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How Fly Fishing Changed My Life

Several days into the trip, those perfect conditions we all dream of finally arrived.

Fly fishing for some may just be a hobby, an excuse to get some time out from life and take a breath. But for others it can become a huge part of life and have a profound effect on how they live, where they live it and essentially, who they are. Often defined as ‘trout-bums’, they’re those people who will sacrifice anything to be on the river, lake or ocean with a fly rod in hand. They’ll alter their life, change their job, even move all over the country in pursuit of trout. I’ve met many from around the world – some young, some old – but all with one thing in common: their unwavering passion for the art of fly fishing.

Growing Up

Since I was a young boy, I’ve always been one of those people who let passions drive me, and these often morphed into obsessions. First it was skiing, then it was business, then travel – but eventually, it was fly fishing that took over them all.

I got my first fly rod at the age of 12, and as no one in my family was keen on fishing, it gave me the opportunity to get out on my own, often heading to the river after school to cast at nothing in particular and with few results. However, something about it resonated deeply within me from the very beginning, and I was never far away from thinking about fly fishing.

Growing up and finding my way in the world had taken precedence in my late teens/early 20s, but everything started to change around 2013/14. I’d been living in Auckland for several years running my first business;  this took me away from my home waters of the Waikato and meant I got to do very little fishing. My only vice would be the odd skiing trip to Queenstown.

A New Life

This lifestyle was starting to wear thin, so I decided to flip my world upside down, sell my business in Auckland and move to Wanaka to pursue my dream of exploring NZ’s wildest rivers and biggest trout. I’d only visited Wanaka once, when I was 12 years old, so it was an intimidating leap to sell everything I owned, buy an old truck and make the journey south to start a new life.

There were no set plans other than to just spend every day exploring the region and the waters I’d soon call home. But it wasn’t long until I was both perplexed and humbled, finding that my North Island tactics didn’t seem to be effective in these pristine rivers against large and wily fish.

Not one to admit failure, I battled away for the remainder of the season with just the odd successful moment to give me the confidence I was on the right track. I studied hard, read every book I could find, watched YouTube videos of fishing guides and began putting my learnings into action. I started to spend more time watching the water than fishing and would even set up a camera to film myself once I found a fish so I could watch the video later and pick up any errors I’d made in the pursuit.

The Trip that Changed Everything

With my first Opening Day in the South coming up, it was all I could think about, and I was determined to make it one to remember. I still felt like a novice and wanted to test my newfound skills against one of the meccas of NZ trout fishing.

I teamed up with a mate, Dave, and we planned a backcountry trip unlike any I’d done before: five days, four nights and about 50km into unknown territory. This was also Dave’s first big trip, and as he was quite new to fly fishing, I knew I’d probably have to do a bit of tuition along the way, which would further help me hone my skills.

We packed our gear high and heavy, ready for a few big days on foot. Setting off on a stunning sunny day, everything felt perfect, although as it was the eve prior to Opening, our rods were locked away until the morning. This was really tough to stomach when about 5km into the hike, our first glance at the river revealed several very large fish feeding away freely in the current. We had to just bite our lips in anticipation and keep on moving.

Making it to the hut was a treat after a massive day on the trail. Everything was looking promising for the dream Opening Day. Then about midnight, the patter of rain quickly turned into a deluge.

Day Two

We woke to the sign of clearing weather, although moisture was heavy in the air – the cloud lifted from the trees as if it was the final act. We put on our boots and started our trek downstream to fish the day’s chosen section.

Our first glance at the river brought instant relief. Although the river was a bit higher than the day prior, it had only a tinge of colour. Now with a spring in our step, we continued our way downstream and happened across a small tributary. As the main river was still full, we thought this’d be a good place to start as we waited for the river to drop.

We spent a few hours on the small meandering stream, landed a few nice fish and then decided to get back to the main river with the hope that it was now clearing. But to our shock, it wasn’t. In fact, it was getting worse, much worse.

The Right Place at the Right Time

The water was now a thick, green torrent with only about one foot of visibility on the edges. At that moment, we thought the dream was over. Heads hanging, we made our way slowly upstream until I noticed a swaying motion in the shallows ahead. Upon closer inspection, my hopes were fulfilled – it was a fish, and a decent-looking one at that!

I lined up and cast to the fish, not expecting my fly to be seen in what was starting to become soup. But it wasn’t long before he was hooked and trying to use the current to detach from me. As the net scooped him up, I quickly realised it was the fish I’d dreamed of – my biggest to date at over 9lb.

In these conditions? I couldn’t believe it, but then it happened again. We headed up another hundred metres to see the same flash of movement. This time it was Dave’s turn and what unfolded was a moment that taught me more about fishing in tough conditions than anything else prior. These fish were escaping the flooding main flow, whilst still feeding, and we happened to be in the right place at the right time.

We couldn’t believe our luck. So much so that we would have been happy to call the trip there and then. However, we decided to wait it out another day to see if the river would drop now that the weather had moved on.

Days Three and Four

The following day was a write-off as the water was still up and the glare made things tough. After a few hours of battling against the conditions, we retreated to the warmth of the hut to make plans for the following days.

The next morning, we were treated with a lovely sunny day, the river was slowly clearing and our spirits were rising once again. We decided to do a big hike and cut out some of the walk in the hope we could get one final good day of fishing before we had to leave. Another moment of luck that set us up for one of the best days I’ve ever had on the river.

Day Five

We awoke to a stunning day and a clear river; we knew this was our time. We headed out early and immediately started to see fish ferociously feeding like they were making up for lost time. The day started with a couple of nice eight-pounders, and our confidence began to grow.

Then it all started to come together. Fish were appearing everywhere, and they only seemed to get bigger the further upstream we went. It was alongside a cliff face that I noticed two large shadows, at first thinking they might just be rocks. But, backing my hunch, I decided to give them a go, and when the first one spooked, I knew I had to get the next cast right. I did, and it ended up being my first-ever trophy trout weighing over 10lb. We continued upstream, and it wasn’t long until Dave was also rewarded with his first-ever trophy, a fish with proportions beyond belief.

The five-day trip culminated in one of the best fishing experiences of my life and one that’ll likely never be beaten. It was the perfect end to a trip that taught me so much and gave me the confidence to push ahead with what I love to do.

The Next Evolution

I arrived back from this trip feeling energised and enlightened. All the work I’d done over the preceding months had come to fruition, and I was able to pull off the trip of a lifetime in very trying circumstances.

The trip tested both my outdoor skills and fly-fishing nous as I had to not only make good, safe decisions each day, but I’d also (unintentionally) guided my mate onto some amazing fish. It was at this point I realised I’d got a taste of what it would be like to do that for a living.

When I moved south, becoming a guide hadn’t even crossed my mind. At that time, the last thing I wanted to do was watch other people fish. But over the previous year, I’d fished so much on my own, I was getting a bit bored with being out there by myself.

Thus, upon returning from this trip, I decided to dip my toe into the guiding life. I had a pretty good understanding of my local area, so I decided to just start there by contracting to a local heli-fishing lodge where some of my first days on the job were spent deep in the Southern Alps with individual clients spending $10k+ a day on fishing. It was incredible.

That first season was spent learning the ins and outs of what it took to manage clients and their expectations. It was also a big step into learning how to assess and manage the weather and conditions, and still provide a great day out.

I quickly fell in love with the excessive time spent on the water, watching, learning and guiding. Spending 10 hours a day watching someone else fish made me tune into all the intricacies of both the angler and the fish. I could instantly recognise what was going right or wrong and had tactics to suit each situation.

This cycle of never-ending learning and exploring had me hooked – everything else in life melted away. Skiing was put on the backburner; my business aspirations were on ice. All that mattered was hunting down that next fish.

Living the Dream

Over the following five years, I spent all my summers on the rivers in NZ; from October to April, I’d spend at least 150 days on the water. Then the off season came around and it was off to explore new waters and species all over the world. From the USA to Iceland, Mexico to Norway, freshwater to saltwater, I tried it all!

These were some of the most engrossing years of my life as I forged new friendships, enjoyed new experiences and ultimately lived the life I’d dreamed of but had never before chased. I’d essentially become the true definition of a trout-bum.

Then the pandemic came, bringing it all to an abrupt stop. But at the same time, it allowed me to pivot into a new future as I was starting to become tired of the seasonal work. Looking back with fond memories, I can truly say it was that one Opening trip that defined those amazing years of my life, and without it, who knows where I’d be now?

The moral of the story? If you love doing something, do it with everything you have, as you never know where it might lead. Fly fishing took hold of me like I never thought anything could, and it’s a time in my life that I’ll never forget nor regret.

So, this Opening Day, get out there and plan a trip to remember. Regardless of how it goes, just know that being out there is the first step to building a passion that may last you a lifetime.

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