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. 

Rare Blue Ducks practise their ‘social distancing’ in the Wangapeka Rv – March 2020.

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’.

Wairau River Flow (Dip Flat) _ September - December 2019
Wairau River Flow (Dip Flat) _ September – December 2019

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!



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.” 

~John Gierach