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South Island Fly Fishing Waters

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Long out of print, "Brown Trout Heaven - Fly Fishing New Zealand's South Island", ran to two editions, and was first published by Shoal Bay Press in 2000. Co-authored by Zane Mirfin, Rob Bowler, Jana Bowler, and Graeme Marshall, it still contains plenty of good information for travelling anglers and we include some edited excerpts here from Chapter Three: South Island Waters.

The rivers, creeks, streams and lakes of the South Island are as varied as the topography and climate. Tea-coloured streams flow into the Tasman Sea from the dense vegetation of the West Coast. Clear mountain rivers emerge from the high country and fill large lakes used for huge hydroelectric projects. Glaciers cloud the headwaters of large rivers but spring creeks stay clear after the heaviest rain. The eastern plains are crossed by braided, unstable rivers, and smaller streams nearly dry up during hot Canterbury summer days. Back-country lakes and tarns tempt the adventurous fit angler, and huge lakes provide many kilometres of shoreline. Sea-run browns migrate up some of the larger rivers and cruise and feed in estuaries and tidal, brackish rivers. Almost all of the waters of the South Island hold trout, and the angler is faced with an almost limitless variety of waters to fish.

The South Island is divided into six Fish and Game regions, which are administered by regionally elected Fish and Game Councils and operated by professional staff members. A fishing licence purchased in any of these regions is valid for the whole island. Overseas anglers should consider buying a full season licence regardless of the amount of time they intend to spend fishing and view this as a donation toward the fishery.

Angling seasons vary between regions and specific waterways, although most angling occurs between October and April. Information on the waters, the fish they contain, and regulations are available from each district or can be found in the annual South Island sports fishing regulation publication that is usually provided when you buy your licence. In some cases angler’s access locations are also published and can be helpful for anglers unfamiliar with individual waterways.

Nelson – Marlborough

This region has a rich diversity of rivers, streams, and lakes. The region is known mostly for brown trout angling, with about 10% of waterways holding some rainbows and the occasional quinnat (king) salmon.

The area’s rivers, rain-fed and snow-fed, often flow through orchards and farmland. Beaches, numerous vineyards in Marlborough (producing excellent wines), rugged mountains, sheltered valleys and more days of sunshine than any other South Island location are attractions that draw many visitors and anglers.
With summers usually being warm and dry, the Nelson area is more like California than any other part of the South Island. The port city of Nelson offers all the amenities the visiting angler needs and is close to excellent fishing. Other well-located bases to fish from are Motueka and Ngatimoti to the west of Nelson, St. Arnaud and Murchison to the south, and Blenheim to the east.

The Motueka has been called one of the best South Island rivers, a reputation earned by consistently high stocks of browns, previously recorded at approximately 200-500 fish per kilometre in some lower reaches. However, fishing in the Motueka is often quite challenging. Good roads parallel the river for almost its entire fishable length. The river bed is stable and provides good wading. Sea-runs inhabit the lower river and periodically repopulate upper reaches and tributaries. The lower reaches of the Motueka, below the Wangapeka confluence, receive most angling pressure, as the most trout reside there.

The Wangapeka drains the eastern slopes of the Northwest Nelson Ranges and provides good angling opportunities in the lower reaches. The upper Wangapeka is remote , accessed by the Wangapeka Track, and provides the more adventurous angler with wilderness angling for larger trout.

Other significant tributaries of the Motueka are the Motupiko, Baton and Pearse, all of which offer picturesque scenery and fine angling.

Other popular angling rivers in the western zone are the coastal Riwaka stream and the rivers of Golden Bay. Takaka Hill is a formidable barrier to many travellers and has resulted in Golden Bay being one of the least visited areas in the South Island. This area has excellent fishing in tidal reaches and some wild and scenic fisheries such as the Aorere and the Takaka and its tributaries, the Cobb and Waingaro (Don't forget about the flats-style sight fly fishing for yellowtail kingfish on golden sand beaches over the summer months in Golden Bay either. ZM, 2016).

The Buller system rivals the Motueka in popularity and quality. The best part of the main Buller is the upper 50 km above Murchison; the browns average 3-4lbs and are usually in good condition, especially in the rough-and-tumble water of the upper section as it emerges from Lake Rotoiti near the small settlement of St. Arnaud.

The Travers River, which flows into Lake Rotoiti and drains part of Nelson Lakes National park, is a wilderness stream with a good track along its banks. The scenery is worth the walk, and well-conditioned browns populate the river as it makes its way across a tussock-covered valley. Also in the Nelson Lakes National Park are the D’Urville and Sabine rivers, which flow into Lake Rotoroa. The Sabine is gorgy and tumbling with good-sized browns and some rainbows. These valleys are accessible via hiking tracks and have well-maintained huts for overnight accommodation.

Flowing out of Lake Rotoroa is the Gowan River which, when it joins the Buller, doubles its flow. The Gowan is a fast white-water river where wading is difficult and dangerous but where a good population of smaller brown trout is available to the skilful angler. Other notable tributaries of the Buller are the Owen River, Mangles / Tutaki, Matakitaki, and Maruia all of which are very good fisheries. The Maruia is a must visit, with high fish counts and some rainbows present above Maruia Falls.

To the east of Nelson lies the delightful Wakapuaka Stream, with good numbers of smaller brown trout. Further east, about 45 minutes from Nelson City is the Pelorus River. The Pelorus has good numbers of smaller fish, about 30 per cent being rainbows. A smaller tributary, the Rai, is willow-lined with a mixed fishery.

In eastern Marlborough the three major river systems are the Wairau, Awatere and Clarence. The Wairau and its major tributaries, the Rainbow, Goulter, Leatham, Branch and Waihopai, are popular with local and visiting anglers, and all contain some good-sized fish in varying quantities and are very scenic. Spring Creek, which flows into the lower Wairau near Blenheim has some lovely fish present and stays clear during the heaviest rains.

The Clarence River, paralleled by a hydro road, accessible from St. Arnaud or Hanmer Springs, runs through Molesworth Station, and emerges from Lake Tennyson, and in the upper reaches holds some good-sized browns. The same hydro road also leads to the tarns at Tarndale which hold some scrappy browns. The Acheron is a major tributary of the Clarence and is well worth a cast or two.



The West Coast of the South Island is a narrow and very rugged area of land marked by the northern Heaphy river and, to the south, the Cascade river. Rainfall is heavy and often torrential, and as cloud masses moving eastward over the Tasman Sea encounter the mountain ranges. Many rivers are snow- and glacier-fed, prone to flooding and resulting in sparse trout populations. Nevertheless there are dozens of other rivers that clear quickly, spring creeks that are unaffected by heavy runoff, and lakes and estuaries that sustain some very large trout. Browns predominate and very few waters contain rainbows.

Apart from the fishing, the great thing about ‘the coast’ is the people. West Coasters are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality, and it is still possible to meet up with characters who are the South Island equivalent of Crocodile Dundee. The coast is sparsely populated by pioneer-type people and we still like to think of the area as the last frontier. Employment is dominated by the physical resources that can be harvested from the land; gold, coal, venison, timber, sphagnum moss, possum skins, whitebait and crayfish are important sources of revenue for West Coasters. Tourism is the latest ‘gold’ to be extracted from the environment.

Accommodation can be found along State Highway 6 which connects the West Coast towns of Haast, Fox Glacier, Franz Josef, Harihari, Hokitika, Greymouth, and Westport on Route 67, and Karamea.

The Karamea River and its tributaries, the Ugly, Beautiful, Roaring Lion, Leslie and Crow, form the largest river system in the Kahurangi National Park, which is New Zealand’s second largest national park. Except for its lower reaches the Karamea is a wilderness river accessible by walking tracks or by helicopter from Nelson, Motueka, or Karamea. The Karamea and its tributaries are legendary for quality brown trout; the scenery is magnificent, providing wilderness fly-fishing at its best.

The Mohikinui is a similar wilderness river, although smaller. It has two main stems, the North and South Branches. Mohikinui fish are a discerning quarry but can be large. Be especially careful with the weather when entering such catchments; camp on elevated sites and take extra food because enormous floods are possible. We have been stuck in such locations for days in adverse weather, watching huge logs sailing downstream. On one trip we observed a flood that dammed the whole valley, where we could only see trees and brown floodwaters for days. The helicopter made several attempts to reach us before the floodwaters receded enough for a landing site to be found.

Further south the lower Buller and its tributaries, the Ohikanui, Inangahua, Waitahu, Te Wharau, and Larry’s Creek provide another huge watershed for the adventurous angler. Such rivers offer some large trout that are difficult, thus a wonderful challenge to catch.

The Grey River enters the Tasman Sea at Greymouth, and its upper reaches and tributaries provide some of the best fly fishing on the West Coast. The upper Grey and tributaries, the Robinson and Blue Grey, offer some challenging angling, as do the Little Grey, Rough, Slatey, and Moonlight Creeks. The Ahaura and tributaries, including the Haupiri, are also well worth a look.

The Arnold River is a major tributary of the lower Grey and has its source in Lake Brunner. The Lake Brunner area has a good number of inflowing freestone streams and spring creeks; notable names include Molloy’s Creek, Crooked River, Orangipuku and Bruce creeks. The Arnold River itself is a fine fishery, with daytime nymphing and evening fishing producing good tallies on occasion. If anglers have access to a boat then Stillwater angling on Lake Brunner and Lake Poerua should not be neglected. As well as these, the most significant tributaries, there are many smaller streams, lakes and spring creeks that are too numerous to describe. Greymouth, Moana, Ikamatua, Reefton and Springs Junction can all be used as bases when fishing the Grey River drainage.

Driving south on State Highway 6 toward Haast Pass, there are literally hundreds of rivers, streams, estuaries and lakes that offer interesting fly fishing opportunities. The following is a brief description of some of the best.

The upper Hokitika and the Whitcombe tributary have some rainbows, unusual for the West Coast. Duck, Harris, and Murray Creeks stay clear after heavy rains; they join the Kokatahi near the town of the same name.

The La Fontaine Stream is located near the town of Harihari and is one of the best known West Coast spring creeks.

There are possibly another dozen or so equally productive spring creeks for the adventurous angler to locate. The Waitangitaona River is spring fed and stays clear after heavy rains. Lake Moeraki and the Moeraki River hold good stocks of browns, the lake being best fished by boat or canoe. The Haast river is huge and unstable but has some notable tributaries such as the Thomas and Burke. The Okuru and Turnbull rivers are some more enticing wilderness fisheries. Further south, the Waiatoto, Arawata and Cascade rivers offer some exciting potential.
During spring and summer don’t overlook fishing the tidal zones of the west Coast rivers, as sea-run browns are usually in residence and prepared to do battle.


Situated on the east coast of the South Island is the district of North Canterbury. This is the king salmon capital of New Zealand. Salmon fever sweeps the area during summer, and the great trout fishing available is often neglected. Dozens of lakes make this a mecca for stillwater anglers.

Six major river systems of interest to anglers are the Waiau, Hurunui, Ashley, Waimakariri, Selwyn, and Rakaia. Fish on offer include browns, rainbows, brook char, mackinaw, splake and quinnat salmon – both landlocked and anadromous.

North Canterbury lies in a rain shadow area and receives far less rain than the west coast of the island. The summer weather is dominated by dry winds that sweep over the western ranges and can produce intolerable fly-fishing conditions. Low pressure on the West Coast often means howling high winds for North Canterbury, and it is best to check the weather forecast before any excursion into the high country. The dreaded ‘nor-wester’ can cause windblown sediment to colour streams for weeks on end. Fortunately the Christchurch area has some pleasant fishing in more sheltered lowland rivers in such weather conditions. Rain-fed rivers can dry up during mid-summer, but high pressure systems bring settled weather produce some excellent conditions for angling in the upper reaches of the district’s rivers and in the many lakes and tarns. North Canterbury continually and consistently produces big trout for the knowledgeable angler.

Hanmer Springs is a good base for exploring the upper reaches of the Clarence and Waiau river systems. Like many of the large river systems in Canterbury the Waiau braids in its lower sections, and the upper reaches are best for trout. Waiau tributaries such as the Hope, Boyle, Nina, and Doubtful require a lot of walking but can be worth visiting.

The Hurunui river below Lake Sumner produces some trophy browns . Drift divers have consistently counted in excess of 50 large fish per kilometre in the gorgy stretch below Lake Sumner but be prepared for some walking and challenging wading. The area around Lake Sumner is a state forest park, and Lakes Sheppard, Taylor, Mason, Katrine and Marion all hold trout.

The upper Ashley River can provide some good fishing throughout the season, as can the Selwyn. Two Selwyn tributaries, the Hororata and Hawkins, are good in the early season. The upper Waimakariri River and its tributaries, Poulter and Broken rivers, provide some decent fishing before the low water of mid-summer. Lake Ellesmere, a huge coastal lagoon, is a prolific producer of large brown trout, mostly caught at night. Ellesmere tributaries such as the Halswell, Irwell, L2 and Hart’s Creek provide angling opportunities close to Christchurch city.

North Canterbury is well knowned for its high country lakes, and anglers who are enticed by the challenge of large cruising trout should have a go at these lakes. South-east of Arthur's Pass National Park off Highway 73, Lakes Grasmere, Sarah, Lyndon, Pearson, and Marymere vary in fish-ability.

The upper Rakaia provides some good trout fishing for browns and rainbows in the Lake Coleridge area. Tributaries such as the Hydra waters, Glenariffe, Ryton, Harper, Wilberforce, and also Lake Stream in the Central South Island district, provide excellent angling possibilities.