Hooked on fishing the rivers of New Zealand's South Island

by Chris Santella
Special to The Washington Post

The South Island of New Zealand has seen an uptick in visitors since the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and now “The Hobbit” graced the big screen; many fans have been eager to see the sweeping “Middle-earth” scenery featured so prominently in the films.

I’m one of the few people who have not seen Peter Jackson’s epics, yet I have long wanted to visit the South Island. For me, the attraction is not hobbits, but fishing. I have longed to unfurl my fly line on a few of its countless trout streams.

Both rainbow and brown trout were imported to the island nation in the 1800s, from California and Britain, respectively. With no natural predators, the fish have thrived. The average South Island trout stream does not contain enough forage to sustain more than a few fish, but the trout that are there are large, averaging three to six pounds, with fish in the eight-to-10-pound range encountered every year.

It’s the combination of big fish, spectacular scenery and streams clear enough to allow anglers to visually stalk their prey that has made New Zealand, particularly the South Island, a bucket-list destination for diehard trout anglers.

Chris Daughters — guide, fly-shop proprietor and now owner of Cedar Lodge (cedarlodge.net) in Makaroa — is an American who was drawn to the South Island more than 20 years ago. He and his family split their time between Makaroa and Eugene, Ore. Chris coordinates fishing activities and sometimes guides; Shauna oversees operations at the lodge.

Cedar Lodge’s location on the border of Mount Aspiring National Park provides fantastic access to a great diversity of water — big braided rivers flowing into the region’s vast lakes, intimate streams in steep valleys and wild, seldom-visited rivers on the west side of the Southern Alps that drain into the Tasman Sea.

A helipad sits at the south end of the property, separated from the lodge by a five-hole “rural” golf course (where a few passes of the lawnmower create fairways and greens) that doubles as a sheep paddock in the offseason.

A day at the lodge begins with a hearty breakfast. While guests enjoy a second cup of coffee, Daughters and his guides share the day’s itinerary. With miles of fishable water on a dozen rivers to choose from, the day’s destination is determined by weather conditions and how recently the rivers have been fished. Anglers then don their fishing togs — polypropylene long underwear and nylon shorts with wading boots are favored over traditional waders because the air is warm, the rivers not too cold and a fair bit of hiking is involved. Then each pair of anglers heads across the golf course to the helicopter to embark on their adventure.

Seconds after strapping in, we were off, soaring above the Makaroa River that borders the lodge property before banking right into the wide valley formed by the Wilkin.

There’s a saying among Kiwi helicopter pilots, “The wind begins in Makaroa,” and indeed, it was howling that morning. But pilot/guide Dion Matheson hugged a hillside festooned in beech trees to ensure safe passage. Shifting clouds revealed the peaks of snow-capped mountains beyond the green hills. After five minutes, we set down.

The scenery was every bit as dramatic as I’ve witnessed in the trout havens of Montana and Alaska, with the added bonus that there were no bears or other critters in the woods with the capacity to kill me. (No large mammalian predators have ever been successfully introduced to New Zealand; in fact, the only native mammals here are two species of bats.) There were no other anglers for miles.

It must be said that fishing on the clear rivers of the South Island is challenging. The trout are few and often far between. That means you’ll do a fair bit of streamside hiking (with occasional bushwhacking) as you move upstream trying to find fish.

I averaged two or three miles each day on the river, sometimes scrambling 50 yards behind guide Paul Wright, who positively bounded over boulders and brush. Once you do spot a fish, it takes a careful cast to entice it to bite. First, the angler must drop the fly gently above the fish so the current can carry it down. If you slap the line down on the water, the trout will be startled and put off. The angler must also control the downstream path of the fly — the drift, in angling parlance — so the fly appears as if it’s floating naturally in the current. If you do all these things right and the fish is willing, you must be careful not to set the hook too quickly, lest you pull the fly out of the trout’s mouth.

“If you wait the amount of time it takes to say ‘God save the Queen,’ ” Daughters said, “you’re about right.”

Although fishermen are permitted to keep up to three fish a day on most South Island rivers, Cedar Lodge endorses catch-and-release angling.

Sight-fishing for trout requires tremendous focus. But Wright pointed out the importance of looking up from time to time. “If you’re missing the scenery, you’re only getting half the experience,” he said.

On my last day, Daughters and I fished an unnamed river west of the crest of the Southern Alps. As the helicopter darted through a small hole in the low-lying clouds, we were greeted by a riot of green, the dense beech forests punctuated with cabbage tree palms. At one point, Daughters spotted a large brown trout in a pool below a huge boulder. Thick brush enveloped the shoreline.

“The only way you can get to the fish is to crawl down through the brush to that rock outcropping and make a side-arm cast,” Daughters said.

I gently dropped down to the rock and made a cast without tangling the fly in the brush behind me. The current slid the fly a bit to the right of the fish.

“Try again, more right,” Daughters said. The second cast was dead on. The fly drifted right over the fish ... but it was unimpressed, and swam slowly out of range.

Luckily the defeats are as compelling as the victories when recounted over drinks back at the lodge. After swapping a few fish tales at happy hour, there was time for a few holes of golf before a dinner of panko-encrusted red stag well paired with a local, award-winning Akarua pinot noir. The murmur of the Makaroa was barely audible in the background as the setting sun glinted off the peaks of the Southern Alps to the west. Peter Jackson couldn’t have scripted a better ending to a day of fishing on New Zealand’s South Island.

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