We first tried fly fishing on a guided half day trip out of Queenstown several years ago. A couple of years later we were back in Queenstown having another go. No fish resulted, which wasn’t really surprising as we couldn’t get a fly anywhere near the trout which could plainly be seen in the crystal clear waters of the South Island. Not withstanding our lack of success we were hooked – there was just something about seeing a trout in the water and casting a fly sufficiently close to it to entice a strike. So on this trip to New Zealand, with four months stretching out before us, we decided to bring our own rods and have a go.
Our first sustained effort was in Gore, the self-proclaimed trout capital of New Zealand. A confusing trip to the local sports shop where a man talked knowledgeably about dry flies, nymphs and the rise whilst I nodded along hoping I could work it out later, was followed by some equally frustrating sessions on the Mataura River. When I was not catching myself or the bank, the line would drop limply only a few metres in front of me. One evening in the takeaway we were even informed by a local that if we hadn’t managed to catch a trout in the Mataura we must be “really crap”. It was clearly time for a different approach – some lessons were in order.
The decision to get some lessons was an easy one, finding someone to give them was somewhat harder. There a lot of guides in New Zealand, but not many of them seem interested in giving lessons to complete novices. After some research we came up with two options – an outfit operating out of Wanaka and One Cast Adventures operating in Hawkes Bay. We opted for One Cast Adventures mainly because the guide/teacher, Marlene, was a woman and I figured she might be more patient with another woman wanting to learn (whilst the validity of the generalisation is doubtful, in this case at least, Marlene turned out to be endlessly patient). We also opted for four days of lessons – I didn’t think my casting problems could be cured in just 2 days. I was soon to learn, however, that there was more to fly fishing than just casting and four days was barely adequate to cover it all.
Day 1 of our lessons began on the grass – learning the proper set up for our line and flies, the right knots, the differences between dry flies and nymphing, refining our casting technique and eventually casting at cardboard fish. I was sufficiently proficient on the grass that Marlene didn’t quite believe that I was as bad as I had said I was. Moving to the river later that afternoon she was to find that my casting was as bad as previously described. All the fluency of casting on the grass went out the window and I reverted to type – apparently attempting to place the fly on the water instead of casting. Intensive instructions followed: stop the cast, don’t drop your arm back, keep the wrist straight, don’t bring your arm across your body, don’t lean forward, shoot the line. Towards the end of the day Rob and I were both improving, but still no fish.
Day 2 and we were back on the Mohaka River. More casting lessons and instructions on mending the line (basically you have to keep the line straight or the waters pull on line wont let the fly behave naturally and it doesn’t fool the trout into believing the flies are something they want to eat). All day on the river and our proficiency in casting improved immensely, albeit that my mending was still hit or miss. Towards the end of the day Rob hooked up twice and dropped both.
Day 3 and it was time for our small stream lesson. We spent our day fishing about 500m of stream, no more than a metre and a half across trying to keep a low profile and dodge the overhanging grass, willows and blackberries. It was enormous fun, even though we lost a few flies. Both Rob and I hooked up on a couple of rainbows each but the difference between us was that Rob landed his and I dropped both of mine.
Day 4 and we were again on the Mohaka. This time Marlene spent a lot of time giving instructions on where to fish on the river and how to fish all of a run. I hooked up on two rainbows, both of which according to Marlene exceeded 7lb. Both hook ups were when I was in the middle of a fairly fast flowing river, keeping my balance only with the assistance of Marlene. The first I lost due to the fairly straight forward error of trying to reel in when the trout was making a run. It turns out that you can’t do that with a large fish on a light fly line. The second was more fun. It jumped a couple of times and as I was holding the rod, my reel dropped off. Luckily Marlene caught all of the bits and put the rod and reel back together as I held the rod as high above me as possible. We then worked our way back to the bank and the fish made several runs and jumps with me trying to follow it as best I could. Ten minutes of fight, however, and it was all over – the hook was bent and the fish was gone.
We had such a lot of fun over our four days that we asked for Marlene’s advice on some more fishing spots in the Hawkes Bay area. This led to a plan for a 2 day camping trip into the Kaweka Forest. Marlene lent us some camping equipment and offered to join us on the understanding that she would show us where to fish but not guide us and would instead spend time researching fishing spots for her next clients. We readily agreed and spent the next two days fishing in the Kaweka Forest with Marlene’s favourite dry fly. We had limited results on the first day, but on the second day, as we moved further up river we had trout trying to destroy our flies.
Sight fishing in a shallow slow moving part of the river I spotted a rainbow to which Rob casted. Another rainbow came from about 10m away and devoured his fly. Further up river we fished a series of shallow rapids with large rainbows leaping at the flies. Unfortunately they were very quick and I was a little bit slow on the strike so was not able to properly set the hook to keep them on the line for any length of the time. At the end of the trip I had caught one brown through foul hooking it, Rob had a couple of rainbows and we were both much better at fly fishing than we had been. Marlene did get some fishing in and undoubtedly her next clients were the beneficiaries of a well-researched trip. At the same time, however, she couldn’t help herself showing us where to fish and giving us even more coaching. Fishing for an extended time with Marlene demonstrated the value of a guide, particularly a guide like Marlene who spends a lot of time researching rivers before clients even arrive – she knew which bits of the river to fish, where the fish were in those bits and where to cross the river safely.
We didn’t land a lot of fish, but the lessons we had have certainly made us more proficient and even keener than ever to do more backcountry fishing. As Rob said, it has been the highlight of the trip, and given some of the hikes we have been on and the fun we have had with friends on those hikes, that is saying something. Be warned, however, if you are considering doing a trip like this with a guide like Marlene. It’s not a luxury lodge, instead you are either staying in a comfortable fisherman’s bach with great home cooked food, possibly fresh caught venison, or back country camping. If, however, you are the outdoor camping type who loves fishing this is the trip for you.