Welcome to the 5th and final part of the ‘Art Of Fly Fishing’ series. We kicked things off going through the basics of the sport and then subsequently covering a variety of aspects to help you become a better angler. So to cap off the series we are going to explore how fly fishing is much more than just trout and that it can take a lifetime to explore the whole world of fly fishing.
If you fall in love with fly fishing as I did, it’s not too long until you start thinking about “what’s next”. Although trout are a lifetime pursuit in themselves and a species you never feel that you have quite mastered, if you’ve spent enough time around them you find they are a very predictable species. This is why at the end of a long guide season in NZ, I used to yearned chase new species as I headed off overseas in search of that next fix.
The world of fly fishing has expanded immensely over the past few decades, with new high-spec gear tailored to catch any type of species there is. From Trout to Tarpon, Salmon to Tuna and even Marlin! There isn’t much out there now that can’t be caught on a fly. But to make it simple, we can break it down into 2 categories: Freshwater & Saltwater species
This was something that not too long ago was seen as insanity and even today you get a few sideways looks from fishing boats as you wade the flats with a rod in hand. Saltwater Fly Fishing has come a long way over the past few decades as anglers all over the world push the limits of what is possible on Fly. We can now wield strong, fast rods against even stronger and fast fish. The classic trout rod will snap in half on most of these fish, but the larger rods aren’t much different, just heavier, thicker and with huge reels holding hundreds of meters of backing.
The beauty about Saltwater fly is both the unpredictability and sheer abundance of species on offer. Want to target technical, finicky fish on the flats? That’s where Bonefish and Permit come into their own. Want to target the beasts of the ocean? Well then you have some of the world's most famous sports fish on offer such as Kingfish, GT’s, Tarpon, Tuna and even Roosterfish!
Some salt species are more revered than others, mostly because of where they can be found rather than what they are. For several years, at the end of summer in NZ I would pack away my trout rods and book a ticket to the northern hemisphere to start summer all over again. Mostly intent on exploring new species, I quickly ticked off the freshwater species on the list and began to lean more into exploring the salt. I had been fishing for Kingfish on the flats in NZ a few times with limited success, but other than that, the idea of flinging around a huge fly rod on the ocean was still quite a foreign concept.
The first place I really began to branch out was on my first trip to the southern region of the USA. I started off in New Orleans to target Redfish, a species that thrives in the swamp marshes of the Mississippi river delta. This fishing requires a flat bottom skiff and poling platform as the water is often too shallow for a motor. Not too different from fishing the lake edges for browns back home, these cruising fish look much like a carp in the water but explode like a GT when they eat. They weren't the only species lingering around however, with the infamous Alligator-gar more than willing to snap at flies and it wasn’t long until I managed to land one of the weirdest looking fish out there.
From there I moved onto Florida in search of Tarpon, a legendary species. Probably one of the most revered saltwater species in fly fishing, these prehistoric monsters inhabit the bays and flats around the Florida Keys. They can grow in excess of 300lb and fling themselves out of the water like rabid acrobats. It’s a very finicky fishery and challenging even at the best of times and although I managed to land a few smaller versions, my dream of a big boy was lost when my entire Fly Line snapped off when my reel locked up mid-fight. Unfortunately something that also happened to me when fighting a massive Giant Trevally (GT) I hooked in Aitutaki!
It was a fascinating albeit tough introduction to the world of salt, regardless, I was hooked. But it wasn’t until I headed to Mexico that I truly fell in love. The Roosterfish is as mysterious as it is spectacular. Cruising the beaches of Baja California Sur, often within meters of shore, to me they are the true challenge and ultimate prize. I have been to Baja 3 times now, and caught less fish each time but it won't’ stop me from going back. I was blessed on the first trip to catch a Grande, the famous trophy sized Rooster. I have had many shots since, but these guys don’t play easy, break hearts but always keep you coming back for more. If you want to read more about the story of Baja, you can find the whole story at www.keaoutdoors.com
The big difference with saltwater fly fishing is the ocean is a big place and the fish can essentially be anywhere. The reason flats fishing has been a popular place to start for most new salt anglers is because the fish are concentrated and feeding on the sand bars. This means you can focus on just one area, often walking knee-waist deep in search of your target. This can be done for Kingfish in New Zealand, with popular spots being Golden Bay and Tauranga Harbor. However the Kingfish here are sporadic and heavily reliant on tides. Another great option can be the pacific islands where Bonefish are abundant, particularly in the Cook Islands. Most of the pacific islands will offer some type of flats fishing although species may vary. You can usually get away with a lighter 6-8wt rod for flats species, so next time you go for that quick trip away, remember to pack your fly rod.
All fly fishing lore and legend can be tied back to freshwater. Trout has been the epitome of this over centuries, but there are many other species that have excited anglers around the world. There are a variety of trout species on offer, but you also have their cousins the Salmon and also Char. Outside of salmonids there are other revered sport species like small & largemouth Bass, coarse species like Carp and Perch as well as monsters of the freshwater like Pike.
I have fished for all of these species in different corners of the world but there is one that has eluded me, the Salmon. In NZ, Salmon is an afterthought to trout and often not targeted on fly. However in the many parts of the northern hemisphere, Salmon is the pinnacle species, particularly in places like Canada and Scandinavia. They are often categorized by where they spend most of their time, the Atlantic or Pacific oceans. Pacific salmon are what we have in NZ, they grow up in the ocean and return to the river to spawn and die. These can be targeted as they make their way to spawning grounds but are often tight lipped and like fishing in a barrel, especially in places like Alaska and even Canterbury’s large alluvial rivers. But it is the Atlantic salmon that is of utmost admiration. Known mostly as the ‘rich mans fish’, they are often accompanied by guarded private waters that can sometimes cost thousands of dollars a day to fish. I was in Iceland fishing for trout a few years back and the musician Eric Clapton was fishing up the road on a river that cost $2000 a day to fish! Although I was mostly targeting trout in Iceland, we did manage to hook into plenty of Artic Char, a quite exquisite species that show off their colors like no other freshwater fish during spawning time.
Coming back to trout, there are also other species that in NZ we are not overly exposed to. One of those is the Brook Trout, the most elegant looking trout. Small populations do exist in NZ, particularly around Central Otago although they are very small and remote. A native to the USA, these fish are a treat to catch in their high mountain streams and lakes as they are aggressive and abundant. Even more abundant is the Cutthroat trout, another Native the USA these fish are aptly named for the unusual ‘cut’ type marking on their gills. They are very common in the western USA and are not afraid to eat almost anything you throw at them. Then there are the hybrids like Tiger Trout, featuring stunning patterns. These fish are a hybrid breed of Brown & Brook Trout which are sterile and unable to spawn. They are actually found in one spot in NZ on Lake Rotoma new Rotorua.
The interesting thing about fishing for trout overseas is the variations of methods and the culture that surrounds it, especially in the USA. Their method of fishing from drift boats is certainly different to our ‘walk & stalk’ but it can be a great way to spend a day and often allows you access to huge populations of fish we couldn’t even imagine here in NZ. There is no doubt however that NZ is the best in class when it comes to backcountry fly fishing for large resident trout.
A Life Pursuit
Those that truly love fly fishing often describe it as something that will always be part of who they are, no matter how often or rarely they partake. The fact that perfection is always just out of reach and that it can never be truly mastered is why many anglers become obsessed. No matter how good you get, the fish has the ultimate choice and you will sometimes win the battle, but you will never win the war. I have had the privilege to spend more time on the water in the last decade than many will in a lifetime, but there are still days where I go home beat, but still happy for it.
New Zealand is a spectacular place to fish, one of the best on the planet. You could quite easily spend a lifetime just exploring our own waterways, but if you ever get the itch to look outside our borders and broaden your horizons, hopefully this article has offered some inspiration. Because no matter where you are in the world, there will be a species of fish you can target on fly, no matter how obscure.
The purpose of this series was to not only get new anglers involved in the sport, but to also help those already invested to better understand how you can level up your skills and enjoyment on the river. Ultimately, Fly Fishing can be an escape, it can be a challenge, it can be an excuse to just get outside, but most of all, it should be fun. So try not to take the sport or yourself too seriously, just keep learning and exploring. Because it’s those you push the limits that gain the best rewards. Enjoy it out there!