A New Zealand Fly Fishing Odyssey

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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.

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.

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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.

It’s not only about catching fish. It’s how you get there.

It’s been a while since I made an update to colemanspecial.com.  I’m happy to report this is not just from the usual toils of a demanding career, but also because I’ve managed to fish quite a bit.  I recently returned home from a Memorial day weekend tradition of visiting my brother in Vermont for some family time, fishing and Coleman-style eating.

In particular, one experience from this trip inspired me to return to blog writing.  TroutTeam6 member and friend, Derek Davies, has recently taken up fly tying.  He also has to pursue mastery of fly fishing in earnest.  Every fly fisherman who ties flies understands the joy of catching a fish on a home brewed fly.  However, some fly-tyers are afraid to deviate from the already known quantities of productive patterns.

Most fly-tyers start with simple patterns and try to master them first.  Fly tying can be an artistic experience with room for creativity, innovation and personal flair.  There are opportunities to express yourself just as with any other art form.  Take this fly for instance: the Nickelodeon (aptly named for its color scheme).

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This fly is basically a woolly bugger, but this is most certainly a Derek Davies creation.  Bold in its colors, and unashamedly named; I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered this color combination in such a fly.  Using materials he had lying around, with a color scheme so unique, he told me he felt this fly screams “EAT ME” to trout or at least causes them to ponder for a moment: “check this out . . . “.

As with any new pattern, the fly-tyer wants to test it out and attempt to entice a fish.  Derek took the Nickelodeon to his local ponds and immediately proved he could fool sun fish, small bass and crappies with this fly (fish which generally have no limit to what they will attempt to consume).  But what would a persnickety trout think of the Nickelodeon?  Could he get a trout, the pickiest of fish, to look upon this fly as a meal?

Fast forward to our trip to Vermont.  After a fair amount of hearty ribbing about the ridiculousness of the fly from his friends, you could tell Derek was a man on a mission to prove his worth as a fly-tyer and as a fly fisherman.  In spite of watching others catch fish with more traditional flies, he continued to fish his fly, dropping it on the noses of fish after fish.  Sometimes it spooked the fish, and sometimes the fish did not seem to care about the fly at all, as if it was another piece of detritus floating down the river.  He tried to induce strikes from the fish with all manner of presentations.  The day was nearing a close, but Derek still persisted.  He said: “One more cast; I know I can get a fish to move for the Nickelodeon!”.  A few sighs were released from myself and his brother, and we sat on a nearby rock to watch this exercise in futility.  Derek, with his Techlite polarized glass TLT lenses (definitely not jealous) could see where the fish was hiding beneath a grassy outcropping with overhanging trees.  The bet was $5 for his first cast to end in the trees.  Derek lifted his rod with the utmost care.  The fly rod bent back as we both stared.  His cast flew true, dropping the fly softly onto the water just up stream.  It took only a few seconds for the fish to strike, an aggressive take that left no doubt.  Soon the pool was alive with the fight of a fisherman and an angry trout.  Cries rang out from everyone, with hoots and hollers, and more than a few swears.  Minutes later, with expert netting from his brother, Derek was smiling in the way only a fly-tier can explain.

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It was so much sweeter for Derek with all the efforts he put into tying this fly.  Not to mention working the river all day, but culminating with his prize.  This was more than just catching a rainbow trout.  This was a journey that started months ago when he came up with the Nickelodeon fly.  I am glad I shared a small part in that journey.  Have you ever been a part of someone’s fly fishing journey?

Nick, Nick, Nick, Na Nick Nick Nick.  Nickelodeonnnn.  BOWWWW!

8 Years, 10,000 Casts and One Big Payoff!

My brother and I have been fishing together for over 25 years.  It is amazing to me that I have done anything in this world for that long.  That is almost two-thirds of my entire life.

Eight of those years have been spent trying to help him catch his first legitimate steelhead. After I moved to Minnesota, it took me a few years to get my first steelhead and now I can consistently catch them.  However, when he visits for our annual steelhead trip, he only has 1-2 days to try to maximize his casts and hone his steelhead tactics.  He has been overdue for a nice steelhead for quite some time.

I am so glad that I happened to be fishing side by side that day with my brother. Both John and I got to share in the excitement and pure joy of Adam’s first steelhead.  There is nothing quite like watching someone experience the adrenaline of a steelhead on the fly, and first time experience too!

Even after 25 years, there are still new experiences to find on the river.  Have you ever gotten someone onto their first fish on the fly? Feel free to share it in the comments section below, and enjoy the video.

 

The End of Winter is Near . . .

After a long, hard winter in the upper Midwest, we Minnesotans start to monitor the temperatures and ice outs for the first day with good “fishable” weather.  The winter was spent acquiring new fishing gear, organizing fly boxes, filling those same boxes with new, untested fly patterns, and of course, a copious amount of scheming.

The anticipation for the return to nature in search of hungry trout grows exponentially with rising outdoor temperatures.  It always culminates in a wonderful first day on the river.  Sometimes, it doesn’t always end with fish landed.  But new stories are made, legends are forged and a new year of fly fishing is ushered in with the song of the fly line soaring through the air.  What was your first day out like this year?

Cubic Feet Per Second (CFS) Tip

 

It occurred to me that I have never mentioned CFS before.  CFS stands for cubic feet per second.  It is a very simple thing, but CFS is very important aspect of my fishing preparation.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS), https://www.usgs.gov, has put flow meters in many of the main rivers and tributaries within American watersheds.  I personally use check these almost every week for my local waters to get a good feel for how healthy the streams look.  Add in my prior experiences, and I can estimate whether or not a particular day will be easy or hard to fish.

This past week, we had so much rain, I thought my local waters would be unfishable.  Driving an hour, only to find out a river is blown out, is not my idea of fun.  So I went to the website to check the CFS, and here is what I found:

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Notice the flow peaked on 10th, and then had another peak on the 11th.  This was due to the rain storms we had.  Fortunately for me, the river recovered very quickly, and by the 13th, it was ready to be fished again.  Some of the best fishing I have experience has been during the downward progression about 10-20 CFS above average,

Without this tool, I would have decided not to fish this weekend.   Even though it is slightly above average, this looks very fishable to me, but I will let you know how it goes.

If you are not using the USGS water flow readings, maybe it’s time to start.  You can easily enter a google search with your river name and the words USGS and CFS.  And if you really want to improve your “fly fishing IQ”, keep track of which water levels produce the most amounts of fish at certain times of the year and maybe you will be able to duplicate your successful days.

 

The Trico Hatch

Every year from starting in late July through the end of August, I head out to Wisconsin’s Rush River to fly fish during the Trico hatch.  This amazing hatch can be brilliant when you catch it right.  Thousands of small insects (smaller than 1/2 a finger nail) flit about in the air, mating and then becoming part of the great circle of life.

Eager trout start rising everywhere like water boiling.  It is quite a scene to witness. However, fun and frustration are two adjectives that quickly blur together while fishing. Due to the tremendous amount of available food on the top water, my fly offering is more likely to be taken randomly than due to my own skill level.

With that in mind, over the years I’ve developed some techniques that seem to work well for me:

  1. Stay low and quiet. This is true for all fly fishing, but even more so for this hatch.
  2. Start with nothing bigger than 5x tippet.  If 5x isn’t working, go to 6x tippet.  If 6x isn’t working, then go to 7x tippet.  There’s a company that makes 8x tippet . . . (http://www.shop.trouthunt.com)
  3. Keep your leader long, at least 12 – 15 feet.
  4. Size 22 flies are NOT too small.  In fact, they may be too big.
  5. There are actually quite a variety of tricos in the air, so grab some out of the air and find your best approximation.
  6. Don’t be afraid to drop something really small off that trico, like a size 22 emerger with a little sparkle in it.  Sometimes, a smart trout will take that offering to conserve energy.
  7. If you are targeting rising fish, as opposed to prospecting, then try to time your cast to land in the feeding lane when you think the trout will be ready to eat again.
  8. Have fun, try not to get frustrated, and change your setup frequently until you find what the trout are looking for.

I’m off to the Rush River tomorrow to go after one of my favorite hatches.  What’s your favorite fly hatch?

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Maybe I’ll get one of these colorful brook trout tomorrow . . .

Spring Steelheading

Where to begin? I’ve had so many good fishing trips since my last posting, it’s hard to break it all down. Well, we’ll start with the last Steelhead trip of the year.  Each year, my buddies and I venture into the wilderness of Brule, Wisconsin to fish for the magnificent Oncorhynchus mykiss. A steelhead is essentially an anadromous rainbow trout. That’s biologist-speak for a fish that migrates up a river for spawning from a lake, ocean or other large body.  Steelhead are known for their challenging fight and acrobatics. They generally drive fly anglers nuts because of how hard they are to catch on an artificial fly. For a fly fishing fanatic, there is no greater challenge than landing a fresh chrome steelhead.

With the usual suspects (Adam, John D. and John M.) visiting me to take a chance at fly fishing glory, we headed to our usual steelhead hunting grounds on the Bois Brule River in Wisconsin. This year had been a particularly good year already for us steelheading, as shown in this picture of John D. landing a nice steelhead in the early season (he landed another large one later that day as well).

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The real hero of this story though is my brother Adam, who broke his 5 year long skunk of not catching anything on the Brule River, and brought more fish to hand than I can count. This year was unique because we caught some browns and brook trout in addition to the skip jacks and chromes. The highlight was when my brother had his first “real steelhead” tighten his line.  This is the type of fish that is at least 20 inches and pulls out your line so fast, you barely have time to check if you remembered to set your drag.  Unfortunately, it outsmarted him before landing it, but now he knows what we mean when we say we’ve got “steelhead fever”.  As for the rest of us, we landed plenty of large brooks, browns, smaller rainbows, and plenty of skip jacks (teenage steelhead), and I had two chrome brutes on that danced in the air, winked at me and loosed my barbless hook.  It was disappointing not to land a big one on this trip, but a few dozen fish later, we had plenty of stories to share with each other at the “Crow Bar”, the local watering hole.  Now it’s time to start getting ready for the fall run!