Adventures in Fly Fishing
After several months of planning and day dreaming, I finally managed to add Bonefish to my list of fish caught on a fly rod. This is significant for several reasons:
But I'm getting ahead of myself, first, the background.
I decided around November 2016, after what had been a pretty crap year by all accounts, that I needed a something to look forward to in 2017. I would be celebrating one of those birthdays that has a zero on the end of it, and I wanted to get away from the bleak New Zealand winter. At the same time I had stumbled across the fly fishing film "Etu's Bones" that told the story of how a Bonefish net fisherman by the name of Etu Davey had given up netting and taking up up guiding in what was a newly established sports fishery in Aitutaki - a small island and lagoon within the Cook Islands.
I was hooked. I had always wanted to visit Rarotonga (the biggest of the Cooks, and the gateway to Aitutaki) and I had long wanted to visit Aitutaki - which has the reputation of being on of the most beautiful lagoons in the world.
I worked out dates, secured travelling companions, booked flights, and booked a guide through Etu's business - www.e2sway.com.
In the 8 months I had to wait I studied up on all I could about Bonefishing in Aitutaki - and found that there was suprisingly little information out there. I got in touch with Rod Hamilton from www.diybonefishing.com, who provided me some good tips. I also found a good article on The Tongariro Fishing Guide blog, which provided inspiration for what fly patterns to tie. I then got busy.
Not only did I want to catch a bonefish - but I also wanted to do it on a rod I built. I had recently discovered Epic Fly Rods, and had recently build a nice little 4wt rod to use on the trout streams around where I live. The beauty with Epic is you can buy a rod for around $1100, or you can buy a "wrap your own" kit - with the blank and all the components for just over half of that price. I settled on the Epic 888 - a 8ft8in 8wt (see what they did there...). This also scratched another itch - Epic make arguably some of the finest glass rods on the planet - and I had recently discovered glass rods. So I ordered and built the rod, and then turned my sights to flies.
Again, the internet was a wealth of information, and I set about tying up Clousers, Gotchas, and Crazy Charlie's in a variety of colours and sizes. And while I have been tying my own flies for some 20-odd years I was now using materials and techniques I hadn't used when tying trout flies.
The day finally arrived - and one of Etu's brothers, Tia, arrived to pick me and a colleague up from our accomodation. 30 minutes later and we were making our way across the most eye watering, bite-the-back of your hand its so beautiful lagoons towards the distant small uninhabited islands that dot the southern end of the lagoon.
Tia explained that we would be "fishing the milk" and I found myself breathing a sigh of relief that I had on a whim purchased a intermediate sinking line before leaving NZ.
"The milk" refers to an area of water that has been turned a milky blue hue thanks to the Bonefish contained within it that are feeding on the bottom, and stirring up the sand and sediment. This area stands out against the bright electric blue water as it does look like someone has tipped milk into the water. Hence the name. And while I had envisioned casting to sighted fish in the shallows - the strong winds that had arrived over night meant that this probably wasn't going to be an option in these condition.
As Tia swung the boat around upwind of the milk he gave the instruction to cast the lines out. We would then drift through the milk bouncing the fly across the bottom. No sooner had I got my line out, and I hit a fish. I stripped frantically to take in the slack, and was rewarded with a sharp bend in my rod, and a sudden surge in the opposite direction which confirmed what I had hooked was not a coral outcrop. The fish ran hard for a few seconds, and then I gradually wound it to the boat. In what seemed like no time I had a nice 4lbs glistening silver Bone in the net - and I decided that no matter what happened for the rest of the trip - it could now officially be deemed a success.
What then followed was several hours of very slow fishing - punctuated by the occasional Goat Fish. We changed locations a number of times, before arriving at a deep channel running up alongside one of the small islands, or "Motu". Tia pointed out a dark grey stain in the middle of it - "Bonefish school" was all he said. The drifts through here were relatively short - and involved not only stripping out all the fly line - but also a good portion of backing - in order to get the flies onto the bottom in the deep water. I was starting to regret leaving a 8wt trout reel loaded up with a Deepwater Express shooting head back at the cabin - as I wasn't sure the intermediate was getting down deep enough. After about 40 minutes and several passes through this water I was hit. But this time it was a much bigger fish. I got the fish onto the reel quickly and kept the pressure on it as the rod again bent over into a graceful arc. But then the fish decided to run. Now I am used to trout - who will give a powerful surge of maybe 10 seconds, before slowing down. And they may do this several times. But this fish just didn't stop. My Sage reel was dialled up to 7 out of a possible 20 on the drag, and I quickly increased this to 14. Still the fish ran. "What strength is your leader?" Tia asked. "20lbs tippet" I replied. "20lbs?" came the reply, and I suddenly felt guilty - as when I purchased the leaders I thought maybe I was overdoing it. I use 10lbs for big trout, and these fish were not much bigger - but then the comment "20lbs, 30lbs - both are good" that followed, left me wondering if perhaps I had gone too light.
The fish kept running, and when it gradually slowed I figured I probably had half my 200yds of backing left on the reel. I started retrieving line - and the fish felt like a heavy solid weight as it slowly drew closer. After what seemed like eternity the backing to fly line connection rattled through the tip-top, marking one small achievement. Then I could see the leader connection in the distance, meaning some 15 or so feet in front of that would be the fish. But she was having none of it, and stayed deep, sulking out of sight. Then came the second run. In no time all my hard work was undone - and I watched as fly line gave way to backing and the backing started to peel off the reel at an alarming rate. I now ratchated the reel up to 17 on the drag, and again the fish slowed, and finally stopped. I started winding again, and eventually got to the leader. The fish was still refusing to come to the surface, and the 888 was now bent in a very deep bow, the way that only glass does, and carbon fibre doesn't. Now Tia was along side me - instructing me on where to stand, and on what angle to hold my rod. Slowly the fish came off the bottom and I got my first sight of her. I didnt need to have seen a lot of Bonefish up close to know that this was big - as in really big. I have lost big trout at the net before, and started silently praying that this would'nt be the case here. I thought of all the things that could go wrong. Would the hook hold? - big Bones are known to straighten out the bends on fly hooks. Would the blood knot I used to join the leader to the tippet, or the "never-fail" loop I used to connect the tippet to the fly hold? Had I even hooked her properly?? The fish was now alongside, and ever so casually Tia slipped the net under her - and it was over. After 15 minutes of pure adrenaline I had a much larger fish on board. As we looked at in the net I asked Tia how big he reckoned it was "You guess" he asked. I started cautiously and opened the bidding with 10lbs - the magic number to be considered a trophy. Tia smiled - "Bonefish are very heavy for their size" he said, obviously having worked out that I was comparing it to trout in terms of size. And he was right. But where a trout maybe deep, and at times broad across the shoulders, this fish was deep - but also very, very thick. Much thicker than a trout. "15lbs then?" I asked. Tia smiled and nodded, but "That is a very big Bonefish" was all he would say - a term that he repeated several more times as we went about photographing and releasing it. So, in the absence of any scales, and my determination that as a Bonefish guide Tia knows his stuff, then I'm taking 15lbs.
Overall it was a very sucessful day on the lagoon. Not only did I land a trophy fish, I also hooked and landed a 8lbs fish, and my buddy landed a smaller Bone. Tia even put me onto a school of GT's - one of which was hooked and then very quickly lost after it destroyed the fly line around a head of coral - but that's a story for a different time.
I've become a fan of listening to podcast, especially with all the travelling I do. It's a nice alternative to staring into the back of headrest in front of you when you're on a long-haul flight to somewhere.
There are already a number of good fly fishing podcasts out there - and I particularly enjoy April Vokey's "Anchored" podcast. It led me to discover Epic Fly Rods, and her interviews with master realistic fly tier Ted Niemeyer, and Joan Wulf, offer a glimpse back into a time that is long gone.
Now there is a new kid on the block, with The Drake magazine starting their own podcast "The Drake Cast" this June. It seems long haul trips just got that little bit more bareable.
While swinging BIG streamers might be second nature for our northern-hemisphere brothers and sisters - it's never really caught on down here. Until now.
I've noticed a number of anglers in fly tying forums down here in New Zealand tying some monster flies to go out and target our resident populations of Browns and 'bows. I'm looking forward to trying this out on the winter runs of rainbows in the Tongariro. And there is no good reason these types of flies shouldn't work. Our rainbows in the Taupo region are in essence steelheads - right down to the fact that they were introduced to New Zealand from the US. It's just that they live there lives in Lake Taupo - and not the ocean - before running up the rivers to spawn.
Anyway, here's a great little clip of some big streamers being used to good effect on some Browns.
I've just come back from a day and a half fishing in Taupo. An oppourtunity presented itself for me to escape the city and head north to fish one of my favourite spots - the Waitahanui River mouth. So I packed the car, kennelled the dog, and made the four and a half hour drive north.
Waitahanui is an iconic trout fishing spot. Located about 10km south of Taupo township, the small village is home to a couple of small fishing motels, and not much else. But what draws the crowds - of both anglers and tourists - is the mouth of the Waitahanui Stream, which is known by the locals as the "The Rip."
I have been coming to Waitahanui for as long as I have fished. But in recent years less so. This is mainly because in my early days I didnt know how to fish on a river - so most my fly fishing was confined to fishing river mouths - where all you had to do was cast straight out and slowly retrieve a lure back towards you. Later, I would cut my teeth on the Tongariro River, and focus on fishing the rivers themselves. Fishing the mouths seemed all a bit too easy.
But recently I have re-discovered how much fun it can be fishing the river and stream mouths. Especially at night, when the fish come in close to shore, and even tiny stream mouths seem to attract big fish.
The Rip itself is perhaps one of the most photographed fly fishing spots in the country - and is often referred to as "the picket fence" due to the anglers who wade out to the edge of the drop off and stand sholdier to sholdier. As the sun sets in the evening these anglers look like fence posts dotted across the mouth. It's popularity has waned somewhat over the years - just today I saw an old photo of the rip, and counted at least 30 anglers stretched across it. Over the weekend the most I saw at one time was four.
I did three sessions on the rip. The first was on dusk on the Friday evening when I arrived. The wind was up and blowing onshore - resulting in white-cap waves breaking on the beach. I stood on the shore and fished a shooting head fast sinking line for about thirty minutes before calling it an evening. The next morning however the wind had completely died off, and the lake was glassy. When I arrived there were already two anglers out in the rip, but just as I prepared to step off the beach and wade the 30 metres out to them I noticed a dark shape on the sand about three metres from the beach. Closer investigation confirmed it was a trout - sitting in the slack water off to the side of the main current of the river flowing into the lake. It slowly moved into the current, and I cast out and across with a brown Woolly Bugger, started slowly retrieving, and felt the light suddenly go tight. My fathers advice from many years ago when I first fished the rip rang out "It's deep and fast here, and sandy - you wont snag the bottom - so strike at anything that stops your line." Good advice - and a couple of minutes later I had an superbly conditioned rainbow on the bank. Proving yet again that when fishing early morning you should "fish your feet first." I very nearly walked straight out onto this fish in my eagerness to get to the rip. Instead, I ended up landing a fish from behind the anglers standing out in the lake. None of whom had caught a fish that morning.
Overall though the fishing was slow. So I made the decision to travel south to Hatepe - a small lakeside village through which the Hinemaiaia stream flows before entering Taupo. This is another well producing river mouth, and one I hadn't fished for some time. Unfortunately I forgot that the bottom here is more rocky, and I had left my intermediate sinking line for my 6wt rod back at the accomadation. All I had was my 8 wt Sage with a fast sinking shooting head line. Within the first 30 minutes I had lost three flies to snags. I had also had a couple of strikes but had failed to hook up. When I eventually did - a decent sized brown that broached the surface briefly enough so I could see him - I ended up break the fish off. Several missed strikes later, and I finally figured out what was going on. As I kept hitting the bottom, the needle point of the hook had become blunt. I quickly change to the last Rabbit Fly I had - and tried again. As I retrieved slowly I felt a sudden tug - and then nothing. This is reasonably common when fishing a fly such as a rabbit, as the fish will hit the tail of the fly and miss the hook. I slipped the line out a foot or so, and slowly started retrieving again - and got hit violently. This time the fish stuck. Another hour of fishing and I had landed another fish - taking me to three kept for the day (Taupo is the only fishery where I will keep fish to eat - but more on that in another post).
The next morning I joined three other anglers in the rip at Waitahanui - but after thirty minutes with no one getting a touch I again headed to Hatepe. And within an hour had a lovely 4lb rainbow on the beach.
So, a reasonably successful short trip. And a number of lessons learnt for fishing these two rips:
When I first moved to Wellington I didn't give much thought to fishing the local rivers. I was under the impression that it wasn't worth the effort.
Then I came across videos on YouTube by Andrew Harding - and quickly realised how wrong I was! This is his latest offering, and shows some of the spectacular dry fly fishing that can be had during the high summer when the cicadas are present.
About 5 months ago I decided that I would need to escape New Zealand's winter in 2017 and go somewhere warm. The main reason for doing this was to mark turning 40. I had always wanted to go to Aitutaki, which is often referred to is most beautiful island in the world - but knew nothing about the fishing. A quick google search led me to the featurette trailer for the film "Itu's Bones". And the rest is history. The trip is booked, and I have a day's guided fishing with Itu Davey, from Bonefish E2's Way guides lined up for the day after I arrive. And it's cold and wet outside - so what better time to watch it again!
As part of my pending Bonefishing trip to Aitutaki in the South West Pacific I decided that I was going to build myself a flyrod specifically for the trip, and to celebrate turning 40. I have already settled on a Epic Fastglass 888 kit, which should arrive early next month. With that decided I turned my focus to what reel I would be hanging off the bottom of it.
Until very recently, all my fly fishing has been in freshwater chasing 'bows and browns down here in New Zealand. However I have done enought salt-water fishing to know that salt-water plays havoc on tackle. And while I have a number of nice reels - including a 8wt Lamson Litespeed that is my go-to 8wt reel for big water - I wasn't convinced that they would be up to the task for what I wanted.
Not only was there the issue of saltwater - but then there is the epic runs that Bonefish are known for. I very rarely end up on the backing when fishing for trout - even with a pretty solid fish in fast water. This will not be the case in Aitutaki. So I would need somthing that could hold alot of high strength backing. Then there was drag. Sure, a trophy Bone is considered anything upwards of 10lb, which is how we view trophy trout - so you could argue that a similar reel would probably suffice. But given the blistering runs that they Bones are famous for I would need something with a reliable and smooth drag. And then there is also the added possibility that I don't hook what I am targeting, and instead end up hooked up to a GT - which are also known to frequent the lagoon. Again - not something to worry about when fishing for trout in NZ. You are only ever going to hook a trout (or if you're in Taupo, maybe one of the small catfish that were maliciously released a few decades back). And while an 8wt rod against a 70lb GT would be alot less than ideal - I figure that a reel with a solid drag, coupled with a glass rod - could at least give me a fighting chance.
But what to get? I am a gear-snob. I dont do cheap - mainly because I have learnt the hard way that when it comes to tackle you are better off paying more and getting something that will last, than going cheap and then regretting it on the water. If I had an unlimited budget - then I would have turned to the Hatch Finatic. This is one sexy piece of metal. But I just cant justify that sort of expense upfront. I then looked at the Tibor Billy Pate reel. I liked the retro look of this - and the Bonefish edition with the engraving on the reel plate was a nice touch. But then to me an anti-reverse reel feels just a little bit like cheating. But that's just me.
I also decided that I wanted a reel that I could use not only for saltwater fly, but that was also be suitable hanging off the bottom of a double-handed rod - which is on the list of rods that I plan to build.
I then asked for some advice at a local tackle store - I told them what I was after, and what I wanted to use it for - and was shown the Lamson-Waterworks Speedster. Now, this is a nice reel, and more than capable of holding the amount of line I would need. But there was something not quite right in my mind. I own a couple of Lamson's - and while they have a sealed drag - I know from experience that water can - and does - get into them. Not so much of an issue with freshwater, different story with salt.
I then turned to the internet. Sage is a brand I am very familiar with when it comes to rods - but I have never used on of their reels. I read a couple of reviews on the 2000 and 3000 reels. They were all glowing. I then went in search of one online - and instead stumbled across the Sage 8000 pro series. Now, in New Zealand, these retail at around $1100.00 NZD - meaning I would'nt be buying one here. But then I found that Gorge Fly Shop in the US of A had them on special at $329.00USD (around $480 NZD). I was sold, and purchased the 8080 model - suited for an 8 weight line. Now, this is a reasonably old model - having been first released in I think 2012. Which is probably why they were going so cheap on Gorge's website. Look on Sage's current website and you wont find it listed. But that's the beauty with quality tackle - it will last a lifetime, and even if it's old, it doesn't mean it's still not great. Which is the reason you will find people still using old Hardy reels that belonged to their grandfathers.
After about three weeks - the majority of which the reel sat in Customs awaiting clearance - it arrived. I was charged an extra $160.00 for the import duty - but even then I saved around $450.00 on what I would have paid to purchase it locally. Don't get me wrong - I am all for "suporting local business" - but I am also not one for simply throwing money away.
So, first impressions. This is a beast of a reel. It feels solid - like you could run it over and it would survive. The dual function drag is new to me. Essentially this allows you to set your drag on the outer ring, and then fine tune it on the inner dial. So, you might want to set the outer drag for what you need for stripping off line, and then engage the inner drag at what you know you will need to initially fight the fish on. The outer drag dial is star-shaped and easy to grab onto, and the outer drag has settings numbered from 1-20 on it - meaning you can quickly dial up what you know is the right setting.
The lines of the reel are very clean - no obviously areas for the line to snag against. And the spool has a fully exposed rim for easy palming. A nice touch is that the palming rim is concave in profile, meaning for those long leaders you can wrap the line around the reel and hang the fly off a guide ring further up the rod without having to wind the end of the fly line though the tip-top. This woul also be especially handy when using the long leaders and large indicators we use on the Tongariro nypmphing for spawning 'bows. You can't wind the end of the line through the tiptop due to the canary-sized indicator.
The sealed drag is exactly that. Sealed. In fact with the reel apart at the moment in front of me - I am not really sure how you would get into it. Which is usually a good indication that you shouldn't. And the maintenance section of the pamphlet that came with the reel is about five sentences long. Essentially wash down with fresh water, remove sand and grit, and let dry. That's it.
I also took the oppourtunity to have the reel spooled at the shop with Hatch Premium Braided Backing. This is essentially the same diameter of dacron - but at 68lb breaking strain it's more than twice the strength. On top of this I have chosen a WF8F Rio Bonefish Tropical line.
So, this is a whole lot of reel - and more than up to the task that I have planned for it. Before heading to Aitutaki I will probably get a chance to hit the Tongariro during winter and while the 'bows are running, so while it is overkill I will give it - and the Epic 888 a trial run up there. But as they say, first impressions count - and the first impressions of the Sage 8080 are good, this has a look and feel of a reel that will probably outlast me, which again is a good reason for buying quality in the first place.
The Department of Conservation who manage perhaps New Zealand's most important fishery, that of the Lake Taupo Region, are currently gauging the views of anglers around a number of proposed changes to the regulations of the fishery, and have released a survey that you can fill out here.
Firstly, the are looking at potentially lowering the size limit from 400mm, to 350mm, and increasing the bag limit to 6 fish a day. The logic around this is that it will lower the pressure of the smelt population - by reducing the trout population, and this will in time lead to larger trout (due to a larger population of smelt). It could also lead to more spawning runs, as studies have shown that trout condition is one of the factors that dictate when they run. Overall I am in favour of this. Personally, I release around 90% of what I catch - and I would be highly unlikely to keep anything that is smaller than 400mm regardless. But I do know of people who may only get to the fishery once or twice a year - who love eating trout - and who would love the oppourtunity to "stock up the freezer" while they are there. And for this reason the 6 fish bag limit works. To put it in perspective - I cant still remember when the bag limit was 8 fish. And more people these days than ever before are catching and releasing. So I dont think this is going to have a negative impac on the fishery.
Perhaps the question that does concern me is around looking at what is defined as fly fishing - the reason being that Czech and European nymphing have raised questions around what is defined as fly fishing. The issue I have with this question is that it doesn't actualy state whether DOC have issues with these two methods, and are therefore trying to outlaw them. This, in my opionion, would be a backward step. Yes - czech nymphing is a highly effective way of catching fish, and I know it is popular with competition fly anglers. I also dont know of a single angler who uses this method, and nor have I seen anyone using it on the Tongariro River. But in my mind it is fly fishing. And we need to be able to incorporate new techniques as they emerge. Otherwise we would all still be fishing with wet flies, and using silk lines (which actually probably would be quite fun).
The final question is around introducing a family licence, and raising the age of a child from 16 to 18 - which I am in favour of as it gets more anglers into the sport. And another proposal for lowering the cost of a season licence for a over-65 angler. I am less in favour of this - as in my opinion most anglers over 65 have probably been fishing for many years and the cost of an annual licence is not going to break the bank.
Anyway, if you use the fishery and want to have your say, then fill out the survey. It only takes 5 minutes.
Well, another year, another International Fly Fishing Film Festival, and hopefully coming soon to a cinema near you.
One of the first trailers out of the blocks is The Dorado by Flygal April Vokey, no doubt featuring some great glass rods from Epic which she bought into in 2016.
The Crazy Charlie is perhaps one of the most iconic Bonefish flies and was developed by local guide Charlie Smith in the Andros Islands in 1977. So I couldn't possibly head away to Aitutaki without at least a few of these in my fly box.
The original pattern calls for chain-link eyes - but as I didn't have any to hand I went with what I had. The pattern is very simply to tie, can be tied in any number of different colour combinations.
The Crazy Charlie
Hook: Tiemco 8111S size 2 through to 8.
Thread: To match the wing colour
Body: Vinyl D Rib over pearl mylar wrap (I have used a clear rib, but you could try different colours)
Wing: Calf tail hair, a few strands of crystal flash.
Eyes: Chain-link, or lead.
Tie in eyes one third the way down the eye of the hook. Tie in mylar at the back of the hook, and then wrap thread forward to just behind eyes. Tie in vinyl D Rib behind eyes on top of hook shaft, and the wrap thread down to the back of the hook to secure rib, and then forward again in front of the eyes this time.
Wrap mylar flash forward cover hook. I then go back down the hook and up one more time, on the final wrap bringing it in front of the eyes. Tie off and trim excess. Now wrap D rib forward tightly and tie off in front of the eyes.
Take a pinch of calf hair fibres, tie in in front of the eyes. And a few strands of crystal flash, whip finish, and coat with zap-a-gap.