Calling

yourself a fly fisherman and not professing to the allure of New Zealand’s

trout waters is akin to calling yourself an art aficionado and then asking the

curator of the Louvre for the location of Leonardo Rembrandt’s paintings. 

Indeed

New Zealand is a country blessed with a plethora of outstanding fly fishing opportunities,

and stories abound of trout so beautiful they break your heart when it comes to

letting them go. Understandably, most people associate the South Island’s

legendary trout with their breathtaking rivers and streams, and remain

oblivious to the world-class stillwater opportunities on offer. Glaciated lakes

like Wanaka, Hawea, Te Anau and Wakatipu, and remote irrigation reservoirs like

Poolburn, Manorburn, Dunstan and Onslow offer sport that ranks as some of the

finest sight fishing on earth.

Admittedly,

I carried around with me for many years, a crystallised notion of what

stillwater trout fly fishing was all about. You stood up to your armpits in frigid

lake margins and cast the longest line you possibly could, only to strip it all

back in again at the speed of the fleeing minnow you were attempting to

imitate. If you were lucky, and several thousand casts later you might find

that a fish had got itself impaled by your Christmas decoration cum trout fly. To

say that New Zealand otherwise enlightened me on the merits of stillwater trout

fishing would be an understatement.

My

Antipodean introduction to lake fishing was in the hands of Craig Smith, a

Wanaka based guide who looked after us for a week in 2008. When, on our first

day, Craig suggested that we take his boat out onto Lake Wanaka, I was somewhat

skeptical. This was not what I had envisaged at all. Begrudgingly, we decided

to go with the flow (or lack thereof) and get it over with, so that we could

get on with some proper fishing on a river the following day. Before Craig had

even managed to get his boat onto the water, the morning’s tranquility was

shattered by the sound of a screaming reel. On his very first cast of the day my

brother Yuri had intercepted a cruising rainbow of well over 4 lbs, which had,

without so much as a hint of hesitation, hoovered up his dry fly. As soon as

Yuri had released his first ever Kiwi trout, Craig told us to reel in and get

into the boat as we were wasting good fishing time!

We

headed across the lake towards an otherwise inaccessible bay lined with a pale

gravel bottom over which literally dozens of fish lazily cruised in search of

unsuspecting dragonfly and damselfly larvae and windswept terrestrials. Having

walked no more than 30 yards from our tethered boat, all of us were soon

casting to fish that had been spotted in water barely deep enough to reach your

knees. With the sun still clinging to the mountainous backdrop and morning mist

still lying on the lake’s surface, three unsuspecting anglers had already been

converted to the Kiwi approach to Stillwater.

Late

that afternoon, Craig had to once again firmly insist that we reel in and get

back onto the boat as our first day in New Zealand drew to a close. We had each

landed more than our fair share of stunningly beautiful, wild, fin-perfect

rainbows and browns, almost exclusively on dry fly. Those that didn’t fall prey

to dries were intercepted with #12 and #14 un-weighted Olive Damsels cast well

ahead of cruising fish and then twitched when the fish were within striking

distance.

This

is fly fishing on a visual level that would be difficult to exaggerate. The clarity

of the water is gin-clear so it is quite common to underestimate its depth by

more than a meter. At times, on certain windless days, the fish can literally appear

to be hovering in mid air. Observing an unsuspecting trout casually drift over

to your fly in such conditions, and nonchalantly lift in the water column to

envelop your offering, is an experience that leaves one’s limbs feeling a tad

wobbly. It is as though time itself slows down as the words ‘God save the

Queen’ come out in a flurry of nervous excitement. As a result, not striking prematurely

requires almost superhuman discipline. Surely not even the fiercest devotees to

rivers would suggest that this is fly fishing in anything but the purest and

most exhilarating form?

Ian

Cole, another well-known Wanaka based fly fishing guide is considered by many

to be a stillwater guru, a true pioneer of new innovative methods of targeting

lake-dwelling trout. Early one autumn morning a few years ago, Ian and I launched

his boat on Otago’s Lake Hawea and pointed the bow in the direction of the

Hunter River.

In

spring, when the Hunter is in flood with snowmelt and runoff, it deposits its

sediment load into the head of this vast glaciated lake. This annual process

has over many years, formed a large area of silt-bottomed shallows or flats,

where fresh water Whitebait or Inanga (Galaxias maculatus) come to

spawn each autumn. As a result, trout congregate at the mouth of the river and

gorge themselves on this highly nutritious and abundant food source.

This

crystal clear, shallow water and pale bed substrate, combined with an abundance

of wild trout of a world-class caliber, makes for some of the most exciting

trout fishing on earth. In such shallow water, the trout are easy to spot,

stalk and intercept and their alarmingly fast runs leave you grinning like the

village idiot.

Hawea’s

trout were more than willing to take either baitfish patterns like Silicon

Smelts, or indeed large conspicuous dries like Cicadas or Royal Wulffs. Undoubtedly,

smaller and less garish dries would have been just as effective, but the need

to change down in size never arose as both rainbows and browns confidently rose

to these easy-to-spot patterns. However, several weeks later at the mouth of

the Greenstone River on Lake Wakatipu, the trout showed no interest in dries and

every fish taken fell exclusively to whitebait patterns fished on an

intermediate line.

Methods

employed during the autumnal congregation of whitebait at river mouths are by

no means standard practice. Throughout spring and summer, the most productive

method tends to be an ambush or intercept approach, where either a nymph or dry

is cast a few yards in front of a cruising fish. When fishing a nymph like a

damsel or dragon, it is often very effective to impart some movement into the

fly as the targeted fish approaches. Too much movement can result in refusals

or spooked fish, with a single twitch of your nymph usually being all that is

required trigger predatory instincts. Consequently, long leaders (12-18 ft) are

recommended, as line-shadow on sunny summer days is always an issue,

particularly in such shallow water.

Having

been exposed to and enlightened by such extraordinary fly fishing, the allure of

New Zealand’s South Island is no longer centred solely around spectacular

rivers and streams. These days it’s equally about their lakes, remote dams and

reservoirs where magnificent browns and rainbows swim wild and free amidst some

the most beautiful scenery imaginable.