As backcountry fly fishing becomes much more accessible to people in modern times, many venture deeper into the wilderness, often outside of their comfort zone. Cotton apparel has no place in the NZ backcountry, incorrect gear, lack of experience and poor trip planning can all prove fatal in the New Zealand outdoors.
The hype of going wild often overtakes a common sense, structured approach. All it takes is a little research and organisation to greatly reduce the risk of becoming stranded, or coming to harm in the NZ outdoors, so here are a few thoughts to get you well on your way.
A BACKCOUNTRY FLY FISHING NZ CHECK LIST
READING WEATHER MAPS
Stay up to date with multiple weather sites and beware of weather warnings, incoming rainfall, and strong winds that could impact your trip. Watch for heavy rainfall in adjoining areas as fronts can quickly intensify and push through further with little warning.
MAKE A PLAN
Where are we accessing the river and where do we plan to exit. Where can we bail out early if needed and don’t cover the ground we anticipated. Halfway through a steep gorge is nowhere to be if it has been slow going and twilight is approaching. Is the country suitable for the weather at hand? A wide open, exposed valley can be a nightmare in a hellishly cold southerly so plan ahead.
Is your satellite phone charged up or does your cell phone, if in coverage have enough juice? Have you checked the battery and expiry date on your PLB and you know just where in your pack it is? Your first aid kit is topped up and dry. Are the batteries in your head torch charged up and do have spares? Your boot Laces are in good condition as are your boots and you have a warm layer, and waterproof layer packed. Check your tent to ensure its in good condition and guy ropes and pegs are present. Is your gas canister full and do you have an alternative method for cooking / starting a fire?
Always leave your intentions with someone you can trust who knows the area you are in. Better still, leave intentions with two people to ensure something is done if you do not make contact by the pre-arranged time. Ensure they know exactly where you are, what to do and who to call if they do not hear from you. Do not change your plans once you leave them as searchers will end up on a wild goose chase.
You should have at the very least, a basic understanding of how to treat strains and sprains, severe bleeding and broken bones. This could keep you alive until emergency assistance arrives. Understand the early signs of heatstroke and hypothermia and how to treat them, and ensure anyone in your party with medical conditions that may impact on your trip discloses this well in advance, and party members are aware of any potential treatment’s required.
WHEN YOU HIT SPOT X
Survey the area and take note of any hazards, and plans to avoid them. You will have done your research and have an understanding of the lay of the land, know of any gorges, tough terrain and other impediments and have up to date information on the forecasted weather and possible spikes in river flows.
DO YOU HAVE A CONTINGENCY PLAN?
What will you do if things go wrong? How can you get to safe ground where you can be easily found? Who knows where you are, how will they find you, and what will you do if you encounter other anglers?
HOW TO SUMMON HELP IN THE BACKCOUNTRY
It is important to keep your satellite phone / PLB / cell phone depending on coverage in a very easy to get to place, and know how to use them. I’m a firm believer that anyone venturing into the backcountry should carry a serviceable Emergency Locator Beacon and understand that in life or death situations, or in emergency scenarios where urgent assistance is required then help is only the press of a button away.
BACKCOUNTRY PACK CONTENTS
Here’s the checklist:
- Comprehensive first aid kit
- Emergency shelter and emergency bag
- Headtorch and spare batteries. My clients each carry a supplied day pack with a headtorch, emergency bag and overnight snacks if needed.
- Fire lighting materials and innertube
- Small Kovea style cooker in a small billy with pop up cups, and Moccona Mocha sachets - the mood booster on cold days.
- One Square Meal bars, Back Country freeze dried meals, or similar nutrition for an unexpected night out
- Water filter or UV purifier
- Insulated jacket, beanie, thermals and spare merino socks in a large, ziplock bag or drybag
- Personal Locator Beacon
- Satellite phone
- Power bank for recharging torch, GPS, cell phone or sat phone
- Simms wading staff to assist walking with leg / ankle injuries. Can also be cut to use as a splint.
EMERGENCY SHELTER & COMFORT
I believe backcountry anglers should always carry at least a lightweight fly sheet and emergency bag for comfort on unexpected nights out, and understand multiple pitches. I prefer emergency bags over blankets as you can climb right into them, and in harsher conditions pull them down over your head to retain more body heat, cutting a breathing hole where needed.
I carry an alpine Bothy bag on guided day trips as an emergency shelter for up to four people, or just to get a break if heavy rain rolls in at lunchtime. Know how to pad up an impromptu campsite for comfort using any soft material at hand.
SAFE CAMPSITE SELECTION
Whilst pitching camp right on the river’s edge may seem pleasant, beware of the potential for rising waters in the case of rain in the headwaters, and yes, sandflies. Beware of camping in depressions which may fill with water from even the slightest of rains. It may be fine where you are sitting around the campfire, but what’s happening 20 or so KM further up the catchment? Isolated cloudbursts are a common.
Look for overhead danger - old trees that may come down in the wind or rockfall from that cliff above. Is there shelter in case a southerly or unexpected norwester come ripping through?
Jason Russell Hodge is someone who has spent considerable time in some of the remotest parts of Fiordland as a passionate hunter, angler, and working for DOC. I asked him for his top advice when considering a foray into the New Zealand backcountry…
“Own good gear. The NZ wilderness is some of the most unforgiving terrain and is very demanding on equipment. Good gear may get you through, but great boots, packs and clothing will ensure it.
Good food is also a must. I’d often go away for 20 days at a time, and for 10 of them I was eating fresh food. The additional weight is worth it. Unless you are used to dehy food, chances are many won’t enjoy it and your body wont utilise the nutrition. You need all the energy you can get so fresh food is worth it. Your mood, mindset and decision making will be better off with a good feed.
Research where you are going. Having confidence about where you are going as you walk up that valley counts for a lot. Use Google Earth, and Google Maps for info about the area. It’s hard to get lost in most NZ bush if you have the confidence and have done the research.
And finally, just stop and enjoy just where the hell you are. You’re in some of the world’s most stunning scenery. Don’t rush through. Make the most of it.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chris Dore is a battle tested fly fishing guide with over 15 years of professional guiding experience, battling the demanding, ever changing conditions that our New Zealand rivers throw at us.
In 2006 Chris became one of the first New Zealanders to successfully pass the internationally recognised Federation of Fly Fishers Certified Casting Instructors examination and has since taught many thousands of anglers to up their skillset.
For more in person and on river fly fishing advice and upskilling why not book Chris for a day or three?