Fly fishing in Wanaka

One late summer evening, decades ago, I was driving home past Lake Wānaka when, against the metallic sheen of the water, I saw the silhouette of a lone fly fisherman.

He stalked the glassy shallows like a heron and his line snaked gracefully through the air. Somewhere ahead, in a flash of gold, a fish leaped clear out of the water.

It was one of those magic moments. It was the instant I realised I had always been a fly fisherman; it’s just that until then, I didn’t know it.

We live in the country of trout. To the global community of fly anglers New Zealand is what the Himalayas are to mountaineers – the dream destination and the pinnacle of the sport. For sheer diversity, ease of access and quality of fishing for wild trout, New Zealand has no equal.

This is why the town of Gore built a monument to the fish and proclaimed itself ‘the brown trout capital of the world,’ while Tūrangi did the same with rainbow trout. None of this makes the trout easy to catch.

But then, fly fishing has never been about quick and easy returns. It is about deliberately taking the harder road, picking a higher challenge, pushing the limits of your skills and understanding and always learning something new.

Why? Because then the rewards feel correspondingly greater, too. Why is fly fishing in New Zealand so good? We have relatively pristine cold mountain water – which is ideal for wild trout – and prolific insect life (trout's main food source) that makes the fish grow larger than average.

This combination gives rise to a distinctly New Zealand style of fly fishing: stealthily walking the river banks or lake shores, looking and finding the trout first, and only then casting an artificial fly to it. This ‘sight-fishing’ is considered the most pure form of the sport. It’s also extremely engaging, intimate and electrifying, because everything is happening right before your eyes.

Fly fishing is about a rare kind of natural magic. It's about casting imitations of fat cicadas and seeing the trout snap them the way a retriever dog snaps a floating stick; about feeling the life force of the fish travelling up the flyline and into your hand and heart, and sometimes about catching a dinner and grilling it on a riverside campfire.

Ultimately, our trout represents much more than a shot of adrenaline or an excuse to venture outdoors.

When I stand on the river bank and watch the trout slurp insects from the surface, when I cast a fly to them, I know I’m truly home.

Reported by Derek Grzelewski for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue

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