I’ll admit it – I’ve developed a serious addiction to stalking and sight-fishing dry flies and nymphs to some of the world’s largest wild brown trout in some of the world’s most beautiful trout streams. That wonderful compulsion is the reason that I leave the trout streams of my home in Colorado during the cold winter months and, like many well-traveled and accomplished fly anglers around the world, repeatedly travel to other side of the globe, to the top of New Zealand’s South Island, to stay at the beautiful River Haven Lodge, near Murchison, owned and operated by Scott Murray and his lovely wife Leya Murray. I’ve stayed at other top-rated, larger and more expensive fly fishing lodges in New Zealand, but the wonderful hospitality and full-service lodging, the amazing backcountry helicopter services, and the best fly fishing guides on the South Island, headed by Scott Murray, all provided at a reasonable price, have convinced me that there is no better place to pursue my New Zealand fly fishing passion than River Haven Lodge. Beautifully gardened landscapes surround the individual luxury cabins (very comfortable, air-conditioned and fully equipped) and the Main Lodge (with a very well appointed Dining Room and Bar) overlooking the Mangles River. Delicious breakfasts and 3-course dinners, featuring Leya’s homemade bread and locally grown produce, are served family style to allow guests to interact with their hosts and with each other. The evening meal, which includes excellent...I’ll admit it – I’ve developed a serious addiction to stalking and sight-fishing dry flies and nymphs to some of the world’s largest wild brown trout in some of the world’s most beautiful trout streams. That wonderful compulsion is the reason that I leave the trout streams of my home in Colorado during the cold winter months and, like many well-traveled and accomplished fly anglers around the world, repeatedly travel to other side of the globe, to the top of New Zealand’s South Island, to stay at the beautiful River Haven Lodge, near Murchison, owned and operated by Scott Murray and his lovely wife Leya Murray. I’ve stayed at other top-rated, larger and more expensive fly fishing lodges in New Zealand, but the wonderful hospitality and full-service lodging, the amazing backcountry helicopter services, and the best fly fishing guides on the South Island, headed by Scott Murray, all provided at a reasonable price, have convinced me that there is no better place to pursue my New Zealand fly fishing passion than River Haven Lodge. Beautifully gardened landscapes surround the individual luxury cabins (very comfortable, air-conditioned and fully equipped) and the Main Lodge (with a very well appointed Dining Room and Bar) overlooking the Mangles River. Delicious breakfasts and 3-course dinners, featuring Leya’s homemade bread and locally grown produce, are served family style to allow guests to interact with their hosts and with each other. The evening meal, which includes excellent New Zealand wines, creates a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere for guests from all over the world to share stories of their adventures.
I’ve done a lot of serious fly fishing around the world and I am no longer easily impressed, but since 2002, I’ve made seven trips to the Murchison area to fish with Scott Murray and his team of world class, professional fly fishing guides. Scott is a legendary figure in South Island fly fishing and a master at his craft. He has been featured on the covers of Fly Fisherman and Fly Rod & Reel magazines and been filmed for several well-known fly fishing videos and television shows. Since long before he and Leya opened their own lodge, he has led a team of internationally renowned fly fishing guides that have guided some of world’s best anglers on the region’s trout streams and seen those anglers return year after year. Scott requires all River Haven guides to meet his high standards for professionalism, knowledge, stream craft and hard work. His guide team is, without question, the finest I have ever had the pleasure to fish with and I believe the numerous world-class trout streams on which they guide provide unequaled opportunities to spot, stalk and sight-fish to some of the largest wild brown trout on the planet. They know the Murchison area rivers well - which rivers to fish, and how to fish them, under varying seasonal conditions, weather, insect hatches, water levels, wind conditions, spotting conditions, etc. The River Haven Lodge team of professional guides sets the highest standard by which I now measure all other fly fishing guides.
River Haven Lodge has the advantage of being strategically and centrally located to provide quick access (in all directions) to many of the South Island’s best brown trout fisheries. There are more than twenty excellent rivers within an hour’s drive, with many more backcountry streams accessible by helicopter or motorized lake crossing, and most offer multiple, full-day fishing beats. Unlike the fly fishing available in many other parts of New Zealand, the geographic, geologic, hydrologic and meteorological diversity of the multiple major river drainages accessible from the lodge’s Murchison location means that River Haven guests lose very few fishing days to adverse weather and river conditions.
The quality and variety of the trout streams accessible from River Haven Lodge are truly staggering. I visited and fished the Murchison area for the first time in March 2002. During that visit, Scott guided me on streams in two adjacent valleys on two consecutive days. Having never fished either stream before, I had only a vague idea of what to expect. His sly smile should have been a clue that Scott had something special in mind. He wanted me to experience a wide range of South Island fly fishing during my first visit to the region. On the first day, we flew by helicopter into the headwaters of a small stream that he knew would hold some very large trout. Those big brown trout are very cagey and rarely hooked, and they have frustrated many of the world’s most accomplished fly anglers. “Diabolical” is the term that Scotty uses to describe these wild fish. The stream was crystal clear and configured in a series of deep runs and pools separated by boulder-strewn riffles and short cascades. Covering miles of stream, we spotted and fished to a dozen trout that day without hooking a single fish. That was one of the few days I have been completely blanked in New Zealand. The smallest trout that we saw was around 9 pounds. We estimated the largest at roughly 12 pounds. Needless to say, I was humbled by the experience and questioned whether my skills with a fly rod were any match for South Island brown trout. At the same time, I was thrilled and fascinated to see wild brown trout of that size in such beautiful and remote surroundings.
The next day, we fished an isolated section of a somewhat larger and more popular stream in a valley adjacent to the first stream. By Scott’s design, that second stream was exactly what my bruised ego needed. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the insects were active, and the trout were happily feeding. We immediately began spotting and targeting feeding fish. The action continued all day, on nymphs in the morning and on dry flies in the afternoon. By the end of the day, we had landed, and released, thirty-three very healthy brown trout, distributed evenly from 3.5 pounds to 6 pounds. As different as the fishing was on those two days, I will always remember them as two of the best days I have ever spent on a trout stream.
In December 2008, Scott guided me to some of the best large trout, dry fly fishing I have ever experienced, but what really impressed me about the fishing was that, instead of the usual large terrestrial or caddis dry fly patterns, we landed some of the largest brown trout (between 8 and 9 pounds) on size 14 mayfly dry fly patterns that Scott ties himself. Further, those large browns were landed on different days on three completely separate river systems. In five days of fishing, I landed roughly thirty brown trout in total, including five that weighed at least 8 pounds. Four of those days were spent on backcountry streams where we were targeting larger than average trout, but it was still surprising to realize that none of those thirty browns weighed less than 5 pounds, and that the average was almost 7 pounds. It’s not often that an angler is able to watch 8- to 9-pound brown trout happily and repeatedly rising to the surface to pick off natural mayfly duns, even in New Zealand, and if I hadn’t seen it for myself, I would never have believed it.
During that same December 2008 visit, Leya Murray, the very gracious and personable Manager/Hostess of River Haven Lodge, joined Scott and I one day as we flew by helicopter into a small backcountry stream. The 20-minute helicopter flight through the mountains would have made for a very enjoyable day by itself, even if I never wet a line. As the helicopter cleared the ridge between peaks, the aerial view of the South Island river basin laid out before me was breathtaking. Leya was anxious to get some backcountry photos for the lodge, but none of us could have imagined how spectacular the fly fishing would be that day. It started with me landing a beautifully colored 8.5-pound male brown in the first half hour and ended with me landing another amazing 7-pound male from a bathtub-sized plunge pool, both on a size 14 mayfly imitation dry fly. For the day, I landed, and released, nine gorgeous browns up to 8.6 pounds (only one of which weighed under 6 pounds), I had dry fly takes from two other 8-pound plus trout that I didn’t land, and I had unsuccessful shots at two double-digit (ten pounds or greater) trophy fish. As usual, when the helicopter picked us up late that afternoon, I was tired, sore and smiling from ear to ear, but Scott and Leya were wearing big smiles as well.
On a drizzly day during my March 2010 visit, when the overcast weather made flying inadvisable and spotting trout very difficult, my guide and I drove five minutes from River Haven Lodge to a small paddock stream to fish (with the farmer’s permission) for a couple of hours in the morning. In addition to landing several nice browns between 2 and 4 pounds that morning, I also hooked and lost one in the 5- to 6-pound range and landed a 7-pound male on a short indicator nymph out of a small pocket in less than a foot of water. I would never have cast to or landed that fish if my guide had not spotted it from downstream. The brown’s dark back was so well camouflaged with the dark stream bottom, I would have walked right up on the trout and spooked it without ever knowing it was there. I do a lot of sight-fishing for trout in streams, and over the years I have become far better than most anglers at spotting trout in New Zealand streams, but I still can only spot about one in four of the trout that the River Haven Lodge guides are able to see. Having an experienced guide/partner with that kind of trout spotting ability makes a huge difference in the number of sight-fishing opportunities available to a fly angler on most South Island streams, where a mile of stream may hold only a handful of good fish.
That same afternoon, after a nice lunch out of the rain back at the lodge, we drove 25 minutes to a larger local river. Just as the sun was finally beginning to peek through the clouds late in the afternoon, my guide spotted what appeared to be a nice 6-pound trout deep in the current cushion above a large rock on our side of the river. After about 25 good drifts over the fish and several fly changes, the small indicator finally went down, I set into very solid resistance, and the big brown confidently, and without panic, rolled out into the heavy current and started downstream. It quickly became apparent to both of us that this trout was larger than 6 pounds. After a long fight in the fast, heavy current that took the 3X leader around several mid-stream boulders and the two of us scrambling at least 150 yards downstream, the guide was finally able to get his net under the brute and land it just as the size 16 nymph hook broke in the trout’s massive jaw. The scale on his net confirmed the trout to be a magnificent 9-pound brown. Not bad for a dreary day fishing local rivers!
After carefully removing the broken hook point from the brown’s jaw, we quickly took a photo and then I gently revived the fish and released it unharmed back into the river, as my guide instructed, and as I do with almost all trout landed anywhere. Like most New Zealand fly fishing guides, River Haven guides take great pride in their native land and are justifiably protective of their streams and the creatures that live in them. They are very careful to properly handle these large trout before releasing them, as these fish are far too precious to be injured or killed. South Island headwater streams can be wonderful places to visit and to fly fish, offering gin-clear water, spectacular scenery and large trout, but they may also hold relatively few mature trout. They are fragile fisheries and national treasures that need to be respected and preserved.
During my most recent visit to New Zealand’s South Island in January 2012, I returned to River Haven Lodge for nine days of eagerly awaited hospitality and fly fishing. I was concerned that a recently injured knee would significantly restrict the rivers I would be able to fish. I was limping badly and was forced to fish streams with fairly easy walking and wading, but my River Haven guide was undeterred by the challenge. He took me to both local and backcountry streams that I could manage with my sore knee and we had excellent fly fishing on both dry flies and nymphs. For more than half of my fishing days, we drove to local rivers where we found very good populations of healthy brown trout in the range of 3 to 7 pounds. A number of these fish were quite willing to eat a large, well presented, cicada imitation dry fly. Others took a little more time to entice into eating with a nymph presentation and multiple fly changes. Many of these fish were very strong and used the current to take me well into my backing before coaxing them back to the guide’s waiting net.
For my other fishing days during that visit, my guide arranged for us to use helicopter services to make brief, but spectacular, flights into backcountry streams where we found some larger brown trout that were also quite eager to eat a large, cicada dry fly pattern. The trout population on some of these streams was quite sparse, and we did a lot of walking to find a few good fish that were fairly easily deceived. On other backcountry streams, we found more trout, but they were not quite as willing to eat my fly offering. On one exceptional day, I landed, and released, eight well-conditioned brown trout ranging from 5 pounds to over 10 pounds, half on dry flies and averaging over 7.5 pounds, and missed dry fly takes from two other browns that were at least 9 pounds and 11 pounds respectively. I also spent over an hour and a half casting to one feeding fish, with my guide making roughly 40 changes to my fly, before the big brown finally ate a size 18 nymph pattern and we landed a beautiful 8.25-pound male. It was a day with several very memorable encounters with South Island brown trout.
Landing a double-digit South Island brown trout is an accomplishment for any fly angler, and when I returned to River Haven Lodge that evening, Scott and Leya, always the gracious hosts, opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate my success. Those very pleasant memories will remain with me for the rest of my life.More
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