To the global fraternity of fly fishers, New Zealand truly is what the Himalayas are to the mountaineers – the absolute pinnacle of the sport, a holy land with innumerable shrines.
This is why the town of Gore, at the bottom of the South Island, built a monument to brown trout and proclaimed itself the brown trout capital of the world, while Tūrangi, where the Tongariro River enters Lake Taupō, did the same with rainbow trout. Two world capitals, two islands, two kinds of wild trout. Several lifetimes of pleasure.
Even if there were no other trout waters in New Zealand, the Taupo region alone would be enough to give the country its international reputation of an outstanding fishery. Lake Taupo is the hub of a large and robust trout ecosystem. It offers year-round fishing, predominately for rainbow trout, but there are also trophy browns around and in good number if you're prepared to put in the time and effort.
Some of my favourite spots include the one-and-only Tongariro River and several of Lake Taupō tributaries such as the Tauranga-Taupō, Hinemaiaia, Waimarino, Waiotaka and Waitahanui. And of course Lake Otamangakau, known for good numbers of large fish and epic damselfly action.
In the headwaters of the Buller River – with Nelson Lakes, Murchison and Īnangahua as gateways – you're truly in the epicentre of brown-trout sight-fishing action. Further west is Golden Bay, which also used to be an excellent and relatively remote brown-trout fishery but which has deteriorated recently due to frequent and epic floods. However, it is still the backdoor access into Kahurangi National park and the headwaters of the Karamea, where you can get lost in brown-trout nirvana for weeks on end. There are more fishing guides working out of Nelson than in any other part of the country, a fact which should alert you to just how significant the region is on the New Zealand trout map.
3. West Coast
Through Reefton, Maruia and Springs Junction, the Kahurangi area blends into the West Coast which is another brown-trout specific region, from the Karamea and Mikonui River catchments at the northern end to the Cascade and beyond in the south. There are wilderness rivers here with numerous tributaries, glacial lakes surrounded by rainforest and the plethora of spring creeks.
Everything on the coast is a grade or two harder so this is not a place for a casual drive-by angler. Frequent rains and sandflies are also a deterrent and, even on sunny days, dedicated sight-fishers can be plagued by poor visibility that results from convective cumulus clouds. Perseverance, however, can pay off handsomely as on the coast you can catch some of the largest and prettiest trout you'll find anywhere in the world, and the wild scenery only magnifies such experience.
4. Mackenzie Country
East of the Southern Alps you'll find the watershed of the Waitaki. Apart from brown trout, the Waitaki catchment has a huge and healthy population of rainbows, and the recent comeback of sockeye salmon – which provides a huge biomass of trout food in the system – is likely to make the fish grow only larger and more numerous.
Fishing around the hydro-canals fish farms now rates as the most popular fishing activity in the South Island and, if it's your thing, it sure is an easy place to catch some absolutely monstrous trout in 20-30lbs range. There is also plenty of good still water, relatively remote rivers accessible by a robust 4x4 and a few backcounty options.
Two geographically distinct regions make up Southland: the low-lying farmlands with Gore as their centre and through which four major trout rivers – Aparima, Waiau, Ōreti and Mataura – flow in courses paralleling each other, and Fiordland which rises as if an aerie-like fortress in the southwestern corner of the country. Over the past few years I've been spending a lot of my fishing time in the lowlands, delighting in huge biomass of brown trout, epic mayfly hatches and the challenges these bring about. The access is easy and mapped out, there are no bugs to bother you and though the place is certainly popular you don't need miles of water to have a good day as you would need on a backcountry river.
Fiordland is another game entirely and except for busy drive-by places such as the Eglinton and the Waiau rivers, everything else here is an expedition. Helicopter and fix-wing floatplane access in a norm and a seaworthy boat can open up a lot of independent options. The fishing, though, is as good as it gets, with large brown and rainbow trout in dizzyingly clear water and Lord of the Rings scenery.
Choosing where to go is ultimately the factor of how you like to fish. Your fitness, eyesight and general outdoorsmanship may also weigh in. The all-including beauty of fly fishing is that it allows for many different styles and approaches that become a reflection of the personalities and attitudes of the anglers who pursue them.
Whichever path you choose, fly fishing for trout in New Zealand, you're in for a lifetime of pleasure and excitement, learning and exploration.
Professional fly fishing guide Derek Grzelewski is the author of internationally acclaimed Trout Trilogy. His latest book, Fly Fishing in New Zealand – What You Need to Know, is out now, published by Bateman Books.