Way out west for an excellent fishing adventure

Phil Clark of Australia with another Lake Moeraki brown trout caught on the fly.
Zane Mirfin

Phil Clark of Australia with another Lake Moeraki brown trout caught on the fly.

The West Coast of the South Island is a magical and mysterious wonderland, easily one of the world's wildest and remotest outdoor adventure playgrounds. 

With the closure of yet another trout fishing season close upon us, it's been special to reflect upon West Coast travels over the past seven months where we fished between Karamea township and Haast.

In this time we fished major rivers and their tributaries, like the Karamea, Mohikinui, Buller, Grey, Taramakau, Hokitika, Wanganui, Whataroa, Paringa, and lakes galore.

The West Coast has so many rivers and lakes because it is a narrow belt of land sandwiched between surging coastline and high steep mountains, which trap rainfall blowing in from over the Tasman Sea. The climate can be savage, often with heavy rainfall and huge swollen rivers, but at times the weather gods can relent with outbreaks of bright sunshine and low clear, silver rivers.

* A winter's tale of saltwater fishing
* Quirky church turned West Coast fishing lodge
* West Coast could see snapper catch increased

Early season the weather and rivers were volatile, but fortunately there was a magic weather window in autumn and we enjoyed great fishing.

Zane Mirfin and Phil Clark on top of the world at Fox Glacier

Zane Mirfin and Phil Clark on top of the world at Fox Glacier

Phil Clark of Australia and I have fished together many times, in many places, but Phil is somewhat of a West Coast fly fishing aficionado and he was back again to further explore the Coast in his 75th year.

Last year, we fished extensively around the Lake Brunner region, often using my boat for access to the many surrounding lakes with great success. This had sparked the idea in Phil's head about a grand "bucket list" fishing trip around the whole South Island, starting out on the northern West Coast and fishing our way south.

Probably the best trout fishing on the West Coast is the northern half, generally because the rivers are more stable and less blown apart from mercurial and routine flood events, growing ever more common in a modern climate change-ridden world.

Helicopter landing at Fox Glacier
Zane Mirfin

Helicopter landing at Fox Glacier

Hokitika south is what I always term South Westland and although trout fishing results tend to be more variable, it is a truly magical place to visit, fish, and explore. 

Catching kahawai (arripis trutta) in the Hokitika river mouth and shopping for greenstone and glasswork, we enjoyed West Coast ambience before heading south on a two week fishing road trip.

At beautiful Lake Mahinapua we looked off the dock for freshwater red fin perch (perca fluviatilis) before continuing onwards to Ianthe.

Phil Clark of Australia with one of the residents of lake Ianthe, South Westland.
Zane Mirfin

Phil Clark of Australia with one of the residents of lake Ianthe, South Westland.

Lake Ianthe, just short of Hari Hari township, is a stunning jewel of a lake and home of some big brown trout. Tourists crammed the boat ramp area making it a nightmare to back the boat down the ramp without potentially running over some dazed overseas visitor oblivious to Phil and Zane's most excellent adventure.

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Two Chinese couples were especially good natured and full of humour, posing in front of the boat with our fishing rods and landing nets for photographs, even roping Phil and I into hamming it up for the camera.

Soon we were free of the ramp and as I opened up the throttle of the boat, the craziness of tourist season was left behind as Phil and I were alone in a secret world along the far shore.

Since I had fished here last some idiot had released the pest coarse fish Rudd (scardinius erythrophthalmus) into the lake and I was half expecting Phil to catch some as he expertly stripped damselfly and dragonfly nymphs over luxurious green weed beds below the surface.

It was not to be with rudd, but some splendid brown trout came our way. The brownies weren't numerous, but this was more than compensated for in the size and body condition of the golden flanked fish.

Some of the best fisheries on the West Coast are the lakes and stillwaters because they are stable and largely immune from the effects of flooding.

Lakes come up and lakes go down but the trout populations remain constant. Some lakes also offer some significant pacific salmon fishing opportunities for Chinook salmon (oncorhynchus tshawytscha) with Lakes Paringa and Mapourika being prime stopovers for the nomadic anadromous salmon intent on heading upstream to their natal spawning streams.

On Mapourika, we had a great time, catching trout, and practicing stag roaring on a plastic horn I keep in the boat at this time of year.

Regaling Phil with tales of hunting trips past, I also managed some decent spotting jobs on trout cruising the shallows of the dark tannin-stained lake. On the last fish, I told Phil to leave his cast on the water. "Strip slowly now" I advised Phil. "Got him" Phil replied excitedly as the 3kg brown boiled the surface attached to his fly.

Franz and Fox Glacier are always fun hamlets to drive through and this trip we stayed at Fox, enjoying fine dining just metres away from our motel accommodation.

Tourism has done wonders over recent decades for the facilities and services available to travellers and the next morning Phil got me to line up a glacier heli-flight for us both.

The weather was epic and Phil and I were piloted in a Hughes 500 helicopter over both glaciers, with magic views of mountains Tasman and Cook.

The glaciers may have retreated markedly over recent decades but they are still magnificent geographic features with jagged crevasses, blue ice, and massive snow fields above.

Andrew, our affable pilot, put us down for a snow landing high above Fox Glacier and we enjoyed breathtaking vistas while standing on glistening white snow.

Soon we were back to the melee of tourists on the tarmac below and it reminded me of a shooting trip with hunting mentor Neil Simmons at Fox years ago.

We had four chamois skins on the ground when a busload of tourists disembarked and were fascinated by the thick dark pelts. "One skin, two skin, three skin, foreskin" Neil counted out loud to our great mirth at the time.

Lake Wahapo was too low to fish, with the ramp high and dry, and way too much mud and ooze between us and the lake to launch.

Lake Paringa was a little busy with many boats out fishing for salmon, so we kept driving south to Lake Moeraki.

The lake was all ours with not a sole in sight all day. Phil caught fish in the Blue river and we fished around the shallow lake edges using my electric positioning motor to search for cruising trout before heading to the Haast pub for dinner.

Haast really is the last outpost of civilisation in South Westland. There is trout fishing further south but I've never been very successful in the Okuru and Turnbull rivers.

Upper tributaries of the Waiatoto and Arawhata offer some potential but jetboat or helicopter access is expensive and arduous.

Some of the best fishing we've had on earlier heli-adventures was on the lower Martyr and upper reaches of the wild Cascade river.

The Haast river itself offers some fishing but it is a massive river, better fished down near the mouth for sea run trout. Upstream tributaries like the Thomas, MacFarlane, and Clarke rivers are beautiful places with big red stags and some nice resident trout too.

Phil and I had a magic morning drive over the mystical Haast Pass with bright sun and bright rivers greeting us at every turn in the road, as rainforest surrounded us and mountains towered high above.

We both knew the siren call of the rivers and lakes of the West Coast would continue to draw us back again and again but the fabled alpine waters of the Otago high country were just around the corner.

 - Stuff

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