How To Plan Your South Island Fly Fishing Road Trip

Who doesn’t love getting in a vehicle and hitting the road, no plans, no destination in mind and no worries? Well, it’s not quite as easy as that anymore, we’re all increasingly busy these days, and as the cost of living is skyrocketing (whilst our pay packets aren’t!) I, for one, am finding it not quite as easy to just up and go for an extended trip anymore.

But there are a few things you can do to make that south island fly fishing road trip happen.


Two fly fisherman stand next to a south island river in new zealand

Good planning and preparation is key - once you leave, all is good and there’s no looking back, but it’s the buildup that’s the killer. Catching up on jobs around the house, spending more time with the kids, complementing your subsequent other on how nice they are looking of late, you get the idea.

I have enjoyed 30+ years of amazing road trips around this magnificent country and the South Island is the firm favourite, not so much for the fishing, as I can normally get better numbers and often bigger fish in my home waters of Wellington, but you simply cannot beat the amazing scenery and uncrowded roads that the south has on tap.

Tips? Well, I don’t have a spare few days to cover them ALL off but here are a few that might help you get on your way.


A campervan next to a river ready to go fly fishing

They are seriously the best thing to do a south island fly fishing road trip in. You’re not tied to accommodation bookings, you can camp in most places if you’re self-contained and courteous to others in the local communities, and even a friendly chat to a farmer nearby a river you want to fish often results in a “sure, park up in that field and stay as long as you like”!

Now the kicker - they are bloody expensive to hire, and even more expensive to own! My personal one was a $32k outlay that has had around $15-$20k spent on it over the years, but it will be one of the best things you’ll ever purchase, especially if you have a family where it will double as a weekend bach.

More of a win-over for me was the “emergency accommodation” aspect I sold to my wife should Wellington’s imminent earthquake knock on our door, thank me later.

A campervan puts all the comforts of home at your destination, you can go anywhere! Dan my long-time fishing buddy and I often travel late into the night and utilise the daylight hours for fishing. Take the West Coast after 7pm for example, you can count on one hand the number of other vehicles you’ll encounter. This, travel by night/fish by day is crucial if you want to maximise your time on the water and fish caught.


This is one sure-fire way to fast-track your path to success on your south island fly fishing road trip and it’s by supporting these amazing guys and girls and get them to share their many years of knowledge and local techniques.

But, if doing it alone, then a guide like John Kent’s South Island Fly Fishing Guide is absolutely invaluable! Not so much for the methods, as they are somewhat out of date, but for rough access info and local intel you can’t beat this guidebook.

There are also numerous online resources available like the New Zealand Trout App and With all of this info at your fingertips, you’ll be off to a good start.


How the HELL did fly fisherman cope without this amazing aerial photography tool? It is absolutely INVALUABLE for planning a day on the river. You can pore over access points and the water itself. Is it gorge or pocket water, wadable or not?

The level of detail on modern phones is incredible as well. Don’t worry if you don’t have coverage, you can simply view the area you intend to visit when you have reception prior, and that high-res imagery will remain cached in your phone when no coverage is available on the river. Coupled with a good topo map app it’s all you will ever need to navigate on your south island fly fishing road trip.


Plan your meals wisely, again this is where a campervan helps, many small-town eateries in NZ close early so you’ll be limited to pub food. With the campervan, you have cooking and refrigeration on tap whenever you like, even a hot shower and Sky TV, not to mention power via solar that you’ve accumulated during the day to charge all those batteries.

If you are staying in accommodation, book well ahead, it will take a lot more planning, but many providers are uncontactable after 7pm and it can leave you having to sleep in the back of your car!


When to go? I personally love April, the days are calm, the hatches can be epic, and the roads quiet, off-peak campervan hire normally starts after Easter so you can often grab some good deals on multi-week hireage.

March is also a fantastic time, especially if you can time it with a solid cicada season as we did last year. I don’t think we used any other fly in nearly 4 weeks! Even the famed Mataura and its epic hatches, guess what they were taking consistently? Cicadas!


Andrew Harding holds a perfect south island NZ brown trout

Where to start? Well, I’m not about to give out my favourite waters as there are hundreds of them, but I’m more than happy to point you to the better-known areas that can make up a great south island fly fishing road trip loop of sorts.


  • If coming from the North Island, typically it’s a beeline to the West Coast and the Murchision and Brunner areas, stopping off to fish the Wairau of course. It’s an excellent river, especially through the middle, braided sections that receive little pressure
  • A massive amount of water lies around Brunner, the lake itself and tributaries can be amazing. The Buller River around Murchison has about ten amazing tributaries on tap within a short driving distance and from there pop over to the Springs Junction area and, of course, stopping at Reefton to fish its trophy tributaries
  • From Springs Junction you can head to the famed Lewis Pass rivers and target the massive browns that inhabit these waters. If short on time, form a loop and head back to Hanmer Springs then back to Picton, or if time is plentiful then carry on down the West Coast
  • Nearly every waterway down the coast, with the exception of the large main divide snow-melt rivers, offer excellent angling. Whataroa is a great base with some fantastic rivers to fish and even more fantastic lakes, many receiving a substantial salmon run in March to change things up a bit
  • Even the “no-name” rivers heading towards Haast hold fish and can be amazing in October through to December in the lower reaches when sea-run fish are chasing whitebait. In fact, if I had one single destination to head to in the entire country South Westland takes that title
  • Haast itself is a fly fishing mecca. If you can get the Haast River on a day when it’s clear, you can have a ball right throughout its length. South of Haast are some excellent systems to fish so be sure to have a good poke around here too


  • Through to Wanaka, you’d be a fool not to fish the Makarora! It’s an excellent river with great numbers of bows and browns and offers easy, road-side access and wading on the shingle bed
  • We tend to sidestep the tourist towns of Wanaka and Queenstown, neither are motorhome friendly, so we spend our money at more welcoming small towns and are happy in the knowledge we contribute greatly to their economies through buying food, fuel, fishing gear and other activities


  • The Mataura river? You’ve probably heard of it. This is a river that deserves every accolade it receives. It’s an amazing system and worthy of basing yourself around Athol or Garston for a few days - but don’t forget the Waikaia, it’s a twin of the Mataura often with larger fish
  • From here Lumsden is always on the agenda, a roadie isn’t complete without fishing the famous Oreti River and a visit to the absolutely stunning Mavora Lakes
  • From Lumsden you enter the vast Southland area. Basically every single drop of water holds trout, even small farm drains! It’s an area I love


  • Back inland and heading towards Christchurch, the McKenzie basin never lets me down, the Ahuriri and Tekapo Rivers solid choices for the sheer number of fish, and don’t forget fishing the Twizel canals if catching some of the world’s largest trout spins ya wheels!

Mike Kirkpatrick fly fishing guide holds a brown trout


  • The Canterbury Plains have a myriad of massive braided rivers like the Rakaia, Rangitata and Waimakariri. All hold great stocks of trout for those prepared to walk and stalk. A packraft makes travel back to your car at the end of the day on these braided systems an absolute luxury and saves you several hours of boring walking on rocks
  • Options between Christchurch and Picton dwindle somewhat, so perhaps head to Nelson and poach some of Mike Kirkpatrick’s pet trout? Bring your A Game though, those Nelson fish are big and wily as I have found out on numerous occasions. They are the only trout I know of on the planet that will spook even if you so much as do a silent fart!
  • However, Nelson has so many excellent waterways, it would take me an eternity to even mention some of them. The Motueka System is a solid bet for sheer numbers of fish, and often surprisingly large ones at that!

So, you’ve just done a rough 2-3 week south island fly fishing road trip and are back in Picton awaiting the ferry back to reality. It would be a shame if all the ferries broke down and you’d have to stay another few weeks, right?

Andrew Harding with a New Zealand trophy brown trout


Andrew Harding is a die hard fly fisherman that spends more time on the water than most of us do at work. Check out some of his amazing fly fishing film work over on his Youtube channel.