In 2003 DJ, my oldest son, went ‘walkabout’ to Australia. On a side trip to New Zealand, he called me from Queenstown and said, “Dad get on a plane, we have to go fishing!” I thought: this is crazy I can’t just pick up and go half way around the world on a whim. My wife, Marty, gave me the ‘are you serious look’, and added; “Our son calls from the other side of the globe with a fishing invitation and you say no. This is only going to happen once in your life. You better go”. Permission granted, no begging for forgiveness. Seven days later, after arrangements were made by The Best of New Zealand Fly Fishing, I was in Queenstown. There were some complications.
The trip to New Zealand was as close to a nightmare as I ever want to encounter. I had to deal with three mechanical failures on three different airplanes. At BWI the flight I was scheduled on was at the gate overnight, so no problem was anticipated. After I ate a leisurely lunch, I went to the gate and was told that a repair crew from Dulles would get to BWI around 3:00 PM to repair the damage caused by the de-icer machine when it accidentally ran into the airplane. Not good. Visions of missed connections and thousands of dollars going down the toilet my blood pressure spiked. Luckily I prevailed on the guy at the gate to get me on a flight leaving for Chicago. They held the plane and I got on as the last passenger. This Chicago bound plane sat on the runway for a very long time awaiting a visit from the de-icer. The pilot shut down the engines and the plane got hot. Nice trick considering it was well below freezing outside. Finally we taxied to the runway and were ready to roar off into the sky on our way to Chicago. But it was not to be. Half down the runway, the pilot throttled the engines back and we returned to the terminal because a “light wasn’t working”. After some work we taxied to the runway and took off. At this point my connection in Chicago was impossible to make.
At O’Hare I ran through the terminal way too fast and strained my back, because my shoulder pack weighed so much that it jarred my spine. Thank goodness that Chicago is a hub for United. Flights leave for LA almost every hour from about 4 to 9 PM. After a stressful wait in line, I got on board a non-stop to LA that would get in about the same time as my original flight from BWI. I felt confident that the flight would be smooth. The captain was in coach class helping the flight attendants handle carry-on luggage and talking to the passengers. And everything was fine until we were southwest of Denver by 20 minutes. Then the captain came on in very stern voice and said: “Something is wrong with the aircraft. Please be seated and buckle your seat belts”.
We make an abrupt right hand turn to go back to Denver for an emergency landing. Later we were to find out that the smoke alarm in the mid-cabin lavatory had gone off. At Denver we were met by fire trucks and all manner of emergency vehicles. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief after exiting the plane. The evangelical minister (from El Salvador) who was seated next to me by the window was sure Jesus had saved us. And I am pretty sure he did too. When tension was at its highest, the minister asked if I wanted to pray with him. How could I not say ‘yes’. After we got on another 757 in Denver, I flew uneventfully to LA and to New Zealand.
On the first day in Queenstown our guide, Ed Halson, had trouble locating us because of some miscommunication. When we got a late start, DJ and I were worried that Ed wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Ed was by far the best guide I’ve ever fished with. And that is high praise because I’ve fished with some first rate guides. We took an hour and a half ride that required a four-wheel drive vehicle to a remote stretch of a backcountry river. The water was “gin clear”, not unlike the streams in Glacier National Park. Ed said the average fish would be around 7 lbs. I looked at DJ and hoped our east coast cynicism wasn’t showing through as we collectively thought, “Suuure, they average 7 pounds, and Santa Claus lives at the North Pole. Do we smell like we just fell off the turnip truck?” Collecting our wits and putting on a polite face we dropped the cynicism and went with an almost full-hearted,”OK, we believe you.” Neither DJ nor I really believed Ed, but we were already in fly-fishing dreamland. That wonderful place where all casts are perfect, the fish are ‘hogs’ and the big ones don’t get away.
Ed brought us back from fly fishing dreamland by declaring that while the Brown Trout were big; there would be darn few fish. On this stream in the heart of 19th century gold rush country, Ed let us know that we would be lucky to see one or two trout per mile. He was spot-on. And for sure we were not in Montana anymore. The first place we started to fish was a bend pool. Ed snuck up to the edge of the water and cruising down stream were two very big fish. He shut us up and made us be perfectly still. The fish cruised past us and then turned back up stream. They both were rising to take cicadas (a miniature version of the bug we know in the US), so Ed was sure we would get a strike if we could place an accurate cast without spooking them. Ed set up our rods with 14 foot leaders and a 4X tippets. He then rigged each of us with a green cicada, which he had tied the night before. Ed was beside himself because he knew how big these fish were. I was pumped, but not over the top.
I did some practice casting so Ed could get a read on my skill level. Without much coaching he moved me up 5 paces and told me to flick the fly out and put it on the bubble line. I did as told, but was a little left of the target zone. My second cast laid out on the water perfectly, and nearly 45 years of fly fishing experience paid off with an authoritative strike. I set the hook, brought the rod up to 12 o’clock and was into the biggest Brown Trout of my life.
There is nothing quite like being ‘in the zone’. And in the zone I was. I was on autopilot and played the fish perfectly, as I should have because I had two coaches. Ed told me when to back away from the stream and when to let the fish run. DJ made sure I kept the rod at 12 o’clock as he took action shots with his camera. Ed stepped into the river and missed netting the fish on the first try. He felt bad and apologized. On the second try a couple of minutes later he netted the fish. The fish was so big that it was doubled back on itself in the net. Exhilaration gave way to shock as the big trout broke through the netting and swam up stream. A streak of expletives proved Ed was furious. Profuse apologies followed.
But wait, I had a tight line, the fish was still on. Ed couldn’t believe it when I said the fish hadn’t broken me off. So we were off on a through-the-net attempt to land a big fish. I played the big Brown up and down the pool, as if I had done this through-the-net thing all my life. Ed got ready to give the fish a reverse swipe to re-net the fish. As the big Brown made a slow turn toward me to go upstream, Ed passed the net (with its extra hole) over the fish’s head and came up with a 30” Brown Trout. What a relief for a guide. His client made good on a bad break and caught the big one that by all rights should have gotten away. Murphy must have been asleep. Out came the scale and this hen (female) Brown Trout weighed in at 10 lbs. How often does one get the chance to land the big one; much less a second chance to land the same big one? After the revived fish swam away, Ed energetically shook my hand and added, “Welcome to New Zealand!” I was ecstatic. DJ had pictures. Ed was relieved about re-landing the biggest fish of the season. And we all had a fish story for the ages.
Within fifteen minutes of wetting a line in New Zealand, I had caught the biggest trout of my life, which over a decade later is still the case. The rest of the day we walked uphill, but fishing-wise it was downhill. We had indeed peaked early, but I’d rather peak early than not at all. I only brought one other fish to the net, and missed two others. DJ hooked several big Brown Trout, one of which was likely bigger than the one I landed. We walked for miles, had a wonderful lunch, enjoyed afternoon tea, talked about gold mining, soaked up the scenery, and most of all enjoyed being together in a wonderful place. There are just too few days like this in a lifetime.
The second day of fishing was as wonderful as the first, but for different reasons. Ed Halson has a very nice 21’ boat with a 140 horsepower Yamaha outboard engine. Ed used the boat to ferry us across Lake Wakatipu to the Lochy River. What a deal. You can’t get to the Lochy by road. Access is only by boat or helicopter. And since we don’t have enough money to afford a helicopter run, Ed’s boat was the poor man’s helicopter. The river is about half again as big as the Gardner River just before it meets the Yellowstone. The Lochy is a classic freestone stream with very clear water, and a surprising scarcity of boulders as it nears Wakatipu. As a consequence, there is almost no place for small fish to hide. When the big spring floods come the little fish get flushed into the lake. Without much in the way of rubble or boulders, the fish have to live in the pools. The Browns and Rainbows are big, but not as big as the Brown’s in the back country stream. We fished to both species. DJ hooked a huge Brown that Ed estimated to be 6 lbs. The crafty scoundrel got loose by wrapping DJ’s line around a tree stump. I caught two Rainbows. One was a classic ‘American fish’ according to Ed --- it was about twelve inches. The other was a 22 inch beauty, the largest Rainbow I’d ever caught. We saw a bunch more and either scared them off with poor casts or just plain missed them when they struck.
The valley we were in was beautiful and was home to a sheep station only accessible by crossing Lake Wakatipu. Ed did us a favor on the way home by taking us fishing on the lake, because I had asked if we could keep one fish from the lake for dinner. Not far from the Lochy we fished cicadas toward the bank. A huge trout smashed DJ’s fly and about 5 minutes later Ed netted a 26” Brown that weighed in at over 5 lbs. We let the big one go and kept a two pounder.
The night before our last day of fishing, a storm rolled in and muddied the stream Ed wanted us to fish. So our choices were to pass or fly fish from Ed’s boat on Lake Wakatipu. OK, so lake fishing from a power boat is a far cry from classic New Zealand sight fishing for trout in a mountain stream, but in this case the choice was easy. Since the Cicada ‘hatch’ was at its height, the fly selection was obvious. The bugs were everywhere so the problem became where to fish. Just as a river will tell you what fly to use, the lake told us where to fish. Ed kept the boat at trolling speed near cliffs where vegetation came down to the water’s edge. The trout had keyed in on cicadas, which had fallen off of the trees and bushes. It took us a while to realize the presence of lots of bugs was too much of a good thing. We caught more and much bigger trout where the cicada flotilla was sparse. The trout were where the cicada population was sparse, because the trout had thinned out the numbers. Even when a spot looked fishy, we passed it by in favor of locations where there were only a few cicadas. It was a different kind of day in paradise. Good sized fish; nice numbers; no back cast issues; easy walking (from the front of the boat to the back); the Remarkables mountain range for a scenery backdrop; and a celebratory toast of Glenlivet after the last trout was landed on the declared last cast. What’s not to like about fly fishing from a power boat?!
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