New Zealand is a place of expansive wonder shaped by weather and water. Huge rugged peaks give way to cascading cliffs, with sweeping valleys in which rivers are born and then flow to feed the vast Pacific Ocean. These rivers form not only our land, but are also the guiding pathways for our roads and tracks to follow.
Almost every hiking track in NZ follows a river or stream for at least some, if not all of their journey. They weave up the valleys, follow the banks and occasionally pass over with the help of a rickety swing bridge.
The river is often seen as just an accomplice to the hike, sometimes nice to look at, swim or drink from but little else. But what would you think if I told you the water could become your chief inspiration for adventure? Something that can take you deep into places you never even realized or imagined you could go. Places where you are unlikely to see another soul and where you never have to sleep near a stranger. These are the places we explore with a Fly Fishing rod in hand, forever pushing forward not to the end, but just to see what is around the next bend.
How fly fishing opened me up to the world…
I fell in love with the sport of fly fishing at a young age, not only because I had a burning desire to fish, but also because it gave me a motive to explore new places, some of which I never expected to find. The pursuit of trout was all that was required to get me out there and more often than not it resulted in nothing more than a walk beside the river. Regardless of the outcome, every time I learnt something new, stoking the desire to go further in search of new water, new landscapes and new experiences.
Fly fishing is all too often thought of as an old guy standing in the river for hours on end, flicking back and forth his line, without so much as a few footsteps. This may have been common in days gone by but the sport is now growing into an lauded adventure activity. It’s now common to push the limits of how far you can go into the wilderness and even something in which you would choose to travel across the world to pursue.
My love for fly fishing quickly developed into an obsession, as I spent every available moment exploring the valleys of the Waikato and Bay Of Plenty. From twisting spring creeks of the South Waikato, through to thunderous gorges of the Central Plateau and everything in between. Fly Fishing allowed me to understand the twists and turns of the region like the back of my hand. It made me eager to start exploring further and challenge myself against the best, so it wasn’t long until I made my move to chase trout in the South Island and eventually around the world.
At 24 years old I moved to Wanaka to indulge in the spectacular waters of the Southern Alps. This quickly morphed into wanting to be out there every day, so I took the leap and became a Fly Fishing guide. Not only did this allow me to explore further and deeper into New Zealand than I ever dreamed possible, it also provided me opportunities to spend my winters fishing in far flung corners of the world, from Iceland to Japan and many places in between.
I was never an overly eager tramper, camper or anything of the sort. Although I loved being out in the wild, I always needed a reason to be there, rather than just making it to the ‘end’ or to the ‘top’. It was the river and fly fishing that opened up New Zealand to me. I now had a reason, a goal for walking three days into a backcountry valley I had never seen before. Or even to the otherside of the world into the Alligator infested everglades to chase Tarpon. It was not the species of fish that mattered, it was the pursuit of a fish on the fly that gave me motivation.
Hiking (or Tramping) in New Zealand is as old as the first settlers. It was common for local Māori to hike across the passes from Queenstown to Wanaka for food gathering and for European explorers to go on a wild goose chase in search of gold. One thing they all had in common was their single minded purpose and having a distinct motivation to push further.
These days a hiker’s motivation can range from making it to the next hut, conquering a mountain or completing a great walk and many other adventures. Although there is nothing wrong with this, there is still one thing all have in common, they follow a predetermined path to a set destination. The thing I love most about fly fishing is a sense of the unknown, the true adventure of it all. How will you access the water, will you need to cross the river or climb over a gorge? Can you even get around the next bend without some goat-like traverses? Is it worth pushing forward or is it time we should turn back? These questions keep me exploring.
The variety and abundance of waterways in New Zealand is mind-boggling. From one place to another can often feel like you are in a different country, as the bush lined green water is replaced by the crystal blue water in wide open river valleys. Many of these places have no defined track or trail, requiring instead a doggedness to venture and figure it out as you go. Just like in my younger days, these trips often result in nothing more than a nice walk. But still that feeling of going somewhere you never have before can fire up more energy than a shot of caffeine.
Fly Fishing in these waters is unlike anywhere else on the planet, you slowly stalk streamside, eyes fixed on the water in the hope of seeing a conspicuous shape swaying in the current. Most of the time you do not see anything, you keep moving, sometimes covering a serious amount of ground in a day without even realizing it. Then you find your target, it becomes a tense battle of cat and mouse as you try to persuade a fish that your offering is worthy of eating, and if it is then it becomes full blown hand-to-hand combat. If you’re lucky enough to get a fish successfully in the net, then the best experience of all is carefully removing the hook and releasing it back into the water to fight another day. There is little else that can offer such a fulfilling feeling of accomplishment and appreciation for the land, animals and water surrounding you.
The sport of Fly Fishing is actually more akin to the feel of hunting than it’s namesake ‘fishing’. It feels this way as you are always on the prowl in search for your next target, only stopping when necessary. You will find yourself scouring over topo maps in search of that next river to explore. Heading deep into the backcountry, staying in DOC huts or camping under the stars, walking for miles into the untouched wilderness. That is what Fly Fishing in NZ is all about.
The first step to starting on this new journey is to learn the ins and outs of the sport. Fly Fishing requires a unique set of skills that although can take some time to master, they are not hard to learn. It is not unusual for an angler to spend their whole life learning the intricacies of a certain species, their behavior and how best to target them. Luckily in NZ we have an abundance of both Rainbow & Brown Trout in almost every river and lake. This means that no matter where you are in the country, it’s likely you will have a place nearby to start practicing.
Getting started in is not as costly or complicated as you may have been led to believe, all you need is a few basic things to get started.With many affordable options on the market these days, this full setup can be assembled on any budget:
- Rod, Reel, Line – whatever you can afford is fine;
- Basic selection of flies – nymphs and dries;
- Polarized sunglasses; and
- Fishing Net.
The gear you buy does not define the type of angler you are, practice is key. So once you are set up, then it’s just about getting out there, practicing your casting and learning how to read water. Start in the backyard then head out to explore your local waterways, access points can easily be found on the Fish & Game website.
By taking on the pursuit of fly fishing, the country and all its beauty will open up to you as you explore the far corners in search of trout. Should you become a lifelong addict like many anglers are, you will be amazed at just how fulfilling both the sport and the experience can be, allowing you to explore, connect and grow.
So as a keen angler says – Enjoy it out there and ‘tight lines!’
If you’re interested in learning more about Fly Fishing and gain some tips, tricks and advice about how to start and progress through the angling journey. This is all available on my ‘Live Wild Journal’ at: www.keaoutdoors.com