So you want to catch a big fish eh? So firstly, what do you quantify as a big fish?
It could be relative to the water you're fishing - a four pounder could be a big fish for your favourite local stream or you could be hunting for the true Kiwi Trophy, that elusive ten pounder.
Personally, its more about the overall condition, colouration and markings of a fish to me than the weight. A clean, bright football of a six pounder is more of a trophy to me than a 10lb war horse that has seen a few scraps. Its all relative and fish that brings you joy should be considered a trophy in that moment.
One of my first ever guiding clients eighteen odd years back stated he wanted to catch one of those “huge New Zealand browns, Chris”. For five days we hiked throughout the back country on multiple waters, searching, hooking and dropping some pretty powerful fish. On the eve of his final day we stopped off on a Mataura bridge for a quick look and my client remarked, “wow, look at the size of that hog over there! And that one!”
While I was scanning the pool for a big eight pounder, it dawned on me that these three and four pounders were huge to my client and where he was from. The next day we netted half a dozen typical Mataura browns and blew his mind. Over lunch he stopped, deadpan and exclaimed, “Chris, if these fish are this big, what the hell were we hooking into the past few days??!!”.
Anyways. There are three keys to chasing big fish in my approach.
Habitat: you need the right conditions and river habitat to harbour big fish. Sure, the occasional lunker may migrate up from a lake or estuary, but to consistently find big fish you really want to search out the big residents. Some rivers just have much bigger fish than others. Cool water temperatures and stable streambed structure makes for easy living and protection from destructive flood events, and longevity is greater in these conditions than a riverbed which moves from flood to flood.
Otolith samples taken from trout in some Otago rivers show trout having lived up to 14 years. Food availability and water temperature are a huge indicator of a trophy trout stream. They need the right kind of food, and optimal water temperatures to promote growth. 14 degrees C has long been the accepted optimal water temp for brown trout growth and metabolism so look for rivers that stay cool or around this range for much of the year. The longer they feed and grow in the best of conditions, the bigger they will become. Many ‘big fish’ rivers benefit from esturine recruitment. With perfect conditions and a huge abundance of high protein food, our tidal estuaries are often big fish factories. Each season these fish will migrate upstream as the urge hits them and stick it out until water levels or conditions send them back downstream. However, the larger or more aggressive fish will often stake their claim on a pool and remain there into the summer months, sending lesser fish downstream and on their way.
Seasonal Movements. Early season these fish seek out easy living water. Water temps are cool and flows are often high, so big fish will be found in the softer water adjacent to the more stable runs, pools and drop offs.
As levels become low in summer they will look for oxygenation and cover. Look for the absolute best of the water. I mean, that pool may look good, but that next one looks great! That's where that big old resident will be. As mentioned, larger, more dominant fish will get territorial as levels and habitat diminishes, and kick lesser fish out. This is why summertime headwater streams often harbour low numbers of larger jacks. Late season migration can offer newer targets as fish move up throughout the river system from the estuary and lower reaches, into the headwaters and into the tributaries. Look for good holding water or any decent ‘resting water’ above and alongside longer sections of faster water. This is where pods of migratory fish may be found.
Angler ability is everything. Stealth. Spotting. Casting and presentation. These fish wont give you a second chance so it is imperative that you find them before they see you. Move slow, scan the best of the water and have a good pair of eyes. This is where your angling partner may scan the pool from a different view point to pick up a different perspective.
Your casts must be spot on with often longer, lighter leaders to get to where the fish lay, and to keep line shadow, drop and drag to a minimum. You don't get three chances to get your first cast right. Check out our Lockdown Lessons on the Manic Tackle Project Youtube channel to get yourself up to speed. Consider the currents and their affect on your flies, leader and line as micro drag is one of the biggest killers of trophy aspirations. So there didn’t look to be anything wrong with that drift? Yet the fish bolted… guess what? There was something wrong with that drift.
Simply get out there and explore. Big fish are often found in overlooked waters and the chase is what keeps us going back. It may not happen for you next trip. Hey, it probably wont. But if you’re prepared to have a blank day with the chance of encountering a lifetime fish then bring your A game, set realistic expectations and go and enjoy our NZ backcountry.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Chris Dore is a battle-tested fly fishing guide with over 20 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.
Want to catch one of the fish he is talking about above...then book Chris for a day or three...