When trout play hard to get

WHERE THERE'S A WILL: Tim Hammond with a typical local summer brown trout.
WHERE THERE'S A WILL: Tim Hammond with a typical local summer brown trout.

At this time of year, trout fishers need to fish early or late in the day, seeking cooler rivers where trout will often congregate to escape the warm summer waters.

Summer is finally upon us with those balmy sunny days. With the sun comes the blistering heat, drought conditions and low river flows of late summer.

Driving around the district lately, it's apparent that things are getting pretty dry out there with pasture dying off, the ribs sticking out of rivers, and irrigation systems working overtime. It's no different elsewhere in the top of the south on our fishing travels lately with parched conditions and rivers throughout Marlborough, West Coast and North Canterbury also very low.

It's been difficult sleeping too with hot muggy nights, and even the kids are grumpy. The heat out on the river has been intense as the radiation beats down in Melanoma City.

I've always called it the summer doldrums when the trout lay low, becoming inactive and lethargic. Humans behave much the same way and interestingly, international sharemarkets historically suffer the same fate over hot summer weather periods when investors lose interest and would rather be at the beach with their family.

The early Greeks, including Aristotle, termed the summer heat the "dog days of summer" as they associated the hot northern hemisphere weather with the rise of the dog star Sirius.

Ancient Romans routinely sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the dog days to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of the hot sultry weather.

Such dog days were popularly believed to be an evil time when "the sea boiled, the wine turned sour, dogs grew mad and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers and hysterics". Thankfully it doesn't get that bad here but the dog days of summer do exist for a few weeks each year so we may as well enjoy them before the cold of winter arrives.

It's ironic that peak tourist season in February coincides with some of the toughest environmental conditions of the year as overseas anglers escape the cold and dark of the northern hemisphere winter to the hot, dry, summer conditions of New Zealand.

It's no secret that the local tourism industry has been battling tough economic headwinds lately, with a high New Zealand dollar and worldwide economic recession caning many local businesses. Sometimes it can seem like a perfect storm of economic and environmental conditions conspiring against small business but I've just been thankful that the phone keeps on ringing.

After close to three decades prowling the waters of the South Island as a fishing guide, I've come to learn the cycles of nature and man and grit my teeth throughout February and just concentrate on getting the job done.

My favourite times to trout fish have always been early and late season when river flows are higher, waters cooler, and fish more active. Catch rates can drop off in January and February as trout become wary to the ways of man and are more challenging fish to catch.

The anglers too are often different outside summer with the best often knowing to avoid the peak summer months with crowded rivers, swimmers, holidaymakers and less co-operative trout. Perhaps the best fishing opportunities available locally at the moment are in the saltwater scene as snapper move inshore and yellowtail kingfish and albacore tuna thrive in the warm tidal waters.

But the trout are still there and can still be caught. Probably the major issue at this time of year can be the low river flows and high water temperatures.

Theoretically, it should be easier to catch trout in low flows because the fish are more concentrated but it doesn't always work out like that. Soaring water temperatures can see trout disappear and vacate previously good water as they shun the hot sun and warm water.

Many local lowland rivers routinely go over 20 degrees Celsius in the hot conditions into what I call the "death zone" and any good angler will carry a digital meatworker's thermometer in their fishing vest to regularly test the water temperature.

I have caught trout at close to 23C but such fish are likely to have trouble recovering from capture in the boiling waters. I've even seen fish die in such warm waters and experienced anglers will stop fishing long before the "death zone" is reached.

Even the normally ice-cold rivers of the Nelson Lakes region are approaching 17-18C by the end of hot days lately.

Trout are a cold water fish and feed best between about 10C and 18C, meaning that mornings are the best time to fish at this time of year. Lately we've been starting early to get much of our fishing done before lunchtime and before the oppressive afternoon heat shuts the fish down.

Strategies for this time of year include fishing early and late in the day, fishing cooler rivers, or seeking out the confluences of cooler spring-fed streams where trout will often congregate. Trout will move into faster water, too, seeking water with a higher oxygen content. Fast, shallow runs often see trout stack up in search of food and oxygen, making for some exciting sight fishing.

Summer fly fishing is all about treading quietly, casting well and using small flies and light line to fool educated trout. It's a lot of fun, and there can even be some great dry fly fishing on the larger lowland rivers with trout gently sipping spent mayflies off the surface from evening spinner falls the night before. Sometimes you can look up a pool and see literally dozens of trout slurping spent spinners off the surface, their small black heads pock-marking the water's surface.

Summertime is also terrestrial time where you can fish artificial beetles that are brown, black or green, flying ants, and all other manner of land-based creepy crawlies. Some of my favourite terrestrial "hatches" to fish are the willow grub slurpers that sit up under the surface locked in on the diminutive little yellow grubs that fall into the water under willow trees.

Such trout can be very selective and frustrating to catch but it's exciting close-range fishing for trout that are hyper-visible and very active.

Other local bugs that are fun to imitate are the passion vine hoppers that appear every year about this time on lowland waters. This small delta-winged insect is hungrily sought after by trout and they'll take these bugs in a distinctive head and tail rise. It's "match the hatch"-type fishing but flyfishing at its best as trout selectively feed all around you, often oblivious to your offerings.

Perhaps the ultimate terrestrial fishing is cicada time where back country fish go wild on big clumsy bugs splatting down on the surface. Falling rivers after rain can turn on some spectacular cicada fishing as big trout lose all caution and go on a feeding frenzy.

The best cicada imitations are tied out of flared and spun deerhair, clipped to shape with bulky synthetic wings and even dumbbell plastic eyes to look just like the real thing.

Summer trout fishing isn't always easy. Lately we're caught our share of fish but also had days when we worked hard to catch trout too. Some rivers appear to have very light numbers of trout as climate change kicks in and the large floods over recent years have literally ripped rivers apart.

The rivers of Murchison and Reefton have taken a real pasting and sometimes I wonder if New Zealand trout fishing had a magic century of angling from the 1880s before the 21st century came about.

The trout will always be here for us to enjoy, although you might have to travel a little further, and maybe have more realistic expectations.