Cedar Lodge New Zealand – January
Most people I know have a bucket list of activities that they hope to accomplish on their brief stay on the planet. I for one am no different. My problem - in the past 10 years, my list hadn’t gotten any smaller and time seemed to be flying by. So one day in March of 2016, I decided to do something about that. I resigned from a 23-year career in the construction industry and have spent the last year checking off my bucket list. My list included items such as rafting the grand canyon, completing a motorcycle tour of the United States, spending a summer on the Adriatic coast and diving the Great Barrier Reef just to mention a few. As a fly fisherman, one particular bucket list item that always seemed to haunt my imagination was fly-fishing the south island of New Zealand.
My flight departed Melbourne, Australia on the morning of January 7th. The sweltering heat of Melbourne (daytime high of 102 degrees) was a stark contrast to the cool temps of Queenstown, New Zealand (Hi 57 degrees – Low 43 degrees). After picking up the rental car and braving the ‘left side’ of the road over high mountain passes, I arrived at Cedar Lodge about four hours after departing Queenstown. Mind you the drive is actually about 2 ½ hours but considering the scenery that was unfolding in front of me, I had to pull over and take in the spectacle that is New Zealand. The Lodge is nestled on the banks of the Makarora River in Mount Aspiring National Park. Upon my arrival, a very friendly lodge manager greeted me with cocktails. During my tutorial of how the lodge operates, we were suddenly interrupted by a low thumping sound coming from the Makarora Valley. Watching from the back deck of the lodge, I was astounded to see the helicopter come in for a landing in 20-knot winds. The precision and control demonstrated by the helicopter pilot was uncanny. I suddenly found myself overwhelmed with excitement. The realization that in 14 hours I would be boarding that helicopter and fishing in one of the most pristine environments on the planet was overwhelming.
Out of respect for Cedar Lodge – Specific locations on stated rivers and flies used during my stay will not be disclosed.
Day 1 – Somewhere west of the lodge in Mt. Aspiring National Park
Day one started with coffee at 6:30 AM and breakfast served at 7:00 AM. The traditional eggs, bacon, potatoes with an assortment of yogurts and cereals were a great way to ‘calorie-up’ before the day’s adventures. As breakfast was served, Chris Daughters (Lodge Owner – Guide) discussed each group’s itinerary and specific details for their trip. Today, I was slated to fish a short heli ride west of the lodge. Riding the R44 Helicopter for the first time can be a bit intimidating for some. I found the ride to be exhilarating and I was quickly reminded that I was in NZ for much more than fly-fishing.
Exiting the helicopter in a powerful down wash of air, we kept our heads down and waved adios to the pilot. Let the hunt begin. The river was located in a vast valley with picturesque mountain cliff banks and beautiful turquoise water. As we began our hike, I was amazed at the ‘sexy’ water that we continued to walk past thinking that there surely was a fish in these stretches. My guide quickly picked up on my bewilderment and instructed me that NZ fishing has nothing to do with ‘fishing water’. We were only going to cast to fish that we could see. This began our roughly half-mile hike before we spotted our first fish. We stood on top of a washed out bank and discussed every aspect of the approach to catching this fish. My guide carefully instructed me on how to enter the water, optimal body position and presentation of the fly relative to the fish. With heart pumping and the pressure on, I let my line fly and dropped the fly within about two feet of my intended target…the next thing I see is a snout breach the glared surface of the water. Fish on!
It’s always nice to have the first fish in the bag. I quickly began to understand what it is to fish NZ. Opportunities are there. You just need to hike to them. Spotting fish can be tough even in the gin clear water. I learned a lot about water speed and where fish tend to hold. That’s typically where your opportunities of spotting fish are going to present themselves. Once spotted, the highest catch rates go to the angler that can accurately present the fly.
We continued to hike all day covering roughly 4 to 5 miles with fish being spotted about every ¼ to ½ mile along the river. Windy conditions made accurate presentations tough but all in all, we had a good day netting roughly 7 fish.
We arrived at a small clearing that was the predetermined extraction point at about 5:00 PM. As the chopper touched down, we quickly piled in and away we went. A truly great way to return to the lodge after a fruitful day of fishing. Upon return to the lodge, we were greeted with great hors d'oeuvres and beverages. The back deck of the lodge is a great meeting place for all lodge guests to unwind and discuss the fishing adventures of the day. With plenty of time to shower and relax, dinner was served at 7:00. We enjoyed a great seafood dish of shrimp and mussels with all greens being hand picked from the garden located on the lodge grounds.
Day 2 – East of the Lodge
After another hearty breakfast, I was instructed that day two would involve exploring a smaller high elevation stream. Instead of boarding the chopper at the lodge, we shuttled vehicles to minimize flight travel from the lodge. After about a 30-minute commute we arrived at a clearing between Lake Wanaka and Lake Hawea. Here we boarded the R44 and began our transport, flying over Lake Hawea. I thought the scenery flying to the west was impressive. The flight path to the east on this blue bird day was even more spectacular. The canyon was extremely steep with the chopper banking hard at every turn. There didn’t appear to be a clearing in sight. As we entered another tight corner in the canyon, a grassy field appeared out of nowhere. Upon departing the chopper, I was struck by the feeling of absolute remoteness of this location.
As we began our fishing day, my guide informed me that 99.9% of all the fish we see today are going to be Rainbow’s. Finding that interesting, I began to hike into the remote canyon with big rainbows on my mind. Only 10 minutes into our hike we were shocked to find our first fish - a monster brown holding in a small hole underneath an overhanging tree. This was going to be a tricky cast. It took me about 10 minutes to come up with a good strategy to get my fly in the money zone – of course that also came with some heavy guided instruction. The river was small, probably measuring 20 to 30 feet at its widest stretch. After about three false casts I let the line go only to end up short of the fish. Fearing I spooked the fish, I gathered myself and shot the line again. This time three feet in front of the fish. The presentation looked good…yet the Brown seemed disinterested. The guide told me to stop and proceeded to tie on a dropper for the next presentation. Again I let my line fly. This time there was an eruption below the surface of the water that resulted in a boil on the surface of the water that appeared to measure three feet wide. I set the hook. The Brown turned tail and began an epic run straight down the main current. The 50 yard uncoordinated dash down the slippery banks resulted in both the guide and I being dunked in water on numerous occasions. The fish took about 15 minutes to land. When we were finally able to net the fish, the guide, soaking wet had a grin from ear to ear that was only bested by my own. The 6-½ lbs. healthy brown was exactly what I was looking for in NZ. I was over the moon.
Our hike through the tight gorge was not for the faint of heart. All in all, we probably hiked 4 miles with numerous stream crossings, steep banks and overhanging trees that proved challenging. The rocks can be slippery and the banks slough below your feet. With that said, the walking and fishing proved to be the most rewarding of my trip. We spotted fish at every river bend. As if scripted, there would be rainbows holding in every deep pool created by undercut banks for the entire hike up the valley. At days end, we netted roughly 20 fish. All Rainbow’s except for that first Brown (so – 95% Rainbows for the day!). A day I will not soon forget.
Day 3 – Across the western divide toward Haast
Day three started with yet another shuttle to our helicopter launch. A short car ride to the other side of Haast Pass found us pulled over off of highway 6 waiting for the arrival of the R44. The chopper came in fast – we boarded and away we went headed for the west coast of New Zealand. Today would be my ‘West Coast Browns’ day. We followed the Haast river valley and touched down on a west coast river running to the sea. Todays guide was the helicopter pilot – Dion. I had doubts about Dion. Certainly an extremely skilled helicopter pilot couldn’t be a gifted fly fishing guide as well? How wrong I was….
We began walking up river, the river was a fairly large tributary to the Haast River. This hike proved to be as tough if not tougher than my gorge walk to the east. There were stretches we crossed that came up to my belly button (I’m 6’-3”) and with a steady powerful current, made you really have to dig in to hold your footing. Dion informed me that 100% of the fish we see today would be Browns. He was right. Over the course of the next 8 hours, we had a shot at about 8 fish. Today was not about numbers. This was a day for flawless presentations and accuracy. After blowing my opportunities on the first three fish (poor presentations), I did manage to net a nice Brown to get the skunk off my back. We then proceeded to hook another three fish with only one fish in the net. These Browns were incredible tough to catch. First off, they were extremely hard to spot. When spotted, your presentation had to be perfect or they were gone. When hooked, they knew every trick in the book – main current runs – diving into deep pools – holding on backside of jagged rocks. When they saw the net, they would explode to the other side of the river. This day proved humbling.
Although we only netted two fish, today produced the greatest fish fight of my life. We hooked a monster Brown that had me sprinting down the river for over 100 yards. After numerous attempts to the net the fish, the Brown decided he had enough and darted downstream to a large pour over. Dion and myself had to lock arms and walk out in the raging current to try and free my fly line from an overhanging log caught in the pour over. The force of the river was pushing both of us precariously close to the edge. It took everything we had to hold onto each other on top of me trying to hold the fly rod at the same time. At last Dion was able to free the line from the over hanging log and we began the slow retreat back thru the raging water to more stable ground. The Brown, which Dion estimated to be in the 8 to 10 lbs. range, surfaced from underneath the pour over three separate times only to retreat back under the hydraulic created by the pour over. On the fourth rise out of the hole, I managed to get the fish close to us only to watch the fish look me dead in the eye and spit the hook as the net entered the water…the one that got away.
I returned to the lodge with only two fish for the day, but a memory that will last me for a lifetime. The great food and numerous beers / whiskies after dinner helped me cope with the one that got away.
For my last day fishing at the lodge, I was pleasantly surprised to be guided by Chris Daughters. Incredibly gifted guide and great companion to have fishing. Extreme high winds limited our abilities to explore far-reaching river stretches so we elected to go back to the river near the lodge. Today was another big hike day. We probably hiked a total of 6 to 7 miles with opportunities at about two dozen fish. Similar to day one, the fish were spread out. We ended up having a good day and great ending to a fantastic fishing adventure.
Fly-fishing New Zealand is not about high fish counts. It’s about making accurate casts when opportunity presents itself. These fish are very territorial which might explain why they don’t seem to pool together much and are spread out over great distance. Hiking is a part of fishing here. So coming in descent shape will help get you in front of a lot more opportunities. If you are young and fit the Cedar Lodge staff will find you some challenging beats and if you are less inclined they have some easier hike and fish opportunities as well.
If you are the type of fly fisherman where quality far out weighs quantity and you don’t mind hiking in some of the most picturesque landscapes on the planet, I would simply ask, how could you not have fly fishing the south island of New Zealand on your bucket list?