Fishing the South Island of New Zealand

South Island New Zealand Trout Fishing

by Ron Giles

Trophy Trout in the South Island NZ.
The South Island of New Zealand is where most visiting anglers head for to experience that unique experience of fishing to sighted trout; often in excess of the magic 10lb mark (4.5 kg). But such big trout are not easy. Either you need to be an expert presenter of a fly to a visible fish (which leaves me out) or be prepared to hike a couple of hours into less fished sections of a wild New Zealand river - and that is the only option for me. For example, my biggest South Island trout - a 14lber from the middle sections of the Rough River, involved a two hour tramp in semi darkness in the early hours of a March morning. And the river only yielded two trout that day. The other one was a nicely-coloured 6 lb hen; a nice fish but nothing to brag about. 
What was even more remarkable was to revisit the river a year later to check on how a major flood had changed the river. It certainly had - the riffle from where I had pulled out the huge trout had gone completely. The river had changed course and a deeper run had developed. Which yielded a 12lb fish! Man, what a river. Certainly the results justified that 2 hour trek up the river over the Rough River bowling balls.

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The most popular area for flyfishing the South Island is the Nelson/Marlborough region, located at the top of the South Island of New Zealand. The area is blessed with a warm, dry climate as it is protected from the prevailing south westerly weather pattern by the towering peaks of the Southern Alps. Rainfall is trapped by these substantial mountains and the resulting climate has seen the region become New Zealand's most important wine-producing area, famous for its Sauvignon Blanc.

The mild climate is also great for trout and they thrive in the crystal clear, mountain-fed waters that are so typical here. The trout are both rainbow and brown with brown trout being the more common, as is usually the case in the South Island. Being browns, they have that tendency to rise to the dry fly and it is that trait that attracts anglers from all parts of the world. All these numbers of visiting anglers does result in this region being the most heavily-fished in the South Island. This means that unless one is prepared to walk some distance, other anglers will often be encountered and wary fish are customary, especially as the season progresses. As a result, visitors should not expect the fishing to be easy. On the more popular rivers, most of the fish encountered will be `spooky' and demand presentations of absolute perfection. Long leaders and fine tippets are essential at most times on these rivers, particularly in the height of summer, when river levels are low.

42 Hard fishing conditions(copy)
Fishing to wary trout on the Little Wanganui River

But it is this special challenge of fishing to big, spooky fish in the clearest water possible that brings anglers to the area, like moths around a lamp. To test your expertise against these wily trout is one of the greatest challenges in fly fishing. We may try and fail but to never have tried is admitting you don't want to progress as a flyfisher. When we are embarrassed after another fruitless day on a Nelson river, we go away determined to practice our presentation so that we may triumph on our return. And there is nothing more satisfying than having a large and educated trout deceived into taking your offering. Every year, several trout of 14 or 15 lb are taken from rivers and streams in this region and fooling one of those `hogs' is an achievement of a lifetime for a flyfisher.

So do not expect to catch large numbers of trout and to see them leaping upon your hook. Do expect to spot many large trout feeding freely in clear mountain streams and to have the chance of testing yourself several times in one day against the wiles of a wary trout. During a day, an average angler will be likely to land a couple of trout that will average 4 lb and have fished to several in the 6 to 8 lb bracket. A good angler will pick up a couple of these as well. If you get away from the madding crowds, by foot or by helicopter, you will usually see at least one double figure fish in a day. In the early days of the season, you will have an even chance of catching them, but after that, only the skilled presenter will succeed.

As that august body does not include me in their ranks, those similarly-afflicted, with only average casting skills, should perhaps head for some of the rivers that are a little easier on anglers. The rivers that I have had the most success on would include:

Wairau River

This magnificent Marlborough river rises in a remote part of the upper South Island at the end of the St Arnaud Range. The only access to the upper river is via a private hydro access road leased to the large Rainbow Station. This road is locked at a point just past the turnoff to the Rainbow Ski field. During January and February, the road is sometimes open to the public on payment of a refundable fee to cover the cost of the key, which must be obtained from the station owner.

Fortunately, there is around 40 miles of the river that is available to the public so there are still plenty of options. Good fishing on the hydro access road can be found anywhere along the 10 miles between the turnoff from SH63 and the locked gate. There are various tracks leading from the access road to the river and often a full day's fishing can be found at the end of such a track. The brown trout average 3.5 lb but fish up to 7 lb are common. The fish are not always visible so fish the riffle sections very thoroughly, blind nymphing your way up the river.

Wairau River2(copy)

SH63 follows the river all the way to the wine town of Blenheim. The first access below the hydro road turnoff is at Wash Bridge, which is also the limit for the winter fishing extension. There is excellent fishing upstream from the bridge for many miles.

Wairau River - Rainbow Station(copy)

The bigger fish can lie quite shallow in this stretch so it pays to have a good look at the edges before casting to the deeper water. Below the bridge, there are also many miles of good fishing in the often fast-flowing, braided water.

The next access down is at Kowhai Reserve and this park provides egress to an area of rocky peninsula that is rather different in character to the rest of the river, with some large, deep pools. Not far down the river, there is a canal coming from a hydro station below the Lake Argyle Dam. This canal holds a lot of fish and many of them are susceptible to a well-presented dry fly.

From here down, the river can be affected by draw-off for irrigation in summer as the demands of the burgeoning vineyards see substantial off takes. If flows are reasonable, there is good fishing from Wairau Valley Township down to where the river flows through the outlying suburbs of Blenheim. Fish stocks are good in this section with 530 trout being counted in one drift dive over 1 mile of the river near Renwick. Salmon may be caught in this section, as there is a salmon hatchery near Wairau Valley. Access to any part of the lower river is easy from roads off SH1.

Motueka River

The Gordon Range that looks down upon Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes area is the source of the delightful Motueka River. Near Kohatu, a major tributary, the Tukipo joins the river and this delicate water offers good fishing early in the season while water levels are reasonable, From the confluence down, there is excellent fishing as the Motueka flows quietly through the lush pastures lined by willow trees. The river here is a pleasant size to fish and offers relaxed wading. The fish tend to be smaller in this section, averaging around 2 lb. They are most likely to be taken on small dry flies like a Kakahi Queen, which represents New Zealand's most common mayfly.

From this point down, SH61 closely follows the river for most of its remaining 30 mile journey to the sea at Motueka. At Tapawera, the road to the right over the bridge allows access to the lower reaches of the main tributary, the Wangapeka. This is a magnificent river in its own right, rising in the depths of the Kahurangi National Park, the second largest park in New Zealand. The next bridge is 6 miles further down at Woodstock and the road to the left gives access to the Baton River. This river has recently recovered from a paucity of fish and it is well worth a walk up the attractive river valley. The confluence pool is renown for the number of fish that congregate there, some of them quite large. There is some great fishing from here up for many kilometres with a stunning variety of water where willow-lined runs, deep bouldery pools, smooth glides and turbulent riffles all greet the flyfisher.

Motueka at Woodstock(copy)

Whatever water you prefer to fish, you will find it somewhere in the miles of water upstream of the Baton Bridge. The fish are a little larger here averaging around 2.5 lb and a few somewhat larger. During the day, rising fish will often be seen but if not, then the riffles should be fished with a dry fly/nymph combo rig. Fishing the evening rise is the most productive method but that can be frustrating when the fish are feeding on emergers. Every other fly pattern will be ignored when the fish are feeding on the emerging larvae. This is a good time to try the Klinkhamer Special.

klinkhamer crp(copy)

Westbank Road on the right over the Baton Bridge also follows the river all the way to Motueka and allows access to the other bank, if wading across is not possible. Access to the river is possible at many points from either road and good fishing can be had with delicate dry flies cast to the rising fish in the slow stretches of the river. The fish are all browns and average around 3 lb. Drift dives have proven that there are many larger fish in this stretch but they are more liable to only feed at nights.

Buller River

The mighty Buller River starts its long journey at the bottom of Lake Rotoiti near St Arnaud.

Rotoiti 1
 Lake Rotoiti

For the first couple of miles, it falls steeply and the water is rough and turbulent. You could be excused for thinking this was not brown trout water but you would be wrong. Behind its many obstructions and obstacles, a 3 lb beautifully-spotted brown trout may well be lying. A bushy dry fly, like a Grey Wulff, drifted over the slack water behind a boulder is liable to produce a violent response. This fast water continues below the first access at the main road bridge and good results can be had fishing bead-head flies through the many turbulent riffles. About 3 miles down, the river slows considerably as it continues on its 50 mile journey to the sea at Westport. There are more classic pools and runs in this section.

There are a number of access points along the stretch below St Arnaud and these are designated by the Fish & Game `Angler Access' signs. Much of the access is through farmland and respect should be shown to stock and property so that we retain this generous access permission. Fishing in this area is better outside the low flows of summer when the fish seem to drop further down the river. But any discolouration after rainfall will see good numbers of hungry trout attack beadhead nymphs that were ignored on the previous dry weather days.

There is good fishing above and below Kawatiri Junction and the river is somewhat larger here, being swelled by the various tributaries. A few miles further down, it becomes a very substantial river after the torrent that is the Gowan River joins its flow. Some good fish will be found in the water above and below the Gowan confluence and they take a dry fly often in the middle of the day. Prospecting flies like an Adams or Irresistible seem to work best.

There is good fishing all the way from here down to Murchison with the dry fly being the favoured option. The fish are all browns and average around 3 lb but many larger fish are taken. Below Murchison, there is a huge gorge, favoured only by kayakers and so not much of interest to the flyfisher.

Travers River

The Travers River rises in the heart of the St Arnaud Range in the Nelson Lakes area. It flows for about 10 miles from the foothills of Mt Travers, through pristine beech forest to reach Lake Rotoiti. Access to the Travers is restricted to a tramping track around the lake. The track starts at the pleasant hamlet of St . Arnaud and it is a three hour walk to reach the mouth of the river. For a day fisher, it pays to take the water taxi, where for a modest fee, you can save the walk in and get on with the fishing. The taxi goes to either the Lakehead Hut jetty or the Coldwater Hut and will pick you up at whatever time you prefer.

The mouth of the river is right next door to Coldwater Hut and it is worth exploring the waters just up from the lake, as there are some big trout that frequent the lower 100 yards of the river. Staying overnight at the hut gives the opportunity of picking up a good fish in the early morning or on a dry fly at night. Apart from around the mouth, the lower Travers is not of much interest except early or late in the season. The bottom mainly consists only of gravel and the river lacks the depth and obstacles that give trout cover. This is accentuated by the lack of trees in the first few hundred yards. Better water is to be found about 30 minutes walk up from the lake. Five minute's walk across the paddocks brings you to two of the best pools on the river. The first is a long, deep green pool that reflects the tall beech trees on the far bank. A careful approach is essential, as the trout are very wary due to the angling pressure.

Travers Pool 1

Two hundred yards further up the river brings you to a pool that hugs the other bank. It is a longer but shallower pool that usually harbours 4 or 5 trout but they are super selective and will ignore any fly that does not seem `right'. Try a size 16 Pheasant Tail but move on after a few refusals.

Travers Trout(copy)

For the next few miles, up to the swing bridge, there are a number of smaller pools and runs that all may reveal a trout to the observant angler. The river is somewhat braided thanks to the flood-prone nature of the Travers. The fish tend to lie in the shallows and most fishing will be to visible trout. The two long pools by the swing bridge often contain a big trout or two but they get everything thrown at them by passing trampers. Despite this, I once picked up a lovely 6 lb brown hen on a size 14 Pheasant Tail in the riffle about 100 yards above the swing bridge. Further on, the river splits into two flows. As long as the river flows are not too low, this is a good stretch as it receives less pressure than the waters nearer the lake. It is about two hours walk into this area so not too many day anglers get far up this stretch. To reach some of the more secluded pools, it is necessary to push through the bush but the fish are not quite as fussy as they are further down. The average size is around 3 lb with an occasional 6 lb fish to be seen.

Gowan River

Lake Rotoroa, in the Nelson Lakes area, is the source of the torrent that is the Gowan River. The Gowan flows into the Buller at Gowanbridge and adds substantially to the flow of that large river. A vast catchment area contributes a large amount of water to Rotoroa and this results in a constant heavy flow down the outlet river. The mountains are clad in beech trees and are snow-covered in winter so the inflow water is always cold. This results in perfect trout water, which explains the drift dive figures of 200 trout/mile at the outlet and still up around the 150 mark, two miles down river.

The Gowan River is reached by turning off SH6 at Gowanbridge taking the road that crosses the Buller River just below the confluence with the Gowan. The sealed Gowan Valley Road follows the river for all of the six miles to Lake Rotoroa but the heavy foliage on the banks restricts access to the river. The reaches just above the confluence are more open but the better fishing is found further up. The first access in this stretch is found at the East Bank Road Bridge, 3 miles up the road. Looking down from the bridge, you might be excused for thinking that the water flow is too fast for fish to survive. Not so, both browns and rainbows are present in large numbers. They average around 3 lb and are always in good condition; they have to be to exist in the continual, powerful current. The fish have to seek whatever shelter there is from the strong flow, which will only be found behind rocks and at the edges in the quieter water. Good fishing is available both upstream and downstream from the bridge but only if you are fit and energetic.

Gowan River(copy)

The only fishing options are either to use a short stick nymphing technique with heavy nymphs or the `Brooks' technique with a sinking line. Either way, this is where the double nymph rigs work well when a light nymph is attached to a heavily-weighted `sinker' nymph, such as a large Stonefly.

Turning right over the bridge leads you to a track through the farm that borders the river and permission to pass through should be gained from the farmhouse. Access to the river is possible at a few points along this road but most will involve some heavy bush bashing so wear appropriate protective clothing. There are a couple of access points from the main road above the bridge but the water better suits left-handed anglers. The last access is through the Rotoroa Lodge property. An approach to the lodge owner will usually see permission readily granted, which is generous for a commercial operation. The road on the lodge side follows the river for a couple of kilometres and again access is possible, here and there, by pushing through the bank side trees. The top part of this section, flowing past the lodge, is much less turbulent, although the flow is still strong. It is more suitable for dry fly fishing, especially during the low light hours when rising fish are a regular event.

S cast(copy)

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