In New Zealand, the term ‘4 seasons in a day’ is more than often the norm, regardless of the time of year. When Fly Fishing for trout the daily changes can certainly make a difference to your day, but it is more the annual season changes that you should be observing and adjusting your tactics to suit.
Trout are very habitual and at times, a stubborn species. They know what they want, when they want it. Meaning you often have to curtail their will if you ever have a chance of success, whether it’s in summer, winter, autumn or spring.
Down here in the lower South Island, seasons are very distinct and you can both see and feel the abrupt change. These changes in the North Island can often feel more subtle and drawn out. However the way the climate is now, the season calendar no longer applies and it’s anyone's guess when they begin and end.
The most amazing thing about Trout is they also feel these changes and base their whole lives upon them. This is no more evident than in the lower South when the cooling late summer/early autumn weather sets off a mass migration of browns up the rivers towards their spawning grounds. This tied in with the late season mayfly hatch (also brought on by the cooling) can make for some of the most spectacular fishing in the country, if not the world!
Conversely in the North Island we see the mid-summer run of browns up the central north island spring creeks and the world famous winter Rainbow run up the Tongariro.
This article is not intended to indicate ‘this is when to fish’, but more to clearly indicate how the seasons can drastically affect where you should fish and how you fish. Without mentioning the obvious regulated seasons, we are going to dive into the why, when and how of the typical trout fishing season to help you better understand your local waters and how to approach them.
One of my favorite times of year, spring is when the world comes alive again, the fishing season opens and there are opportunities abound.
Every year, spring usually presents itself differently in the south, sometimes it’s dry and windy, other times it’s wet and windy… the fact is it’s windy! This can make for some challenging times on the main water catchments, particularly when they are still high from winter run off. That is why it’s time to go exploring.
The best thing about spring is all those fish that headed into the headwaters for spawning are often still there. Usually waiting for a drop in water level or a big flood to ride out, meaning you can find some serious fish in some very tiny places. Some of my most memorable fish and fishing days have been exploring these places during early spring, with some of them usually reverting to just a trickle in summer.
Fishing in spring is not easy, the river levels are often higher and the water has colour, but you have one thing going for you, the fish are hungry! After the long winter months of decreased feeding, the fish are keen to pack on condition again and are often not too worried about what they have to eat to get there.
So during the first few months of the season, my fly box resembles a bit of a horror show with big rubber legged nymphs and the good old faithful, gummy worm… The trick here is to be seen. With so much water and sediment flushing out from winter, the fish needs to see your fly and not think twice. That’s where the worm comes in, often a last resort in summer, it is almost a guarantee in spring. Fish will immediately recognize the bright colour and wiggling motion, knowing that it is a big feed and will sometimes move a mile to intercept.
However, spring is not just about the big ugly stuff, it’s also a time when afternoon mayfly hatches can be prevalent and some great Dryfly action can be had. It’s often hit and miss but the days it does happen, it can be amazing. So keep an eye on the fish's behavior, is it lifting up the water column to eat? Then it’s worth chucking on a dry dropper and giving it a go!
As spring slowly transforms to summer (something that feels later now than ever) there is a different feel about being out on the water. The mornings are warm, the days are hot and the walk back to the car can be brutal!
New Zealand summers are usually relatively mild and stable. This means that water levels are reasonable, water temps are stable and the fish are in their prime feeding time. However over the past few years we are starting to see more instances of extremes such as long droughts and heavy floods.
When fishing in the heights of summer, we need to become a bit more selective about the waters we fish, both for the best opportunities of success and the health of the fishery. When river levels get too low and water temps rise, it can become a death zone for trout. Attempting to catch fish in these conditions is not advised and it’s best to head somewhere else to ensure the ongoing health of the fishery.
Therefore, you want to target waterways that have strong, aerated flows. These are usually present in the mountain landscapes or upper reaches of rivers. Here you will find fish feeding amongst the faster riffles and runs, where there is the most oxygen. Although they can be tougher to spot, these fish are often avid feeders and won’t hesitate to inhale anything that falls on the water, particularly if it’s large. So it’s worth taking your time to look intently into riffles and runs, particularly for movement. Fish in this type of water will often be moving erratically to inecept food as it moves at pace past their feeding position.
The ‘crem de la crem’ of fly fishing in NZ is catching trout on a large terrestrial dry fly pattern. These flies represent anything that falls onto the water such as Ants, Spiders, Beetles, Blowflys, or the favorite of most anglers, the Cicada. Cicada fishing is like our version of mouse fishing and it’s not unusual to see a fish swim meters across a river to inhale one. The thing to keep in mind when fishing these large dry flies is that it can be tricky for a fish to eat them, so patience is the key. When the fish rises to eat the dry, wait until it has then gone back underwater before you strike. It is not unusual for a fish to miss the fly or knock it away and if they do, they will often come around for a second shot should you not yank it off the water!
If you are fishing where flows may be lower, the fish can become extra wary and unreasonably spooky. This is the time when it’s important to lengthen your leader and keep your distance. The longer your leader, the more leeway you have in your cast and also the less drag that will be forced on your fly. These can become very difficult to cast, especially with larger flies. So just remember that you are better off fishing a leader you can actually roll out, rather than one that just dumps down in a pile on top of the fish.
As the days begin to shorten, the sun starts to drop in the sky and the mornings become crisp, you know that Autumn has arrived. With the changing leaves, the Trout follow, taking on darker and more vivid tones as they make their way upstream.
It can be a challenging transition for the angler to go from long days with the sun high in the sky towards strong shadows and harsh glare. The goal here is to pick your place and time. With the sun low in the sky, it’s important to pick areas that will give you a better chance to read water and spot fish. This means you may be better off targeting a tree lined river or a section with high banks that have a backdrop to cut out the glare. Or it may be making the most of an open area where no shadows will be cast on the water. This all depends on the day and piece of water, just be observant and you will notice some places are better than others.
With the days beginning to cool, fish are on a last ditch attempt to put on condition to hold through winter. This means that feeding can be ferocious, but also erratic. Though if you time it right, it can be insanity!
There is no more obvious example of this than in the lowland rivers of Southland. During Autumn, if the conditions are right, you can experience a Mayfly hatch unlike any other in NZ. During the mid-late afternoon, what previously looked like a dead patch of water can erupt into a boiling pot of rising fish. Although they are often very selective so you need to be on your game.
When there is a large hatch, a fish's best chance of getting the most food is to focus on just the most common thing they are seeing. Because of this they will often focus or key into the size, shape and/or colour of a specific insect, ignoring the rest. This means you have to be deliberate and calculated in your fly selection to ‘match the hatch’:
- Firstly, how is the fish rising? Are they breaking the surface or bulging just beneath? This is your first indication of the fly type you will choose, either an emerger or dry fly.
- Then, what is the size and color of the insects? Its important you try to select the closest possible pattern to this with the size/profile being the most important. If in doubt, try to scoop some specimens from the edge of a rifle to examine and match.
- Lastly, presentation is everything: Regardless of how good your fly looks, the fish is unlikely to eat it unless it is served how they like it. Try using a lighter tippet size and align yourself in a way that reduces drag on the line. With the amount of food coming down, sometimes it can take multiple passes before the fish even sees your fly, so don't give up and focus intently on the drift before changing the fly.
Winter is seen as a reset period for most trout. Whether they spawn or not, winter marks the end of the previous growth year and the beginning of a new one.
During winter, fish will slow down their feeding as the water temp drops. Those that choose to spawn will begin to head to the headwaters, often battling each other along the way. The #1 priority for these spawning fish is to ensure the survival of their genes. They have little regard for themselves or any interest in feeding. That is why during this time, your best bet in catching these fish is either to piss them off, or offer them eggs from another fish. After all, the more of others they eat the more chance that their young survive instead!
This is where Streamers and ‘Glo-Bugs’ (egg patterns) come in. The former are very effective in enticing an eat from a fish trying to protect it’s patch from pesky invaders. Often swung down and across the current, this method is great for covering large swaths of water in a short time, not to mention the take can be one hell of a surprise!
If you prefer to upstream nymph or target sighted fish, this is where the egg patterns come in. These little fluoro balls of fluff are magnets to aggressive fish and will make even the most stubborn ones move for an intercept. The key with these is to use a lot of weight. Fish on a spawning run will likely be hugging the bottom, so you need to get down to them fast. The wool egg patterns usually float, but that's a good thing. By adding weight to the line above they fly, they will naturally be suspended just above the bottom and right in the prime position for a eat.
So as you should now see, the 4 seasons can offer wildly different fishing opportunities and require a variety of methods to get the best results. As I always say, observation is the key. So before you jump in, take a look around, watch and feel the water and decide on what you think will be the mode of the day. Be aware of any changes and adapt to suit. The more you are aware of these the better angler you will become.
So regardless of the season, get out there and start putting these tactics to the test on your own rivers, you may just learn something new.