New Zealand, The Supreme DIY Fly Fishing Adventure

As a do-it-yourself destination for the traveling fly angler, a New Zealand experience may surpass any other possibility.  Despite its small size, the country boasts more rivers and streams than could be properly explored in a lifetime.  Additionally, public access is generally good.  Where there is private land in the way of a stream, a rancher is more likely to show the courteous angler the best way to the river than to deny access.  Helicopters provide quick access to remote headwater streams.  And the entire trip can be done for a fraction of the cost of a week at a Patagonian estancia or an Alaskan luxury lodge.  During the North American winter of early 2018, I completed a 10 day New Zealand DIY trip from Salt Lake City for $2300 US dollars, and could have easily cut costs from there.  That trip included a helicopter drop-off, several nights in decent hotels, a more expensive flight plan than the cheapest options, and an upgraded rental car.  I am writing this article with the intent to help the reader get a jump start on a similar adventure.

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When should I go?

For most New Zealand waters, the season starts on October 1st and runs through April.  Several seasonal exceptions exist, including the trophy fisheries of Taupo and the Twizel canals, which peak during the New Zealand winter of June-August.  But as a North American angler, I would have a hard time passing up a vacation during our winter.  A particular stream may fish better during a certain month, but in general, there is no wrong answer to the question of timing during the usual New Zealand fishing season.

How do I get there, and where do I go?

Almost all trips will begin in New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland (although Air New Zealand is offering a non-stop flight from Los Angeles to the South Island city of Christchurch starting in 2020).  Located in the northern part of the North Island, Auckland is a major metropolitan city, and the sole international airport option for most traveling anglers.  From there, domestic flights to outlying cities such as Nelson, Queenstown, Taupo, and Christchurch are abundant and generally quite cheap.  The North Island is known for big rainbows in rainforest streams.  The South Island’s fame comes from brown trout sight-fishing in wide mountain valleys.  Each island offers a number of disparate experiences, and individual streams should be targeted and studied ahead of time

What considerations should I have when I book a flight?

I’ve been monitoring flight prices to New Zealand for several years.  A premium will be paid for travel over certain peak seasons, particularly mid-winter (prices will be most expensive closer to Christmas).  In general, flight sales from the West Coast of the United States pop up on a regular basis.  Each fall, Air New Zealand and United routinely offer roundtrip flights for under $1000 from the west coast of the US for flights from late January through the spring.  I purchased a $960 round trip ticket from Salt Lake City, and passed up even cheaper tickets that had longer layovers.  New Zealand seems far away, but a non-stop overnight flight from the US is far less painful than some other destinations that are geographically closer.

Be prepared for the biosecurity check upon arrival to Auckland International.  Isolated from the rest of the world for millions of years, New Zealand has witnessed decimation to some of its native species due to competition from plants and animals arriving with European settlers.  Rightfully so, they take biosecurity very seriously to avoid the further arrivals of other hitchhiking organisms.  All gear must be cleaned meticulously prior to a New Zealand trip.  The biosecurity staff will literally pick through tents, wading boots, and fly boxes while looking for contaminated gear.  Prior to a New Zealand trip is a great time to purchase a new pair of wading boots.  I bought a pair of Simms Intruder boots before my trip.  The low weight and affordability of these boots made them a perfect purchase for this trip, and I rarely used other footwear aside from sandals.  Not only will new boots help with traction on the treacherous freestone streams of New Zealand, but they will expedite the airport biosecurity experience as well.

Where should I fish?

Whereas many of North America’s largest trout reside in stillwaters and larger rivers, peculiarly, this is not the case in New Zealand.  As Kiwi trout mature and grow to their adult size, they usually migrate to the headwaters of the river.  While trophy trout may be encountered from the estuaries all the way up to the smallest tributaries, much of the fly fishing in New Zealand occurs in the upper reaches of a given river.  Fish populations are generally much lower than what we used to in North America.  I fished rivers that are documented to house fewer than 20 adult fish per mile.  But fishing becomes more of a hunt, as the careful angler will have shots at many of those fish while working upriver.

No one is going to give up their secret New Zealand river, but that is not to say that the internet is devoid of information about specific rivers in the country.  A great resource when formulating a plan is as it goes through detailed explanations of major rivers and even provides some information about smaller tributaries.  I found the information provided by this website to be surprisingly accurate, at least as a starting point when choosing potential rivers to target.  I would suggest researching multiple options, as conditions may render some rivers unfishable, while drainages on the other side of the island could be simultaneously prime.  We researched at least a dozen rivers in detail, and therefore had options if conditions in a given spot deteriorated, or if a chosen river didn’t pan out as expected.  The backcountry fishing was spectacular, but we also caught trophy trout within sight of major highways.

Several New Zealand fly fishing forums exist, some of which provide over two decades worth of content.  These provide a treasure trove of information if they are picked through with diligence.  New Zealand also monitors important drainages very closely.  Publicly available scientific studies document fish sizes and counts in many drainages.  The best part of fly fishing New Zealand is the opportunity for exploration throughout the country.  With so many publicly accessible rivers, options are nearly endless.  For me, researching a plan in New Zealand was almost as fun as executing it.  Success will not likely happen every day during a New Zealand trip, but with thorough research and enough effort, everything will likely come together at some point.

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 What gear do I need?

With few exceptions, 5 and 6 weight rods constitute most of the rods used in New Zealand.  Presentation trumped distance in terms of casting, and a rod with medium action is probably the optimal tool for fishing in New Zealand.  A 5 weight Orvis Helios 3F was my workhorse for most of the trip, especially when it came to throwing dry flies.  I rarely needed to cast more than 30-40 feet.  The delicate presentation afforded by this rod made it my go-to when presenting flies to spooky trout in gin-clear water.  When conditions called for streamers or a deep nymph rig, I switched to a fast action 6 weight.  We carried an Orvis Helios  and a Sage X for these purposes.

Protection from the marauding sandflies cannot be overstated.  If unfamiliar with these pests, do not underestimate them.  Nearly microscopic and with ferocious appetite, New Zealand sandflies produce a nasty bite that will leave their victim itching like a louse-infected dog for over a week.  Lightweight clothing covering all skin surfaces should be strongly considered when sandflies are present.  Simms Bugstopper Gloves and Bugstopper Hoody would be strong additions to the wardrobe.

Any gear that adds stealth to the approach should also be an important consideration.  I couldn’t bring myself to wear full camo like some people use in New Zealand, but avoidance of bright and flashy clothing will keep the notoriously hyperaware and educated New Zealand trout from noticing the angler’s presence.  Some will go as far as to use clear fly line, but at minimum, an excessively long leader is often necessary.

Miscellaneous thoughts about New Zealand travel

Before wrapping up this article, I want to comment on a few peculiarities of New Zealand travel that should be known before planning a trip.

I highly recommend making use of the extensive hut system provided by the Department of Conservation (DOC).  Throughout the country (and often within a stone’s throw of a great fishing hole), New Zealand has a system of huts, which provide a welcome refuge for the backcountry angler.  Many of these huts are free and first-come-first-serve, while the more popular ones require a reservation and a small fee.  Take advantage of this luxury when making fishing plans.  Detailed descriptions of every hut is available online through the DOC website.  Make sure to leave the huts cleaner than they were found in order to pass this incredible resource on to the next group.

On the flip side, if planned poorly, a last minute motel reservation may be more difficult to make.  Most motels in New Zealand close up shop fairly early.  Good luck finding a place to stay after 9 PM in most towns.  Also, overnight parking in many towns is highly regulated to prevent the army of budget travelers from setting up shop wherever they please.  Unaware of these cultural phenomenons, I spent an uncomfortable night sleeping on a parking lot after rolling in to town at 10 PM.  If you plan to stay in a motel, try to make reservations ahead of time to avoid the fate I suffered that evening.

I’m happy to chat if you’re planning a New Zealand adventure this season.  Hit me up on Instagram @chadagy if you’d like to pick my brain.