The Trout Diaries – February


Anaru (Henare) giving it his best shot


“YOUS FELLAS FISHIN?” a Maori guy asked on the shore of lake Otamangakau. I said we were having a look.

“Plenty a fish here, bro, big bastards too, but bloody hard to catch, ay.” He was lean and hard, dressed in a bush shirt and hunting shorts, and his legs and arms were scratched with bush lawyer and blackberries, the barbed wire of the backcountry. Behind him was a camp that looked like a mobile butcher’s workshop. Game carcasses wrapped in fine white muslin against blowflies were hung from meat hooks on all available trees. On a log his companion sat pulling an oily swab through the barrel of a large-calibre rifle.

The man’s summary of fishing at the lake – big, challenging trout and plenty of them – was precisely what had attracted us here. Sure enough, we saw the first fish, large shape shadowing against a patch of dark-gold sand, as soon as we descended to the waterline. I was with Marc Petitjean, the Swiss fly tier and angling innovator extraordinaire but even his masterly casts and best-money-can-buy flies made no impression on this or any other fish we saw. The trout were weary, not giving us even one honest opportunity.

Marc made a face of mock dejection. “This is not a place for casual drive-by fishing,” he said. “The trout here need to be studied and understood before anything of consequence happens.” I had to laugh. This was exactly what I had planned for the next few days. For now, we were just filling a couple of hours waiting for Marc’s afternoon flight to Christchurch where he was to give one last NZ fly tying demo. Before we left I went back to ask the fellas if there was anywhere nearby I could camp.

“You can camp with us bro,” one of them said. “Plenty a room.”

And so it began, my affair with the big O, its trout and the whanau that camps along its shores.

With just enough foresight, I had borrowed a three-metre inflatable tender for the Otamangakau because the lake is an old swamp filled by the hydro scheme, and the shoreline fishing is limited to a few small and unconnected beaches. The rest of its margins are boggy and full of holes oozing muck and oily blackwater, quickly discouraging any exploration on foot. By the time I returned, set up camp and pumped up the boat it was already dark. One of the bros materialised, beer in hand, and unceremoniously put another one for me on the bumper of my truck.

“Come and have a feed with us,” he said. When I joined them both by their great incinerator fire he picked up an enamel plate from a sheet of corrugated iron which served as a dish-drying rack and heaped it with venison steaks and token stalks of boiled broccoli. Then he took a dinged-up mug, half filled it with Jim Beam and handed them both to me. We ate in contented silence, the lake behind us so still, even the stars reflecting in it did not shimmer. These two, I thought to myself, were my kind of people. My tribe.  Continue reading

The Trout Diaries Podcast – Episode 1: Introduction



Welcome to the first of our TROUT DIARIES podcasts. New Zealand is a phenomenal place to fly fish for trout, many say the best in the world, but it’s also one of the most challenging. Many anglers have come here to live their dream of the Trout Eldorado only to come away beaten and humbled. This is because, as Charles Gaines wrote in his The Next Valley Over:

 “In some places and at odd times trout fishing can be easy in New Zealand but typically and essentially it is more technically challenging and butt-kicking difficult than anywhere else in the world.”

This is just one of the reasons for these podcasts: to help you improve your fishing and, if you are coming from elsewhere in the world, to come prepared.

In subsequent episodes I will be brining you the best of New Zealand fly fishing: interviews with top guides, trout scientists, river conservationists, tips and tricks for what to do and what NOT to do here. I will take you with me on the road – the research trips for my trout books – and show you our diverse regions and how they differ through geography and seasons.

Another reason for these podcasts is to spread the word about conservation of our trout rivers which are under an unprecedented threat from industrial interests. The more anglers know about this the sooner the change in environmental awareness will come about. So please join us, let our voice be heard. The hour is late.

In the course of our journeys you will meet some of the characters who inhabit my books – the trout bohemians – and learn what makes them so passionate about fly fishing in New Zealand. You will gleam some of their river wisdom and experience. We will finish each episode with an audio excerpt from my books THE TROUT DIARIES and THE TROUT BOHEMIA (which will be out in August) to give you a literary taste of what it’s like to live the trout dream here.

There is always a danger in a writer writing about himself and his work so to begin with and, to forestall any self-indulgences on my behalf, here’s an interview about The Trout Diaries which Colin Shepherd did with me for his HOOKED ON FLY FISHING radio show.

So, sit back, pour yourself a glass of your favourite, and join us in living the trout fishing dream.



From my monthly column at


The Trout Diaries: “The Mystery River”

IF I TOLD YOU where we fished for three days in mid-January your life would be in danger, because sometimes it can be perilous to know such secrets. In danger, too, would be my own masculinity, for, sure as Sage, my compadres-in-rod would come after me also. So let us just say, after Papa Hemingway, that the river was as big and as wide as a good river should be, and that the ratio of trout to water was favorable, if not to the trout then surely to the angler.

But let us also add, leaving Papa to his vices and devices (since we have long ago moved from impaling grasshoppers on hooks and calling it fly fishing), that this lower South Island river had enough side-creeks and spring-fed backwaters to provide textbook sight fishing. This was to be its saving grace during our visit, as the river itself was far from being at its best, running the color of milk put into a Bombay Sapphire bottle, and so high even some of the side creeks were marginal to cross in a Landcruiser with the snorkel higher than your head.

There were four of us in that truck. David Lloyd, my regular riverside buddy, was back again from Asia for his fix of fly fishing, and this time he had brought a friend named Mike Brady, an initiate to this game of trout. Then there was yours truly and Craig Smith, a champion bloke and a competent outdoors all-rounder who once gained notoriety when he wrecked his sea kayak off the coast of Banks Peninsula and saved his life with an epic swim that was front-page news across the district. Craig guides this river regularly if infrequently, and it was his call whether we should attempt the crossings or not.

He tested some of the creeks by wading them all the way across, looking for holes, soft spots and other hazards.

“If I can wade it I can drive it,” he said, and this struck me as a good rule to remember. I had only recently backed off from several such crossings, not so much mistrusting my own Landcruiser but my judgement. Craig’s own river sense was finely tuned and tested in battles. After a particularly gnarly crossing, in a place where several years ago a Land Rover was swept away and its driver drowned, he told us how, getting across the Cascade River south of Haast, his truck side-drifted in the current for some ten meters before it clawed its way up and out. Inside the car, both Craig and his passenger were wearing life jackets, a lesson from another incident in the Cascade when, during a similar crossing, the Nissan 4WD of the local farmer became a river-bottom attraction and, no doubt, a home to eels and trout.

Continue reading …


The Trout Diaries – Early January


Of all places to hunt for the big brown trout Reefton must be the ultimate destination, or at least one of them, and so the area has suffered from overuse of certain wax-lyrical expletives employed to describe it: heaven, and mecca, and paradise, even eldorado. But tune into the après-fishing conversations in a local pub, restaurant, motorcamp or tackle store and you’ll soon pick up a disturbing pattern of river news. Many anglers come inspired by the repute of the place, and they see and fish to some very large trout. Occasionally – just often enough to keep the legend alive – someone would actually hook one. But most would go back home beat up, unlucky and disappointed, the trout having got the better of their skills and patience, and sometimes of the spirit as well.


A telling piece of local flyfishing lore, repeated with relish and a wink, recounts how one day three guides fished three different beats on the Larry’s, one of the area’s iconic rivers. It was tough going and when they met that night in a pub to wash it off, they did the math and it transpired that among the three of them their clients fished to 75 sighted trout that day – all large heart-stopping brutes for there seems to be no small fish here at all – and not one of these fish was hooked.

This was by no means a discredit to the skills of the anglers or the guides’ local knowledge. It’s just that they pitched themselves against the adversaries that are old and wise and fished for some many times, they developed disdain for those trying to catch them. They rarely even spook, just move out of the way of flies, all the while never stopping to feed.

I didn’t know any of that when I came to Reefton this summer to stay and fish with my long-time friend Gazza. He is about as competent an outdoorsman as they come. He got his firearms licence at the same time he received his driving permit, though he was a flyfisherman even before that. He moved to Reefton attracted not so much by his lucrative job in the newly-opened goldmine but by the area’s reputation of the flyfishing kingdom come. To better his chances, he even managed to get hold of ten years of fishing diaries compiled by our mutual friend, a retired guide who in his days excelled on the rivers around Reefton.

The said guide was one of the very few outfitters who could honestly guarantee getting you a trophy brown, even the elusive double, if you put in the time and the mileage, and did not mind a fair bit of discomfort. He did so by making it his mission to understand the fish and the rivers better than anyone else. With access to such info you’d think fishing around Reefton would be like picking the choicest fruit of a well-known tree. But it was not so.

“If all else fails go to the Rough,” he said, “this is one place you’ll always catch fish.” To ease himself into the local fishing conditions Gazza did just that and promptly got skunked. It was a hard blow to his fishing confidence.

I have fished around Reefton before, several times, and usually managed to eke out a fish here and there but never with any degree of consistency. It was clearly not a place for some quick drive-by fishing and so this time I came to lay in for a siege. I dragged in my 22-foot Buccaneer Cruiser caravan – my mobile fishing cabin – and parked it on the lawn next to Gazza’s house. This time, we vowed, we’d break out of the gloomy statistics. This time we’d put in the time and the mileage and get Reefton figured out.


It’s dreamy big-trout reputation aside, Reefton is hard to fish at the best of times, certainly no place for tweeds and other fancy gear. The weather is coastal, with a lot of rain and overcast days. There are few tracks maintained to any standard and beyond them the bush is thick and barbed with vines that rip skin as easily as they do gore-tex. There are blood-sucking sandlfies, and mossies, and later in summer, to mar the explosive glory of the cicada season, usually a plague of wasps as well. The names of the rivers are descriptive if in a pragmatic and understated sort of way: Rough is just that, Stony will test your rock-hopping skills, and Deep Dale is a string of crystal pools down the cleft-cum-gorge that’ll make you wish you were a mountain goat or at least brought some abseiling gear.

Then there are the trout – huge and numerous, resplendent in their leopard-skin camouflage, and fighting the way a cornered big cat would fight. Like mirages, their dark shapes materialise and vanish through the shimmering water of the riffles and in the deep pockets frothed by rapids. Their size and contempt for anglers, their ability to bust the strongest tippet as if it was gossamer, are like a gauntlet thrown at your feet. An irresistible challenge.

This is an excerpt from The Trout Diaries, A year of Fly Fishing in New Zealand