Why Fly Fishing New Zealand is Unique

Guest blog – Dave Garst – 22 May 2021

I always feel like I’ve won the lotto when I receive a confirmation number after purchasing a ticket to New Zealand.  No matter what is going on in my life at the time, all is suddenly forgotten, and my attention drifts to day dreaming about fishing in a place that is unique in its pristine beauty.  It’s unique in that once you’ve caught trout in the New Zealand backcountry, you think about it all the time.  The confirmation number only elevates these thoughts and dreams into your consciousness.  It doesn’t matter if your family planned all sorts of sightseeing and tourist activities around the South Island, all you can really think about is a trophy brown trout casually rising out of gin clear water and taking your dry fly.  Did I really just say that out loud?  

So, you’ve seen the photos, heard the stories, read the books and magazines, watched clips on YouTube, and think you have it all figured out. Wrong. New Zealand fly fishing is unique.  It is unlike any fishing you’ve ever experienced.  To think otherwise and that it will be a piece of cake will lead to extreme frustration, anger, and possibly vows to never return.  It’s a long way to travel to not catch many fish or get blanked on world class water.  I’d never heard the term “blanked” until I fished in New Zealand.  Having learned how to fish in Montana, the thought of fishing all day without catching a single fish seemed preposterous.  Even on a bad day in Montana, you’re still going to catch a few small trout and even some whitefish for crying out.  To be clear, you’re not going to just step off the plane and catch a trophy brown.  You need a guide.

Again, “what the heck do I need a guide for?  I’ve fished for decades?”  Forget all of that.  The reality is that fishing in New Zealand is unlike any fishing you’ve ever done before.  More than likely it is more sight-fishing that you have ever done.  “But I dry fly all of the time.  I only cast to risers.  I don’t blind cast.  I sight-fish.”  Yeah kind of… but no, not like in New Zealand.  You see to sight-fish you have to first see the fish.  When fishing dries elsewhere you fish to rises.  In New Zealand, it is way more technical.  You don’t just start fishing to rising circles. You need that first cast to be spot on. The cast has to be exactly where the fish is feeding or it’s game over.  You usually only get one shot, maybe two, before the fish is spooked and you’ve blown your chance.  The stakes are indeed high because that fish was probably the biggest trout you’ve ever seen.

When you first start fishing in New Zealand, you struggle to even see the fish.  You may walk several km without seeing a fish.  The guide is going to spot fish and teach you a thing or two about sighting trout in these New Zealand rivers.  If on your own you may walk past the fish of the trip because you never saw it.  What you also didn’t see is that the trophy was spooked and immediately swam upstream, spooking other smaller trout, and putting other trophies on high alert.  Kind of like when dog in starts barking and then the dog next door starts freaking out, followed by another dog, and then before you know it, every dog in the neighbourhood is barking.  Something is wrong, something is different, I need to warn others.  You the angler have been spotted.  Now the fish are on high alert and even the textbook perfect cast and presentation will spook fish.  You see in New Zealand, trout have no natural predators.  There are no birds of prey or other predators that can eat fish.  Their only predator is an angler, or what looks like an angler.  If you spook a pool and it sends off the chain reaction of fear and puts fish on high alert, that water may not be fishable for hours, or even days.  You have to first see the fish to be able to fish to them.  You also have to know what the fish is doing.  Is it taking dries, emergers, or nymphs?  If you chuck in the wrong fly, boom, the fish is spooked and it’s game over.  This is where the guide’s knowledge comes in.  “But this chubby foam fly works so well in Montana.”  Forget that nonsense. Trust your guide.  He/she will know what fly and what kind of presentation will give you best chance of catching fish.  The guide has usually fished that water a lot more than anyone else, knows the hatches, knows what worked several weeks before or in seasons past, may have a secret fly or inside knowledge on what will fool the spooky trout.  

Also, don’t think that your guide is a lunatic if they show up in full camo.  Fishing in New Zealand is more like hunting.  I chuckled the first time I saw a guide crawl on his stomach like a soldier in boot camp trying to get under a barbed wire fence as he made his way to a high river bank.  He then slowly lifted his head up to look down into a crystal gin clear pool.  I also saw a guide scale a cliff to get a better vantage point. You see even the guides can struggle to see fish in certain weather and lighting conditions.  New Zealand is a very wet country, so fishing in the rain is commonplace as is fishing in grey, overcast, low light conditions when glare makes spotting fish extremely difficult.  After much straining of eyeballs and the mind playing tricks (is it really a fish?), you get confirmation, “Yep, I’ve spotted one.  Ahh, it’s an absolute cracker.  Fish of the trip mate.”  You then peer into the run and don’t see a thing.

This is when you need a guide.  You can’t see the fish but the guide can.  This requires teamwork.  “You see that light brown rock?  Cast 2 meters in front of it.  Wait for my call.”  Again sight-fishing, you have to be able to see the fish.  You may be staring into the sun or into bad glare and can’t see.  Meanwhile the guide has climbed up in a tree and has a perfect vantage point of the fish and studies how it is feeding.  This is a fish that someone fishing on their own would have never seen and that fish more than likely would have been the fish of the trip.


Dave Garst – Hawaii USA