I was tromping along the edge of the Wilkin River when guide Paul Wright, treading a few steps ahead of me, held his hand up for me to stop.
“I’ve got a fish here,” he called above the steady gurgle of the river. “It’s a brownie, I believe. About 10 feet out from that rock that’s above the water. Can you see it?”
The water had a sparkling clarity, an aquamarine hue suggesting the Caribbean more than a mountain stream.
“I can’t make it out,” I replied. Though the brown trout was less than 40 feet away — and nearly 24 inches in length — it was invisible to my uneducated eyes as it finned above the rocky bottom in less than two feet of water.
“He looks happy. Give me a cast about 10 feet above the rock and 15 feet out from the bank. The current should bring it over him.” I made one false cast and dropped the fly above the rock, but a little too close to the bank. “Let it come past and then cast a bit right.”
When the fly was well beyond the fish’s location — at least where Paul said the fish was, as I had still not spotted it myself — I made a second cast.
“I like that one,” he said. Seconds later, a large spotted head popped out of the water and engulfed my beetle fly. I lifted the rod and was connected to a feisty brown trout. My fly rod bent double and line peeled off my reel as the fish tore about, leaping clear of the water twice before coming to Paul’s net. It was a thing of beauty — buttery golden skin, dotted with fine black and silver spots.
Paul gently removed the fly, revived the fish by holding it by the tail in the current, and let go. The fish beat a hasty retreat, soon blending with the river’s rocky substrate. We shook hands and continued walking upstream, searching for the next fish.
The South Island of New Zealand has seen an uptick in visitors since the Lord of the Rings trilogy — and now, The Hobbit — graced the big screen; many fans have been eager to see the sweeping “Middle-earth” scenery featured so prominently in the films. I’m one of 11 people who have not seen Peter Jackson’s epics, yet I have still long desired to visit the South Island. Instead of exploring Frodo and Gollum’s haunts, though, I longed to unfurl my fly line on a few of its countless trout streams.
Like so many Kiwi inhabitants, both rainbow and brown trout were imported to the island nation in the 1800s — in their case, from California and Britain, respectively. With no natural predators, the fish have thrived. The average South Island trout stream does not contain enough forage to sustain more than a few fish, but the trout that are present are quite large, averaging three to six pounds, with fish in the eight-to-10-pound range encountered every year.
It’s the combination of big fish, spectacular scenery and streams clear enough to allow anglers to stalk their prey that has made New Zealand, particularly the South Island, a bucket-list destination for diehard trout anglers.
Chris Daughters — guide, fly shop proprietor and now owner of Cedar Lodge in Makarora — is an American who was drawn to the South Island more than 20 years ago.
“I’d just finished college and had heard it was a great place to go for a fishing vacation on the cheap,” he recalled. “Some guys from the fly shop (where Daughters was then an employee) and I saved our pennies and spent three months that winter bumming around, fishing. I was taken with the landscape, the friendly people and the quality of the fishing.
“Some years later, my wife, Shauna, took me to Cedar Lodge to celebrate my 40th birthday, and I was taken with the spot. Its location on the border of Mount Aspiring National Park provides fantastic access to a great diversity of water — big braided rivers flowing into the region’s vast lakes, intimate streams in steep valleys and wild, seldom-visited rivers on the west side of the Southern Alps that drain into the Tasman Sea.”
A few years later when Cedar Lodge came up for sale, Daughters purchased the property. Now, he and his family split their time between Makaroa and Eugene, Oregon. Chris coordinates fishing activities and sometimes guides; Shauna oversees day-to-day lodge operations and home-schools the kids; their 10-year-old daughter sometimes ties flies for clients.
Cedar Lodge, established in 1979, holds a venerable place on the roster of New Zealand fishing lodges. Founder Dick Fraser helped pioneer heli-fishing on the South Island, flying anglers to stretches of river that might take days to reach on foot — if they could be reached at all. A helipad sits at the south end of the property, separated from the lodge by a five-hole “rural” golf course (where a few passes of the lawnmower create fairways and greens) that doubles as a sheep paddock in the offseason.
Cedar Lodge is intimate; four comfortably appointed rooms, each with a bathroom and deck overlooking the mountains, can accommodate a maximum of eight guests. Meals are taken in the lounge area or, on clear evenings, at an outside dining area.
A host of non-fishing activities are available, including wine tasting in the Central Otago region (just over the mountains to the east); spa days in the resort town of Wanaka; four-wheel drive tours of local farms where cattle, sheep and red stag are raised; and eco-tours ranging from heli-hiking to jet-boat trips. Even bungee-jumping excursions can be arranged — the pastime’s first commercial operation was established a few hours south in Queenstown.
But the great majority of visitors come to Cedar Lodge to fish.
A day at Cedar Lodge begins with a hearty breakfast; a favorite during my stay was a breakfast sandwich featuring locally farmed eggs, bacon, avocado and tomato chutney on a freshly baked croissant. (Chef Steve Weiler makes a special effort to highlight local ingredients in his cuisine.)
While guests enjoy a second cup of coffee, Daughters and his guides share the day’s itinerary. With miles of fishable water on a dozen rivers to choose from, the day’s destination is determined by weather conditions and how recently the rivers have been fished.
Anglers then don their fishing togs – polypropylene long underwear and nylon shorts with wading boots are favored over traditional waders because the air is warm, the rivers not too cold and a fair bit of hiking is involved. Then each pair of anglers heads across the golf course to the helicopter — an R44 Raven II — to embark on their adventure.
On my first day out, pilot/guide Dion Matheson provided the basic rules: Hold your hat as you’re approaching the copter, let your guide load your gear in the storage compartment, use the handle (not the door) to pull yourself in, attach your seatbelt, pop on your headphones … and enjoy the views.
Seconds after strapping in, we were off, soaring above the Makarora River that borders the lodge property before banking right into the wide valley formed by the Wilkin.
There’s a saying among Kiwi helicopter pilots, “The wind begins in Makarora,” and indeed, it was howling that morning. But Matheson hugged a hillside festooned in beech trees to ensure safe passage. Shifting clouds revealed the peaks of snow-capped mountains beyond the green hills. After five minutes, we set down.
The scenery was every bit as dramatic as I’ve witnessed in the trout havens of Montana and Alaska, with the added bonus that there were no bears or other critters in the woods with the capacity to kill me! There were no other anglers for miles.
It must be said that fishing on the clear rivers of the South Island is challenging. The trout on these systems are few and often far between. That means you’ll do a fair bit of streamside hiking (with occasional bushwhacking) as you move upstream trying to find fish. I averaged two or three miles each day on the river, sometimes scrambling 50 yards behind guide Paul Wright, who positively bounded over boulders and brush.
Once you do spot a fish — or your guide does — it takes a careful cast to entice the fish to bite. First, the angler must drop the fly gently above the fish so the current can carry it down. If you slap the line down on the water, the trout will be startled and put off. The angler must also control the downstream path of the fly — the drift, in angling parlance — so the fly appears as if it’s floating naturally in the current. If you do all these things right and the fish is willing, you must be careful not to set the hook too quickly, lest you pull the fly out of the trout’s mouth.
“If you wait the amount of time it takes to say ‘God save the Queen,’” Daughters said, “you’re about right.”
Although fishermen are permitted to keep up to three fish a day on most South Island rivers, Cedar Lodge endorses catch-and-release angling.
Sight-fishing for trout requires tremendous focus. But Wright pointed out the importance of looking up from time to time. “If you’re missing the scenery, you’re only getting half the experience,” he said.
On my last day, Daughters and I fished an unnamed river west of the crest of the Southern Alps. As the helicopter darted through a small hole in the low-lying clouds, we were greeted by a riot of green, the dense beech forests punctuated with lighter-colored cabbage tree palms. At one point, Daughters spotted a large brown trout in a pool below a huge boulder. Thick brush enveloped the shoreline.
“The only way you can get to the fish is to crawl down through the brush to that rock outcropping and make a side-arm cast. I call it Hobbit fishing,” Daughters said.
I gently dropped down to the rock in question and made a cast without tangling the fly in the brush behind me. The current slid the fly a bit to the right of the fish.
“Try again, more right,” Daughters said. The second cast was dead on. The fly drifted right over the fish … but it was unimpressed, and swam slowly across the river, in plain view but out of range.
If it was easy, catching a Hobbit trout wouldn’t mean as much.
But the defeats are as compelling as the victories when recounted over drinks back at the lodge. After swapping a few fish tales at happy hour (with the guides present to prevent said tales from becoming too tall), there was time for a few holes of golf — and a few more indignities in my case — before Weiler served up an entree of pan-fried, panko-crusted red stag. Though usually squeamish around venison, I found this dish delicately prepared and well paired with a local, award-winning Akarua pinot noir.
The murmur of the Makaroa was barely audible in the background as the setting sun glinted off the peaks of the Southern Alps to the west. Peter Jackson couldn’t have scripted a better ending to a South Island day.
Chris Santella is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. A television series based on his first book, “Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die,”in running on World Fishing Network.
Fishing at Makarora, New Zealand
Cedar Lodge, 78 School Rd., Makarora; 011-64-3-443-8285; www.cedarlodge.net. A five-night/four-day fishing package is $4,500 per person. Price includes accommodations, meals, alcohol, guide services and daily helicopter fly-out (weather permitting). Anglers will need a New Zealand fishing license, available at www.fishandgame.org.nz.