The Bandit of the southern seas, Seriola lalandi, Yellow Tail Kingfish.
The New Zealand Loop Pro Team crack the little known sighted flats fishing in the North Island of NZ, under the unrivalled guidance of Clark Reid, the legend behind ‘Ray Riders’.
Images by Dave Tose & Craig Somerville
Clark Reid once described the Yellow Tail Kingfish as “a bandit”, “something akin to the ‘Beagle boy of the ocean”, “the school yard bully”. Having returned from Tauranga after experiencing first hand the trail of destruction left behind by the Kings, the phrase “bandit of the southern seas” is as close to a physical, never mind a literal, description as you will get.
Upon arriving in Tauranga, the first thought that crossed my mind after setting eyes on the harbour and the flats for the first time was a tremendous sense of awe. The fact that I had spent the past 2 months researching and planning this trip with Craig Somerville and Clark Reid did not prepare me for the sight, 20,000 acres of flats is daunting to say the least. I suppose the one factor that was most puzzling was that over the years I have read many articles discussing flats fishing destinations around the world, but none has mentioned New Zealand.
Working the flats Photo: Craig Somerville
I imagine the feelings of any prospecting fly fisherman when faced with endless fishing potential would be similar to the euphoria of a prospector striking gold. Until now I had never experienced that feeling, a daunting sense of the unknown, a real lack of relativity, and a deep excitement of what was to come.
A stunning sunset over the Tauranga flats at low tide Photo: Craig Somerville
I met Clark on 16th January at his home north of Rotorua where we put a plan for the day together and headed out. He was to give me a tour of the harbour to provide me with an insight into the culture, the on-site facilities and the fishery; a meagre morsel of the bigger picture present. This tour took all day, which left us a couple of hours in the evening for a cast. As eager as ever, my Loop Cross S1 10wt was up and rigged with an Opti Mega Loop reel, ready to rock and roll and unaware of what was to come we moved to the water. Faced with a falling tide we were left with the option of targeting the Kings along the channel edges as they hunt bait trapped while the tide falls.
The Yellow Eyed mullet, feeding, oblivious of potential bandit attacks Photo: Craig Somerville
For most fishermen, their first encounter with a target species is the one they remember most vividly for one reason or another. On this particular day my first encounter with the Yellow Tail King was one that matched Clarks description to a ‘T’. The tide was almost at low. The channel was clear as ever, with its margins lined with weed and rocky feature; ideal bait fish habitat made up predominantly of Yellow Eyed Mullet and juvenile Kahawai of which there was plenty. The small Kahawai, as ever, were readily taking the fly and as the hours went by the lack of bandits was noticeable. What happened next Clark described in his own words:
I found out today that it is not only the Irish who can dance a pretty mean Jig! The Scots can too... Angus Walton did a BACKWARDS jig while saying a few things best not repeated here as two 15 kilo Kings decided his legs were the best thing around to chase a school of baitfish against.
Having been faced down by two 30lb Kings at full noise while the bait were airborne 3ft out of the water hovering around me is one experience I shall never forget and one of those introductions that topped the list.
The Yellow Tail Kingfish on the fly is one of those species that gets under the skin. I mentioned a similarity to Atlantic Salmon in an earlier discussion, the way it penetrates the soul. While reflecting upon my first introduction, it would not seem possible to top an encounter of such magnitude. This is where we now get an opportunity to really delve into what makes this fishery special. In most fishing scenarios the relationship between the angler and his target species is three-way - the angler, the fish, and his chosen imitation to lure a predatory reaction. What makes Tauranga Harbour unique as far as a fishery is concerned, and what makes it truly stand out, is the four-way interaction of salt-water species that combined make this Yellow Tail King fishery absolutely unique.
A stunning Eagle Ray on the flats Photo: Dave Tose
In Tauranga, these specific Kings have the fitting name of “the Ray Riders”. To put this into perspective, imagine standing in 2-3ft of the clearest salt water, waiting eagerly for your first glimpse of the Riders riding upon their majestic coal black short tailed Rays, like battle hardened centurions riding aback of their chariots. Its tough to describe the feeling that consumes you when you see the first Rays. They are so graceful cruising fearlessly in their domain and you know that riding on its back could be anywhere from 2 to 8 bandits depending on the size of the Ray. They're locked and loaded preparing for the ultimate drive-by attack on unassuming bait fish or the Kings prize, the Flounder. This four-way dynamic, is made up of the Rays, the Kings on their back waiting patiently for startled, darting bait and you, the angler ready with fly in hand - the ultimate clash of fisher and fish.
Angus Walton putting out a back cast to a target Photo: Craig Somerville
The experience that follows an encounter with a Ray and its riders is second to none, the adrenaline rush is excruciating. The Rays are relatively visible in the gin clear water of Tauranga. The interesting and intriguing characteristic of fishing for Ray riders however, is that more often than not you don’t see the Kings until its time to get down to business. The experience that tops them all - you sight your Ray; intercept its path with the moving tide, stand about 20-30ft to the side of its route, make a cast 20-30ft in front of its nose, strip, strip, strip, strip, STRIKE and hold on!! The utterly outstanding thing about the Yellow Tail Kings in this environment is the astounding pace they build up in shallow water, both in pursuit of your fly and also when hooked and running for deep water. It doesn’t matter whether you are standing 20 metres or 300 metres from a deep channel, the King is going there and you need good tackle to eventually stop it. The one aspect of the King that is noticeable when hooked is the exhausting torque they have. The power, pound-for-pound is, without a shadow of a doubt, unrivalled on the fly. Craig Somerville summed it up with:
Target acquired, the Short Tailed Ray, talk about adrenaline!! Photo: Craig Somerville
Throughout our time in Tauranga, Clark Reid made it very clear that when considering the harbour as a fishery, fishing for Ray Riders is not a big numbers game. You should consider the riders more along the lines of Permit. It's not that Kings are tough to take on the fly, it's more the lower numbers. On a good day, you might land 3-4, while the Kahawai would be more like Bonefish, but with a fight to be rivaled!
A serious work out!! The Loop Cross S1 Flatsman 10wt doing its work!!! Photo: Dave Tose
Success, the colour of these fish is mesmerising, stunning!! Photo: Dave Tose
So to finish, it seems appropriate to bring up what all fisherman want to hear - the experience from the rod tip. After having hooked and landed a cracking Yellow Tail King, the words I would use to describe the fight are; gruelling, tackle-terminating, mind-blowing. To try and compare it to other species that you may be familiar with would be futile. In the case of the Yellow Tail King, the easy part is hooking up. I know that there are going to be those in the salt water fraternity who will immediately compare these fish to GT’s or Tarpon. All I would say to this is, don’t. Let's put this into perspective, both in and out of the harbour, you have the chance to connect to a King ranging from 12 to 80lbs. It's possible to land and release both Tarpon and GT’s up to and well exceeding 80lbs on the fly. I honestly can’t even imagine what it would be like to connect to a trophy King on the fly...and definately don’t have to words to describe such an experience.
So the question I have for you is: Do you have what it takes to take on one of the hardest-fighting and intelligent fly sport species on the planet?? If you think you do and want a hand to get started, then drop Craig Somerville at Castabroad New Zealand a line for some exclusive access to the harbour and the finest Ray riding flats guide in NZ - and bring a Loop Cross S1 Flatsman. You will need it!!! (www.castabroad.com)To finish with the word I started this series of posts with, simply Extraordinary.
By Angus Walton
Photographs Dave Tose & Craig Somerville (of Castabroad New Zealand).
Loop Cross S1 Flatsman 1290 #12, 9ft, 4pc with Loop Opti Big Reel
Loop Cross S1 Flatsman 1090 #10, 9ft, 4pc with Loop Opti Megaloop Reel
Loop Cross S1 Flatsman 890 #8, 9ft, 4pc with Loop Opti Speed Runner Reel
Can’t forget the ‘BIG BUGS’!!!
Upon flying into thriving Tauranga on the North-East coast of New Zealand's North Island, the undeniable geographical feature of the town and the reason for its existence, is the harbour. A massive expanse of clear water flats that well travelled fly fishers from around the globe would salivate over with anticipation. Reaching for my Air New Zealand serviette I realised I was personally going to spend the next 10 days on that magnetic water.
The port itself sits on the South-Eastern end of the natural harbour close to one of two outlets making the harbour a very large bay protected by the equally as long and stunning Matakana Island. The significance of this natural harbour to us is the tide and the flats that are 1-4ft deep on high tide. Low tide can still be knee high and in some places sometimes only the artery type channels remain. These channels on low tide can be where it is all at.
The white sand beaches lining the flats and the water remaining gin clear is as close as New Zealand gets to a sub-tropical paradise. The average summer air temperature range is 19-24C.
Many overseas travel agents call Tauranga sub-tropical, but fortunately and to their ignorance it doesn't quite meet the negative criteria to the delight of anglers and non-anglers alike as storms and swell have little to no effect here.
From those locals whom we met, there is a wealth of good people in Tauranga, an openness and acceptance especially amongst the local fishermen, letting people try something new and applauding the effort. The people have a very fresh outlook and it was a privilege to witness on a city scale.
We were often greeted by locals and tourists alike, asking what the fly rods were for, often starting conversations with the joke that gets old even on first utter "you won't find any trout in there" but still a friendly and 'happy to help' nature with local information and hearsay where nothing is too much to share.
I suppose what I'm trying to say, is that Tauranga harbour, idyllic flats lined with Pohutukawa trees turning red for Christmas, a comfortable sea breeze complimented by 22C heat, a depth of culture, wineries, good local produce driven restaurants and hotels, beautiful beach backdrops, drop dead sea front houses, an up to date fashion driven shopping precinct and good people with a smile on their face and ‘can be’ bothered to say hello and have a chat. Yes… again, I suppose what I'm trying to say is I wish I could bottle the formula they have here. Oh, and by the way the salt water and fresh water fly fishing is profoundly extraordinary, did I forget to mention that?
A quote from Castabroad:
“There is something about Tauranga that has everything, but just that giant bit more. I have desperately tried not to compare this location to that of all the other fabulous fly fisheries across the globe. No disrespect, few other places can beat this... it's all here in the fishery but with a top notch airport to get you here, a range of accommodation across a range of budgets, a fishery not overly affected by adverse conditions, politics or environment, there's no creepy crawly slithery things out to get you, so many things to do for non-fishing partners or even for a break from the water if required, and if one species isn't responding, turn to some of the best trout streams on the globe, or the most underrated sports-fish the Kahawai aka. the Australian Salmon, or maybe the Trevally, or the Snapper… All with the same experienced guide and within an hour between salt water flats and fresh spring creeks – Take your pick!The key factor here is you are not marooned on a distant island with nothing but fishing. This fishery seems to have popped its head up as an add-on for the locale, and now that we have experienced it, it’s proven to be the shiniest jewel on the crown.”
For more detail on the region, to make a booking with Clark or check possible itineraries here, enquire with Castabroad New Zealand – www.castabroad.com
Part 3 is all about the salt water flats fishing. Keep checking back because now it gets really exciting!
Pictures by Craig Somerville
New Zealand is most appropriately known for its world-leading sighted wild trout fishing, surrounded by some of the most exquisite and dramatic ‘Middle Earth/Jurassic Park’ style backdrops. It is this aspect of New Zealand that, without any shadow of a doubt, is what made this country shine from an international fishing perspective...until now. The mere notion of this being anything but a fact is almost inconceivable. And, the idea that some other fishing exists that is almost more sublime is surely absurd. Now being prompted to put the question forward; are there any other species in New Zealand that are of such a mind blowing standard to draw the wandering eye of the travelling sports fly fisherman from up-stream dry flies? Well, we are here to find out, and when I say "we", I mean the Loop Tackle Pro Team members Craig Somerville (CEO of Castabroad NZ) and myself.
I left Scotland some five or so months ago as a fledgling member of the Loop Pro Team with an agenda or a 'bucket list', depending on the angle I chose to look at it. The aim was not only to experience the wonderous trout that exist in New Zealand, but in traditional Angus-style, to explore the unusual and less obvious fishing that this country was hiding.
Prior to my departure I had heard tales of monstrous, aggressive salt water species whose fight rivaled, if not dwarfed some of the industries greats, the leviathans on the fly - GT’s and Tarpon to name a few. Traveling to New Zealand aware of the potential gems lurking up its sleeve, I had an overwhelming gut feeling that I was about to be a part of something extraordinary; nothing could prepare me or Craig, for what we were about to experience!
While I was based in Blenheim at the top of the South Island, I had an opportunity to really attempt to get to grips with the country and delve into the heart of what makes it tick. While I was digging, I established a dialogue with NZ Pro Team member Craig Somerville of Castabroad. Craig shared my passion for all things fish and we immediately connected. While discussing the opportunities and considering our responsibility as Loop Pro Team members, we soon concluded that the best way to help re-establish Loop in NZ was to team up for some expeditions. Castabroad and Loop wanted to explore other avenues that were being over shadowed by a traditional focus - this is Loop’s mantra, Castabroad’s aim for itineraries and exactly what I was looking for. Gradually the inspiration began flowing like a fine dram and combined with our passion only meant one thing, revolution.
Soon after we first made contact, we delegated ourselves certain responsibilities . I was tasked with researching the salt-water side of the missions, a task I was dying to get stuck into. I began to dig, overturning every rock and keeping a close and ever listening ear to the ground, closely monitoring the sound waves of the NZ fishing scene for fishy whispers. Using my current employment in one of the local hunting and fishing outfits I began chatting to the local fishermen who began to show a modest curiosity in what I was doing, admiring the Loop gear I had and amazed by the dreamy possibility of hooking a Kiwi king on the fly. It was then I ran into what could only be described as somewhat of an underground scene within NZ fishing, being made up of those who prefer to explore the less traditional, those who where drawn to the endless potential the NZ salt offered. It was here in the underground that I heard the names - Kingi, Kahawai and Trevally and others. All were pieces of the jigsaw, slowly but surely falling into place.
Earlier in my New Zealand experience I touched on the presence of the infamous Kahawai in kiwi waters, and mentioned these insane 4 to 12lb fish (see blog post). Well, touching on the topic again, these are possibly the most under-rated sport fish on the planet. From 1,000 strong work ups off-shore to the more intimate and definitely more exciting river mouth gangster style drive-by attacks, the Kahawai truly is the mob member of the Southern Seas. It occurred to me while casting for Kahawai, ‘what would it be like to pursue the hunter that hunted this mob?’ I bet that hooking one of their hunters would be rather like being attached to a freight train, with a mind of its own and no off switch!!
And so the digging intensified. While tracking one of these fishy whispers over a few beers one evening with the lads from work, the conversation soon digressed towards the NZ specific Yellow Tail Kingfish (a sub species unique to New Zealand) on the fly? It dawned on me that another huge piece of the puzzle had just fallen into place! I had heard stories back home of this tackle-destroying machine being taken on the fly, and had considered the concept, but until this point had never really considered my options. What if? From here I focused a large element of my research on this species, tracking down as many contacts as I could, most of which came to no conclusion except one.
While investigating several channels, I had been pointed in the direction of a chap based in the central North Island who had the Kingfish on the fly mastered! What I heard next truly blew me away. It was how he did it that got me really fired up - right up my street! Not long after I had heard word of this fishery and the man behind it, I was on the phone to Craig to express my interest and bring him up to speed.
Both Craig and I instantly saw potential, and even at this early stage we knew this could be even better than it sounded. So the first phone call was made, and after quite a considerable amount of communication and ice breaking discussions, soon flights were booked, and I travelled north for the first leg of the Loop expo 2014. Being tasked with first introductions and meeting the man behind it all, proved to be not only a huge honour but also quite the adventure.
At this point I must introduce the man behind the whispers and the legend behind the scenes of this underground New Zealand salt-water fly fishing mecca, Mr. Clark Reid.
Clark – a Kiwi, a country singing, prize gun-dog training, fly fishing, single malt connoisseur with a talent at the vice, an enviable joke repertoire, and a heart of solid gold, all kept at heel by Tania, his ever supportive and caring wife.
Clark has been an influential member of the fly fishing community in New Zealand as one of the longest standing guides and patrons of the sport for more than 33 years. Responsible for pioneering the way to many a hidden creek, and putting his name to the discovery of so much that the fly fishing world has to be grateful for. Starting his guiding career at the age of 17 as a junior guide in a company that at that time was also venturing into new territory, allowed Clark to develop his skills. Over the years Clark has worked in and has guided on some of New Zealand’s most influential waters, under the great names of Huka Lodge and Poronui Station to name just a couple. Setting a precedent and raising the benchmark for other Kiwi guides to follow, never mind developing an exemplary track record in all areas of the service has been Clark’s great strength. Having guided and become close friends with some of society's and fly fishing’s greats such as Joan Wulff, Randall Kaufmann and, most impressively to me as a Scot, Billy Connolly, has sculpted a worldly figure in Clark who has so much to share.
At first Clark was very guarded about releasing his secrets about this unique gem in New Zealand’s crown, though as far as I was aware he was really one of the very few people who understood the fishing and as a result was the authority in this area so I persisted. The thought of an almost un-known fishery being exploited for the wrong reasons resulting in its potential demise would concern any fly fisher. So what changed? Here is Clark's take on it;
“I want to know about your Kingfish Fishery?” asked Angus Walton over the phone one early summer evening. I had just got home from work at a retail fishing shop, had an order of flies to tie, and really wasn’t in the mood for another one of these phone calls.... He presented some credentials verbally which could not be ignored... Loop Pro Team, Atlantic salmon guide in several international locations and the enthusiasm he had was infectious, even over a telephone line. To be fair, I kind of fobbed him off a bit... But he rang back, I think three times before I started to open up. He informed me that he and a friend were keen to come and sample this. Still I hedged. Truth be told, I have been catching these fish and enjoying over 20,000 acres of good water on my own and with friends since 2006, with not another fly rod in sight and I wasn’t sure I wanted the world to know about it... I had, almost, retired from guiding, I was select in who I showed “my treasure” to and I probably sounded like hard work to the enthusiastic young Scot on the end of the line... He won me over... “If you come up, I’ll show you” I conceded.
I started my guiding career in my late teens for the illustrious Solitaire Lodge at Lake Tarawera. I was only meant to be delivering some flies, but they were short a guide and asked me to take a client. Fortunately the gods smiled and he did well; better than those fishing with the “professionals” and two weeks later I moved onto the lodge grounds as their resident guide. A few months later at another lodge I met and guided the GURU Randall Kaufmann, a friendship which endures to this day and through him I met Dennis Black, founder of the mammoth “Umpqua Feather Merchants”. Through my work with helicopter companies I was able to show them virgin fishing where trout had never encountered anglers and while guiding them raised my profile, what they taught me set me above other guides... I will always be grateful to them. Joan Wulff, AL Caucci, John Denver, Billy Connolly... my client list goes on and I have been blessed to share time in our outdoors with some amazing people who have taught me more than I have ever shown them. Through Dennis’s generosity I became an “Umpqua Designer Tier” and my Cicada fly became the best selling NZ commercial fly of all time... I remain very proud of that!
As Product Development Manager of Australasia for Feather Merchants I met the Australian fly-fishing legend Peter Morse at a tackle show in Melbourne and I brought him to NZ to conduct a series of saltwater fly-fishing clinics. Regardless of my career on the backcountry streams pursuing trout I was suddenly hooked, literally, into saltwater fly. I caught Kingfish to over 15 kilos under Peter’s tutelage, 13 different salt species in one day and I could see, after an illustrious career on our streams, a whole new vista opening up. This was exciting, world class and unknown to this point.
I bless the courage of my wife when I announced one evening we were leaving Taupo, the trout Mecca, and moving to Bowentown a little known hamlet on the eastern coast of the North Island on the edge of the Tauranga Harbour to be saltwater fly-fishing people... She trusted me and we moved. The fishing was wonderful and every excursion a brand new adventure.
I have only allowed a few to learn how we do it in the Bay of Plenty, where we do it and have been very guarded in its regard... perhaps foolishly... but the fly-fishing world is a political one and I knew I had something special and being just a fisherman, didn’t want to have to watch other people claim it, own it and maybe even destroy it.... It was mine, I felt, and I treasured it and still do....
However, Angus convinced me in his phone call we could look after it; we could allow others to enjoy it and would not have to sell our souls to do so... He assured me enough that we would not give this away, we would simply continue to treasure it, but share it as we saw fit.... shortly thereafter his friend, fellow Loop Pro Team member and Castabroad CEO, Craig Somerville, made contact and I deduced they were solid and genuine people and I could trust them with my treasure. What impressed me most was how well they respected that while knowing I have always been a Loop Reel Fan I was, and have been, connected to another famous brand for over 25 years... Not once was I asked to question that and it brought with it RESPECT! I respected their brand, they respected mine and with mutual respect we went fishing.They came, saw, and experienced it all and know it is exactly everything I have ever whispered it was... They encouraged me to guide and to share this wonderful fishery safe in the knowledge it does take some knowledge to open up the secrets within the harbour and make it all happen. At almost 50 years of age I find myself, once again, as enthusiastic and excited as that 17 year old boy at Solitaire Lodge with a fishery to be shared and explored, a treasure to be wondered at and a whole new adventure to embark on... what lies ahead, and who I can share it with just adds to the mystery and adventure... Safe to say, one of the world’s greatest salt water fly treasures lies on my doorstep and I truly believe I know as much about it as anyone... I look forward to sharing it with those of like mind who look for adventure with a fly rod in hand.”
With an office in the prettiest place on the planet “the township of Wanaka”, it is hard to keep your mind on the job in hand. Outside my window it is 20°C, blue skies and a gentle breeze that is frustratingly perfect for 3 local streams that have recently opened for the season calling my name. Emails, excel docs and the hum of the air-con can quickly turn your mind to justifying procrastination in the form of fishing, or better known as “Research” now that I am part of the LOOP team.
So, now committed to testing LOOP gear for the afternoon as it happens, all other priorities faded away for a couple of hours.The local stream of choice was less than 10 minutes drive, 5 minutes of which is up the riverbed over river stones to where willow trees define the start of trouty water and a natural barrier to park up– ah, a sigh of relief to be here and nowhere better to be. A calling answered.
For the stronger minded, you may well be shaking your head at my pathetic and momentary lack of professionalism to my work, but hey, who is in the better position whilst reading this in your office chair. You’re just jealous…
Ok, weapon of choice the Opti Creek #3 rod with the beautifully fine Opti Creek Reel and Opti Creek WF3F line. A 5ft polyleader essential for this line to soften its landing, 8ft of 6lb 4X tippet and a Stu’s Fly Shop Elk Hair Caddis. This provides 13ft of leader total, almost a minimum by NZ standards.
First few casts I knew this was a good place to be, good gear and fish on the rise.
The 2 hours that followed whilst hopping from one pool to the next in amongst tight over hanging willows and the odd logjam provided 3 immaculate fish.
The first was a brown of 3lb feeding deliriously on the surface without a care in the world. The next a rainbow of similar proportions which in play spent more time in the air than the water but spitting the fly at the net ( I counted it ). And then lastly, on pure instinct in a pool I could not quite see through the rapids but had to try a blind cast over it, a beak broke the surface for my Elk HC and proceeded like a freight train straight up through the rapids with me running up after it. A biggy I thought, all the traits of a powerful fish. And it was powerful. The #3 Opti combination of rod, reel and line were bent tip to butt at several netting possibilities –what a dream to use. If I had hooked this fish on my Opti #5 setup it still would have been fun but this #3 is a really fantastic tool feeling everything the fish wants to do in this small stream.
In the net and a buzzing sigh and a look up to realize I’m at least 150m from where I hooked this lovely 5lb bow, what a fight! A quick shot of him next to my Opti Creek Reel playing as important a role as the fish itself in this experience unfolding.
On release, the silvery rainbow was happy to tear off spaying me with its tail on exit as if to have the last word. Fabulous!
An hour later I was back in my office with increased productivity and smiles all round. If you have a local stream, I recommend visiting it.
How right he was.
By design and thoughtful landscaping, the first sight of Fiordland Lodge catches you by surprise: a log cabin the size of a wooden tall ship anchored in the sea of red tussock, with the backdrop of a huge lake and a horizon of endless mountains, greened with rainforest and topped with snow.
Fiordland, with its canyon-like glacial valleys and 1000m rock walls dropping straight into the water, offers some of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet and the Lodge is exquisitely designed to echo this grandeur.
At the bar made out from an enormous slab of recycled rimu we met the Lodge owner and head guide Ron Peacock. For 25 years Ron has been a national parks ranger, and spent 18 of those years roaming Fiordland, so his knowledge of the vast mountain wilderness would be hard to rival. He has fly fished for trout since he was a boy and thus naturally, when with his wife Robynne they built the Lodge in 2002, he also became its head guide.
Our original plan was to fish the Clinton, a greenstone vain of a river with dizzying clarity and a plenitude of both brown and rainbow trout. The Milford Track – “the greatest walk in the world” – follows the river and we intended to fly in with a float plane to the beginning of the track and fish as far upstream as we could get in a day. But in Fiordland, the weather always has the final say in any action plan and, as we breakfasted in front of the Lodge’s panoramic windows and watched heavy storm clouds brood over the mountains, Ron suggested an alternative.
“The Clinton is out in this weather but not to worry,” he said. “We have over forty rivers and streams within 90 minutes’ travel from Te Anau. We’ll go inland, there is a beautiful little stream I’d like to show you.”
And so he did.
For the whole day we walked up the river and into the mountain valley which opened up in front of us, revealing itself, like a good tale, one turn at a time. There were fresh deer signs everywhere, not a soul in sight, and here and there we found trout feeding with graceful efficiency of the top predator.
We insisted that Ron fished too, it was his day off and guides as popular as him are often too busy to fish much for themselves. We sighted a large brown trout feeding voraciously on the edge of a log jam and Ron hooked it with a precise cast, then leapt into the river with agility you would not expect from a 65 year old, to lead the fish away from the logs and possible tangles. Craig netted the fish and Ron hooted with delight, suddenly a boy again, doing what he loved.
Then we sat on a rock overlooking another promising pool, and we ate our lunch, and I thought that if there was a technology to measure the levels of happiness and joie de vivre in my blood the way cops test for alcohol I would certainly be well over the limit.
In his other life, when not being my fishing buddy, Craig runs Castabroad, a fly fishing travel agency which emphasises quality, luxury and hassle-free itineraries. The magazine story was his idea, as was staying and fishing with Ron, and so on the way back home we talked trout and more places to visit.
“There are 14 other trout lodges around New Zealand, six in the North Island, eight in the South,” Craig told me. “Similar in standard to Fiordland Lodge but as unique and individual as the people who built them.”
“And you know them all?”
“That’s what I do. Castabroad takes care of every details in its clients’ travels, from the moment they get off the plane until they step back onto it, so I’m the test pilot for the itineraries, making sure everything is just right and as good as it can be, or better.”
“Tell you what: next road trip we do, I guide you on rivers, you guide us to the best lodges.”
We shook hands. It was a deal. A pact of trout sybarites.
I’ve been given this assignment for a luxury travel magazine: to fly fish from Fiordland Lodge in Te Anau – (I know, but please don’t hold it against me, a guy has to make a living somehow) – and suggested to my fishing compadre Craig Somerville that we add a few more days to the gig and make it into a road trip.
The lower South Island rivers have taken a tremendous beating during the spring storms, some of them are only just becoming fishable for the first time this season, and I wanted to check out their state, and that of the trout, just as the rest of the waters were opening on 1 Nov.
The weather we had was less than ideal – thick overcast and downstream gale – but we were off to a fabulous start, with the first three casts converting into three magnificent browns.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to keep this perfect score for long,” Craig said.
Prophetic words. We did not touch another fish for the rest of the day.
The bend in the #5 says it all, Craig and Maya in hot pursuit
Day 2 was even more gloomy, and so windy it was impossible to cast upstream, even with the canon of a rod like the #7 Cross 1. Usually, a sight-fishing purist, I’d just go back to the camper and read but Craig had a better idea.
“You just turn around and fish streamers,” he said, “it’s just as good.”
Worth all the efforts.
Craig grew up on Scotland’s best salmon rivers so he is something of an expert on swinging streamers. He was hooked up almost immediately and to me it was something of a revelation, and a reminder: “fish to the conditions, not ideologies.” Craig had rescued what would have otherwise been a blown-out day.
On day 3 we went looking for rainbows. We walked for miles exploring a river that was new to us both and we found the fish in gorges and on shallow spawning beds. After the demanding browns, they were almost too easy, and it was clear they have had a tough time surviving the floods. I spotted the “fish of the day” and Craig caught it with the first cast, and we were surprised to see it had teeth like a barracuda. Neither of us had ever seen anything like this.
On the day 4 we rolled into Te Anau, a small frontier town on the edge of over 1.2 million hectares of Fiordland wilderness. Though we love walking remote rivers in pursuit of trout, camping on the riverbanks, sipping single-malts by campfires and being lullabied by the burble of trout waters, this far into our intense Carpe Diem trip we were more than a little weary. Sore-footed and weather-beaten, and as dusty as our 4×4 camper. More than ready for a little luxury.
“You’re in for the treat of your life,” Craig told me. He has been to the Fiordland Lodge before. I said it was a tall order considering I spent the past 25 years of the said life as a travel writer and no stranger to luxury and opulence. I even got to stay in royal suites, I went on. “One of them had a walk-through wine-glass cabinet bigger than your living room.”
But Craig’s confidence was unfazed.
“No, trust me, I mean it. Wherever you stayed, you’d have never seen anything like Fiordland Lodge.”
Stay tuned for Part 2.
The opening weekend of the New Zealand fishing season was good to us.
Winter gave the stream a hammering but despite this the few fish that had held their ground were responsive and in good nick already. We (myself and Paul - a good mate and also ‘conveniently’ a recognised Kiwi fly fishing guide of aspiringflyfishing.co.nz) headed off on our annual opening mission. This time we ended up defaulting onto one of our all time favorite wee streams “the Hush Hush Burn”.
The weather had been good on the week leading up, and the first morning we were welcomed to a clear and mid-flow mecca with blue skies creeping through the morning layers to heat us up.
“NILF”, you ask? = Nymph I Like to Fish.
The master fly-tisan I call Paul whittles up trout flies like no other, and the NILF is a pattern I could never divulge… lets just say it provides a rockin’ time and if I had to choose one NILF, she would be it.
Craig – Loop Army Down Under.
Rod: LOOP Cross S1 #5
Reel: LOOP Opti Dry Fly