New Zealand sight fishing is tough, humbling

Story and Photography by Peter McMullan

Sometimes it’s the fish we don’t catch that leave the most indelible images. Like the formidable chinook, 40 lbs at least, dark and with a great hooked kype, that slipped the barbless hook with net poised one evening last September off the North Arm of the Fraser River, in British Columbia. Fishing partner and net man Glen Di Georgio was beyond consolation; my own feelings were mixed, recognizing this great male was on the final leg of a lifetime journey and deserving to complete the cycle in the weeks ahead. No hard feelings, no regrets, perhaps even a sense of relief that the life and death decision had been taken from my hands as the big fish dropped back and out of sight.

More recently in New Zealand’s South Island, with the pictures in my mind still as clear as the startlingly pure water, we came upon a substantial brown trout in a challenging lie on the middle reaches of the Mararoa River. We were totally alone in wide open country, 40 minutes drive from Te Anau, a lively resort town and prime fly fishing center. My host was local guide Lex Lawrence, his offer of a morning’s sight fishing to round out this overseas experience accepted with delight.

He and his wife Lyn call their farmstay bed-and-breakfast, Rose’n’Reel, a name that had caught my eye as I scanned the worldwide web for suitable resting spots. With a full six years’ big trout background, the sturdy, retired sheep farmer proved himself the ideal tutor for what lay ahead, an advanced level lesson in an aspect of fly fishing New Zealanders see as very much their own. Judged by the catch and release photo display on his dining room wall, and in the garage too, Lex is most definitely a practitioner with senior faculty status.

Today and tomorrow, and who knows for how long into the future, the fleeting moments that we were to share remain in sharp focus. Lex knew of my brace of Lake Taupo browns and had already extolled the virtues of the Mararoa.

Not that many fish to the mile, like so many of our Southland rivers, but they can be big, he cautioned.

Crouched above me and to my right, his silhouette all but obscured by the clumps of tussock grass and other dry bank side vegetation, he began to talk me through the process. Perfectly positioned to stare through the surface glare and along the calmer margins of a hurried flow where the stream narrowed, he had spotted two large browns. The better of the pair, he suggested modestly, could very well outrank its Taupo counterparts.

Both were within moderate casting range and the light crosswind beneath high cloud cover presented no additional problems. But then there was the mental stuff, the inevitable sense of expectation and the thoughts of what might lie ahead. The tension, the enhanced adrenaline charge, had to be contained. Concentrate, concentrate, try to be calm, hold back momentarily on each cast to ensure the best possible presentation. Nothing in my past had really prepared me for this test of nerves.

The switch to a weighted, bead head nymph, fished on some three feet of six lb leader, tied directly New Zealand-style to the bend in the hook of the indicator dry fly, followed as the first half dozen casts swept past and well above the intended quarry.

The scenario has to be familiar to all who have read, heard or dreamed about fly fishing at the bottom of the world. The reality, with all its attendant challenges, was a very different proposition.

Lex was a wonderfully patient mentor. Up a bit give it another couple of feet he’s still there but staying down that time he moved to your right he’s definitely a good one. Each cast notched up the anxiety level in concert with a growing sense of inadequacy. The telltale indicator fly, an Adams, kept vanishing in the broken water at the head of the run while Lex continued to call out the underwater action.

Inevitably, perhaps, this is a story with no happy ending, except, of course, for that particular Mararoa River brown trout. There was to be no thrilling climax as it deftly came to the size 14 nymph and immediately turned away to give battle from the sanctuary of the deepest lie.

Lex’s warning call came at the instant the fish finally lifted to my fly. At that precise moment the quickly moving indicator again disappeared from sight. The signal registered as my floating line straightened tantalizingly out and across the current. Fractions of a second had to count as I responded, lifting into the fish only to feel the nymph come back with just the slightest hint of resistance from below. He definitely had it and then let go. I saw the flash as he turned and his body shook. It was a good one, no doubt about it, my teacher reflected while we walked on up stream.

Lex’s business since retirement from full-time farming in the mid-90s is to bring visiting fly fishermen to resident trout, to offer guided introductions and then hope they can make music together. Once you try it, you realize: This is tough fishing, and humbling too.

As we headed for home, a trout of around three lbs, translucent and indistinct against the pale background of the river bottom, continued to take mid-water nymphs in full view. This particular fish was no more than a rod’s length from where we stood offering a choice of patterns, its only response being a marginal change in position.

Another day for the memory bank, not so much for the trout that remained uncaught as for the excitement of the pursuit and the introduction to a very different approach. That’s the very essence of fishing far away from home, new faces, new waters, new approaches, all adding fresh elements of knowledge to the essential lore of our wonderful sport.

(Field Notes: Lyn and Lex Lawrence, Rose’n’Reel Farmstay, Te Anau, can be contacted by e-mail at: