Most people perceive fly-fishing to be a tranquil, poetic sport enjoyed in beautiful surroundings. However, upon giving it a go, newcomers typically struggle with casting and/or fail to catch any fish, so only try it once or twice before giving it away to pursue ‘easier’ recreational activities.
In reality, fly-fishing can be learnt at any age or stage in life, and it’s not difficult to attain a level of competency that should see you catch a fish or two per session.
The biggest difference between anglers who have little or no luck, and those who are competent, comes down to understanding where fish are most likely to be and why at any given time. But while the gap in respective capabilities and experience is huge, to go from a complete novice to a fish-catching fly-fisher doesn’t take that long. From there, provided you can make a reasonable cast to the fish so your offering is well presented, you are in with a shot.
Fly-fishing doesn’t have to be an expensive sport; in fact, some tackle distributors now have entry-level sets that are surprisingly good. For example, Manic Tackle Project has a great one under the Airflo brand that starts at just $100 for the entire package, including the rod, reel, fly-line, backing, rod tube and a free casting DVD! Only five years ago, a comparative set would have cost the consumer $500, so fly-fishing has never been cheaper.
Airflo also offers a specific set for the kids to learn on, called the ‘Brookie’. It only comes in a 6-weight and has a shorter, slimmer rod blank with a thinner handle that children from five years old can quite comfortably learn to cast with. My son started fishing with this outfit as a five-year-old and is still using it now at 12 years of age.
Obviously other brands offer their own sets at various price points, but I suggest sticking with the better-known brands to avoid disappointment. In all cases though, as the price goes up, the fly rod becomes increasingly lighter and the action faster, the reel gets lighter and stronger too, and might be fitted with a better drag system, while fly lines cast further, float higher and last longer.
When trying to decide which outfit will suit you best, consider where you will do the most fishing and buy the one that suits that situation. If intending to fish smaller streams or up in the back country, buy a 5# or a 6# set (you will find this information on the butt, just above the rod foregrip); if planning to fish lakes or chase fish over the winter in the Taupo or Rotorua regions, look at buying an 8# set.
The basic difference between the two sets is that the 6# fly rod will flex further down the rod blank when casting. This sees the rod loading up with less fly-line out of the tip, helping the angler to make very effective short casts – perfect when fishing up in the hills in small- to medium-sized rivers or in tight, confined spaces. They are also well suited to smaller lakes.
Conversely, an 8# fly rod does not suit casting short, but casts long distances with ease. The rod blank in the 8# is generally stiffer than the 6#, and the rod tip recovers faster than the 6# so more fly line needs to be passed out through the rod tip and aerialised during casting. Most 8# rods can handle very heavy flies and lines, making them perfect for the Tongariro or winter fishing in the Rotorua Lakes area.
When it comes to deciding on how many pieces the rod should be, nowadays 99% of rods break down into four pieces. Don’t worry, they’re still relatively strong. The advantage of a four-piece rod is that it fits in the boot of the car, so can’t be seen by passers-by, and is easy to transport from point A to B. They also pack down small when tramping into the mountains.
Once learnt, the art of casting a fly rod is quite simple and the skills needed to cast a fly rod well can also be taken across and used in many other forms of fishing.
Yet many people struggle with the action required to successfully cast a fly rod. Some fail to understand that, instead of a sinker loading the rod during the casting action, as with soft-baiting or surf-casting, when fly-fishing it is the fly-line that loads the rod, which then sends the fly on its way.
The best advice I can provide to help people fly-fish successfully is practice casting on the grass, well before going out on the water to have a ‘crack at it’. Keep in mind that you don’t need to cast a long way, just load the rod while casting so the fly line and leader turn over before landing. Then, once on the water, all you have to do is concentrate on the fish and not on getting the casting action right.
There are two local casting DVDs on the market, one done by Manic Tackle’s Rene Vaz and the other by Carl McNeil. Both are done very well and cover most aspects of casting very thoroughly.
Once out on the water, understanding a fish’s basic needs for survival is one of the keys to success. These requirements are simple: adequate food supply, protection from fast currents, and protection from predators. Understand these key ingredients and you will consistently catch fish.
This is why pools on the corners of rivers become natural areas for fish and anglers to converge, offering sufficient depth for cover and a constant supply of food. Pools also have areas of ‘soft’ water, just out of the main river flow, where fish can dart in and out so they are not always fighting the strong river currents.
However, while pools are natural areas that harbour trout, many anglers only ever move from pool to pool on their journey upstream, and in doing so miss out on some of the best fishing.
If pools are the natural sanctuary for fish, then runs and riffles are the food factories. When fish are found in these stretches of water, they are always feeding, making them extremely important to the angler.
Riffles and runs are shallower in nature than pools, their depth depending on the size of the river or stream, but generally they’re between knee to waist depth. This means more sunlight can penetrate through to the rocks on the bottom, which in turn promotes more insect activity and therefore more trout food.
Trout get refuge from the fast currents where the water hits the rocks and boulders. Pockets of calm water are created directly in front of and behind rocks, enabling the fish to sit in relative comfort, just waiting for food to come to them.
The best thing about fishing in areas of faster, bubbly water is that the fish have very little time to decide if they want the artificial fly or not, so generally feed less selectively.
It also pays to look out for subtle changes in water depth; often all you’ll notice is that the water changes colour slightly. In all cases, cover it with a cast, as fish will often sit in there.
If a run is fairly straight and the water deepens towards the far bank, particularly if it has vegetation lining it, the run will be a honey pot and must be fished. Also, keep an eye out for sunken logs and large boulders, as fish love to hold near these, too.
Don’t worry too much about the fly pattern, as most waterways in New Zealand do not have large, concentrated hatches, and often mayflies, stoneflies and caddis can all be seen hatching at similar times (with some exceptions).
Generally, to be consistently successful on most New Zealand rivers, practice hard and work on your presentation skills, especially if fishing upstream. Do your best to obtain a drag-free drift, so your flies drift as naturally as possible in the currents, and your hook-up rates will go up instantly.
If you decide that lakes are where you want to start your fly-fishing, just as it is in rivers, it pays to determine where the fish are and why they are there, because 95% of the water will be barren.
So look for natural feed areas that trout are naturally attracted to, or find their major food source, such as baitfish or koura, and the trout won’t be too far away.
The most obvious place to start looking is where feeder streams and river mouths either flow into the lake or drain it. These areas have a constant supply of food flowing to the waiting trout. They are also natural areas where smelt spawn and trout congregate before running up the rivers to spawn in autumn and winter.
Tributaries flowing into the lake also provide clean, cold water, which is invaluable to the trout when the lakes warm up too much over the hot summer months.
You’ll find shallow lips are formed where the rivers spill out into the lakes, made up of sediment deposited on the lake bed by the river currents, which then fall away into the lake’s depths, providing some security for nearby trout. The basic rule of thumb is the larger the feeder stream, the deeper the drop-off and the more trout that the particular area will hold.
If you intend to fish a stream mouth after dark, it pays to walk the area during the day so you know exactly where the drop-off is and how steeply it drops away. In the process, you will also know how compact the lake bed is around the sandy lip. I often drive a stake or a stick into the bottom so I know where the safe wading limits are, as an unexpected night-time swim is not great, especially if fishing by yourself.
Apart from when the trout are chasing smelt in the shallows, the best times to fish the stream mouths are at change of light in the morning, and then from dusk into the darkness. The trout come in much closer during these times, and will be in casting range for all anglers – if you’re not too noisy. Consequently, try not to wade too far out, as the fish will continue to feed right up in the shallows during the hours of darkness if disturbance is minimal.
Weed banks are another structure worth exploring and casting along, especially when fishing insect-based lakes such as Otamangakau and Aniwhenua.
The insects live in these banks of weed and hatch from them too, so trout cruise these areas regularly, especially when damselflies and dragonflies are in the air. Also, where the weed falls away into deep water gives the fish a feeling of security, so these places can be real hot spots.
If using wet flies with sinking lines, count down the descent time before retrieving your flies, so you cover different depths with every cast. It also pays to vary the speed of retrieval.
Once you have worked out the depth the fish are feeding at and the retrieval speed that gets them biting, continue to fish this way.
In your quest to become a fly-fisherman, a few things are worth remembering: serving your apprenticeship will not be easy at times, but very worthwhile rewards are there to be earned. So for best results, it’s practice and then practice some more – and nothing beats time on the water!
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