Fishing In New Zealand's South Island

IT WAS ABOUT a year ago I began watching Rob Sitch and Tom Gleisner’s A River Somewhere. I’d heard so much about their globe-trotting fly-fishing adventure TV series I just had to see it for myself. In the end I found it hard to stop watching! They’ve got such a uniquely entertaining and brilliant way of telling a tale – of ripping the viewer into the adventure with them and taking them along for the ride. They inspired me to round the Modern Fishing troops and set out on the fly-fishing trip of a lifetime.

I guess I could blame Rob and Tom for inspiring me to head to the land of the long white cloud as I slide out of control down a cliff face near Omarama on New Zealand’s South Island.

For about 10 minutes I’ve been digging my fingers and boots into the steep descent’s soft grit wall which is crumbling with my every move. I sneeze and boulders the size of basketballs come flying past my head. I’m clinging to the dirt, face down, like a fat kid clings to a chocolate bar.

Earlier I spotted a fishy-looking finger of water on the southern side of Lake Benmore, snug against an almost sheer cliff. Stupid me decided to get down there, and in the quickest most dangerous way possible. But despite the cuts, bruises and lashings I’ve received from the sapling I’ve been clinging to life on, it’s not all bad. I look up and realise even if I’m not close to death, I’ve reached a place surely nearly on par with heaven. New Zealand’s South Island has to be the most beautiful place in the world. I take one last look at the spectacular snowy mountain-covered horizon as well as the cobalt blue water 10 metres below me, close my eyes, release my grip and begin my surely fatal fall.

A minute later, sporting scratches and contusions to various (sensitive) parts of my body and minus the skin on my hands and elbows, I’m amazed I’m alive, let alone on a fish. Perhaps this time I’ll actually be able to bring the fish to land, even with a stinging body that keeps reminding me what an idiot I am…

It’s been a frustrating few hours, for me at least. I’ve been left a passenger, watching my road-trip buddies and Modern Fishing contributors Jack Scrine and Dan Trotter catch fish. Maybe, as I was warned, it’s the editor’s curse?

When the small rainbow trout (you’ll need your binoculars to see it in the photo on p69) makes it into my hands (the boys, around the corner, have the net – thanks for making my life easy!) it’s a great relief. Finally, my duck has been broken! Even the icy water now filling my waders can’t dampen my spirits. I holler louder than anyone’s ever hollered before and the boys come scrambling around the corner with the camera. I reckon, judging by my schoolgirl-esque screeching, they must assume I’ve landed the Loch Ness monster!

Finding this honey hole on Lake Benmore has proven a big relief. So far we’ve battled fishing across the South Island in windy conditions despite the unexpected glorious sunshine – learning to fly fish in significant gusts can be a garish! Tangled lines, nightmare knots – you name it, I experienced it! An outsider looking in might’ve thought I was attempting to perform Origami using fishing line. We’re just glad we brought the spin gear, so we’re still a chance of catching fish when the wind really gets up.

So far the journey’s been spectacular and all signs are pointing to it being an amazing adventure. It has to be a positive omen when you collect a motorhome and there’s an awesome CD left behind in the player. Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash’s rendition of On The Road Again is such a perfect song for our road trip we’ve unofficially made it our theme song. Having to play it at full volume three times whenever we start the engine becomes repetitive but really it’s sweet torture – at least for those inside the van. We have been getting a few weird looks in the caravan parks though. And on the highway. And at rest stops. And at petrol stations.

Just a few days ago we picked up the motorhome in Queenstown before fleeing the famous young party town for Wanaka. Wanaka’s one of those places that relies almost solely on tourism. We’ve arrived in town between the skiing and fishing seasons, in late October, and it’s pretty quiet – we’re the only people drinking in the “busy” pub in town. Not that the locals, like our friendly taxi driver, aren’t happy to help out in any way possible…

We used our two days in town as fishing research, spending a day with Richard Grimmett from Wanaka Fishing Safaris. He’s been guiding in the area for 13 years after a career as a rugby coach. He takes us to fish Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea, and gives us plenty of helpful advice before the wind kicks up and my casts are hitting me in the face again. Richard explains it’s early in the season and the fish we see aren’t rising because of it. Perhaps he’s just a kind bloke and offering excuses for us. Either way, we’ll take them.

At least on our second day in Wanaka the wind kept about as low as a standard Commonwealth Bank interest rate rise – we still had a chance of jagging a fish somewhere. I tried on a Kiwi accent – “How you goin’ bro? Any good fushin’ spots ’round here cuz?” – and we were directed to a dam wall near Lake Hawea. We were undecided if a) my Kiwi accent had actually passed as a New Zealander’s and we’d been kindly pointed in the right direction; b) my Kiwi accent had actually been identified as that of a joking Australian and we’d been sent in the right direction; or c) my Kiwi accent hadn’t passed, they thought we were wankers and sent us to the worst fishing spot in town.

After 30 minutes of hard toil and about 1000 collective casts and retrieves – it was still too windy for the fly rods – we imagined the answer was a definite ‘c’. That was, however, until I encouraged the boys to continue fishing in the first spot for another few minutes while I scampered down the boulders on the other side of the pool like a lightning-charged mountain lion or, as Jack would tell you, “like a retarded mountain goat”. Thanks mate!

Whether I looked athletic in negotiating the rocky sides of the pool or not, my insistence on persistence prevailed – Trotter hooked a nice fish and our trip was off to an eventually successful start. Big sighs of relief and good cause to sample a few local ales at the pub.

It was a bigger relief to randomly find our honey hole at Lake Benmore the next day. It’s rare the first random place you spot to wet a line actually produces the goods – so much so you don’t want to leave.

After posing for a few more shots with my rainbow – I’ll call him Rambo because of his sheer size and ability to intimidate – I leave the water and trudge back to the campervan in my wet waders. My enthusiasm to wade into deep water means I’ve taken on more water than the Titanic – something that seems to be a recurring occurrence. I just can’t seem to control myself. Jack’s even started calling me The Little Mermaid.

It’s an awesome sight to see the trees swinging back and forth 100m from the campervan and hearing cries of ecstasy. The local sheep, who outnumber people in the area about 200,000,000 to one, bleet something about Trotter catching his first brown on try. Scrine yells out something similar and we sprint down to watch the action. It’s been an epic day, and it continues when “the others” (that’s the other boys, just not me!) find a hot bite bankside 500m from where I caught Rambo. They both land beautiful browns to 4lb. I arrive just in time to hear the cries of jubilation die down… and for the bites to dry up. Oh well, c’est la vie!

That afternoon we drive with Willie and Johnny to Mount Cook National Park. It’s the perfect place for a sleepover – minus the pillow fights and frilly underwear, of course – as it’s not only bitterly cold and blowing a gale but incredibly beautiful. Already we’ve driven through some spectacular country, including one of the areas used in the filming of The Lord of The Rings, but this takes the cake and eats it too. If you’re ever five minutes (or five hours) away from Mount Cook, make the effort to see it. It’s well worth the drive.

The boys wake to the frantic beat of my screaming at 9am – we’ve missed a scheduled scenic flight but thankfully the wind caused its cancellation. We wipe the sleep from our eyes, pack the van and I hop in the captain’s chair and drive four hours across more spectacular countryside through the centre of the South Island. It’s all so green and so inviting. No wonder the Kiwis are such rugby fanatics – their whole country resembles a lush green footy field.

We make Christchurch just in time for Mr Trotter’s flight. He farewells us and suddenly three become two. As we pull out from the airport departure drop-off zone there’s a growing sense of loss, but Willie and Johnny manage to keep us together. We head north, On The Road Again, for Hanmer Springs and Owen River Lodge, New Zealand’s only five star-rated fly-fishing lodge.

The next day, after I throw myself off a bridge at Hamner, we’re back on the road. It’s another glorious day and we’re cruising down the highway with little to worry about bar the journey ahead. Then we spot another lovely pool of water underneath the bridge we’re crossing. Perhaps it’s time once again to get the rods out. That’s the thing about New Zealand – no matter where you are, there’s always a lake, a creek or a river… somewhere.

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