Can’t Miss Tips for Fly Fishing in New Zealand – Fins and Feathers Bozeman
Close x

Category_Vintage -

Can’t Miss Tips for Fly Fishing in New Zealand

The rapid approach of 2020 has me thinking about my next BIG THING – I’m feeling the pull south…perhaps next fall!

I traveled and fished extensively around the South Island of New Zealand from the early 2000’s through 2012, both on my own and as a host for several groups of anglers. I have fished out of lodges, with guides, with friends and on my own throughout the South Island. This article was written in 2010 and recently slightly edited to reflect current gear choices as I look to heading back in 2018 or 2019. The primary purpose of this article is to help American anglers with planning a fly fishing trip to New Zealand from a “Do It Yourself” perspective.

There are several great travel services out there that will assist with arranging lodging, guides, and travel. I have worked with “The Best of New Zealand Fly Fishing” and “Yellow Dog Fly Fishing” extensively over the years. I would highly recommend booking your travel, lodging, and guides with these companies. If the budget is tight, then consider booking a guide for a few days with one of these agencies and piece the rest of the trip together on your own with the help of this article and various other web resources.

Feel free to reach out to me via email at our Bozeman fly shop for general questions about fishing on the South Island, gear recommendations/purchases, and fly packages based around your travel plans. I won’t be naming any rivers or secret runs, filled with double-digit trout though…but let me know where they are if you find them! Enjoy the read and let me know if I can help with your next fly fishing trip to New Zealand.

Winters in Montana are cold; that’s why I typically head to New Zealand for a few weeks of chasing trout in summer weather. Although our Montana fly fishing is among the best in the world, there is just no place like New Zealand. The scenery, people, and vast amounts of clear water is enough to ruin an angler for life. . .at least that’s my excuse. Add to that mix gorgeous trout that average 3 to 5 pounds that will happily eat a dry fly, and I’m already on my way back. It truly is an amazing, one-of-a-kind destination that every angler should experience at least once in a lifetime.

New Zealand Fly Fishing with Montana Fly Fishing Outfitter, Fins & Feathers of Bozeman

Where to Fish in New Zealand

New Zealand is a long way away from my home in Bozeman, Montana and the trout fishing is really quite different the U.S. and South America. Hiring a guide for at least a few days is your best bet for success early on during your trip. I typically rely on a guide to get me acquainted with a particular area and then spend the bulk of my time exploring and fishing a variety of waters on my own. Out of respect for the guide, I typically don’t return to the areas that they guide me on, unless they give me permission. There is more than enough water for everyone in NZ, but it always pays to respect the locals!

Perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of planning a trip to New Zealand is just determining where to focus one’s attention. I have traveled and fished extensively throughout the South Island, so my expertise is limited to this portion of the country. The North Island also has some fantastic opportunities and is certainly worth the trip as well. Both islands are incredibly diverse and offer everything from barren coastal prairies to dramatic mountain peaks covered by glaciers. So, where does one start?

On the South Island, I recommend picking an area that offers close proximity to a variety of different water types and topographic features. The weather can be unpredictable and vary widely across relatively small distances, so having plenty of options is always first on my list. I have found the areas around Murchison, Twizel, and Lumsden to be great bases of operation for all of my New Zealand adventures. Each of these towns has all the essentials—such as lodging, groceries, and basic provisions—while offering 360 degrees of access to quality fishing.

Having some semblance of a population center nearby is important because there aren’t any gas stations or restaurants open past 6:00 pm on weekdays, but the sun doesn’t set until around 9:30. Having many options is vital when one of those legendary “Nor’westers” come up and blow 40 mph for 4 days. Each of the areas I’ve mentioned has everything from large, braided rivers to the tiniest of spring creeks, so there is plenty to explore despite the conditions.

Find A Local Fishing Guide

Once you’ve picked the area for your New Zealand adventure, the next phase is to develop a plan for how to go about fishing the waters. This is where a great Kiwi guide can make the difference between boom and bust. There are dozens of great guides who specialize in catering specifically to overseas anglers looking for the quintessential Kiwi fly-fishing experience. However, they are in high demand during the busy summer season from January -March, so book early. A guide is not necessary to catch fish in New Zealand for advanced anglers, but they will significantly shorten the learning curve, which becomes even more valuable when on a limited time schedule.

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices to a few centrally located towns and have hired a guide for a few days, it’s time to start with the details.

New Zealand Fly Fishing with Montana fly fishing outfitter, Fins & Feathers of Bozeman

What Fishing Gear to Bring to New Zealand

New Zealand trout fishing is just like trout fishing anywhere else, except for the times when it’s not! Having the proper gear is essential for success anywhere, but it’s more so in New Zealand. Striking the proper balance between having too much and just the right amount will make the difference between spending hours sorting through everything and enjoying valuable time on the water. Over the years, I have developed a system that has worked very well for me.

The main differences found in New Zealand fly fishing are that the fish are quite large on average and the conditions are extremely variable.You need gear that is going to be versatile and dependable. As far as rods go, you need something that can power cicada patterns through the wind, as well as making delicate spring creek style presentations. The typical cast in New Zealand is relatively short, 30-40 feet, with plenty of opportunities well inside 20 feet. Perhaps the hardest aspect to master are those short casts with 12- to 18-foot leaders.

Fly Rods

I typically take a 9-foot 5-weight, with a 9-foot 6-weight as a backup for those insanely windy days and in case I decide to try some streamer fishing along the way. Finally, I always take a spare rod with me in my carry-on and throw it in my pack just about every day. Nothing worse than being 6 miles from the car with a broken rod without a spare!

There are so many amazing fly rods today that recommending one model over another isn’t really fair! If I had to just take one rod with me in 2018, it would be the 590-4 Sage X. If I could take a second, it would be a 690 Sage MOD. That said, I would be very happy with the new Orvis Helios 3D in a 905 or the Scott Radian 905 as primary rods too. Ideally, my primary rod in New Zealand is one that loads quickly, is lightweight, and super powerful for casting in the wind or using heavy nymphs. When conditions are ideal, I prefer a moderate-action rod for easier close-in casting and delicate presentations. The Sage 690 MOD is perfect for these conditions as is the Orvis Helios 3F 906 and Scott G 906. Having the ideal fly rod is the most important part of the whole gear equation. All of these fly rods are also great choice for our Montana fly fishing as well.

Fly Reels

Your favorite reel, with a great drag system, will serve you well when called upon by a big brown hooked on fine tippet. I would be taking a couple of Hatch Finatic Generation 2 reels with me as they are the most durable, reliable reels out there today. In most cases, any reel will work just fine for the trout fishing in New Zealand. The value of a premium drag system comes into play when you actually need to make multiple, fine adjustments to the drag tension while fighting fish on light tippet, in moving water.

Fly Line

A great fly line, matched to your rod is an absolute necessity. Do yourself a favor and get a new line before you leave for your trip! I would go with an InTouch Rio Grand WF for my primary, fast-action rod and a Rio Gold WF for my secondary rod. The Grand will perform better in close with a fast-action rod and the InTouch core works better in challenging winds while providing quicker hooksets at longer distances. The Rio Gold is just an awesome, all-around line and taper for most situations and is great with medium to medium-fast action rods.

Leaders, Tippets, Floatants, and More

Other necessities—such as leaders, tippets, floatant, etc.—are identical to what I use in any trout-fishing scenario. Take an ample stock of 9-foot leaders in 3X and 4X and then add tippet to get 12- to 18-foot leaders. Fly shops are far and few between in New Zealand, so I’m always sure to have more than enough of the “consumables.” Gel and desiccant floatants are equally essential for dry-fly fishing. Pack a couple hemostats, nippers, zingers, and a nail-knot tool as well. Finally, don’t leave home without some white poly cord to use as a strike indicator, Loon’s UV Knot Sense (comes in handy for everything from wader to fly repair), and a wide assortment of flies.

Choosing Your Flies

Recommended fly selections for New Zealand are typically pretty basic, as the rivers are relatively sterile when compared to many of the waters in the US. However, I prefer to take a wide range of flies so that I feel like I’m covered in just about any circumstance. The basic aquatic bugs are mayflies and caddisflies, with midges and stoneflies being more important in a few places. Terrestrial patterns such as small hoppers, beetles, and cicadas are also essential in the summer months. I have found that the fish aren’t terribly sophisticated when it comes to patterns, but I’m always prepared for the fish that is feeding selectively.

New Zealand Dry Fly Assortment from Bozeman Fly Shop and Montana Fly Fishing Outfitter, Fins & Feathers of Bozeman

Carry a wide range of generic dry fly patterns in sizes 12-16. These would include various Wulff patterns, Klinkhammers, Parachutes, and Hairwings. For nymphs, go with copper or black tungsten beadhead nymphs in sizes 14-18. Again, generic patterns such as Pheasant Tails and Hare & Coppers tied in a variety of colors will cover most situations. Always have a few larger stonefly and damselfly nymphs in the box, as well. Cicadas, beetles, ants, and hopper patterns can all be effective, so carry a box of terrestrials. Fishing streamers – (Zonkers, Sculpins, and simple Woolly Buggers – often works great in stained or during high water following a heavy rain. Mouse fishing is one thing that New Zealand is well known for, so carry a few of these for fishing some of the Beech forest streams and lakes.

I know that this list is starting to look overwhelming, but I can easily fit all of this into my vest without breaking my back. I use three fly boxes filled with a wide range of flies that I expect to use on any given day. My “backup” stash of flies is stored in compartment boxes that stay in my backpack. That way I’m not constantly digging for the fly that I need, yet have everything I might need with me at all times. This system of wearing a vest with a small backpack enables me to have all of the essentials close at hand while also allowing room to carry a raincoat, water, lunch, a spare rod, and camera equipment.

Wading Boots

New Zealand has been at the forefront of much of the Aquatic Nuisance Species issues, and the country has banned felt-sole wading shoes years ago. Any of the new rubber-sole boots—with studs removed—are perfect for the long walks and little actual wading that you’ll do in New Zealand. The Orvis Pivot boots with Vibram soles will perfom well and are the most comfortable wading boot that I have used in years. The studs are easy to re-install if you’re going to be doing a lot of wading in a river with shale and bedrock ledges instead of the typical pea gravel bottom found in the majority of the streams in New Zealand. You’ll wet-wade mostly, but lightweight breathable waders pack down easily in the provided stuff sack and come in handy on those surprisingly frequent cool, rainy days.

Miscellaneous Gear

Rounding out my recommended list of gear are the miscellaneous essentials. The sun is extremely harsh in New Zealand, so wear a Buff and plenty of sunscreen for sun protection. Sun Gloves will protect the tops of your hands from both the sun and the sand flies. Wet wading is the norm during the summer months, yet there are tons of thorny plants, so wear quick drying, lightweight pants on warmer days. Quality optics are absolutely indispensable for sight-fishing in a variety of lighting conditions. A reliable net that has a deep bag can make the difference between landing that fish of a lifetime and coming close. I use nets made by a Kiwi company called McLean’s, as these also have a built-in scale so that I can easily weigh the fish while minimizing handling.

Preparing For Your Trip to New Zealand

Of course, having the best gear on the planet will do you no good unless you know how to use it properly. Practicing a 20-foot cast with a 15-foot leader in the wind before the trip will pay huge dividends. The ability to quickly convert from a single dry to a double nymph rig is invaluable, as well. Learn to tie both blood knots and double-surgeons knot, so that you can quickly make leader adjustments. At the end of the day, this is all part of the overall experience, so having the correct quality gear will greatly add to satisfaction when everything comes together and that huge trout rises from the bottom to eat your Royal Wulff.

What is it about the fishing in New Zealand that draws us in and makes it seem rational to endure an 8,000-mile plane ride to catch trout? After all, it is just trout fishing, and I already live in the heart of some of the finest trout waters on the planet. The Kiwi fly-fishing experience, however, can be closer to sight-fishing the flats for bonefish than to trout fishing here in Montana. To catch fish on a regular basis in New Zealand, anglers need to adapt their techniques based on what they see in these clear waters. In rivers with very low fish densities, the ability to spot fish is the only way to find success.

New Zealand Fly Fishing with Bozeman Montana fly fishing outfitter and fly shop, Fins & Feathers of Bozeman

There are dozens of useful articles and books out there on how to spot fish and what to look for. I’ve been blessed with good eyes and a lifetime of looking into water, so that part has always been easier for me than for most of my fishing companions in NZ. A few things to keep in mind: Try to look through the water rather than at the surface, trying to spot “unnatural” forms on or near the bottom. Look for movement, shadows, and shapes that resemble a trout-such as logs and patches of weeds. I’m always amazed at how many of these end up being fish, after I’ve convinced myself. “It’s only a log!”

In addition to the obvious fact that having good eyes is a plus, there are several things to keep in mind which will help stack the odds in your favor. Keeping the sun over your shoulders will improve your “window” into the water. Try to find elevated banks and patches of ground to get a “cleaner” view into a run or pool. This is where the difference between $15 and $150 polarized optics is most appreciated. Remember that shadows caused by your profile and even the motion of a false cast will spook these fish, so it is essential that you pay attention to where your shadow falls at all times. If you take your time and keep a low profile overall, you will have many more meaningful chances at fish every day.

The approach and presentation are the deal makers in this type of fishing. Willy-nilly false casting is one of the surest ways of spooking any fish-especially in New Zealand-so this is when all those hours of casting 15-foot leaders into the wind on your front lawn becomes relevant. Once you’ve found a feeding fish, take your time approaching the fish to allow for a manageable cast. Blistering line speed with 60-foot loops won’t do you any good in these situations, as all that movement overhead is certain to spook the fish. Ideally, make a few false casts well away from the fish to gauge your distance, and then gently make the necessary cast so that your fly lands several feet upstream and slightly to the side of the fish. Try to make the first cast count, as it usually doesn’t take these fish too long before they know something is going on. However, if the fish continues to feed, it’s worth the effort to change flies and leader configurations. The goal here is to get a fly into the fish’s “window” with a drag-free drift and then see what happens.

The next little piece of advice has been hard-earned to the delight of more than one New Zealand brown trout. If you spot a fish, make a few reasonable casts, change flies a few times, and nothing happens…just walk away! Oftentimes these fish will spook to an undercut bank or deep hole, but sometimes they just sit there and do nothing when spooked. I’ve gone up to fish and poked them with my finger after spending over an hour trying to get them to eat. Sure, there are occasions when persistence will pay off, but a half an hour or so should really give you an idea of whether the fish will eat or not.

Flexibility in your fly selections will pay dividends, as well, when determining your approach and presentation. Typically, plan on casting a single dry fly first over a fish. If the fish is actively feeding and “swinging” in a riffle or run, I might elect to use a small tungsten beaded dropper, too. These fish will move a surprisingly long way (well over a rod’s length) to eat a fly at times, so a well-presented dry fly will usually tell me what I need to know in a few casts. There are times when a double-tungsten-nymph rig is the only shot you might have, so remember that this will need to land well upstream of the fish to allow your flies to settle by the time they reach the fish.

Quick Tips for Fly Fishing in New Zealand

There is nothing that compares to the satisfaction of seeing that “log” slowly turn and rise to your fly when it all comes together. Below is a quick list of some things to keep in mind that will hopefully help you as much as they have me in my Kiwi adventures.

1. Cloudy days are not bad: head for rivers in narrow canyons or forested valleys.

2. Nasty weather tends to cause most anglers to head for small streams, so you can find solitude and fresh fish on even the busiest New Zealand streams during these conditions.

3. If you don’t see any fish within an hour…go someplace else, as the fish are spooked by the conditions, someone else is ahead of you, or the fish have ESP. These fish aren’t meant to be caught that day.

4. If you arrive at a spot only to find someone else already there, go someplace else. Never jump in ahead of someone without talking to them first.

5. Blind-fishing rarely produces much success in rivers with trophy fish, but covering a “juicy” run with a few casts never hurts.

6. Backwaters often have large fish cruising for damselflies and backswimmers.

7. You will occasionally see very dark fish that are lying right next to the bank. These are old and in poor condition so don’t waste your time on them.

8. Streamers work well in tannin-colored streams, around river mouths, and in high water conditions-and a few San Juan’s in your box come in handy, too.

9. The best time for spotting fish is between late morning to late afternoon. Early morning and evening light is typically very lateral, resulting in long shadows and diffused light in the water (especially on clear days).

10. The wind is your friend.

New Zealand Fly Fishing with Montana fly fishing outfitter and fly shop, Fins & Feathers of Bozeman

New Zealand will always be a special place to me and one of our Bozeman fly shop’s favorite winter getaways, and I hope that every angler with an adventurous streak gets the experience. The information that I have provided over the last few days is by no means complete or definitive; the intention has been to give you a place to start. Regardless of the catching that you might experience in New Zealand, the fishing and country itself are worth the trip in their own right.

Getting the most out of a do-it-yourself trip of this scale is as much about managing your expectations as anything. I have personally fished over 100 days in New Zealand and have honestly only hooked a handful (one hand) of fish over 9 pounds—and zero have come to the net. I’ve only seen one legitimate, wild 10-pound brown trout landed in all of my days fishing New Zealand streams. Very skilled anglers who literally dedicate their time in New Zealand to finding and catching this class of fish are the ones than land most of the monster double-digit browns.

The lure of New Zealand trout fishing will always be the chance of catching that once-in-a-lifetime wild trout on a dry fly in a picturesque setting. The fishing in New Zealand is difficult and leaves little room for error. In general, fish numbers are considerably lower than one would expect. These trout have very few predators and a relatively long “growing season,” so they get large and live a long life-which means that they become wise and very aware of their surroundings (especially when something is out of the norm, such as an angler waving a stick at them). The odds of success are not good for the average angler, and it’s amazing how quickly one can feel like an average angler in New Zealand.

The reality of trout fishing in New Zealand is that the experience is about much more than just the fish. There is no place that I’d rather be right now than standing on the bank of a backcountry stream, surveying the next run. The sense of being alone with the trout in this enormous landscape may be a little too esoteric for some folks, but it is the reason I return year after year to this fantastic place.

There is no place that I could recommend more than New Zealand for an amazing fly-fishing experience. Allow yourself to experience the local culture, the uniqueness of the scenery, and the multitude of trout-fishing opportunities that are only available there. SO, the next time we see you on your Montana fly fishing vacation, don’t hesitate to tka New Zealand fly fishing with Toby Swank as well!

New Zealand Fly Fishing with Fins & Feathers of Bozeman's fly shop and Montana fly fishing outfitter