My finest hour of fly fishing in New Zealand occurred on a beautiful morning on the Mangeles River, South Island, during which I caught four feet of brown trout - and that was only two fish.
My darkest hours were those spent at Lake Taupo, North Island ("Trout Capital of the World"), trying every approach imaginable and catching only a couple of tiddlers that were rising to eat surface insects.It all proved once again, as if I needed proof, that fly fishing is an unpredictable but eternally hopeful sort of game.
You need some such attitude to be a fly fisherman, even in New Zealand, despite what the fishing magazines and travel brochures say. Sure, the fish are big down here, and the waters are "gin clear" (as fishing articles always claim), but trout are trout anywhere, which means that even New Zealand trout fishing is a challenge.
Hiring a local guide is the best plan, if you have money and not much time. But since I had plenty of time and not much cash, I relied on word of mouth, publications, and my own fishing experience.
Besides, I thought, New Zealand trout are browns and rainbows imported in the last century from the Northern Hemisphere, and I had caught my share of their Utah counterparts, so . . .
Which brings me to my day of success. The day before I had tried similar streams, with no luck, when late in the day a fellow camper mentioned the Mangeles. The next morning I drove there, suited up, and scrambled down a bank to where I could see several trout holding in a deep pool. The water was so clear I nearly waded in over my waist in my rolled-down neoprene waders.
The Mangeles is wider than the Provo, faster than the Green, deeper than the Yellowstone, and clearer than any of them. I waded about 10 feet from shore in an upstream direction, and spotted a brown in a gravel-lined trough between several rocks. I managed a good cast of a #12 Humpy ahead of the fish. It floated down the food lane and the fish followed and took.
Just a few minutes later I "caught his mate" (as they say down here) on a nymph. Both fish measured an even 24 inches and weighed close to 5 pounds. We kept the first and had three meals from it, and released the second unharmed.
I didn't always catch trout during my four-month stay in New Zealand, nor did I always see trout, but those that I caught were tremendous fighters, usually running 20 or more inches long and 3 to 5 pounds.
Most of the fishing done on my own in New Zealand was the kind I was familiar with back home - upstream dry or nymph casting on streams. But Kiwi friends showed me some new dimensions of the sport - for example, night fishing. Not hitting the evening rise while a bit of light still reflects on the water, but middle-of-the-night, pitch-black and cast-by-instinct night fishing.
I tried it first with friends who took me on the Clutha River near its source at Lake Wanaka. Only in full darkness - about 10:30 or 11 in the mid-summer month of January - do the caddis flies start to hatch on the Clutha, and that's when the big browns rise to grab them. The fish also grabbed a surprising number of bushy floating flies, cast in the general direction of the loudest slurps and skittered across the water in imitation of the flights of insects.
Landing fish at night was as problematic as hooking them, but we seldom came home with fewer than two of us having been successful, and one night all three of us were hooked up simultaneously.
The other night fishing I did was on my luckless visit to Lake Taupo. Here the idea was to wade out into the "rip," a strong current formed in the lake by the flow of an incoming river. Fishing the rip meant either getting out at 5 a.m. and angling until dawn, or starting at sunset and fishing until midnight. The theory is that the rainbows move into the stream mouths under darkness to begin their spawning runs.
I gave it my best, following all the local advice, even trying a flourescent streamer fly. One night four of us stood knee-deep in the rip with waves breaking up to our thighs. We cast large flies on sink-tip lines over and over into the darkness, retrieving them in steady, slow pulls.
One man caught three big rainbows, another caught one, and two of us were skunked. We were all using the same flies, and we all covered the same water.
A more successful new direction in my fishing career was learning to stalk big browns in a shallow bay - Paddock Bay on Lake Wanaka. The fish could be dimly seen, when you got used to the shifty light and shadows, cruising among weedbeds on the silty bottom, looking for bugs.
The idea was to wade slowly in knee-deep water and look for the dark shape of a cruising fish, then cast about 8 or 10 feet ahead of the fish. It's harder than it sounds, and I spooked many a fish, not to mention having spent several minutes casting at a sunken bottle.
I found that if you cast your shadow along with the line, or if the line slapped the water too hard, the fish took its appetite to another part of the mile-long bay. But just the right amount of splash or movement was supposed to attract the trout's attention.
At the point when the fish becomes interested, you twitch your line slightly so as to raise the fly upward. When all this came together perfectly, you could see the white flash of the big mouth opening and closing.
I caught several of the Paddock Bay brutes, but don't worry - plenty of other New Zealand trout defeated me. And another thing: It's more fun to be skunked when the fish are big.