By Robby Cribbs
Three years ago, I took a bucket list trip down to New Zealand’s South Island. I was really excited after watching countless videos on YouTube of people landing monstrous brown trout in gin clear water. And, from the looks of it, it seemed quite easy given the water clarity.
I booked a trip with a well-known guide out of Queenstown. On the day of our trip, we drove up to a large meadow below towering mountain peaks. The valley held a crystal clear river that flowed over a bed of beautiful green and maroon rocks. To top it off, there was no sign of civilization. The ground wasn’t scattered with garbage or tangled balls of monofilament. There wasn’t a defined trail to the fishing holes matted down by countless anglers. And, our vehicle was the ONLY one in the parking area.
Upon seeing this, my confidence level was very high. You mean no human pressure! I was expecting a very easy and productive outing.
Little did I know, my chance of catching a trophy brown ended when I created that expectation. That day, my sole accomplishment was placing a perfect cast in a crystal clear pool that once harbored a large fish.
Like all of us anglers do after a humbling day on the river, I went to the bar and contemplated the countless reasons why the day was such a failure. It wasn’t for quite some time after this trip that I realized the true, simple reason of why I failed. I was overconfident and didn’t give the outing the respect it deserved.
To say New Zealand is a “technical” fishery is an over simplification of the word. Fly fishing in New Zealand is true trout angling at its purest form. It needs to be approached with humility, respect and patience. In fact, the first trout I hooked in New Zealand didn’t feel like trout fishing at all. I got the same feeling as shooting my first bull elk in the Gunnison high country. I didn’t kill an elk until my 6th elk hunting season for the SAME reasons I failed to catch a trout that day in New Zealand.
To the Kiwis, “sight fishing” is not just spotting big fish in clear water. If you simply walk up to a river and spot a fish, the fish saw you well before you noticed him. And, since it’s a truly wild fish, it’s not going to sit there looking at you like the fish do on a crowded tail water in Colorado. That fish will dart out of its holding water with blazing speed, headed straight for a place he knows you won’t find him. To top it off, you might not see another one for an hour.
To remedy this, one needs to be extremely patient. A trait we Americans tend to forget on occasion. Challenge yourself to slowly move up river, avoiding abrupt movement.
One technique I used to avoid spooking fish was to keep my profile hidden. For example, ducking below the horizon line or using trees and other foliage along the bank to hide my profile. This lets me get closer to fish while they’re still unaware of my presence.
Second, just because you’ve successfully spotted a fish, doesn’t mean it’s time to throw a hundred casts at it. I learned to step back and make a plan. Sit back and analyze the situation. Learn what it’s eating, where in the water column it’s feeding and how your cast will act in the current.
For example, let’s say he’s in the middle of the water column but not eating off the surface. At this point, I’ll tie on a dry dropper rig. I want a dry that floats well enough to support the nymph I’m using but not so big and gaudy that it will spook the fish. As for the dropper, I’m just as concerned about the fly being the appropriate weight as I am the correct pattern.
Here comes the hard part… The most likely time to spook that fish is while casting. . You want to stand in his blind spot, which is not directly behind the trout! Pick a spot you can stand and cast where you’re behind and to the side of the fish. That cast might be your only chance. Just like hunting an elk, make the first shot count.
If your cast doesn’t go as plan, stop and analyze again. If the fish stops feeding, I wait him out until he relaxes and feeds again. If I still can’t get him to eat, I might still get him to attack. As a last resort I’ll swing my flies by him or switch to a streamer to see if he’ll chase.
When this style of fishing pays off, the hook up is as exhilarating as you can imagine. And, it works just as well in Colorado as it does in the Southern Alps. I challenge everyone who reads this to treat your next fishing trip like a hunting trip and see what happens. You might just find the fish of a lifetime gently sipping mayflies off the surface. Slow down and treat that fish like a trophy elk. It might change your entire outlook on the sport.
Robby is a professional fly tier and fishing guide for Colorado Trout Fisher and The Flyfisher Guide Service. When not on the water you can find Robby and his family… wait a minute, you probably won’t. They’ll be somewhere off in the high-country enjoying everything Colorado has to offer!