What's Wrong with Lakes

by Paul Bruun

Ask foreign outfitters which is the most difficult group to host and they’ll probably respond, “the Americans.” Perhaps this isn’t surprising to you bit was to me until I began observing our behavior.
To put it bluntly, Americans are spoiled. Everything here is easy and we’re used to getting our way. Sadly, we assume that good gear will fill the gap between practice and skill. Often we’re picky, soft and far more demanding than sportsmen from less “tech” oriented countries.

Watching the “foreigners” fish the Snake during the World Fly Fishing Championships proved this immediately. Anglers whose entire collection of tackle wasn’t worth what a good American fly reel costs, could fish like nobody’s business. Their skills were brilliant, even though saddled with mediocre gear.
Gerald Tetford, 40, takes people hunting and fishing in New Zealand. Gerald’s portion of the lower central South island resembles Wyoming around Sheridan, Cody or Dubois. Wanaka is a handsome lakeshore village complete with waterfront cabins, ski areas and tourist-attracting recreation. Unlike wetter N.Z. regions, Wanaka gets a meager 30 inches of rainfall annually.

Three large lakes-Wanaka, Hawea and Dunstan-and a giant river called the Clutha are area features. When everything else is dirty or inaccessible, these lakes and the Hawea (a short tailwater that joins the Clutha) remain clear and ready to fish, nearly the year around.

The catch to this ideal situation is that few if any of Gerald’s American clients care to investigate his lakes.
“I can’t figure out why this is?” Gerald shrugs. “The fish average larger than in the rivers. It’s mostly sight fishing to mighty selective browns and rainbows. But the Yanks only want to sight-fish in moving water rivers. I can’t even get them to fish at night for the big browns that go crazy over midnight caddis hatches,” he reflects.

Gerald was stunned and delighted when my fishing partner, Joe Burke, and I demanded to fish his lakes. Wanting to experience as much of New Zealand’s vast outdoor resources as we could, we knew there was much to learn from Gerald and his pet ponds. Joe and I buck the system and investigate as many regional lakes around Jackson as we can. Fishing is uncrowded. The trout are bigger and present a whole new challenge. We eagerly savored instruction from an expert lake fisherman.

Gerald subtly evaluated our skills on the Hawea River flows near his house. He generously provided a blanket Manuka Beetle hatch which he reports annually begins on Nov 10 around Wanaka. Trout were happily sipping these bright green terrestrials the same way Joe and I lapped up local Manuka honey produced from the rich blossoms of these shaggy, cedar-like trees.

The following day Gerald’s shortcut to lake Dunstan wound through a sheep and red deer farm. I dutifully mastered operation of the multi-sized and shaped “big hooks” that secure every New Zealand gate. From where we parked I saw trout boiling on an active caddis hatch. If we didn’t want anything so obvious, we could stalk jumbo trout as they prowled the weedy shorelines in search of midges, snails, water boatman, damsel flies, minnows and of course the caddis. However, fly picking was a puzzle.
We would creep along the shore and attempt to master each trout’s patrolling routine. Gerald would then suggest flies we should try. We had action on caddis, damsel and size 16 and 18 Pheasant Tails. It was great fun to sneak ahead of a slowly cruising fish. Other times we’d wait for them to glide through a familiar weed trail.

But this wasn’t as easy as it looked. Joe and I got so excited as each cruiser arrived that often we’d snag our back casts or otherwise botch the presentations. Even without river current these trout were stronger than I expected and they didn’t give up easily.

The trick was to make a delicate cast on a long leader with an invisible fluorocarbon tippet so the nymph would land four to six feet ahead of the trout. As the fish approached, we’d give the fly a short tug to get the trout’s attention. That’s all the action the fly required. When things went well, the trout usually shot ahead and gulped the nymph. Unlike dry fly fishing on rivers where a slight pause is standard on larger New Zealand trout, the lake fish required a quick strip-strike hook set. Then the fun heated up.
Later in the week Gerald hauled us to one of his favorite little ponds that contained brook trout. We didn’t even know any brookies lived in New Zealand. They had been stocked in this small private lake by a biologist who was studying additional trout species that might thrive in the area.

Pursuit of these brook trout was different than the shallow lake edge sight fishing Gerald introduced us to earlier. It was more our style. Using intermediate and sinking lines to drop streamers into deeper pockets. Joe was delighted when his favorite Wooly Worm nabbed a solid 3 ½ pound brookie from the weedy and stickup filled water.

Imagine this beautiful little pond, full of ducks and bird life, that one could easily walk completely around in 20 minutes. It was home to some very beefy brookies. Other than a few spots where back casting between was a headache, it was delightful to fish. The place was a brook trout goldmine, especially when fast sinking shooting heads and Teeny sink tips were added to the water. Yet Gerald admitted that he usually failed miserably when trying to convince his Yank clients to try the place. Were it not for the promise of a fine lamb dinner with fresh mint sauce prepared by his wife Sue and her mom, Ginny, Gerald could never have wrestled Joe and me home!

The “stubborn Yank” saga continues. Later in our travels, we made an unplanned visit to Lake Taupo on the North Island. This happened because blustery weather shortened our saltwater quest for New Zealand’s enormous yellowtail tuna in the Bay of Plenty. We’d landed plenty of “kingies” on flies and I took a beating from the tuna before the weather forced us back to port in Whakatane.
We were in the company of a young guide named Mark Draper who grew up in the fishing business. His father, Keith, was a successful lure and fly producer as well as one of New Zealand’s best known fishing authors.

We drove over to Taupo to visit Keith. After only a few moments, Keith explained that ever since the Yanks began invading his country, they all but ignored the lakes that he especially treasures. “All they want are 10 pound fish from a river,” he chuckled, “ and they can’t focus on anything but that.” Like Gerald, Keith was astonished that we truly wanted to investigate Taupo, not the famous streams that flowed into the lake.

Mark drove us to a variety of beaches, points and bays where Joe and I had a grand time tormenting smelt-chasing rainbows and several browns that patrolled Taupo’s banks. It was another marvelous day of lake education.

Several long time friends from Jackson both spent New Zealand guiding time in the Lake Brunner region of the South Island. Phil Steck and Al Michalski relate the same American, anti-lake attitude. “New Zealand lakes are full of jumbo trout, yet everybody can’t wait to run off too the rivers” Al chuckles. “We simply couldn’t understand this. It’s pretty exciting to see those big trout cruising in your direction. You have a pretty good idea that unless you really screw up your cast, you’re going to get some unbelievable action.” At the time of this Yank analysis, Al and I were gently tugging on a few Henry’s Lake hybrid, cutthroat and brook trout last fall. It seems Yanks are predictable both home and away. Most of our friends continue to run off to the rivers. Go Figure.