Peeling Back the Skin on the South Island: Backcountry
Saturday, April 16, 2016
I recently read an article by a well-known angler in which he states that in New Zealand it's possible to find a fish in every pool, not get bitten by sandflies, and never venture far from a road. Which in turn made me think: Why bother? Why not save yourself a whole bunch of time and money and travel to the Bighorn instead? Or the Snake? Or any of the dozens of private spring creeks with stocked trout, manicured paths along the riverbanks, and maybe even sporting clays outside the lodge?
You don't go to New Zealand to be pampered and compare the cork on fly rods. You go to New Zealand - and in particular the South Island - to occasionally get your ass kicked. To be swarmed by sandflies and nudged on the ankles by freshwater eels. To walk miles and blister and shiver and bake and, if you're both fortunate and lucky, to land the fish of a lifetime. A fish all the more precious because - well, because you fucking earned it. Because it wasn't offered up by a brokerage or a hatchery or Harrison Ford.
The single biggest tip I can offer do-it-yourself fly rodders is to take advantage of New Zealand's amazing backcountry huts. There are more than 900 available to the public, and they typically follow rivers and streams right up to the "tops." A six-month pass is about US$90. Or, on an individual basis, they range from $5 to $15 per night. Huts will enable a reasonably fit angler to access the same water that helicopters do - for about one-hundredth the cost.
I often follow a string of huts up a watershed for several days, using them as bases while fishing up- and downstream. It requires backpacking, yes, but the trails between huts are well-marked and make handy "expressways" after a long day of sight-fishing. There's something inherently satisfying about hanging your wet gear over the same woodstove a Kiwi deer culler used, say, six decades ago. Huts strain history as the droplets fall on their boot-worn floors.
"Backcountry" is loosely defined. Most New Zealanders associate it with areas inaccessible by vehicle. You can fly into the backcountry, sometimes. You can hike, ride a horse, and raft into the backcountry, often enough. But you can't drive there. That keeps it relatively remote. It assures that you won't constantly be bumping into other anglers as you trudge up miles of wilderness river in search of wary brown trout.
There are rarely trout in every pool or run in the backcountry, yet you scrutinize them all. That's part of the appeal, at least to me. You hunt for trout the same way the cullers hunted for deer; lots of walking, stopping, second-guessing. Rocks begin to swim the same way a stump sometimes materializes horns in the deer woods. Nerves fray. By two o'clock you begin to ask yourself if you'll ever spot a fish again, that day or any other.
But all it takes is one. One-a-day can suffice in New Zealand, like a vitamin for the psyche.
On an epic day, maybe a handful. There just aren't that many trout in the trickes on top of the Southern Alps. The trickles feeding streams feeding rivers - the largest of which flow into the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean and harbour Chinook salmon runs. The floodplains are vast and numerous, sometimes so wide and barren that it's hard to imagine them ever filling with water, ever having been sculpted by rain and snowmelt.
No, you don't go to New Zealand to be pampered. You go to be overwhelmed by beauty and humility.
As always, for the best that Western Canadian fly-fishing has to offer, book your next trip with Dave Brown Outfitters.