I’ve been given this assignment for a luxury travel magazine: to fly fish from Fiordland Lodge in Te Anau – (I know, but please don’t hold it against me, a guy has to make a living somehow) – and suggested to my fishing compadre Craig Somerville that we add a few more days to the gig and make it into a road trip.
The lower South Island rivers have taken a tremendous beating during the spring storms, some of them are only just becoming fishable for the first time this season, and I wanted to check out their state, and that of the trout, just as the rest of the waters were opening on 1 Nov.
The weather we had was less than ideal – thick overcast and downstream gale – but we were off to a fabulous start, with the first three casts converting into three magnificent browns.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to keep this perfect score for long,” Craig said.
Prophetic words. We did not touch another fish for the rest of the day.
Day 2 was even more gloomy, and so windy it was impossible to cast upstream, even with the canon of a rod like the #7 Cross 1. Usually, a sight-fishing purist, I’d just go back to the camper and read but Craig had a better idea.
“You just turn around and fish streamers,” he said, “it’s just as good.”
Craig grew up on Scotland’s best salmon rivers so he is something of an expert on swinging streamers. He was hooked up almost immediately and to me it was something of a revelation, and a reminder: “fish to the conditions, not ideologies.” Craig had rescued what would have otherwise been a blown-out day.
On day 3 we went looking for rainbows. We walked for miles exploring a river that was new to us both and we found the fish in gorges and on shallow spawning beds. After the demanding browns, they were almost too easy, and it was clear they have had a tough time surviving the floods. I spotted the “fish of the day” and Craig caught it with the first cast, and we were surprised to see it had teeth like a barracuda. Neither of us had ever seen anything like this.
On the day 4 we rolled into Te Anau, a small frontier town on the edge of over 1.2 million hectares of Fiordland wilderness. Though we love walking remote rivers in pursuit of trout, camping on the riverbanks, sipping single-malts by campfires and being lullabied by the burble of trout waters, this far into our intense Carpe Diem trip we were more than a little weary. Sore-footed and weather-beaten, and as dusty as our 4×4 camper. More than ready for a little luxury.
“You’re in for the treat of your life,” Craig told me. He has been to the Fiordland Lodge before. I said it was a tall order considering I spent the past 25 years of the said life as a travel writer and no stranger to luxury and opulence. I even got to stay in royal suites, I went on. “One of them had a walk-through wine-glass cabinet bigger than your living room.”
But Craig’s confidence was unfazed.
“No, trust me, I mean it. Wherever you stayed, you’d have never seen anything like Fiordland Lodge.”
How right he was.
By design and thoughtful landscaping, the first sight of Fiordland Lodge catches you by surprise: a log cabin the size of a wooden tall ship anchored in the sea of red tussock, with the backdrop of a huge lake and a horizon of endless mountains, greened with rainforest and topped with snow.
Fiordland, with its canyon-like glacial valleys and 1000m rock walls dropping straight into the water, offers some of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet and the Lodge is exquisitely designed to echo this grandeur.
At the bar made out from an enormous slab of recycled rimu we met the Lodge owner and head guide Ron Peacock. For 25 years Ron has been a national parks ranger, and spent 18 of those years roaming Fiordland, so his knowledge of the vast mountain wilderness would be hard to rival. He has fly fished for trout since he was a boy and thus naturally, when with his wife Robynne they built the Lodge in 2002, he also became its head guide.
Our original plan was to fish the Clinton, a greenstone vain of a river with dizzying clarity and a plenitude of both brown and rainbow trout. The Milford Track – “the greatest walk in the world” – follows the river and we intended to fly in with a float plane to the beginning of the track and fish as far upstream as we could get in a day. But in Fiordland, the weather always has the final say in any action plan and, as we breakfasted in front of the Lodge’s panoramic windows and watched heavy storm clouds brood over the mountains, Ron suggested an alternative.
“The Clinton is out in this weather but not to worry,” he said. “We have over forty rivers and streams within 90 minutes’ travel from Te Anau. We’ll go inland, there is a beautiful little stream I’d like to show you.”
And so he did.
For the whole day we walked up the river and into the mountain valley which opened up in front of us, revealing itself, like a good tale, one turn at a time. There were fresh deer signs everywhere, not a soul in sight, and here and there we found trout feeding with graceful efficiency of the top predator.
We insisted that Ron fished too, it was his day off and guides as popular as him are often too busy to fish much for themselves. We sighted a large brown trout feeding voraciously on the edge of a log jam and Ron hooked it with a precise cast, then leapt into the river with agility you would not expect from a 65 year old, to lead the fish away from the logs and possible tangles. Craig netted the fish and Ron hooted with delight, suddenly a boy again, doing what he loved.
Then we sat on a rock overlooking another promising pool, and we ate our lunch, and I thought that if there was a technology to measure the levels of happiness and joie de vivre in my blood the way cops test for alcohol I would certainly be well over the limit.
In his other life, when not being my fishing buddy, Craig runs Castabroad, a fly fishing travel agency which emphasises quality, luxury and hassle-free itineraries. The magazine story was his idea, as was staying and fishing with Ron, and so on the way back home we talked trout and more places to visit.
“There are 14 other trout lodges around New Zealand, six in the North Island, eight in the South,” Craig told me. “Similar in standard to Fiordland Lodge but as unique and individual as the people who built them.”
“And you know them all?”
“That’s what I do. Castabroad takes care of every details in its clients’ travels, from the moment they get off the plane until they step back onto it, so I’m the test pilot for the itineraries, making sure everything is just right and as good as it can be, or better.”
“Tell you what: next road trip we do, I guide you on rivers, you guide us to the best lodges.”
We shook hands. It was a deal. A pact of trout sybarites.
To be continued …