Dispatch from New Zealand: The Keys to Hooking Trout in Super Clear Water

The trip has taken flight now, literally, as I am at the famous Cedar Lodge on the banks of the Makarora. The program here revolves around helicopter fishing, which in and of itself, is an amazing experience. Riding the chopper through these majestic landscapes is unreal, but what really blows my mind is setting down near a river that's so untouched, so pristine, that I can literally dip a cup in the water as I fish and take a cool drink. I've never experienced that before.

The thing with such clear, cold water is that it demands an entirely different level of your fishing game. Just look at these shots taken just below the surface. You can imagine that with visibility that clear, you can see the fish—which believe it or not, is still quite tricky sometimes, as they are masters at hiding, even if you think they might stand out like a goldfish in a glass bowl.

The fish can also see you quite easily, and all your mistakes get amplified. You must watch your shadows and so forth, of course, but simple things, like having a dry fly drag on the surface 10 or 15 feet away from the fish can shut that fish down in seconds flat.

I'm learning that New Zealanders sight fish not so much because they can, but rather, because they must. If you bomb your way up the river making blind casts, odds are that the fish will see you ripping flies and leader off the water, or hear you wading, or any one of a number of things that can ruin your chances. Far better to lock onto a target and plan an exact, coordinated approach, one fish, one shot at a time.

I cannot help but think that these lessons transpose to fishing in clear water, wherever that may be, and I am planning to employ some of these tactics more regularly when I fish back home in the states. If a fish sees the fly and doesn't eat it, switch patterns, right then. Drop the fly in clear water several feet from the fish you target, not several inches. Always drift the fly on the current side of the fish, and never between the fish and the bank in slack water. You only step and move when the fish is pointed or swimming away from you, and never cast or step when the fish is circling around, or pointed in your direction. It goes on and on, and I will detail more of this down the road.

I'll also get into some gear and fly selection in a bit, but for me the biggest surprise so far has been that, despite the incredibly clear water, I haven't fished anything lighter than 4X tippet. Part of that is a "pick your poison" consideration; when you cast at 5-pound trout, you reach a point of diminishing returns when it comes to light tippet. If you want a real chance of landing the fish, you must use reasonably stout tippet. I have always thought that a trout is more likely to eat a drag-free drift and a good presentation on 4X tippet, than it is to eat a dragging fly on 7X. New Zealand has proven that to me. It's all about the drift. I'll never fish lighter than 5X for trout again, anywhere.