By Zane Mirfin, Fish & Game New Zealand Magazine - Issue 35, 2001
The Magic of Tailwater Fisheries
TOP ANGLER AND GUIDE ZANE MIRFIN COVERS SOME OF THE BACKGROUND ISSUES AND FISHERIES POTENTIAL ASSOCIATED WITH TAILWATER FISHERIES, BOTH NATURAL AND MAN-MADE, HERE IN NEW ZEALAND AND INTERNATIONALLY.
Some of the great trout waters of the world have been the product of massive engineering schemes that have literally made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear and created trout fisheries where none existed previously.
In the mid-1990s, I was fortunate to fish many of the great tailwater fisheries of North America. Having spent 2 1/2 years of my life in the United States in my formative years, fishing virtually every day, in close to a dozen States, I consider it a privilege to have travelled into the future and observed how I believe many of our New Zealand fisheries will possibly evolve.
Many will not agree, but the success of the Americans with many of these superb fisheries is irrefutable, with many tailwater fisheries producing a far superior fishing experience than that currently available in many New Zealand rivers. Anyone who criticizes American trout fishing hasn’t done much fishing on the wonderful diversity of water available. Sure, there are plenty of anglers about on most American tailwaters with public access, but for high densities of free rising trout the fishing is often of extraordinarily high quality. Do we condemn the Tongariro when it is seasonally congested with anglers?
Tailwater fisheries by my definition are those waters flowing from lakes, reservoirs, or impoundments. Many significant tailwater fisheries around New Zealand are totally natural in their origins, draining freely from lakes that have relatively low human modification and no dam structures present.
Spectacular natural tailwaters in the northern South Island, for example, include the upper Buller below Lake Rotoiti, the Gowan River below Lake Rotoroa, the upper Arnold River below Lake Brunner, and the Hurunui River below Lake Sumner.
But take a look at any map of New Zealand and the opportunities to fish natural tailwater areas are immediately obvious.
These rivers at times hold large numbers of resident browns that thrive in the highly fertile waters draining these lakes. Buffered by the lakes from major flood problems, such rivers are inherently stable habitat sustaining high aquatic insect biomass, which in turn promotes significant trout production. Such rivers often act as important trout nursery areas for young juvenile fish in their upper few kilometres. These fish subsequently mature and stock the entire river system and tributaries to the benefit of anglers. Many of these tailwater areas within the first kilometre or so of a lake are renowned for their prolific caddis populations, which create large evening mating swarms and explosive fishing, with slashing, swirling rises and the water surface literally boiling with rising fish.
Despite the hyberbole, some of these areas are in trouble nationwide. For example, the Nelson Lakes and Lake Sumner are protected in Conservation land, but lakes such as Brunner are situated in farming country and are being exposed to insidious rot through cumulative contamination and pollution by nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, erosion, animal effluent from farmland, and human waste from Moana township. Hence, they are not faring so well and the future of such fisheries is bleak.
In addition, fish populations in such natural tailwater areas, protected or not, are often very vulnerable to angler exploitation and can require careful management from Fish & Game to protect fish stocks. Smaller, more naïve fish are often given some protection by low bag limits.
The most impressively managed natural tailwater I have ever fished was Idsjostrommen, near Gimdalen in southern Sweden, which is widely rated as Sweden’s best wild grayling fishery. Privately leased and open to anglers on pay-per-visit basis, the river is limited to eight anglers per day maximum and covers perhaps three kilometres of water. During the winter, grayling live in the depths of the lake, which freezes solid in the harsh Swedish winter. But during the short northern summer, the adult grayling migrate downstream into the highly fertile waters of Idsjostrommen to take advantage of the “midsommer” hatches of caddis and mayflies. This fishery is strictly catch and release and the densities of large catchable grayling were nothing short of incredible.
Fishing a dry fly imitating the pale yellow duns was magic. But one morning when the fish inexplicably stopped rising, I tried a double nymph rig with phenomenal success. Every cast a coconut! The Swedes do not understand the mechanics of nymph fishing as we do here and I knew when the resident river keeper told me to cease fishing because I had caught too many grayling that I had really impressed the typically dour Swedes. My friends back there inform me that the fishing has improved further since I was there in 1996, with record size grayling, due to the continuing management strategy and that the legend of the Hare & Copper lives on!
To my mind, though, the really interesting man-made fisheries are those in the United States. In the west, south, and east, water demand for energy generation, urban consumption, and agricultural irrigation has always been greater than in New Zealand. Being a continental climate with cold winters and dry, hot summers, as opposed to our more maritime climate with less temperature variation between seasons and year round rainfall, the demand for water is extremely high.
Many thousands of waterways have had major dams built for various reasons, many of which destroyed existing fish populations and fisheries.
A classic example is the desecration of the mighty Columbia River, with hydro-electric dams throughout its length blocking access to spawning grounds and nursery areas and thereby obliterating the annual runs of millions upon untold millions of Pacific Salmon, which had ascended this river system since the beginning of time. However, dams in many other areas actually improved fishing by storing water in dry, arid, or very warm parts of the country. Without such dams, many significant cold water trout fisheries would not exist. As an example, take the Flaming Gorge Reservoir, origin of the world famous Green River tailwater fishery, with as many as 23,000 fish per mile in the seven mile “A” stretch immediately below the dam.
Often these dams have created significant fisheries in the reservoirs or impoundments themselves and many of the better tailwater fisheries downstream have fertile stillwater catchments above them.
As Ernest Schwiebert, wrote in his 1979 classic Trout: “...the best trout lakes combine several primary factors — fertile water chemistry, good light penetration, extensive food-shelf shallows, and a deep-water bowl extensive enough to accommodate thermal stratification in summer and to provide enough oxygen to prevent winterkill.”
While this is undoubtedly true, many reservoir fisheries only remain highly fertile for a short number of years when high fertility results because of recent water inundation.
New Zealand hydro lakes such as Aniwhenua, Otamangakau, and Dunstan are prime examples of reservoir fisheries riding a productivity high in their early years. Whereas impoundments such as the Cobb, Hawea, and Tekapo are on a downward cycle due to fertility collapse and intermittent water coverage of prime littoral zones because of hydro-electricity generation. Unfortunately, reservoirs and their downstream tailwater flows are inextricably linked.
Fisheries like the Cobb were once prime rainbow fisheries with high numbers of 3-4lb fish in the 1970s. But as the reservoir aged, the fertility declined and trout size and productivity declined markedly. Low rainfall of recent summers hasn’t helped either, with low lake volumes and high demand for electricity during winter cold snaps. The Cobb Power Scheme, owned now by Natural Gas Corporation, is used for peak demand supply to the Wellington market and was virtually run dry over the winter, down to as low as 0.5% volume. An unfortunate side effect of this activity, apart from being extremely difficult for the reservoir fish, was the constant fluctuations of water volume down the Takaka River, which reamed out fish and insect populations. More importantly, these flows flushed iron deposits and other toxic compounds that had accumulated on the dam bottom, on a deadly mission down the Takaka on those cold winter nights. The water colouration was noticeable as far down as Takaka township nearly at the sea and trout populations were deleteriously effected.
The lower Arnold River, below the Arnold Dam, has suffered a similar collapse over the past two years. Although the reasons are not yet understood, it may be similar to the Cobb River experience. Being the most important trout stream in terms of popularity on the West Coast, this is not good news for anglers.
Another tailwater situation gone horribly wrong is the Maitai River, which flows through the heart of Nelson. Due to the growth of the city and a lack of reliable water supplies, the Nelson City Council obtained consents for a water storage dam in the North Branch of the Maitai River in the late 1980s, despite much opposition from environmental groups. When built, it was subsequently found that the reservoir water was of such low quality it was virtually unfit for the use intended and remains so. Poor soil types, excessive rotting vegetation, and low oxygen levels in the reservoir are the major reasons for the poor water quality. After this problem was encountered, Nelson City Council applied for yet more consents to extract water from the better quality South Branch water. To make up the water volume it is legally taking from the South Branch, the NCC substitutes the poor quality dam water to make up minimum flow requirements negotiated by environmental groups. So although the water volume flowing down the river is more stable than in years past, the quality is not. When coupled with massive degradation due to exotic forestry in the major spawning and nursery tributaries of Sharland and Packer creeks, it was inevitable that one of New Zealand’s earliest trout fisheries would collapse. No one can blame the NCC; it needed the water for its citizens. But scenarios such as this will become all too common in New Zealand in the years ahead.
Problems also occur in hydro lakes such as Hawea, which are adversely de-watered at times. It is easy to understand power company resistance to more stringent resource consents when each metre of lake level in which they can operate is worth $40 million over the lifetime of the Hawea Dam. Locals tell me that Hawea currently operates over a 15 metre level, but applications for 25 metres are being considered.
On the positive side, we have some very successful man-made tailwater fisheries in New Zealand. Prime examples are the Tekapo River draining Lake Tekapo in the Mackenzie Country and the Waiau River flowing between Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri in Fiordland. Both these rivers are veritable fish factories, with large stocks of brown and rainbow trout available to anglers. These have been fine success stories!
By contrast, the Americans have resolved many issues surrounding reservoirs, minimum and maximum flows,
and the creation of prime trout fisheries and we could avoid “re-inventing the wheel” by studying their often innovative solutions in regards to water utilization.
Many new dams in the States are specifically designed to provide tailwater fishing opportunities. Increasing understanding of trout ecology and technological advances has allowed fisheries to be designed almost like golf courses, with some fantastic success stories. Water flow in many American states is regulated so the flow is constant and regular, which provides stable trout habitat free from flooding or drought during summer.
More importantly, the water can be taken from a series of valves down the dam walls and the water released into the river can be selected for optimum temperature and oxygen levels, which benefits the fishery immensely. In short, many overseas tailwater fisheries have had artificially near-perfect conditions created, similar to an aquarium, for trout to thrive. In some acidic waters, innovative authorities have even added automated releases of lime to raise the alkaline pH to maximize trout productivity — this could work well on our acid West Coast streams, for example.
Many of these rivers are almost like insect farms, with massive regular hatches of insects that most Kiwi anglers would not believe. I can remember a massive hatch after dark in Montana one night of large white Mayflies. I thought it was snowing at first and couldn’t believe seeing the petrol pump attendant, where we stopped for gas, sweeping them up into big piles!
Different rivers have different insect characteristics, with hatches I’ve encountered including Trico’s (#20-22 black Mayfly), Baetis (#18-22 grey Mayfly), various Mayflies such as pale Morning Duns, Blue Wing Olives, Callibaetis (all # 14-16) Green Drakes (#10), and Hexagenia (#4-6). Then there are numerous caddisflies (#10-16), salmonflies (#2-8), stoneflies (#2-12), as well as terrestrials, such as hoppers, crickets, and ants. These rivers also hosted significant populations of scuds, sowbugs, crustaceans, blood worms, midges, sculpins (dependent on each river) and were often a veritable chemical soup of aquatic life. No wonder the fishing was so great, because many rivers had thousands of fish per mile. For example, the San Juan River in New Mexico with 17,000 trout per mile and the Green River in Utah with 23,000 fish per mile in its “A” stretch. The Frying Pan in Colorado, a very small river that was easily waded, had 3-4000 per mile, or one fish for every foot of bank on each side of the river!
An important food source in many American tailwaters is the Mysis shrimp, which thrives in deep reservoirs and lives on phytoplankton. Many populations of this small white shrimp (#18-22) have been established in such dams and they would probably work well here in New Zealand. If environmentalists argued about the ecological impact of introducing Mysis shrimp, they could hardly fail to notice the massive impacts bought about by damming the river in the first place! Fish, particularly rainbows, bulk up big time on this high protein food source, which is sucked through the turbines of the dam into the river below.
Because the fish populations are so dense, anglers need less area to fish. There were times when I guided on the Frying Pan that we would virtually stand in the same place all afternoon to rising trout and catch perhaps as many as 30 in one pool. All these trout were small right? Not always, in the Taylor and Frying Pan rivers, rainbows over 20lb are regularly caught.
Fish in such popular rivers have become almost tolerant of human presence and these fisheries can take enormous fishing pressure, as the trout can look after themselves. More importantly, these type rivers take pressure off more fragile fisheries.
The Missouri in Montana was one of my favourites and I fished it often. Nymph fishing always worked well, although the technical “match the hatch” trico fishing with 7x tippet was unsurpassed. There were so many bugs on the water at times, getting a fish to actually see your fly was virtually impossible.
The mighty Bighorn is an interesting tailwater that needs to be accessed by boat below Yellowtail Dam because of access difficulties across a Blackfoot Indian Reservation. This river has brought prosperity and jobs to all local towns surrounding it. George Custer may have lost his last stand at the Little Bighorn, but this river is a winner. Dead drifting scud imitations in prime locations caught some beautiful brown trout.
Montana’s Madison offers weeks of pocket water fishing for mostly browns, although there are some great rainbows to catch too. The Beaverhead, also in Montana, is another great tailwater, with current access problems being negotiated by all important stakeholders. Tim Tollett, who runs the Frontier Anglers Flyshop sent me an email about the Beaverhead recently and I quote from it in part:
“Before Clark Canyon Dam was built on the Beaverhead, it would run dry in August. Once there was water in the system for the entire year, the fishing went crazy. The Beav has got to be one of the all-time best trout streams in the world due to this dam. Clark Canyon is also very good as a lake fishery, producing average fish of 5lb. If the people that build these dams do it right, you’ll have a fabulous lake to fish, as well as an unreal tailwater fishery. But as we all know that doesn’t always happen. One thing I have noticed is that water must come from the bottom of the dam to allow for cool water temperatures to produce a quality tailwater.”
The San Juan has some of the consistently best rainbow fishing in a dry barren, stark environment. It was possible to catch as many trout as you wanted some days; it all depended on motivation. Sixty to eighty rainbows that could peel you into the backing were possible — I couldn’t remember how many I caught some days.
The Green in Utah offers epic fishing and large numbers of boat-drifting anglers. Guide numbers are strictly controlled with certain operators holding quota rights to such rivers. There are special launch wardens at the upper launch ramp under the dam to avoid delays with angler congestion. Sometimes it was difficult to find a designated camping spot free in the upper sections, but everybody caught lots of fish.
Northern California had some epic tailwater fisheries. The Fall River resembled a giant spring creek, with placid flow, springs, and giant weed beds, and had to be accessed by boat and outboard motor. On dark, the Hexagenia Mayflies would emerge, with the duns resembling miniature sailboats as they were outlined against the dwindling light. Long presentations, down and across with a #4 dry fly that felt like one was casting a sparrow on the end of the line was the way to go and great rainbows stripped off line as they dived for the weed beds below. During the day, trout could be caught with sink tip lines and nymph patterns along the edges of drop-offs and weed beds.
The Pitt River, a boisterous boulder studded pocket water river in California with plenty of strong mid-size rainbows, is a fine tailwater fishery with great nymph fishing and wilderness stretches that required long walks. It was rare to see other anglers during the day. Sometimes when I’m struggling during a guiding day in New Zealand, I wish I had a Pitt or a Frying Pan river nearby to save my bacon!
Idaho’s Henry’s Fork is a magic place, with the Snake River draining Island Park Reservoir. The catching was tough, but the challenge great and 2-3 fish per day was pleasant technical fishing. This river had a major ecological disaster when sediment was flushed from the dam in the late 1980s, but it recovered over time.
One of the more interesting American tailwaters is the Chattahoochee River, which flows through the heart of Atlanta City in the southern state of Georgia. The “Hooch” among other southern tailwaters has created habitat for trout in a warm water US state where bass and bluegills are the principle freshwater sporting fish. The Chattahoochee has major daily fluctuations in flow, which can be analysed in advance by calling a hotline phone number that records the daily water release times for public safety and recreation. Trout were not large, but reasonably numerous, with plenty of wildlife and relatively remote sections. The outfall of Atlanta City’s sewage treatment pipe was the hottest spot on the river, with dozens of trout hovering around the pipe succumbing to small red bloodworm imitations.
Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a great western tailwater with exceptionally clear water and plenty of browns and the Taylor River was another fine tailwater with huge rainbows like you never see in New Zealand. But they were very selective and anglers needed to fish for them with 6-7x tippet and #22 Mysis shrimp imitations. Hooking these huge visible rainbows was hard work, but landing them even more futile. High quality sight fishing right off the road. Taylor Park Reservoir also had some impressive pike fishing. Lower down the Taylor, a tributary of Blue Mesa Reservoir, there was an annual run of kokanee salmon — a form of land-locked sockeye. In fall, the water would be pink with vast schools of migrating fish and you could catch fish until your arm fell off.
Should we be attempting to create opportunities like this in New Zealand? What can we learn from all of the above? My belief is that technology and expertise is available worldwide to create designer fisheries of very high quality. A recent Nelson Mail quoted a 42% shortfall of electricity generation within the next decade, while demand for irrigation and town water supplies continues to grow, exacerbated by the past few dry summers. Take degradation of existing fisheries by agriculture and increasing numbers of tourist and local anglers and there is going to be some extreme pressure on existing fisheries.
I’ve always viewed New Zealand’s fishing resource like an apple pie. As the resource shrinks, the pie gets smaller and, with more angling pressure on what remains, the slices get smaller year by year for all of us. Not all anglers desire a wilderness experience and as our lowland waterways come under increasing strain, fisheries managers will have to examine new and innovative ways of maintaining and enhancing quality angling opportunities for licence holders that are accessible for all.
Instead of fighting all dams and exhausting time, money and effort, perhaps our fisheries managers should be drawing up a list of what rivers we must save at all costs. Then, on many dam proposals with less important rivers that we will inevitably lose, they could work with developers and government agencies to create conditions conducive to tailwater fisheries.
When I took Cawthron Institute scientist Dr. John Hayes to view the devastation of the Maitai fishery in Nelson last year, we were discussing how most trout habitat research focuses on causes rather than on remedial action. I bet with all the technology and knowledge now available in New Zealand and internationally, scientists like John would dearly like to accept a big challenge by attempting to create a fishery from scratch.
Schwiebert was quite the visionary when he wrote: “Tailwaters may be a prelude to the future, particularly near major cities...since the simple demand of future populations for potable water will unquestionably require more and more reservoirs to store seasonal rains and spring runoffs, and as such we will probably see many more tailwater fisheries created in years to come.”
The insatiable demand for water is occurring here and now for irrigation to supply agriculture and horticulture, for industry, for electricity generation, for town water supplies. This trend will not abate and it is our role as anglers to save what wild unspoiled rivers we can, such as Buller and Rangitata. But we must also be pragmatic and work within the frameworks of the inevitable development to create new and exciting recreational fisheries opportunities into the future.
We are only limited by our own imagination and lack of vision. While some doors to traditional freshwater angling may close in future, others will be opened by using the resources we have to best advantage for all to enjoy and treasure.
Nomads of the Tide - Sea-run Trout
Sea run brown trout are an important and often under-rated fishing resource in the estuarine influenced waters of New Zealand. Zane Mirfin investigates some of the issues, biology, habits, and fishing methods surrounding the mystery of sea runners.
The large silver-sided trout had fought a magnificent battle in the dark estuarine waters of the Waimea River, but was now conceding defeat. The young boy bent his spinning rod in a tight semi-circle as he pulled the mighty fish onto the edge of a steep, muddy bank recently worked by the local catchment board in the name of flood control. Glistening in the torchlight, the trout flapped the mud and water in one last valiant attempt at escape.
The boy’s father eased down the bank to grasp the fish by the gills when suddenly he slipped, skidded, and somersaulted into the fast-flowing dark waters. Rolling over the fish and the nylon, he was thrown into the river and swept downstream. Wet and shaken, he scrambled ashore to be met by a very upset young angler, who at the time would have rather he had drowned. I was that boy and my trophy sea trout was gone.
Sea runners, estuarine trout, sea run brownies, chrome heads, or reel screamers -- call them what you will. They are an enduring enigma of the New Zealand freshwater fishing scene. Ignored, under-rated, and under appreciated by most licenceholders, they provide consistent sport for those prepared to put in the time and effort to learn and understand their habits and behaviours.
To this day, the full extent of the sea run trout resource is unknown and unmapped. Scientific funding of salmonid studies within New Zealand is limited and the influence of the estuarine and tidal components on our modern trout fisheries are woefully inadequate and little understood by fisheries managers. What a tragedy then, that our Government continues to milk millions of dollars per annum from GST spent by recreational anglers, hunters, and tourists on fuel, accommodation, equipment etc in the pursuit of our fish and game resources, but is unwilling to invest even a small portion back into the scientific study, management and improvement of the resource that adds value to our economy and to our lives.
When my great great grandfather, Captain John Walker, became the first white man to successfully cross the Buller River bar into what is now Westport in 1859, there were no trout present. Those on board his cutter, ‘Supply’, chartered by the Nelson Provincial Government to transport the surveyors John and James Rochfort in their exploration of the West Coast, could never have imagined that the Buller River would one day become one of the great trout fisheries of the world. Within decades the rivers of the West Coast, and indeed the whole of New Zealand, were being populated by the efforts of the trout themselves. Repeated releases of trout since 1867 were probably unnecessary as sea run coastal fish would have eventually populated most waterways naturally without human intervention. Take a look at any map of the North and South Islands and the rivers that flow to the sea and you will soon realise the possible extent of the estuarine trout resource.
Anglers and scientists have always debated whether sea run trout are a separate species to brown trout and this debate is still going on within New Zealand. Dr John Hayes (personal comment) noted that “anglers should be careful about jumping to conclusions based on assumptions that may or may not be correct”. Just because a fish is silver and caught near tidal waters may not mean it is a true sea run fish. However, taking another view, it is entirely possible that sea run or estuarine trout have more influence on New Zealand trout populations and fisheries than previously thought. Indeed G. Stokell, in Freshwater Fishes of New Zealand (1955), wrote that “there is ample evidence that both river dwelling fish and migratory fish have been present in New Zealand waters since trout were first introduced”.
Tony Orman, in The Sport in Fishing (1979), asked more questions and devoted an interesting chapter to the question of whether two separate strains exist. His sources, author George Ferris and Dr Donald Scott of the University of Otago, were convinced of it, while others were not. It is an interesting intellectual debate, but most probably of little practical value to most keen anglers just wanting to go fishing.
Bob McDowall’s Trout in New Zealand Waters (1984) is a fabulous book and a must read for every angler. McDowall notes that “a widespread characteristic of salmonids is their habit of spending a phase of their life in the sea -- a characteristic also retained in many of their southern hemisphere counterparts (whitebait and smelt)”. He further notes that “fish that leave the sea to spawn in freshwater are described as anadromous” and that “salmonids are very flexible in their anadromy, and in many species there are anadromous stocks and non-anadromous stocks in which the sea-migration is discarded and the whole lifecycle is completed in freshwater rivers or lakes”.
McDowall confirms that our brown stocks are of very mixed origin. “The habits and habitats of brown trout in New Zealand are as variable as their colouration. Our stocks are a real mixture of European varieties – sea run fish, river fish, lake fish, and from several countries including UK, Germany and Italy. The stock differences that have developed in Europe over the millennia have broken down in New Zealand as these formerly separated stocks have been bought together and shifted around New Zealand at the whim of fisheries managers…The way the various stocks have become blended in the New Zealand environment may be evidence that there is just a single species involved.”
Tom Kroos, a Nelson-based freshwater fisheries and environmental expert (also formerly of Otago Fish & Game) is adamant that there are different strains of fish in some rivers. Kroos uses the example of the Pomahaka, which he drift dived for Fish & Game on a number of occasions. “The sea run fish were much larger than the residents and arrived late summer and autumn,” he told me recently.
There is clear evidence of brown trout being caught at sea off the New Zealand coast. McDowall states that “some brown trout wander far and wide at sea, but how many do is unknown”. He goes on to mention a published case (1983) of illegally caught and sold trout that appeared to involve sea run browns caught by trawlers at rivermouths along the West Coast.
Type the words ‘sea run trout’ into the internet search engines and you can read about the rich history and value of sea run fish internationally. Any number of specialist fishing travel agencies can organise lavish trips in pursuit of the noble sea run brown. Exotic locales such as Tierra del Fuego and Rio Grande in Argentina, Chile, and Patagonia have become all the rage, with South America offering the best sea run brown trout fishing in the world today, largely because they manage their resource so well. With better management New Zealand could have a far better resource for local and tourist anglers. Type ‘sea run trout New Zealand’ into the search engines and it is more difficult to find anyone advertising significant commercial guiding services here for sea run trout, other than a mention here and there.
There is clearly an obsession with local and overseas anglers for fishing the clear-watered headwater fisheries of New Zealand. For example, in the book, New Zealand’s Top Trout Fishing Waters, by John Kent and Patti Magnano Madsen (1997), sea trout and estuarine fishing barely rate a mention. Clearly, the estuarine waters are not highly rated nationally, yet this stands in contrast to other historical fisheries studies by NIWA and others showing some of the South Island’s lower river reaches, such as the Waimakariri, Waitaki, Rangitata, and Rakaia are statistically very important for recreational anglers. Sea trout may be the poor cousin of salmon, but they are an important part of the angling catch.
Sea runners can grow to some impressive sizes with 20kg fish possible. South American sea run fish at Tierra Del Fuego in Argentina are regularly caught in the 10-15kg range. One of best photos of a big New Zealand estuarine fish is from Rex Forrester’s 1979 book, Trout Fishing in New Zealand, with a fish very close to 9kg (20lb) from Southland. McDowall (1984) features an 11.25kg brown caught in the Oreti River, Southland. If my memory is correct, the same angler tragically drowned while setting flounder nets in the Oreti estuary some years later.
John Hayes and Les Hill, noted Fish & Game magazine contributors, in their recent book, The Artful Science of Trout Fishing, note that “much of the best sea run brown trout fishing is to be had in New Zealand’s most southern rivers, such as the Oreti”. This is because “in colder climes the fish forsake the cold rivers for the relatively warm ocean and its greater food resources”. As Hayes notes: “One thing is certain: while at sea or in the estuary, they grow extremely fast.”
Hayes (2005) also tells us that trout motivation to “migrate to the sea is hard to ascertain because they can’t tell us”. “However, some form of migration at some stage in the lifecycle is a common feature in salmonid populations. It can be thought of as occurring in response to some shortage of a resource necessary for survival. For example, juvenile trout outgrow the small nursery streams they occupy as fry and need to find deeper, faster water with sufficient space, cover, and food. Depending on the availability of these resources, the trout may need to migrate to the deeper, lower reaches of rivers, to lakes or even the ocean. Many of the rivers on the east coast of the South Island suffer from periodic summer droughts, and the snow fed, braided rivers are flood-prone and fairly lean trout habitats. It may be more than coincidental that some of the best sea run brown trout fisheries in the country occur along this part of the coastline. Perhaps trout from these rivers escape the seasonally unfavourable freshwater habitat by taking refuge in the ocean?”
Forrester noted that the rivers of Westland are “under-fished because the rivers travel only a short distance to the sea, with a fast dropoff. They rise quickly and are susceptible to flooding and scouring.” Herein, perhaps, lies an explanation for the prevalence of many rivers to carry most trout in their lower reaches due to hostile habitat, heavy sediment loads, and limited food resources.
McDowall (1984) backs up this statement by noting: “In addition to their movements in and out of rivermouths seeking food, sea-living browns move into rivers and upstream to spawn. Like all other trout, they are tied to freshwater for reproduction and have to return there to lay their eggs. How these sea run fish relate to freshwater resident populations, whether they interbreed, or maintain discrete breeding stocks isn’t known. Many anglers consider that the populations in the upstream waters are part of the same populations and possibly they are.”
Taking these comments further, as a professional fishing guide I have always wondered where some of the trophy fish come from that turn up in marginal water. Many of these fish are fresh, bright fish in beautiful condition that have come from somewhere. Some you could swear still have sea lice marks on the fins.
Let’s just hope the trout don’t face the same problems the salmon have had with poor sea conditions and habitat degradation. I wonder sometimes how many young trout end up spread on irrigator’s paddocks along with the salmon fry?
Are there true sea run rainbows in New Zealand? Taupo rainbows are often described as steelhead, but in my opinion are secondary to the true steelhead runs I have fished in the United States and Canada. Two trips to British Columbia, catching large sea run steelhead (some 8-10kg), was some of the best fishing of my life. Normal trout fishing has never been the same since and steelhead fever has fuelled my interest in sea run browns ever since.
Rainbows are definitely caught in estuarine areas at times, with Mirfin et al in Brown Trout Heaven – Fly Fishing New Zealand’s South Island, (2000) noting: “Rainbows aren’t known for their sea run behaviour in New Zealand, although it is possible to catch smaller school rainbows in estuarine tidal-influenced stretches of the Pelorus River in Marlborough.” Since that time, I have caught rainbows in the tidal reaches of the Waitaki and wondered how much saltwater they can actually handle. The past few seasons have seen some nice rainbows, including one double figure fish, turning up in rivers not previously associated with rainbow trout. How did they get there? I don’t know, but a coastal migration is always a possibility.
Brown trout are numerous around rivermouths, estuaries, lagoons, and the lower tidal-influenced reaches of rivers. The best time to encounter them in these places is always during the spring and summer when seasonal food sources, such as whitebait, mullet, bullies, smelt, crabs, immature flounder, and other small crustaceans, are in abundance. Trout will live in estuarine waters all year, but they are most common when food is in abundance. Smelt and whitebait can be prolific as they congregate on their annual spawning runs and enable trout to put on significant weight and condition in a short space of time. Trout from estuarine areas, to be known henceforth as sea runners, can be great fish to eat. Prodigious girths, orange fillets, and clean, hard flesh characterise sea trout. Baked, grilled, fried, or smoked, it can be delicious. Be responsible with your killing, some areas I fish are popular with anglers and certain individuals can easily kill more than their share, especially if they fish night after night. The sea runner resource is not unlimited. Indeed in many parts of the world, catch and release is mandatory.
Most fish are not huge and are commonly 1-3kg. Anything larger than this is a real trophy from my experience. Such fish are silvery, firm, and covered in fine black spots, although colouration varies between rivers. McDowall notes the prevalence of an olive back on sea runners. When these fish migrate upstream, they will often travel in pods and can be diabolical fish to spot against the clear gravel bottoms of alluvial waterways. One time in a West Coast river, I observed a school of several hundred large fish moving en masse. Sea runners? I thought so.
Many of these fish will also have a dark caudal fin (tail) in the water, which can be a distinguishing feature before capture. These fish can be exceptional fighters, ripping out line with explosive downstream runs -- reel screamers in every sense of the word!
Fishing for sea trout has historically been heavily influenced by British writings. I own some, but am considering extending my mortgage to buy more classics editions someday! One of the best books on the topic, The Book of the Sea Trout, was written by Hamish Stuart (1917), who coined the phrase “Sea trout are estuary fish -- nomads of the tides to whom all watery ways are familiar”.
Written in a pompous, arrogant, and absolutely opinionated style, it is a great read and I just love some of his descriptions of the act of fishing for these noble fish. “The charm of the tidal waters is their glorious uncertainty; you never know the moment when there will be a sudden change in your luck and in the moods of the fish.” Or how about this…“A long-arrayed battalion of grey clouds gathered to guard the sun in his going down, and from under the shadow of their shields he sent long shafts of light until Ben Koinnich blazed with a vivid and tremulous yellow, changing as the shafts bit deep, to a lurid red -- a hill of blood in a dark-blue sky, a hill of blood in a purple sea”
Stuart’s passion for sea trout is evident and he certainly caught and butchered thousands of them in his lifetime, mostly fishing from a rowboat with a long rod and a team of flies on Scottish and Irish lochs that were stocked with tidal pulses of mostly smaller sea trout under 2kg, but sometimes larger. I’ve always wondered about whether this technique would work here. Three or four flies are attached to a leader and cast across a rippling stretch of water, always with the wind, and then drawn back to create a wake. Irishman George Ferris, of Fly Fishing in New Zealand fame (1954), recounted fishing successfully in Ireland with these techniques but noted that “ …methods with the wet fly, which if practiced here, would, I fear, be completely useless for any other purpose than the putting down of the trout for the rest of the day”.
In the early days of New Zealand sea runner fishing, 19th century British fly patterns reigned supreme, while the early 20th century saw Kiwi innovation click into gear.
New Zealand flytiers have a rich tradition of imitating baitfish. Two excellent books that highlight this flytying heritage are Keith Draper’s Trout Flies in New Zealand (1971) and Derek Quilliam’s The Complete Guide to New Zealand Trout Lures (1999). If you are a history buff who likes to read about the regional development of fly patterns, then these are good places to start. Perhaps the most specific sea run trout patterns were developed in Canterbury for use on Lake Ellesmere, a huge coastal lagoon and tributaries where once huge quantities of large trout were caught. Unfortunately, the lower reaches of our valued waterways and estuaries have borne the brunt of human devastation, development, and pollution over recent decades and many once great fisheries have imploded into mere shadows of their former glory.
Since the 1980s, American patterns have become more prevalent, as overseas companies began marketing and dominating the local fly scene. What most local anglers probably don’t realise is that the strength of the American dollar even dictates how much fishing pressure is applied on New Zealand waters by overseas anglers each year. The high New Zealand dollar has depressed tourism fishing effort over recent years, resulting in halcyon fishing for recreational anglers in most districts.
I have never been as successful on sea runners as I would have liked, but, hey, isn’t that always the way. I’ve fished for them all over the South Island, in Nelson, Marlborough, West Coast, North Canterbury, Central South Island, and even Fiordland. During this time, I have had moments of glory and days of dismal failure. Often, this is because of the nature of the beast, but also what makes fishing for sea runners so much fun. Part of the challenge is their unpredictable nature, the environment they inhabit, and patiently waiting for that next savage hit to send the adrenaline levels soaring into the stratosphere.
Sea runners are an arrogant, savage, and predatory creature, best pursued during the change of light, or the hours of darkness. It is a good idea to have prior daylight knowledge of where you are fishing, especially where river crossings and tidal flows are involved. A good flashlight, preferably a headlight for hands-free operation, is an essential item for any serious angler. High river flows, especially when falling after a flood, are great times to fish and trout will likely be active all day in discoloured waters. I view fishing for sea runners as a social sport and like to fish with other anglers, for cameraderie and for safety. Always try to avoid full moon periods and target dark nights with no wind.
Eels are an occupational hazard of night fishing. Toughen up, they won’t hurt you, but also make sure you don’t turn on your headlight when you feel them bumping into your waders either.
Sea runners are active fish and can turn up pretty much anywhere, especially after dark. On larger rivers, you will have to fish wherever you can get at the river. Where the first major rapid around or above the tidal push occurs is always a great place to encounter sea runners, as this is a natural trapping area for ascending baitfish, such as smelt, whitebait, and mullet. Trout will also be present near heavy cover, such as willows, snags, or holding in deeper channels and undercuts. In smaller rivers, certain pools will always hold more fish than others due to any number of factors, including depth, current, inflowing creeks, or springs. There is no substitute for experience and time spent on the water.
Estuarine fish are fickle creatures that are always there because of the food. If there are limited quantities of baitfish around, then it is unlikely that there will be large quantities of trout present. Sea runners are notorious for being present one week and gone the next. You can be doing everything right, but if no fish are present then the catching will be lean. Don’t give up, try again next week. Water temperatures are very important for baitfish, with smelt and whitebait staying at sea until river temperatures are optimum. Spring and early summer are always the best time, but each year can be different.
Some areas can be quite popular, so you may have to share the fishing. Etiquette differs around the country, so if in doubt, ask before you wade in and upset another angler. Some rivalry can exist between whitebaiters and anglers, but most of the time relations are rosy and good information can be gained from grizzled oldtimers frequenting riverbanks in their caravans. Some even combine whitebaiting with fishing when the ‘bait are slow. I remember one evening this spring in my local river, moving aside because it was getting a bit crowded in the pool we had started fishing. Wading upstream, I occupied a pool that another angler was just departing. Starting at the top of the run, I had a few casts, before the water suddenly came alive, like someone was throwing bowling balls into the water all around me in the half light. I just knew I was going to hook fish and I was not disappointed -- seven lovely sea runners hooked before the river became still and it was time to go. Interestingly, nothing happened in the pool below where my companions and other anglers were fishing. I’d rather have luck than skill anytime!
The estuarine areas of our lowland rivers are perhaps some of our most accessible freshwater fisheries, close to civilisation, and mostly having excellent public access provisions. Such areas may not have the visual appeal of some of our better known headwater fisheries, but can offer some fabulous angling opportunities with glorious sunrises and sunsets within a short drive from our homes.
Sea run trout can be caught by all manner of methods. Gill nets and spear-gunning are probably some of the most successful methods and are a serious problem in many estuarine areas. Set netting is a significant problem for trout and Fish & Game recommends all nets flow with the current, instead of perpendicular to the current flow to minimise salmonid by-catch. All accidentally net caught trout must be returned to the water, dead or alive. Don’t be afraid to call the authorities if you observe illegal behaviour. It’s your resource they are plundering.
By legal means, fly fishing, spinning, trolling, bait fishing, even jigging will all work, given the right application in the right situation. Being adaptable is the key to success, especially if introducing young anglers to the sport.
Standard fly gear will work fine, although on larger waterways heavier gear can be best. I commonly use 10ft rods in six and eight weight configurations, but friend, Dave Heine of Dobson, has gone one better by routinely using a 15ft double-handed spey rod to improve distance and casting efficiency.
Floating lines will often work well, especially if you can hear or see fish working the surface. Bow waves, swirling, and jumping fish are sure signs to fish the surface. This past season, Clayton Nicholl, and I had some epic fishing on the falling tide from a boat. The brownies were in full sight herding bait fish into tight bait balls, then charging through the middle, savaging the small fish. Showering clusters of bait were throwing themselves up on the shore and some charging trout even managed to beach themselves in the feeding frenzy. It was difficult to strip the fly fast enough to feel some hits, as the trout charged and chewed the fly, often veering off to take a real fish. Using a 200 grain sink tip with a 3ft leader worked best, slapping the water hard, to get their attention, and then strippingas fast as we could. It was sight fishing at its best with well-conditioned, hook-jawed specimens, arrogantly and superbly going about their business, as only sea run browns can.
When the fish are deeper, as they frequently are in larger and deeper waterways, you will need to go down after them. This is where sinking and sink tip lines work well. I’ve found 200-300 grain lines very useful in many circumstances, but also like using a slow sinking intermediate line at times, depending on what I’m trying to achieve. I’ve even been field testing a glow-in-the-dark flyline for Jim Vincent of RIO Flylines recently, fishing flies dead-drift.
Trout will take a swinging fly, but I prefer an active fishing method, giving the streamer fly plenty of movement. However you fish the fly, be prepared for some savage hits and screaming reels -- the closest thing we have to real steelheading in many rivers throughout the country. Lowland rivers have plenty of snags in the form of willow trees, old cars, and gorse bushes bought down with the last flood, so be prepared to lose lots of terminal tackle. I like to use flies that are fast and easy to tie to avoid tears when the inevitable snag occurs. Deep nymphing likely ripples and currents with Hare & Copper and beadhead nymphs can also be effective during quiet daytime periods.
Perennial fly pattern favourites are the Matuka series with black, olive and yellow Matukas (Parsons’ Glory / Dorothy/ etc) being favourites, but rabbit lures, killer style lures, woolly buggers, bucktails, or whatever you want to throw at them, will all work. Try streamer flies, using plenty of krystal flash, weight, dumbbell eyes, even glass rattles, if the fishing is slow. It can make a difference. Large black lures are very popular for fishing in eastern waters with a milky glacial tinge, as they present a strong silhouette underwater.
Use strong tippet, the fish don’t care! I prefer 4-6kg Maxima nylon when streamer fishing. With heavy line, you can often pull the snag out of the river, or even straighten your hook. But at least you will still have your fly. Strong line gives you a margin of error too, when fighting a heavy fish in snag-prone waters after dark.
Canterbury Lure Rods for salmon and trout are the way to go for serious sea runner action in many fast flowing, alluvial rivers. Such equipment and methods are mentioned in Draper’s Angling in New Zealand (1978), Jack Bryne’s Salmon Country (1980), and a John Morton article in Trout & Salmon Sport in New Zealand (1980). Morton wrote: “Not only is it effective on salmon, but on sea run trout as well. This last season two small Grey Ghost lures on a deep run under the willows took two trout together. The lure rod also came into its own in the Waimakariri this season in no small way, and proved so effective that there was a run on large Black Prince lures in the sporting shops.”
Ross Millichamp, in Almost Flyfishing!, a chapter in Bob South’s recent book Masters on Flyfishing (2004), discusses flyfishing on the east coast for anadromous fish and notes: “The problem with flyfishing is the method of delivery, rather than the fly itself. Canterbury anglers have developed a very pragmatic way of getting down.” This method works best in narrow fast guts and is a great way to combat deep, fast, milky water, and howling nor’west winds. Sometimes standard flyfishing can become a chore and you need to use techniques that are going to work, saving time, energy, and frustration by getting you to the bottom fast and efficiently.
Millichamp, in Salmon Fever (1997), devotes a small section to sea run trout. “One of the pleasant aspects of lure fishing is the chance of catching the sea run trout that are common in the lower reaches of most salmon rivers over the summer months. Change to a smaller fly and you are in business.”
Spin fishing is a great way to cover a lot of water, especially in larger rivers. It can save a lot of frustration with casting woes and is a great way to get younger anglers keen on the sport. Any number of lures will work, but lures with black and gold probably out-fish everything else. I also like to use a Silver Toby, Rapala lure, or a small silver ticer with a red plastic tag when in tidal waters to imitate small silveries and other baitfish.
Trolling from a boat works well on larger waterways, especially when the tide is pushing. Large lagoons and inaccessible channels often need to be fished in this manner, but check local angling regulations to see what the rules are first. Lead lines, or standard spinning gear work just fine. Even a sinker and swivel, with a metre long trace and streamer fly will work. This rig is a great way to cast and fish from shore too.
Smaller motors work best for trolling and I like a small electric positioning motor I own for a silent assault. Putting in some muscle by rowing is always a great option, putting plenty of motion into trolled lures and flies. Whitebaiters on Golden Bay’s Aorere this past October noted that most of the sea runners were caught by youngsters using rowboats because there was no motor to scare the flighty trout.
Drifting downstream, or with the tide, using soft plastic jigs and/or bait is certainly worth a go in the larger waterways like the Waimakariri, Buller, or any number of North Island rivers.
If you are ever fishing near the surf, boating or wading, be very wary of surging waves, currents, and undertow. Make sure you are wearing some form of flotation device.
Baits worth trying include whole pilchards, smelt, bullies, mullet, and the ever-reliable worm. Fish right on the bottom and use multiple hook rigs, but be sure to check your local regulations first. Fishing from shore with bait can be great evening sport, reclining in a deck chair with a cold beer waiting for a nibble. Use a small sinker, swivel, and trace with a #6-10 hook. Fish will cruise the bottom and will pick up your dead baitfish headfirst, or a gob of worms, usually hooking themselves in the process. This is a great method for getting youngsters into a fish or two, but doesn’t work so well getting close to dark when the eels come out to play.
The great thing about fishing tidal areas for trout is that kahawai are often present, especially during the summer.
Kahawai are a great fighting saltwater pelagic fish species that travel in shoals and are voracious feeders. They can be caught by any method and can often brighten up a tough trout day. They will take on the incoming or outgoing tide and are great fun on light tackle, being very tasty bled when first caught and either smoked, or made into fish cakes and pies. Some kahawai grow to prodigious sizes, commonly 2-4kg, and are a great recreational asset for anglers. Kahawai fight differently to most trout and sometimes can become a curse when in large numbers.
Zane Grey, when he penned these timeless words in 1928, was describing an Oregon steelhead, but could well have been writing about a sea run brown: “(The trout) lay flat on the gravel. I stared longing for the art of the painter, so as to perpetuate the exquisite hues and contours of that fish. All trout are beautiful. But this one of sea species seemed more than beautiful. He gaped, he quivered. What a long broad shape! He was all muscle. He looked exactly what he was, a fish spirit incarnate, fresh run from the sea, with opal and pearl hues of such delicate loveliness that no pen or brush could portray them. He bought the sea with him and had taken on the beauty of the river. He had a wild savage head, game as that of an eagle, jaws of a wolf, eyes of black jewel, full of mystic fire”
After close to 30 years on angling for sea runners, I’m still waiting for my first double figure fish. I won’t be able to blame my father next time, but the time, effort, and dedication required will make success all the more sweet. Regardless of size, getting up close and personal with a reel screamer is undoubtedly one of angling’s most intimate and electric moments.
Nymphing? Let Me Count The Ways
When it comes to river nymph fishing there are probably more methods, techniques, and strategies than positions in the Kama Sutra. Zane Mirfin concludes his two-part series on nymphing.
Nymph fishing to most is the act of fishing a submerged or sunken trout fly with a floating or sinking flyline, dead-drift or under tension, either upstream or downstream, or maybe somewhere in between.
I have been fortunate to meet, talk to, guide, fish with, or learn from many fine anglers and when it comes to nymph fishing, the more you expose yourself to new ideas, the more you learn.
Nymph fishing is different things to different anglers, depending on where they live, where they fish, what they catch, and how they fish. Following are a few of the river nymph fishing techniques I and fishing acquaintances have used with success over the years.
G.E.M Skues is widely credited as the creator of modern nymph fishing. Earlier anglers, such as Walton and Cotton of The Compleat Angler fame, clearly understood about nymphal forms, but Skues codified a nymphing system to the disgust of many dry fly zealots at the time. Skues was principally fishing upstream to sighted trout close to the surface, often with flies that nowadays we would commonly call emergers.
When the fish get cunning in these modern times and are in the upper reaches of the water column, learning to fish nymphs within a foot or two of the surface can pay dividends. Unweighted nymphs near the surface can be more effective than a dry fly and are also less prone to drag, or the influence of wind.
Frank Sawyer, riverkeeper for 50 years on Britain’s upper Avon spring creek, took the Skues’ nymph system to the next level when he wisely observed that trout commonly fed deeper in the water column on nymphs. His definitive book, Nymphs and The Trout, was published in 1958. Sawyer’s contribution to angling lies principally in his invention of the Pheasant Tail nymph and, most importantly, his innovation in adding copper wire as weight to sink nymphs fished up and across to sighted fish. This new technique revolutionised flyfishing and paved the way for how we understand nymph fishing to this day.
Sawyer’s method of fishing a floating line, long leader, and no indicator to visible fish still works a treat. Interestingly, Sawyer often moved his sunken nymphs gently to excite the target fish. When fish are skittish, it is possible to make multiple presentations to a sighted trout without the added risk of spooking the fish with a dragging indicator. When the angler anticipates a ‘take’, it is a simple matter to tighten up on the line and feel for the fish. This works well in pristine water, especially slower, deeper water with good visibility.
Both methods above rely on the obvious movement of a trout taking the nymph -- either fins, body, or flashing mouth alerting the angler to set the hook.
In life, you’re allowed to have angling heroes and Tony Entwistle has always been one of mine. One of the techniques Tony taught me many years ago was the ‘lift and draw’. Tony’s method is to cast to a fish, often in a deep pool, and let the nymph sink down deep ahead of the fish. We often use two nymphs -- a bomb or heavy stonefly nymph with a smaller, more imitative nymph trailed off the bend of the hook, always on a long leader. When the angler believes the fly is getting close to the trout’s nose, the rod is lifted with a smooth motion so tension is created down through the line. This motion swims the nymph(s) off the bottom and can trigger fish to take, as well as alerting the angler to a hookup when weight is felt through the rod and line. The lift and draw is ideal on deep lying or difficult-to-see fish, or when it will be more difficult to see obvious signs of a take. Advances in technology, such as ‘sticky sharp’, chemically sharpened hooks and new flyline types with low stretch properties, have greatly improved this style of fishing. Traditional plastic flylines can have as much as 15-20% stretch and bite detection can be compromised.
The lift and draw can also be used blind, especially in big, deep holes, using a big creeper or stonefly imitation. Cast and allow a three to four second drift to get your fly deep, then give a few pumps with the rod tip to feel for trout before the tip is dropped again, allowing another three to four seconds of drift before pumping the rod again, and so on until it is time to re-cast.
William Stewart was a Scottish 19th century angler of great skill, who reversed the way wet flies were traditionally fished by fishing them upstream as nymphs (The Practical Angler, 1857). His soft hackle nymphs, or ‘spiders’ tied in ‘the round’, are deadly to this day. Fish respond well to flies fished upstream either dead-drift or with movement. The Leisenring Lift, originated by American angler James Leisenring (The Art of Tying the Wet Fly, 1941) was principally fished down and across blind into known trout lies, but can be easily adapted to the upstream method. Maybe the lift and draw is nothing more than an upstream visual Leisenring Lift with a dash of Sawyer and Stewart thrown in.
Many river nymph species are active swimmers, with the big mayflies, such as Nesameletus and Oniscigaster, able to motor, although many other species in the dobsonfly, stonefly, and caddis orders are also very capable swimmers. Insect movement is a trigger to trout predation, and vulnerable prey moving seductively will likely provoke a violent response. Recently on a small stream on the West Coast, we caught fish after fish when we realised trout were taking nymphs best when they were dragging, rather than dead-drift. Opening up a trout for the landowner, it was stuffed full of emerging caddis pupa. Once we started casting and lifting to actively move the fly, fishing became easy and highly effective.
One of my fishing customers, Fred Young, taught me the ‘leech fishing’ trick and I’ve caught lots of trout using it in the right conditions and locations. Fred’s technique involves casting up and across, using a floating line, a moderate leader, and twitching a nymph back to the angler with a high rod tip and plenty of constant wrist motion. Fred always preferred a moderately weighted nymph, particularly tied with CDC and/or marabou legs and tails. Fish often go nuts over the moving fly and this works well in coloured water and in stirred up wave action on lakes.
Modern indicator nymphing is the latest phenomenon, often plumbing the depths with lead and tungsten weighted nymphs. Strike indicators revolutionised nymph fishing around the world and you could write a book on this. For more information on this method refer to my Issue 62 feature, Indicator Nymphing Fast, Shallow Water. On a promotional trip to Southern California last July I was given, and also purchased, some amazing strike indication devices. Some of the better ones had screwdriver tightening devices to attach the indicator to the leader, or central indicator posts, like a flagpole, so you know at any time where the fly is in relation to the indicator drift. I purchased ‘thingamabobs’ -- lightweight, plastic indicators that don’t look unlike a ping pong ball, with an eyelet to attach to the leader. Thingamabobs come in numerous sizes and colours and a Swedish customer was pretty dubious when I attached one to his line in November. Per is a great angler and was amazed at how aerodynamic the thingamabob was to cast, especially attached to10 feet of leader, a one-eighth ounce split shot, and two medium sized unweighted nymphs. I’ve learned from coarse fishing the importance of understanding weight to float ratios, so when a fish touches the hook the indicator will tell you immediately. On this day, I must have had it just right. After a few casts, Per was into a nice trout out of a deep, well-defined gut that would have been difficult to fish successfully any other way.
High stick or Czech nymphing are similarly related nymph fishing techniques to take trout at close range in heavy, fast pocket water. Rene Vaz wrote a great article called Short Line Nymphing in Special Issue 27, describing the mechanics developed by European anglers to catch fish in rough, fast, broken water. I won’t repeat his advise except to say that back in the early 90s I learned the American high sticking technique in the waters of the western States and it was deadly on the rivers of Colorado, in among the big, fast pockets of the Roaring Fork and Frying Pan rivers. With this technique, fish close and deep, using boulders and current for cover to escape detection from the fish.
The major difference between high sticking and Czech nymphing is the use of a strike indicator. The Americans commonly use one or more indicators attached down the line to aid detection and/or drift control (maybe with a bit of flyline on the water too), whereas Europeans use a coloured leader made up of braid or highly visible nylon (with no flyline touching the water) to observe the drift, although trout are often felt through the line too, especially when jigging. I predict this method will become more common over time, with anglers utilising four to five metre rods to comb fishy spots seldom fished effectively before. In an age of rubber-soled wading boots, many anglers will seek to wade safer, shallow waters while fishing heavy current trout havens with longer rods and new innovative nymphing techniques.
Charles Brooks wrote a classic book in 1976 called Nymph Fishing for Larger Trout. Brooks had a range of techniques, but was particularly adept at fishing high density sinking lines up and across with short stout leaders of about a metre, using thickly hackled, rough dubbed, and well weighted stonefly nymphs. His method to all intents and purposes isn’t much different to Czech nymphing, although you always feel the fish pull on the line, rather than visually setting the hook. My greatest fish taken by this method was a 10kg steelhead in British Columbia’s Kispiox River. I spotted the fish in a deep, fast run and, only having a deep sinking T-300 line, I cut the leader back to well under a metre and tied on a big weighted Globug. On about the 10th cast, I finally got the drift right and the line tightened, as the big steelhead took off nearly ripping the rod from my grasp.
Another technique first described by New Zealander Keith Draper is using sink tip lines and offset circle type hooks fished upstream in larger rivers. The short, fast sinking heads, commonly two to four metres, help get the fly deep fast and the floating running line can be mended to assist the drift. With this technique you are waiting for fish to hook themselves against the water resistance of the line and it is effective on rainbow trout. Interestingly, in a book I am reading at the moment called Snapper, editor Sam Mossman describes how early Maori developed wooden and bone circle hooks that far outperformed the steel ‘J’ style hooks of Captain James Cook’s crewmen. One thing I have learned set-lining for snapper in Tasman Bay is how modern Japanese circle hooks catch the most fish, as they pull into the snapper’s mouth under the pressure of the fish. This is why Europeans tie their Czech nymphs on circle type hooks and why they work so well on sink tip lines fished up and across. There is often little need to strike, as fish hook themselves.
I really enjoy ‘down and across’ fishing with small, soft-hackled wet flies. The ‘wee wets’ are still nymph fishing and work well to imitate hatching mayflies and caddis pupa.
Edward Ringwood Hewitt (Nymph Fly Fishing, 1934) was one of the pioneers of fishing in America’s Catskills’ tradition. His dry fly wisdom was considerable, but he still caught a lot fishing his nymphs down and across the current.
Ernest Schwiebert in his magnificent 1978 book, Trout, describes many downstream nymphing techniques often only differentiated by how one controls downstream drag, tension on the line, or with the inclusion of hand twist retrieves, line strips, or rod movements to imitate active nymphs.
Another favourite fishing book is Sylvester Nemes’ The Soft Hackle Wetfly, which taught me to tie my soft hackle nymphs on large, heavy wire hooks to ride better in the water. Sylvester fishes unweighted soft hackles and can often see the boil of the take before feeling the pull of the fish. I commonly use lead-weighted soft hackles, or put a bead under the hackle to get a little deeper when fishing with a floating line, or use unweighted nymphs when using a sink tip or polyleader. I’ve even been playing with intermediate slow sinking lines for down and across nymphing. The no-stretch intermediate lines give amazing sensitivity and feel without sacrificing any casting efficiency or presentation issues.
When it comes to down and across nymphing, sometimes the takes can be very subtle as Jim Ring explains in an article, The Small Wetfly -- A Lost Art?, reproduced in the 1980 book, Trout and Salmon Sport in New Zealand -- An Angling Anthology. Ring was a major influence in Tony Orman’s 1974 book, Trout With Nymph, and coincidentally was my fourth form science teacher at Waimea College. Ring observed: “Good fish take in the gentlest manner. It feels like somebody touching your sleeve so delicately, to attract attention without giving offence. If anything happens during the drift, assume it is a fish.” Ring also noted that, if you can hook up one in three takes, you are “getting reasonably proficient”.
When fishing down and across with nymphs, I hold the rod at about 60 degrees and also hold a loop of line against the cork handle that can be ripped from under my finger in the event of a king hit from a hungry trout. It is a good idea to fish heavier tippet than used on upstream methods, as the force of water and sometimes savage takes will mean you will likely bust off a few fish.
Nymphing downstream with sinking lines, throwing a 24-30ft shooting head, can be a real delight sometimes. When the wind howls downstream, the water is high and cloudy, or the river is well stocked with rainbows, fishing down and across with a fast sinking line can be the way to go. I generally never go lighter than 10lb Maxima tippet because you will get some thumping takes from aggressive fish. Some would call this streamer fishing, but fishing a Woolly Bugger could just as easily be imitating a large creeper or a crustacean, such as koura or large estuarine shrimp. I commonly tie a beadhead nymph off the bend of the hook on the Bugger and it is very common to take fish on this trailing fly. I commonly cast my line across stream, throwing one or two upstream mends to allow the line to sink and straighten, then following around with the rod tip in what is known as a ‘steelhead swing’. When the line straightens below me, I strip it back to the junction of the shooting head, take a step downstream, and shoot the line out again, working a set of concentric circles down a pool. Imitative Bugger colours are black, brown, grey, and olive, but one of my favourite big down and across ‘nymphs’ is an orange-bodied Woolly Bugger with black tail and hackle. I’m also a fan of Montana rubber leg nymphs when fishing this method and have a real soft spot for that great American trout fly, the girdle bug.
Experiment with the nymphing techniques I’ve featured, but never be afraid to develop your own methods and individual style. Fishing the artificial nymph is a constantly evolving art form and scientific endeavour. No one has yet developed the perfect technique, strategy, or method -- and the great thing is that they never will. That’s what makes nymph fishing so much fun and what allows us to enjoy the fabulous mystery that we call flyfishing.
Down and Across
Many areas of New Zealand have fine downstream angling traditions dating back well over a century. Turangi and the fabled waters of the Tongariro have always been the holy grail of the downstream fisherman here, with many excellent historical writings about down and across (or, if you like, across and down) fishing, by Vice Admiral Hickling, Budge Hintz, Sierpinski, Zane Grey, and latterly Jensen, Gould, and Kemsley
In the Tongariro, down and across fishing was de rigeur for close to a century, well before Grey. In the period 1970-1980s, nymph fishing, particularly ‘glo-buggery’, became the rage and largely displaced down and across. In recent years however, there has been a revival of the old ways and in certain pools, such as the Hydro, Major Jones, Island, Judges, Breakfast, and many downstream of the main highway bridge, down and across can still be the best way to success.
Feeling the line swing down and across, the strong pull as a fish takes a fly and hooks itself has a certain magic. It’s more relaxing, more like real fishing should be. You don’t need to concentrate so hard. You can think, look, enjoy the surrounds.
Sometimes it’s the history and formality of the method that makes it appealing. Standing on the site of Grey’s fishing camp on the banks of the North Umpqua in Oregon, for instance, was a special part of my downstream indoctrination. Feeling the history, fishing the same pools, walking the same trails as Grey set the scene for a memorable trip. To have fished a nymph upstream under such circumstances would have been heresy and brought ridicule from angling companions.
Trout get big by being piscivorous or eating baitfish. This is especially so of larger specimens, which require proportionally larger calorific intakes as they grow. Eating a fish diet makes great sense in terms of energy efficiency, as more time can be spent resting and growing. One small fish is a more energy efficient meal than dozens of tiny mayflies. Feeding on baitfish is also a defensive mechanism of large trout. It makes them less vulnerable because they have no need to expose themselves for longer periods of time, which insect drift feeders do. With increasing angling pressure on popular rivers, streamer fishing may well become more popular as fish change their feeding habits to escape angling persecution.
Streamers work best when fish are out actively seeking food. Temperature is important to trout feeding as is barometric pressure and moon-phase, but many times trout can be provoked into striking an angler’s lure when a dry fly and nymph never work.
Bad light situations are great times to fish down and across, as there is no indicator or small dry fly to look for and fishing by feel can have a lot of merit.
Times of high flow are also prime times to fish down and across. The angler can cover more water, move fish from greater distances, and fish may also be hungrier and at a tactical disadvantage due to murky water. Don’t discount low flows, though, especially at the change of light and after dark.
Many anglers only fish down and across when nothing else is working, but it is a mainstay method that can be successful any time of day or season and takes cunning, application, and knowledge.
As fish take with such aggression and often have the weight of water behind them, it pays to use very heavy line. Because the fish generally see the fly before the line, tippet size doesn’t seem to be too important. Because they are so preoccupied by the imitation, fish don’t have time to examine the line, the imitation, or even the angler. Be prepared to lose plenty of flies if you are fishing deep. Big trout like heavy structure and plenty of gear will be lost casting to those gnarly spots. When you start fishing these places, you begin to realise how many trout are actually present in many rivers and how many trout most upstream nymph and dry fly anglers run past in a day.
When fishing down and across, there’s also a need to try different depths. During an even-ing on La Fontaine spring creek in South Westland, my companion (a much better angler than I) was fishing a floating line, while I was throwing a T130. We were fishing similar streamers, but I hooked eight fish to his one, which showed the importance of depth and the influence of the sink tip line in adding realism to the streamer.
Floating lines work well with streamer flies in smaller waters and spring creeks that are either shallow or full of weedbeds. A Matuka lure swung just under the surface will produce fish, most never seen during daylight hours.
On the change of light, browns and rainbows become very active, hunting food and covering a lot of ground, often coming out from under the banks in dull light and darkness. Some excellent fish can be caught swinging olive Matukas down and across. A large BB shot pinched on at the tippet knot is enough to give the lure an erratic wobble and by casting and throwing a big downstream mend, it’s possible to swim the Matuka along and under a far bank where hungry trout wait.
Outside New Zealand, the rivers of the Skeena drainage in British Columbia offer some of the largest strains of steelhead in existence. Down and across with the steelhead swing or ‘greased line’ technique are the favoured methods. Although steelhead will take skated surface flies, when water temperatures are high, most fish are caught dredging deep. There’s a saying: “Go ugly early”. And so by scouring the depths with a T300 (Teeny) line, 3ft leader, and a black egg sucking leech many fine fish can be caught. Similar methods work in parts of the Tongariro.
The basic Teeny routine is to throw long casts with a sink tip line and throw upstream mends with the floating portion of the line to allow the fly to get as deep as possible before the current starts swinging the fly. If fishing across large areas of slow water into faster flow, it can be necessary to throw downstream mends to keep the line tight and present the fly in the right manner. Once the line starts to straighten, the rod is held perpendicular to the current flow and once the line begins to tighten, you can follow around with the rod tip and fish through the drift. During the swing, no line should be held in your hand, it should come directly off the reel. When a fish takes, it will hook itself against the drag of the reel. It isn’t rocket science and everyone will have their own individual techniques at getting the fly to the fish.
Perhaps one of the best books of recent years in regard to streamer fishing is Modern Streamers for Trophy Trout (1999) by Americans Bob Linsenman and Kelly Galloup. The authors advocate heavy sinking lines, mega short leaders, outsize baitfish imitations, and aggressive fast action retrieves. Most of this book details fishing from boats, splashing heavy casts within inches of the bank or instream obstacles, and retrieving with an aggressive ‘rip and jerk’ action to stimulate the predatory and territorial instincts of trophy trout. Full sinking lines can be great out of boats, but are more difficult when standing in running water. Sink tip lines are arguably most practicable for New Zealand applications.
The ‘rip and jerk’ technique necessitates bulk energy where the angler smacks the fly and line down on the water to attract fish and points the rod tip at the water and retrieves line frantically. It is virtually impossible to strip the line too fast some days. Brown trout often behave like kingfish, where the faster the jig moves the more likely they are to take it. After each cast, take a few steps, as fish will come a long way to take the fly. Only cast once to each spot. If the fish ignore the first cast, they will generally ignore the second as well. You will see fish chasing the fly and learn a lot about big predatory trout behaviour. Some of the takes are electric, with fish taking at the rod tip, in a very visual and violent manner. This technique works in big and small rivers. In medium-sized rivers, wade down the middle throwing to the most enticing structure. Line mending is often unnecessary with this method — just cast and retrieve. It is a great way to explore and to cover a lot of ground. Streamer anglers will find kilometres of fine trout water rarely fished by other anglers myopically blinded with other methods.
Streamer fishing can also be a great way to fish water with difficult currents — backwaters, tidal estuaries, and eddy pools. Sometimes fish will eat streamers when they will eat nothing else. They seize such flies in response to territorial aggression and instinct as predators at the top of the food chain. Most people use streamers that are too small. Don’t be afraid to use big chunks of fur and chenille. Make that lure look like a fish that knows it’s in trouble.
When dredging streamers on the swing, or the ‘rip and jerk’ method, I like the rod tip to be in, or close to the water to have maximum contact with the fly. Keep the fly moving so the fish doesn’t get too much of a look and depart.
Obvious places to cast are against the far bank, beside obstacles such as large rocks, logs, willows, or weed beds. Shelves offering changes of depth or current are good, as are areas overhung with vegetation or shadow. Water more than three metres deep is tough and should be avoided unless you are fishing in very slow current, or from a boat anchored over a river delta.
No article on streamer fishing would be complete without a paragraph or two on sea run browns. Traditionally these fish have been taken on spinning and salmon gear in the surf, guts, and lagoons. These methods still work great. Last winter I purchased a ‘Canterbury scratching rod’, which is good for fishing deep fast guts and troughs for East Coast alluvial sea runners. This rig is great for down and across fishing at close quarters. It enables the angler to put streamer flies really deep really fast, which is impossible on conventional fly gear.
Quite large numbers of sea runs enter rivermouths and are most common in areas of tidal influence. Many are eating smelt, whitebait, bullies, crabs, shrimps, juvenile flounder, and mullet. The best times are spring and summer, but fish inhabit such locations year round. Matuka style patterns, dressed with plenty of flashy synthetic materials, are favourites. There are no hard or fast rules on depth or fly retrieve.
Tackle and techniques have evolved over recent years, especially in the development of fast action rods and fast sinking density compensated flylines, fluorocarbon, and new and exciting designs of streamer flies, tied with soft and pliant traditional and modern materials, such as marabou, rabbit pelt, synthetic fibres, and rubber legs. Rods and reels are up to the individual angler, although it is much easier to repeatedly throw big casts with heavy lines and wind resistant flies on larger eight weight gear. Flylines should be tailored to conditions. Teeny lines are great, but recently I have been testing equipment manufactured by RIO. RIO has a comprehensive range of floating sink tip and full sinking lines for all occasions, as well as a fully luminescent glow-in-the-dark line.
Despite the myths, casting sinking and sink tip lines is not difficult — they can be easier to cast as they have more weight, load the rod better, and eliminate numerous, unnecessary backcasts. Make up your own sink tip shooting heads out of lead-core trolling line, if you’re a young fella or on a budget. They’re ugly to cast, but definitely work.
Muddler Minnows, with flared deer hair head, revolutionised streamer fishing and most modern big lures, can trace their lineage back to Don Gapen’s original creation. Such lures were designed to imitate the North American sculpin, which is very similar to the New Zealand cock-a-bully. Bucktails, Clouser Minnows, Spey flies, Marabou muddlers, and Woolly Buggers are favourites, but New Zealand has it’s own proud history of streamer development, most designed for more passive down and swing fishing, lake fishing, or night fishing.
Flies with heavy dumbbell eyes, epoxy 3D eyes, glass death rattles, soft pliant synthetic materials, heavy wire hooks, cone heads, tungsten beads, and split shot are other significant innovations. Luminous globeads are well worth sliding down the leader on to the tippet knot in low light or tannin water conditions. Weighted streamers can give a good jigging action where they are legal. ‘Rip and jerk’ is more suited to large bully type lures, while steelhead swing and dredging methods are more suited to other baitfish or attractor patterns. I find a loop knot at the terminal end of the leader very effective. It allows a hinge effect and allows the streamer more movement during the retrieve.
If you are swinging streamers deep and slow, white and light coloured patterns work well, as they look like a dying or sick minnow. One trick worth trying is the Atlantic salmon technique known as a ‘riffle hitch’. This is two half hitches tied in the leader around the eye of the lure so the fly rides broadside to the current and presents a better profile and silhouette to the trout.
Black is a great colour and has great silhouette underwater, but many other colours are worth trying. Lefty Kreh reckons that “if it ain’t chartreuse, it ain’t no use”. Yellow is a favourite colour, particularly on sea run browns. Browns and rainbows are both highly receptive to red. Flashy crystal flash and flashabou can add some zap to smaller baitfish patterns too. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Try fishing multiple fly rigs, which gives the trout a choice. Many overseas anglers fish a larger, light coloured or white pattern followed by a smaller darker pattern, so they can see more takes. Guide Peter Carty ties a gold beadhead nymph about 20-30cm behind a Woolly Bugger. If the fish takes short on the streamer, it can be hooked cleanly in the scissors of the jaw with the nymph.
Theories and opinions abound on streamer fishing. But nobody knows everything. The real key is to grab your rod and go fishing. You’ll be amazed at what you discover!
In the Land of the Vikings
The Gimdalen community, where I was based for three weeks, consists of 80-90 fulltime residents.
All knew each other. The township had a number of communal facilities, including an illegal pub and an elaborate guesthouse known as Kullagarden.
The guest house entertained some interesting folk while I was in residence — mainly fishermen. The scenery around Gimdalen was beautiful — pastures surrounding houses with masses of wildflowers and Roe deer grazing the fringes. Tractors ploughed fields and harvested hay. Buildings were all painted a traditional red-brown colour with white trim and copper brick roofs. These communities were centuries old.
My host, Leif Milling, was a professional photographer with overwhelming charm and a contagious enthusiasm. His cabin was situated by the Gimdalen Stream where grayling rose freely and rods were always stored on the front porch for when the need to fish became unbearable.
The scenery in Sweden was beautiful. Trees were numerous in many places — pine, fir, silver birch. Rivers ran dark and stained with tannin. There were an abundance of lakes, with creeks and small rivers flowing between them. Unexplored potential abounded. The grayling lived in the rivers during summer and inhabited the lakes during iceout in winter. The rivers were hard to wade, with deep holes and big rocks smoothed from glaciation. A wading staff was essential.
Roe deer, European moose, lynx, and capercaille inhabited these ancient woods. The Swedes were keen hunters. Even during the summer, they trained their dogs.
The daylight hours were awesome. Being far enough north and close to the Arctic Circle, it never got totally dark in summer. It was a strange feeling wearing sunglasses at 11pm. The long days exhausted the body and confused the mind. Dinner at 4am was an odd sensation.
The temperature was changeable, somewhere between 8-25C — either hot or cold, with not much in between. It was often overcast with cold breezes.
Grayling proved a spectactular fish. Decorated with silver, bronze, and pewter flanks and a huge mis-shaped dorsal fin that contains the colours of the rainbow, they were fish of dreams. A member of the greater whitefish family, they have a mouth that faces downwards, but it is here that all similarity ends. The grayling is a fine sporting fish with selective eating habits and an alarmingly fast strike. They liked dry flies, but nymph fishing was deadly. They inhabited the fast water and were strong fighters.
Idsjostrommen was an impressive piece of water. Draining Lake Idsjon, this 2km tailwater fishery is widely regarded as one of the finest grayling streams in Sweden. Privately owned, but managed as a catch and release, exclusive pay-as-you-fish stream, it was stuffed full of big grayling.
Swedish fish and game areas were broken up into archaic, ill-defined small patches of turf administered by small communities and private landowners. There was no national licence and a regional licence cost $150 Kr per week for a non-resident.The daily charge on Idjostrommen was $150Kr (about $30US) and anglers often booked months in advance to reserve space at the prime times. Space was limited to a maximum of 10 anglers per day. Once your feet touched the water at Idjostrommen, there was no doubt that the daily charge was a bargain at triple the price. On my visit, grayling were everywhere, rising to large yellow May duns and caddis. The top 1km of the beat was the best and offered phenomenal dry fly fishing.
Idjostrommen was a classic example of a well-managed fishery. Once virtually annihilated due to Swedish fish-kill mentality, it had had an amazing recovery in the previous eight years. The grayling were fat, colorful, well conditioned, and fought well. Some showed signs of capture with hook marks and missing maxilliaries, due to “ripping their lips” on hard strikes.
We had some classic fishing here and I was even berated for catching too many. Nymph fishing was just too easy. The Swedes had no idea of upstream nymphing with a strike indicator and a pair of small nymphs. On one occasion, I had them lining up for me to rig their rods with indicators and nymphs. They’d jump in the water, laughing hysterically, as the bright yellow indicator dipped and dived on virtually every cast. The riverkeeper accused me of unsportsmanlike fishing methods. Funnily enough, Milling caught the same accuser fishing the next morning with an indicator and double nymphs. The riverkeeper was very embarrassed.
Sweden also had many other types of fish. Pike fishing was great in the many weedy lakes surrounding Gimdalen. Pike are very under-rated. Olive green with gold stripes and vertical bars, they proved extremely voracious and ate virtually anything.
Locals targeted pike, many around 8-10kg, with big spinning gear and multi-coloured, garish looking fluorescent lures mounted with three sets of treble hooks. Favourite weed-beds in Lake Mysson inevitably produced pike and perch. I caught many smaller pike on fly, usually with sinking lines, but usually had my hawser-diameter nylon bitten through by larger specimens. Perch were easily captured, stripping a pair of nymphs through and around shallow weed beds. Perch are the primary food source of pike and are lovely table fish. Perch are known as Aborre in Swedish, are very plentiful, and become a prime winter target when lakes freeze and holes can be drilled in the ice. With vertical bars, green back, dark stripes, silver bellies, red fins, and spiny dorsal fins, perch were fun to catch and eat. Pike were not so palatable.
Milling and I did a lot of trolling with Rapala lures on the lake, within walking distance of his house and caught some lovely pike at all times of the day and night. These pike had a rocket-like attack, and sight fishing, waiting in ambush around lake edges and fallen trees, provided some classic adrenaline surges, as the pike charged and savaged a stripped fly.
Id were a classically beautiful lake fish. Like a technicolour carp with large scales, Id were green, gold, and bronze with large red under fins. Feeding predominantly on insects, they rose to the surface beautifully. One day we encountered a midday hatch of huge lake Mayflies. The largest dries I had were #8 Irresistables and #10 Green Drakes, which were way too small. But the Id ate them anyway. Id strikes were the slowest I’ve ever encountered — you had to count to five or six before setting the hook.
The fish had cast-iron mouths and you could feel the hook grating inside the mouth before it found a hold.
Such hard mouths often bent or straightened hooks. The explosive takes of Id usually caused premature strikes, but once hooked they were awesome fighters, powering off into the lake with supreme strength, despite a big one probably only weighing 2.5kg.
We also chased elusive Arctic char further north in the bare, windswept, glaciated mountains of Jamptland, a few hours south of the Arctic Circle. Here, ice has permanently sculpted the landscape and tattooed impressive striation marks across huge expanses of rock. Lower down, the slopes were green and heavily vegetated with beautiful forests inhabited by moose, bear, and lynx.
In the remote valleys we found the semi-nomadic farms of the aboriginal Swedes — the Lapps. Looking more Asian than European, these hardy people farmed reindeer. Principally meat-eaters, their favourite delicacy was dried, rancid, reindeer fat. Arctic char were the first fish to inhabit Sweden after the last Ice Age, with brown trout following soon after. Lapp reindeer herders travel up to 20,000km a year on their snowmobiles, keeping their herds under control during the harsh northern winters.
We fished private lakes at the hospitality of the local Lapp community, which had started a tourist venture. We walked miles across tundra, through forests and over cascading waterfalls. Some of the single log bridges took our breath away.
We finally were ferried by boat up one lake and through a narrow chasm into another larger lake, home to the Arctic char. The weather was cold and bleak and the char didn’t come to the surface and eat dry flies, so we dredged deep with nymphs and streamers and managed to catch a few, along with some brown trout.
The best way to catch char, we discovered, was trolling a set of flashing, revolving blades that had a single hook dangling behind, baited with fresh maggots off our meat supply.
The whole Swedish experience proved something very profound, unique, and incomparable.
River confluences are great places to fish for trout throughout the angling season. Zane Mirfin outlines some major opportunities associated with fishing confluences.
When I dipped the thermometer into the river and saw the numbers rocketing skyward, I knew we were in big trouble. The drought had taken a tight grip on the region, rivers were critically low, and the dry hills shimmering in the heat haze of the mid-day sun told a grim story to a couple of river-weary anglers. We fished a nice run more out of hope than any expectation, but it soon became obvious we’d need to seek cooler waters -- if we could find any. Racking my brain, I remembered a small tributary upriver, out of sight of the main road, which flowed from cool, heavily vegetated native bush.
The stream confluence offered immediate hope. The electronic thermometer gave an instant thumbs-up and, peering through long grass along the bank, I spotted several promising shapes in residence. Dick made an excellent first cast, a nice trout swung across the current, and slurped down his fly…
Water-body confluences can take a number of forms -- the meeting of streams and rivers, the entry of a stream or river into a lake delta, oxbows and backwaters, or even the confluence of a braided river into the saline waters of a coastal lagoon. This article concentrates on stream mouth confluence opportunities and potential fishing strategies, providing seven main reasons why confluences can be great places to fish throughout the angling year.
1) The first reason is nutrient enrichment. Many rivers in which trout live are a tough environment. Harsh flooding, scouring, low fertility, and acidity are just a few of the challenges fish face day-to-day. Acidity and alkalinity play a large part in the distribution of trout and food sources. I’m no fish scientist, but inflowing confluences I fish and guide regularly turn on rainbow trout in predominantly brown trout fisheries. Are the fish attracted to differing alkalinity input? I don’t know, but the fish sure look good thrashing in my net! Fertility is important because even bugs need something on which to live. Where there is food, there will be insects, crustaceans, and baitfish, which in turn become trout food. Many rivers are poor fisheries until a fertile tributary injects some life into sterile waters. Believe it or not, some rivers have become better because of intensive farming practices. As noted guide Tony Entwistle says: “Sometimes a little poo is good”. The Pelorus River, as an example, doesn’t become a good fishery until its smaller tributary, the Rai, injects some fertility and life into the harsh mineral-belt water. Tributary streams can flow from virtually any point of the compass and it is inevitable that some inject good and some inject bad water characteristics into larger waterways. The key is to have an understanding of the positive characteristics and their locations so you can exploit them. Knowing the good also means you know how to avoid the bad. I know rivers where you only want to fish above the confluence of certain tributaries.
2) Variety is another reason to target confluences, which are often extremely beautiful places regardless of success. It is no accident that many fishing beats are described in human terms by where confluences join. I can think of any number of helicopter day beats that go from one tributary point to another tributary upstream. Often when fishing parties run into each other, they divide the water according to confluences or inflowing streams. Confluences are a language anglers understand and embrace and will always be used as arbitrary stream markers and locations. They also give anglers additional fishing opportunities and can add excitement when deciding which stream to fish. Big or small? East or west? With the advent of didymo, though, ethics need to be carefully considered (see sidebar: Didymo Ethics and Hygiene).
3) Trout food concentrates where stable structure and water fertility is best. Most trout foods thrive under stable conditions, hence the importance of stable confluence water. You may find any aquatic trout foods from stoneflies to caddis in such areas. Food sources vary from region to region and sampling the food sources with a simple insect screen and kicking over a few rocks can give a valuable insight into how best to catch trout. Terrestrial foods can also be important seasonal foods, with everything from willow grubs, passion vine hoppers, brown beetles, and cicadas worth trying, especially on those fussy surface eaters. Seasonal food sources, such as inanga, smelt, mullet, and immature flounder, are common in areas of tidal interaction. Often an inflowing tributary makes a great area for ‘bait-balls’ of baitfish to accumulate. Confluences, such as the Mahinapua Creek with the Hokitika River on the South Island’s West Coast, are great hunting areas for predatory estuarine brownies. Small slim silvery spin lures, or ‘matuka’ style feather lures (Parsons’ Glory or Yellow Dorothy) fished on a sink tip flyline will seldom disappoint, especially during spring and summer. Female trout will accumulate in these food rich places to replenish body condition lost through the rigours of spawning. Fish at times of low light and on the falling tide for best results. Trout and salmon will often spawn in river confluences and spring outlets. If fishing these in late season/winter, don’t be shy to fish an egg fly or Globug where it is legal.
4) Water temperature is a critical factor in the feeding behaviour of trout. Entwistle has long documented the feeding behaviour of trout under thermometer scrutiny. Brown trout feed best in rising water temperatures between about 12-18C. Once the water tips over 20C, it is generally time to look for colder water because fish will shut down and go into survival mode. Rainbows will continue to feed in warmer water up to 21C, but most salmonids function best in colder water. Once water temperatures reach critical thresholds, it is irresponsible to continue catching and releasing trout in oxygen-starved waters. Exhausted trout in warm waters can be subject to high mortality. In-flowing tributary streams, springs, and rivers offer hope to anglers in such circumstances by introducing much needed colder water that assists trout feeding behaviour. Search out the optimum feeding temperatures. Small tributaries can often contribute the coldest water because they have shorter catchments and can have less land development and more native riparian vegetation cover. Some streams are often many degrees cooler than the main rivers due to complex geographical and geological features. Experience is important here and time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted. Always remember that the thermometer never lies. In the height of summer, the rule remains the same whether it is an inflowing stream on the Waikato or the Taieri: trout prefer cool waters. In colder periods of the year, water temperatures may be too cold for good fishing and warmer heavily developed tributaries may pump warmer water into a colder main river that will assist in concentrating feeding fish. Early season is another time to search out tributary inflows when water temperatures tend to be lower and the fish often sluggish.
5) Water clarity is a major consideration in trout feeding behaviour. In times of high flow and spate conditions, trout will often concentrate near inflowing confluences because clear water assists feeding vision and also allows them safety from mud-choking debris in a larger main river. Small tributaries mostly fall and clear faster than larger waters and offer sight-fishing opportunities in adverse conditions. Find clear water when everything else is high and flooded and you have a recipe conducive to catching trout. Some glacial-type rivers will be murky during spring and summer thaw, and clear inflowing confluences will attract trout like metal to a magnet. Likewise, the confluences of clear and tannin waterways are usually a sure bet to find trout. Often it is possible to find smaller tributaries or inflowing waters that are dirty/coloured/cloudy, while the main river remains clear. Fish are much easier to catch in cloudy water where they are more aggressive, less spooky, and generally hungrier. Fishing success can often be magnified by exploiting weaknesses in the salmonid defense system. Remember that clear water is not always best from a catching perspective.
6) The confluences of rivers often form magnificent trout pools. Hydrological and geomorphological processes can sculpt out magical pools that consistently hold and shelter more and bigger trout. One of the universal rules of trout fishing is to find stable structure where food, shelter, and general living conditions are optimum and fishing success will generally follow. Stable water is also much easier to fish, as there can be a better trout/water ratio. Fish the water carefully and thoroughly to find trout, regardless of method. All flyfishing methods will work at times throughout the angling year, as will spin and bait fishing. The key is to give the trout what they want to see, when they want to see it. If the water is clearer, use smaller food imitations and lighter line. If the water is bigger, coloured, or during late season preceding or during spawning time, you will often be able to use heavier line and larger more garish food imitations and attractors. Spin fishing with large lures during times of high flow or late season is a great way for junior anglers to get among the action. During high summer, trout may be willing victims to a large terrestrial dry fly, but playing it safe with smaller nymph rigs (often heavily weighted) can be the way to go. Don’t be disappointed if you can’t see trout in a feeding frenzy at a confluence. Be patient and watch carefully before you begin fishing. Once you have identified and located some prime locations, you can always return sometime when conditions or circumstances are better. Some confluences fish better early or late in the day. Some are impossible to fish in the late afternoon glare of the sun. The key lesson here is that they all vary and all confluences require a different approach. A prime skill of consistently successful anglers is being able to position themselves on prime water when conditions are optimal. If you know enough good water and locations, you will one day encounter environmental conditions that suit those places best and will be able to situate yourself to best advantage at the most favourable time, flow, colouration, temperature, whatever, and reap the rewards. Consistently catching trout is no accident, or matter of luck.
7) There are times of year when trout go loopy. Brown trout often go off the feed and are more interested in chasing one another in April – a prime time to fling a streamer on a sinking line. Rainbows will often concentrate at the mouth of an inflowing tributary prior to running up it to spawn. Often they may have to wait weeks for optimum flows to allow passage in a small tributary. During this time, they can be vulnerable. I have seen this behaviour with brown trout too, where often large numbers of fish will build up in a ‘staging pool’ prior to spawning. These pools often remain the same year after year and often are at the confluence of another stream or river. Such pools can fish consistently well in late season and are the bars and nightclubs of the fishy world, where singles meet spawning partners to travel together further upstream. Once you have identified places like this, it goes without saying that success is generally inevitable. Giving specific fishing advice for fishing confluences is difficult given the complexity and diversity of fishing opportunity within New Zealand. Rainbows can be more cooperative and less discerning than brownies, but the key is to always fish to the conditions. During spring and summer, feeding fish are likely to be taken on more conventional tackle and flies. During late season and winter, it may be more a case of stimulating the territorial aggression of the trout inhabitants with something big and flashy. The great thing about trout fishing is that there are few universal rules. So enjoy your time spent fishing confluences and marvel at what you can learn. Value and treat confluences with respect and care, as there is always something magical happening at the joining of the waters.
Didymo Ethics and Hygiene
In the didymo age, ethics and hygiene are highly important for all New Zealand anglers. The diatom didymosphenia geminata is easily spread by careless individuals, who do not check, clean, dry. Knowingly taking didymo from one stream to another is a criminal offence. This can make the fishing of confluences tricky, if not impossible in some circumstances. Uncontaminated tributaries should not be walked with didymo-infected fishing equipment. To be safe, you should consider fishing only one waterway per day anyway. Fishing upstream or downstream, it is difficult to avoid not crossing tributaries and inflowing streams. It is probably ethical to cross such waterways to stay on your original river as long as you stay within the high water mark of the stream you are fishing. Walking upstream a few pools from your original river is a no-no in the didymo age!
Of Trout and Clouds of Bugs
Zane Mirfin examines New Zealand’s hatch-driven fisheries.
Montana’s Missouri River shone like a giant silver mirror in the hot morning sun. Overlooking the meandering river from a high roadside bank, the green vegetation near the water contrasted sharply with the parched dry upland pastures and terraces. Over the water, huge clouds of tiny bugs, hundreds of metres long, pirouetted like ballerinas in a final mating dance. More importantly in this world class tailwater, trout were rising everywhere -- hundreds of them. Scrambling into waders, we hurried down the bank with our broken down rods, shivering in anticipation of the sport ahead.
The water was covered with thousands of dead and dying trico spinners and literally was boiling with rising, slashing, and tailing brown and rainbow trout. Great pods of fish were up on the surface offering dozens of targets to cast at from the one position. Our tiny #22 imitations disappeared into the chemical soup of life on the river’s surface and the trout were not so easily fooled. Repeated accurate casting with 7x tippet finally hooked the first fish, but it was frustrating fishing. Finally in desperation, I tried a pair of #16 nymphs fished just under the surface. Bingo, I had discovered the magic formula and the fishing became easy. There was just too much food on the surface and the subsurface nymphs were just too tempting as they drifted over schools of hungry trout. Then an hour or so later, as suddenly as it had all begun, the feeding melee was over. The huge river flowed placid and serene, the surface unbroken as if there had never been a fish alive in the water.
As anglers we all dream of angling situations like this with mass hatches and abundant rising fish. Here in New Zealand, we probably can’t compete with some of the better western American tailwater fisheries in terms of insect abundance or trout numbers per mile. But we have many important lowland waterways that turn on some pretty impressive fishing under ideal circumstances. These are generally larger rivers with stable bottoms and high fish densities. They are generally close to home and have easy access. The fish may not be huge, but will mostly run 1-4lb with the possibility of a trophy never far away. These rivers are highly valued by anglers and sustain heavy usage due to the high catch rate and easy access.
In the northern South Island main-stem rivers, such as the lower Motueka, Pelorus, and Wairau, are good examples. But the Manawatu, or Tukituki in the North Island, the West Coast’s Arnold, or the Mataura in Southland are other examples. Such rivers flow through agricultural settings and are often extensively modified, but valuable to anglers because of the access values and the high trout populations. The key characteristic of such rivers is that all hold large biomasses of aquatic insects -- the key to trout production. If the bugs find a river to their liking, then trout will flourish too. However, that is not to say that the fishing will always be easy!
It has often been said that 90% of trout are caught by 10% of the anglers and this ratio may even be understated. Even on rivers such as the Motueka, regularly cited as New Zealand’s most heavily stocked river (often 300 to 400+ fish per kilometre), many anglers regularly go home without success. Not catching fish is a stressful experience and the consistently successful anglers have unlocked the secrets of the trout’s world that normally revolves around food, temperature, barometric pressure, and sex.
Being able to anticipate when, where, and what fish are likely to eat in these lowland fisheries is the secret to success. These rivers are what I like to call ‘hatch-driven’ fisheries, where fish activity almost always revolves around food availability.
In headwater rivers and semi-sterile rivers with less diverse insect populations, it is often easier to catch fish because they will usually eat what comes their way with less regard for moon phase, barometric pressure, or even water temperature. In such headwater fisheries, it is often possible to at least catch a few fish even though circumstances may not be ideal. Sure, headwater fish respond to hatches too, but such hatches are of lesser importance in the ability of anglers to catch fish. Hatch-driven fisheries in contrast can often seem like a watery morgue in non-feeding periods when you could swear there wasn’t a fish alive in the river. Whipping the water to a foam with your flies is mostly a waste of time in such circumstances because if they aren’t eating you generally can’t catch them!
Hatch-driven fisheries are often all go -- where the fishing is hot, hot, hot, or stone-cold useless. Figuring out when to fish is probably more important than knowing with what to fish. I find hatch-driven fisheries hard going during periods of inclement weather, or when the barometer is dropping like a stone. Once the storm breaks and the rain starts, fish will begin to feed. However given a choice, the ideal conditions are a bluebird sunny day with a large anticyclone sitting over the country bringing high barometric pressure. Such conditions are pleasant for the angler and conducive to the insects and thus the trout.
Trout in lowland rivers will feed all day, but definite feeding cycles are very discernable. When you catch one trout, you will normally catch others soon after. Some days you just need to keep fishing until they turn on. Other days you will be wasting your time from the start.
Think carefully. Remember, the human brain is the most powerful fishing tool known to man. Think and catch fish! Is the water too cold? Is the water too warm? This is where you will need a thermometer to test things. It is well known that the optimum temperature for trout feeding activity (and insect movement too) is between about 13-18C. This means in winter, early season, and late autumn that afternoons may be the best time to fish, as water temperatures warm up and cold-blooded critters start moving. Conversely in summer, mornings and evenings may offer the best feeding conditions for trout, as water temperatures rise to uncomfortable temperatures during the peak sun hours then cool again as darkness approaches.
If you’re on the water and want to fish despite the water being a tad too cool, try fishing slower, deeper water that trout drop back into to save energy. If the water is really heating up, fish fast, highly oxygenated, often shallow ripples that fish will move into to feed during the height of summer. These rules aren’t hard and fast so just keep experimenting until you strike the magic formula and meet with success. Sometimes it can be a good idea to fish the main river during the morning and retreat to a cooler tributary or stream mouths during hot summer afternoons. During colder periods or overcast days, try this in reverse.
Although angling pressure can be heavy on lowland fisheries with good fish populations, it pays to block other anglers out of your mind and out of the angling equation. Fish are either feeding, or they’re not. Many is the time customers and friends under my supervision have fished up behind someone, or we have found out a run was fished earlier in the day by another angler, but we still had greater success than they did. They weren’t doing anything different fishing-wise -- the only difference being that the fish were feeding when we were there. This has happened in reverse many times also! Mentally block out any boot prints in the sand -- the odds are often on your side. Sometimes you can actually think too much when fishing! In my opinion, heavy angling pressure can actually make fish easier to catch, as it can push fish into certain pieces of water where they are more susceptible to capture.
Lowland fisheries were made to be fished blind. By blind fishing, I don’t mean ‘chuck and chance’ fishing, but rather selectively fishing targeted pieces of water in the expectation that you will catch fish. If you can see feeding fish, then great, catch them. If you can’t see feeding fish, then don’t assume they aren’t there. Don’t be afraid to throw plenty of casts into difficult-to-see places. You’ll be surprised what you catch. Also, just because you think you can see into a run doesn’t mean that there are no fish there either. Lowland rivers often have algal growth on the stones and such rivers can be very difficult to spot fish. Smaller trout are often beautifully camouflaged against the bottom stratum and rainbows in fast flows can be the very devil to spot.
If in doubt, throw a few cats in there. Remember, early and late in the season and in winter fishing locations, that low sun angle is not going to assist sight fishing, so the majority of fish caught on lowland rivers will be caught fishing blind.
Late April, two years ago, saw me guiding on the middle Motueka with a lovely American couple of modest fishing ability. It was a short day throwing small nymphs, but the fish were on. They hooked 40 to 50 fish for the day (we lost count) and I never spotted a trout all day! Having said that, I’d hate to admit how many times I’ve flogged ‘the Mot’ into oblivion, hoping and praying that one measly trout would eat the fly. The moral here is that you can’t catch trout sitting at home.
Now we get onto the fun part. The bugs themselves! Lowland hatch-driven fisheries have a magic potpourri of insect life, a huge melting pot of all sorts of fascinating beasties that have inspired anglers and flytiers since before Walton (BW).
You’d be a sad human being if you didn’t get excited about a blister hatch of mayfly duns pouring off the water during a sunny afternoon and watching a pod of black heads rhythmically harvesting the bounty. Watch for birds, such as swallows and chaffinches, working the water while fishing. It is often the precursor of fun times ahead. Any small dry fly will probably work, but a small Adams or Parachute Adams is just the ticket.
Late season mayfly hatches are a feature of many rivers. Around Anzac Day in April is a fun time to fish the rivers of Southland. Standing on the banks of the Mataura with small may fly duns pouring off the water, it is not difficult to appreciate what great fishing resources we have available in New Zealand.
Hatch-driven fish are noted for their selective feeding. They often will lock onto specific food items that require quite specific imitation at times. Sometimes they will be concentrating on specific life phases of a particular insect type and may ignore a high floating dry, but inhale an emerger or spinner. This skill factor in picking the rises and choosing an appropriate imitation is what makes fishing fun.
Imitation size is possibly the most important criterion in fishing lowland hatch-driven fisheries. Because fish are spoiled for choice with an abundance of food, they will often lock onto a certain size insect and ignore everything else. Most anglers fish with flies that are too large. I regularly fish with flies down to #20. A size #16 Pheasant Tail is my standard nymph and is a deadly fly on any lowland river. If nymph fishing faster water, try using a heavy sinker fly, or attach some split shot to get your small nymphs down into the bingo zone. Fish aren’t going to move a long way for a small bug, so sometimes it will take a few presentations before they see the fly and make the decision to eat it. Nymph fishing is a great way to catch fish and fill in time between non-hatch periods, but you just can’t beat fishing to visible fish on the surface.
Evening caddis hatches can be very exciting, either fishing dries to slashing trout or swinging a pair of wet flies down and across. Don’t forget about stripping a Woolly Bugger, or such like, after dark through some of the big pools where lunkers may reside. Every year double digit fish are taken out of heavily fished public water by diligent anglers fishing after dark. One trick that used to work well in the States, and works well here, is to fish an Elk Hair Caddis dry fly when you first get to the river in the morning during summer. If it was a nice evening the day before, the odds are that there was a caddis hatch, and the trout in lowland rivers are always on the lookout for caddis stragglers from the night before.
Spent caddis and spent mayfly spinners are commonly encountered on hatch-driven fisheries. The lower Wairau, under threat due to the TrustPower proposal to put it into a 46km hydro canal, is a magic spent spinner river during summer. Some pools can literally be dotted with small black heads pock-marking the water as they sip many mouthfuls per minute. The best time to encounter spent rusty spinners is in the morning when the dead and dying insects are in the water en masse after a night of mating. Use small flies and light tippets and be on the river early before the coastal upstream sea breezes begin around mid-morning or lunch time, depending on the day. This is a familiar weather pattern on many lowland rivers during the warm summer months. Often you will see a small head suck down your fly, but when you tighten up you will feel the weight of a silver bullet fresh from the sea that will rip you into your backing and may pull your scales down as far as 4kg. The Wairau is just that kind of river!
Terrestrials are another major summer food source that can offer frustratingly satisfying fishing opportunities. Fish can become very selective when feeding on willow grubs beneath overhanging willow trees. Tight casting and healthy fish feeding right on the surface can really elevate the blood pressure. I find the best strategy is to fish a sunken willow grub imitation on light tippet and twitch it when it approaches the trout. The downside to this is that it is very easy to bust off fish.
Passion Vine Hoppers are another local specialty and can be very difficult to imitate consistently. I remember one great day fishing with angling doyen Norman Marsh unsolving the riddle of the Passion Vine Hoppers. Norman had invited me out to fish the hatch after we had both been involved in assisting Fish & Game with the 1990 Motueka Water Conservation Order submissions. A bluebird day, with low river flows and lots of rising fish set the scene for an educational day. Norman had some secret, difficult to reach banks that he lowered himself down on an old tow rope from the back of my truck. Norman held his rod in his teeth, his golden Labrador dog under one arm, and the rope in his other hand! It was a great experience watching the master at work -- Norman patiently watching the rising fish working, waiting for the right time in the fish’s feeding rhythm to throw the delicately tied lacewing. Then the soft slurp and the slow lift to impale the trout on the hook. Norman taught me many things that day and most of them didn’t have a lot to do with fishing.
There are tons of other terrestrial insects that can be seasonally important on lowland waters, ranging from cicadas, beetles, and ants back through to other aquatic insects such as midges, craneflies, and even stoneflies. Make sure you have a well-stocked flybox because you never know what you may encounter, even on a stream you know very well.
Two Octobers ago saw me standing on the banks of Otago’s Taieri River, a tannin-coloured sinuous marvel of nature. Fishing had been challenging, but on this day my two friends and I stood quietly beside the flooded backwater that Ranfurly guide, Dean Whaanga, had directed us to. It was freezing standing in the swirling daylight mist, our feet frozen in our chest waders, the river and backwater limpid and barren. We discussed heading back to Dean’s place to warm up, but decided to wait out our last chance on the Taieri. After what seemed like several hours, we hadn’t even made a cast when suddenly it happened. Large grey midges started pouring off the water as trout came from nowhere, swirling and slurping in the surface film. For about an hour we could do no wrong -- two dozen fat Taieri browns up to 2.7kg hooked. Then as suddenly as it started, the hatch tapered off, the trout disappeared, and the river flowed serene.
Lowland hatch-driven fisheries offer many different facets to anglers. They are a resource under pressure from humanity, insatiable in its desire for irrigation water, hydro electric generation, dairy farm development, and lifestyle blocks. They offer anglers refuge close to urban areas, excitement after work, and respite from the chores of domesticity. When the pressures of daily life get too much, I find myself thinking about standing in a favourite lowland river with yellow autumn leaves in profusion, roaring stags patrolling adjacent paddocks, and orange-sided brownies taking with fierce aggression. There’s just nothing else like it.
Fishing The ‘Didymo Zone’
The invasive algae didymo has been present in South Island rivers since 2004 and continues to spread unabated. Widely credited by pessimists with forcing anglers off infected waterways and destroying New Zealand’s ‘clean green’ image, there may be some light at the end of the tunnel for anglers. Zane Mirfin talks about fishing ‘didymo zones’.
Like it or not, the freshwater algae didymo is here to stay. If you want to continue trout or salmon fishing in New Zealand in the years ahead, you will just have to get used to dealing with this latest algal arrival. In the worst case scenario, didymo is a thick, heavy, ugly, and foul-matted mass that makes fishing all but impossible. But in milder infestations, it is really no problem at all. Everyone would much rather fish didymo-free waterways, although the modern reality is that anglers will have to adapt and co-exist with didymo as it expands in range throughout the country. And let’s put this new phenomenon in perspective -- probably only 5% of South Island rivers are currently infected.
Before we get too carried away about didymo, it is probably wise to examine some of the characteristics of algae already present before the latest arrival. The freshwater algae of New Zealand include representatives of all the major algal groups, with the exception of the brown algae (Phaeophyta), according to V.J Chapman (1975). One would think that New Zealand’s isolation from other landmasses would mean that our algal species would be peculiar to this country, as are some of the higher plants. But according to Chapman there is little endemism in New Zealand freshwater algae because their reproductive bodies are readily distributed in mud on the feet of waterfowl and tend to be widely distributed.
It is little surprise then that our latest algae, the dreaded didymo, will probably spread far and wide, even without human help. Waterfowl regularly cross from New Zealand to Australia, or from Lake Wairarapa to the eastern South Island and vice versa, meaning few waterways are immune. And before you get out your shotgun to blast every duck in creation, don’t forget about all those charming native species, such as the protected black shag that could be responsible too.
It appears that different alga around the world behave in unexplained ways. Chapman describes a species of red alga (Compsopogon) discovered in the Waikato and Rotorua regions that in some parts of the world has badly clogged streams, but there is no evidence of this behaviour in New Zealand. I guess this shows that the potential was always there for algal problems and now we have didymo. But before we think of algae as always being ugly, we should remember that iconic New Zealand wonder of the world -- the brightly coloured Pink and White Terraces of Tarawera formed by algal secretions of lime and silica and ultimately wiped out by the Tarawera Eruption of 1886. Sometimes even algae can have a bad day!
Even though didymo will continue to colonise new waterways, this doesn’t mean anglers shouldn’t be attempting to slow the spread of this invasive algae. Personal hygiene and ethics will always be important tools in achieving a few more years of didymo-free fishing in some of our favourite pristine and iconic waterways. Get in the habit of cleaning your gear at the end of each fishing day, and cleaning between different waterways -- it’s just common sense. Unfortunately, I’ve seen some shocking examples in the northern South Island of didymo cleaning. Half-baked efforts, or worse no cleaning at all, is common, with recent Biosecurity NZ surveys showing the majority of river users, including anglers, are not cleaning their gear or modifying their behaviour. I’ve seen motel inhabitants in every unit except us failing to clean their gear and this includes independent tourist anglers, local recreational anglers, and commercial guides and their customers. I’ve witnessed the futile efforts of other anglers cleaning their felt-soled boots and then re-wearing the same socks, polypropylene pants, and trousers, etc that they wore in another stream the day before. It’s disappointing for those who make the effort to clean and care to witness other users of the same resource not cleaning, with either callous disregard or at best bumbling incompetence.
Ugly situations have arisen at camps, on rivers, at helicopter pads, and outside accommodation venues where river users accuse others of not cleaning their gear. That is why you should make it part of your personal fishing and hunting ritual, whether you are active in didymo rivers or not.
Many freshwater users bemoan the didymo cleaning regime, but keen saltwater anglers have always had to clean and flush salt water and marine debris from their equipment, clothing, boats and motors. Being a keen set netter for flounder in local estuaries, I have caught my fair share of weed and slime in nets over the years. Believe me, when you have spent two whole days drying and cleaning your 60 metre flounder net of slime and crap, you will soon realise that didymo is only a minor inconvenience.
I find didymo cleaning pretty fast and efficient -- it just takes discipline. I carry a 20 litre plastic drum and fish bin in my vehicle, along with a plastic bristle brush, and have a dedicated setup at home to make cleaning easy when I get home at night. Many people now freeze their fishing equipment overnight, but I never seem to have enough space in my freezers, so I still manually clean and always soak wading boots overnight in biocide. I also have extra sets of fishing gear and rotate my equipment, especially if I have been fishing in a known didymo river. Always clean your gear in the evening before heading indoors. This means your equipment gets more exposure to whatever chemicals used and waders will generally be dry in the morning for transport in your vehicle to a fishing location. Most importantly, you will be less likely to forget or omit to clean when under time pressure in the morning before fishing.
The advantages now are clean, fresh equipment and just watch how cuts, abrasions, and foot fungus heal, and disappear when using clean gear. I endorse Snot Off
, a general biocide preparation made here in New Zealand that is available from most sport stores and has no deleterious impact on valuable fishing equipment.
Initially, I was skeptical and scathing about MAF Biosecurity NZ’s actions and approaches to the didymo scourge. My first experience was with Tony Entwistle when we were invited to be part of a Biosecurity workshop in Nelson to assess the impact of didymo should it appear in northern rivers. This was really the first time I had heard of the stuff and the threat of didymo sounded heinous and horrible. This workshop had us fully briefed when months later didymo was confirmed in the Buller River.
My next experience of Biosecurity NZ and other allied government agencies was at an invitation-only meeting at Tasman District Council HQ with bureaucrats of all shapes and sizes in attendance, discussing the Buller infestation just days before the October 1 opening of the 2005-06 fishing season. Watching Nelson/Marlborough Fish & Game Region manager, Neil Deans asking, almost pleading, for assistance to help close the river temporarily to buy some time so an appropriate response could be planned was an eye-opening experience. The bureaucrats present duck-shoved and made any excuses they could: ‘no money in the budget’, ‘wouldn’t be able to get a decision for six weeks’, ‘senior manager’s on leave’, ‘no resources available in this year’s budget’, ‘not enough staff’! It was a sorry story and at that point I realised that bureaucrats and bureaucratic processes were more of a problem than didymo.
It is too easy and simplistic though, to blame Biosecurity NZ and say the departmental response was inadequate. In final assessment, it has funded work on identification, surveillance, methods of control, and assessing chemicals to control didymo in rivers. Biosecurity NZ has also enlisted the help of other agencies, such as regional councils, Fish & Game, and DoC, and provided significant funding to be used for advocacy. When Biosecurity NZ pulls the plug on didymo control and education and walks away next year, it will be a sad day, but not an entirely unexpected outcome. Biosecurity NZ has worked diligently on the didymo dilemma, yet in hindsight it was on a hiding to nothing from the start when trying to control a microscopic alga that was spread via water.
If there is any consolation in the didymo saga it is that ‘rock snot’ is spreading unchecked throughout northern hemisphere rivers in the United States and Canada, possibly in response to increasing worldwide UV light levels, although this has yet to be scientifically proven. Maybe the world just wasn’t designed for micro-organisms to be spread willy-nilly around the globe. And before anyone tries to blame foreigners for bringing didymo here, it should be pointed out that benign indigenous species, such as the New Zealand mud snail, have been transported back to the northern hemisphere and are devastating local fisheries there. Maybe we should all have been cleaning our gear long before didymo to protect against unwanted foreign intruders, such as various alga, invertebrate animals, and viruses, such as whirling disease.
North Islander’s shouldn’t be feeling smug either. Didymo infestation of the North Island is virtually inevitable. In fact, if it isn’t already present somewhere in the north, it would be a miracle, given the traffic of recreationalists, domestic and foreign, transporting wet equipment daily over Cook Strait by boat and air. If the Pacific Ocean hasn’t stopped the transportation of didymo, then it is fairly hopeful that Cook Strait will be enough to stop didymo gaining a foothold in the freshwaters of the north.
Unfortunately, didymo isn’t the end of the problem. Other unwanted organisms are sure to follow and that is why we should all be taking personal responsibility for cleaning our equipment after each freshwater outing.
When I first fished the ‘didymo zone’, it was with great trepidation, as I was unsure what to expect. I almost felt as though I had committed some terrible and unconscionable crime until we had caught a few fish and gained some valuable didymo experience. Editor Bob South was keen to get some images for this magazine and this provided another reason to initially go and look.
Didymo is remarkably stable to walk on, with good traction for felt or rubber-soled boots, which is probably something to do with the high silica content. Spotting fish can be child’s play, with trout often highlighted like whitebait crossing a ‘spotter board’. I’ve had anglers on the river, who have failed to notice the invasive algae assuming it is just a natural phenomenon. One angler even exclaimed that “this stuff should be mandatory in every river” because he was catching so many fish and seeing no other anglers. One thing I have learned is that didymo means different things to different people.
Rivers with new or relatively low levels of infestation can be fished easily in most water conditions with only minor inconvenience and only occasional instances of white/brown didymo alga hanging up on hooks and knots. In such conditions, it is possible to fish subsurface successfully with nymphs and streamers, even spinning lures. Once didymo is present in a river, it is a good strategy to use two fly rigs so that one is always clean and available to trout. I personally tend to use less weight than previously, with lighter nymphs that ride higher in the water column and hang up in algae much less often. It goes without saying that you should check your flies or lures every few casts for algae. Cleaning hooks is easy and you can ‘tear’ the didymo off cleanly with one pull when you become proficient.
When didymo is in full bloom, it is probably wise to avoid such areas unless you know what you’re getting into. Never fish such areas in high flow, as the increased water will have large amounts of free-drifting didymo mats in free-flowing suspension. In the worst case scenario, huge volumes of didymo can look like a sewerage spill, with unsightly clumps of ‘toilet paper-like’ alga flushing downstream. In such conditions, it is just impossible to blind fish because every cast will result in a fouled fly and leader knots. If you can spot a fish, you can make repeated casts until the fish finally sees your weed-free fly, or moves off, but it can be frustrating.
In lower flows, didymo will stabilise on the river bottom and there will be minimal drift of algal material, but decaying alga deposited on dry banks and riverside stones can be off-putting to some anglers. In such conditions, fish can be easily seen, cast at, and deceived. I’ve found attractor flies to be more visible to fish in areas of high didymo colonisation. Beadhead nymphs can work well, but leave the tungsten versions at home for obvious reasons. Playing trout on a line in heavy didymo infestations can be a nightmare, with great gobs of alga hanging up on every leader knot, so use heavy tippet.
Despite all of the inconveniences, there can be some great fishing opportunities in the ‘didymo zone’ and I have witnessed some outstanding catching days under the right conditions by anglers with the right attitude.
Initial fears associated with didymo were concerned with a potential lowering of the insect biomass for trout survival and growth, but scientists are finding invertebrate populations in New Zealand are so far holding up well in didymo rivers. Indeed, the Buller River has turned on some of its best conditioned trout in years since didymo arrived. It is possible that didymo may assist some rivers to produce greater insect biomass through stabilisation of instream structure. Didymo is known to increase water pH, with water becoming more alkaline throughout the course of the day, but the long term implications of this phenomenon are still unknown.
NIWA preliminary research shows that “high didymo biomass was associated with a greater density of invertebrate life in affected rivers, although the proportion of smaller invertebrates was greater”…and “because the smaller the prey (for trout) the greater energy they have to invest in feeding on them”…may mean…“this energy demand could limit trout growth and affect the health of the fishery as a whole”.
Cawthron Institute research, seeking to quantify the effects of didymo infestation on the drift of invertebrates and how this may effect trout growth potential, has also been carried out. As reported in Biosecurity magazine (September 15, 2007), “there was no evidence yet that didymo was having an adverse effect on the abundance of size of trout”…and…“at this state, negative effects for anglers were matters of aesthetics and inconvenience”.
Chemical trials to control didymo with copper chelate (Gemex) appear to have confirmed this is no magic bullet for control in the immediate future. Results of the trial, again according to Biosecurity magazine, suggested “Gemex has the potential to eliminate didymo from a waterway with minimal impact on non-target species if the infestation was detected and treated in the very early stages”…but…“Gemex shouldn’t be seen as a long term solution…”
So I guess when it comes to didymo, it will be watch this space. A recent Otago University capping stunt had hopeful individuals harvesting and drying didymo to smoke because of its alleged hallucinogenic qualities. Maybe one day we will buy didymo by the sack-load as the latest organic garden fertiliser, or we will export it as the greatest thing since sphagnum moss. Stranger things have happened and New Zealand has a proud history of turning liabilities into assets. I guess you just never know.
The bright news for anglers is that there is now some scientific thought that didymo colonies may bloom and then die back until reaching a balance within their aquatic environment. This may mean that the early years of infestation are worse than later years when didymo colonies normalise. It is also possible that in some years infestation and growth rates will be extreme, while the next year didymo may be barely visible in the same river. I’m not a scientist, so I don’t even pretend to know the answers. Time will tell and everyone has a theory. All I know is that it is possible to catch good trout in even the most heavily infested didymo river imaginable.
Shakespeare may well have been a fisherman and ‘to fish or not to fish’ is always the question in relation to didymo. Like the All Black’s shock loss last month to France in the Rugby World Cup quarterfinal, this self-introduced alga is not the end of the world as we know it. To many pessimists, didymo will be just another excuse to hang up their rod and avoid buying a fishing licence, but to optimists like myself there are always new opportunities and fish-filled horizons. A little didymo isn’t going to stop my fishing enjoyment, so why would you let it stop yours?
Smaller Can Be Better
Despite what you may read in the tabloid media and view in glossy cellophane-wrapped magazines, at least when it comes to fishing - size isn’t everything!
In today’s commercial world we are assailed in most New Zealand outdoor magazines with images of outsize fish when the reality for most local anglers is probably much different.
When I questioned a few local Nelson anglers what an average trout was, most said it depends. Depends on what? Well, for a start there is trout species to take into account, river system taken, lowland or headwater area, landlocked or searun strain? Then if the fisheries professionals really got going with true technical classifications, amateurs like ourselves could get really confused.
When I asked my anglers to put a figure on an average New Zealand trout, most agreed it would be about 3-4lb (1.4-1.8kg) which falls far short of the whoppers generously displayed throughout the pages of most magazines and books in this fair land. Remember this figure was stated as an average, so what about rivers where trout size is considerably smaller? Are these fisheries still valuable to local anglers throughout the country? You bet!
Smaller trout are the backbone of our fishery in my opinion. Without small fish, you can’t have larger ones. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Catching a variety of fish sizes in any one river is a sign of a healthy fishery.
To my mind there are two types of small trout; those that are immature and still growing, and those trout that are sexually mature but stunted for whatever reason due to biological or environmental factors.
What then are the advantages of smaller trout? First, waterways with smaller trout often hold larger numbers of fish, which from an angling perspective is a positive because there are more fish available for anglers to catch. Often the biomass can be similar between rivers so, for example, instead of there being one 6lb fish every 100m, there could be six mature 1lb fish over the same distance. We all go fishing to catch fish, thus many highly valued recreational fisheries throughout both islands are popular because of the high catch rate for anglers even though trout size may be less than startling.
Second, aesthetically smaller trout are generally in much better bodily condition than their older brethren, fight harder relative to their size, can be more gullible and easier to deceive, but most importantly are often beautifully coloured national jewels that epitomize all the reasons we go fishing.
Traditionally over time, rivers containing smaller sized trout have been viewed as “beginner water” where anglers serve an apprenticeship before moving onto something bigger and better. However more recently, many such rivers have become more important to all anglers as opportunities have eroded in other more favoured areas. Some rivers that formerly contained large numbers of smaller fish, such as Nelson’s Wai-iti, Maitai, and Wakapuaka, were never fully appreciated before their sad demise.
It is only in hindsight that such rivers are seen to have been high quality trout streams in their own right.
Many other highly valued small fish venues are being impacted annually, often through a combination of drought, habitat destruction, and agricultural pollution. Rivers such as the Rai, Pelorus, Little Grey, Arnold, Hinds, Waihi, Temuka, Kakanui, Teviot, and lower Mataura to name a few, are not the prolific fish factories they used to be. I’m sure North Island anglers could reel off a large list also. This is unfortunate because it is the junior anglers of tomorrow that miss out and such anglers require quality opportunities close to major urban centres to foster licence sales and safeguard the future of our sport.
Fortunately, Fish & Game is moving to protect many such important small trout fisheries as best they can. The best example I can think of is North Canterbury Fish & Game placing catch and release restrictions on that great small rainbow fishery known as Broken River, a tributary of the mighty Waimakariri. Highly valued to Christchurch anglers, Broken River is highly populated with smaller rainbows, mostly in the 1-3lb range, although larger specimens are common.
Smaller trout can be a lot of fun to catch and can create conditions more suitable to a social outing with friends and family. Chasing bigger fish can be a chore and often tends to be a solitary pursuit by zealots who take themselves too seriously. Smaller trout can still be sight fished like their larger brethren, but respond well to blind fishing as well. One thing I have appreciated over the years is the willingness of smaller trout to smack a dry fly. This is serious fun. Why make fishing hard work?
Editor Bob South told me via email of a great trip of recent years with two friends. They flew into the Whirinaki for a day, catching more than 90 rainbows with the biggest being 20 inches. Bob said it was a lot of fun and an action-packed couple of days, which everybody enjoyed immensely.
Rivers that contain high numbers of smaller trout provide great fishing, as such fish populations tend to compete more fiercely for available food. Such fish populations will be more widely spaced throughout the riverine habitat, making them much more available to capture by anglers. Smaller fish also tend to congregate more heavily in riffles, pockets, and other fast-flowing locations, which again assists capture due to less angler skill being required.
Standard upstream dead drift dry fly and nymph techniques will work well in streams populated by smaller trout, but small browns and rainbows often are particularly excited by movement in the fly. To fully exploit this tendency to smack at moving flies, try fishing down and across with small wetflies and soft hackles in the #12-16 range. Smaller trout are also suckers for spinning lures. In tannin West Coast streams, I have had a lot of success swinging a pair of beadhead nymphs down and across throughout the angling day. Take a step downstream after every cast and wait for the fish to impale themselves on your flies.
With standard upstream nymphing, it is common for smaller trout to take as soon as the flies start to drag at the end of the drift. These fish, particularly rainbows, are attracted to the movement and flies such as rubber-leg nymphs can be deadly. If you are targeting smaller fish, a good technique can be to mend your line on those big cross-stream casts and let it drift way downstream behind you until the current straightens your line.
Having made my living as a fishing guide since university days, I still dread customers climbing into the vehicle saying: “ Take us to the big fish”. Such anglers are invariably setting themselves up for disappointment and I always breath a sigh of relief when the first fish of the day, regardless of size, slides into my landing net.
My basic motto has always been “a fish is a fish” and there have been many days when I have prayed that any fish would take the fly. Sometimes on wilderness rivers of high repute, particularly during full moon or low barometric pressure, smaller fish will appear from nowhere to take up the feeding lies of larger fish, which are hiding and are not available to anglers. On occasions like this, a number of smaller fish can save a day or even turn it into a great day depending on the angler’s mindset.
In these modern times, I believe we should value all trout fishing resources and some of my happiest days on a stream have been catching smaller than average trout in beautiful places with valued friends, where we could share the fishing and enjoy each others success. Here are some valued memories:
The Cobb Valley is a magical place set among the mountains of northwest Nelson. The upper river above the Cobb Reservoir is a fine fishery in it’s own right, but as boys, my brother Scott and I used to baitfish the top end of the lake, often supervised by our mother, Sherry, while father Stuart was off hunting mornings and evenings.
I can vaguely remember my first half dozen or so small rainbow trout caught, as an eight year-old, at the conclusion of my first hunting trip with Dad, where he took three red and two fallow deer with me along beside him.
I can remember being besotted by the silver and crimson rainbows and not being able to take my eyes off all the fish I caught over numerous trips and the pride I felt in taking them home to give to my grandparents and esteemed family friends. Such fish were invaluable in generating further enthusiasm for the sport and the numerous Cobb rainbows I caught in my younger years propelled me forward into later fishing adventures.
Sadly, the Cobb Reservoir is not in good shape these days, with fertility collapse and intermittent de-watering for hydro electricity generation being major reasons.
Rocky Creek, Colorado.
High in the Rocky Mountains lies a marvellous alpine jewel. The hike from the carpark takes about an hour up a steep hill, which leaves the lungs burning as you gasp for air in the high altitude. At the end of the climb along a dry streambed, the valley flattens out onto a dazzling meadow, with flowing water, long sloughs, beaver dams, and most importantly trout. These are native west slope cutthroat, that have been here since the last ice-age and it is one of a handful of Colorado streams that has a native genetically-unpolluted strain of cutthroats.
I lament the fact that New Zealand never introduced cutthroat trout into some of our high alpine waters where they would have thrived. The cutthroat, apart from being a beautiful fish with purple gill plates, butter-yellow flanks and leopard spotted tail, gets its name from the distinctive orange slash under its throat. As a flyfishing fish, it is without compare and some of my greatest fishing memories have been in pursuit of the alpine cutthroat.
Cutthroat live in a hostile alpine environment and when summer comes they need to feed big time, thus they have developed the reputation of being gullible and not all that smart. This isn’t necessarily a bad trait as they rise wonderfully to a dry fly, giving great joy.
Rocky Creek was full of cutthroat and a trophy would have been 10 inches long. But what fishing! Principally sight fishing to individual fish or cruising shoals, an expert angler could take fish into triple figures if they were really motivated.
I only ever took a few very special customers up to fish the hallowed waters of Rocky Creek. This place was too holy, too sacred to prostitute for mere money.
My early flyfishing addiction was developed on the Maitai River, which flows through the centre of Nelson. One of New Zealand’s earliest fisheries open to licence holders, the Maitai introduced four or five generations of Nelson anglers to the fine art of trout fishing and was highly rated as a small trout fishery for well over a century before meeting its “waterloo” when the Nelson City Council built the Maitai Dam in 1989. Some of my greatest flyfishing moments occurred on the Maitai and I miss this river terribly.
The Maitai was always a great dry fly stream and as boys we would fish a dry and nymph dropper with much success. I used to know all the runs well and learned to be successful through trial and error. Being a small river, it was safe for Mum to drop us off fishing during school holidays, while she and Dad were at work. We filled in many happy days fishing the Maitai and catching scrappy 25cm brownies that were happy to scoff our poorly presented flies.
Ivanhoe Creek, Colorado.
An interesting phenomena of North American headwater fisheries is that the trout get smaller and more stunted the further one goes upstream, as opposed to many New Zealand headwaters, which can produce lunkers. Granted, many of the American headwater streams were very small and probably wouldn’t hold fish populations here, but it is an interesting comparison.
Problems with high altitude, winter snow-pack, cold water, limited food supplies, and excessive fish populations meant most American alpine fish populations were stunted. Fisheries managers’ encouragement to take a limit (10 fish) in the high country fell on deaf ears with most anglers ingrained with a catch and release culture. These small trout were always delicious and made a wonderful stream lunch, grilled over a small fire. It was always interesting how more fabled waters on route to the high country were always well patronised by anglers, but once up in the high country, where it was common to see black bear, mule deer and coyotes, it was rare to see even a boot print. I loved the high country fishing above all else - it was so unique.
Ivanhoe Creek was in steep canyon that required a 20 minute downhill climb off an old road that used to tax my little Ford Escort station wagon to the max as it clawed uphill to my chosen location. The small tannin stream was made up of small beaver ponds formed every 100 metres or so, which were full of eastern brook trout introduced by early Colorado miners.
Large schools of these fish could be seen and sight fishing for the larger specimens was the way to go. They would eat dry fly or nymph — it didn’t matter which. I remember fishing here with my friend, Lance Severson. By 1pm we had caught 300, but after lunch we stopped counting. These fish were spectacular fish with orange bellies and dark olive backs, decorated with white worm-like markings high on the back and covered on the sides and bellies with blue, red, and yellow spots. Truly fish of paradise.
A monster fish was one over about seven inches, but boy were they aggressive. When my parents visited me in Colorado, I took them fishing here and they still joke about the tiny fish that savaged their flies. I can remember Lance turning to me in disbelief as he let yet another fish go — holding up his fly to me I could see it was a bare hook with only a few wraps of thread left of what was once an Adams dry!
The Mawheraiti, or Little Grey, flows near the small West Coast town of Ikamatua and was the scene of many boyhood expeditions. With easy access, excellent fish populations, and a few bonus fallow deer along the grassy edges, we had some great trips here. Initially, I always spin-fished this river because I was so successful with a toby lure in high flows and a veltic during low flows. I vividly remember my first flyfishing experience here as a young schoolboy, approaching my favourite run armed with my bright pink flyline, six foot piece of 6lb nylon trace, and a giant Halfback nymph I had purchased during a family holiday at Taupo. I started casting up and across, watching the end of the flyline as I had read about in a book. The line started shooting upstream and I struck, tightening up on the already self-hooked fish. This scene repeated itself another half dozen times and I remember walking back across the paddocks, grinning like a madman, with the 1-2lb fish flopping against my back, tied to a piece of binder twine I had found near the river.
Unfortunately, another doom and gloom scenario here, as the Little Grey fishery has crumbled under the onslaught of intensive dairy farming. The river is now slimy during summer and the rocks are covered in black nitrite deposits caused through eutrophication and insidious nitrogen and effluent pollution. Once well known for it’s prolific evening caddis hatches and slashing trout, the river is now silent and still on summer evenings. The fish numbers have plummeted and those fish remaining have become stunted.
This is one stream I always wish I’d had the opportunity to photograph in my early travels. An alpine gem in northern California, it was a pristine headwater fishery, apparently one of only 18 wild native rainbow fisheries in California. Situated near the town of Yuba, it was a long drive through tortuous forestry roads, which my host Sheryl Kraus knew like the back of her hand. After an hour long hike, we came to a magic stream flowing through forest land in a series of cascading plunge pools.
There were fish everywhere and it was a sight fishing dream, as hungry fish massacred small dry flies. I remember taking 17 fish with 17 casts and loving every minute of it. The small rainbows were national treasures and I have never since seen such beautiful rainbows marked with every bright colour imaginable. Sexually mature at about six inches, these rainbows were superb, a sight to behold, and something to treasure. We had a short fishing day, but I caught 153. I know because I counted. In New Zealand, I’ve had customers catch 5-6kg trout on days that were far less memorable. Lavasola Creek is the closest I’ve ever come to the holy grail of fishing.
Fishing for smaller trout is all part of the angling experience. Someone once told me: “Catching small fish is like dating fat girls. It’s fun getting to know them, but not so much fun when your friends find out.” All of us want to catch the big fish, but do we actually enjoy it more than just going fishing and becoming human beings rather than human doings?