Sep 26th, 2018
Four months into a three month visitor’s visa, I was still on the South Island and the list of things I wanted to do was longer than when I started. The original plan was simple enough: arrive in Auckland, fly down to Nelson, purchase a car, spend two weeks touring the South Island, drop off a friend at the Christchurch Airport, work my way back up to the North Island for two weeks and be on my way.
I remember exactly when that plan changed. It was just after the new year and a river was to blame. As I drove north to take my friend to the airport, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was the perfect size, clear, crossable and loaded with more trophy trout than I had seen in all my previous angling years combined. Upon reaching the airport I stopped long enough to rush my friend from the vehicle, then I hung a quick U-turn and headed straight back to that river. It was the beginning of what was to be my ultimate four month odyssey on the South Island. I lived out of the back of my beat up station wagon and I hiked and fished and kayaked until the hills were dusted in snow. The trip left a deep and lasting impression, a hunger if you will that has kept me returning to the country to discover more of its secrets and continually refine my vision of the Ultimate New Zealand experience.
The Lay of the Land
Located in the middle of the southern hemisphere, New Zealand’s two main islands are long and narrow. They are centered on the 41st parallel and stretch almost 1000 miles on a north by northeast axis and boast 10,000 miles of coast line. Couple this with the fact that the islands lie right along the dramatic geologic boundary of the Pacific and Indo-Australian plates, and you start to get the picture of why it has such a spectacular and varied topography. The massive shift in these plates that happened millennia ago not only created the islands themselves but gave rise to the South Island’s Southern Alps – a massive mountain range which divides the island’s east and west coasts, and features at least 18 peaks reaching 10,000 feet or higher. Less mountainous but not to be outdone, the North Island is a highly active volcanic zone punctuated by Lake Taupo which sits smack dab in the caldera of the world’s most active super-volcano. The weather in the country is no less dramatic. Driving through the South Island you can go from rainforest to semi-arid plains in a matter of miles and many areas of the North Island are subtropical. All told, New Zealand offers some of the world’s most spectacular and varied topography to be found.
Even though New Zealand has a relatively small land mass it has a seemingly infinite number of rivers. Depending on the source and what is defined as a “river,” New Zealand has well over 10,000 that run 100,000 to 200,000 river miles. Given the sheer numbers it is hard to generalize about the character of these waterways but from an angler’s viewpoint a vast number of them would be classified as smallish freestones that are short in length, gin clear and are easily covered by a moderate cast. They run through every imaginable landscape from rough and tumble mountains, to open highlands, to pastoral valleys, to braided coastal plains. A good number of these rivers run along lightly traveled country roads and even more of them lie hidden in the mountains, behind ranchers’ properties, or down long grown-over logging roads.
For a number of reasons I consider the New Zealand angling experience the most distilled and rewarding trout fishing in the world. Over the years I have primarily seen it described as challenging and technical… a game for advanced anglers, but I see it differently. My take is that this is a fishery where short accurate casts matter most, as does a desire to truly hunt fish. New Zealand is rarely a numbers game, but rather a place where walking, stalking, teamwork and exciting visuals come together to produce what I feel is the most rewarding trout fishing imaginable.
Typically days play out like this: Anglers and their Kiwi guide (most often a hearty affable fellow dressed like a bow hunter) don their backpacks that are loaded with the day’s supplies, hoist a 5wt or 6wt rod and walk up stream attempting to spot the country’s abnormally large rainbows and browns. Once the quarry is spotted, a plan is hatched as to how the angler will set up for the cast, and the guide will describe where the fish is lying and where he wants the cast to land. Once the angler is in position the guide will give the signal and the angler will attempt to do as instructed. Typically this will entail casting the fly 30-50ft and landing it somewhere in a three foot diameter. Despite the long leader, it is a reasonable enough request. The problem is not so much the actual task as it is the fact that the angler has just gotten a glimpse at one of the largest trout in his or her life and is having trouble walking let alone delivering the fly to the appointed target. Ultimately the most challenging element boils down to keeping a grip on your emotions so your body can perform the relatively easy task at hand.
For me the act of hiking these streams, spotting fish and watching a trout move to the fly is one of the most visually and emotionally enriching angling experiences in the sport. I have had the opportunity to participate in this hundreds of times and have yet to tire of it. On my last trip I was able to cast to a particularly large fish from a birds-eye position that allowed me a better than normal view of the scene: My fly landed four feet upstream of the fish and immediately drifted downstream. When it was six inches from the target, the fish slowly moved up to sip it in and then, just when its nose was creating a bulge and slight dimple in the water, it slid back down to the bottom of the river. As I released the breath I had apparently been holding for some time, my fly continued to drift and I started to relax. Then quite suddenly the fish turned again and swam directly at me with its substantial mouth agape, fully out of the water. In moments the fly was engulfed, and I was so out of breath and charged with emotion that I let out a terrified scream, stumbled into the river and was barely able to keep control of the fish, which was now firmly attached to the end of my line. For me, these types of visuals are what both define and exalt the New Zealand angling experience.
The Ultimate New Zealand Itinerary
Fast-forward to the present day. I have now returned to New Zealand a multitude of times with Fly Water Travel and on these trips I have had the privilege of experiencing the country’s foremost fishing lodges with many of the country’s best guides on some remarkable systems. Recently a close friend and client who had a birthday of significance fast approaching asked me what the “ultimate” trip to New Zealand might look like. I gave it some serious thought, reflecting on how my tastes and grasp of the many and often decadent options had changed over the past 15 years. I then prepared a draft of the itinerary that follows and emailed it to him with brief note saying “If you can swing it, this is what I would do.”
My “Ultimate Itinerary” will span a full month in New Zealand. During my trip I will visit four lodges: Poronui and Tongariro on the North Island, and Owen and Cedar on the South Island. Over the last decade of working with the owners and managers of these operations I have come to know the full range of what they have to offer and will often deviate from the standard program in order to employ all the tricks including 4×4 adventures, privileged gate access, rafting trips, and helicopters.
Contact Brian at 800.552.2729 for more information about a trip to New Zealand
As its name suggests, the lodge is situated on the banks of the famous Tongariro River. It is a proven classic with the North Island’s most diverse (helicopters, raft, and 4×4) access to trophy backcountry waters.
Day 1: The fishing will start taking a 4WD to one of Tongariro’s private access rivers. This is a high numbers stream with eager mid -sized rainbows that will welcome you to the country.
Day 2: Raft the upper reaches of the Tongariro River. This is a white water wilderness stream with good numbers of hot, healthy rainbows.
Day 3-4: After two warm up days on rivers with mid-sized fish, fly in to one of Tongariro’s back county gems. This is a trophy section of river where the fish average 7lbs. This is an overnight trip using a very basic backcountry hut for shelter. The pilot will drop off the anglers, guide, and all food and equipment for two days at the hut. The first day will be spent walking downstream then fishing back up to the hut. The evening will be spent around the campfire complete with a hearty meal and New Zealand wine. The second day will be spent fishing upstream from the hut. At the end of the day the helicopter will drop into the valley to pick us up for a spectacular ride back to the lodge.
Day 5: 4WD into a hidden bush-clad stream in the nearby area and spend the day walking and presenting dry flies to large resident rainbows and browns.
Day 6: Our time at Tongariro will finish with another helicopter flight out to a small and relatively arid trophy trout stream.
Day 7: Sleep in, have a late breakfast, head into Taupo to walk around for a few hours, then meet a driver to head into Poronui.
Sitting on a spectacular bluff overlooking the Taharua Valley, this small, private, exceedingly tasteful and friendly lodge is complemented by the North Island’s premier helicopter fishing program.
Day 8-13: Six full days of guided helicopter fishing at Poronui Ranch. It is not mandatory to fly every day but the lodge’s grass infield/heli-pad right in front of the cabins strongly suggest that it might be the best idea. A day in the life at Poronui goes something like this:
Wake up after a great night’s sleep in their perfectly appointed cabins and stroll over to the main lodge for a wonderful breakfast. Afterwards go back to the cabin and gear-up for the day. Shortly thereafter the helicopter will drop in and whisk you away to one of any number of the perfectly ideal backcountry rivers that the lodge fishes. These rivers have varying characteristics but the one thing they all have in common is well rested fish that are all yours.
Day 14: After a final breakfast at Poronui, transfer back to Taupo and take a short flight to Nelson at the top of the South Island. In Nelson, pick up a rental car and drive (2 hours) to Owen River Lodge.
Owen River Lodge
An intimate, tasteful lodge where the most experienced team of South Island guides are paired with the highest level of service and hospitality.
Day 15: Drive north to the Marlborough region. Although this region is only 45 minutes away, the weather is quite different. It’s a drier, more arid region with an iconic freestone river running right through the middle of it. This river offers sensational dry fly fishing in summer using mayflies, blow flies and cicada patterns.
Day 16: Water taxi into one of several wilderness rivers in Nelson Lakes National Park. This park is a no fly zone, so the only way to get to these rivers is to walk or catch a water taxi – I prefer the water taxi! This is authentic Kiwi wilderness walk and wade fishing with crystal clear rivers, and brown trout sight-fishing at its very, very best.
Day 17: Chopper into Kahurangi National Park (New Zealand’s second largest national park). Fish an impossibly clear mid-sized river for hard fighting browns that average 4-6lbs.
Day 18: 4WD into a freestone river outside of Murchison that flows through native forests and farm land. Sight-fish the upper reaches for large wary browns.
Day 19: Rainbow time! While the majority of the 30 rivers Owen fishes are brown trout waters, they do have a couple of rivers featuring big rainbows. One particularly spectacular river has several 4WD beats as well as sections only accessible by helicopter.
Day 20: Commit to a 90 minute walk down into a wilderness gorge and then fish back to the truck. I’ve had unbelievable days fishing this river with stunning mayfly hatches occurring most sunny afternoons. Seeing these monster browns come up through six or eight feet of crystal clear water and take a dry is as good as it gets!
Day 21: Travel down the famous and incredibly scenic West Coast to Cedar Lodge.
Cedar Lodge is New Zealand’s only pure helicopter fly-out lodge. With over 30 years of history, this small private lodge represents the greatest value in terms of accessing some of New Zealand’s best backcountry fishing.
Day 22-29: As the only lodge in New Zealand with its own chopper and a complete fly-out package you have very few decisions to make during your time at here. Every day the lodge’s helicopter will arrive on the front lawn and take you to another incredible river.
Some days will be spent fishing easily waded rivers that offer a great mix of willing browns and rainbows. Others will be spent chasing true trophy trout. Weather permitting, explore the rarely fished rivers of the southern West Coast. With over 50 beats on rivers rarely fished by other anglers this final week at Cedar will be unforgettable.
Day 30: Depart for home. We will be tired, satiated and full of great memories of the people we have met, the land we have seen, the fish we have caught and the ones that got away. At the same time we will be thinking of ways to do it again next year.
*For a week at any of these destinations, the price will range from approximately $6,000 – $10,000. Please call for exact rates.