Monday 17 November 2014

The Quest

We just can't get enough of New Zealand - so we made a movie about our adventures catching these beautiful fish on the fly. May we present The Quest.

The Quest from Georgina Swan on Vimeo.

Monday 13 October 2014

A new season: Back in the water

Georgina Swan with a 29.5cm rainbow trout from the Upper Murray
WORDS and PHOTOS: Mike Gee

Would you believe it. We missed four trout on a spinner in 20 minutes. Not big but at least one was a keeper. They all either hopped, skipped, jumped, plopped or flopped, splish-splashing through the waters of the Indi River in the Upper Biggara Valley, on the Victoria/NSW border.

Spinner? Surely, this is a fly fishing blog. And, yes, it certainly is. But sometimes you just have to revert to the basics. To the get-down simple act of whacking a size two black Celta into a wind-smacked river, casting upstream and down across the cobbled bottom where the smart fish play hide and seek in cracks, grooves and micro ponds.

It's 4pm on the second day of the season in New South Wales, a month plus after the season opened in Victoria. And in two-and-a bit days we've seen it all. But let's backtrack a little because the story begins with people on stools.

The Snowy Mountains town of Khancoban is dominated by its pondage, the associated dam wall and spillway that controls the lake level and that of the Swampy Plain River at its base. Once a blue-collar trout river, the Swampy was at sometime in recent years downgraded to a general trout stream.

In the past we have pulled mighty fish from the foaming waters beyond the fishing exclusion zone at the base of the spillway - 70cm gleaming browns, muscular yet slim and lithe; another day a panful of 30-40cm browns; and we have missed as many more. All fell to size two and three Celtas because this little area really isn't a  fly fishing zone.

The water is large and rambunctious and moves too fast to wade for position. It is also the home of the bait fisherman. The wormers and mudeye danglers. Kids have caught the trout fishing bug on these banks and old-timers still come to have a dangle, even though their casting days are a not-too-distant memory.

On opening day, they are like freckles on lush green banks; 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 more, sitting, squatting, their stools and chairs little more than four or five metres apart. Nobody is catching anything by the time we arrive to watch. It is 12.15pm and the fish apparently haven't read it's opening day. We are later told that the take that morning is just two small fish.

To the old-timers that may matter; to the kids with the little rods and the big nets the adventure has just begun.

The Swampy Plain River running high 
It would have been a little better possibly if the Snowy Mountains Authority hadn't decided to pick opening day to start releasing water from the pondage with great gusto. Until this moment, the Swampy had been low and slow and very attractive a kilometre or so downstream for fly fishing. By 5pm it was running strong and the edges were the only place for the dedicated fly fisher.

The Swampy Plain River above
Khancoban pondage
Earlier we'd a had a two-hour session in the Swampy Plain River just above where it enters the Pondage. Lovely water - Georgina once caught a yabbie on a fly here but there was little to be found. As we left the odd small fish rose in the late afternoon sun but they obviously weren't interested in the nymphs we swung in tandem or the dry with a dropper.

Why was probably explained the next day when we went fishing the Murray in remote waters beyond Tom Groggin. This is beautiful water, curving through gorges, lush forest, shallow enough to wade the edges up and downstream for enough of a distance to keep the two of us more than occupied for hours on end. It's classic trout country. Riffles, pools, runs. And a 29.5cm rainbow trout for Georgina that gave an excellent account of itself, although it never broke the surface once.

The upper Murray beyond Tom Groggin

A perfect pan-sized specimen, an examination of its stomach contents revealed mudeyes, mudeyes and more mudeyes, little else in sight, and that despite several hatches of small brown flys that danced around the river's edges and scattered over its surface. In otherwords, the fish were probably still feeding on the bottom and had yet to look to the heavens for sustenance.

The following day we finished a stretch of the Indi where it winds through the lower Biggara Valley with little success and met two fellow fly men who had in their words "flogged" the Eucumbene River the day before for one hook-up - a four pound rainbow that eventually escaped - and one hit. They weren't alone apparently. Talk in the camping areas that night was of a river devoid of action except for two Japanese tourists who put a glow bug on the end of the line on their spinning reel and caught three fish. The fly men were indignant. Understandably so.

We retreated into the national forest where the Indi runs broad and strong but there are sections of perfect fishing water with everything a fly fisherman can want - if the river isn't running too high or hard.

Here we found our monsters - two big browns that wouldn't have been out of place in a New Zealand river. Standing 50 metres above the river we had been straining in vain to see fish. Earlier Georgina had spun some very fast - too fast for fly - water and tempted a rainbow to dash at the celta, its flanks a silver and red flash in the flat waters above a rapid.

Backwaters: The upper Indi River ... Two large fish were holding in the structure to the right on the far bank
Nearly defeated we retreated to that higher ground and looked across this water - water we know in the past has held fish - yet saw nothing but a platypus going about its business. For 10 minutes we watched but not a trout moved. We were about to turn away when by some dead branches on the far bank I saw a huge flank flash brown and silver in the sun, and another moved behind it. I shrieked to Georgina and as I did, and she looked up, a brown of perhaps five pound or more launched itself out of the water at some passing insect.

Into waders and boots I poured; we took a punt and went for one of Stu Tripney's NZ blowfly patterns which have done so much damage for us with big fish in those trout-studded islands and added a heavy black midge on the bottom. The big brown - his mate had disappeared - was patrolling the edge for perhaps 50 metres and Georgina was yelling directions as I headed out into the middle of the river. It strained at me, deceptively strong, but not enough to tip this old bloke over. For half an hour I put in long cast after long cast. plopping the fly virtually on the far bank, next to the dead branches, under structure. The brown held firm, disinterested, and eventually disappeared, unconquered. But it was enough. The addiction had taken its familiar hold and we were relieved to see such mighty fish in a river where we had seen little over the previous two years.

And when those splish-splashing smaller trout put a splendid footnote on the day we agreed it had been a grand opening venture.
A tip for a future dry fly day on the upper Murray

Sunday 17 August 2014

Exmouth: how we didn't catch (m)any fish at all     

Okay, so it isn't a bonefish ... Georgina's first Exmouth catch on fly was this stargazer, being held by our guide, Allan Donald, of Fly Fishing Frontiers

Words and photos: MIKE GEE

Saltwater fly fishing is the new Mecca for worshippers to the shrine of the fly. Just pick up an #8, #9 or #10, add suitably specialist line (or just go intermediate like the rest of us), tie on 15-20lb leader, add clouser and go!

Or so you think. But, as we found out, it comes with a brand new world of disciplines, problems and ways to screw up.

For those of you, like us, who have spent years, even lifetimes, mastering the wiles of pursuing trout in country as challenging as the art itself, saltwater fly fishing looks a safe bet.

Look at all that ocean and estuary out there, brimming with piscatorials just dying to leap at a sparkling fly (they do look sexy) the moment it hits the water.


Our latest trip to the bone fishing capital of Australia, Exmouth, educated us, in so many ways, as to why the clouser-casting, muscle-stretching image may be slightly suspect.

Firstly, it's a long way to get there from the Eastern States of Australia yet alone anywhere else in the civilised world. You can fly to New Zealand - the rightful place of worship for all trout bums - and be in a stream fishing in half the time it takes to get to Exmouth. 

No matter. Out of seven hours of flying and several hours of hanging around airports comes the promise of bonefish spearing rapier-like down a sandy flat through a turquoise blue sea.

Or at least a couple of Golden Trevally, a Queenfish, perhaps a Permit or Mangrove Jack... 

Or... Or... Or...

Aah such stuff are dreams made of.

Mike Gee looked the part, at least
As we sit here, arms, shoulders and backs sore from the extertions of four days, it is possible to dream, but the reality is less comforting.

What if I was to tell you that one of our leading fly fishers, a man at the very peak of our sport cut short a recent two-week trip because the water was so blown out by a storm and the resulting floods that the fish were holidaying in a different state.

Or that on our trip the wind blew so badly that one of the local fishing store staff reported the only reports he'd heard in the last week were from boaties returning either empty-handed from hours in chop-smashed seas or simply unable to get out to sea.

Georgina Swan - ready for the weather
Then there were two fellow fly fishers staying at our hotel, the Novatel (Exmouth 5-star, elsewhere 4-star), who we would see at breakfast everyday pouring over a tablet device, checking the latest weather reports from three or four different sources, hoping to find that the wind was abating. Mostly it wasn't.

Naturally enough, the day we left it did. Cue two passengers on the flight from Learmonth to Perth (you can't fly direct from anywhere - you have to connect through Perth or Darwin).

Passenger one: How did you end up?

Passenger two: I gave up fly fishing, then I gave lure fishing, eventually I ended up on some rocks with bait and got a garfish.

Passenger one: Better than me. I got a blowfish over three days.

The point of these anecdotes is not to put down the Exmouth fishing experience but rather to point out that a lot can go wrong and conspire to make fishing either difficult or impossible. And, despite all the glossy fishing mag articles filled with stories of huge fish and massive hauls, there are no guarantees that you will catch anything at all. Just like anywhere else, really.

That said, let's get down to the good stuff because on any fishing trip there always plenty of positives.

Georgina fishing the Ningaloo Reef flats - glorious
There is nothing more glorious - other than standing in a trout stream in the middle of nowhere framed by mountain and forest - than standing on a Ningaloo Reef sand flat, 400 metres from shore, the water still well below the waist, casting flies, hard bodied lures or soft plastics across the turquoise water or into the darker channel along the edge of the reef.

We drew a blank but we had one experience that will live with us forever.

Early in the day before we reached the flats, we were casting hard bodies - rip and slash - into a strong breeze when three dolphins appeared about 150m out to sea. Nothing too remarkable in that. They were cruising slowly along, doing plenty of show and show more, when all of a sudden about a dozen panicked sea mullet jumped out of the sea parallel to them. The dolphins showed little interest - mullet wasn't on the menu, apparently.

This, however, did little to assuage the mullet because all of a sudden - in tempo with the waves as they rolled in - a wave of mullet erupted out of the water well above the wave top heading straight for shore. And then another wave erupted, and another, and another, until there were four mullet fronts up and flying at a time - and like heat-seeking missiles risen from the kraken wakes headed towards us, their big bull heads glinting in the sun. It looked like an invasion. 

Within 30 seconds there was an ocean of mullet within five metres of our feet. They boiled and twisted, turned to look back out to sea and, finally, sensing the dolphins had moved on, they slowly drifted back whence they had come.

I have trapped in my mind a picture of those waves of mullet, flying through the air, all arc and graceful touchdown, arc and touchdown.

Such moments are reasons alone to fish. Nature's grand cycle of life and all it involves can be so splendid and breathtaking.

The dolphins also had the same fishing pattern in mind as we did. A few hundred metres down the beach, the reef touched closer to the shore, and then swung out to sea, as the beach line kicked back towards the range creating the perfect flats bay and access to the reef for at least 800 metres.

So here's one of the great levellers of fishing: a bikini-clad French woman in her 20s using squid and octopus for bait caught more than we did - albeit a smallish spangled emperor and a solid spotted cod - by casting adroitly along the reef edge.

There are a lot of spotted cod along this stretch of coastline.

Whether the dolphins had shut down the area or we didn't fling acceptable lures - a local fisho assured me they were on the money - there was little action, the odd nudge and hit but no solid takes. We'd left the fly rods in the car due to the blustery prevailing wind but they would have been ideal on this sheltered flat. Ah well, next time.

Flats fishing on Ningaloo Reef
After a couple of hours we moved on, driving 20 minutes down the long road that winds through the Cape Range National Park from Yardie Creek to the Lighthouse which marks its turning point inland, eventually ending up in Exmouth.

This flat offered a different challenge; the sand ran in channels through a rock and reef strewn bottom. This is stonefish country, so - as for all shore-based flats fishing in the area - wear a pair of solid water shoes. 

A series of old fence posts flanked a sandy point being investigated by several pelicans and it was here we found the most fish. Twice great surges through the water sent hundreds of baitfish racing ahead, then all would be quiet again. Whatever was causing the kommotion it was thoroughly disinterested in whatever lure we worked through these waters.

The tide, incoming for an hour to high, was perfect, and as Georgina wryly commented in the end it came down to luck, to being in exactly the right position at the right time - which we weren't, although most times we were only 50 metres or less from where the water suddenly boiled and the small fish went shake, rattle and roll.

Nature, however,  injected another memorable moment. As I cast across the flat, a head suddenly popped out of the water about 1.5 metres in front of me. It is arguable who was more shocked, the large turtle or myself. It eyed me for about 20 seconds, a wet E.T. of some distant alien past, then disappeared in a blink. 

Turtles abound on Ningaloo Reef and lay their eggs in the many sanctuary zones.

The day was done, the fish total was none, but it still felt like a splendid day.

Allan Donald of Fly Fishing Frontiers - we recommend him
The same could be said of our day out with our excellent guide, Allan Donald of Fly Fishing Frontiers. Conditions were so unsuitable - overcast, drizzling, and windy - that he suggested postponing but we didn't have any days to postpone to, so we decided to brave the murk anyway.

Allan had already popped over the previous afternoon and taken us to the local oval for some practice sessions on #10 rods, Georgina and I having never cast anything above an #8 before. They are big rods - heavier than the average freshwater fly rod - with an action that determines a really specific cast. Stop the back cast at 2pm and pause for however long it takes to get the line right out then slight down haul at noon - if you can - before letting go with plenty of oomph around 10am.

After an hour or so including 15 minutes into the wind - because a lot of flats fly fishing on a boat, at least in Exmouth, ends up being into the wind - we were done. As if life wasn't tough enough already.

We launched from Tantabiddi, the main ramp on the western side of Cape Range National Park around 9am; mercifully the wind was blowing straight as a die from the east which meant the flats were protected to some degree and the water conditions were relatively benign. Then the Gods of Fishing decided it was time for a designated downpour. Wet we got. 

However, it was also obvious that the cloud was breaking up and sun wasn't too distant. Much better conditions for fish spotting from Alan's perspective.

Georgina took up front casting deck position with a #10 weight and clouser while I took the rear with an Innovator Nitro spin rod and a hardbody lure called a buckeye. Alan's seven-year-old makes up an intriguing homegrown version for him (at a dollar a pop).

Remarkably, despite having to cast into a 30km/h wind Georgina soon had a fish on fly ... a small, okay very small, fish, but a fish nonetheless. You had to feel sorry for the stargazer - so named because the eyes are on top of its head - which really had bitten off more than it could chew. 

Fifteen minutes later she was on again, this time bringing in a more respectably sized Spotted Cod. 

Georgina with her spotted cod - which are plentiful along Ningaloo Reef

Soon after I hooked into a really solid fish; the line screamed and peeled away, and we were away. Unfortunately, a reel-burning dive a minute or two in took it to a nice piece of coral and it was gone. Given the prevailing fishing in the area it was most likely a decent spangled emperor. Impressive.

The wind then made a crucial play, swinging to the north-west. This meant the swell and the waves were now rolling into shore and the journey back would be into the face of the wind and water. It also picked up to around the 35-50 km/h mark rendering fly fishing near impossible.

Georgina switched to a Nitro and began casting large lemon Gulp shad plastics while I switched to a popper for a while before switching back to the buckeye. Eventually, I hauled in, you guessed it, a spotted cod.

The one that eventually got away
Fifteen minutes later and a larger fish towed her around the front of the boat before diving under a rock and despite Alan’s best efforts to extricate it eventually breaking off.

A few times bigger fish, queenfish on one occasion, would split the swell open briefly. Golden Trevally reign in these inshore waters so they were the most likely other culprits. But these were now tough fishing conditions.

We continued south-east with Alan picking out the best flats and bommies and again I hooked into something very large - line peeled off rapidly with Alan chasing it as I got braid back. Then we saw it - a huge turtle. Alan immediately cut the line and freed it. Apparently, turtles have a fondness for artificial lures. And on that small piece of flat we saw another three.

Allan Donald looking for fish
Oddly, we then then had lunch on those wind chopped, swell cut, flats. Alan asked if we wanted to go on as he had some bommies and more flats to visit on the way back. Initially, we agreed. The sun was coming out, surely it couldn't be too bad. Then we turned back into the wind. Waves began pouring over the boat and us. As we hit top speed to reach planing - the most efficient way to travel over waves - each one hurled itself venomously into my face and body. We were drenched in minutes. It was then Georgina and I looked at each other and around 2pm decided enough was enough. The next 25 minutes are the wettest moments of my life. I've fly fished through torrential downpours, in snow, slipped and fallen in 5C rivers and half frozen, but never have I been so thoroughly drowned as wave after wave smashed in.

Looking back, we smile about it; another adventure, another batch of stories. But right then ... It was bloody miserable, although I secretly reckon Georgina loved every soaking second of it.

When we got back to the ramp, there were a couple of other erstwhile fishermen and boaties who helped Alan get the boat on the trailer in what had become treacherous conditions. They, it turned out, had been trying to get out there for three days but the seas and wind were just too big for their small boat and liking.

They seemed amazed we had gone out; looking back perhaps I am too. But, you know, I'd do it again. And Georgina would be in that boat before you could blink. Because this is what we do whenever we can. Live to fish.

Fly fishing in Wapet Creek for queenfish
 and mangrove jack
And that is really the end of this tale. We found some more untouched lonely flats and beaches over the next couple of days, strode in wonder and awe through this naked, sun-smacked land, faced the breeze and chased crabs through the shallows. We found Wapet Creek - a mangrove swamp - and smacked poppers and hard bodies at disinterested queenfish and mangrove jacks; the tide was never really in our favour. 

And we found where it enters the sea surrounded by kilometres of flats renowned - in the right season - for the permit that run them.

There are a hundred barren shores and turquoise flats left to visit and we will find fish and remember these days when it just didn't happen. Tight lines.
Wapet Creek enters the sea to the right of this photo - at high tide
these are permit flats

Sunday 4 May 2014

Owen River Lodge, pt 2 - Matakitaki, Maruia and Hope Rivers

Georgina Swan with a beautiful Matakitaki River brown trout  

Continuing their journeys in search of New Zealand's finest trout, MIKE GEE and GEORGINA SWAN spent seven days at the near legendary Owen River Lodge on South Island. Part two of our special report begins with days on the Matakitaki River and Maruia River.

So occasionally my casting sucks. Well, often enough to piss off a seasoned guide like Paul van de Loo, one of Owen River Lodge’s tribe of the-men-who-find-you-trout. That is why, on the second of three guided days during our seven-day stay at Owen River Lodge, when I opened proceedings with a bunch of rather ugly looking attempts, I was banished to a large and rather lovely pool on the Maruia River to practice for 20 minutes.

In the meantime Paul and my wife, Georgina,  took off in search of trout. Moral to this story: NZ guides are mean buggers. And they’ll steal your wife without a moment’s hesitation.

The Maruia is a splendid river with so much trout-ness. Long runs, lovely pools, broad reaches with enticing edges. Some rock and chop. It runs almost parallel to the Shenandoah Highway (route 65) from just south-west of Murchison on New Zealand’s South Island for a good 30 kilometres or so. It is a major tributary of the fabled trout river, the Buller – which now, it seems, has seen better days but remains a fish highway as many of the regions other streams and rivers end up in it. The fish simply lob in The Buller, find it has didymo problems, and opt out up another unaffected river. Or so the story goes.

Georgina hooked into a nice Maruia River brown
The Maruia runs for 80 km before joining the Buller about eight kilometres to the west of Murchison. It's rise in the Spenser Mountains, from whence it travels southwest before turning north for the last 50 km of its length. In its upper reaches, the river's valley forms the western approach to the Lewis Pass, the northernmost of the three main mountain passes across the Southern Alps.
It is easily accessible in quite a few areas and for lengthy stretches. We were lucky enough to fish a part of its journey through private land but I’m assured the fishing is just as impressive in most areas of the river.

This is a river we want to come back to. Just recovering from a sweeping flood months earlier, the shape, pools and lies had been substantially changed in some areas according to Paul.

First trout of the day for Georgina
It didn’t matter. Georgina, who regular readers of this tome will know is a fine caster and prolific catcher of trout, managed to hook four this day – two of which ended up in the net – a nice 3.75lb fish and a splendid gentlemen of 5.25lb. I hooked into two and lost both. Ah well, such is a flyfisherman’s life.

There is a lovely depth of character about the Maruia and its banks run green with finery and frills that sweep the edges of the boulders that populate parts of its shore.

Casting is not as demanding as we would find on the magnificent Owen River, a couple of day’s later.  But that story has already been told. The Maruia is a good warm up. And it fishes both dry and wet depending on where you are casting.

And here's her second ready to go back
Talking about warm ups and rivers affected by flooding two days earlier we spent a day fishing the Matakitaki which runs right through Murchison and into the Buller. Here it is a broad, slightly angry river and upstream it doesn’t thin out too much.

This is a river that you need to get to know. A guide is a big help here. The fish, from our limited experience, lie close to the edge in riffles, runs between rocks, around corners. Rarely did we venture out to middle of the river to fish in the current or a drop off. Here they require, as always in this region, keen eyes and the knowledge of traditional lies.

Once again, Paul showed us how the flood had changed both the surrounding landscape and the river.  Tiny creeks and rivulets ran down broad smashed-tree filled dry watercourses, the legacy of the flood carving and scything the surrounding forest and vegetation out of the way.

Such might and power also affects the trout population. When thousands and millions of litres of water storm down previously relatively still waters  bringing with it a barrage of rocks, boulders, timber and who knows what else, many of the trout are hit and those that survive either find their natural habitat completely destroyed or are swept kilometres away downstream. Whole populations are shifted and take time to return to their traditional waters. Those more devastated can take several years to rebuild.

Playing a brown trout on the Matakitaki
So it is with the Matakitaki. The fish have been slowly repopulating upstream but in some spots there are two, three, four within 20 metres of one another.

Georgina caught two, both around 4.5lb; I snared a 1.5lb junior who snaffled the fly from under the nose of a much bigger fish. Minutes later I hooked and lost a good fish around the 4lb mark.

The second of George’s fish was one to remember. High up on the bank, Paul spotted a fish feeding in no more than a few centimetres of water where a tiny rivulet ran into the Matakitaki. The area it occupied was a little  sandy flat, virtually no broader than its own length.

Paul – some five metres above - positioned George behind a bush that pushed out in front of the pool and got her to flick her fly no more than 10 or 12 metres up to where the fish fed. When she got the angle right on her second or third cast it nailed the fly instantly.

It then leapt into the air virtually propelling itself backwards into deeper water, bounced and boogied up and down for three or four minutes, tail walked and flipped and flopped before resigning itself to capture.

A good brown brown trout
All in all a good day – three fish caught, four hooked and another five either spooked or missed.

There was better to come. Again I mention the Owen River. But if that was good and personal highlight for me came a day later. Our seven days finished at Owen River Lodge, we got some tips from our excellent host, Felix Borenstein, on where to fish on the way back to Christchurch. One of the rivers he mentioned was the Hope River.

First off though we dropped in on the Boyle River – oh what a lovely stream it is. We didn’t have time to work more than 300 metre section but the number of lies, runs and pools, the structure and the general feel of the river were fantastic and we could see if you walked further upstream into the forested area it only got better. Tick for a return visit.

Georgina's second brown on the Matakitaki River
The Hope River is entirely different, coursing through open country with broad rocky banks and blue waters coloured with glacial silt. It has plenty of friends in the region. Unfortunately, the wind was blowing the wrong way for us, so as we walked upstream the wind howled into our faces.

However, we were determined to at least give it a go. Paul had taught me that when casting into the wind stop your back cast early – at 11am maximum. This helps push the line into the wind. I had that in mind as I wandered up the bank staring at the water. To be honest I wasn’t expecting to see much. And when a brown trout popped up, feeding up and own in a water column no more than 6 to eight metres from shore and about five in front of me I almost did a double take.

It went down quite quickly but I could just see it and visually marked the area I knew it was likely to be working. The first cast was hurried and a flop. The line barely missed being blown back on my boots. But the second cast – the second cast, I concentrated. I stopped at 11am, I paused and I delivered a cast had enough momentum despite the strong wind to go about 10 metres forwards and the drift in the air about eight metres out. The double nymphs disappeared nicely and the indicator was clearly visible. Quickly mending once and again, I had a lovely drift for once in my life and as the line was virtually parallel with body, the trout hit. As Paul had drilled into us I struck not up but downstream. It was on and off. I yelled for Georgina who had the net but was some 25 metres away downstream. She didn’t hear me for a couple of minutes before finally picking up my by then screams. She hurtled up river just in time to net a beautiful 2.5lb brown on the second attempt.

Mike's Hope River brown trout in the net
We hi-fived, danced up and down like kids. Georgina still says it was the best moment of the trip. Even better than her PB 7.25lb brown, one of the three fish she plucked from the Owen River the previous day.

This one we caught on our own, taking the things we’d learned from Paul and all the New Zealand guides who have helped us before him and putting them into practice. We are learning and it is paying off. Now we can think of tackling rivers on our own and having real hope of catching one or two fish as good as those that our guides have put us on to. We have fished the Tongariro, Aitutaki, Mataura, Eglington, Hope, and more alone and caught fish. We are earning our stripes. Just one now. But it is a good start.

But we will also always return to the lodges that have given us flyfishing days that belong in dreams. And in the balance of the two, hopefully lies the perfect expression of the wet and the dry.

Mike Gee with his Hope River brown trout

Tuesday 7 January 2014

The lodge that Felix built

Owen River Lodge

Part 1 – the Owen River

Continuing their journeys in search of New Zealand's finest trout, MIKE GEE and GEORGINA SWAN spent seven days at the near legendary Owen River Lodge on South Island. Our special three-part report begins with a day on the Owen River.

Owen River Lodge lies a mere two kilometres of dusty road (if it hasn’t rained) off State Highway 6 as it curls down to the town of Murchison, some 20 kilometres distant on New Zealand’s South Island. It lives in a valley with its namesake a literal breathe away. In the close distance the peaks and ranges that fill the Kahurangi National Park press down, at times almost to the river’s verdant banks.

This is the lodge that Felix built. And it’s one of the big four New Zealand luxury flyfishing lodges – Stonefly, nearby south of Nelson, and Tongariro and Poronui on the North Island are its main competitors.

Felix Borenstein (left) and Mike Gee
Felix Borenstein is one of us – more than one of us, in fact. He’s a flyfishing trailblazer, starting in Australia 18 years ago in his native Victoria.  When he bought Owen River Lodge some 10 years ago, it wasn’t the lodge it is today. No chalets, no spa, no lush gardens, no killer chef named Ryan (his food is seriously good). Since then Felix has put a lot money, time and effort into making Owen River Lodge a mecca for the sport’s tragics and not-so-tragics worldwide, and perhaps, a little curiously, a destination for honeymooners.
The majority of its patrons come from the US and Australia with about 10 per cent trickling in from the rest of the globe.
Felix’s big drawcard is, of course, the region’s brown trout. This is big browns country – and I do mean big. Double-figure fish are plucked out each year and 6lb-plus trout are plentiful – but you have to be good enough to catch them. These are wild, canny, trout; trout with years of experience in driving flyfishers slightly mad.
It is a challenge and that is part of the attraction. These browns don’t commit suicide as readily as do the rambunctious rainbows that dominate many North Island rivers.
What Felix offers is sight fishing for some of the finest salmonids you will ever cast a fly to.  And he has the guides to back him up. He needs them. These are men with the eyes of a hawk, knotted muscular loins, skinny as a rake, with thousands of kilometres in their legs, capable of walking up and down dale, all day, lugging a large pack full of food, drinks, supplies, on their back.
It is outlandishly hard work and on top of that they have to sort out the errant casting techniques of many their clientele. Deal with their moods. And try and ensure they do actually catch a trout. Not catching many fish – or even a fish – sometimes does not go down well.
And don’t forget: the weather is about as variable as it gets; the trout are moody buggers prone to not giving a sip for at least half the time you are fishing; finding the right fly can be a needle in a haystack job. And even if the guide does, the client actually gets the cast in and the fish cooperates and engorges the fly, then the fish has to be landed. The conversion rate is around 33 per cent.
Mike Gee with our guide, Paul van de Loo, and Mike's
 third trout of the day, a 3.75lb 'old man' brown
Who would be a guide? Well, Paul van de Loo, for one. For 23 years, in fact. He’s pretty damn good at what he does. It is no secret – in fact, on these trips it’s declared well in advance, that while my wife, Georgina Swan (George to her friends and you, the reader), can cast a fly line with admirable adeptness, I have a cast that has a mind of its own. The good, the band and the ugly – and that’s only the first three casts.
Paul inherited this ongoing, oft disaster, and made it his business to get it – if not right – a lot better. So, on one day when the casting yips set in, I was banished to a “practice pool” on the Maruia River while George and Paul set off upstream to hunt browns. I was only allowed to follow them 20 minutes later.
After three days, Paul had beaten enough knowledge and technique into me that I caught a PB brown in the Owen River, challenged George for the most hook ups and could bang a cast into the teeth of a gale blowing down the Hope River the day after we left the lodge, drift it over a brown I spotted sitting in the water column, hook and land.
So Mr van de Loo knows his stuff. He managed to do what at least three other top guides have failed to do: get my cast into reasonable shape.
He can also see trout where these ageing eyeballs could only see, well to be honest, bugger all.
Flyfishing the Owen River
In three days of fishing the Matakitaki, Maruia, and Owen Rivers, George and I hooked 18 fish and landed 11 – George also notching a PB brown in the Owen River.
So let’s start with that day on the Owen River. Felix and Paul say the average catch per couple for a good day on the Owen is three fish. Georgina and I hooked eight browns and landed six.  They weighed, in descending order: 7.25lb, 6.75lb, 5.75lb, 5.25lb, 3.75lb, 2.25lb.
In terms of quality fishing it’s hard to beat. This is, for us, the perfect river, the perfect fishery. The Owen never really sprawls like so many South Island rivers do – a few kilometres away, often parallel to State Highway 6, the Buller River runs, a broad silver swathe, scything through the countryside; sometimes braided sometimes not.
The Buller is the trout highway for the region; virtually every river runs into it and the trout use it to move around. It used to be a mighty river to fish but they say that didymo, that scourge of trout waters, has so affected it that fish stocks have dwindled significantly and it is the feeder rivers that hold the best – and most - trout.
But the Owen – it’s a flyfisher’s dream stream. Unlike many South Island rivers it isn’t braided and, as the photos on this page and in the slideshow indicate, it can sometimes be just three or four metres from bank to bank.
It is a mighty test of skill. The water is gin clear; the cast needs to be all the things that make up a good cast: accurate, straight, turns the fly over, and as a simple as possible – false casts need to be kept to a minimum.  Distance is not generally a problem.
Like the best trout streams, it mixes runs and riffles with pools and deepwater edges; fast water, slow water, flat and chop, it has the lot. Over it all, preside sheep dotted hills and pastures, willows line its edges, blackberry bushes usually appear least when you least want them too, constantly foiling an over-exuberant attempt to plop the fly two metres in front of the trout’s nose.
George plays out her third trout of the day - the Owen
 is a mere three metres wide here
You don’t wade much: sometimes to cross over to get a better angle to a lie; others a few metres in from shore to a trout virtually dead ahead. As George found out you may need to cast around a bush; at other times with blackberries blossoming behind you.

At the beginning of the day, the tall grass - it is chest high in places -  ensnared my back cast as I stopped it way too late. It is such technicalities that, on the Owen, will see you spend more time unwrapping and untangling your fly than using it to fish with.

The first fish of the day should have been mine. However, George having cast to a couple of seriously spooky trout in the first pool was lagging behind as Paul called me up to tackle a fine specimen in the next pool up, 40 metres or so from where Georgina had drifted a nymph over a brown’s nose, had it look at it and declare it was fine piece of fly tying. Just as we settled to cast, the trout decided feeding downstream was in order and swum off in Georgina’s direction.
She paused, Paul moved down, they hatched a plan, her cast went out once, twice, and it struck. So did George – using a technique Paul had imparted. Rather than striking straight up when nymphing, strike downstream, keeping the rod down; if the trout is past you then strike upstream, rod down. It works.
Ten minutes later, Paul netted a beautiful 7.25lb brown trout – a PB for Georgina. It is fish like this that drag us back to New Zealand time and time again. It is an honour to be able to chase and catch such foe in these green clad ranges, redolent of hobbits and magic. The spell is such it is hard to want to go anywhere else.
Georgina with her PB 7.25lb brown trout  
Hold a big trout in your hands, as the cold clear water runs down its mottled flanks and the sublety of its colours play in the sun; look it in the eyes – its stare won’t waver; feel it glide gently and serenely away at the point of release. Do these things and you feel life’s bright emotion well and surge.
George’s second trout was only another 20 metres away. The great thing about flyfishing with your partner is that their success is as fulfilling as your own. And they can bail you out when you have a ‘moment’. I had a ‘moment’ (five bad casts in a row), called George in. Two casts later she was on to a 5.75lb fish, that threw itself around with such abandon the rainbows in the Whanganui River would have been applauding.
Top to bottom: Georgina's 5.75lb trout;
 Mike's first fish - 2.25lb brown;
George casting in an awkward situation
At this stage I felt like spitting the dummy, packing up my fly rod and taking it home. I’m sure many of you know the feeling – when it all seems too hard. “It should be fun,” Paul said to me, then. “So just stop your backcast early, relax and enjoy yourself.” So I did. And had a 2.25lb trout flapping at my feet within 20 minutes.  The little blighter actually knocked off the nymph from under the nose of a much bigger fellow we were chasing.
This kind of trout play didn’t help George when she ended up casting to three trout with a blackberry bush behind her, the wind beginning to blow from her left to right. Three times a fish came for the fly, then baulked. But still they fed and still George persevered. A lovely 40 metre cast, drifted perfectly downstream, over a big fellow’s nose, surely he would strike! No. Paul cursed.
Then, a fourth, smaller trout, just three or four pounds came rushing into our group, spilling the beans about the folk downstream and telling all sorts of nasty lies. The adults became suspicious and didn’t like this spritely newcomer. We moved on.

A perfect little lie contained my next target. The river rushed down from the right, dropping 30cm or so over rocks before cornering into a more tranquil, deeper stretch. On that corner, tucked behind a rock, sat a large feeding trout. My job? Cast 20 metres or so, landing the nymph just to the right of the trout and let it drift past/over him.

It was virtually a straight cast. The first cast was too long, the second too left, the third too right, the fourth too short by a whisper, the fifth and sixth, left and right of the target, the seventh was perfect: the indicator sank like a stone, I saw a flash of flank as the trout moved, and I struck – downstream. It was on!
It fought with all the strength that legend has these South Island browns possess. My arms began to hurt as it peeled off line, once, twice, three times. It hurled itself skywards – to no avail. I’d lost a trout that shook the hook free with that trick the day before and knew to drop the rod tip. Slowly it tired. One last surge and, after what seemed like an eternity but was more like 12 minutes, it was done. Paul got the net around its splendid flanks and lifted it from the water, eyed the measure, and looked at me.  He paused. He always pauses.  Bastard. Then smiled, “6.75 pounds.” We hugged. A personal best brown.
Mike with his PB 6.75lb brown trout
All those moments of self-doubt, the casting phobias, were washed away with the adrenalin of accomplishment. A surge of pride. The beginning of self belief. And if that all sounds a little too heady, so be it. Every sportsperson experiences such highs should they reach their goal. I run half marathons sometimes and the sense of accomplishment on finishing is similar; but for me this was even greater. I know I can run. I didn’t know if I could ever begin to master the mysteries of the fly – at least, well enough to catch such a fish in one of the toughest, most technical rivers in New Zealand. This fish was five years in the making.

It is something that lives with me and makes me itch to get back there.
George and Paul celebrate her final trout of the day - 5.25lb
George, who really did get the thin end of the casting stick, was next up and found that Paul had spotted a fish midstream, only 30 metres away, where the Owen is no more than four metres wide, if that. Only problem was she would have to cast to her left from behind a bush - with a gale blowing for her right to left. For 20 minutes she flipped that fly around that bush and that fish. The conditions were difficult;  tall grass danced in the wind behind her. I don’t know how many casts she made but she eventually made the right cast and had a 5.25lb brown running hard downstream. She and Paul celebrated righteously when it made the net.
The final fish of the day turned out to be an old man trout – on his last legs but with enough spirit to take the nymph I floated over his head as he lay no more than a few centimetres from the shore, tucked behind a rock in the riffles. He fought with all the strength he could muster and, in his heyday, would have been a monster. Now, at 3.75lb, his body scarred from the floods a few months earlier, his head so much larger than the rest of him, he was waiting for his time to come. Perhaps, this was his last battle. If it was, it was honourable. We returned him to the water rapidly, hoping he would see out a few more weeks in these timeless waters where the big fish lie.
As the clouds flew by, the wind gusted, rain sped bullet-like parallel to the ground, not hard but thin and temporary, Paul offered one last pool. George and I looked at each other. No. This was perfect.  Three fish each. A personal best each. In conditions we might normally dismiss as too difficult. The Owen had thrown down its challenge and, with the help of Paul, we’d found a way to not only answer, but to feel like victors.
And when we returned to the Lodge, got out of our gear, and went to join Felix and Paul for the traditional afternoon beer, only to find them looking at Paul’s photos of our fish, and videos of their return to the wild, with Felix grinning from ear-to-ear and offering the heartiest of congratulations and explaining how much we had accomplished, we felt like we had just climbed New Zealand’s mightiest peak, Mt Cook. Perhaps we had.
The view from our cottage at Owen River Lodge