Central Otago is a special place and if you class yourself as a hunter/gatherer, destinations don’t get much better, says Alistair Arkell, who recently spent time exploring its many opportunities…
Central Otago just oozes world-class hunting and fishing and of course, if you’re partial to a glass of pinot noir, you’re really going to love the Mackenzie country. It’s a spectacular landscape on many levels and is an outstanding winter or summer destination for the fisherman or hunter who is wanting a break-out experience that offers something quite different from their usual haunts.
Personally, it’s the winter time that gets me excited about visiting Twizel and its surrounding canals, which has a lot to do with the still air and the possibility of snow-covered surrounds that create world class images. The thought of photographing a huge lit up rainbow trout with snow falling around you, well, in-situation images don’t get much cooler.
Recently my job took me to this Central Otago paradise and provided me with the opportunity to catch up with some of the region’s best anglers, namely Sam Macklin and Charles Smith. I quickly learnt, when fishing this region, that although there are uncountable big fish in the canals, years of fishing pressure means angling skills need to be a littler sharper than those required in the early days of the canal rush – but top anglers like Sam and Charles still always catch big fish! If you’re heading in this direction, it is vital that you spend some time getting set-up correctly with the right gear and rigs and then get the good oil on when, where and how to fish the canals.
Any of the big tackle stores within a four-hour car drive of the canals will be able to fill you in on the pertinent information. Sure, it might cost you a couple bucks in fishing tackle, but having the right gear and advice will make a significant difference to whether you are catching fish or just standing still wondering why everyone else is walking down the canal….
If you want to take it to another level, hiring a guide will basically guarantee you a big fish as these guys and girls are on the canals all the time and have their finger on the pulse. If you’re serious about a big fish, I would strongly recommend getting a guide for at least a day. The knowledge that people like Charles Smith have is immeasurable and once you’ve had some help for a day, it takes minimal time to go from a novice canal fisherman to catching fish on a regular basis.
Trout and salmon, and big ones, with the former getting to gigantic sizes. Expect to catch 15lb trout and if you’re lucky, a true dream fish over 20lb – and if you’re really, really lucky, a behemoth of over 30 pounds. The size range doesn’t stop there: 40lb trout have been landed in the canals – these are freakishly big fish!
The population of trout is self-sustaining and has thrived since the original fish releases of trout due to the ample amount of high-quality food available, courtesy of the salmon farms. It’s no surprise the fish grow to such epic proportions with high grade food, designed for fast growth rates, literally falling from the sky.
Charles Smith with a spectacular brown trout - they aren't all monsters in the canals.
Fishing around the salmon cages is the best, if not the best place for catching big fish, and for obvious reasons! There is a non-stop food supply and the fish probably feel some level of safety hovering beneath the cages.
Salmon, on the other hand, are mostly escaped fish with a relatively short life expectancy of three t0 five years. Typically, these fish are not the smartest around and have limited fighting qualities – quite different to wild-bred fish. If there is a mass escape of salmon, as there was in June 2019, you can easily catch your limit, otherwise a little more time and effort is required.
Salmon are great to eat, but outside of this, there is not too much exciting to say about them. Big trout is what lures hundreds of anglers to the region every year; however, with trout the size of small dogs cruising the banks of the canals, at times breaching in plain view, you need to make sure you bring a keen level of angling skill to hook and land them.
To give you an idea on fight times, a well-conditioned rainbow hen or jack of 20 pounds will easily take 15 minutes to land and it’s not uncommon for fights to be over 20 minutes. On my first visit to the canals, I spent around 35 minutes and walked 400 metres hooked up to a massive fish and in that time had made no ground at all. Unfortunately, that fish of a life time became just another fishing tale! Like all big fish, that one keeps me dreaming and will draw me back to Twizel every winter for another shot at a 30 pound-plus fish. But, to put it into perspective, that same day we caught and released several fish to 25 pounds, generally subduing them in around 15 mins, so I can’t complain!
Economically, without delving deep into detail, the value of this fishery to the region is immense. With the surface of the fishery barely scratched, it attracts large numbers of North Island-based anglers to the region. I write this article with great hope that this world-class gem becomes a catch- and-release only fishery for trout. However, given the smaller to mid-size rainbows are reasonable chewing, there would be a strong argument to see rainbows between 35-45cm eligible to be kept, with the smaller trout and, more importantly, larger fish being strictly release only. Salmon are of a slightly different category given they are escaped fish with short life expectancies that exhibit few wild fish tendencies. I see no issue with maintaining current catch regulations on salmon.
The marketability of this fishery to international and North Island-based anglers will only increase with the added appeal of catch ‘n’ release only. It’s not hard to work out that you have a winner on your hands.
Throw in the country’s best pinot noir, tahr, chamois and deer hunting, and you have a truly world-class, if not unbeatable, destination for high-end overseas anglers and hunters.
Twizel, of course. It has lots of options from AirBnB to various motels. We typically stay at the Mackenzie Country Inn which is very comfortable, warm and has great food – and the big open, roaring fire takes the relaxing good vibes to the upper level. After a big day fishing the canals, warming your soul by the open fire with a nice glass of Roaring Meg is really hard to beat.
If you want a little more excitement in your life, it’s only a short, freezing walk to the local pub. The still, ice-cold air is quite invigorating. In the summer time, if you had ample time on your hands, hiring a campervan would be an amazing experience and would give you the opportunity to explore the outer reaches of this district.
Of course, there are other beautiful places to stay and probably none more stunning than Tekapo – its views of Mt Cook are nothing less than breath taking.
There are two distinct ways to fish the canals for trout: rolling eggs and soft-baiting. If you want a salmon, then casting and slowly retrieving a small spoon is the best method.
Rolling eggs may sound technical but it’s an easy, simple and effective rig. It is made up of a tri-swivel, tiny sinker and small hook – with, of course, an imitation egg attached. The basic technique is to cast the rig three-quarters of the way across the canal at a 2 o’clock angle, then, as the rig sinks to the bottom and your line reaches the angle of 11 o’clock and is ‘tight’, to start walking down the canal, feeling every bump as your tiny sinker trickles across the bottom. You’re waiting for the slightest bump or change in feel, which is the cue to strike!
It’s important you don’t have too much slack in your line or too much tension. If you’ve done a lot of strayline fishing for snapper, you will know what I’m talking about. You’re just looking for a nice natural feeling in the line.
The gear needed for rolling eggs and soft-baiting in the canals is specific. Forget your granddad’s heavy spin rods or your North Island soft-bait rod. These are far too heavy. Sure, you might catch a fish with a soft-bait rod, but if you really want to nail it and enjoy the experience, then you need the right gear. It’s akin to going soft-baiting with mono – it’s just not going to work well.
Rods: look for something with a cast weight of 2-10 grams. This is ultra-light – any heavier and you’re just not doing yourself justice. Rod length needs to be in the 7’6 – 8’6 range and it should have a fast action. I prefer longer rods as they make it so much easier to get a good cast in without any additional effort or frustration. Remember you are casting tiny, tiny weights.
Reels: size range in the 1000-2500 is what you want – anything bigger and your rod won’t be balanced. 2500 is the most popular size with a compact 3000 also doing the job.
Line weight: 6-8lb braid that’s thin, smooth, modern and hi-viz is ideal. You really want to be able to see where your line is laying.
Leader: fluorocarbon is best. Again, ultralight is what you want – 8lb seems to be ideal.
Having the right gear such as this Shimano Vanquish 3000 Compact reel and Dialuna S86L rod, is the first step to succeeding at the canals.
For soft-baiting, you use the same rod, reel, braid and fluorocarbon as you do for rolling eggs, and a jig head in the 2-6g range depending on how much flow is in the canal. If the canal has reasonable flow, the trick is to walk your soft-bait down the canal with a slow retrieve, or no retrieve at all. You need to feel every bump as you swim your bait down the canal, getting ready to strike at the detection of the slightest change.
If there is no flow, or very little flow, soft-baiting is the best option. A long cast with a slow jerk and twitch retrieve should turn on a fish or two.
Soft-bait size: you want to be using small (5cm) soft-baits. Ones with UV will always work best and having a variety of lumo, pink and trout imitations in paddle tails, grubs and the simple shad will see your bases covered – just make sure they are UV!
Again, a quick trip to the local tackle store will give you the good oil on what’s working and where. I can’t stress the importance of this to improving your catch rate. Spend some dollars in a reputable store and included in the transaction will be the right info to catch fish.
Twizel is a fantastic destination and in the summer time, it’s an excellent option for the family, with long warm days, stunning scenery and lots of other tourist options if the kids can only handle a day or so fishing.
Winter is prime time to be at the canals but just remember it’s cold – freezing cold! I’m already counting the days until my next winter excursion and hopefully I will see you down there.
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