Trout Bum of the Week LXXII: Matt Butler

The annual cicada hatch is a big deal in New Zealand because it brings the biggest fish to the surface.
Photo by Jakub Kanok

Welcome to our series called “Trout Bum of the Week,” in which we highlight some of the folks living the good life. . .of a sort. (See the bottom of this post for a link to the previous installments.) Most of the subjects are guides who have turned their passion into a vocation, spending their time in an outdoor “office” that may include a drift boat, gorgeous mountain scenery, and crystal clear water. Others do have day jobs but manage to spend every other available minute on the water with a fly rod in hand. Whether you aspire to one lifestyle or the other, it’s illuminating to explore the different paths these men and women have taken on their way to achieving “trout bum” status. 

Matt Butler is a passionate angler and guide based in Wanaka, New Zealand. He has been fly fishing for trout over half of his life and at 24 decided to enter the guiding industry to help fuel his passion for the sport. Matt fishes extensively and knows New Zealand very well; he also makes short films to document his travels. You can follow Matt’s adventures on Instagram.

Matt learned the sport by by sight-fishing for large brown-trout in both islands of New Zealand.
Photos courtesy Matt Butler

1. When did you start fly fishing?
When I was 12 years old, my family relocated to the South Island for work, and I was lost for things to do so my mom entered me into the local fishing club. That’s where I got the feel for fly fishing, which eventually morphed into a addiction over my teenage years when I moved back to the North Island. More than a decade later, I decided to throw everything down and dedicate my life to the pursuit of the sport and all the things it has to offer. It took me many years to get up-skilled as an angler, as I was mostly self taught and had to pursue it through all the distractions a normal teenager faces. However, I eventually became completely immersed.

2. What’s your favorite water?
I’m in love with the backcountry fisheries here in New Zealand. These waters are located in some of the most pristine wilderness in the world and can require a lot of work and effort just to get to, as well as being challenging places to fish. I enjoy mostly small- to medium-size rivers and streams, which are clear enough to sight-fish in, but sometimes I’m tempted to stalk edge cruising browns on our clear lakes.

Hiking deep into the backcountry is Matt’s favorite way to find new waters.

3. What’s your favorite species to chase with a fly rod?
Although we are limited to species here, I would say brown trout for sure. They are incredibly astute and aware of their surroundings and can make your day very difficult if you’re not on form. They also have a unique beauty and diversity, with every fish adapting to its environment. It’s also hard to beat the colors of a brown trout in the fall as it gets darker and more vibrant for spawning.

4. What’s your most memorable fly fishing moment?
I would have to say it is landing my first trophy fish over 10 pounds, which I achieved on the second day of the season last year. Although everything between striking and netting is a blur of nervous excitement, I still recall the feeling of awe when I first saw the fish in the net. It wasn’t just the size, but the work it took: I walked about 100 miles over three days, in horrible weather, and I didn’t get into the big one until the final day!

Check out the kype on that big brown-trout buck.

5. What’s your most forgettable fly fishing moment?
Every large fish I have missed or lost. Somehow I always remember in full detail the ones that got away, and they never leave my mind. I’m always wondering what went wrong or what I could have done differently.

6. What do you love most about fly fishing?
The solitude and the pursuit of mastering a skill that will never be totally mastered. The pursuit of fly fishing takes you to amazing places, those that I most likely would have never bothered to visit if they did not hold the promise of fish. This is particularly relevant in New Zealand, where much of the wilderness is so far from civilization. You have to be mad, or obsessed to go into some of the places we fish.

Another South Island trout comes to the net..

7. What is your favorite piece of gear
I think the best fishing gear I’ve come across is the New Zealand Strike Indicator tool. It is a great little gadget that makes applying wool indicators so easy and changeable. Best of all, you can slide an indicator of any size up and down your leader without kinking or damaging it.

8. What’s your go-to fly when nothing else is working?
Can’t go past the trusty old Pheasant Tail Nymph. Somehow it seems to work nine times out of ten, as long as you get the size right, especially on the toughest brown trout.

Matt’s fascinating with fly fishing began with a camp experience when he was twelve, but now the sport is his life.

9. What was your favorite fly fishing trip?
Some of my most exciting trips have been when I’m guiding and having the luxury of flying in a helicopter around Fiordland in the lower South Island. One of the most memorable days included a flight through the mountains to the coast, where the river flowed. We first landed on the beach to gather lobsters and shellfish for lunch before we flew upstream for a fish on the river, landing some thumping browns on the dry before flying up to a mountain top and having a huge gourmet feast with the most spectacular view. Even though I didn’t have a rod in my hand, it will be a tough day to beat.

10. How do you define the difference between someone who loves fly fishing and a true trout bum?
In my opinion, a true trout bum dedicates his whole life in pursuit of the sport and passion, basically someone who is bordering on obsessive. This is how many guides seem to start out: they just cant get enough fishing in normal life, so decide to dedicate their working day to it. And even though they don’t have a rod in their hand, just being there is enough. This is what brought me into guiding and will keep me there as long as I am loving it.

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