Trip Report: A Salmon Fisherman Learns New Skills in New Zealand

Written by: Chip Sutherland

New Zealand Adventure

Far from his home in the Canadian Maritimes, Chip Sutherland found trout-fishing Nirvana.

photo courtesy Chip Sutherland

In late August 2011, I was flying to London on a business trip, and I was looking for reading material, so I bought a copy of Fly Fisherman magazine. It had an article on trout fishing in New Zealand and talked about the legendary fishing in the back country rivers of the North Island. I thought, “Maybe someday that would be fun.” As it turned out, due to work commitments the opportunity arrived the following January, considerably earlier than I had expected. I could book a weekend of fishing ahead of meetings in Auckland. But could I really recreate the extraordinary fishing described in the article? Secluded wild streams, big fish, stalking for sighted trout in crystal clear water? All in only two days? I have read my fair share of these articles, and it’s hard to know how much is reality versus journalistic fiction. I was determined to find out.

Day 1, The Death March:

I called guide Mark Aspinall on my arrival, and he was keen to make sure he planned the right trip. I explained that I primarily had experience fishing for Atlantic salmon and had only fished for trout for a couple of years. I figured I could get some line out in tight spots, but my general technique would be pretty weak.

“No worries mate. We’ll get you sorted,” he replied. He then asked, “Do you want an adventure and a shot at a few huge fish, . . .or are you a volume catch guy?” I immediately said, “Adventure,” and he responded, “I was hoping you would say that. See you tomorrow.”

We drove for about an hour to a spot with absolutely no sign that anyone had ever set foot there. No paths, no signs, no nothing. Mark said he only fishes this spot three times a year, so the fish stay undisturbed. Nobody knows about it, and I was sworn to secrecy.

New Zealand Adventure

The hiking and bushwhacking through thick vegetation on the first day turned out to be worth it.

photo courtesy Chip Sutherland

We hiked/trudged for an hour before we saw signs of a fish. We stopped at a couple of pools, so Mark could see me cast and we could hunt for a few deep fish that might not be showing. After watching my casts he said, “You’ll do fine.” As it turned out, casting wasn’t the big problem, but it was no easy feat, often requiring me to cast backhanded in tight spots.

We eventually got to a pool where he tied on a very heavy nymph with some white wool as a strike indicator. Mark pointed to the head of the run and said, “Don’t move a muscle, and put the fly in the middle of the run. One cast.” Which I did. The fly dead-drifted down through the small run, and to my shock, the indicator dipped below the surface. “STROIK! STROIK!” Mark yelled. I pulled on a slack line. That was when I discovered that I really had no idea how to nymph fish. “That’s it mate; he’s gone,” Mark said with a dejected and disapproval-stained shake of his head. When he had said “one cast,” he wasn’t kidding. The fish was spooked, and we moved on.

New Zealand Adventure

Chip’s first New Zealand trout came soon after he learned how to stroik.

photo courtesy Chip Sutherland

Thirty minutes later, we were in a clear pool, and we could see a sizeable trout moving around munching on nymphs. I was instructed to “stroik quicka AND hahdder.” I took my time and made a cast. . .too short. . .then too short again. The nymph I had was custom-tied by Mark with extra weight in it, so that it got down quickly in the current. It felt like I was casting a bowling a ball. I started to sweat. The third cast was in a better spot, and by this time Mark had moved up the bank quietly and was spotting the fish. “He’s turning. . .he’s looking. . .STR—” But I already had my rod tip high in the air, feeling a heavy weight on the end of the line. I had learned that there was no point in waiting for the instruction to strike.

Now the next problem: I had to land this monster! There were a few tense moments in the five-minute battle to land the fish, with lots of coaching, but finally Mark had the fish in his hands. When he handed it to me for the photo, I was still in shock.

After a satisfying lunch, we tried a few more holes, continuing to work our way upstream. We tried for a couple more fish, but they could not be enticed to the fly. Or I kept slapping the water with my casts and spooking fish, but Mark was politely quiet about those ones. It was getting close to 4 p.m., and my knee was in pretty bad shape. We arrived at the last pool and saw two fish sipping flies from the surface.

New Zealand Adventure

Guide Mark Aspinall hoists yet another gorgeous wild rainbow from that first day of fishing.

photo courtesy Chip Sutherland

“This is what we came for mate,” Mark said, and he was almost vibrating with excitement as he tied on a fresh dry fly. After 20 years guiding, he is still excited about every single fish and especially ones caught on a dry fly. “Ya don’t quick-stroik these mate. Ya hefta let ’em take the fly down. Say ‘God Save the Queen’ and then stroik.”

He handed me the rod. “You just get one shot at it mate, so make it a good one.” Gulp. I cast the fly upstream. . .too short. “It’s ok, he’s still there,” Mark said in a whisper, “Just let it drift down then pick it up and try again.” This time, I put it in the right place but right beside a natural fly. The fish took the natural. My fly was drifting down and just starting to drag. “Shit. . .okay. Let it drop. Wait wait. . .leave it. . .he’s turning. . . .”

SLAM! The fish had turned and chased the skidding dry fly so that he was facing me and took the fly like a great white shark. I don’t think I got past “God save…” before I struck and had the fish tight. I have read Lee Wulff’s writings, and so many times he says there are no rules to fishing. This proved the point. The dry fly was tight and skidding with a big wake behind it when the fish hit—all wrong, according to conventional wisdom. The problem now was the big fella decided to head downstream, through a rock garden and small rips.

I nearly tore another meniscus getting downstream crawling over rocks with one hand in the air and Mark yelling at me to get downstream, but it was worth it. Mark’s instruction in the heat of battling the fish was “Let him come down, so we have a shot at the other one.” You have to love a guide who has a fish on, and his primary thought is how to get the next one.

That was an epic day.

New Zealand Adventure

Chip’s first dry-fly trout executed an unconventional U-turn take.

photo courtesy Chip Sutherland

Day 2, the Float:

Mark gave me options on Day 2. We could just drive into a few of the popular fishing holes and try our luck, we could rent a helicopter and do a quick jump to a spot in the back country, or we could hire a raft and float the upper reaches of the Tongariro that can’t be accessed any other way. I chose the river. With a young guy at the oars, we started down and within the first five minutes we were into Class III rapids that would be un-runnable in a canoe. The only line down the river was sometimes over rocks (not around them), and more than once, our oarsmen executed the “hit and spin,” which meant crashing nose-first into the cliff face at the bottom of a rip and then spinning around in haystacks to run the rest backwards. Good to get the heart rate up before settling into fishing.

It was hard to imagine that we could beat the first day of fishing, but we did. In the end, I landed something like 12 fish, but it could have been more. It’s always a good sign when you lose count. And I’m not counting the numerous hits with Mark yelling “Stroik!” and me coming up empty-handed. I had no idea how spoiled I am fishing for Atlantic salmon where the take is so strong generally that there is really no striking of the fish other than “Oh I have a fish” and lifting your rod tip.

New Zealand Adventure

The second day, Mark and Chip floated the Upper Tongariro.

photo courtesy Chip Sutherland

There were many highlights of this day, but the best occurred after we had already fished for about six hours at various pools with good success on nymphs, but I had yet to catch a fish on the dry fly. I had enticed two to take and failed to hook them on the strike. I was developing a complex. We reached a small rapid and Mark said, “This is a good spot.” It was too turbulent to see any fish, and it was nothing like we had fished all day. I was skeptical but followed orders. He said, “Throw this upstream and look for the big take.” “This” was a huge cicada pattern that looked like a size 4 muddler with a bright orange body and rubber legs—nothing like the tiny size 12 mayfly imitation I used the day before.

I sent the fly perfectly up into the middle of the rip, just like a good salmon fisherman. Mark shook his head. “Not there mate. The fish are in the soft seam on this side.” Oops. I let the fly drift down and put it into the side this time. The fly touched the water, and in about two seconds there was a massive shiny explosion on top of it. Guess who didn’t strike. I was so dumbfounded at Mark’s uncanny fish finding that I was literally standing with my mouth open and my hands in the air.

New Zealand Adventure

Chip’s first trout of Day 2 was the smallest of the trip. Not bad.

photo courtesy Chip Sutherland

He was not entirely impressed. “Try again; there’ll be more.” I thought I must have blown another opportunity, and my “dry-fly disability” complex was growing deeper, but I put the fly in the exact same spot, and within four seconds there was another explosion. This time, I set the hook after “God Save the…” and was rewarded with a 4-pound beauty that fought like a grilse and even gave me a few jumps in the air to remind me of salmon back home.

Buoyed with confidence in my new found technique, I did it again. Another explosion. After landing that one, I proceeded to manage it four more times in a span of about 15 minutes. Six big fish—nothing less than 3 pounds, and the biggest was close to 5 pounds—all on a dry fly and all in one spot of water about 40 feet in length. We had accidentally left our net in the truck, so I tailed all of these fish; it was my idea of giving them a sporting chance. It also tells you how big they were; certainly big enough to get a good grip on their tail. At least I could put one of my salmon fishing skills to good use.

This allowed Mark to sit on the shore and observe with satisfaction another day of perfectly executed guiding.

Chip Sutherland is an attorney who lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia

New Zealand Adventure

After a dozen trout on Day 2, Chip was finally getting the hang of this trout-fishing thing.

photo courtesy Chip Sutherland

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