This January has been the hottest ever recorded in New Zealand and many of the rivers have recently been running low on water. Therefore, I set out on a journey of discovery, with the intent of finding those areas and rivers with watersheds not so affected by the scorching heatwave. This is something I often do when fishing in unknown areas, basically trying to figure out how the water flows through the lands in question. It did not start particularly well, as the first few rivers I explored had very little water in them. There were the odd fish in some of the pools, but it was not the kind of fishing I was looking for. I decided to get off the beaten track and to head deeper into the wild. There are some truly wild areas on the north island, ancient rainforest and jungle not often visited by man. Again, satellite imagery revealed some enticing looking smaller rivers and creeks, in difficult to reach places. My strategy would be to try to reach several of them on 1-day trips, traveling very light to be able to move about more freely in the dense bush. I find that mobility is key when exploring new places. If I find somewhere that is real nice and worthy of further exploration, I reckon it’s better to return later with the big backpack filled with my camping gear. But now I was on a recon mission and packed only with the bare essentials for a 1-day trip, I headed out into the unknown.
Moving about in the north island backcountry is not for everyone. There are very few paths and where I now was heading, there was none. But although this jungle is not often frequented by humans, the animals move about there all the time. There is deer, non-flying birds such as the kiwi and various marsupials such as the possum. And the animals seem to find the shortest and best routes through the bush, making tracks as they go along. They also need water to drink water and find places where they can cross the sometimes-wild flowing rivers. Looking at satellite imagery can often give some clues, especially if there is an obvious easy route visible. But you seldom see any paths on these images, they only reveal themselves beneath the dense canopy. It might not look like much even then, but if you look closely, the tell-tale signs are broken branches, stepped on leaves and animal foot prints. So as luck would have it, I found one of these animal trails, heading in the general direction of the little jungle creek I was searching for. And after some hours of tramping about in the jungle, sometimes crawling on all four, through gorges and over hilltops, I finally arrived at a beautiful stretch of small river.
And as often is the case in these remote stretches of river, it did not take long before I spotted the first fish. There was a rather nice rainbow cruising around slowly, picking off both nymphs and what looked to be small pieces of vegetation. It was not the first time I had observed this in NZ, these fish seem to have opted for a balanced diet.
After watching this wonderful scene for a while, I rigged my rod and got ready to fish. Since I was kind of short on straw imitations, I decided on a small pheasant tail nymph instead. I got into the river, hiding behind a rock. The trout then took up a position just in front of the rock I was standing behind. This also happens a lot in these jungle creeks. The fish in many cases move up very close to where I am, without spooking. Maybe its just a coincidence, but another option is that they hear the noise I make and move closer out of sheer curiosity. Anyway, there was no need for a long cast, I just flicked the fly out some meters ahead of the fish and seconds later the fish ate it. My camera was rigged on a tripod, ready to record, but I somehow forgot to hit the record button. I got a picture of the landed fish though, a nice rainbow weighing in at 1,8 kg.
The fishing was very good in this creek. There was a decent fish in almost every little pool in the small stretch of water I fished. Mostly rainbows around 2 kg, but also the odd brown trout. The brownies seemed to be rather old and not very fit, so I passed them by and went for the fit rainbows instead. I spent about 5 hours on a stretch of river not much longer than 1 km. Then, according to the satellite images and my intuition, I hoped there was an easy way out. Thankfully, I was correct, and I followed another animal trail through the bush and ended up somewhere close to where I had parked my car. It had been a nice little excursion, but now I was completely exhausted and decided to make camp for the night. It was a beautiful cloudless night and I managed to get some pictures of the Milky Way before falling into a deep sleep.
Over the next days I drove further along dirt roads, exploring different kind of places and rivers. Not all where productive, but at least I got a feel for the land and of how the water flowed there. There were big differences in water flow and clarity, and after a while I began to get a better understanding of where to find good water, even though there had not been much rain coming down lately.
My next choice of river was also located some hours tramping into the bush, away from the nearest dirt road. Again, I followed animal trails through the forest, but after about an hour I also found an old dirt track that lead down to a ford in the river. It was still early in the morning and the sun had not yet reached the bottom of the gorge where the river was flowing. The river was also slightly tinted, maybe because of a small downpour of overnight rain further up in the hills. There were 3 whio in the river, or blue ducks, but thankfully they were downstream from me and did not mind me as I was heading upstream. The river was running quite fast for as far upstream as I could see, and I did not spot any fish for the first kilometer or so. After a while I made way around a bend and saw a more slow-moving pool and stretch of river further upstream. I decided to take a small break and wait for the sun to hit the river, and maybe for the water to clear up a bit. After about half an hour I slowly made my way upstream, on land, in case there were fish in the pool. It was then I saw 2 fish, one was a rather nice and fat brownie, maybe around 2,5 kg. The other was a nice rainbow about the same size. I had caught plenty of rainbows in the jungle creeks, but not so many brownies. And the brownies I had caught looked old, thin and spawned out. But this was a beautiful specimen and I wanted to catch it badly! They were both moving about, suddenly heading downstream to the tail of the pool, and then heading upstream to the very top again. I was afraid of spooking the brownie and decided to make my cast from the shore, behind some bushes. My heart was pumping, and everything was ready, fly in hand and enough leader and fly line to reach the fish. The brownie then moved slowly downstream and I decided to make my move. I made my cast, aiming to land the fly some meters ahead of the fish, but somehow the fly landed almost on top of the fish, spooking it in an instant! It disappeared under some shaded brushes on the opposite side of the river. Typical! But thankfully, the rainbow was still feeding, now having the whole pool to himself. I made a new cast and hooked the rainbow instead. A nice specimen weighing in at 2,4 kg.
Over the next hours I proceeded to catch several more rainbows around the same size. This river too was also very productive, with a high number of quality fish per kilometer. As I neared my exit, there was one last pool that I decided to spend time on. The sun had disappeared behind some clouds and visibility was poor, so I did not see any fish. But there had to be at least one in there. I decided on a Klinkhammer dry fly with a pheasant tail nymph dropper. A combination that had proved itself in these small jungle creeks. If there were any fish in the pool, it would probably be sitting at the edge of the current, where it could pick off any food items without spending too much energy. I worked my flies up along the pool and as I neared the deepest part, the Klinkhammer went under. It turned out to be a beautiful specimen of a brown trout, weighing in at 2,4 kg. My day was complete, and I moved on once again, crawling out of the gorge and after some hours I was back at my car, ready to make dinner and get a good night sleep to the sounds of birds, cicadas and the occasional hissing possum wondering who the intruder was.
I drove further on, exploring for me new and unknown parts of the North Island. I had been reading the “North Island Trout fishing guide”, by John Kent, who a friend back home had been so kind to lend me. But the places I had been fishing where either not even mentioned in this book or mentioned only briefly as “Does not hold many fish”, etc. I decided to continue with my own exploration of more unknown and wild creeks, this had after all proved to be a good strategy for me. And after the fishing I had experienced over the last week, my confidence was running high. Maybe too high… After a lot of tramping about, I was starting to feel in quite good physical shape. That might be the reason I now chose to seek out a more remote river. According to my research, it could be reached by driving on some old logging roads for about a mile, then by tramping on smaller dirt tracks for about the same distance, and hopefully end up at the river. When I arrived at the old logging road, I was surprised to see it overgrown to the extent that a car could not drive there. I thought about it for about 30 seconds, before deciding to continue on foot. It was still early in the morning and if I kept up a good pace I would still have time for some hours of fishing before heading back before dark. After a good while I reached the dirt track, only to discover that the forrest had overgrown it almost completely. I might as well have been moving through the forrest and the last bit to reach the river, mostly heading downhill, took a lot more time than I had planned for. I finally reached the river after about 3,5 hours of tramping, almost losing the dirt track on several occasions. The area was wild and gorgy, probably not visited by man for many years. I ate half of my food and drank half of my water, before rigging up and making my way down the final part towards the river.
There I came upon a nice-looking pool and instantly spotted a fish when peeking through the bushes. The fish looked agitated and I wondered if it had seen me. It surely could not have? The answer came shortly after. The fish was not alone in the pool. There were 2 others there as well, and the largest one kept on chasing the other fish downstream, biting their tail fins when they came to close to his favorite spot, at the head of the pool. The 3 fish all looked about 2 kg +. A large eel also resided there, but the trout boss didn’t try to scare that one away. I retreated and made a plan with the aim of catching them all, except the eel of course. I waited for the pool boss to chase the others down towards me and then I made my cast. I hooked and landed the fish at the tail of the pool, a fantastic looking fish weighing in at 2,1 kg. The trout had a visible bite mark on its tail-fin.
I could not believe my luck and moved upstream, homing in on the second fish in the pool. The large eel also living there suddenly decided to check me out. Not a big fan of eels, I kind of spooked, and in turn spooked the trout! The fish at the head of the pool, the pool boss, probably responsible for the bite-mark on the tail of the lower fish, was still feeding though. And after a while I caught him on a #18 beaded hares ear nymph, floated into his feeding lane. The fish fought hard and long, with no intention of giving up easily. I finally netted him and weighed him at 2,5 kg. A very nice fish considering the tiny water. I had hooked the fish in the upper jaw. The fly, although tiny, was stuck deep into the flesh and jawbone. I usually manage to loosen the fly easily and without too much discomfort for the fish, but this time it was different. I always keep the fish in the net, giving them breathers while I do this part of the job, slow and careful. But this time it took a while, long enough for me to think about what the hell I was doing. Even though I tried to be gentle, the fly was stuck deep, and the fish was in obvious pain. Here I was in the middle of paradise, getting kicks out of catching these spectacular trout, and many of them too! And now a fish was hurting because of it. I finally got the fly out, but there was a definite wound where it had buried itself in the jaw of the fish. There was also another old wound in the lower jaw, maybe from a previous catch & release. The fish had gotten plenty of breathers and swam away without any problems after the release. But I don’t think he had eating on his mind for a while, and at least not biting the tails of the other fish in the pool. He will be probably come out of it alright, but I decided then and there to go 100% BARBLESS from that point on.
I have been fishing with barbless hooks occasionally in the past but haven’t bothered enough to do it 100%. Now I will. As most of my flies do have a barb on them, I will always carry my small Leatherman tool with me when fishing, pressing down the barb on each fly I tie on. Maybe I will lose a few more fish than before, but that is something I can definitively live with. On the positive side, it will also be easier to get the hook out on the occasional self-hook-up.
Although I had time for some more hours of fishing, I decided to leave the river alone and begin on my journey back to my car. It was a long hike and this time it would be an uphill struggle for most of the way. After packing up I observed the pool for a while and spotted all 3 trout before leaving. Only one of them was feeding and that was the one in the middle that I had not hooked. I felt the gaze of a thousand eyes upon me in the surrounding jungle. I left the river with mixed feelings and tramped back through the bush at a brisk pace, not stopping once until I reached my car about 4 hours later.
After this adventure I took some days off, drank some beers and got myself a sunburn. There was a new storm on the way, and after that, the fishing would probably become great all over the place again.