opportunities.
Heading south again down the scenic West Coast — my favourite part of the country due to the lack of people, traffic, and its amazing scenery — you can really immerse yourself in the wild, cutting off all contact with the outside world thanks to the lack of phone coverage. The perfect opportunity for some ‘quality time’ away from the pressures of society and grown-up life.
Virtually every river you cross between Greymouth and Haast holds fish; even the ‘no-name’ ones have coughed up some fantastic days for us. Lakes Ianthe, Mapourika, Paringa and Moeraki are all amazing fisheries; the latter three also hold salmon of epic proportions (salmon season closes end of March here). They are a very realistic fly rod target, especially in the weeks leading up to the season close, when salmon gather at the stream mouths in preparation for spawning. They are not hard to spot, aimlessly cruising the flats and drop-offs, their 12–16 lb average bulk often succumbing to a gaudy fly, stripped past their nose.
Lake Moeraki currently has a rogue seal that’s taken up residence in the lake and is wreaking havoc on the salmon and trout population. He (or she) is quite happy to munch on a fresh-run salmon in a taunting manner, barely metres from where you’re fishing.
South of Hokitika you’ll cross many huge, snowmelt rivers that drain the majestic Alps. Whilst the main-stems don’t hold many fish due to their usually turbid water, the numerous unnamed spring creeks that flow into their lower reaches are sensational fisheries, as are the river mouths themselves between October and December when the whitebait are abundant.
Haast is a hunter and fishers paradise. A meal at the ‘Hard Antler’ on a Friday or Saturday night will see you make friends with the farmers who gather for a feed. This is your ticket to private access if you play your cards right and are a bit free with your wallet for a round or two!
The Haast, Turnbull, Okuru, Jackson and Cascade are all amazing fisheries at times, but you’ll need good weather to spot fish, something South Westland isn’t exactly known for.
A quick hop over the deeply chasmed Haast Pass puts you into the upper Makarora, popular with casual anglers due to its easy roadside access. It’s a very good river at times with a large migratory population of browns and rainbows, topped up from Lake Wanaka. The Young and Wilkin tributaries are also majestic rivers of note.
Shooting through to Kingston, by-
passing the tourist mecca of Queenstown, you have access to the upper Mataura, a system that deserves every accolade it receives. A remarkable fishery with surreal stocks of 3–6 lb trout, more than happy to take whatever you throw at them! Leaving the Mataura, you’ll encounter the Waikaia, the Mataura’s poor cousin but equally as good at times. Then the mighty Oreti and Mararoa systems where picture-postcard scenes await, along with substantial angling pressure.
Lumsden is a haven for anglers, with more rivers on tap than you could ever fathom. This is a great spot to base yourself for a few days or even years! Lumsden is an incredibly friendly town to campers of all kinds, the centrally located train station offering free camping, with great facilities to boot. This adoption of freedom-camping for all, basically keeps the town alive. It’s always a hub of activity and the local businesses sure do appreciate your spend.
From Lumsden, you have Southland and Gore… I don’t have the time to type 167,451 words about some of the most trout-rich waters on the planet. This is another article in its own right, so we’ll skip on through to the Pomahaka system. Just fantastic — from lowland to backcountry, this river offers it all! Looping back to Cromwell, you have Lake Dunstan and the Clutha delta if you like to stalk flats-trout like bonefish.
Across the Lindis Pass you’ll arrive in the magnificent Mackenzie Basin. If the world’s largest trout are your thing, hit the canals; if not, try the Ahuriri, Tekapo, Twizel, Grays and Hopkins, plus the numerous lakes and tarns, such as the SH1 roadside accessible Kellands Ponds. These small lakes offer sensational fishing with easy wading — just watch your backcast or you’ll hook a rental car whizzing past.
From Tekapo north, options dwindle somewhat with long straight roads that seemingly go on forever, encompassing the vast Canterbury Plains. The Canterbury high-country has some excellent trophy fisheries that remain closely guarded secrets to those who frequent the area, but as with the West Coast, every river you cross is a good option, as barren as they may look, especially the upper reaches and tributaries of the Rangitata, Rakaia, Hurunui, Waimakariri, Ashley, Waiau and so on.
North of Christchurch lies the small alpine village of Hanmer Springs. I love this town! Its quaint, tree-lined streets remind me of my time living in Canada, and relaxing in the famous hot pools after a day’s fishing is pure bliss! The fishing is great too!
We’ve just done a loop of sorts, and we’re back in the Lewis Pass. This is a rough guide to a 2–3 week road trip. Of course, the longer the better if your budget allows. You’ll cover some 3000 km and perhaps spend $500 in fuel. But heck, it’s only money — it can’t compare with a lifetime of memories.

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