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