Fly Fishing New Zealand’s Lowland Streams
First Published Fish and Game Special Issue 27 August 2008
By Rene Vaz
Roderick Haig-Brown wrote in Fisherman's Spring “There will be days when the fishing is better than one's most optimistic forecast, others when it is far worse. Either is a gain over just staying home”. I’m in a stage of fishing now where I’m just enjoying being on the water. As a kid growing up in Hamilton I cut my teeth fishing the streams around the Waikato. Although a few of these streams have stunning sections that carve their way through a back drop of native bush, the large proportion of them meander through farmland. Access is easy, once you’ve asked permission you can simply wander your way along the river bank, crossing where you need to. Although the fish at times seemed to lack the energy of their cousins in highly oxygenated back country rivers, what they lacked in power they certainly made up for in difficulty and ultimate reward. Whilst the streams may lack the total wilderness experience many of them are accessible within an hour of our largest cities and when you only have a short break that means more fishing time and less car time. As a draw card these streams often carry exceptional fish and with the right approach can be just as productive as their headwater reaches. As pressure mounts on our back country fishing I’ve found myself drawn back to my routes in search of some of the countries lowland gems. Although they are by far easier to access than many of our famed back country rivers our lowland waterways are often overlooked in regard to fishing opportunities.
When I first started fishing these streams I dropped down from fishing a 8/9 Tongariro outfit to use a six weight set, which at the time seemed lightweight. I’m finding now as technology is improving that a four weight outfit is more than adequate for making the short casts required on these streams, also even the slower action modern four weights have enough back bone to land large fish in tight conditions. The advantage the lighter line weight has is the ultra subtle presentations you get when casting into slack pools when ambushing cruising fish. Remember lowland streams tend to be dominated by smooth slow glides and pools where there isn’t the cover of a ripple to hide a sloppy cast. What’s more light rods and softer rods in general load much easier at low line speeds and on shorter casts, and when you’re not needing to throw flies packed with 4mm tungsten beads then you will have plenty of power from a soft rod to drive home your short cast. For similar reasons I’ve found that shorter 7’6” – 8’8” rods have the ability to tuck a tighter loop under the canopy of overhanging trees. In principal the tip of a shorter rod travels in a straighter line than a longer rod and so will create a tighter loop. What is most important is that the loop doesn’t open out at the end of the cast. If it does your line will shoot under the branch but your fly will end up embedded in it (not that we don’t all do that from time to time). To help control the leader turn over I have found it best to keep the leader short and controlled. It’s become the norm in back country situations to extend out a long leader of 14-20 feet to help keep the fly line away from the fly and to make sure that the fish is unable to see the fly line during false casts. On lowland streams especially when fishing lighter fly lines this is less important, firstly the water clarity is rarely comparable to a headwater fishery and consequently fish are less affected by a fly line in the air and conversely the shorter leader makes it easier to cast a tight loop under an overhanging tree. A light five foot polyleader will help to keep the loop tight and then an additional four to five feet of tippet is all that is needed to finish off the leader.
Although less current creates a challenge in presenting to shallow feeding fish, it also makes it easier to make a single cast without having to continually mend your line. Additionally trout in these situations are used to cruising to find their food rather than a fast water fish which will hold station and wait for its food to be brought to it. With this in mind it’s important to take your time when fishing these slow pools, reduce your line mending and casting and allow the fish time to spot your flies and come to them. And as everything including the fish moves in such slow motion, make sure you give the trout plenty of time to pick up the fly properly and turn before you set the hook.
As in all types of fly fishing the key element is getting your presentation right and when you’re dealing with spooky fish in slow water then it’s critical to take your time to work out the best position to make each cast. Some tight situations are best covered by simply poking your rod through the trees and dropping your flies into a likely hole, other areas are too tight for a back cast so a bow and arrow cast is necessary to propel your flies across stream. It can be a foreign thought to many kiwi anglers but don’t be afraid to make a cast and drift downstream. Again some pools are best fished this way, the key to downstream presentations is to make sure you throw plenty of slack and make sure your flies are floating down ahead of the fly line. When setting the hook once again make sure the fish has turned down or you will simply be pulling the fly straight back out of its mouth.
When selecting flies for lowland streams, due to the slow nature of the current and the fact that the fish are more than happy to move to the flies nymphs do not need to be heavily weighted, similarly dry flies only need to be lightly hackled in order to float correctly. Consequently there is no need for beads on your nymphs, simply a few turns of lead and a strong hook will be enough weight. Parachute and other film flies work well along with big buggy dry fly patterns like Russell Andersons spider that sit well in the film and have plenty of on the water action to gain any trout’s attention.
There is certainly few better ways to spend a day than to walk uninterrupted up your favourite trout stream, working your way from pool to pool only to wonder what the next pool holds. Perhaps next time when looking for new water you may find something closer to home, you may never know what you’ve been driving past for all these years.