Saltwater Fly Fishing in New Zealand, the basics

This is a brief introduction to the basics of saltwater fly fishing in New Zealand.  New Zealand is known world wide for it's great trout fishing but not everyone realises that there is so much saltwater fly fishing out there.

You can do just about everything you want, from targeting monster kingfish on shallow sand flats to hooking marlin and tuna offshore.  However this is intended to cover the inshore species that are just as awesome and regularly available from the shore and on small inshore boats.

Saltwater fly fishing gear is generally much heavier than that used in freshwater for trout.  This is due to the fact that most species caught are much stronger, faster and bigger than their freshwater counterparts.  Because of this you need gear that is suitable to land the species you are targeting.  It is not good practise to catch large fish with gear that is not capable of landing them.  It only leads to over-exerted fish that will die when released or breakages that will leave fish with hooks and line hanging from their mouths, severely reducing their chances of survival.  The gear is also expensive so you don't want to break it anyway.

Let's look at some gear that would suit New Zealand conditions.  What you use will depend on what you can afford and the species you will be targeting most often.  This is really just a general indication of gear for New Zealand conditions.

You will be casting heavy lines and flies, often into a strong breeze and long distances.  This is why you would probably want a fast action rod that will allow you to punch those bulky wind resistant flies into the wind.  A good quality rod is important but it will depend on what you can afford.  Make sure however that all the fittings are saltwater resistant.  The last thing you want is a constant fight with corrosion.

When it comes to the AFTMA rating for the rod it becomes more difficult and you need to start thinking of the species you are likely to target.  In New Zealand you could use an 8 or 9 weight comfortably for kahawai, trevally, most snapper and small (rat) kingfish.  Anything bigger and you will need to start looking at 10-12 weight rods and up to the likes of 14 for things like big tuna and marlin.

If you are serious about your fly fishing you will no doubt have the whole range, but if you're just starting out you are likely to start with an 8 or 9 weight set-up.  You could start with an 8 weight that doubles as your heavy freshwater rod for large rivers and the winter spawning runs of the famous Tongariro river.

The brand of rod you buy is a personal choice.  However, buy the best you can afford.  It will serve you better and last longer.

Your reel is likely to be the most expensive part of your set-up and it's difficult to cut down on this one.  You need a few key things in a saltwater reel.

A solid drag, even on your smaller set-ups is really important.  Saltwater fish will burn out the drag quickly and the only other thing that will stop the fish is the skin on your hands or your fingers.  Neither is particularly nice.

The next thing you want is backing capacity.  You want to be able to put 300 yards of decent braid on as backing and more is better.  This amount of backing however causes another problem, retrieve rate.  Generally a fly reel has a 1:1 retrieve.  This means that on a normal deep narrow spool you don't retrieve much line per turn of the handle once most of the backing is off.  This is where a large arbour reel comes in very handy.  Most modern reels are made this way.  It's handy but it's not a must.

Something that is a must is resistance to corrosion.  If the reel is not properly protected it will soon fall apart even if you are very good with the maintenance.  Good anodising on aluminium reels is a must.  Still clean, clean, clean and dry after every outing!

Optional things that are good to consider are things like how easy it is to change spools, if at all possible or an anti-reverse handle that will protect your fingers.  Extra spools are useful when you have multiple rods but only one good reel.  Often the spools are a lot less expensive than a second reel.  It just means you can't have more than one rod ready to go.  This can be a pain when fishing for the little ones and big brother arrives!

You can spend as much as you want on reels, you can even have them custom coloured if you can afford an Abel or Tibor (and if you can, buy one!) but again, buy the best you can afford at the time. You don't want to walk to the fishing because you sold your car to buy a reel! Just keep the characteristics above in mind.

Lines, lines, lines… Fly lines are expensive and you need so many! Every place you go you get told something else! This for that and that for this and in the end you only have a couple of reels and rods at the most.

In New Zealand you should be able to get away with this: A shooting head system that easily exchanges heads.  With a shooting head system that easily changes heads you will only need one reel per rod and sometimes a spare spool.

You will most frequently use only one head (the fastest sinking one) but you will need two or three.  You should start with a fast sinking head, these are rather difficult to cast and sometimes painful but well worth the effort.  You will use this to catch kahawai, snapper and kingfish in many different situations, obviously all well under the surface.

An intermediate head is the next thing to buy.  You can use this on the beach, in estuaries or in surface schools of kahawai.  If you're quick you could even use poppers with this line.  Its also very handy when you do a trip to the islands although you would probably buy a more specialised bonefish line if you were doing the trip of a lifetime to Christmas Island.

Floating heads are used to chuck poppers around; it's really fun but not essential to catching your first fish (unless of course you only have an old trout set-up to catch some kahawai with).

Another important factor to consider is the breaking strain of you line.  If you consider the cost of your shooting heads you want to make sure that when line brakes (and it will) it is not you shooting line or backing as that will mean you have just lost your $100+ shooting head.  Your shooting line should preferably be at least 50lb and that should go to 50lb backing.  That way you can safely get away with a 10-15lb leader if your head has a 30lb breaking strain without a big risk of loosing the expensive parts of your line.

This can be as simple or as complex as you want.  If you want to break records you need to stick to IGFA rules, if not you can do what you want.  New Zealand doesn't have too many nasty biters other than barracouta and sharks so unless you are targeting these you won't need wire trace or excessively long shanked hooks.

For kahawai, trevally and small snapper you don't need anything more than 1-2m of straight mono or fluorocarbon up to 10lb.  If you want to be fancy you could put a bimini twist in as the loop connection to the fly-line, in case a small kingfish shows up.

The big boys require a bit more thought and you would be better to investigate each species in detail in order to decide what you need.  Just a caution again here, don't just whack on the strongest piece of leader material you can find because you will loose all your gear if you hook something too big to stop.  A good start is a short piece of thick nylon or fluorocarbon from the fly to the thinner leader.  This is called a shock tippet and serves to protect your thinner leader from the abrasion of the mouths of big fish.

Anglers have their favourite flies for each area and situation they are going to fish.  The only way to work that out is by fishing a lot.  However most of the "standard" saltwater flies will work in New Zealand just as well as anywhere else.  The best starting point is probably clouser minnows in various sizes and weights including some real heavy weights to get you to the bottom (if you are after snapper).  Deceivers and surf candies are also good and you can even chuck in a few poppers for kahawai and kingfish.  Again the big boys like marlin, tuna and large kingfish require more specialised gear.

In the ocean just about anything with fins will eat a fly.  This is what makes saltwater fly fishing great.  You never know what you have just hooked up on and it can be anywhere from the size of your little finger to the length of your body or even bigger!

Kahawai (Arripis trutta) is one of New Zealand's best inshore species to target.  They can be found almost anywhere in schools of roughly the same size individuals.  These fish will eagerly eat flies and can really pull some line for their size!! More importantly they often put on a brilliant aerial display, they also eat poppers and form large surface schools that can be targeted for hours!

Snapper (Pagrus auratus) is another really popular fly rod species and can be found around most rocky inshore areas where they hang around kelp or feed over shellfish beds on nearby sandy areas.  They come into shallow water in spring in large schools to spawn but the rest of the year they are spread around reefs and the rocky shores.  They can be targeted (as most New Zealand fish) by burleying around rocky points or reefs either from the shore or from a boat.  These fish can also be stalked around the rocky shores by using polarising sunglasses and a lot of patience.

Yellowtail Kingfish (Seriola lalandi) also known as kingi's are a sought after New Zealand fly rod target.  These fish are brutes that will take you into the nearest reef and bust your gear.  They can be found all around the coast but is best targeted around deep pinnacles, rocky points or underneath surface baitfish schools (like kahawai).  They will also come into burley trails and will hang around marker buoys in harbours.  The latter is where they are often targeted with large poppers, tube flies or deceivers on a running tide early in the morning.  If you hook one of these, big or small you will need to hang on!!!

This is only brief details on some of the prised fly rod targets that are found around New Zealand, other species include trevally, gurnard, terakihi, john dorey and many other inshore species.  If you go offshore there is a whole range of pelagic species that can be targeted like marlin, tuna and mahimahi.

This is probably the most important part of being successful but is often overlooked.  When you fly fish you need to put your fly within range of the fish, on it's nose really! Two meters to the side in murky water could be too far away.  With flies you only have movement and visual attraction to get a fish to eat your fly, neither of these work over huge distances like the scent of bait.

The problem is the ocean is really big and fish are not evenly spread throughout it.  You need to know where and when to target your species of choice.  The best starting point is it's biology, learn where it lives, what it eats, when it eats and when it sleeps.

The ocean is driven by the tides.  These determine the flow of water and as such the food that is carried by the water or feeding areas that are exposed or closed off by this movement.  Know the tides when you fish as often the fish will be around only when the tide is at a certain point.  This is often referred to as "bite time" and generally means the fish have moved into the area with tide to start feeding and when it changes they stop again and may have moved off.  When they aren't feeding they will be holding somewhere.  If you can find these fish you can often entice them to feed if you present your fly well.

It's also not just about timing and location but also about depth.  You need to work out how deep the fish are and fish with the correct line to the correct depth.

As you can see it's all a bit technical and if you don't plan it can be a bit like trying to throw a ball through a hoop while blindfolded.  Why? Because you don't know where the hoop is of course.  How high, how far away, how big?

Put it this way, finding a surface school of kahawai while your on boat is a bit like taking the blindfold off and standing on a ladder you can put anywhere.  The only thing you don't want to do is scare them off by speeding right through the middle of them!

The exact spot you will fish will depend on your planning and knowledge of your target(s).  The best place to start from the shore is rocky platforms that go into deep water with kelp.  Chuck a burley bomb in the wash during an early morning incoming tide and you will soon hook into some snapper, kahawai or trevally.  It doesn't matter where you are really there are fish all around the coast.

If you have a boat, start with surface schools of kahawai and trevally.  Use a small white surf candy and chuck it in the middle of the school, then retrieve like mad or sometimes you can just let it "hang" and it will be taken.  They can be difficult at times, especially trevally.  You may need to muck around with flies that imitate krill (krill are small shrimp like crustaceans they often feed on) while kahawai will seldom shy away from your white surf candy (but they do sometimes when feeding on krill).

Another good area to try from the shore is a river mouth during spring when smelt (a small native fish) run up the rivers.  Kahawai will follow them up and can provide great sport from the shore.  The west coast rivers of the north island often have smelt and the big ocean going kahawai are great fun in shallow water.

The most important thing however is "getting out there"! That's the only way to figure it out, try, try and try again until you find out what works!

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