An excerpt from THE TROUT DIARIES
In early August David was back again in New Zealand but this time his agenda was different. It was the heart of winter and he was coming to ski, bringing all three of his teenage kids, usually scattered around far-off universities. This was a family affair. A comfortable lodge, après-ski, gourmet dining, not our usual roughing-it kind of trip. Still, he couldn’t resist asking over the phone: “Shall I bring my rod, you know, in case the snow is not so good?” The snow was fine, I told him, “but definitely don’t leave home without your stick.”
“But. . .is it worth it, the fishing at this time of year?” It could be, I replied, trying to sound neutral. He didn’t know, and I did not want to spoil the surprise. If you think the skiing is going to be good, I thought to myself, the fishing is going to blow your mind.
Usually, come the end of May, even the keenest of fly anglers put their rods away until the spring. Unnecessarily so, because winter fishing in the Lakes District—from Wanaka through Wakatipu to Te Anau—can be as good as in Taupo. As I’ve said, I enjoy travelling to the volcanic region for a fix of its trout and ambience, but it is four days’ drive there and back, and always a hit-or-miss venture: when you hit the runs it is fabulous, when you miss them it is absolutely dead. One year, I decided to stay home and explore the local waters, and—surprise, surprise—I found plenty of fish and not a picket line in sight. Sure, the fish are a little smaller than the Taupo average, but they still reach respectable three to four pounds, with a few sixes and sevens if you’re lucky. In any case, landing a four-pound rainbow in big water like the Clutha River is momentous enough to make your arms tremble for a while afterwards. Because the water is cold—often straight of the snow and the glaciers—the action can be electric. In fact, when you touch a fish which comes from a glacial river, your hand go numb within seconds. It’s as if touching a trout could give you frostbite.
Winter in the Lakes District is mostly about skiing. The Austrian and the US national teams come here to train, and from around the June solstice to early October the morning rush hour consists of one-way traffic streaming up the mountains. Around Wanaka and Queenstown you see a lot of people sporting the bug-eyed suntan that comes from spending long days in the snow, and at night the lights of the snow groomers make the ski fields look like distant Christmas trees.
Fishing is certainly one of the last things on people’s minds, and yet, over the past 15 years during which I’ve lived in Wanaka, I’ve come to consider skiing and fishing as complementary winter activities. Ater each fresh snowfall, when we chase the elusive powder snow, the rivers are usually in spate and unfishable. Then, after a few days of skiing, when the quads burn and the body aches, the powder is all tracked out but the rivers have cleared. A “fresh” gets the fish moving, and just after it recedes is an ideal time to catch them.
I love this way of fishing. After the intensity of summer hunts, the long walks and even longer returns, here is a way to relax, fish side by side with mates, enjoy the scenery, ponder the meaning of things a little.
The first day with David and the kids we skied Treble Cone in Wanaka, and when in the early afternoon their legs refused to carry them any further, I suggested my long-prepared alternative. “Let’s go down and fish a bit,” I offered. “No point burning your legs out on the first day. You’ve got a whole week of this.” They agreed.
We drove to the nearest river mouth, and David and I pulled on our neoprene waders and walked out to where the river and the lake met. The kids played on the beach, building a driftwood bonfire, and we began to fish. The lines were running vertically down over the drop-off from our rod tips when, twenty metres, out a solid rainbow jumped, flashing quicksilver. I stripped my line a little and it moved freely. “It must be you, David,” I said. “Tighten your line.” As he did, he came across resistance, then with a jolt that nearly pulled the rod out of his hands the fish jumped again. “Holy shhhhh. . . !” he exclaimed, fumbling with the reel. And then it was on—fish on, reel singing, rod held high. I felt a solid take, struck and missed. Doesn’t matter, I consoled myself, there will be more. And there was. Later, in between fish, I described to David the nuts and bolts of this fishing style which I had transplanted from Taupo.
Taupo-style fishing for running rainbows but in Southern Lakes, near Wanaka and Queenstown
In winter, because there is virtually no visible insect life, you have to fish deep, using streamers and egg patterns. Essentially, you are fishing for spawning rainbows, which linger around river mouths to gorge on ova and fingerlings washed downstream and into the lake. In the Southern Lakes district, brown trout begin their spawning as early as late March and continue well into winter. Once in spawning mood, they pair up, their bodies turning dark—almost black—and become completely unresponsive to an angler’s offerings. Rainbows, on the other hand, continue to feed voraciously throughout their spawning.
Choosing where to fish in winter is simple: you need a river mouth with a well-defined drop-off that is within casting range of where you can safely wade. Stay at least a rod length back from the drop-off as, being made of sediment, it can suddenly slump and deposit you in the drink, which at this time of the year is only a few degrees short of iceberg temperature. Also, the fish often patrol the very lip, and you can spook them by coming too close.
Some of the larger rivers, like the Clutha, are also open to fishing, and there will be trout wherever there are good spawning beds. A recent Fish & Game helicopter survey along the Upper Clutha revealed the highest fish densities in recent history. However, the fish are not evenly distributed throughout the river, so a bit of local knowledge or the methodical sampling of different areas is essential.
The most vital part of winter-fishing equipment (apart from neoprene waders, because you won’t last half an hour in your Gore-Texes) is a fast-sinking, or better still a shooting-head, line. The latter is unlike any other fly line. It is extremely heavy and only about ten metres long. The rest of it is braided backing, the stuff knotless loops are made from. To successfully cast a heavy line you also need a stripping basket, which prevents the coils of line from sinking before the cast. Powerful but slow-to-medium action rods are also preferable as a fast stick does not give the line enough time to straighten, throwing all sort of kinks and twists into it.
The tricks to casting a shooting head line are having the backing nicely coiled in the basket, loading the rod to its full power and not having too much line in the air during false casting. If your line hand is near or on the line-to-backing connection, it’s about right. After a couple of false casts, once the rod is fully loaded (ideally with a bit of double-hauling) you simply shoot the line forward, allowing the backing to follow out of the basket. I tend not to let the line go out of my line hand entirely but make an extra rod ring with my thumb and index finger. This guides the backing and helps to avoid tangles. Also, make sure you have not waded so deep as to have water at the bottom of your stripping basket, as this messes up the coils and turns the backing into a bird’s nest on subsequent casts.
With all of the above going smoothly, you can cast thirty-plus metres without too much fuss. Mike Weddell, a former world casting champion, once told me that all of the long-distance records are achieved with shooting-head lines, with the top guys reaching the eighty-metre mark. For our purposes, such distances are unnecessary. If you can get your line out twenty metres you’re already fishing. Most of the takes happen during the last third of the retrieve, anyway, when the fly is right on the drop-off.
After the cast, you need to wait until the line sinks all the way to the bottom, before beginning to strip it into the basket again. It is imperative to match your stripping action to the type of fly you’re using: eggs, for example do not swim but are entirely at the mercy of the current, while smelts and Woolly Buggers dart in short, fast zigzags. If your egg swims about vigorously it may elicit a few curious glances at the bottom of the lake, but not much else.
It has been my experience that fish fight differently, depending on what kind of fly you hook them on. The difference between a hook-up with an egg pattern and a smelt is enormous. In drop-off fishing, eggs and eyed ova flies, from glowbugs to Boobies, are the most deadly imitations because all the naturals from the entire river system wash up at the river mouth, which is where the trout waits for them. However, fish taking egg patterns often hook themselves in the soft parts of the mouth and not the cartilaginous lips. The resultant combat is usually short and uneventful, with the fish giving in easily. The same fish hooked on smelt is an entirely different kettle. I’ve had a four-pound rainbow bouncing off the surface six times like a basketball, each jump getting a metre of hang time, before it dived for the bottom and sulked there for minutes, immovable like a brick. And that was not the end of it, either. Whatever the fly, keep in mind that in this style of fishing the trout usually hook themselves hard. With the inevitable big hooks, releasing the fish involves a fair amount of dental surgery. Unless you fish to eat, using barbless hooks in drop-off situations makes a lot of sense.
We certainly fished barbless, and the trout that occasionally got off the hook only added to the excitement. I can still see David on our last day together, braced against the current of the Clutha. We had skied hard earlier in the day, from mid-morning, when the snow had softened, to early afternoon, when it become too slushy, then left the kids up the mountain to catch the end-of-the-day shuttle. They were booked in for snowboarding lessons, so we knew they’d be “stoked.”
We bee-lined for the river, and David was already casting before I could put on my heavy waders. From the plentiful driftwood I made a small fire and set out a pair of camping chairs around it. I lost count of the fish we caught, but it must have been well over a dozen, all magnificent rainbows in fast, frothing current. And still, David kept hooking into them, one after the next, and I left him to it, knowing that I was witnessing his lifetime memory in the making. The sun dipped beyond the Pisa Range and the darkness came down rapidly. The temperature plummeted, I edged closer to the fire, and topped up my whiskey glass.
“Just one more cast,” I heard David plead as he unhooked another fish. Sure, have a few more, I thought, watching the last of the sun gilding the snow on the highest peaks. Get them while you can. There was a forecast for heavy snow. Time to swap the rod for skis again, if only for a few days.
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