The Wanaka Region, located on New Zealand’s South Island, offers some of the world’s best fly fishing opportunities. Anglers flock from around the world for a chance at catching trophy-class brown and rainbow trout.
Although many of these anglers ply their trade in the backwaters, Lake Wanaka also offers excellent opportunities—if you know when, where, and how to fish it.
What To Expect
Lake Wanaka is home to three main species of sport fish. Brown trout, rainbow trout, and landlocked Chinook salmon (also known as Quinnat salmon).
Each of these species is self-sustaining and, due to an abundance of bait fish in the area, reach world-class sizes.
The lake itself is approximately 69.5 square miles (180 square kilometers) and is almost 985 ft (300 m) at its deepest point.
For obvious reasons, many anglers choose to utilize a boat or kayak when exploring the area. However, this does not mean there are not also excellent shore fishing opportunities available.
From a boat
If fishing from a boat, you will be able to access more of the lake, as well as have better opportunities during warmer weather when trout tend to move to deeper water.
However, fishing the edges of the lake by boat can offer some great opportunities for both sight-fishing and trolling.
With the lake being so deep, most fish will hang around the drop-off area where the light hits the edges and weed beds hold food.
Generally browns will be much more happy to be up in the shallows where you can sight them whereas rainbows prefer to sit deeper off the drop-off.
The benefit of using a boat is having a backdrop to reduce any glare, making spotting easier.
It is often best to slowly move with an electric trolling motor at least 4-5 metres off the drop-off, looking back into the shallows.
Too far away and it will be difficult to see, too close and you will run right over the top of the fish.
Most of the western shore is only accessible via boat, so even if you don’t plan to fish from it, a boat will be necessary for transportation.
The two main spots to launch are the Lake Wanaka Marina in Roys Bay and Glendhu Bay.
The marina is best if you are heading up Stevensons Arm, whereas the Glendhu Bay is best to access Paddock Bay and surrounds.
Other public boat launches include Dublin Bay, Waterfall Creek, Camp Creek, and Wharf Creek.
Investing in a quality boat ladder can make it easier to swim and enjoy the lake from the boat.
The Camp Creek and Dublin Bay beaches also have launches for 4-wheel-drive vehicles only.
During the warmer months, target the deeper water where temperatures are cooler using larger wet flies on a sinking line. As winter arrives transition to the flats adjacent to tributary mouths.
From the shore
Shore based sight fishing anglers may not be able to access all the best spots, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t excellent opportunities when targeting trout with shore-based tactics focus on shallows, flats, and tributary mouths.
The clear water makes for superior sight-fishing. However, it does make it easy for fish to see you approach and head for cover.
In autumn, brown trout and Chinook will move toward the shoreline and into river mouths. Rainbow trout will follow as winter arrives and all three species will remain within reach through the spring.
The key is to watch before you cast. Often there are many fish swimming right past you at any moment, and taking the time to look for them can make all the difference. If you are struggling to see, try to get up high and look down where they will be much more visible.
Often, brown will cruise very slowly in parallel to the shore, usually within a few meters, so be sure you stay out of the water and take the time to observe.
Flies and Techniques
Lake Wanaka’s trout will respond to almost any fly, streamer, or combination you would use elsewhere. However, there are some local favorites you will want to have on hand.
● Dry flies - Adams, Blue Dun, Royal Wulff, Humpy, and Coch-y-Bonddu
● Nymphs - Pheasant Tail, March Brown, Caddis, Hare’s Ear, and Midge Pupa
● Wet Fly/Streamers - Wooly Bugger, Rabbit, Grey Ghost, Muddler Minnow, and Hamill’s Killer
I often use a floating line (sometimes intermediate) with avery long and light leader. Depending on whether you are dry fly fishing or using streamers/nymphs, your leader needs to be at least 15ft long in an effort to not spook fish when it lands on the water.
I will often use a much longer and lighter leader when using dry flies, all the way down to 6x.
When fishing the lake edges, you need to focus on those areas that you can not only get to, but also have a healthy weed bed. Much of the lake is quite desolate due to the shingly bottom. However, if you find any spot with cliffs or big rocks on the lake edge, the fish often take refuge here.
There are several spots on the lake that are famous for their fish numbers due to the abundance of weeds, namely Paddock Bay.
Although due to the low lying nature of this area, it is often difficult to spot fish.
You can fly fish for salmon at the head of the lake where the Makarora River enters. This is quite popular with the older locals in the latter part of the season.
They cast sinking lines off the drop-off and slowly retrieve to entice a bite.
I always prefer to fish the lake at the height of the day, when the sun is high in the sky, as I typically onlysight-fish. However, if you’re more interested in hatches, still evenings can be a sight to see and can offer some amazing fishing.
Conditions on the day will dictate the flies you use. I often use very small streamers to imitate small native fish or will also use these to replicate damsel nymphs.
When the weather starts to warm and the fish are looking up, it’s common to look toward using blowfly, beetle, and cicada imitations, just be sure to keep them small.
Lake Wanaka is open to year-round fishing, including for trout and salmon. This offers anglers excellent late-season opportunities when many of the surrounding streams are closed for spawn.
All anglers, regardless of age, are required to possess a fishing license. You can get one here. New Zealand takes conservation of natural resources very seriously and penalties for not having a license, or attempting to use the incorrect license, can cost as much as $5,000 NZD.
That aside, purchasing a license is easy online, even the morning of your trip, and you'll find the rewards of being in this paradise are amazing regardless of whether you manage to catch a fish or not.
About the Authors
Thomas J. Burrell is an avid outdoorsman with a passion for hunting, fishing, and boating. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania he developed a love for spending time in nature. After spending time in the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, which allowed him to enjoy hunting and fishing around the world, he turned his passion into a career as a conservation officer. He now spends his time introducing his son to the same outdoor wonders he enjoyed in his youth.
Matt Butler is a former fly fishing guide based in Wanaka who now runs outdoor gear company KEA Outdoors. He used his experience from over six years of guiding to create gear that would better help prepare for all his adventures. You can see more about KEA here. All photos courtesy of Matt Butler.