Tight lines in South Island

Financial Review Magazine

Fly fishermen seek ultimate tranquillity. It’s not uncommon for them to use a helicopter and be dropped off in otherwise well-nigh inaccessible places, most likely tucked among snow-capped mountains somewhere near the headwaters of a pristine river. Such solitude naturally costs a lot but for the ardent fly fisherman there’s simply no substitute.

Heli-fishing in New Zealand’s South Island is among the most exhilarating aerial experiences available in the country. A helicopter flight totally bends one’s perspective. A 10-minute hop to a prime trout fishing spot covers a distance that might otherwise involve a 12-hour hike across rugged, challenging terrain. I was lucky to experience such a hop, but only after I’d been sworn to secrecy.

There’s nothing Masonic about fly fishing. There are no clandestine handshakes, although secret knots are probably revealed to acolytes. But the exact location of the finest fishing spots are as closely guarded as any crown jewels.

Trout are notoriously twitchy creatures and a pool fished too often soon becomes home to trout far too skittish to ever rise to a fly. So anglers almost certainly each keep the knowledge of at least one special pool to themselves.

Schwarzenegger of the species

My first experience of fishing New Zealand rivers had been on the North Island at the world famous Tongariro Lodge, where guide Mike Chapman generously took me upstream to just such a pool. The lodge attracts guests from around the world to pit their skills against the wily Tongariro trout, generally regarded as the Schwarzenegger of the species.

The river produces rainbow trout averaging 4lbs and brown trout averaging 5lbs. Trophy fish over 10lbs have been caught. At Mike’s “secret” pool the trout were jumping at the fly and we returned home in triumph with an 8lb monster for dinner!

Trout fishing is a catch (if you can) and release sport, with strict limits on the number of fish that may be taken from the river to eat. Most fly fishermen take none as they simply enjoy the challenge. And each day is different, which is the essence of the sport. The allure of fly fishing lies in its elegance and simplicity. There are easier ways to catch fish but none as rewarding.

The other lure is the sheer physical beauty of the environment. The philosophical element in fly fishing has much to with unspoilt nature and quietude. It is, after all, a fairly meditative sport, even if interrupted by bouts of frenzied action initiated by a sudden tug on the line.  If your timing is right you get the great reward – a rush of adrenalin and a whizzing of the reel as the furious fish powers away.

The great game

Now you have a fight on your hands! Concentration is paramount as the trout tries to manoeuvre behind a rock, sometimes leaping from the water or diving deep, powering upstream then switching direction. It’s essential to keep the line taut, yet allow the trout to run and tire itself. You must play the fish, and that’s the great game. Too tight a line and the trout will be gone, having torn the hook from its mouth or having snapped the line against a rock or stick.

Only after you’ve actually hooked your first trout can you begin to enjoy the myths and legends of this most exacting sport. And fly fishing certainly has its legends.

Harvey Maguire spins plenty of fishing yarns and also, no doubt, has a few secret pools of his own. Harvey’s been a fly fishing guide for more than 17 years and is a former president of the New Zealand Professional Fishing Guides Association. And it was Harvey who swore me to secrecy about our destination as the Southern Lakes helicopter headed for the hills surrounding Lake Wakatipi.

I was doubly lucky that day. Along for the ride was Roy Moss, also a registered guide and reckoned by many to be one of the country’s best fly fishermen.

Mountains and gorges

Having crossed the water, we began flying up a deep and densely-forested gorge while craggy, snow-capped mountains rose vertiginously all around. The chopper dipped and rocked as it traced the contours of the snaking valley below.

Suddenly we burst out over flat pastures of sandy-coloured grassland, through which the river ran like a silver thread. Pilot Alfie Speight dropped us off, then immediately thunkered off into the vast blue sky. Once he’d gone the only sound was the rushing of the river ad our only companions a few lonesome cows and a large black eagle circling in search of a rabbit or small mouse. Our prey were the fat trout that Harvey promised would be skulking somewhere in the water.

Roy headed off downstream to cast along a placid stretch of water. Harvey and I went in the opposite direction as he outlined some of the basics. Local knowledge is imperative. Each stretch of river is different and there’s simply no substitute for knowing where the fish might actually be, and what they might currently be preferring as food.

Harvey ties all his own flies and has even developed patterns to suit the many waters of the Otago region. But we had limited time, as helicopter hire is by the hour.

Slowly stalking the river’s edge so not to disturb any fish, he began casting. The faint whish of the line soaring back and forth above our heads, followed by the faint plop of the fly landing on the water, were the subject of concentration for the next 20 minutes. But the trout weren’t biting.

Roy had no luck downstream so his eye was now on a more promising reach of deeper water. I joined him to observe his skills. Pointing out a fine rainbow trout lurking in the riffling shadows he effortlessly dropped his fly right above it.

There was an immediate stir underwater. A quick second cast prompted another twitch of the trout. A third pinpoint landing and suddenly the trout rose to the surface, stuck its head right out of the water and actually nudged the fly! Immediately Roger whipped the rod back, but no strike!

“Did ya see that,” he exclaimed with evident surprise. “What a beauty! Came right out of the water. Did you see? But I should have had him. Oh boy! I really should have got him.”  Even the masters have their off-days.

Far too soon and before we’d had any luck we heard the helicopter returning. The trout had won the day. Back in Queenstown I bid farewell to my guides and in return they gave the traditional farewell of fly fisherman: “Tight lines!”.

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