Fishing Bowscale Tarn

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Fishing Bowscale Tarn“And both the undying Fish that swim. Through Bowscale-Tarn did wait on him, The pair were Servants of his eye In their immortality, They moved about in open sight, To and fro, for his delight.”

The second of the three remote lakes forming the target of most of the trips I made with my father and brother between the late sixties and eighties is one I first heard about when a group of fishermen burst into the old Lake Daniells hut in the middle of the night. After mentioning the name of the tarn, one of the party stated that the trout there would take flies ‘made out of a broom’, which sounds about as far-fetched as the legend of the immortal fish that were alleged to dwell in Bowscale Tarn’s English namesake that the poet Wordsworth alludes to in the verses above.

However, the density of brown trout in New Zealand’s Bowscale, along with their readiness to snatch an artificial fly under most conditions, has made the lake a favourite with fishermen who are prepared to make the long journey over a rough road, and heft a pack uphill and down dale for fifty minutes or so.


Fishing Bowscale tarnSituated in the heart of the Tarndale Lakes on Molesworth Station, Bowscale Tarn can be accessed by taking the Hanmer Road from Christchurch. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, as much of the road can be rough, particularly early in the season. Once in Hanmer, take the road 940m to Jack’s Pass. Upon reaching the T intersection at the Clarence River, turn left and follow this road to the 1347m Island Saddle. This pass is not for the faint-hearted. If in the unfortunate position where you have to pass an upcoming vehicle on the way down, your left-side passengers will feel a little queasy if they decide to glance downwards.

The road between the summit and the confluence with the Lake Sedgemere track can suffer rock falls, so access to the Sedgemere parking area is not guaranteed. From the carpark, Bowscale Tarn is reached by heading east along a ridgeline, which dips before climbing to a plateau. From this point Island Lake can be viewed away to the south. The track dips again before climbing to the highest point of the trek.

On the descent, two lakes come into view. The first, which we dubbed ‘Lake X’, used to hold a population of large brown trout, but they have now disappeared, perhaps as a result of global warming.

The second and larger rectangular lake is Bowscale Tarn. As the long sides of the lake are paralleled on one side by an embankment and on the other by a hill, it is easy to be fooled into thinking that this tarn points in a northerly direction, but it actually faces east. In clear conditions, it is possible to see the sharp peak of 2880-metre Mount Tapuae-O-Uenuku (literally: ‘footprint of the rainbow’) rising well beyond the end of the tarn to the east.

If the tarn hasn’t had a lot of attention, mud-larking browns can be seen cruising over the south-western mud bank, which is your first contact with Bowscale. The western end used to be a good one for camping because of the pine tree thicket that had been planted there. However, because of the wilding pine problem, these have been felled. Prior to the planting, we would camp in the first dip encountered when walking along the southern shoreline. However, there is virtually no protection from the powerful nor’westers that regularly sweep the area, so any tents used should be able to withstand strong gales.

There is a good reason for staying the night – namely the excellent night fishing and the early morning chironomid rise, a rise-fest that will test the mettle of the finest lake fisherman. At an elevation of 1155 metres, Bowscale Tarn is one of the highest accessible lakes in the country, so it is wise to carry plenty of warm gear in case the wind changes to a southerly. If there is one in the pipeline, it’s a good idea to take note of the projected snow level, as Island Saddle, being New Zealand’s highest pass on a public road, could become impassable.

Fishing conditions

For the Bowscale Tarn fisherman, wind strength is more significant than wind direction. As the west, south and eastern shorelines provide ready access to trout habitat, there is virtually no time when it’s not possible to find a lee shore to cast from. The northern shore drops away quite steeply, and is not favoured as a fishing location for trout, although the bays at each end are productive.

The ideal scenario is for light winds in the first half of the season. Murdoch and I experienced light to moderate breezes from a westerly quarter on our day trip to Bowscale in October 2008. By the time we’d headed off to Fish Lake for the chance of a bigger fish, we had each landed eight trout. All of mine and five of Murdoch’s were taken on a brown Woolly Bugger. On our last trip in April 2010, the lake was a mirror for most of the day. Fishing was very difficult, and I could only land one fish. It took a size 16 unweighted flashabou nymph that was little more than a bare hook.

Recommended techniques

Fishing Bowscale tarnSituated in the Marlborough-Nelson Fish & Game region, Bowscale Tarn is open for business between October 1 and April 30. Artificial fly and spinner are the approved fishing methods, and there is a two-fish bag limit.

The browns of Bowscale are easier to catch than their less remote counterparts. Spinning with a Toby or Toby-like lure is productive early in the morning and when the wind is stirring the surface, but I’ve seen metal produce the goods even in calm conditions – although that was before the end of December. The middle section of the southern shoreline can really go off at about 4.30 in the afternoon, when the fish seem to throw all caution to the winds. We used to call that period the ‘afternoon slaughter’.

Fishing with the fly rod is a more satisfying way to catch Bowscale’s browns. Hatching chironomids on the mud bank that forms the top half of the southern shoreline provide a real challenge for an angler with an armoury of very small dry flies. Casting onto a rise-form, then dragging the fly a centimetre or two can break the deadlock, but retrieving a small green or brown Woolly Bugger is an easier way to catch them.

The lake is shallow enough to use a floating line when retrieving a Woolly Bugger, but I use a clear intermediate 40+ line and strip the fly quite quickly. A Woolly Bugger suddenly dropping from the sky can be mistaken for a dragonfly or cicada by a marauding brown, so it pays to be ready to strike as soon as your fly hits the surface.

Damsel fly nymph fishing provides another challenge. My mate Lindsay found that when conditions were relatively calm, a small and sparsely tied unweighted nymph placed just in front of the nose of a cruising trout did the trick. Another technique is the normal ambush technique, where a small, green, weighted nymph placed beyond the projected path of a cruiser is scudded from the bottom just prior to the trout’s arrival. A retrieved damselfly nymph elicits takes when there is a chop on the water.

The Love’s Lure dry fly is recommended when there are green beetles and dragonflies on the wing. In calm conditions, it pays to have a very small Love’s Lure on hand to place in front of a cruising fish. A survey of fish stomachs indicates that snails make up the bulk of food items. As snails are taken from the surface when they come up to breathe, it would be wise to include snail imitations in your tackle box.

Probably the easiest way to fly-fish for trout in the tarn is at night when there is no moon. Not having fished into the night or stayed overnight for many years, I haven’t been able to determine whether the night fishing is still as good as it was. One memorable night many years ago, Malcolm, Dad and I started fishing in the northwest bay. By the time we had reached the northeast bay, we’d accounted for 37 trout between us. These were fish averaging at least three pounds. Mine were caught on a Mrs Simpson and Hamill’s Killer rig.

Trout size

The size of trout varies with the season, although they seem to be smaller now. It could be that increasing numbers outstrip the food supply. Other variables which affect trout size and numbers are the occasional algal blooms. These turn the normally clear water into a chalky opaqueness. Although I have never witnessed it, large-scale mortality can occur as a result of these blooms. Fewer trout then grow larger until the numbers build up again. There is no possibility of fish completely dying off, because Bowscale Tarn’s outlet stream drains into the Severn River.

If the small size of trout begins to trouble you, there is always Fish Lake, just a twenty-minute walk away to the northwest. Here the fish are larger, but harder to catch. Following our success at the Tarn in 2008, Murdoch caught a nice five-pounder there on a spinner, capping off a successful day.

Bowscale Tarn is not just about the fish ‘that move to and fro for our delight’. It is about the ever-changing light on a high-country lake, the reflection of great mountains, golden tussocks, great times with family, and skylarks – the spring and summer songbirds that proclaim the joys of heaven to the earth beneath. On a moonlit night they will even serenade anyone who is awake enough to listen.



This article is reproduced with express permission of
NZ Fishing News

written by Adrian Bell - 2011
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

Originally published in New Zealand Fishing News



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