WOW! … Wild Weather, Mice, Monster Trout, Drought, Covid-19 … So, where to now?
COVID-19, CHANGE AND ‘THE NEW NORMAL’
Normal: … ” the usual, average, common, regular, typical state … conforming to a standard; typical or expected … something that is normal is usual, ordinary and is what people expect”.
Right now, one thing is for sure, there is nothing remotely ‘normal, ordinary or typical’ about the current situation facing us all. Covid-19 has forced upon us unprecedented circumstances for which there is no standard playbook and we are all mostly, riding this crisis out by the seat of our pants.
In life and business, the one constant is always ‘change’ and in forty years of guiding I have seen plenty of ‘hiccups’ for our tourist industry. Major events like the ’87 stock market crash, the Asian Financial Crisis, Y2K, 9-11 and the 2008 GFC, all caused major disruptions to the flow of anglers visiting New Zealand and to our livelihoods as guides. These events precipitated major changes to booking patterns, to the demographics of visiting anglers and to the ongoing profitability of our guiding industry.
For all of their drama and trauma however, none of these previous crises ever forced the total closure of our borders, effectively putting some of us ‘out of business’ in the interim. The impact worldwide on economies is unprecedented. Tourism was a major income earner for New Zealand and the consequence of locking down our borders has been devastating to the tourist industry as a whole. When 75% of income or more comes from visiting foreign anglers, these events are a serious setback. In SWOT analyses over forty years we never once considered the impact of a pandemic totally closing our borders and cutting off our supply of customers. Such has been our industry’s reliance on the USA as a source of business, we once joked that “if US anglers ever take up tiddlywinks, we’re screwed!” Guess what? Not only the US but the whole world has taken up ‘tiddlywinks’!
The debate over the importance of human life versus economic well-being is something politicians are now grappling with everywhere … a discussion way above the pay grade of any fishing guide! For the moment, the government here has chosen to put the public health of New Zealanders first.
New normal: … “a previously unfamiliar or atypical situation that has become standard, usual, or expected … a hitherto unusual state of affairs that suddenly becomes standard or typical”.
Here in New Zealand, we are pretty lucky to have had minimal community transmission of the coronavirus. However, we try not to take the situation for granted as Covid-19 has proved to be a tricky customer everywhere. There is a small but regular trickle of cases imported by Kiwis returning home from overseas. This has been effectively contained at this stage by a mandatory fourteen-day quarantine and isolation regime and robust community testing. Right now we have no restrictions on internal travel within NZ … a blessing with the new trout fishing season upon us.
So … where to now? There are new plans to establish a travel bubble with Australia by Christmas, which will allow visitors entry to NZ from some Australian states which also have no community transmission of the virus. We are certainly hoping this will happen … and are looking forward to the chance of seeing some keen Aussie anglers over to fish with us before the end of the season.
It is unlikely, with the resurgence of Covid-19 in the UK and Europe and the still current high levels being experienced in a lot of states in the USA, that we will see any lifting of our border restrictions to anglers from these regions for the 2020-21 season anyway.
In spite of all the current obstacles, however, the wonder of the human spirit is that we have always shown an ability to adapt to the ‘new normal’ engendered by such crises. While lives and businesses change, we eventually move forward and a ‘new normal’ evolves. I have no doubt we will do so again and soon enough, we will safely welcome anglers from around the world once more. Who knows what the ‘new normal’ might look like., but for sure it will pivot around good medical science and the ability to successfully develop an effective vaccine.
For many years now, Kiwi anglers have contributed about 25% of income for me. While in the long run, this will not be sufficient to maintain a guiding business, in the short term, I am hopeful that a sufficient number of Kiwi anglers can help me ‘keep my eye in’ this season until our boundaries fully re-open and anglers from around the world can once again enjoy our fishery. One thing is certain, I intend to hang in as a fishing guide for as long as I can. My plans to cater to a smaller number of days each season won’t change.
In the meantime, stay safe my friends and if you are up for it, we’d enjoy hearing how you are all doing from time-to-time.
REVIEW OF THE 2019 – 20 SEASON
In so many ways, 2019-20 was a guiding season without precedent. Where 2018-19 was the busiest and best fishing season we had experienced in years, this past season (for me anyhow) was a real roller-coaster tableau of highs and lows.
There had been so much to look forward to. This was my fortieth season guiding, the anticipated explosion in rodent numbers raised the prospect of a flush of trophy trout, fish numbers locally had been at a level not seen since the 1980s and 90s and, having made the decision to ease back a bit on my guiding workload, I had enthusiastic plans to do lots more fishing R&D. But as Scottish poet Robbie Burns eloquently observed, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men, gang aft a-gley” … and so it was!
The winter of 2019 was benevolent. Mild temperatures and stable river flows meant winter trout were able to put on condition without stress from major rain events and floods. That changed on 17th September, when heavy rains hit catchment areas radiating from the Lewis Pass region on both sides of the Southern Alps. This was followed by six more major flood events by December 22nd. The ensuing disruption to the rivers and trout proved to be an unpleasant hurdle and frustration for early-season anglers. When you’re getting a continuous hammering from the weather it’s not always easy to maintain a ‘sunny disposition’.
My beautiful mother Joyce, passed away peacefully in Geraldine on the 16th of October. Mum lived a wonderfully full life supported in recent years by my two sisters and focussed especially around her family, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, her cats and her garden. It was no doubt a shock to Mum and Dad in 1980, when I announced I was leaving the relative security of school teaching, to establish a guided fishing and hunting business. However, I am forever grateful that they supported my endeavours and Mum remained my #1 fan for forty years. One of the nice things about being self-employed is that I was able to defer my early-season guiding schedule, (my early anglers are normally local Kiwis), and spend some quality time with Mum before she passed. Joyce was 94.
Guiding didn’t start in earnest then until late October and early efforts were frustrated by high water and bad weather. High, discoloured water made spotting difficult and it was a matter of putting in the hard yards to find the fish. Evidence of high rodent numbers was clear to see on many of the river beaches, where mice carcasses often accumulated having succumbed to the floods and cold water. The fishing was tough and it was obvious the early part of the season would not be a numbers game.
My first angler of the season was Tim Sassella (NZ). After a long day struggling to find feeding fish Tim eventually pulled off a first in my forty-year guiding career … landing a ten-pound trophy for our very first catch of the season. That was our only trout for the day, but who could want for more?. Tim followed the next day on another river with the loss of an even bigger trophy after an epic contest. After battling it for over 500 metres downstream, super high flows meant Tim eventually couldn’t follow the monster any further … and the leader and fish parted company. On the third day, another fish Tim landed measured only 24 inches but tipped the scales at 7.75 lbs! The condition of the trout so early in the season was outrageous and begged the question looking forward … “What was out there?”
Breaking News! Early Season October 2020 Update …
Tim had been booked to do another trophy trout trip in late March, but the Covid lock-down stuffed that and we forced to postpone things to this season. Tim was first angler up again this 20-21 season … and well and truly made up for the time lost back in March! His very first trout for this season … 12lbs … Second fish of the season … 11lbs … First trout day two … 10lbs! Not to mention, three more trout that ‘cleaned our clock’ during our three days of fishing. Nice work Tim! That sets a whole new standard … and once again it begs the question … “What’s out there?”
and so … Back to Last Season …
Bad weather punctuated proceedings for the first two months of the 2019-20 season and the ‘heartland area’ of big fish was hammered by the succession of floods mentioned previously. Farther north however we were fortunate to have a number of small streams that provided good fishing when most of the larger rivers were out of action. We are seldom totally stuffed for a place to fish in this part of NZ. While the fish weren’t the monsters found further south, they were still healthy, feisty and respectable … and we caught our fair share.
A small weather window presented itself in late November and we moved south again to hunt for trophy trout. By this stage interest in the flush of ‘very large’ trout that were showing up was starting to gain momentum and we had to slot in between the efforts of other anglers and guides. A tip-off from our helicopter pilot put old friend Dale Kinsella (US) into the headwaters of a western stream not known for holding big numbers of trout, but which had occasionally come up trumps for us in years past.
In the first pool, a large shape slid off the far rock wall and started to feed. After some careful positioning, Dale was ready to cast, mindful that we might only get one shot at the trophy in front of us. Dale, however, has done a ton of fishing for difficult trout in NZ and nailed the first cast beautifully, not directly over the fish, but in a zone where it would still have minimal effort to intercept it. The fish slid over and didn’t hesitate to suck in the #8 Brown Stonefly Nymph. The following fight was another epic and had the fish managed to run out of the pool and downstream into some heavy rapids, the 4X tippet may not have held. After about ten minutes, including some anxious moments when the big fish buried itself under a rock shelf at the head of the pool, Dale turned a beautiful 12 pounder into the net. This was followed up with a number of other good fish throughout the day from 6 – 9lbs, including some great dry fly action.
The biggest flood of the season hit us later the next day on December 3rd and frustratingly Dale and I had to turn our back on the prospects of more ‘trophy trout’ and were forced to retreat north once again to find some fishing. The weather conditions thereafter didn’t really improve much before mid-January.
Until late January, guiding was interspersed with some quality family time with our youngest son Chris, home for Christmas and then a break in Golden Bay with good friends to hassle some kingies on the flats. The saltwater fly fishing in Golden Bay has toughened up over the last two summers as the flats have become more popular with anglers and the kingies have become much warier. Compared to the first three seasons we fished in Golden Bay, the fishing there now is quite challenging, but by adapting flies and techniques we are still managing our share of ‘luck and success’.
Early February saw our middle son Jono marry beautiful Rachel, his long time girlfriend, at a lovely celebration at Rachel’s parent’s farm in Marlborough. Eldest son Nick was MC and we all shared a wonderful day in the sun.
By February we had gone from the extremes of high water to a drought. We fished mostly close to Nelson and also did some time via helicopter in the backcountry rivers of North-West Nelson, where we caught some really nice fish, but not the truly big boys which were featuring further south.
In early March the world was confronted with the impending trauma of the rapidly evolving Covid-19 pandemic. Regular NZ visitor Sachio Nakagoshi (JPN), made it into the country with only hours to spare before NZ shut its borders to tourist visitors from overseas. By this stage, we were wiping down door handles and hard surfaces with disinfectant on a regular basis and using hand sanitiser wherever we went. Everyone was nervous about the potential dangers the virus presented. Fortunately, fly fishing isn’t a ‘crowd-based’ sport and social distancing is pretty much the norm we all crave. Fly fishing may be the perfect covid sport.
After catching some beautiful trout on our local Nelson streams, Sachi and I headed south for what would turn out to be the final crack for the season at some ‘trophy trout’. Because of the low water conditions and the ‘significant attention’ anglers had focussed in the interim since my last visit, the trout proved to be pretty ‘testy’. In some stretches, they were downright unapproachable! But as always, with a bit of persistence, success comes for anglers who hang in there. We would finish the season with a thumper of 14 lbs on the very last cast … short, broad and in superb condition … a symbol of what might have been. Sachi then stayed on in Reefton to fish with guide-mat e Bryan Wilson and pulled off another meritorious effort … a 10 lber from a stream that had never produced a fish of that size for me in forty years. I returned home to Richmond and went into an early voluntary self-isolation.
Sachi left New Zealand a week later, the day that NZ completely locked down its borders. Like all guides, the cost of lockdown to our businesses was substantial as we then had the unfortunate task of cancelling remaining guide jobs for the season, in circumstances totally beyond our control. For any anglers who missed out, I am holding any deposits against future dates when a return to New Zealand is possible and will guarantee the guide rate at March 2020 prices.
It was a sad way to ‘wimp out’ of the 2019-20 season, which had promised so much. I am happy, however, that a number of my guide friends were able to capitalise on the ‘big fish year’ and produced some stunning results. I know of fish up to 18 lbs being caught … which is amazing when you consider the tackle that is used to hook and land them … mostly #5 – #6 weight rods and 4X-5X tippets. 2019 – 20 was probably the best trophy trout season there has been in our ‘neck-of-the-woods’ in my forty years of guiding. But it feels a bit like we missed out through a range of circumstances that meant it didn’t always work out for us. C’est la vie … sometimes!
ANNUAL FISHERIES REPORT 2019-20
Nelson-Marlborough Fish and Game
SO, WHAT’S HAPPENING FOR THE 2020 – 21 SEASON?
As mentioned previously … it looks like there are still some ‘BIG:” fish about on some rivers and I am looking forward to chasing them with as many kiwi anglers who can find their way to join me. The reality is that because of our closed borders, there won’t be as much pressure from guided and overseas freedom anglers this year. This will be a good season for kiwi anglers to enjoy our fishery.
As a result of the uncertainty, Covid-19 has generated surrounding potential bookings, I am not requiring deposits for any bookings this season. I am happy to accept ‘indicative bookings’ only … and we will see what transpires from there.
I will also not be enforcing any Cancellation Policy, given the current uncertainties. I will take my chances that any prospective booking will ultimately go ahead. So if you are a KIWI ANGLER thinking you might want to fish with me this season, give me a call and let’s see what we can work out.
Check out my Schedule of Available Dates here … there’s plenty of room!
After all … when you have to fish … YOU HAVE TO FISH!
“The solution to any problem … work, love, money, whatever … is to go fishing, and the worse the problem, the longer the trip should be.”
Forty years of guided trout fishing … who’d have thought? … BRING IT ON!
REVIEW OF THE 2018 – 19 SEASON
Simply stated … this was the Best Fishing Season in Years around the top of the South Island. It was also the busiest guiding season I’ve undertaken since before the disruption of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. As with the previous three seasons there continued to be plenty of interest from visitors in guided fly-fishing in New Zealand. During the 2018 winter, I decided that the ’18-19 Season would be my last ‘full-on’ guiding season before starting to ease back my guiding workload over the next few years. I was lucky enough to fill my book from early October right through until the middle of April, by which stage I have to confess, my body was starting to feel the strain and closed my book at Easter.
It was also the most productive season, catch-wise, that I have guided in over twenty years. Rivers like the Motueka and Wangapeka (and others) held increased populations of trout, reminiscent in some locations of my earliest days of guiding. Fish and Game attribute the healthy increase in numbers to the lack of big flood events in the late October – November time-frame when our brown trout young are hatching and most vulnerable.
The Motueka River continued its surge in fish numbers from previous seasons, and our average catch rate for the season was close to ten fish a day. While most were in the 1 – 1.5kg range, we did score good numbers over 2kg up until the New Year. By then the first impacts of what was to become an extended drought started to be felt and the bigger fish in the Motueka system became much harder to find. However, what we lacked in size in the latter half of the season was made up for in the healthy numbers of medium-sized fish, that came willingly to the dry fly on most days.
By late February the drought was in full swing and we were not to get any significant rain again until late March. River levels dropped and water temperatures climbed. Many of the smaller streams were hardest hit and our fishing focus mostly targeted the bigger rivers throughout January, February and March. The western drainages of the Motueka and Wangapeka catchments were lucky to sustain just enough valuable rainfall on their boundaries with Kahurangi National Park, to help at least moderate river temperatures and mitigate the full impact of the low flows. During this challenging period, the secret was to rise early and hit the rivers in the cool of the morning and aim to have the best of our fishing finished by mid-afternoon.
We had a brief period of cicada activity in mid-January to mid-February, but as in keeping with recent seasons, the ‘cicada fishing’ was again disappointing. Why this should be on a variety of rivers that generally produce reliable cicada hatches, I don’t really know, but I suspect, the drought may have played a role. We must be due a good cicada season soon!
It wasn’t really a season for finding trophy-sized trout on any of the rivers we fished, but while we didn’t land any coveted ‘double digits’, we did manage a smattering of bigger fish here and there, especially earlier in the season.
FORTY YEARS OF GUIDED FISHING
This will be my 40th Season guiding anglers around the top of the South Island. It has been an amazing forty years … and there has been a huge amount of change.
When I started out in 1980 there were only three guides operating in the region. Then, it was tough enough just trying to get overseas anglers interested in the Nelson fishing region. We had some of the best brown trout fishing in the world, but nobody outside NZ new about it. There was no regional marketing, no specialist lodges, scarce few restaurants and NZ was ‘infamous’ for its instant coffee! Most motels didn’t even have beds long enough to cater for your average American angler.
Slowly we captured anglers’ interest, especially in the challenges of sight fishing to larger than average brown trout. Initially, the industry was built around catering principally to US anglers, who at the time were seeking new frontiers in fly fishing and had the where-with-all and propensity to hire guides. It certainly helped our cause a lot that back then an NZ dollar cost only 50cents USD. By the mid-1980s the industry was on a bit of roll. We’d opened up a lot of the backcountry to helicopter fishing (for which our region is now renowned worldwide) and there was a growing need for more guides to meet the demand. There are now more than thirty guides regularly operating in the upper South Island.
Nowadays the region caters for anglers from all over the globe. The US remains our single most important market, but Australia, Europe and Scandinavia are also big contributors to our guided fishing industry. As much as 25% of my income even comes from Kiwi anglers wanting a guided fishing experience. The region is now well served by specialist lodges as well as a plethora of other excellent accommodation options, top-class restaurants, award-winning wineries and plenty of other activities to entice tourists here … we also now make some of the best coffee in the world.
The guiding industry has never been for the faint of heart and it’s certainly no way to make a fortune .. as I can well testify. It is, in fact, a bloody hard way to make a buck. Between various ‘disruptions to the economy’, the vagueries of our weather and the occasional self-induced ‘error of judgment’, there have been times over the years when it was a serious struggle, especially when Sharon and I were raising a young family. But as I was lucky enough to build a reputation and solved the fundamental issue of making a reasonable income, it has proved to be one hell of a fun way to make a living. When asked recently, “Looking back, if I had the chance to ‘do-it-all-over-again’, what would I like to come back as?”, it didn’t take much thought to concede that I’d probably still really like to come back again as a fishing guide … (or maybe a labrador dog)!
The initial adventure was exploring all the rivers, working out the best ways to guide them and evolving successful techniques to catch our ever-testing brown trout. But what has ultimately sustained me over forty years has been the many truly amazing people I have been privileged to guide. My anglers have come from all walks of life; from workers who have saved hard to afford a day or two of guided fishing through to influential heads of industry, from colourful characters to the elite of Hollywood, from average Joe Blows to innovators in medicine, law and the arts. All have had wonderful stories to share.
Some anglers have hung in there with me for over thirty years. That says a lot about their endurance, patience and love for our fishery. In that time I have looked forward to their visits (often every year) and enjoyed watching them develop their angling skills. Their support has been critical in helping me sustain a business long-term and I am eternally grateful for their patronage. I’ve guided long enough now that many ‘regulars’ are no longer with us, but the memory of the good times we were blessed to share, still inspires me wherever I walk the stream. At different times in my career, I’ve also been very lucky to have some wonderful mentors who have helped guide not only my business but a greater vision of how our industry could evolve and progress.
I’d particularly like to acknowledge the following people who’ve played a huge part in my guiding journey to date … I owe them so much; Gary Joll, Ron Spanton, Bob Soloman, Don Williams, Jack Dennis, Lynn Dixon, Skip Brittenham, Ken August, Dennis Butcher, Mel Kreiger, Pete Anderson, Mickey Schwartz, Tem and Nancy King, Keith and Mary Crane, Bob Bourdon, Dale Kinsella, Bob South, Bill and Robin Reid, Pete Rickards, Bob South, Graham Marshall, Ron Mackay, David Moate, Peter Carty, Zane Mirfin.
MEET THE REAL CHAMP
Throughout all the highs and lows however, nobody has played quite as important a role as my lovely wife Sharon … without whose unfailing support, forbearance and sunny disposition, this adventure would never have been possible. Special thanks are due too, to my three sons, Nick, Jono and Chris, who didn’t always see a lot of their father during the guiding season. I’m very proud of my boys.
SO WHAT’S UP FOR THE 2019 – 20 SEASON?
In keeping with the current trends in climate around the world, our winter has been a mild one, with modest snowfalls and no serious flooding. This bodes well for good water flows early in the season, but raises the prospect of low water conditions again during the summer. However, low water doesn’t mean poor fishing. While it is a fact that low water flows correlate with warmer water temperatures during late January, February and early March, anglers who are willing to rise early and hit the water in the cool of the morning, will enjoy some excellent results. The upside of low water conditions is that it makes accessible whole stretches of river that don’t get any fishing attention the rest of the season. Low water also tends to concentrate trout numbers into more defined areas.
Last summer was one of the biggest beech-forest masts (flowering) that I have seen in over 30 years. Often beech-mast events help generate huge increases in the rodent population, which while not a good thing for our native bird populations, is nevertheless a real bonus to our trout. As of the time of writing, there is only a limited sign of localised increases in the mouse population. Even so, it is highly likely that a greater number of trophy-sized trout will turn up in some places this season … and we want to be ready for them. Chasing trophy-trout is seldom predictable, but I am optimistic we will find our share this coming season.
As mentioned earlier, last season was my last full-time season. Starting this coming season I have cut my availability back to a maximum ninety days per season. Over the next five years, I may well progressively reduce the number of available days each season, depending upon how ‘the body feels’. Based on the amount of business that has been around the last few years it will mean that some anglers will have to seek out other guides. At the present time, there are still some dates available in most months … check out my Calendar of Available Dates here.
NEW TRAVEL RULES FOR NEW ZEALAND
From 1 October 2019, some visitors and tourists must have an NZeTA (New Zealand Electronic Travel Authority) before they leave for New Zealand.
- Travel to New Zealand without first applying for a visa — if you are from a visa waiver country, a cruise ship passenger or a permanent resident of Australia.
- Pass through Auckland International Airport as a transit passenger on the way to or from Australia.
- Pass through Auckland International Airport as a transit passenger on the way to another country — if you are from a visa waiver or transit visa waiver country.
THINGS TO NOTE
- From 1 October 2019, if you are from a visa waiver country you must hold an NZeTA before you travel.
- Allow up to 72 hours for processing, but it could take as little as 10 minutes.
- An NZeTA request costs NZD $9 on our free app, or NZD $12 if completed online.
- You pay an International Visitor Conservation and Tourism Levy (IVL) at the same time as your NZeTA. This costs NZD $35.
NZeTA MOBILE PHONE APP
FOR MORE DETAILS OR TO APPLY FOR AN NZeTA GO TO: Immigration New Zealand
BUY YOUR NON-RESIDENT FISHING LICENCE ON LINE
The Non-Resident Licence category is now a well-established requirement for anglers visiting from overseas. A Non-Resident is defined as a person who is neither a New Zealand citizen nor a permanent resident (more details here). The cost of an NRL Full Season licence for the coming season will be NZD$165.00 and is required by anglers wishing to fish for more than 6 days. They cover all of New Zealand except the Taupo Region. For those fishing for less than 6 days, purchasing the appropriate number of 24-hour licences is a more cost-effective option but I suspect most of you will be keen however to support Fish and Game New Zealand, as the only funding they receive to manage our great fisheries is from licence sales. In fact, many of you over the years generously previously purchased a Whole Season Licence, even when you were only fishing for a few days.
For all anglers anticipating fishing any of the following rivers; Travers, Goulter, Upper Wairau, Upper Matakitaki, Karamea Catchment or Mokihinui Catchment ( i.e. those planning to do any heli-fishing), you will also need to apply online for the Backcountry Licence Endorsement to go along with your fishing licence before we can fish in these areas.
SOCIAL MEDIA … GONE
Some of you will have noted that I have discontinued my use of Social Media, in particular, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
On March 15, 2019, New Zealand lost its innocence. A terrorist shooter killed 51 men, women and children while they were peacefully worshipping at two Christchurch mosques.
That this terrorist evil manifested itself in my country, in a city where I enjoyed so many good times and only a few blocks from where Sharon and I flatted as young students, is unconscionable.
To say I was (and still am) conflicted is an understatement. The fact that a supremacist loser like this could pedal their poison on FB and other social media with impunity is utterly wrong. I simply cannot condone social media’s indolence in helping provide a platform for the spreading of such hatred and evil, under the mantras of ‘free speech’ or ‘personal responsibility’.
Accordingly, I have stopped using these platforms, at least until I feel the rules that facilitate this aberrant behaviour have been sufficiently tightened and improved.
“I look into my fly box and think about all the elements I should consider in choosing the perfect fly: water temperature, what stage of development the bugs are in, what the fish are eating right now. Then I remember what a guide told me: ‘Ninety per cent of what a trout eats is brown and fuzzy and about five-eighths of an inch long.” – Allison Moir