"Fantastic, you'll have fish for dinner!" my cousin enthused when I told her I was learning the art of fly fishing at Owen River Lodge.
She's married to a die-hard fisherman who's so passionate about trout fishing, he bought himself a canning machine and now dines on his catch year-round. So I almost didn't have the heart to tell her – every trout caught with the lodge's guides gets to swim free.
Whether it's the spotty-patterned brown trout or the iridescent rainbow trout, they've never been on the lodge's fine dining menu – and never will be. International chef, Ryan Hewitt, who has worked in restaurant kitchens in the USA, London, and Auckland, can remember just one couple arriving at the lodge adamant they would catch the fishy breakfast he'd cook for them.
Owen River Lodge's founder and owner, Felix Borenstein, explains: "It's actually illegal for us to catch trout to put on our lodge menu. If guests insist on catching their dinner, our chefs will prepare it for them. But no trout have died here in over a decade."
Take a closer look at the numerous photographs lining the elegant, 18-year-old lodge's walls, and you'll realise every fish being held up by a triumphant fisherman or fisherwoman is very much alive. Their mouths are clearly in motion as the camera clicks. River water is running off their glistening bodies and their eyes look a little wild – no doubt they are wanting to flip free and accelerate away.
"We call these 'grip and grin' photos," Felix explains. "There are four parts to fly fishing here. Firstly, we walk up the river until we spot a fish, then we cast, then we hook the fish and, once it's been reeled in, it's kept submerged in the net until our guest is ready for a quick grip and grin photograph before they release the trout."
"That moment when the fish is set free can almost be a spiritual experience – it's a quiet, beautiful, Zen moment", he says.
There's a certain sweet parallel between Felix's own life path and his ethos on preserving the lives of many hundreds of trout. Fly fishing, he says, most certainly saved his life.
Living and working in the corporate world of inner-city Melbourne in the 1990s, Felix owned a large I.T. company and spent much of his high-stress working life flying between his offices in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra.
"Two of my best mates had been concerned about my lifestyle for some time. I was a 'workaholic,' and they knew I was also using cocaine," Felix says. "They decided the three of us should go into the countryside and do a course in fly fishing.
"Two brothers ran the live-in course. When the weekend was over, they voted me as the least likely of our group of three to become a fly fisherman, because I was so unco-ordinated."
But Felix was smitten, despite his first catch being the feathered kind - a keen-eyed swallow that swooped down to catch the bug-like fly, just as Felix cast his line.
"I was instantly addicted," he grins. "I immediately started taking Thursdays off work so I could spend every weekend fly fishing for four days' straight.
In 2001, when the Dot.com high-finance bubble burst, Felix says he watched his IT business "collapse in freefall," but he managed to avoid bankruptcy, re-mortgaging his home so he could pay out his staff.
During those immensely stressful times, he happened to see an episode of a television show called "A River Somewhere", which focused on the D'Urville River and Lake Rotoroa Lodge in New Zealand's Nelson Lakes National Park.
"I booked my first fly fishing trip to Lake Rotoroa Lodge, and over the following five years I made 21 trips from Melbourne to fly-fish there. I spent a whole season travelling around the South Island in 2002, fishing all the best spots on the West Coast and in McKenzie Country and Southland, trying to decide where I could establish my own lodge."
Six months later, Felix bought the property now known as Owen River Lodge, nestled on the border of Kahurangi National Park on the Nelson side of Murchison. Transforming the "old and dumpy farmhouse and the weed-ridden land" took six intense months of renovations, designing and building six luxurious chalets and extensively landscaping the 6.4-hectare property, which included planting thousands of native trees, shrubs and flaxes.
This high-end, stylish and luxurious lodge overlooking the Owen River, with a spectacular mountainous backdrop, soon became world famous within the international fly fishing fraternity. It's considered an absolute prize jewel on the list of must-visit lodges, especially for its proximity to more than 30 rivers and streams - all of them the crystal-clear home of big, healthy trout. As Felix says, "New Zealand's brown trout don't live in ugly places."
A further 10 wilderness rivers are hidden away in the national parks surrounding the lodge. If that's where you want to fish, Felix arranges a water taxi for you and your guide, or you can be helicoptered into the more remote locations.
International visitors have always known better than New Zealanders where to find this incredibly beautiful hideaway. But, with the advent of Covid-19 and the subsequent travel restrictions, Owen River Lodge's guest profile has completely belly-flopped from 99 per cent international guests to all-Kiwi holidaymakers – many of them trying their hand at fly fishing for the first time.
Virtually every single day of the fly-fishing season (October to April), Owen River Lodge guests reel in a hefty trout. New Zealand trout have quite a reputation for their impressive size, and rightly so, Felix says. They can weigh five to six pounds, but guests also catch big trout weighing in the double digits.
My delight over learning these fish are released, grows when Felix tells me he and his team of six fishing guides sometimes recognise the trout - they've "seen that face before".
"Brown trout are territorial. They like to live their life in the same neighbourhood, so now and then we literally recognise them. They've been caught and released four or five times over the years and are none the worse for wear. We also ensure we rest the river for four or five days if we've just fished in that area."
To entice more Kiwis to the lodge during this peak (summer) season, Felix has reduced the package rates by 35 per cent. And if you're relishing the idea of trying your hand at fly fishing, but your travel buddy doesn't share your enthusiasm, there are plenty of activities on offer which don't require you to don waders or refine a casting technique.
The lodge has a comprehensive guide of non-fishing activities, which includes walks on some of the area's stunning tracks or a drive to nearby townships such as Murchison and St Arnaud. Go white water rafting, jetboating, or mountain biking.
Owen River Lodge is just over an hour's drive from Nelson's extensive wine country and 90 minutes' drive to Nelson city's art galleries, extensive shopping, and its celebrated Saturday morning market.
But, simply allowing yourself to completely relax in the ambience of this gloriously peaceful lodge is hugely tempting, particularly if you've a "too busy" and often stressful lifestyle. You can read, languish in the outdoor spa pool, enjoy a therapeutic massage – or self-indulge with middle-of-the-day naps. Within the lodge's grounds, you'll see and hear tūī, korimako (bellbird), pīwakawaka (fantail), tauhou (silvereye), miromiro (tomtit) and riroriro (grey warbler). Weka and fernbirds often fossick in the gardens. By night you'll hear the distinctive call of ruru (morepork) and you might even see one swooping to catch the nocturnal moths in flight.
Conservation and care for the environment and wildlife are top of Felix's list. Right from the start (in 2003) he has ensured building materials are sustainable, recycling and composting is paramount, and the lodge's carbon footprint has just been declared carbon positive – a step better for the environment than carbon neutral.
Even the stunning floral arrangements in every room and the fresh vegetables and herbs served from the lodge kitchen have side-stepped packaging and carbon mile-making transport. Both are organically grown on site.
It's difficult to gauge whether Felix's partner, Kylie Sargeant, is more passionate about growing swathes of old-fashioned ranunculi, tulips, anemones, peonies and dahlias – or fly fishing. She just happens to be New Zealand's only woman casting instructor who has "Fly Fishing International" certification. Each year, she gives casting instruction to members of "Casting for Recovery" – a project for women who have been through breast cancer and its various treatments. Felix donates the lodge's facilities to the group every year.
Kylie arrived at Owen River from Queensland five years ago for a three-month stint as a casting instructor and to assist Felix with the lodge's operations. She and Felix fell in love, and she has been there ever since.
Despite the ongoing angst caused by Covid-19 and the lockdowns, which have more than once stripped the diary of bookings, Owen River Lodge continues to gain recognition in the world of tourism. There hasn't been a single international guest at the lodge since March 2020, yet it has just been named a winner in Conde Nast Traveller's 2021 Readers' Choice Awards.
"It's the second year in a row that we've done it," says Felix. "We've also been awarded New Zealand's Leading Lodge in the 2021 World Travel Awards. I'm particularly proud of that one, as we're up against the likes of Blanket Bay, Huka Lodge and Hulbert House.
"Earlier this year we were winners in Qualmark's 2021 100% Pure New Zealand Awards and that follows on from wins in the 2018 and 2019 New Zealand Tourism Industry Awards."
Immensely proud of the accolades, Felix marvels over his lodge's success, despite its location, tucked away in the depths of the countryside and barely even heard of by most New Zealanders, until Covid-19 raised its ugly head.
Guided fishing packages start from $2345pp for three nights/two days, going up to $5920pp for seven nights/six days. Rates include accommodation, all meals, house wine with meals, beer, Wi-Fi, and the use of all lodge facilities including use of the fly fishing equipment. The lodge is open from October 1 to April 30. owenriverlodge.co.nz
Check alert level restrictions, vaccine requirements and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz