Written by: Matt Smith
It was day one, in a sudden downpour. I was wadered up in mid-December, feeling the wind and wishing I had worn one more layer. A bit of thunder rumbled nearby for good measure. Knee-deep in the rain-swollen Wangapeka, on the northern end of the South Island of New Zealand, I had maneuvered out below the narrow run at the direction of my guide, Aaron Ford. After throwing two or three cautious measuring casts to just below the location he had described, I made a longer cast toward the “big smudge” to which he had pointed.
“To the left! At least two feet longer and two feet left. To the left!” Aaron shouted. I think he and I both hoped his repetition and emphasis could direct my wandering cast. “Yep, got it,” I said.
Aaron’s passion was contagious, and I was too excited to worry much about his growing urgency and impatience with my misfirings. I was used to throwing big flies on short leaders without much precision, so landing my nymph just above an upriver spot . . . in the wind . . . with a 16-foot leader was wishful thinking at best—particularly with a bad case of “buck fever.”
“To the left! Don’t you see him?“
Honestly, I did not. I later learned to say “no” and seek more direction, but I answered “yes” this time to calm Aaron. The I steadied my nerves and cast again.
With this effort, Aaron was hopeful. “Good cast. A little right. But that just might do it. Get ready!”
And in a heartbeat, there it was. My little indicator dipped, and I instinctively set the hook—likely a bit hard. The river exploded in front of me where the smudge had been, and my line rocketed across the big flow and then down below me.
“Nicely done mate. Nicely done.”
I was in the game, fast to my first New Zealand brown, the biggest trout I had ever hooked. Aaron grabbed the hood of my coat to keep me from falling, and off we raced downstream in the knee- to thigh-deep water along the bank—following the beast to gain line and stay close. Another crack of lightning lit up the river. After 250 yards of stumbling, gaining and losing ground, I was able to turn the big fish, and he hit the net. Trout fishing would never be the same for me again. Hands shaking. Heart racing. Mind blown. “Welcome to New Zealand, mate!”
While the initial jet lag undoubtedly contributed, the whole experience was a bit out in the Twilight Zone. Summer in December? Travelers in shorts and tank tops near the airport Christmas tree. Leaders twice the typical length. No blind casting. And browns that looked like little alligators eating size 14 to 18 drys and nymphs.
With Aaron’s unrelenting persistence and constant guidance, I hunted, cast to, and landed a few great fish every day. There were one or two browns over six pounds—some caught on nymphs, some on drys—on every day trip. We did so amid spectacularly scenic rivers, including the Wangapeka, the Rolling, the Wairau, and the Motueka.
On the third day, we rode warm air currents up into the majestic Kahurangi National Park by helicopter. The scenery was jaw dropping, and then we descended through the canopy and onto the floor of a mystical river valley. We spent an unforgettable day alone in the middle of the unimaginably dense forest. Arm-in-arm, we forded the heavy river for balance, crossing back and forth to the best lies. With sand flies the only worry, it was liberating to focus on the fishing in front of you without the what-was-that-noise? vigilance required for bushwhacking in Alaska, Montana, Idaho, or Oregon. High up In the Kahurangi, that focus is necessary. The fish, which take on the river’s hue, appeared like ghosts, just barely discernible from the off-color, high water. The ones we caught literally glowed, indescribably buttery brown with almost surreal greenish-blue backs and yellow pectoral fins.
When I close my eyes, I still see one trout in particular, casually finning in shin-deep water, only feet from the bank. It turns slightly, tipping up, mouth open, and huge jaws close slowly around my small dry. It’s the moment we all wait for, frozen in time.
While the Kahurangi and helicopter were hard to beat, every day in New Zealand is a gift, and you don’t know what you will unwrap. Day four was a great example. After driving through hops farms, weaving through paddock gates, and watching herds of sheep and wild rabbits, I hooked an absolute missile of a brown in the rolling Wangapeka. Aaron and I chased the huge fish at least a quarter of a mile downstream, passing the fully loaded rod from left to right hand and back through tree branches, and climbing over and around three rock jetties before finally and inexplicably losing the trout in calm water 20 minutes later. The line went slack, and it was gone. All that effort and then nothing.
After hiking back upriver and wondering what might have been, I hooked a nice fish on what was my very next cast. The second fish is pictured below. The first only grows larger and more epic in my memory.
That first-cast success was an outlier. Aaron and I had to work for most fish, and each opportunity felt like a hard-earned prize. For me, seeing fish and casting accurately were both difficult challenges. Aaron’s eagle eyes and coaching made a huge difference. I struggled throughout the trip with head- and crosswinds, particularly when fishing with two nymphs and longer leaders. I inadvertently hooked everything there is to hook—myself, streamside bushes, overhead trees, my boots, and my waders—in seemingly equal parts and almost always with nice fish on center stage. I tangled the just-untangled leader. I hooked the same tree branch on consecutive casts. I missed fish, striking both too early and too late, and once not at all. I found New Zealand fishing incredibly humbling and full of lessons. Pre-trip target practice for accuracy, particularly with the need to straighten out the long leaders in a breeze, would have made the experience even better. The good news is that, if you get a fly in the right window in front of the fish, at the right depth, without drag, and without scaring the fish, it will usually eat. When it all comes together, the fishing can be nothing short of extraordinary.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the trip was a fish not pictured. On my last day, I fished the Motueka River by myself, in front of the lodge where I was staying. I had just an hour or so to fish and clean up before my van ride to the airport. I wanted to see if I could fish alone without Aaron’s coaching, skill, and fish-spotting.
As I slowly walked up the river, I felt confident in what I’d learned during my week with Aaron. I spotted a nice fish, maybe three pounds, finning in an eddy. I tied on a small, nymph with a tungsten bead, cast just upstream of the trout (close to where I was aiming), and watched the fish rise and inhale the fly. I felt surprise and elation in equal measure, and it was the perfect ending to a spectacular trip! Or so I thought.
After releasing the fish, I walked the 250 yards to the top of the run, closer to where the lodge trail and a trickling side flow met the river. To my pleasant surprise, in a morning already full of them, I spotted a second nice fish. Thanks to Aaron for the education on looking in the thinnest of water. There he was, a four-pound brown tight to the bank and in only about 18 inches of barely moving, clear water. As a precaution, I added three feet of 5X to lengthen the leader to about 16 feet. I wanted to avoid any fly line in the air above the wary trout. I tied on a size 16 Parachute Adams, planning to try the dry first, with a nymph to follow if I didn’t get a look. I crept in to position slowly on hands and knees, sat up on my knees, and laid out my line. Fittingly, my first two casts were errant, both short and right. Always right. I could hear Aaron in my head, “Longer, and left. LEFT!” I picked up my line, false-cast to straighten the leader, and let it fly. Decent cast . . . get ready, I thought. The fish finned, adjusted his position slightly, tipped up, and ate. Slowly and casually. A thousand one, a thousand two, and strike. Fish on! It was an unforgettable ending to an unforgettable trip.
Big thanks to Seth Berger, Maggie Hoffman, and Orvis Adventures for the Helios 3 and the tremendous trip and travel support. They weren’t kidding about the sand flies. Tights, sun gloves, a buff, and spray helped tremendously. Thanks also to Aaron Ford and UppaCreek Guiding for the incomparable guidance and fish-sighting, fly-fishing education and the profound experience. I learned more in a week with Aaron than I could have imagined. Thanks also to the incredibly gracious John and Kate Kerr and their tremendous staff at Stonefly Lodge, which features a stunning location and extraordinary hospitality. I will be back.
2 thoughts on “Story and Photos: The Search for Big Browns on the South Island”
What a great story! Hope to go one day!
Thank you. Happy to talk more about it in advance of your trip if desired.