Winter Fly Fishing in New ZealandPublished: 28th June 2022 | Author: Ronan Creane
Anglers around the world will know about the New Zealand sight fishing scene. Long, sunny days, sight fishing in crystal clear water for trout. This deserves to be the stereotype because it’s so good!! What’s much less known around the world is winter fly fishing in New Zealand. On many waters the season never actually ends. The NZ fishing season basically works like this:
- Brown trout rivers are open from October 1st til April 30th.
- Rainbow rivers are open from November 1st til May 31st.
- Rivers with populations of both have the season determined by the majority species population.
- Most large lakes are open all year.
Winter Fishing Near Me
I live in the south of the South Island which is certainly up there with the best locations in NZ for winter fishing. I have some options available locally and a lot more if I drive for an hour or 2. There are at least 6 large rivers (or sections of rivers) and countless lakes which are in range. This is how I like to approach the winter calendar on the lakes and rivers in my area:
The winter season starts in May. Although many rainbow trout rivers are still open, the weather starts cooling down and we see the beginning of the migration of trout up rivers. A number of these trout are very big with some browns getting well into double figures on a few southern rivers. We see some big rainbows too. This is typical of salmonids around the world – the big fish run first. So, in May this is what I hope to encounter on a day out – a big brown or rainbow if I make the effort to get up into certain southern rivers.
Locally, the Clutha can also produce some big rainbows although they’ve been unreliable in recent years. I think they’ve been running earlier than usual starting in April or even March when all the anglers are still on the regular season rivers. Aside from the big fish, there are also decent numbers of small and average fish about which can make for some fun river fishing. It’s important to note though that these are migratory fish, so it can be a case of all or nothing! You hit them or you don’t.
On the lakes in May the fishing can be great. Many fish are hard out feeding to pile on condition before running up to spawn. These can be sight fished on the edges or blind fished from likely water. River mouths are hotspots as trout congregate there before starting their spawning run.
In June the regular season is closed so the winter season really begins. The days get short and cold but the weather is often fine. Clear, sunny but cool days—often with a hard frost in the morning—are common. Of course, in winter anything is on the cards weather wise! Within day-trip range, I have the 6 rivers I mentioned before and the lakes still available to fish. In my experience, June is the toughest month of the year. Most fish have left the lakes so the lake fishing can be very slow. The river fishing can be great if you can find the migrating fish – the usual story. With the lake fishing so hard I usually have to depend on the rivers for good fishing in June.
July can be superb. By July most of the brown trout have finished spawning and are returning to the lakes, very eager to regain condition. In theory then, the fish should be a bit ragged after spawning but surprisingly, most are in good condition. It’s quite possible that they stay in the river to feed for a while after spawning and by the time they return to the lake they already have sharp fins and full bellies. Whatever the reason, the lake fishing for brown trout in July can be very very good indeed.
In July, the rivers continue to fish well for migratory fish. The majority of the spawn happens over June and July but trout spawn from May through to October so there’s always fresh run fish in the rivers throughout the winter months.
August & September
By the time August and September comes around the vast majority of the spawning is complete and most browns and rainbows are back in the lakes. All avenues of fishing are good. Sight fishing works well because at this stage in winter the sun is getting high in the sky again and the days are getting longer and warmer. It can be just as good as Summer (or better!). Blind fishing over likely water and around river mouths continues to be a good option.
As the rivers empty of migratory fish the residents take up their positions once again and begin to regain condition. The river fishing on the rivers in range can be very good in August and September but I turn most of my attention to the lakes. They can be simply amazing. Lake fishing tactics throughout winter are usually very similar to summer tactics and are covered in some detail here. This article is also worth a read for an insight into lake fishing locally in July and August.
Local River Tactics for Winter
There are lots of ways to target trout migrating up rivers in winter. Because the local rivers which remain open all year are big and at times deep, we need different tactics to account for this.
Swinging with double-handers
This style of fishing is becoming increasingly popular and is a great way to cover lots of water efficiently. To maximize on this tactic, using a range of weighted lines and sink tips will really help. Reading the water is essential – look for drop-offs, seams, holes, confluences or anything fishy. Swinging with a single hander is just as effective although a bit more labour intensive. However, the single hander is much more versatile. This is especially true in tight water, such as braids or for upstream nymphing. Because of this I use a single handed rod on the local rivers in winter. I’ve never really taken to the double-hander.
This is also possible in winter. When fishing the main channel of these large rivers, it’s worth walking the edges upstream to sight trout before swinging back down blind. A sighted fish should be targeted with a nymph. My hotspot nymph under an indicator is generally ideal since the water is often deep and swift and this pattern gets pretty deep quickly. If this doesn’t work I’ll go to a worm or sometimes an egg fly as a last resort. Blind nymphing upstream can also be very good – it’s essential to get the nymph to the correct depth and cover water efficiently.
On some of these rivers, there are braids off the main flow. These are often great spots to find migrating fish taking a rest or parked up prior to spawning (Of course I don’t fish to fish making redds or actually spawning). These braids appear just like a medium or a small river. The fish can be sighted and fished with nymphs or streamers. Egg flies can also be deadly. The braids are often heavily willow lined making casting challenging.
I have a two man raft that I like to use on the rivers in winter. This gives me the ultimate access on rivers where public access can be limited. I just use it to bounce from spot to spot, rarely fishing from the raft itself. It gives me access to spots that rarely get fished and just makes for a great day on the river – even if the fishing is not great!
My favourite setup for the rivers in winter is a 9 foot 7 weight fast action rod (a Sexyloops Hot Torpedo or sage TCX for example). I use a Lamson reel with a decent drag. I like an Airflo floating line with a leader of about 17 foot. The reason for the relatively long leader is for versatility. I can tie on a nymph and quickly attach an indicator. I can fish a streamer. If I need to get deep I can fish a heavy fly and the long leader allows it to get deep. I can even swing with it by casting upstream and letting the fly get deep, then swinging it through the likely water. It can be an unwieldy rig, especially with heavy flies but with the right rod and line and a little practice, it’s no problem.
More Winter Options Fishing Around The Country:
Coastal Rivers & River Mouths
There are many waters open all year in New Zealand. Most coastal rivers – at least on the South Island – are open all year from the main highway bridge to the sea. These sections of rivers can offer good fishing for trout feeding on whitebait or smelt – or indeed nymphs or even dries.
The river mouths can provide good fishing too. Sinking lines are usually helpful and at times you need to be pretty dedicated as the the window to catch some fish can be short – the top or bottom of the tide is usually best, but the window can happen anytime! It’s very important to keep an eye on the tide and waves – they can be pretty dangerous. If you do persist and get a trout or two, they are usually stunning fish. Bars of silver. There’s always the chance of a big fish too. I’ve had them to over 8lbs.
A bonus fish that we regularly encounter at the river mouths are Kahawai. These are a brilliant sport fish. They go bananas when hooked and will easily smash tippet intended for trout, so I beef it up to 2x or 1x or even more! They usually run from 3 to 7lbs – sometimes bigger – and are great eating when fresh. Here is a link to an article from the west coast in winter from quite a few years ago now!
River Estuaries & Lagoons
Being tidal, all (I think!) river estuaries are open all year. These can provide good sport using anything from streamers to midge patterns. Some estuaries are massive and can be quite daunting. I just look for feature, usually in the form of gutters, flowing water, cut banks, weedbeds, eddies etc. Using a raft is a big help. I’ve had a good few flounder while estuary fishing. A delicious bonus! Estuary fishing is not something I’ve done much of, but really want to in the future.
The Hydro Canals
The hydro canals of Mackenzie District is a very well known and popular fishery here in New Zealand. Most of it is open all year round. There are 58kms of canals between Tekapo in the north to Twizel in the South. They are between 30 and 60m wide (from memory – so roughly!!) and 6m deep. They are manmade and get their water from the Central Lakes. The constant flow and pretty constant temperature provides a perfect environment for trout to thrive. There are salmon farms on the canals which seem to have no negative environmental impact but they do inadvertently feed the wild trout present in the canals. These trout can grow to over 40lbs in weight and it seems like just a matter of time before a 50lber is caught.
There’s also an abundance of cockabullies (native fish) and snails present, so some fish can reach trophy size without ever eating a salmon pellet. I like to go there every winter for a crack – at least once. Fly fishing can be hard – it’s much better suited to spinning but I usually pick up a fish for a visit. Usually in the 10 to 25lb bracket. Heavy nymphs and streamers to sighted fish has worked best for me on the canals in winter.
The most exciting prospect on this fishery is the Ohau River which will soon be open to fishing in September – previously November by which time most fish had finished spawning and returned to the canals. There was a trial opening in September a couple of years ago and I landed 5 trout for over 80lbs on opening day. Simply insane stuff!! This is the only natural river flowing into the canal system so it gets a great run of canal monsters. Here is a link to a detailed article about the Ohau River and and some Mackenzie District lakes in winter.
The Tongariro is a world renowned winter fishery. It’s a large river which flows into Lake Taupo on the North Island. It gets huge runs of rainbows and is usually fished with very heavy nymph rigs. Streamer fishing is also productive. I only fished it once many years ago. It’s certainly worth mentioning in a piece about winter fishing in NZ but it’s not a fishery I’m familiar with.
To Sum Up
There’s no reason to put your fishing gear away in winter in NZ. There are loads of options to keep an angler amused. It’s a bit more hit and miss than the summer season and the casting can be a bit harder too with the extra weight often required to get deep – but that’s a small price to pay for year round trout fishing.
Personally, I love the winter season. I really enjoy the hunt and figuring it out. Getting out there in any weather and just taking it on. Would I recommend it to tourist anglers? For your first or second trip – no. But after that you might decide for yourself that you’d like to experience it. Fish & Game are a forward thinking organization and are keen to hear new ideas for regulation changes – including ideas for waters to keep open through winter as long as they won’t impede on spawning trout. So, as good as it already is over here, it will likely get even better in the future.
To read more from Ronan, check out his other articles on our blog.