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Beginner's guide to fly fishing

By Matt JonesNZ Fishing World
Beginner's guide to fly fishing

If you’ve always wanted to get into fly fishing but the daunting array of wacky named-flies and casting-phobia are holding you back, fear not. We caught up with one of New Zealand’s best fly fisherman to clear the pathway into one of the most visually stunning forms of fishing on the planet.

New Zealand trout fishing legend Peter Scott picked up a fly-rod later than most, but that certainly didn’t hold him back.  “I didn’t get into trout fishing until I was 44 years of age,” he recalls.  “So I was in a bit of a hurry.”   

Within a year of catching his first trout he entered the Auckland champs.  In Pete’s own words he “had his ass handed to him on a plate” finishing last.  But perseverance, practice and the willingness to learn saw him take it out the following year.  Remarkably, within four years of catching his first trout Pete was crowned New Zealand Champion. 

He’s since represented New Zealand 13 times to date, but he won’t mention that unless you ask… at least twice.   Pete’s a softly spoken bloke who’s packed with knowledge and free-flowing advice which we gratefully tapped into over a cold one.  

Peter fly fishing

Pete with a nice small stream rainbow

How to get started:

“It’s actually quite hard to get started, especially if you don’t have contacts in freshwater fishing,” explains Pete.  “Joining a club’s one of the better avenues to go down, as most clubs run trips every month where you can learn from other anglers.” 

Your local tackle or fly-fishing store is also another place like-minded fish botherers like to congregate.  “Get good advice, as bad advice can be really expensive,” says Pete.  “You need to get the right gear for the type of fishing you’re planning on doing.  If you try and fish a #9 weight in a small stream you simply won’t enjoy it.”

Rod and reels

Rod and Reel Newmarket has a great range to get you started

When:

The trout fishing season opens on 1st October and closes on 30th April each year, but some areas are open for fishing year-round.  You need a licence to go trout fishing and there are a multitude of regulations, size and bag limits.  The Taupo area also has its own set of regulations so be sure to check out doc.govt.nz (Taupo area) or fishandgame.org.nz (rest of NZ) before casting a line.

As to when to start if you haven’t already: “Summer is the easiest time to learn as you can go without the waders,” says Pete.  “You just need a five or six weight rod and reel, a fly line, a box of flies, a tapered leader and some tippet.”

There are three types of fly fishing: dry fly, wet fly and nymphing with different equipment and techniques for each.  Pete recommends the simple approach to start with. “The easiest way to learn to fly fish is to start with a tapered leader, a dry fly and then just tie a nymph below it,” he explains. 

“You can fish your way up river and if you fail, change to a straight fluorocarbon leader, swing it below you and walk back downstream and you’ll get some hits on trailing flies,” explains Pete. 

Where to try your luck:

As breath-taking and alluring as the back country of the South Island is, it’s actually the smaller North Island streams that hold the most promise for a beginner.  “Because the hatches in the north are so spasmodic over the whole year the trout don’t get zoned into one type of food.  The north island fish aren’t that fussy, if you put a fly in front of their face they’ll eat it.  Whereas in the South Island they can just go onto a willow grub and if you don’t have anything matching then you won’t catch a thing,” explains Pete.

In terms of where you’re likely to catch a trout in the north, Pete offers a few pointers: “The spring creeks in the Waikato - like the Waihau or Waimakerere are lovely streams with lots of fish,” whispers Pete.  “People complain about them because of the number of small fish.  And there is a lot of small fish, but catching a small fish is all you need to get started,” he adds.

“The likes of the Punu, Mangatutu or Waipa in the King Country are all good streams too - pretty simple with fairly easy access.  Or there’s the Tukituki river in the Hawkes Bay.  The Coromandel can also be good, either early or late in the season,”

For Aucklander’s Pete says the Waitapara is the closest wilderness stream (about an hour from the big smoke) or there’s another stream in Clevedon, just up from the Clevedon Hotel.

Like any form of fishing local knowledge is your best weapon.  When buying you licence you can pick up a free Fish and Game brochure with handy info on access points and where to fish enclosed.  Pete also recommends getting hold of a copy of either the North Island Guide or South Island Guide by John Kent for further enlightenment. 

Learning the art of casting

Presenting a perfectly placed fly to a hungry trout is truly an art form, and like art, when done right it’s a pleasure to behold.   Picture-perfect casting comes with patience, timing, practice and more practice.  As Pete explains it’s far easier to be taught to cast than to try and teach yourself.   

“Casting is actually muscle memory so all we teach you in a lesson is some drills to learn, make sure you’re doing the right thing and then you must practice.  If you don’t go and practice forget the lesson,” he explains.  A little practice then makes perfect: “You only need to practice for 10 minutes two or three times a week to train your muscles.”

For a small investment of around $60 for a casting lesson you’ll gain valuable one-on-one tuition and feedback, whilst preserving your dignity.  “It’s really frustrating to go to a river and not be able to get your flies in the water,” explains Pete. Even more so when your mates are watching, we say.

How the pro’s do it

And, finally, remember this little pearl of wisdom when you’re casting your first fly.  “Trout haven’t got hands so they’ll stick a fly in their mouth, taste it and spit it out. It’s frightening how quickly they do it.  The rules of competition fishing are contact, contact, contact. The fishermen that catch most of the fish have better contact with their fly so they can see the take,” explains Pete. 

“Get good advice and unless you’ve got a mate to take you fishing, join a club and you’ll be away.  Get into it.”  Thanks to Peter Scott from Rod and Reel Newmarket for sharing his time and knowledge. 

Essential equipment

A beginner’s fly fishing set-up can cost as little as $150 so you could be fly-fishing for less than a night on the town.  With New Zealand being blessed with so many lakes, rivers and streams you don’t need a boat either - which should keep the wife happy. 

Basic gear needed:

  • Fly rod, reel and fly line - #5 or #6 weight for starters
  • Tapered leader – attaches to your fly line and gets thinner towards the trailing end so your fly rolls over and the line lays flat (rather than coiling up into a nasty birds nest)
  • Tippet – connects the tapered leader to your fly, the weight and size of which can be varied to fool unsuspecting trout into thinking that fly’s not connected to the end of your rod
  • Flies – a selection of flies to suit the season and location
  • Gehres Gink Fly Floatant – keeps your dry flies “dry” and floating
  • Polarised glasses - not just to see the fish but to also see where you’re going when wading too.  Sunnie’s protect your eyes from wayward flies too
  • Hat - A hat with a good brim helps you see better and stop the flies sticking in the back of your head
  • Wading boots - to protect your ankles – don’t wear your gumboots for obvious reasons
  • Wading stick and tungsten boot studs – for navigating rocky streams
  • Scissors – as biting fluorocarbon can become very expensive at your next dental check-up
  • Landing net- handy for landing the evidence and fishing from river banks
  • Dry bag – to protect your phone and keep your spare clothes dry.
  • Fishing licence – check out fishandgame.org.nz, doc.govt.nz or your local tackle shop

Pete’s must-have fly’s

fly selection

  • Royal Wulff dry fly
  • Flashback Pheasant Tail nymph
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