Angling Journal – North Island New Zealand

Angling Journal – North Island New Zealand

March 2019.   I was fortunate to accompany a small group of anglers to the north island of New Zealand on an unforgettable journey of wilderness, trout, and great friends.  What ensued was a trip that we will always remember and one that left us with the indellible desire to return.  I recall the last time I was in New Zealand, on the South Island, which was my first time to the country, I experienced a strange anxiety days before my trip ended, as I was enjoying the fishing so much I just couldn’t bear the idea that there were only a few days left!

Our group had a week’s fishing out of Poronui Ranch, located in the Taupo region of the north island.  Poronui is one of the longest-running fly fishing operations in the country and has a rich history of catering to the traveling angler. They were perfectly-suited for our group and extremely well run.  The lodge began as a simple house that hosted anglers and has grown over the last 25 years to a much larger operation, still centered around fishing. Now, they also offer a good deal of non-fishing activities.  On the day of our arrival, we enjoyed shooting some sporting clays and discussed an array of options for the rest of the week should the fishing for some reason turn foul.  Among these options were organized wine tastings, manuka honey tastings, more sporting clays, or a drive out to hear the stags in rut in the evening.  As it turns out, the fishing never faltered enough for us to even consider doing any of these things!

In Taupo, the word from the transfer driver was that it had been a hot summer and that fire danger was really high at the moment.  This put the idea of small, low water and super spooky trout into my head right away.  A lifetime of fishing makes one draw parallels automatically when certain pieces of the puzzle are identified, and I, without thinking, began to prepare myself for technically demanding fishing.  In this case we were to be pleasantly surprised, the effect of a long and dry summer was different than I imagined.

The morning of day one found us standing on the back lawn of the Blake House, an exclusive property on the ranch perfect for our small group of close friends.  We met our guides, veterans Dave Wood and Sean Andrews, who would fish with us for the week.  We knew we would get along famously with these guys as soon as we met them – terrific people with great personalities!  We were getting acquainted on the lawn as we heard the first helicopter approaching, much to our surprise, it landed right behind the house and the first anglers and their guide climbed aboard.  Twenty minutes later the chopper returned for Sean, Lisa and I.  A new experience for all of us, we were all feeling a mix of excitement and concern.  About two minutes in, excitement squeezed all concern out and we were enjoying the ride of our lives, flying low over a very rugged landscape.  This day’s fishing was selected as a warm up day, and we flew to a river with a good concentration of both rainbow and brown trout.  It was a great day designed to shake the rust off of the anglers that hadn’t touched a rod for a while.  Lisa and I did a mix of blind fishing and sight fishing, and caught fish with both methods.  This was a fabulous day of trout fishing with us clamoring over boulders, walking up gravel bars, and stalking the edges of long, emerald colored pools.  It’s hard to describe the sensation I felt as the helicopter landed on a tiny gravel bar in the middle of the river to whisk us out of there.  We were back on the Blake House lawn less than twenty minutes later where we were greeted with cold beers and lots of smiles.  A lifetime of backcountry wandering has built into me the mentality of “what’s been walked in must be walked out”.  To poke along this wilderness river and be carried out so quickly and efficiently is truly a luxury and a treat.  Back at the Blake House, we made a quick decision that we would be flying in as much as the weather would allow!

On the second day, we awoke to rain and planned on fishing right on the Poronui property.  We decided to all fish together, taking turns and watching each other each time we had a fish spotted.  This was a great day to introduce the concept of stalking trout and fishing this way.  Most of our group had the idea before the trip, but it’s another thing to put it into practice.  The weather threatened to get ugly all day long, but never really did, and we enjoyed a great day on the water, with several huge trout hooked and several more spooked.  Lots of laughing and lots of fun!  Although we didn’t see more than a dozen trout all day, everything we spotted was 5-8 lbs! I would gladly take that any day of my trout fishing life!

The following day, our guides showed us an incredible day on a small stream that flowed through a heavily vegetated canyon, which I’d describe as a temperate jungle river.  I spent the day fishing with one of my all time favorite fishing buddies, one with whom I’ve shared some unforgettable experiences in both Yellowstone Country and internationally.  She’s a good and instinctive angler.  Lana and I waded up the stream and spent the entire day rotating shots at rainbows from 3 to 5 pounds.  We found one in every other or every third pool.  The river was only 20 to 30 feet across and the trout behaved as though they’d never seen a fly.  We clambered up boulders, around small waterfalls, under fallen trees and over others.  Days like this make for happy anglers, and we were grinning ear to ear for all of it.  Every time we would finish a pool, a brief shot of sadness would arise in our minds, but a quick look upstream always revealed the next pool, and a childlike sensation of excitement made our imaginations beg to know what lay ahead.  Rivers like this bring out a youthful exuberance for exploration that is difficult to tap in other experiences.  Rivers like this make anglers fall in love with fishing again and again.  It is on this river that we realized that this entire experience in New Zealand is truly “Disneyland for flyfishing adults”.  At the end of this beat, we were greeted by a smaller helicopter, the 500, which the pilot skillfully put down on the inside of a river bend with the tail overhanging the water and the rotors only feet from the nearest tree.  We climbed aboard and after 25 minutes of lifting on thermals and cruising over various river valleys, we once again landed at the Blake House, literally 30 feet from my bedroom.  This heli fishing is the closest thing we have to teleportation in the angling world!

On day four, we flew out to a place the guys called “Mystery Creek”, named so because at one point the water gets so low there that it’s a mystery why there are any fish at all in there.  Quite honestly, I felt mystified by the water, or lack thereof, and by the places that these giant kiwi trout would hold in.  The absence of predators really makes them comfortable in unusual water by our Montana standards.  On day four I fished with John, who is quite a good caster and angler.  It was sure fun to spend the day with him and watch him make great shots at these fishy targets.  The water was just small enough, with each pool separated from the next by a long shallow boulder field and a short, mid-depth run.  I commented to our guide, Sean, that I assumed the trout would stay in their respective pools during the battles.  He chuckled and replied…”not usually,” with a slanted smile.  Not long after this exchange was spoken, John was into his first fish and the battle stayed in the long pool where the trout was hooked.  A short while after, right before we thought we might have a moment to net him, the rainbow took a hard run towards the shallows at the bottom of the pool and soon enough John was running down the river bank trying to keep up with the speeding bullet at the end of his line that was headed for the next pool, some 100+ feet away.  A great battle followed and we finally put the trout in the net.  We were already cackling with laughter!  The day continued like that with almost every trout taking us either up through the shallows at the head of the run into the pool ABOVE, or ripping us down into the pool below.  We landed our share of large trout this day, with the biggest coming close to 25 inches.  Just what these giant trout are doing in such small water is totally counter-intuitive for us, but man, is it fun!  Again, the helicopter showed up and zipped us out of there so quickly.  We had cold beverages in hand and beaming smiles on our faces less than 20 minutes later.

Day Five.  Rangitikei River.  We had thus far fished only on rivers I had never heard of and they were all incredible.  Our guides, Dave and Sean, both had mentioned that this river was a must on the list, and it was the one on our itinerary that I HAD heard about.  Many years ago, a good customer of mine who was a well-traveled NZ angler mentioned this one to me and said it was something I must see in my life.  He was absolutely spot on.  The Rangitikei is a larger river, about the size of the Gallatin in the canyon upstream of Big Sky.  A good place to be able to make a 50 to60 foot cast.  I had the pleasure of fishing that day with Lisa, who possesses the spirit of all great anglers: patient, calm, observant, and persistent.  She had the least amount of experience with long casting scenarios but was up for the challenge.  I truly appreciate someone who can step up to the plate with an 8 lb trout and deliver without a trace of nerves, regardless of the outcome.  She’s a stone cold trout slayer.  Lisa’s chances for the success came early in the day, with several enormous fish eating her offerings in the first two hours.  Two hooked and two missed, the two hooked found a way to come unbuttoned.  But that’s the way fishing is sometimes..  My shots on the Rangitikei were a combination of strange drifts and a bit of good fortune, and I got lucky with a few trout landed that I’ll never forget on dry flies and one on a dropper.  Two of these took me into my backing twice, something no trout has accomplished with me for a few years. I am historically pretty stingy with the silk.  I was repeatedly thankful for the strength of the Trouthunter 4X fluoro tippet attached to my leader, no question the strongest 4X out there.  Our group landed two fish over 27 inches that day,  and we all had shots at trout that were larger.  I like to think that I have a river of dreams on every continent, and the Rangitikei is it for me on this.  I will return!

Our sixth and final day on the North Island was another one I’ll never forget.  Lana and I set out on this adventure together, and it started with a bang.  Lana landed several great trout before we finished the first couple of hours.  The battles were good and long enough to be filmed in four-part mini-series on my iPhone, complete with jumps and long runs up and down the banks.  By noon, we were literally cackling with laughter when we hooked up and had to run these trout down to bring them to hand.  They all took us for a hike and they all ate dry flies.  These are the days you remember…so good that your greatest memories are the belly laughs and good times that you experienced, more so than any one particular fish!  We fished a swift and shallow run above a raging rock garden and severe drop in the river.  Every single fish we hooked in this area took us on a downstream run, forcing us to navigate a 70 foot section of river with large boulders at the top of a 4 foot vertical drop.  An exhilarating angling experience that we repeated 6 times with 6 great results, laughing the whole way!  Flyfishing is an incredibly satisfying way to plug into the natural world around you, and days like this remind you that it is really, really, really fun!  Again, “Disneyland for flyfishing adults”.

I’ll admit it.  I am an insatiable angler.  Give me one great shot and I’ll crave another.  Show me a good day and I’ll happily spend weeks trying to see what a great day is.  I just can’t get enough.  Guiding has helped me learn to relax a little and enjoy fishing through the experiences of others.  I’ve gained a lot of insight and fishing wisdom by watching others do something their own way that I might do differently.  It has helped me as a flyfishing father to more slowly and patiently introduce my children to the game which I enjoy so much.  New Zealand is a wonderful place to experience this.  It is a place where one can be part of the experience without being the one with rod in hand.  It’s a cinematic experience out there:  the walking and stalking, the spotting of a large trout finning in the prime lie of a pool.  An angler selects a fly, moves into position, makes a long cast that must land properly, and then the fish spooks or the fish plays.  Everyone gets to be part of the drama, the agony, and the elation.  This kind of fishing is teamwork.  I ended the week a satiated and content angler…with a very strong desire to return!

Fishing in New Zealand is an experience that I think most fly anglers that are sight-fishing enthusiasts should have on their bucket lists.  The fishing we had is not as diverse as one might find in other venues, but it is extensive and, of its sort, it is simply the finest in the world.  There are far fewer trout in most of these Kiwi rivers than what we’re accustomed to in the American West.  While our rivers might have 3000+ trout per mile, these rivers might have 10.  They are 10 enormous trout, but they must be hunted.  There is no question that it is high stakes trout fishing, and it is the best of its class.  Many describe these fisheries as “technical”, and I would say that they are, in a mechanical sense.  To take the greatest advantage of these fisheries, an angler would do well to be proficient at 50 feet with a 5 weight rod equipped with floating line.  I would also note that many of our shots on smaller waters were within 30 feet, and most anglers are not prepared to cast that SHORT of a distance with a 12-14 foot leader and do it accurately.  These are the skills you should have to make the most of your New Zealand experience, and they are not at all unattainable.  The “technical” here is not in an entomological sense like it might be on Idaho’s Henry’s Fork or some of Pennsylvania’s “technical” spring creeks.  You don’t get to work these fish in New Zealand, you get to put one shot on them and hope you don’t spook them.  When they spook here, they simply “shut off”.  Time to move on.

The organization of the guides and anglers in New Zealand has always been a subject of interest to me.  Due to the nature of this kind of fishing, the kiwi guides pay close attention to when the last angler walked any particular beat.  They generally agree on a “rest and rotation” schedule that will rest waters anywhere from 4 days to THREE WEEKS between angler groups.  This helps to allow for more relaxed fish and for them to be more eager to take a well-presented fly.  It is an interesting way to manage fisheries and one that shows results in this environment.

All in all, our trip to New Zealand was about as perfect as you could imagine.  The “Disneyland for flyfishing adults” aspect is too great to be ignored, and the warmth and hospitality of the kiwis is too welcoming to never experience again.  Not everyone will be able to enjoy helicopter rides in and out of the fishing venues, but every angler can be treated to a special experience of hunting for trout in an amazing wilderness setting by walking a little slower and watching a little more closely.  This angling rewards skills that are attainable by the motivated angler.

Big Sky Anglers Featured Fly – The Best Fly Ever (BFE)

Big Sky Anglers Featured Fly – The Best Fly Ever (BFE)

  • Origins:  Based on an old Idylwilde pattern called the LE Leech
  • Hook: TMC 5262, #4 or Gamakatsu B10S, #2
  • Thread: 6/0 Uni, Black
  • Tail: Black marabou with topping of black Lite-Brite or equivalent
  • Body:  Thread wrapped black
  • Collar: Olive marabou, palmered behind and in front of eyes
  • Eyes: Large Lead or Non-Lead Dumbell Eyes

A good friend, great fisherman and one of my early mentors, Paul Swenson, once told me that the basis for all great flies is to have no more than three ingredients.  I can’t say I follow this train of thought to a tee, but when I find one that does conform to these standards, I always remember those words.  The brilliance of this fly lies in its simplicity: quick to tie, few materials, and useful in a variety of situations.  There are a lot of factors to consider when looking at a streamer these days, color, weight, size, profile, etc.  One of the more overlooked is the weight:surface area ratio that determines whether or not a fly will sink quickly in a current.  There are loads of heavy streamers out there that just don’t sink, they have too much surface area to cut the current.  The BFE is nothing but a couple of marabou feathers, lead eyes, and a thread body, it is a perfect example of a fly with a weight:surface area ratio that allows it to plummet.  When this fly is wet, it reduces in profile to nothing and cuts right through the current.  It can be effectively fished in a variety of situations, I love to fish it upstream on a floating line, almost Czech nymphing it, swing it out at the end of the drift.  I also use it on sink tip lines in big currents, reach casting a long line over a large run, stacking some slack into the drift to allow the line and fly to sink, and then fishing on a swing or stripped retrieve back across the current.  This is a deadly fly in fast pocket water when fished on a floating line from a drift boat as well – it’s a guide favorite in the Box Canyon of the Henry’s Fork.

– Jonathan

Big Sky Anglers Featured Fly – The Bouface

Big Sky Anglers Featured Fly – The Bouface

  • Originator:  John Barr
  • Hook: TMC 5262 or equivalent, #4 or 6
  • Bead: 5/32” tungsten bead; black, gold, or silver
  • Thread: 6/0 Uni in color to match fly
  • Tail: Pine Squirrel Zonker Strip; black, olive, or white
  • Body Dubbing: Ice Dub; black, olive brown, or pearl
  • Collar: Marabou, tied in a dubbing loop or palmered; black, olive, or white

This fly always has a place in my flybox whether I’m headed out to fish waters both moving or still.  It is a variant of a deadly fly from the ever-inventing mind of John Barr.  The original is a great fly that came to fame on the Henry’s Fork and Silver Creek, quickly proving its usefulness in waters of spring origin.  The squirrel strip offers a lively underwater display and the long marabou fibers of the collar both add a very defined shape to the overall fly and have a muting effect on the squirrel strip’s color.  Our BSA version is tied with a tungsten bead on a somewhat larger and more substantial hook than the original, and is tied to be fished more as a streamer in bigger rivers. We have also added a small anti-fouling loop off the back of the hook to help the slender squirrel strip not tangle in the hook.   I suppose it imitates a small fry more than a leech when tied like this.  It enters the water quietly and is highly effective in shallow and low water conditions.  It also holds up to the larger trout of rivers like the Missouri in Montana, the brown trout rivers of Iceland, and the productive waters of both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.  This has also proven to be a very effective lake fly in this size in our home stillwaters like Hebgen and Henry’s Lake as well as the lakes of Patagonia in the south.

– Jonathan

Dispatches Volume 1:  Fly Fishing in Chile with Jonathan Heames

Dispatches Volume 1: Fly Fishing in Chile with Jonathan Heames

Welcome to the first edition of Dispatches, a new series which reports on the Big Sky Anglers crew as they travel the globe in search of angling adventures. Each edition of Dispatches will feature an interview with one of our angling pros while they are on assignment or travelling for fun. Our crew might be hosting anglers in a remote destination, guiding clients on our home waters, or exploring new fishing territory at home and abroad.

This edition features BSA co-owner and head guide Jonathan Heames who is reporting from a remote island in Chilean Patagonia. Jonathan has been fly fishing in Chile for nearly 20 years, and his perspective and knowledge are impressive. Give a listen to what Jonathan has been up to, and stay tuned for more reports from the BSA crew.

“Where are you right now? How did you get there? Where are you off to next?”

 

“What is your target species? Why did you pick this location and time for that species?”

 

“How are you targeting these fish?”

 

“What’s one thing that’s happened on your trip so far that you didn’t expect?”

 

“What are the conditions like?”

 

“What’s been your favorite piece of gear on this trip so far, and why?”

 

“What’s the best thing you’ve had to eat?”

 

“Have you learned any new words or phrases?”

 

“What’s your playlist been on this trip…what tunes are you listening to?”

 

Early Season on the Henry’s Fork

Early Season on the Henry’s Fork

The Henry’s Fork of the Snake River is one of the most diverse fisheries in the western US.  With over 70 miles of fishable water, each section has such a unique character that it is like having eight rivers rolled into one.  Water types on the Fork range from tailwater canyons to flat, technical spring creek water, with freestone canyons and low gradient riffle-run sections as a nice bonus.  The Fork also has great diversity in elevation above sea level, with its headwaters at Henry’s Lake located 6472 feet, and the lower reaches of the river down around 5000 feet.  In times of extreme weather here in the high country surrounding West Yellowstone (elevation 6666 ft), it is possible to head down to the lower elevation “banana belt” where you can find nicer weather and water conditions that make the fish and fly fisher both a bit happier.  Nearly the entire river is sourced from natural groundwater springs, the largest of which forms the river’s headwaters and is aptly named Big Springs.  Due to the strong influence of groundwater, the Fork experiences a very minimal runoff by local standards, and almost always has several fishable sections in the early season (April through the month of June).

All of us here at Big Sky Anglers are excited to have an outfitting license for the Henry’s Fork.  We are now the only fly shop in West Yellowstone with this license, and we are among only eight outfitters total that are license holders for the river.  Guiding on the Henry’s Fork allows us to treat our customers to great fishing opportunities at times when many other local waters are blown out, closed to fishing, still frozen or otherwise unfishable. And, all of this exists within a 35 minute to 1 hour drive from the shop here in West Yellowstone.

The lower elevation reaches of the Henry’s Fork in particular exhibit great diversity of geology, gradient, scenery, and fishing. Each section has its own unique character, ranging from sections with large average sizes of trout that offer chances at true bruisers on dry flies, to other sections that are home to larger populations of smaller fish that offer the an angler the chance to relax a bit, learn a lot, and bring a few fish to hand.  The beauty of the Fork is that there is something for every angler regardless of skill levels.  We feel that it has been a misconception for years that the Fork is an experts-only river, and while there are sections where even the most experienced can test their skills and wits, there are other areas where newer anglers can still have a good time.

Though it is legal to fish year round on many of the sections of the Henry’s Fork, the fishing really begins to shape up in April, with good baetis hatches and some March brown activity occurring in several sections.  Stable water conditions, a rarity in the mountain west in April, make for reliable angling conditions, even if the weather is still a bit unpredictable.  Nymph fishing usually dominates during April.  While hatches can be prolific, they are typically short lived.  There is also some good streamer fishing when water temps are warm enough.

The fishing during the beginning of May can be considered an extension of April conditions… until the salmonflies begin to hatch.  This usually happens around the middle of the month.  Because the Fork has numerous tributaries and springs that change water temperature between river sections, the big bugs begin hatching and reach their peak in each section at different times.  Often the hatch will appear in a section upstream on the river and a few days later will begin to happen in a downstream stretch.  Fishing with a guide who has been on the water every day affords visiting anglers a HUGE advantage for this very reason.   While targeting the salmonflies can be a bit tricky because of  unstable weather in May, there are typically 5-7 great dry fly days with salmonflies .  And when the dry fly action isn’t perfect, the nymphing with big stonefly imitations can be outstanding.

Nymph fishing and dry/dropper fishing gets us through the end of May and into the beginning of June when the most exciting hatches of the year begin.  Usually we start with golden stones, PMDs, and caddis, which overlap with small olive stones and yellow sallies.  Next come the flavs and green drakes, followed by gray drakes, which create some of the most exceptional match-the-hatch dry fly fishing of the year.  This is often a mix of blind fishing with dries while looking for targets.  For the angler who prefers to target and cast to rising fish, the combination of a reliable spinner fall in the morning, blending into a PMD hatch in the afternoon, followed by a flav emergence in the early evening, this is absolute paradise.  These hatches offer a real chance at some very large trout in some sections of the Henry’s Fork, and for those who are willing to trade quantity of smaller fish for overall size of fish taken using extrememly visual methods early June is tough to beat.

And remember, all of this happens before the Madison is even done clearing up from runoff for the year.  Once the fishing begins to wane at the end of June on the lower Henry’s Fork due to rising water temps, the salmonflies will have just begun to establish themselves on Montana’s Madison and the upper Henry’s Fork gets into full swing with a repeat of many of the same hatches described above.  We’ll be there and hope you’ll be there with us!

Best,

Jonathan Heames, Co- Owner and Head Guide

Big Sky Anglers Co-Owner and Senior Guide Jonathan Heames looks forward to early season on the Fork all winter long.