Southwest Fly Fishing

Stonefly Lodge, New Zealand
By Mark B. Hatter

Fly fishing has been my lifelong passion, and I’ve tried for nearly four decades to inspire some modicum of that passion in my wife, Vicky. She’s fished with me over the years, but generally as a neutral observer. Even a sultry June day when tarpon swarmed around my skiff left her indifferent. It seemed I was doomed to remain a fly-fishing bachelor—until January 2016, when Vicky and I traveled to New Zealand for a life-changing experience.
   It began with planning an adventure trip of hiking, biking, and kayaking. But how does a dedicated fly angler go to New Zealand and not fish for wild brown trout in one of the last unspoiled environments on earth?
   So I looked for a top-shelf lodge that offered a variety of amenities beyond fishing for the second half of our visit to South Island. Enter Mike McClelland, owner of The Best of New Zealand Fly Fishing, based in California. I contacted him to discuss possibilities. I thought my “something for everyone” request would be a tough volley, but McClelland returned service with a winner. “Stonefly Lodge,” he said without hesitation, “offers world-class brown trout fishing, access to dozens of rivers, and wine country tours, hiking, and biking, should your wife decide not to fish. 
   “Does it have heli-fishing?” I asked. For a trip of a lifetime, I wanted it all.
   “Yes, fly-out trips are made into the million-square-acres Kahurangi National Park, an untouched wilderness!”
   And with that, it was a done deal. In a week’s time a package arrived in the mail with a map, an itinerary, and directions that would take us from Queenstown to Stonefly Lodge, near Nelson on the north coast.
   Our NZ road trip north was spectacular: breathtaking mountains, impossibly blue rivers, and virtually no traffic. Overnights at B&Bs got better every day, with our last road night culminating in a stay at fabulous Wave Watchers Retreat, a beautifully landscaped oceanfront cottage overlooking the Tasman Sea in quaint Punakaiki. The next morning, we found the neatly painted road sign announcing our arrival at Stonefly Lodge. We punched the code at the entry gate, drove up the hill onto the meticulously maintained grounds, and met owners Kate and John Kerr at the massive front door. 
   “Wow! What a lovely, lovely place!” Vicky exclaimed. Kate gave us the tour, and we learned that they had built the luxury lodge by hand, in 2008, using timber from their property and hand-picked rocks from local rivers. Even the furniture was made from local hardwoods; everything on the campus is eco-friendly. “We are off the commercial grid,” Kate explained. “Our power comes from solar, and the lodge is designed to absorb and radiate heat to balance the temperature.”
   In fact, while Stonefly is ranked internationally as both a top-10 eco-lodge and a top-10 fishing lodge, it also has the distinction of being certified as a Luxury Lodge of New Zealand.
   The fabulous amenities were cool, but I couldn’t help but fixate on the azure river below the lodge. Sensing my occasionally chagrining sociability (according to Vicky), Kate graciously offered, “You can fish the river before cocktails at 7; there’s usually a nice fish or two below the lodge.”
   Flashing my retriever look, awaiting the go-fetch command, Vicky set me loose: “Let’s see to the luggage, then I’ll go
with you.”
   Sweeet!
   I plied the river as Vicky watched from the bank, yet I caught nothing. Apparently, my American approach was too aggressive, not stealthy enough—which didn’t go unnoticed by several large browns. It also wasn’t lost on Richard Booth, our professional fishing guide, who would retrain me in the days to come to fish like a proper Kiwi. “I watched you cast,” he later told me; the gentle but truthful way he said it let me know I’d failed the headmaster’s exam. “No worries, mate.” Booth would fix my Americanisms.
   At cocktails, we met the other lodge guests, drank local wines, and consumed sumptuous canapés created by chef Dean Sincock. The trout had vanquished all of the lodge’s anglers that day save one guest, a semiretired investment banker who could cast like a Kiwi. He landed several. A Stanford professor came close; she’d lost a trophy at the net. Sipping a Riesling, Vicky was riveted by the fishing banter between professor and banker. She asked the right questions: “Could you see the fish?” “Was it hard to wade?” “How far did you have to cast?” Her line of questions left me hopeful. 
   At dinner, John Kerr proclaimed perfect weather for heli-fishing in the morning. Helicopter trips are made deep into the wilderness, so pilots must visually navigate over the abrupt mountain spires and deep canyons, thus the need for
excellent weather.
   “There will be four of you if Vicky goes, plus your guides,” said Kerr. I gave her a wistful look. She gave me a thumbs up. “Excellent!” Kerr said. “Be ready to fly at 8:30 sharp!”
   “No hotdogging when we’re flying, right?” Vicky asked, half jesting. With that, everyone laughed as chef Dean presented the main course: roasted venison with sautéed this and reduction that. Honestly, I can’t recall any of his fixin’s, only that everything was amazingly tasty.
   The next morning, a quick safety briefing preceded liftoff for our fantastic 30-minute flight into the heart of Kahurangi. Our destination was the Waingaro River, carved deep into the mountains, setting up a cool but sporty, almost military-like, “insertion.” On a boulder bar hardly wide enough to land, the pilot gently settled the bird. With its blades still rotating, Booth helped Vicky and me out. Soon, the chopper’s thumping was replaced by melodic calls of tui birds and the rush of the Waingaro. It spilled diamond blue, set against a forest of beeches that had grown there for millennia. We stood in wilderness so deep it would take Army Rangers four days to reach it on foot. Booth rigged the rods as Vicky and I took it all in.
   “Kahurangi has rivers that have never been explored,” he said, turning over a river rock, looking for clues on what might be the go-to bug. “Ha! Buggah! Look at this caddis, Vicky,” he exclaimed, extending a finger to show her a wriggling olive-green pupa. Sorting through his fly box, he found both wet and dry imposters, and tied each to a rod. Handing me one, Booth implied it was time to learn Kiwi casting, which is the art of throwing an impossibly long 18-foot leader into the teeth of ever-present canyon winds, while hitting a pie plate at 25 feet.
   With the second rod, I watched Booth do exactly as he had instructed. I remembered that he had watched me cast, so I copied his tempo, found a rhythm, dialed in a smidge of control, and earned from Booth a “Ha, welcome to the club!”
   And we were off.
   My yin had warned of rod hogging, but my yang was weak. I spent most of the day with Booth, casting to muscular trout with massive heads, long curved jaws, and the nerves of a crack addict. Yet, I stepped up my game under Booth’s tutelage, hooking a trophy, only to lose it downstream under a boulder. No worries. I made the play, and that was more than enough as a starter. Vicky remained patient, finding pleasure in photography, river hiking, and watching me cast to one fish no fewer than 20 times. (Back home later, Booth showed us the 16 different flies he’d tied for me to try.) Too soon it was time for our extraction, and we hustled up river to our LZ.
   Vicky loved the day’s adventure. Significantly, her enjoyment came from Booth’s comportment: equal parts philosopher, historian, technician, naturalist, and psychologist. “When will I get a chance to fish?” she asked. I was thinking, “Purrrfect!” a one-word statement Booth uttered when things were just right.
   At another over-the-top dinner by chef Dean, we learned that the trout had proved recalcitrant for the balance of the guests. “Wild New Zealand browns are sophisticated,” John Kerr reminded us. “They live in clear water and don’t get big by being foolish. Stonefly Lodge is about quality; we offer a lifetime experience of trophy hunting, fine dining, and hospitable
Kiwi culture.”
   Amen!
   The next morning, Booth drove us to the Motueka River. With a slower flow and mostly wider banks, presenting minimal risk of “hanging laundry in the trees,” as he would say, it was a great place to guide Vicky. Immediately we found smaller browns sipping green willow grubs, which had fallen off overhanging trees, at a spot too tight to fish. Upstream, however, along a broad bank, Booth found a fish in a close seam, a purrrfect place for Vicky to test her newly acquired casting skills. I watched from a distance, a hopeful spouse. With chameleon-like stalking, they moved to the ready. To myself, I uttered, “On your time.” It was another Richardism we’d learned.
   Vicky’s mechanical yet effective casting put the nymph on the pie plate and rewarded her with a take. Lifting the rod, she set the hook; Booth had coached her well. Soon her beautiful fish was brought to net and it was finally complete: Vicky’s first fish on a fly rod. High fives and hugs, then, ceremoniously, Booth implanted the historic nymph on her hat. 
   After lunch, we drove to the Baton River, a more challenging flow with bigger fish. As a bookend to complement the morning, I scored on a dry and had five eats from another fish that held on the far side of a pool where Booth coached, “You have to put the fly exactly 24 inches in front of the fish.” Twenty-nine inches didn’t cut it; line drag from the central current repeatedly pulled my fly away at the take.
   That night, the lodge buzzed with new guests, more great cuisine, and the story of one female fly fisher who’d ascended above mere meat fisherman to become a sophisticated Kiwi angler. “We are all about ensuring the best couple’s experience at Stonefly,” said John Kerr. “A victory toast!”
   At the end of the day I couldn’t have written a more perfect script for the trip of a lifetime: the nonangling spouse fishes every day, and the pro guide coaches the rookie to her first fish; the veteran scores, but the pro guide adroitly assuages his ego for the ones that got away—and all this against a backdrop of magnificent Lord of the Rings scenery at an impossibly luxurious lodge that makes you feel like Downton Abbey aristocracy.

 

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