If they can make it here …

Brown Trout South Island New Zealand

Just like Alicia Key’s ‘New York‘ song that espouses, “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere”, consistently catching large wild brown trout in New Zealand’s South Island high country is a pretty solid foundation for fooling fish from other exotic places. It’s also a great place to take stock of your fishing skills.

Earlier this season I had the pleasure of accompanying a couple of willing and passionate kiwi anglers up a beautiful South Island mountain stream. After mostly lone exploratory fishing for much of the past season, the camaraderie and backchat was a welcome pleasure. As mates do on the river, I chipped in with unsolicited advice. You know the lines. “Well, that one’s an absolute sitter!” and the like, whilst taking my turn to attempt to trick every third fish spotted or third pool occupied with hungry, chunky browns.

I put down my share of fish and was, perhaps, a bit lucky on some of the takes, but managed to hold my own. It was tough fishing. The frigid river was recovering from heavy spring rain, making wading more unpleasant and unpredictable than normal. An unseasonal snow dump earlier that week was melting fast into the steep tributaries, bringing down glacial silt and partially discolouring the main flow as it entered the river. This made spotting and fishing for these wily trout in the deeper than normal water a respectable challenge.

Despite being the local angler on these waters, and dispensing a few tips and tricks over these few days, I learnt a lot from observing my colleagues during this expedition – and from reflecting on my own fishing techniques over the trip.

Here are a few of my observations. They’re not lessons from yet another South Island fly fisher. Just some musings.

The Grain Game.

We had a range of lines between us, and a couple of rod weights (#5 & #6). We were fishing bushy deer hair indicators with big, heavy, tungsten-headed stoneflies on droppers. Turning these combinations over required some herculean efforts when the wind came up.

We were all fishing quite different lines and herein lay the first difference in our ability to get fly to fish quickly and accurately. A fly line’s grain weight (combined with its front taper over the first 20 feet or so) is vital to know and match to your rod. Put simply that #5 line on your 5 weight rod might not be a #5 after all. It might even be a #6.5 weight rod. Carl McNeil over at Epic Fly Rods has made some useful observations on these shenanigans.

This is all generally manageable if you’re fishing a true-to-weight rod, but if your rod is over-weighted and your line is at the lighter end of the grain range for that rod’s actual casting weight, well, things can get tough. One of our number was in that category and his light line weight made a meal out of consistently turning these big rigs over.

For my mind, it’s time that fly line manufacturers boldly displayed the grain weights of these lines on the packaging and for rod manufacturers to print the grain weights that the rod matches, on the butt of the blank. Thomas & Thomas does this with much of their range and it makes choosing the right line easier. And for us anglers, we need to educate ourselves on grain weight ranges. Hey, if you can remember a zillion fly patterns, locking in a few numbers for your preferred line weight, like #6 line should be between 152-168 grains with a mid-range weight of 160 grains, can’t be too difficult! And matching your rod & fly line should be much easier than it is currently.

I suggest you shouldn’t frequent any angling shops where the sales staff aren’t able to adequately advise you on this. Putting the impetus to know the preferred grain weight of the rod back onto them rather than shouldering the burden yourself means they’ll push back on the manufacturers and distributors to share this data.

Having the right line for your rod, and your fly setup, is a crucial start to casting well. Experiment. Invest in a couple of new fly lines – a true-to-weight, perhaps a weight-and-a-half line, and pay attention to the belly and front taper configuration. It’ll be money well spent.

Without getting into an entirely new article, have a quick think about the physics. A long belly will assist your mending and help roll casts to perform better. A heavy, short front taper will aid the aerial casting of heavy flies, help to turn over a long leader, and hide a few mistakes. A longer, more gentle front taper will aid presentation of lighter flies. There are clear trade offs to consider that will depend on your fishing situation.

Casting or Fasting.

This brings me onto presentation. It’s a simple numbers game. The more you can get your fly in front of the fish, the more fish you will fool. And our wind-resistant, over-weighted fly combos were making quick, accurate casting a challenge. I had a couple of chances early on our second day where two quick first placements with a minimum of unnecessary false casts (that might otherwise end up in shrubs, long grass or even worse an unprotected ear), resulted in getting two hard-fighting, angry browns to the bank.

Getting better at casting means you cast over more fish – without having to untangle the tangles, or re-tie on nymphs left hanging in trees! Casting better will consistently get more casts over fish and deliver your fly more accurately the first time. Surely that’s worth a little practice? It’s clear on these big backcountry trout that your chances of success visibly diminish with every cast. They just shut up shop and sulk, or glide off into deeper, faster water.

In short, casting is at the core of fly fishing. Learn. Get lessons. Practice in your local park. Warm up. If you can, get a friend to video your line in action behind and in front to see how your loops form. Put some weight on your leader and see how those loops change shape. Get some clever casting techniques into your repertoire. If you’re thinking of coming to New Zealand to chase our South Island Brown Trout, make sure you can cast accurately with long leaders and heavy nymphs. Remember if you can make it here, you can probably make it anywhere.

Harden the Butt up.

I’m not being rude here. The bigger the flies, the stiffer the butt section of the leader needs to be. We were running 16-17′ leader/tippet combos that in hindsight was probably a foot too long. But even worse, I’d been sent some soft stillwater leaders to try out and, despite knowing better, I affixed one of these to my fly line for the first day. It was terrible, resulting in some ungainly lobs, collapsed loops and a lack of energy right when it was needed at the lay up.

Consciously-decided compromises are the difference between success and failure sometimes. Switching from this 12′ finely tapered soft nylon leader to an equivalent length of Rio Powerflex that’s all about the bass, plus a couple of 2’+ fluro tippet lengths from leader to dry and dry to nymph (down to 4X) made a considerable difference to my presentation.

It’s not the Fly. It’s about the Fly.

The water clarity was deceptive, despite sections of the river showing some colour. As we progressed further upstream, we continued to underestimate the depth of the clearing water as the river had lifted a couple of feet higher than on our season’s earlier visit to this stream. The fish were sitting deep and the water was travelling faster. It was increasingly obvious as we moved upstream that we were simply not getting deep enough. Lengthening our dropper helped, but stepping up to #8 flies with tungsten and a little lead hiding under their rugged dressing proved the main difference.

Getting the colour right was important too. Previously successful smaller dark brown flies were ignored, but big golden orange stoneflies got greedily gobbled.

The actual fly was not critical. The size in quick current increased its desirability. The weight got it down and in front of the fish’s nose, when cast well. Colouration was seemingly a factor in getting an eat.

My personal view is that having confidence in your fly is a major factor in achieving success. It’s not the fly pattern that matters, the brand or the fly tier. It’s the fly’s main characteristics that are all-important. Any number of flies could have caught the fish we hooked. As each of us achieved success, we stuck with our own personal favourite. And they worked.

Hunting not hiking.

We were walking around 30kms each day on that expedition. With three keen anglers, only a fish or two in each pool and the pools sometimes half a kilometre apart, we had to cover a lot of ground to get a decent day’s fishing in. That’s par for the course in New Zealand’s South Island.

So once we found a quality fish, maximising our chances to fool them was vital. It starts with getting rid of the bling that might reflect, giving away your presence. Then wear dull clothing that blends you into the shadows. I reflected that on both of my two previous trips to this trophy fishery, I’d spotted an angler wearing a white wide-brimmed hat – not ideal apparel on this river.

Crossing the river is frequent to avoid currents affecting your cast so don’t be too lazy to track back downstream to find a safe crossing. It could mean the difference between success and a blank day.

Then assume the fish has eyes on the back of his/her head as you approach! Being on their sides is almost as useful. You might have to lie down to cast. Do what it takes. Casting from the shadows gives you an unfair advantage. Why not be extra careful? It sure beats walking another kilometre or two for your next fishing chance.

Make sure to approach the fish like it’s a sentry in a minefield (ok, that could be a bit dramatic). Anyway just tread carefully. Move slowly and deliberately. Get into position keeping your eyes on the fish if possible, observing its movements. Unship your fly and use the current to feed line out of the rod tip if possible, to minimise false casting. Then don’t screw up the cast and you’ve got a pretty good chance if your fly lands in line with your quarry’s feeding position. Watch your indicator and the fish’s movements at the same time (sure, this takes some time to get right), then tighten confidently if it takes. And please don’t throw your line back at the fish if the hook doesn’t take. That’s sure to scare it. Just drop the line downstream, and assess the situation. If your target fish is still feeding, it might have just taken something close by and be unfazed. Decide whether to change fly (this also rests the fish briefly) or make another attempt.

This chase is a big part of why we go angling for, right? So enjoy it, enjoy the walk, but make the most of your chances when you get in front of one of those big wild brown trout. It’s a long walk to the next one.

Where Dreams are made.

If you want to make it here, here’s a short checklist to summarise this rambling.

  • Have confidence in your entire outfit – match your rod to your line, know your rod’s optimal line weight, choose your leader assembly with care, don’t be afraid to change it out for different situations.
  • Bring your casting A-game. Learn to deal with wind, weight and obstacles.
  • Get the fly in the right place, not just via your cast, but with the right weight if nymphing. Don’t feel you can’t catch a fish if you don’t have exactly the same pattern as the angler having success near you. They’ll likely have similar insecurities when you back your own flies and start having success!
  • Make sure to dress for success. Slow down and move carefully to position yourself for the cast. Give yourself every chance of success as you work through the process of casting.

Finally, treat your fish with care. Fight it firmly and don’t land it on hot stones or drag it over shallow rocks. Release it quickly, keeping it wet while extracting the fly. Avoid the grip & grin if it’s been through a long battle. Remember that fish of your trip might only be there because you or another angler looked after it with respect earlier in the season.