Tuesday Tip: Do-It-Yourself New Zealand, Part I

[Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series by Toby Swank (originally published in the early days of OrvisNews.com) to help the adventurous angler with planning a self-guided trip to New Zealand’s South Island. We’ll post Parts II through IV through Friday.]

I’ve traveled and fished extensively around the South Island of New Zealand over the past nine years, both on my own and as a host for several groups of anglers. I do not guide on these trips because it is illegal for foreigners to work in New Zealand without the proper permits and there is simply no way that I can offer the same level of expertise—in terms of local knowledge and access—as a professional Kiwi guide. However, there are more than enough opportunities for the angler who wants to go it alone, and these articles should help eliminate some of the guesswork, while also helping American anglers set some realistic expectations.

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


The South Island landscape is huge, and a visiting angler can find true solitude.

photo by Toby Swank

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

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


New Zealand browns grow to remarkable sizes and readily eat dry flies.

photo by Toby Swank

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

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


The water is clear and the fish wary, so a stealthy approach and good eyes are vital.

photo by Toby Swank

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

Once you’ve narrowed down your choices to a few centrally located towns and have hired a guide for a few days, it’s time to start with the details. The proper equipment and knowledge of how it all works can mean the difference between success and failure. Having both will greatly increase one’s success in New Zealand, and this will be the focus in next week’s article.

(Top photo: Chris Jones with a 10-pound brown—landed on a 6X tippet—from the Oreti River. Photo by Toby Swank.)

South Island

The author’s favorite home-base locations on the South Island.

Image courtesy Google Earth

Other installments in the series: 

Do-It-Yourself New Zealand, Part II

Do-It-Yourself New Zealand, Part III

Do-It-Yourself New Zealand, Part IV.

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