If you’re a fly angler and have been on the internet for about ten seconds, you’ve probably seen something about the sport’s presence in New Zealand. Media accounts showing giant trout stalking the crystal-clear waters of the country’s numerous mountain streams have been circulating the web and fly fishing journals for years now, and have resulted in many more anglers adding kiwi trout to their bucket lists.
As an angler lucky enough to have fished this country, I will confirm that fly fishing in New Zealand lives up to the hype. If you’re planning on taking on these waters DIY style and putting some fish in the net at the bottom of the world, there’s a few factors that you’ll want to consider around your trip and hitting the river.
Although there are no native salmonids in New Zealand, its rivers have favorable conditions for growing and sustaining populations of huge rainbow and brown trout. First stocked in the mid 1800s, trout took hold and flourished in New Zealand’s many prime river habitats. The country’s waters became seen more and more frequently in the IGFA records for numerous line-class and all tackle world records, putting it on the map for the world’s anglers as a place to catch big trout- and lots of them.
New Zealand also has a proven reputation of providing excellent sight fishing opportunities. Many an angler’s dream involves stalking big fish in small, clear, water- an opportunity that comes often down here. Pair this with beautiful scenery and comparatively less angling pressure, and the picture of a world class fishery (or dozens of them) becomes a little clearer.
Getting Your Bearings
Despite New Zealand’s size, it holds an overwhelming amount of fishable water. Spring creeks, remote backcountry freestones, and muddy farm streams can all provide shots at trophy fish, and can even be found close enough to each other to sample different water types on your trip. Focusing on just one area in your research will still provide you with a variety of different fishing opportunities. Fly fishing culture is strong down here, and it also never hurts to talk to the local kiwi fly shops to narrow down your search.
As you’ll be covering a good deal of ground, some good travel prep work is necessary. Having a solid plan around your life off the water will save you money and time in the long run of your adventure. Luckily, New Zealand is no stranger to tourism. Millions of travelers from around the world visit the country every year, and there are plenty of accommodations for rental vehicle camping and backcountry overnights.
I’ll also mention that you should closely observe fishing regulations and etiquette when fishing different waters in New Zealand (or any foreign country, for that matter). Certain rivers operate on first-come beat systems or require landowner permission to access. More than ever, always keep in mind that you’re a traveler in somebody else’s home waters, and treat the areas you visit and the locals with respect.
On the Water
You’ve finally made it here, and that ten pound brown trout you saw on Instagram is feeding in the riffle in front of you. Now what? As trout anglers we have plenty of tactics up our sleeves for staying one step ahead of our quarries, and you’ll need a lot of them to be successful on New Zealand’s technical rivers. Here generally, it’s not about having a special set of skills as much as it is understanding all of the things that spook a fish. Shadows, fly line, splashes, loud footsteps, even the sound of stripping line off a loud reel are all part of a frustratingly massive number of fish spoilers.
The opportunity to sight fish for massive trout in shallow, gin-clear water is hands down the biggest reason why anglers flock to New Zealand, but this technique is not without its challenges. A well planned approach is required to even get within casting distance of this country’s wary fish, an added element that can be as exciting as it is humbling. Be prepared to move slowly, sometimes even from a crawling position, to get into casting range.
It’s also best to spot fish as early and from as far away as you can in order to come up with the most effective advance. If you’re fishing with friends, work as a team. Have others scout from a more secluded area and coach you into position, as well as through where you’ll have to land your presentation. You only get one first cast, and it’s best to have as much in your control as possible before you let it fly.
The wariness of most fish down here also informs rigging choices. 12 and 15 foot leaders are commonplace, and many anglers will often go longer. Land your thicker fly line too close to a fish, and it may be time to keep hiking. I highly recommend practicing your casts with these leaders if you haven’t dealt with them before. Turning them over can be a little tricky, let alone in the strong winds that New Zealand’s wide open river valleys are notorious for.
Surprisingly, one of the most forgiving aspects of targeting New Zealand trout is fly selection. Besides a few patterns that imitate local cicadas, blowflies, and other terrestrials, generic mayfly dries and nymphs in a few different sizes and colors will cover a good range of what a fish is eating most of the year. Single dries, dry droppers, and full nymph rigs using the classic New Zealand wool indicators all have their place depending on where you’re finding fish. The odd streamer or even a mouse pattern can make an appearance as well if the stars align.
Your favorite faster action 5 or 6 weight rod will do the trick on most New Zealand rivers. They’ll have the backbone for casting everything from a tiny Adams dry to a heavy double nymph rig, and will generate the line speed necessary to punch tough casts into strong winds. A reliable reel that you can trust not to get in the way is also a must. My Sighter 375 worked great here. The Euro-nymphing inspired full cage design passed extra-long leaders through my rig with ease and meant I never had to worry about getting caught between the frame and the spool when a short casting window at a big fish arrived. The reel is also very quiet, which certainly came into play when retrieving/lengthening line in some close quarter/stealthier situations.
Let’s face it- if a big brown or rainbow trout is what you’re after, there are plenty of places in the Northern Hemisphere with fish of comparable size that require way less travel. What makes New Zealand so special is the densities in which these fish occur, the pulse-quickening sight fishing opportunities, and the sheer amount of water in this country where that’s all possible. It’s a chance to put your skills up against huge, smart fish in small streams that run through some of the most beautiful natural settings on our planet, and come back a better angler.
Meet the Author: Ben Groppe is a multi-species angler and overall fish fan, dedicated to enjoying, preserving, and occasionally documenting the fisheries he loves. Off the water, he’s sharing his passion as one half of the blog Long Haul Fly Fishing.
Ben would also like to thank anglers Franky DeMayo, Jon Harriott, and Pat Donohue for their photography, information, and top notch van accommodations that made this article possible.