By: Robert Beamish, Sydney Australia.
Trout are often seen as an exclusively freshwater fish. In many parts of Australia, due to lack of stream spawning and natural recruitment and therefore almost total reliance on stocking to sustain fisheries, this is easy to understand.
In other parts of the world, however, not just trout but many other species of salmonid are considered as much sea species as a freshwater ones. While all salmonoids spawn in freshwater, in many cases the fish spend most of their lives at sea, returning to rivers only when spawning, a life-cycle described as anadromous.
The list of salmonid that spend all or part of their life in the sea includes: Atlantic salmon and the many species of Pacific salmon; the European brown trout as well as the Pacific rainbow and cutthroat trout; from the char family, brook trout, white spotted and pink spotted char (Dolly Varden); and of the taimen species, the Sakhalin taimen is also anadromous. Where the sea runs occur, they are valuable commercial and recreational fisheries.
In some parts of Australia brown trout do run to the sea: on the mainland, in coastal Western Victoria; and in well established estuary fisheries right around Tasmania, that most locals understandably are quite happy to keep to themselves.
But the best sea run trout fishing for us is across the Tasman, in New Zealand, where most rivers south of the Coromandal Peninsula have a population of sea run brown trout, the best of it being in the lower South Island, where chasing sea run brown trout (or sea runners as they are often referred to locally) is almost an obsession in coastal Canterbury, Otago and Southland.
According to an excellent paper by expert New Zealand fly tyer and fisherman Marc Griffiths on the biology and distribution of trout in New Zealand, freely available on-line, many river systems were not intentionally stocked but instead colonised by sea-going trout populations. Another interesting point to note is that for much of the year in the lower reaches of many rivers there are also resident river trout and large estuarine trout in addition to the transient sea runners.
My own obsession with sea runners started more than three decades ago when doing some work at Lincoln College, just to the south of Christchurch. Upon learning that there was good fishing to be had where the Selwyn River runs into Lake Ellesmere, a nearby large tidal lagoon, I took my recently acquired fly rod, with which up until that time I had only caught one pan-size New England rainbow, and ventured forth. Upon arriving at the river I was soon alerted to the presence of very big trout, as they attacked baitfish on the surface along the drop off into deeper waters.
Initial efforts to catch these big trout were frustrating until I took to my cheap white streamer fly, also recently purchased at Richardsons Department Store in Armidale, with nail clippers to reduce its bulk. Then, after at least the two hundredth cast, my retrieve was interrupted by a solid take. Following an epic struggle to land my prize unaided and without a net, I managed to bank a very large sea runner, which even allowing for for time elapsed since its capture must have well exceeded 3kg.
Unfortunately, that was to be my only opportunity to fish for sea trout and, like most other Australian trout fishermen, I once again came to view trout as an exclusively freshwater species.
That is, until I signed up for the first Rod Fishers’ Nokomai Station trip in November last year. Then, when arranging my licence on-line using the Southland Fish and Game website, I came upon a series of informative brochures; the one I found most interesting was Fishing the Southern Scenic Route.
At last, an opportunity to again fish for sea runners.
So at the conclusion of the Nokomai trip, instead of returning home immediately, I would stay on for another week and travel the route laid out in the brochure from West to East, fishing lower reaches of rivers and coastal lagoons along the way. Starting at Tuatapere, near the mouth of the Waiau River; I would then travel a short distance to Riverton, where the Aparima River enters into a large coastal Lagoon; further on the route would take me to Invercargill, the main city in Southland, where the Oreti River runs to the sea; finally I would cross the lower Mataura River near Fortrose, before finishing at Owaka, in the Catlins Region, where there are numerous coastal lagoons well regarded for the quality of their sea trout fishing.
When I mentioned my idea to fellow Central Coast Rod Fisher, James Betts, he responded that he would like to join me on what was essentially an exploratory road trip. After I ensured he fully understood and appreciated that I knew very little about where we would be fishing, and even less about fishing for sea run brown trout, we agreed on a plan. We would meet up in Queenstown at the conclusion of my Nokomai trip, hire a car and be on our way. In view of the speculative nature of our venture any fish caught were to be seen as a bonus.
After settling in at the Waiau Pub at Tuatapere and sampling the food there, an experience we immediately resolved not to repeat, we turned our attention to the fishing. Our initial fishing attempts on the Waiau River were daunting. The Waiau is a big river, the biggest in Southland, extremely intimidating due to the volume of water flow and our efforts went unrewarded. Some inquiries with the local tourist information office, however, offered more hope.
A booming timber town early last century, Tuatapere is now scrambling to reinvent itself as a tourist town, the focus of activities being the Hump Ridge Track, a well-regarded coastal walk on the edge of Fiordland. An access road to the start of the Track crosses several streams that flow into small lagoons before discharging into the Southern Ocean.
Arriving at the first of these lagoons, we noticed we would not be alone. A local kayak fisherman, fishing with lures, had set up camp just off the road, while another local was fishing for whitebait near where the lagoon discharged into the ocean. I saw this as a very encouraging sign, as to understand sea run trout in New Zealand it is first necessary to understand the importance of two bait fish species they pursue into estuaries in Spring and early Summer: whitebait and smelt. While sea run trout feed on a variety of marine organisms, such as juvenile red cod, flounder, eels and lamprey, and crabs, it is the annual movement of whitebait and smelt that brings them into estuaries and lower reaches of coastal rivers where they are then accessible to the fly fisherman.
Whitebait are small juveniles of the galaxiidae family about 4 to 5 cm long that are highly prized as a food fish. High market prices, and seemingly little constraint on the extent of capures, have caused great enthusiasm for whitebaiting as a pastime. Consequently, the banks of the lower reaches of many Southland rivers are dotted with all manner of rough huts and immobolised caravans, where whitebait enthusiasts camp out overnight while tending their nets as whitebait make their way upstream from the sea to spawn. Big runs often follow a flood, as the water clears, usually on a rising tide – a fact which should be noted by a sea trout fisherman.
Smelt, larger than whitebait at about 10cm long, are also caught by whitebaiters who refer to them as “cucumber fish”, because of their smell , or “silveries” due to their appearance. Like whitebait, they live most of their life in the sea, returning to estuaries to spawn.
As we had company of locals at our chosen lagoon, we soon engaged them in conversation and they confirmed there was indeed good prospects of sea trout as the tide rose. The kayak fisherman launched, headed upstream and was soon fast to a fish, but later inspection revealed it was a very dark, rather poorly conditioned resident fish, not what we were after. At the narrow channel linking the lagoon to the sea, the whitebaiter was having a more exciting time as several good sized sea trout competed with him for whitebait making their run in from the ocean. His efforts to guide the trout into his net were unsuccessful, but spurred James and me on in our attempts to catch one.
After several near misses, I finally caught a strong fighting fish just up from the whitebaiter. Not a big fish, little less than 1kg, but a satisfying catch nonetheless. The successful fly was an Australian whitebait pattern by Muz Wilson, tied in the fuzzle style.
There are other fly patterns suitable for use on sea trout, ranging from traditional ones such as the grey ghost, to woolly buggers, to rabbit fur fly variants, yellow being popular with many anglers. Due to the saltwater environment, all flies should be tied on saltwater hooks if intended to last for several outings.
Most New Zealand fishermen fish for sea runners using lures and spinning tackle (with softbaits being currently in vogue), although with the right fly as I found out and, most importantly, a good knowledge and understanding of the tides, sea runners are accessible to the fly fisherman.
Picking the best state of the tide to fish is critical, particularly in larger estuaries. Big variations between high and low tide, combined with vast expanses of mud flats criss-crossed by deeper channels mean deciding when to fish is vital to success. We found through inquiry and also from experience that the last of the run-out tide, when the tidal surge slowed, and the early part of the run in, when baitfish made their run in from the sea, were best. Low water also contained fish within deeper channels, which could then be reached by casting from promontories and rock bars, thereby avoiding the risk of being cut-off on the flats by a fast rising tide or trapped in the mud.
Effects of tide, as well as prevailing weather conditions, became very apparent when we moved on to fish the Aparima River at Riverton. Arriving in town without any accommodation arranged, we made straight for the tourist information centre where we were put in touch with two of Southland’s lesser know treasures, Robin and Bryan at Highview B&B.
Highview B&B is run by a retired farming couple who, as well as overseeing their investment motels on the West Coast, take in paying guests to stay in their large modern home situated on the outskirts of Riverton, overlooking the estuary. As a retirement interest Robin pursues her passion for gardening, while Bryan, like many rural New Zealanders, is a passionate fisherman and hunter. Although still having good knowledge of the fishing in the Aparima and how to access it across private property, he now prefers to fish the Twizel Canal for very large rainbow trout that live near the moored salmon farm cages, using worms or Huhu beetle grubs as bait.
Generous with information as to where to fish, Bryan went even further. When James and I arrived at the first suggested spot we found Bryan already there. Having directed us to a spot where he thought we might have success, he then decided he would also go there to guide us along the river and show exactly where to fish. But despite Bryan’s best efforts we were unable to catch anything from this beautiful section of the Aparima, just above tidal influence.
The following day the weather turned bad. To fully understand the significance of this it needs to be understood that Riverton and Invercargill, about a half hour away by car, are a long way south. At more than 46 degrees south (by comparison Hobart is less than 43 degrees), Invercargill is one of the southernmost cities in the world. Bad weather means high winds, as well as fast dropping temperatures and driving rain.
Fishing from a rocky promontory in the lower estuary was just too difficult in the conditions, so we sought shelter further up the Aparima. The fish were unfortunately almost as difficult to catch as the previous day and, despite once again appreciating the beauty of the river, we landed only a couple of small browns.
But prospects looked like improving when we came across big groups of very large trout aggressively pursuing what looked to be baitfish in the shallows. Unfortunately, they just would not take a fly. Later Bryan said he would have been able to catch them on worms, so perhaps a worm fly like the San Juan worm might have been the answer, although why a trout actively pursuing baitfish would suddenly decide to eat a worm I am not sure. Possibly worms do not swim as fast and are much easier to catch.
Moving on to Invercargill we again fished the upper tidal reaches, this time of the Oreti River, but fared little better. So we resolved to head straight to Owaka, the largest town in the Catlins Region of Otago, to see if we could turn things around.
Streams of the Catlins, being small and peat-stained, are not well-regarded for their resident trout fishing. But the same cannot be said for the sea trout fishing. In this regard, they are not dissimilar to the Welsh sea trout rivers in the UK. Conjecture is that there being little to sustain large trout in such streams, a large proportion of the trout population choose instead to head to sea where there is an abundance of marine organisms upon which to feed.
Owaka is a pleasant holiday town with good shopping facilities and accommodation and, most importantly, an excellent pub and friendly, helpful locals. A very pleasant young woman in the tourist information centre immediately gained our complete and undivided attention when she revealed that her partner not only fished for sea runners, but was also very succesful in catching them on fly. With further prompting she revealed his two favourite spots in the Catlin Lagoon: from the sailing club wharf and, further towards the entrance, from a rock bar jutting out into the lagoon just before it empties into the ocean.
I took heart at this. Sea runners are mostly fished for at the seaward end of coastal lagoons or in the rivers that flow into them towards the upper reaches of tidal influence, Our only success had been in the small lagoon near Tuatapere, in sight of the ocean and to the sound of breakers, while our efforts at and above the tidal reaches of the Aparima and Oreti had both yielded disappointing results.
The sailing club wharf, less than a kilometre from the ocean, looked promising as it jutted out into deeper water of the main channel. And although James said he had several follows by large silvery fish during our mid-afternoon fishing session, we decided to instead try again at the more seaward rock bar later that afternoon.
Our timing for fishing at the rock bar was perfect: the last of the run out tide had slowed the water flow, allowing for easy wading to the channel edge. James was the first to land a fish as the tide started to run in, a small fish, but most definitely a sea runner, of less than .5kg. He then followed up with two more of better than 1kg. Feeling my frustration mounting as the fishing went quiet and the tidal flow increased with the fast rising incoming tide, I was about to suggest we move back to the sailing club further up the estuary when my efforts were finally rewarded. It is hard to find the words to describe the satisfaction I felt as I looked down at in excess of 1.5kg of silver-sided sea runner as I beached it,
There is certainly truth in the words written by Hamish Stuart in his 1917 British classic The Book of the Sea Trout: “Sea trout are estuary fish – nomads of the tides to whom all waterways are familiar”
For our return journey to Queenstown we decided to take the coastal road, which crosses small tidal lagoons of the MacLennan, Tahakopa, Tautuka, and Waipati Rivers on the way to Fortrose, where the much larger lagoon of the Mataura River enters the ocean. Arriving at Fortrose, we were greeted by the sight of large white caps as powerful winds whipped the lagoon surface to foam, so after stopping for a cup of coffee and refueling we were soon on our way.
But as we continued our journey back to Queenstown, I kept recalling those small lagoons, with their quiet, seclude, holiday villages, that we had recently passed through, imagining the excellent sea trout fishing they would surely provide. Did I mention that fishing for sea runners can become an obsession?
First published in Tight Lines, the quarterly bulletin of the New South Wales Rod Fishers’ Society, number 126 February 2016