Ask any veteran fly fisherman where the ultimate trout fishing experience on the planet is to be found, and they will almost certainly tell you to look no further than New Zealand. The crystalline streams of this antipodean paradise offer genuine sight fishing for behemoth trout that simply dwarf the competition. Throw in arguably the most awe-inspiring scenery in the world, and you surely wouldn’t even contemplate going elsewhere. The fishing is perfect.
Or perhaps I should say, almost perfect.
In years past, I’ve made a number of pilgrimages to New Zealand, and I’ve experienced great fishing, catching some titanic fish right up to and beyond the coveted ten-pound mark. I’ve made some great friends, and enjoyed every minute, and yet I’ve always had one nagging issue with NZ.
The fish are big – no question – but I’ve always felt that many of New Zealand’s trout, especially the really big fish, are often, well, just a little ragged looking. While the fish of Ireland, Patagonia and the western USA rarely attain sizes to challenge the leviathans of New Zealand, they have a plump, pot-bellied gloss that can make the NZ fish often seem somewhat old and gnarly.
As I sat chatting with my old mate, the brilliant New Zealand guide Craig Simpson, in the pub on the last night of a previous trip, I hesitated to mention my heretical misgivings. We’d just had a banner day – brown trout of 6, 7, 8, 9 and yes, 10 pounds, all sight-fished from a beguilingly beautiful, gin-clear river that flowed between spectacular, snow-dusted peaks. To pour cold water on such a special day seemed churlish. However, with my tongue well lubricated by a few pints of Tui’s Best, I couldn’t help myself – it just came tumbling out…
Craig sat back in his chair and took a long draft of his beer before addressing my complaint: “A bit skinny, are they?” he grinned. I almost winced – “Skinny” – did I really say that? How could I have been so tactless? So downright bloody rude?
Craig just laughed, “Well, this year, you might have half a point,” he conceded as he drained his glass, “But you come back in a mouse year when those same fish have been gorging themselves silly. THEN you tell me they’re skinny.”
Ah, those mythical bloody “mouse” years…I’m almost sick of hearing about them.
None of my visits to New Zealand has ever coincided with one of these elusive mouse years. However, late in 2014 my great friend and New Zealand aficionado Pete Rippin casually mentioned that 2015 was looking like a perfect storm – two hot dry summers on the trot with a mild winter in between. With Craig’s words ringing in my ears, I dropped everything, grabbed a last-minute flight and headed for the Land of the Long White Cloud.
It was great to see Craig again after such a long, long time: we shared a million laughs over a beer or two, and when I asked how the fishing was, he gave me his trademark grin from over the top of his pint. “I’ll show you some proper ones tomorrow”, he predicted confidently. When I asked where we were headed, he winked mischievously before rekindling an old gag that I remembered from years past: “Tomorrow, I think I might just take you into the Nunya River.” We were up early and as we started the long walk up the valley, I watched spellbound as the clouds up ahead briefly parted to show a fresh dusting of snow on the vast mountain peaks ahead of us.
It was unseasonably cold, with rain in the air. As we made our first crossing of the river, Craig – wet wading in the traditional New Zealand style – was forced to concede that perhaps my less than manly decision to choose breathable chest waders was a good one.
I wondered if the cold snap might put the fish down – or maybe sharpen them up to feed hard as they felt the first portents of the oncoming winter. A vivid rainbow lit up the valley ahead, and in spite of the chill in the air, I felt a strong premonition that perhaps today was our day.
We headed upstream.
After a couple of hours, the river started to narrow into a deeper, more defined channel. Craig slowed to a snail’s pace and started to scan the likely spots. Abruptly, he stopped, and crouched low, bidding me do the same. “There,” he hissed, “just above the yellow rock”. The water was clear but very deep, and it took me a while to spot the yellow rock, never mind the fish.
I tried to make out a tell-tale sign, an eye or a tail, or the giveaway of the double line – the fish and its shadow.
The light was grey and soft, and even Craig was forced to admit that spotting was tough, but suddenly the currents broke into a big, clear mirror, and just for a second, I was afforded a perfect window.
Right there, deep down in the pool, was a brown trout of breathtaking proportions. I shinned quietly down the bank, while Craig stayed put on the high cut-bank, hunkered down behind the boulders. For nearly an hour we worked on that fish using any number of weighted nymphs but to no avail. Finally, uncharacteristically, Craig suggested we move on.
I pleaded for just one more cast: the pool was very deep, and I had the nagging suspicion that even the huge nymph we’d resorted to, replete with two hefty tungsten beads, wasn’t getting right down into the fish’s eye-line. I pitched the big stonefly pattern way, way upstream: even in the deep water, the cast risked spooking the fish by placing half a fly-line right over its head, but we were about to leave – what did I have to lose?
Craig was up and walking on now, but I just couldn’t bear to leave that huge fish. I tried again, pushing the indicator even further up the long leader and throwing the fly even further upstream.
I was finally ready to admit defeat and reel up when, as the flies drifted downstream yet again, the little smudge of indicator wool suddenly stopped and then swerved sideways. I set the hook hard and felt solid resistance, and then the thrilling, thumping electricity of a big living thing on the other end. Hearing my jubilant cry, Craig wheeled round just in time to see the fabulous fish career into the air in the first of half a dozen spectacular jumps. Suddenly, my heart was in my mouth and I was running downstream, slithering over the boulders as the fish went greyhounding out of the pool. The six-weight rod seemed hopelessly flimsy, but stumbling through the drizzle, we finally caught up with the fish. I prayed for the gossamer tippet to hold as it bulldogged around the rock-strewn river. Finally, way downstream, after a gut-wrenchingly long battle, I gingerly drew the huge trout up into the shallows, and Craig bundled it unceremoniously into his cavernous landing net.
I scrambled over and peered into the folds of the net, and the sight that met my eyes was astonishing. 11 and a half pounds of wild brown trout. My biggest yet. Not ragged. Not gnarly. On the contrary – it was in immaculate condition and was almost grotesquely fat. “Too skinny for ya?” beamed Craig triumphantly.
I was utterly elated and hugged my old mate hard. However, our perfect day was only just beginning – a little way upstream, we found another trout in an emerald-green gem of a pool. If anything, it looked even bigger.
After numerous fly changes, we finally persuaded it to eat one of Craig’s “secret” nymphs, and it catapulted into the air in a picture-perfect somersault that momentarily fixed its vast golden frame against the dense bronze-green canvas of the beech and manuka forests across the river. 12 pounds, and the most magnificent brown trout I had ever seen in my life. Not a scale out of place and an absolutely perfect, mouse-fattened specimen. I could barely believe my luck. “Don’t hug me again,” growled Craig, but he was laughing too.
Two trout weighing 23 and a half pounds.
In two hours.
Not a day I will forget in a hurry.
Late that afternoon, just before we headed for home, Craig found a third huge fish. We waited for an age for the fish to settle in the pool, but finally, I got a shot. It ate the tiny nymph without a second thought, and I was briefly attached to what would surely have been the third double-figure trophy of the day. Tragically, however, the tiny hook opened out after just a few short seconds.
“To catch two trophy fish, unaided, was one of the great thrills of my fly-fishing life.”
The next few days were exceptional. Despite unseasonably cold weather and cloudy skies that impeded even Craig’s ability to see the fish, we caught a series of stunning fish between seven and nine pounds. All were packed full of mouse protein and fought like tigers. Too soon, Craig was obliged to head north to meet up with newly arrived clients. As he did his best to stop me from hugging him goodbye (many Kiwi guides are not yet totally in touch with their feminine side), Craig generously suggested that I go and try again for that last big fish that we had spotted and very briefly hooked and lost a few days before.
I rose early the next morning and was afforded another very special day, catching two stunning fish. One weighed eight pounds, but the other…the other was the big fish that Craig had encouraged me to try for. It took me an hour to hook, and it too weighed 12 pounds. Fishing without a guide on New Zealand’s big-fish streams is tough, and many NZ veterans will tell you that to catch a trophy fish on your own counts double. To catch two trophy fish unaided was one of the great thrills of my fly-fishing life.
Good on you, Craig Simpson.
“So, where is this magical Nunya River?” I hear you ask. Well, I can tell you that you won’t find it on Google Earth. Or in John Kent’s celebrated books about fishing the rivers of New Zealand. In fact, you won’t find it on any map in existence. But Craig will take you there. The Nunya, you see, is the subject of Craig Simpson’s favourite fishing gag:
“Where’s the Nunya, Craig?”
“Nunya flippin’ business.” New Zealand
The Year of the Mouse – New Zealand
From “The Fish of a Lifetime” by Matt Harris
Get Matt’s brand new masterpiece here www.thefishofalifetime.com
New Zealand remains one of the most iconic fly fisheries in the world. The trophy trout fishing is on a par with permit fishing in terms of its technical challenges and it can be similarly frustrating. However, get it right and the rewards are truly special. Very few fish are as beautiful as a wild trout, and when they are fattened with mouse protein, the big trophy browns of the South Island are simply magnificent.
If you want to catch these fish, the very best advice that I can give you is to enlist the services of a really experienced Kiwi guide. There are a number of really talented characters out there, and I have experienced some unforgettable times with my great friends Dean Bell, Ian Cole, Stevey Carey, Scottie Murray, Boris Cech, Carl Cleaver, Felix Borenstein, Al Peake and, of course, the inimitable Craig Simpson. I recommend all of them unreservedly.
When he is not fly fishing, Matt Harris photographs kids for blue chip advertising clients worldwide from his base in London UK.