Spring arrives in New Zealand

Casey Cravens, Lower South Island, NZ

As I write, anglers are making last minute contingency plans, scouring maps, weather forecasts and river flows for their first trips of the season—all with the glee of a kid on Christmas Eve. Barring heavy downpours Sunday night, most waters are at excellent levels, and water temperatures are also nearing their optimum range for trout.

The mild winter bodes well for an excellent trout season. Save for a big dump of rain and snow the third week in August, most of Southland and Otago’s lowland river catchments experienced few waves of heavy precipitation the last three months. The absence of scouring floods is good for  populations of trout stream insects and, consequently, trout condition and frye survival. With a little luck we might have a banner season.

Otago and Southland have some of the country’s finest spring fly fishing on small streams. The Aparima, Oreti, Mataura, Clutha, Taieri and Waitaki watersheds have a host of tributaries that are wonderful destinations in October and November.  These small lowland rivers offer excellent trout fishing on intimate water. Their mayfly, midge, caddis, Dobson fly and crayfish populations are much more robust than those of the high-country rivers, which can seem cold and sterile in comparison. Lowland rivers, too, warm sooner in spring to the magic temperature range. When the water temperatures hit 11-13 degrees C it triggers trout metabolism and makes the fish feed actively. The last week many waters have been in this range. Monday a front is forecast to push through the South Island from the southwest, dropping daily highs from the summerlike weather we’ve been having to 13 degrees. Trout activity and hatches should peak in early to mid-afternoon.

Many of my favorite spring waters are scarcely a couple of rod lengths wide. You don’t have to cast long. Accuracy is more important. Slower action, lighter weight rods come in handy–four or five-weight rods rather than six weights. Curve casts, roll casts and bow-and-arrow casts are often the order of the day. Sometimes you have to either look for an opening in the bush or quietly wade up the middle of the streams. But while these fish haven’t seen a fly in five months, these headwaters are so small that every crunch of gravel, kicked stone or wading bow wave can alarm. Trout feel the smallest vibration in their lateral lines. As the late poet and fly fisherman Ted Hughes wrote:

I waded, deepening, and the fish
Listened for me. They watched my each move
Through their magical skins.

So move quietly.  Start out small. Fish at your feet first. Then focus on the stream’s structure. Divide the pool up carefully so you don’t line the lies. Fish behind rocks or in front of them, along foam lines, the first good trench by the banks. Probe the edges: where fast water meets slow, deep meets shallow, the last deep slot before the tailout. And of course the head of the pool.

Before you cast, think. Look for the holes in vegetation and watch your back casts. Sometimes it’s actually easier to turn around and face the vegetation and use a backhanded cast to place the fly on the water. And above all, on bright days or in clear water, minimize your backcasts. Every false cast reduces your chance by at least 20 percent. Try a roll cast pick up, and when the line rotates in front of you, then make only one back cast. It requires less movement and thus less rod flash.

Fly choice for spring is also seasonal. Most of Otago and Southland’s mayflies fall into the Deleatidium genus, the most common  in New Zealand. This time of year, the most common to emerge is Deleatidium vernale, whose name means spring. Long winter nights I dream of fishing the first hatch of these smoke-colored grey-brown mayflies, my rite of spring.

On mainstem rivers like the Mataura, don’t be afraid to go small, in the size 16-18 range. But on tributaries larger sizes work well, ie, 14-16 and even 12s.

Caddis imitations are also important in spring, and a survey of the Mataura back in the 1980s indicated that the horn-cased caddis, Olinga, is more important to trout than the Deleatidium genus.  (A good, easy imitation can be tied with audio tape for the case). I also like using a green free swimming caddis, and my Wasabi Caddis, tied with green jelly cord, is highly visible. A large white caddis nymph is also a good bet, and if tied on a size 10-12 hook with a black or copper bead and a short tail, can double for a Dobson fly larva, another good springtime pattern.

Many of the small streams of Otago and Southland are peat-stained, and in October the trout are keen to feed and put on weight, so one of my go-to flies is a simple copper tungsten beadhead pheasant tail. On dull days I often have more success with a copper tungsten nymph than a black one for the simple reason that it glows like a neon sign in the higher tea-colored waters. As the season wears on I utilize black or grey beads, my reasoning being the trout have seen more angler’s flies and grow skeptical of bright patterns, but they remain a top performer especially in high or colored water. The Czech company, Hends, makes an excellent material called Body Quill, and their ginger-colored version is a dead ringer for Deleatidium imitations. It’s a durable material that works so well as a body, leg and tail material that you can even substitute it for a faux pheasant tail.  Tie in four or five strands at the tail, wind it up towards the eye, add a little copper-brown ice dubbing for a pattern you can tie in two minutes. Fly design is like geometry. The simplest solution is the most elegant. Above all, though, Body Quill is also more translucent than natural pheasant tail, an important consideration when trying to imitate the crinkly, cellophane-like material of insect bodies.

With a little luck, anglers may experience mid-afternoon mayfly hatches. Still, drizzly days are often the best, as mayfly adults have no mouth parts and must conserve body moisture and energy. They live for the day. Rather than going with the tried and true Parachute Adams, I prefer a Parachute Pheasant Tail. Emerger patterns like the First Choice, a Dunedin version of the Klinkhamer, also work well. Some anglers still use the Dad’s Favorite for a Deleatidium dun, but I consistently have more faith in emergers.

Those heading south to the Catlins might also encounter Coloburiscus humeralis hatches, and if so the Kakahi Queen is a New Zealand original that works well. A few years ago my friend the American fly tyer Jim LaFever came up with an improved Kakahi Queen imitation based on my photos and sent them with a mutual friend. LaFever’s pattern is tied with a durable brown biot for a body, brown hackle Catskill style, grey Z-lon for the wing and bright yellow calf tail for the leading wing edge you—and trout—can see a mile away. A parachute version might also work even better.

Although most fly anglers are keen to fish upstream with nymphs and dry flies, downstream in the estuaries of rivers like the Clutha, whitebait are entering our rivers. These are our native galaxids in their juvenile stage. Sea-run browns smash them with gusto. Such sea-run fish aren’t just great sport—they’re also invariably red fleshed and good for the table. With fresh whitebait fetching $120 a kilo in Dunedin, it’s a bit of an epicurean windfall like hunting wild boar gorged on spring truffles. Many anglers swear by the silicon smelt pattern as an imitation, or a skinny Gummy Minnow. Both work well enough, particularly when fashioned with eyes, a key trigger. But I prefer a Grey Ghost for its swimming action.

So many rivers. So many trout and bugs. So little time. Fly anglers in New Zealand’s South Island have an embarrassment of riches. Get out there and seize the day. Tight lines.

Older Post Newer Post