Wairau River, South Island, New Zealand
I have more than a few fly fishing bucket-list trips: Alaska/Pacific Northwest for steelhead, Labrador for Atlantic salmon, the Florida keys for Tarpon and Bonefish. And then there is New Zealand for huge, wild trout and scenary beyond my wildest dreams.
If you had told me I would get to visit New Zealand before any of these other dream locations, I would not have believed you. It just seemed so far away and unattainable. I don’t remember the exact moment when my wife and I decided we would visit New Zealand, but once we decided to go, I immediately started planning some time on the trip for fly fishing.
New Zealand is a wondrous place, filled with amazing people and incredible, sprawling vistas. I could spend a year just walking around the country taking photographs of the mountains, hills and rivers. It’s no coincidence that movie producers use New Zealand as a filming location.
Katherine and I had the great pleasure of staying at the Stonefly Lodge, an orvis-endorced fly fishing lodge on the South Island in the Nelson region. Situated directly on the Motueka River, which has one of the largest populations of brown trout on the island, it is ideally located for dozens of fly fishing opportunities within two hours by car. I can’t say enough about the proprieters of the lodge, John and Kate, who made our experience at the lodge comfortable and memorable.
But this is a fishing blog, so let’s talk about the fishing. While I am confident in my fly fishing abilities, I know enough that when you fish a new area, you should get a local guide to maximize your time on the water. Enter Aaron Ford, assigned by the Stonefly Lodge. Aaron is an amazing person and an extraordinary fly fishing guide. He lives and breathes New Zealand fly fishing with a passion matched only by my own anticipation and excitement. He was a big reason for our success and a great person to hang around the river with.
Day 1: “Get your act together.”
We fished the Motueka River, a beautiful river that could easily be found in Vermont. You could literaly the Motueka by walking down from the lodge, but we drove to a few different spots on the river within 10-20 minutes. This was not the classic New Zealand river I had imagined in my dreams, except for the beautiful mountains in the background. The river was surrounded by trees, creating lots of shade, plenty of bugs and other food for the fish, likely the reason it has one of the best populations of trout in all of New Zealand. But the purpose of this day was to test our mettle and for Aaron to figure out our skillset. We needed to work out our “casting cob-webs” and get used to making 50 foot casts in a strong wind with a size 8 cicada dry fly. If that last sentence wasn’t clear, let me abundantly clear: that is a hard cast to make accurately and consistently. Fortunatley, both Katherine and I are strong casters and we’ve honed our casting skills in our home waters of the Driftless Region in the midwest. We adopted a pattern of team fishing where Katherine could move up the middle of the river looking for fish to rise to her dry fly offering, while I prospected the river edges and banks with a dry-dropper rig. We both got into some beautiful fish to start the trip off right, and we felt confident moving into the next day.
Katherine with a beautiful New Zeland brown, caught on the dry fly of course.
Katherine moving up river and casting to trout.
My first New Zealand brown trout.
Day 2: “The New Zealand of my dreams . . .”
I quickly realized that day 1 was just the warm up. With the casting cob-webs shaken off and our wading legs back under our feet, we were ready for some challenges. Aaron took us to the Wairau River, which is what I imagined New Zealand fly fishing would be like in my dreams. Huge open spaces. Lots of wind. Spooky fish. Our guide would say: “You have two options. Make an incredibly difficult cast or be reallllly sneaky.” And then of course, the scenic vistas in the background were breathtaking. We put double digit numbers of fish into the net, with each one being a challenge and a gift. I’ve never had the experience of only getting 1-2 casts at a fish before it “buggered off”. I would make one cast, and the fish would give it a look. Then the guide would say: “nope, he doesn’t want it. Let’s change flies!”. After one cast. I thought this was madness, but he was absolutely right. For the second cast, I would have a new fly on, and then BAM, an imediate strike. As long as I set the hook right, I’d be in for a fight. These fish have no natural predators, so they sit in the water close to wherever the best food source is located. They are also keenly aware of anglers and you have to sneak up on them. You use a 15 to 20 foot leader with 5x tippet while throwing a size 8 cicada dry fly. It’s an incredible feeling to see these giant brown slowly sip the fly. Then you have to make a two-count in your head (which feels like an eternity) before setting the hook because the fish are so non-chalent in their takes. Then you hang on for the ride and chase the fish down river. This is the “New Zealand Brown Walk” as he called it. It felt like a jog or run sometimes though. The fights were hard and the trout were beautiful. It was an incredible day.
Day 3: The Helicopter Excursion
I had the great fortune to be able to book a helicopter fly fishing excursion, which was not only one of the highlights of the trip for me, but a highlight of my fly fishing adventures. A helicopter picked us up at the lodge, along with our guide and a guest from Stonefly Lodge (Bill, who we became friends with quickly over our passion for fly fishing) with his own guide as well.
From left to right: Bill, Katherine, Michael and our Heli Pilot.
The advantage of the helicopter is that it could take us to an area in the Kahurangi National Park that no one has fished for 1-4 weeks, and is only accessible by walking in on foot for four days (no roads, only hiking). This is where some of the really big browns live. What ensued was another incredible day of fishing. However, it started really slow as the barometric pressure dropped a bit and a misty rain and fog rolled in. We had some trouble finding fish, and there was definitely some bushwacking involved when we couldn’t cross the river. and had to go into the mountains. However, once we found fish, it was the same experience of getting a monster trout to rise to our flies, with some of them clearly over 30 inches. I didn’t get a 10-pounder into the net, but I had several chances. This was easily the clearest water I have ever seen in my life. The water in Kahurangi National Park was so pristine that is made spotting the trout a bit easier, but the fish were definitely more worried about the presence of humans, so we had to be extra sneaky.
I’ll never forget my dream trip to New Zealand. I’m so happy to have shared this incredible experience with my wife, Katherine, who filmed all of it and took many photographs while also catching some incredible fish herself. I hope to return to New Zealand one day. Stay tuned for my video being released early next week!
What trip is on your fly fishing bucket list? Share it in the comments section.