Do-It-Yourself New Zealand, Part III: Approach and Presentation

[Editor’s note: This is the third of a four-part series by Toby Swank (originally published in the early days of to help the adventurous angler with planning a self-guided trip to New Zealand’s South Island.]

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Kiwi guide Steve Carey shows off a Fiordlands brown.

photo by Toby Swank

What is it about the fishing in  New Zealand that draws us in and makes it seem rational to endure an 8,000-mile plane ride to catch trout? After all, it is just trout fishing, and I already live in the heart of some of the finest trout waters on the planet. The Kiwi fly-fishing experience, however, can be closer to sight-fishing the flats for bonefish than to trout fishing here in Montana. To catch fish on a regular basis in New Zealand, anglers need to adapt their techniques based on what they see in these clear waters. In rivers with very low fish densities, the ability to spot fish is the only way to find success.

There are dozens of useful articles and books out there on how to spot fish and what to look for. I’ve been blessed with good eyes and a lifetime of looking into water, so that part has always been easier for me than for most of my fishing companions in NZ. A few things to keep in mind: Try to look through the water rather than at the surface, trying to spot “unnatural” forms on or near the bottom. Look for movement, shadows, and shapes that resemble a trout-such as logs and patches of weeds. I’m always amazed at how many of these end up being fish, after I’ve convinced myself. “It’s only a log!”

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Elevated banks make for better spotting, and having a buddy spotting for you makes 
it easier to keep your distance from the fish you’re casting to.

photo by Toby Swank

In addition to the obvious fact that having good eyes is a plus, there are several things to keep in mind which will help stack the odds in your favor. Keeping the sun over your shoulders will improve your “window” into the water. Try to find elevated banks and patches of ground to get a “cleaner” view into a run or pool. This is where the difference between $15 and $150 polarized optics is most appreciated. Remember that shadows caused by your profile and even the motion of a false cast will spook these fish, so it is essential that you pay attention to where your shadow falls at all times. If you take your time and keep a low profile overall, you will have many more meaningful chances at fish everyday. 

The approach and presentation are the deal makers in this type of fishing. Willy-nilly false casting is one of the surest ways of spooking any fish-especially in New Zealand-so this is when all those hours of casting 15-foot leaders into the wind on your front lawn becomes relevant. Once you’ve found a feeding fish, take your time approaching the fish to allow for a manageable cast. Blistering line speed with 60-foot loops won’t do you any good in these situations, as all that movement overhead is certain to spook the fish. Ideally, make a few false casts well away from the fish to gauge your distance, and then gently make the necessary cast so that your fly lands several feet upstream and slightly to the side of the fish. Try to make the first cast count, as it usually doesn’t take these fish too long before they know something is going on. However, if the fish continues to feed, it’s worth the effort to change flies and leader configurations. The goal here is to get a fly into the fish’s “window” with a drag-free drift and then see what happens.


Blind fishing can pay off in New Zealand, but be efficient with your drifts to avoid 
spooking fish you can’t see.

photo by Toby Swank

The next little piece of advice has been hard-earned to the delight of more than one New Zealand brown trout. If you spot a fish, make a few reasonable casts, change flies a few times, and nothing happens…just walk away! Oftentimes these fish will spook to an undercut bank or deep hole, but sometimes they just sit there and do nothing when spooked. I’ve gone up to fish and poked them with my finger after spending over an hour trying to get them to eat. Sure, there are occasions when persistence will pay off, but a half an hour or so should really give you an idea of whether the fish will eat or not. 

Flexibility in your fly selections will pay dividends, as well, when determining your approach and presentation. Typically, plan on casting a single dry fly first over a fish. If the fish is actively feeding and “swinging” in a riffle or run, I might elect to use a small tungsten beaded dropper, too. These fish will move a surprisingly long way (well over a rod’s length) to eat a fly at times, so a well-presented dry fly will usually tell me what I need to know in a few casts. There are times when a double-tungsten-nymph rig is the only shot you might have, so remember that this will need to land well upstream of the fish to allow your flies to settle by the time they reach the fish. 

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Clear water and sunny skies call for quick and accurate casting.

photo by Toby Swank

There is nothing that compares to the satisfaction of seeing that “log” slowly turn and rise to your fly when it all comes together. Below is a quick list of some things to keep in mind that will hopefully help you as much as they have me in my Kiwi adventures.

1. Cloudy days are not bad: head for rivers in narrow canyons or forested valleys.

2. Nasty weather tends to cause most anglers to head for small streams, so you can find solitude and fresh fish on even the busiest New Zealand streams during these conditions.

3. If you don’t see any fish within an hour…go someplace else, as the fish are spooked by the conditions, someone else is ahead of you, or the fish have ESP. These fish aren’t  meant to be caught that day.

4. If you arrive at a spot only to find someone else already there, go someplace else. Never jump in ahead of someone without talking to them first.

5. Blind-fishing rarely produces much success in rivers with trophy fish, but covering a “juicy” run with a few casts never hurts.

6. Backwaters often have large fish cruising for damselflies and backswimmers.

7. You will occasionally see very dark fish that are lying right next to the bank. These are old and in poor condition so don’t waste your time on them.

8. Streamers work well in tannin-colored streams, around river mouths, and in high water conditions-and a few San Juan’s in your box come in handy, too.

9. The best time for spotting fish is between late morning to late afternoon. Early morning and evening light is typically very lateral, resulting in long shadows and diffused light in the water (especially on clear days).

10. The wind is your friend.

Other installments in the series: 

Do-It-Yourself New Zealand, Part I

Do-It-Yourself New Zealand, Part II

Do-It-Yourself New Zealand, Part IV.

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