Aspiring to Big Trout in a Return to New Zealand

Story by Peter McMullan with photography by Craig Somerville

Fishing for New Zealand Trout: Bridesdale Farm, near Queenstown, sits at the end of a long and winding driveway on high ground overlooking the Kawarau River, which empties out of Lake Wakitipu, the third largest in New Zealand.

A decade after Daphne and I originally visited, we returned to spend a month in Fran and King Allen’s self-catering cottage. We were expecting summer weather, but on the first night snow fell on the Remarkables, a towering range of mountains that stood close by, while heavy rain, often accompanied by blasts of thunder, filled the local rivers and streams.

New Zealand Trout

Casting near Wanaka

The fishing would be challenging, but with persistence and the help of two outstanding companions, some big trout would be found and much beautiful water fished.

I have been keeping fishing diaries of one sort and another since 1951.  What follows is a partial account of our trip to South Island.

Jan. 1: Long distance travel made easy. Direct 14-hour flight from Vancouver to Auckland followed by a two-hour internal leg to Queenstown.

New Zealand Trouit

Box of flies and fishing license

Jan. 2: Surprise  . . . overnight snow on the mountains that rise steeply from the river valley behind our cottage. Not at all what we expected to start a high summer new year so far from our Vancouver Island home.

Jan. 3: I had the use of the Allens’ 8’ dingy for the month so tried Lake Hayes, 10 minutes away. Too much wind and, as I later discovered, the lake’s usual clarity was being impacted by a summer algae bloom. So no fish seen or touched on a variety of flies fished on a sink tip.

Jan. 4: Drove to Wanaka (pop.5000) over the Crown Range on the highest paved road in the country. Met up with Craig Somerville, my Castabroad host, at the appropriately named Trout Bar with its fine setting beside Lake Wanaka.  Thus we completed the first of a series of one hour, 120-kilometer round trips over the winding but never too busy mountain road.  Many acute hairpins, quite spectacular views in both directions and, amazingly, hardy cyclists laboring in both directions up and over the 1,120 meter summit.

Craig, a Scot with a passion for fishing and a background in providing high-end hospitality to tourists, has set up Castabroad to cater for the overseas fly fisherman who wants to experience the very best of New Zealand. From personal itinerary planning to lodge bookings, transportation and guides he has all the contacts needed to assemble the complete package. As so often happens in this digital age we met through the Internet and his generosity and expertise, on and off the water, contributed much to what was a hugely successful trip.

Jan 7: To Wanaka for Craig to show me some favorite spots on Lake Wanaka . . . and the adjoining but completely separate Lake Hawea (141 sq. km.).  These are two very substantial bodies of clear and very deep water offering good shoreline and creek mouth sight fishing for big trout – when conditions are favorable.  Not today although we did work one decent but uninterested fish in Lake Hawea.

Jan. 9: Raining hard all day. Drove for a good hour along the shore of Lake Wakatipu to Glenorchy to find, not unexpectedly, both the Rees River and Diamond Creek running high and dirty.

Jan. 12: Walked down through the Bridesdale paddock and a herd of very curious cattle to the Kawarau, which borders the property. It’s a substantial river and was still running high . . . No fishing there today.

New Zealand Trout

New Zealand Trout

Jan 16: Craig arrived from Wanaka after breakfast to fish with me on a spring-fed creek with a solid reputation for good-sized trout.  A one-hour drive brought us to a small, intimate tributary with substantial weed growth and water of the utmost clarity. Time spent waiting for the Mayflies to appear went quickly enough. Then, when the hatch eventually started in late afternoon, the trout keyed mainly on nymphs, often moving a considerable distance to complete the swirling intercept.   We fished dry patterns through a heavy rain shower, talked to two energetic, wet-wading American seniors – in their mid-seventies and mid-eighties – and eventually had one good fish on and, just as quickly, off again.  That was it for the day so no trout to hand but definite progress in the right direction.

Jan. 17: A 6.30 a.m. pick-up with Craig accompanied by his good friend and professional guide, Paul Macandrew, of Wanaka’s  Aspiring Flyfishing.  Our destination was a Central Otago river where I was told six and seven-pound trout are accepted as the norm. Again hopes were high during the two and a half hour drive on highway and then unpaved sheep farm roads. When the river finally came in view, it was quite obviously rising and colored by an unexpected overnight flash flood. Next stop . . . was another medium-sized river . . . in nice enough order but we were promptly hit by foul weather conditions. Enduring rain, sleet and strong winds, there were no fish to be seen despite much tramping and peering into deep pools and swirling pots . . .  Finally back to the vehicle and on the road again, to destination #3, another of those evocative New Zealand rivers with names that assume a lyrical quality when properly pronounced.  It was there that I finally managed a medium sized brown trout on a weighted caddis nymph pattern fished New Zealand style, attached to the bend of the hook of the dry fly indicator.   Not one of those double figure New Zealand trophies so familiar from magazine photos but still a trout in the net at long, long last.  Calls for a ‘kiss the fish’ photo op were strongly and successfully resisted before we headed for home having covered a good 400k.

New Zealand Torut

Stunning Scenery

Jan. 25:  With Craig again as we fished together on yet another river in surroundings of stunning beauty, a broad valley with snow-covered peaks ahead and, all around us, the lands of a huge and historic 2000 hectare sheep and cattle farm owned and operated by the same family for four generations.  This time there was a convergence of the fisherman’s expectations and outcomes with the day’s sight fishing efforts producing a leaping brown trout of around six pounds on a dry cicada beetle tying with an even larger rainbow lost after a prolonged dispute.

New Zealand Trout

The view from Aspiring Helicopters

Jan. 26: An early start to Wanaka for an Aspiring Helicopters pick-up with Craig and Paul on our way across the Southern Alps – sensational flying in every regard – to a totally remote, much anticipated and beautiful river on the west coast of the South Island.  Again much was expected but nothing materialized. The day was warm and bright and, had there been trout present in that part of the river, Paul would have found them. He is a complete master of all the nuances and techniques of sight fishing – spotting the trout from afar and then positioning his fisherman to cast to them with an upstream dry fly or nymph . . . Paul works as hard as any guide I have ever met and his approach has much in common with that of a finely trained bird dog, always moving ahead of the guns in search of its quarry.  On the way back to Wanaka, passing Mount Aspiring, we stopped for champagne and ginger beer at the Whare Kea Chalet, an out-of-this-world mountain location built by the owners of Whare Kea Lodge, our overnight hosts where we were given the very warmest of welcomes. Six stars would not be an adequate accolade and the full moon rising over the lake, following our five-course dinner, was almost too good to be true.

Jan 27:  Off again with Craig to check out a river which flows into Lake Hawea, one that runs conveniently close to the road.  There I managed a brown and a rainbow, in the two-pound category, both on dry cicadas while Craig had a larger fish from a difficult lie hard against the far bank and under a mantle of overhanding branches . . . That night we were hosted by Michael and Susan Yates at their luxurious Silverpine Lodge, an exclusive destination located on a high bank site overlooking Lake Hawea . . . their generous hospitality provided a wonderful finale to our New Zealand visit.

Jan 30: Back to the Kawarau River. It had dropped a good five feet from its mid-month level and was running almost clear. The result was two more rainbows on muddler patterns, fished wet down and across. Not especially large but the best possible way to round out this New Zealand adventure.

New Zealand Trout

Nice Brown Trout

If you go:

Do some homework in advance.  Read John Kent’s excellent books, South Island Trout Fishing Guide and North Island Trout Fishing Guide, and Derek Grzelewski’s lyrical treatise, The Trout Diaries.

And check out these helpful websites:

Finally, it goes without saying that a good guide is literally ‘worth his weight in gold’ when it comes to making the most of what could very well be a-once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to experience the very best of trout fishing in New Zealand.  I know that from experience.