Seasoned Australian guide Eugene Pawlowski likes to lose himself in New Zealand’s South Island backcountry. He tells us about his love for the place and a season he experienced with a very unique “hatch” … and trout that eat mice.
My first ever trip to Aotearoa, aka Land of the Long White Cloud, aka New Zealand, was back in late 2008 with my best hermano outlaw. What a trip that was. We had a copy of John Kent’s South Island Trout Fishing Guide. Like a couple of see-you-next-Tuesdays, for some reason we decided to fish all the water in the book that was unfavourable. Just shitty sections of rivers that were devoid of fish. We had none of the correct gear, cheap wading boots, and the finest Columbia fishing vests, that Henry’s Fork model where we’d lose shit constantly with all those pockets! Every situation we fished had to be a dry dropper rig, come rain, hail, or shine. We had some bloody cracking sessions and did catch fish, but we never fished with guides which was probably a mistake. We just enjoyed working things out ourselves.
It rains a lot in New Zealand
It took us a few years to get into a groove. Would I change any of it? Hell no! That 2008 trip started a lifelong passion for chasing trout in New Zealand. I have returned every summer, until Covid stopped me for a couple of years. Our techniques, gear and preferred fishing locations have evolved, and we got to understand the weather patterns. It rains a lot in New Zealand. If you go for three months you will likely lose a month to rain. So you learn how to try and avoid the rain, which rivers blow out in flood the fastest, and which ones clear the fastest.
These days I consider South Island one of my favourite fisheries and destinations. Sure, I love wading a warm tropical flat or connecting to a poon or a perm. But there is something about trying to fool the big brown and rainbow trout in those gin-clear rivers way back in hills deep in the majestical wilderness.
Walking. A lot
The trip tattooed into my memory bank is from the 2019/20 season. After a significant rain event as the rivers were just starting to clear, I packed a few days’ worth of gear and supplies and started the trek in. The river was still high and dirty after days of rain. The first pools I checked out after hours of walking did not look great; I could only really see a foot into the water from the edge.
I pushed on, higher into the system for several more hours. I found a hut, dropped my pack and went for a quick arvo session. The river was looking much better; if there was a fush (Kiwi for fish) around you’d see it. I found a couple small fish that afternoon but having walked 15km that day I went back to get the fire going, warm the hut, and grab a bit of tucker (food).
Waking up the next morning to a fresh, perfect sunny day, I strapped on the boots and pushed upriver for an hour. I found a fish, made a good cast and bingo, fish on. He was a beat-up, slabby old brownie. He looked like he had been battling the flood waters for the past winter. I was expecting a bit better than him. After I pushed on for two hours more without seeing a fish I reluctantly trekked back to the hut. I grabbed a bite to eat and decided to go back downriver and fish the water that was too dirty the day before.
Trout that eat mice?
The South Island trout season of 2019/2020 stood out because of the insane gluttony of the fish that year. That was down to the mouse plague. I had heard rumours of this phenomenon happening from time to time. But that was my first time seeing the effects. It needs a few specific things to get the plague party started. The big player is the native beech trees, which go into seed every few years when environmental conditions are just right. This creates an abundance of food for the mouse population which goes into full plague proportions in certain locations. The Department of Conservation try to go into full prevention/eradication mode, which includes dropping poison from helicopters to try and slow the plague down. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Where it does not work is where you see trout that are of already good proportions start to look like bulked up, steroid-abusing weightlifters. A trout with 23 mice in its stomach has been recorded. It’s those trout with the big humps on their heads and stomachs that look out of proportion to the rest of their bodies. They turn your seasoned trout fisher into a deranged trout bum looking to encounter the trout of a lifetime.
Fools they are not
But it’s still New Zealand and these trout are no fools. They may have gorged themselves on mice, but they are still highly attuned to their waters above and below. You need to be on your A game and do the hard yards. If you don’t mind stumbling around at 2am, or you’re one of those people who doesn’t sleep, there’s good mouse-fishing to be had skating or dead-drifting them over big water in the dark.
Once the sun rises it’s a different game, long fine leaders, small nymphs and stealthy presentations are standard. And that’s if the fish are in feeding mode. Trout go into a food coma on the mouse diet. You can spend hours on a fish that is just logging it out on the bottom of a pool, trying to work out how he is going to crap out all those mice bones. But, when you’re in the right place at the right time, you will be one happy Bruce.
To read the rest of this story, check out The Mission Issue 42 for free below.