New Zealand Fly Fishing Guides - Ben Kemp

New Zealand Fly Fishing Guides - Ben Kemp

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 (A story from the summer of 2003 by Alistair Eykyn ©)

 “You’ll never catch fish in New Zealand by yourself.” Repeatedly, this was the message I received when doing my exhaustive homework before setting out Down Under for the trip of a lifetime. Fanciful ideas of casting a casual line into the myriad of prolific Kiwi rivers were soon banished. The internet was trawled. I wanted browns, I wanted the majestic scenery of the South Island, and I wanted to know how on earth to go about it. There must be a hundred websites on which to browse for brown trout fishing in the Land of the Long White Cloud. But I will wager there is only one which can summon from the ether, the experience and genial know-how of Ben Kemp. If it’s big, wild, fighting trout you’re after, Ben is the man to lead you to one of the holy grails of game fishing.

Catching trout in New Zealand is almost exclusively reliant on spotting the quarry first. Each river that criss-crosses this jaw-droppingly beautiful country is gin clear, with a turquoise hue that teases and taunts the fisherman. Often the icy colouring is the result of glacial run-off or snow melt, and it lends the fishing a unique element.  Without a guide you will flounder. If you can’t see the trout, you can be sure they will see you - and even the stealthiest of predators will leave empty-handed.

The other unusual element to trout fishing in New Zealand is that contrary to popular advertising, the rivers are not stuffed full of hulking “trophy” trout waiting to provide sport for visiting anglers. Most rivers do not sustain that much aquatic life, so that large numbers of trout fail to make it beyond infancy. Those that do, find themselves towards the top of the food chain, and cream off the majority of insect life passing through their particular territory. These fish grow to uncommonly large sizes, but they are not numerous. Local knowledge is indispensable.

In early November, driving a tatty blue Kombi van packed to the hilt, my wife Anna and I rattled into the little hamlet of Nelson Creek, at the foot of the Southern Alps. Ben greeted us warmly in our picturesque riverside campground opposite a neglected old pub.

We then set out down a tangled labyrinth of dirt tracks into the wilderness.

An hour or so later we emerged from dense woodland, blinking in the sunlight as the Ahaura River sparkled on the vast plain in front of us.

Flanked by snow-covered mountains in the distance to either side, the crystal clear water hurries over the rocky bed, maybe 50 yards in width, blending fast rippled sections with long smooth glides.

The six-weight fly rods were already assembled, with a Hares’ Ear nymph tied as a dropper below a dry Royal Wulff. The dry fly acts both as a lure in itself, and as an indicator for the nymph. With the sunlight dappling the water, it is easy to miss a take. Ben took up position alongside us, and within a short time, spotted several fish in a junction pool, where a side creek joined the main body of water.

Anna is not an experienced fly fisher, but casts well and is a fast learner. Ben instructed her patiently for half an hour or so, and we approached low, moving quietly over the rocks. After a couple of attempts that landed safely wide of the target, the Wulff touched down 2 yards upstream of the waiting trout.

Anna saw the fish ease into position, and as the fly sank from view she tightened the line. Five minutes of acrobatics later, 3.5lbs of lean silver brownie came to the net. Ben gutted it on the spot, and left us to our task. He busied himself with an ancient portable smoker, and half an hour later we savoured the freshest trout of our lives.

Naturally it took me a good deal longer to score, but when I did, the thrill of the fight in such a dazzling setting was everything I had dared to dream about. The afternoon passed in a happy blur of scenic beauty and heart-pounding adventure. We caught several more fish up to 4.5 lbs thanks to the eagle eyes of our guide.

There is nothing quite like stalking your prey, with one cast to hit your target. Sometimes you could even see the trout open its mouth as it approached the fly lazily. Like an excited child offered a sweetie, it is all too tempting to whisk the morsel away before the deal is done. As Ben confidently told us, it’s the most fun you can have with your trousers on.

For our remaining two days we pitched camp on Bain Bay, by the edge of the imposing Lake Brunner. We paddled quietly on Ben’s self-made boat up the Hohonu River – a much smaller creek, wonderfully different to the Ahaura - fringed by tropical rainforest. It wouldn’t have surprised us to see a crocodile slither out from the bank, but thankfully as yet they haven’t made it across the Tasman Sea. Again the water was clear, though this river bed was sandy, lending it a tint of ochre. These trout are also easily spooked, and often our fly landed too close to the fish, and the shadowy figures shot away, horrified at our clumsy practice. Ben remained patient as ever, quietly offering unobtrusive advice, and all the while watching for movement below the surface.

We also fished the reedy fringes of Lake Brunner where the browns patrol, or snooze their way through the day. The same principles apply, the same 20-20 vision required. It was a prolific time, with plenty of fish in the 3 to 4lb bracket and several lost that, naturally, were a good deal larger.

When we weren’t fishing, we were treated to an endless succession of fresh smoked trout, and other delicacies crammed into Ben’s numerous hampers.

Never have I camped in such luxury. After whiling away the evening hours with stories around the lakeside fire, the pampering was complete with camp beds on which to rest our weary heads. We drifted into contented sleep to the gentle, melodious calls of the flightless weka bird.

We left Ben, and coaxed our ageing little Kombi the length and breadth of the South Island over the following three weeks, often pausing to cast a fly in a likely spot on one of the hundreds of gleaming rivers we passed. Our optimism was bolstered by our new found knowledge; our failure testament to our lack of realism. It’s true enough - you’ll never catch fish in New Zealand by yourself.

Alastair Eykyn, BBC RADIO SPORT, BBCi at


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