Fresh water
Fresh water

Putting in hard yards for special trout spots

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Mike Davis

The adventurous fly fisherman prepared to put on a backpack and hiking boots and head into the hills can find some of the best trout fishing in the country, and there are plenty of opportunities to hunt out hidden places which offer special experiences. But there are some pitfalls and careful preparation and thought should be invested before setting out.

For many people out in the community when talking about a sport such as fly fishing, many of them will conjure up thoughts of older middle-aged men standing in knee- deep water smoking their pipes hoping that something may jump on the end of the line at some time. Most people think that fly fishing is a relaxing, mellow sport with not many physical demands and for some, especially those folk who have never given it a good try, sometimes ignorant statements will come out along the lines of calling fly fishermen “mud fisherman”, and the like.  Over the last couple of decades there has been a swing and attitudes are beginning to change where a new breed of adventure fly fisherman is beginning to emerge.

There are some fly fishermen that certainly use fly fishing as their form of relaxation to fish stream mouths into the dusky evening twilight as fish move in closer once the sun goes down, or that are happy to fish a pool on a river for a couple of hours before heading home, and this form of our sport is a fantastic way to educate someone who has never fly fished before into a little taste of what the sport can offer. But for the fishermen who are trying to find more solitude, isolation and hopefully a quality experience with more naïve fish encountered, more forward planning and thought is needed to get the optimum results. Often much effort is needed to get into some of these special places that require a reasonable level of fitness and also a high degree of mental toughness for the days are often long and arduous. A wrong step due to a stumble because of a lack of fitness or a bad decision made because you were not thinking straight could have a potentially nasty outcome, or at least an unplanned cold overnight stay in the bush.

Special places like the upper Ruakituri River are no-fly zones for helicopters and only those fishermen prepared to hike in can enjoy the superb fly fishing.


Over the last 20 or 30 years more fly fisherman have become more adventurous in their quest to find water that hasn’t been fished recently, with numbers of fly fishermen rising rapidly over the last decade and with very efficient inter-continental travel the world has definitely become a much smaller place.  

In the early 1970’s and through to the mid 80’s here in New Zealand our fly fishing potential was highlighted on the world stage by pioneering guides like NZ Fishing World’s own Geoff Thomas, Tony Hayes and Simon Dickie who took New Zealand’s quality fishing to the rest of the world - and from there the rest is history.

Today thousands of overseas guests travel to our country every year to sample the world class fishing opportunities and guided fly fishing has become a highly competitive market. Even in a country as sparsely populated as little old New Zealand there would be very few rivers or lakes that would not be fished on a weekly basis, so to find the best fishing with the least chance of running into people extra preparation before embarking on a fishing trip is needed.

With the use of the Internet, websites from the different regional councils can be used to gain invaluable information on river levels for the major waterways, and also on the localised hourly rainfall for a particular area. Many of these websites are updated on an hourly basis making them extremely accurate for planning a trip into the back country, especially to the more remote parts of the countryside.  

This information gathered from the charts is priceless, especially during New Zealand’s fickle spring weather.  

After a few trips into rivers with water readings on them it is quite easy to work out what flow levels are needed to make extra crossings, so new water that is less explored is opened up to the angler.  

With lower river levels on our larger rivers often many more safe river crossings can be made that under normal river flows simply would not have been considered, allowing more fishable water to be accessed.

Many rivers fish differently under different water conditions and in some of the bigger rivers very low flows give opportunities to the fly fisherman that would not have been there under regular flows. During periods of very low flows we can suddenly get our flies down to the required depths needed to be effective in catching fish in these normally deep, very swift sections of the river; and yet conversely on other rivers extra water may actually mean that the fish stay higher up in a particular waterway, or stay put in small feeder tributaries coming off the main river giving extra fishing options that would not have been available under low river flows.  

For these reasons I have found that it is unwise to write a fishery off after one trip if it doesn’t produce many fish and that sometimes three or four trips are needed to find the best fishing conditions for that particular river, especially for the methods that I prefer to fly fish with which is mostly with a large attractor dry fly and a dropper nymph suspended underneath it.

The writer is always prepared to go the extra mile to reach water which has not been fished for some time. This is the result


One of the first things that I do when getting to a river is to look for any telltale signs of any other anglers and try and decipher how fresh the signs are. The obvious signs are footprints as boot marks are left on the shingle edges of pools, concentrating on how fresh these boot prints are. On very small rivers and streams if I suspected that the water was fished the day before especially when the river has a low fish population, I would probably choose to bail out quickly and find another stream to fish that hasn’t been fished on because the trout will quite possibly be wired and very hard to catch.

The other option is to put your head down and walk for one or two hours and find water where the previous angling party didn’t get to fish. This may force you to have a huge walk out at the end of the day but it will at least get you to less fished waters.  On larger rivers with higher fish populations this does not matter as much as the previous angler will miss many fish throughout the day.  

Every now and then litter will be found whether it be lunch wrappers or discarded nylon from people retying on a leader. One of the first signs of recent activity can be found by looking into the vegetation along the edge of pools and runs as people get their flies snagged on the branches and break them off leaving their flies dangling down from the branches.

The rewards of being first to fish remote water after heavy rain – a superb back country rainbow. The dark colouration comes from the trout living in bush-lined water.

Holidays and Navigating

There are certain times of the year when there are extra anglers on the water such as over the Christmas and New Year periods. During this time most waterways near sealed roads take an absolute pounding from fisherman, campers and swimmers.  Over this time, periods of rain are a blessing and by making sure that you are first on the water once the rivers have cleaned up after heavy rain and high humidity, you can encounter some awesome insect hatches in these conditions. This usually involves a lot of terrestrial action with beetles and cicadas on the wing and the fish usually react positively for the next couple of days before the water gets too bony once again.

Because adventurous anglers love to explore what is up around the next corner, when considering new rivers to fish good topographical maps are a must to carry.  

These, along with a compass and a GPS, can prove invaluable tools at different times.  The maps will show tracks and huts in the area and also give a good overall look at the terrain in what can be expected.  

They mark the large rapids and show contours of 20m differences which indicate the steeper more inaccessible countryside, and obviously the areas of flat land that will be easier to travel through. I have found that a compass and GPS are great tools to find your bearings especially to get an accurate north point when you are exploring new ground for the first time.

In steep country you inevitably have to veer away from the river whenever you are confronted by an impassable bluff or gorge that you need to navigate around, they can help if you ever lose your way.  

There have been times where I have physically fished as far as I could in a day, and worked through two and sometimes three different gorges and the prospect of negotiating back downstream through the gorges just wasn’t an option towards the end of the day as it would take too long. By finding a high point above the gorge we were able to get a satellite reading that told us how far from the car we were. The GPS was even able to give us an estimated time on how long it would take us to walk out from the speed that we were travelling.  

Sometimes cutting through the scrub after a long day through difficult country is an easier task than walking back down following the river. The only downside is that the GPS will give you distance as the crow flies but at least it is accurate to within a few metres of exactly where the car is parked.  

Sometimes they can also be affected by a heavy bush canopy but are pretty good through light bush and scrub or in any clearing where they have uncluttered access to the satellites.

A nice brown which fell to a nymph fished under an attractor dry fly pattern.

The Middle Ground

By talking about adventurous fisherman in this article I do not mean the use of helicopters to be used as transport to get from point A to point B, as awesome as they are. Helicopters are a fantastic form of transport for people who have restrictions on time and for those people who can afford to use them to get into special places.  

I am talking about those who sometimes have to journey just to get into a place to fish, may it be a long hard tramp from the road end, traversing ridgelines and razorbacks to get down into the river, or a steep drop into a gorge that once you are in it there is no getting out of the river until you reach the other end.  

Many of these places such as deep gorges and bush lined rivers that are actually too steep or have too much heavy vegetation for the helicopters to land in, making them only accessible to those who are prepared to put in the hard yards to get to them.

Some people refer to this area as the middle ground. This is the area of land where the day-tripper fisherman finishes at and where they turn around and head back to the car after a long day’s fishing. From here the middle ground starts and continues up to where the helicopter pilots begin to drop their clients off for a day’s fishing.  

As a generalization most helicopter fisherman tend to head straight for the upper catchment of a river system, and this area of middle ground in between usually gets the least amount of pressure from anglers because it is too hard a slog for most foot fishermen, but too risky for the pilot to land in case foot traffic reaches water that people have paid big bucks to fly too.

While I may not consider the use of helicopters as hard core fly fishing and at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, I have used other forms of transport to access difficult fishing spots chiefly to cut down travel time without it costing too much money.  

For comfort the four-wheeler motorbike is pretty hard to beat if you have a mate that has one, and for a working up great sweat the use of a mountain bike is fantastic, and it will at the very least halve your travelling time compared to walking.  

The only downside to the use of bikes is that they can only really be used to access rivers with well developed tracks heading into them. If you have to do any bush crashing at all the only way without a helicopter is by walking hard.          

No Fly Zones

For these reasons I would love to see more rivers with wilderness no fly zones such as apply in the Urewera’s upper Ruakituri River catchment, and parts of the South Island’s West Coast.  These are special places which are left just for those who are hard enough to able to negotiate the terrain and countryside to walk into them.  

When it all boils down to it, the people prepared to walk hard to reach these rivers and lakes that are less fished never seem to do it for the straight out numbers of fish caught or hooked or because of the huge fish encountered - even though some possess fantastic angling opportunities. Often many rivers much closer to home can provide just as amazing fishing to lots of, and often very large fish.  

People tend to keep exploring new water in hard-to-get to places because they have special qualities that provide a unique experience that requires some hard work and a fair bit of sweat to accomplish.  

The experience of walking through a deep gorge while having to climb around and over boulders the size of a house or dropping down steep bluffs into a crystal clear river can turn fly fishing from a tranquil, relaxing sport into something that is as physically and mentally demanding as you want it to be while still providing the soul with peace.  The next time you get down to your local favourite stream to find people already fishing it, pull out your map and try some exploring for a new experience.

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