New Zealand lunkers rise to flies

by David Waddell

Few places in the world rival the South Island of New Zealand either for superb fly fishing or for stunning scenery, and the Ahuriri River in the Canterbury District is the sort of place every fly-fisherman who hasn’t been wants to go to, and where those who have been long to return.

Turquoise in color, 100 km in length and replete with stretches of fast-flowing, boulder-strewn water, interspersed with languid, deep, dark pools, the Ahuriri meanders through a wide, arid valley, largely devoid of plant life but for the purple lupines that line the dusty shingle road and the occasional cluster of tussocks and willow trees along the river banks.

At its headwaters the jagged, slate-colored outline of the Barrier Mountains pierce the sky, more than 2,000 meters high, their peaks covered in snow despite the glaring sun overhead. Farther below, on either side of the river, talus-sloped mountains descend and merge with a row of undulating hills, the grass on which is cropped to the roots by the over-many sheep that inhabit the inhospitable area.

Do not be deceived by the starkness of the landscape. This is prime trout water.

I had heard about the trophy brown and rainbow trout in the upper portions of the Ahuriri at a visit to a fly-fishing store in Christchurch where the fly-fishing guru in residence, Reg McClintock, advised this ardent disciple, “Go to the top end, mate, that’s where the big fish are.”

Catching one of the mighty denizens of the creek is no easy task; cautious and easily spooked, they have grown to a prodigious size because of their razor-sharp instincts adapted to protect them from their most deadly predator: man.

I drove the 340 km from Christchurch to Omarama, the starting point for fly fishing on the Ahuriri, and after making a few inquiries was advised which local farmer to ask for access to the portion of the river I wanted to fish. Following directions, I drove to the 10,000-hectare Ben Avon sheep station and spotted the massive, sinewy figure of owner Jim Morris.

He was well over 2 meters tall; he had arms like railway ties and a weathered face with creases deep enough for small mammals to hibernate in; he seemed as tough as the land he farmed. He extended a mighty hand and pulled me off balance when he shook mine. His eyes were narrow in the sunlight as we chatted, his head covered by a tattered canvas hat.

“There’s big fish in the river, but you’ll need stealth to catch them,” he said knowingly. “Good luck.”

Feeling somewhat intimidated by the notion of hooking a king-size lunker I decided to spend a couple of days on the lower part of the river in preparation for the pilgrimage to the top end. In this section and a neighboring tributary I caught a couple of brown trout in the 2.5-lb range and a couple of 1-lb rainbows, but then heavy rain silted the river up and poor visibility made fishing impossible.

The clouds eventually lifted, though, and I was blessed with ideal weather on the last two days of my trip to test my skills on the upper reaches of the Ahuriri.

Favorable conditions, but I caught no trout. On the first day I saw about a dozen browns in the 5-10 lb range, but some were out of casting range while others I spooked immediately while thrashing about clumsily on the banks of the river. They were large fish, though, many of them. I decided to return the following day.

The next morning brought an azure sky mottled with occasional clouds, mild temperatures and a soft breeze offering some respite from the blazing sun — an auspicious beginning for fishing. This was to be my last day on the river. I was determined to redeem myself for my bungling the previous day.

I walked upstream at a snail’s pace this time, restricting my movements to avoid detection and continually scanning the river for trout. Within 15 minutes I saw the outline of a respectable 4-pounder in the middle of the river. I tied on a bulky nymph and on the third cast he lunged at it, but my eagerness betrayed me when I tried to land him. He broke the line and swam away. With heavy heart I headed on upriver.

Fate was kinder than I had feared, and after a short walk farther upstream I spotted a plump 7-pounder by the river’s edge, a mere 15 meters in front of me. Nose pointed upstream and gently swaying in the current, he rose lazily to the surface at regular intervals to inhale passing insects.

At certain moments in life one’s thoughts are focused entirely on the present. Moving with careful haste, I crouched down and tied on a big Humpy, keeping a watchful eye on my prey. A sudden gust of wind threatened to make casting impossible, but it faded as quickly as it came.

Wasting no time I stripped out line and delicately lobbed the fly in the direction of the trout, where it landed about 40 cm to his left. He ignored it completely. Another cast produced the same indifferent result. Then, on my third cast, I dropped the fly just in front of his nose, my heart racing. He rose to the bait.

A battle ensued for 20 minutes as the trout raced up and down the river, peeling off line, diving under the river banks and clumps of weeds in an effort to free himself. Finally, visibly tired, he failed in a last dash for freedom, and I steered him toward a gravel bank and landed him. I unhooked my tired foe, cradled him in my hands and nursed him back to life in the current. Within a minute he had recovered and when I released my grip he swam off nonchalantly.

Grinning all the way back to my car, I recalled a quote accredited to Confucius, “Time spent fishing does not count against a man’s life,” and wondered if he too had fished the Ahuriri.