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Salt-Water Fly Fishing

​There seems to be no clear reason to undertake the generally more difficult path of fly fishing as opposed to another form of fishing. The general idea, of course, remains the same, the aim being to catch fish. Fly fishing, besides using a rod, reel and line also share many wonderful attributes (some indirectly) with other forms of fishing; for example, the scenic and often breathtaking places it takes you, and meeting kind and generous people, many of whom are similarly obsessed, along the way. Simply put, in today's fast-paced society fly fishing like other forms of fishing offers a hard-to-find sense of tranquillity. However, it is in the way in which it is done where fly fishing is very different from conventional methods.

Firstly, the required ability to gracefully present the line with an almost weightless fly is unique, even poetic. Second, the presentation itself allures but because it is such a delicate movement it is indispensable to get much closer to one’s target without alarming it. Third, the absence of weight such as a sinker in conventional methods is countered by using a weighted line. The weight, rather than concentrated, is spread over the length of the line and (hopefully) rhythmically orchestrated by a soft natured rod. The unfolding of this line lays open a transparent leader and accompanying imitation hoping to deceive the fish. Fourth, handling of the line itself necessitates skill, as it is inclined to relatively easily tangle. So, if fly fishing, in many ways is more challenging, why do it? Well, for many, the challenge is the appeal.

Globally, New Zealand is viewed as a fishers paradise with a pristine environment, its scenery often suited to a coffee table book. The healthy inland waterways provide an ideal home for trout - the universally accepted and sought species for a fly fisherman. Since trout’s introduction in the 1850s in New Zealand, they have flourished within many waterways, rivers and lakes. The absence of predators an abundance of life within these waterways, allow trout to grow to substantial sizes and justifies why New Zealand is a Mecca for the fly fisher. The idea of sighting your query offers a visual and tactile aspect which is absent from other forms of fishing - becoming more like hunting. Indeed, fly fishing is thought to be best suited to trout.

Trout can be found feeding in a stationary position, common in rivers, or found slowly cruising in currentless water. Regardless, a cast is made ahead of the trout, hoping to intercept the fish’s lines of sight. In either situation, there is great anticipation as a trout, for many a fly fisher, hopefully of great proportion, inspects the imitation, making time stand still and your heart to skip a beat. But ... we are not here to discuss fly fishing for trout. ​

​At present, there is much interest in saltwater fly fishing in New Zealand's shallow water expanses, harbours and estuaries, and rightfully so. The conjunction of a nutrient-rich ocean surrounding the coast, and often unsullied waterways flowing towards the coast, create a healthy shallow saline environment resulting in exceptional water clarity. This accumulation of nutrients accompanies too an abundance of life and presents incredible opportunities for the visual fly fisherman. Consequently, the vast potential New Zealand has as a saltwater fly fishery is speedily becoming known. What appealed to me specifically was realising large oceanic fish may be targeted by such a delicate form of fishing. This is something that leads anglers to concentrate on saltwater fly fishing, with many spending no time at all targeting trout.

Saltwater and freshwater fly fishing, despite both being fly fishing, are in many ways incompatible. On the surface, the saltwater environment is physically barren and openly greets wind from all directions. Nevertheless, below the surface, there is abundant life with an array of species that can be pursued with a fly rod in hand. Often, however, they are large predatory fish that would make light work of trout gear. The saltwater gear is analogous to that used for freshwater fly fishing; however as if sprinkled with steroids to combat the bigger fish, and the more corrosive environment. Generally though, if you are able to artificially imitate (with a fly) the food source of the targeted species, and you have the right gear, it can be pursued with a fly rod in hand. That said, whether you are able to land the fish is a different question. Pelagics, such as Tuna and Trevally, with cunning, strength, aggression and speed can test your skill, experience, gear and persistence to the limit. Even reef species such as snapper and blue cod can be targeted on the fly - all are worthy adversaries. All these species are unique in both behaviour and environment and prevalent year-round in many of New Zealand's northern harbours. Both the choice of gear and species habitat are discussed in depth in coming articles. For the fly fisherman, however, the main and desired species of interest is the yellowtail kingfish.

Ocean-going fish, but especially kingfish are not comparable to trout. One can not do kingfish an injustice describing them as one of the noblest of fish - to me at least. Their dense, overly muscular, yet sleek nature ensures anything alive in its path is short-lived. Kingfish are adapted to hunt at speed and it is rare to observe them stationary. To the fly fisherman, they also appeal as they can be found feeding aggressively in the shallowest areas of harbours and estuaries, and there may then be pursued on foot, just as one would a nimble trout. The seeming inappropriateness of such large, aggressive, predators being present in water less than knee deep is what intrigues many, not just the spectacular visual takes, arm cramping fights and unimaginable beauty of these fish.

Most commonly, fly fishermen wade intertidal zones in search of all these oceanic species. These zones are areas where crustaceans, baitfish and other juvenile fish are prevalent and forced to move by falling tides. When this occurs, the predatory fish, like kingfish wait to ambush them. Adding another layer of interest, many predatory fish may hunt in unison with a pack or travel alongside the southern stingray, or the larger specimens are solitary fish and so patrol these areas alone. For the wading fisherman, a great part of the challenge is to locate these fish, again similar to hunting. There is ordinarily a large expanse of water in the saltwater environment with few restrictions on where the targeted fish could be. The odds, therefore, to encounter them are low. However, a strategy and tactics can be implemented to increase these odds while wading the shallow waters. More on this in a later article.

As a primer though, with kingfish, their size results in a displacement of water as they swim, sometimes giving their presence away in the form of a bow wave. Frequently bait fish shoaling, or jumping, may indicate there are predators nearby - thus creating an auditory variable which in weak light is vital. The ability to identify the sound of splashes or slaps on the water from baitfish being harassed may result in your dream fish. Notwithstanding, arguably, the southern stingray is the most effective ‘method’ to locate kingfish. The stingray in water is a large, dark undulating disc easily spotted by the human eye. The stingray possesses electroreceptors that aid to identify prey covered by sand, who emit bioelectric fields. These electroreceptors are absent in pelagic fish, like kingfish. Resultantly, kingfish, among others, parasitically swims alongside, on top of, and sometimes briefly below the stingray as it locates the prey. ​

Drone-shot by friend Tom-Basset Eason​ illustrating the above mentioned relationship.

If the targeted fish are found, and one succeeds in placing an accurate cast, what follows is truly daunting. Whether it is a solitary kingfish or a large pack, one’s eyes necessarily light up with excitement and trepidation as it or they charge directly towards your presented fly, regularly in competition with one another. No matter how fast your retrieve, if your fly is desired it will be devoured and before you can finish uttering your favourite expletive, your fly line and backing will be absent from your reel. Kingfish provides a visceral and visual experience like no other; instead of skipping a beat, your heart I believe simply stops for a few seconds.

It is perhaps a mystery why one would choose to pursue a challenge like saltwater fly fishing, specifically to then release the fish at the end of it all. But to understand somewhat its appeal, it might well be seen as a pilgrimage, a mission to somewhere mystical. It then becomes apparent that it is not about catching the fish. You are on a journey and given a glimpse into another life, an ancient life as well as sharing these enraptured moments with a prized predator. The months or even years spent in pursuit of fish result in you developing an affinity for them. And if blessed to succeed in catching it, you frequently feel not to take its life as you have dedicated so much of your own for that specific moment. Rather you find peace in watching it swim away, ready to hunt another day. I hope to encourage you to embark on this journey at some point in your own life.

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