MILFORD SOUND, New Zealand — The sandflies were thick — extremely so, miserably so, depressingly so.
Unlike mosquitoes, however, their bite is undetectable.
It's not until you retire for the day and examine your calves — exposed only minutes between the time the helicopter drops you off at river's edge and when your legs find refuge in waders — that the extent of the damage is realized.
The itching won't begin for another day, but you'll go to sleep seeing bugs and you'll dream about dots.
But not all the dots will be flying and buzzing incessantly in front of your face. If luck is on your side, the telltale spots of brown trout also will be dancing in your head. And what a pleasant flyfishing segue it will be.
At least that was my story on this stunning day in spectacular Fiordland National Park, along the remote, gin-clear Joes River and adjacent beech forest, all of which is accessed only by chopper. Indeed, good fortune played a big part in the one brown I banked on a pheasant-tail nymph.
For quite apart from swarming flies that impeded my vision, I would never have been able to see the 5-pound, 26-inch brute, despite the extreme water clarity. Not without my guide, Kevin Beaumont.
Let's call him my seeing eye guide, for I would have been casting blind without his hushed instructions from the moss-, lichen- and fern-laced sideline.
Beaumont had tried to warn me during the 120 breathtaking kilometers it took to drive to the Milford Sound helipad from Te Anau, home base for his Kiwi Reel & Rifle guiding service.
"You might go out and fish for 10 hours and you might catch two fish, you might catch five fish, you might catch one," he said, "but they will be quality fish that you catch and they will have taken all your skill to get them."
A piscatorial gem
Our quarry was the New Zealand brown, a piscatorial gem from Down Under thought by many to be the wisest of all trout.
To call these fish wary, finicky and line-shy is, well, understated times two.
And sight-fishing is the only way to succeed here.
These trout are large and territorial and have very little competition, not much fishing pressure and low harvest rates, due in part to the common recent practice of catch and release. So they can afford to save energy and lounge in the feeding lanes, where the clean water offers them the chance to select only the plumpest, juiciest meals that come their way.
Don't cast until you see the whites of their sides, or you'll be striking only water all day long.
Here's the deal: Unlike the stocking regimens favored in the West, New Zealand rivers typically aren't planted and the fish are wild. Thus, competition Down Under isn't an issue.
Consider the tale of the tape:
"In South Island rivers, trout grow to about 4 inches in their first year, to 8 to 12 inches in their second, to about 16 in their fourth year, and those that are around 24 inches are likely to be anywhere from 4 to 14 years old, depending on river conditions,'' said Maurice Rodway, the Southland Region manager for Fish and Game New Zealand.
But Rodway acknowledged that in some areas — such as rivers like the Joes above Milford Sound's Arthur Valley, home to the world-renowned Milford Track hiking trail — trout can grow even larger, at a faster rate.
"There is evidence that trout living in estuaries where food items are large — and
the water temperature is not too cold in the winter — grow to large sizes relatively quickly, then move upstream," he said. "This is almost certain to happen in the Arthur (Valley) river."
In other words, any brown you do catch (rainbows were never introduced in the Arthur Valley area, Beaumont said) will be a big trout.
I'd never landed any trout remotely as large as the brown I banked here. It had a tail like a Chinese fan and pectoral fins large enough to be alien beings in their own right. But I digress — and exaggerate.
A stealthy approach
The greater point is, to catch these beasts be sly about it. The water is crystalline, so be cautious in your movements; if you can see the fish, they can see you.
"Sight-fishing to wild trout in New Zealand is remarkably similar to hunting," said Miles Rushmer, a guide out of Rotorua on the North Island. "Like a deer, these wild fish will bolt if they catch sight of you at all. The same can be expected if they hear you kick a boulder or tread heavily."
"The only difference between the deer and the trout is that the fish can't smell you approaching from upwind … not that wind can't play its own part in making things difficult when you finally take your shot with such fine-caliber equipment," Rushmer said.
Usually the guide will walk quietly on the shore in search of the target, sometimes even using a two-way radio to communicate a brown's intentions to the client.
"It makes catching these fish a little bit easier," said Beaumont, 42, who, as a young man, aspired to be a lumberjack and deer culler for the New Zealand government and later became a hiking guide on the Milford Track.
And foreign anglers need all the assistance they can get, for even with the proper glare-cutting sunglasses the trout are nearly invisible. You'll strain so hard to see them that soon you'll be manifesting visions of fish in the patterns of oblong rocks that anchor the riverbed.
After a brown finally is located by the guide and the feeding lane is deciphered, lay that fly on the water with a negative drift.
"That's all-important with all flyfishing, but nothing more paramount than being in gin-clear waters," Beaumont said. "Because if there is drag on the fly, then the fish know that it's attached to something and you'll put those fish down."
Fortunately, these fish are as patient as they are suspicious. Work the water hard and keep working it.
"The old theory of the more times you cast to a fish, the more it diminishes your chance to catch it … is null and void," Beaumont said. One of his clients tossed a fly to the same fish 40 times before he got the right drift, and, once he did, the brown eagerly took the properly placed offering.
Oh, and that view!
Suffice it to say, there is a hell of a lot of mending and re-casting that goes on in any given hole.
And that can be tough, especially with the distraction of jaw-dropping panoramas that open up around every bend. But, remember, this is a rain forest, and such a dry — if overcast — day as we had can be rare.
Beaumont recommends size Nos. 12 and 14 nymphs (with which most of the flyfishing will be done), brown mayflies and an occasional terrestrial — a willow grub and green beetle — on a 4X or 5X tippet delivered from a 5-weight rod. Don't even think about bright, fluffy strike indicators and fluorescent pink or yellow lines; these fish will freak if they see those American standards.
As Beaumont is fond of noting, "It's easier to spook a fish with a nymph than a dry fly."
Therefore, indicators are incredibly subtle here, and the key to success is to set the hook any time you see the line moving upstream.
Guides usually provide flies — as well as all other tackle, tea and lunch — so no need to worry about being suitably equipped. Besides, this island nation is so nervous about disease and parasites being introduced, it may not be worth the hassle of fumigation and sterilization that can be required of gear brought into the country.
Customs aside, these cunning trout with a remarkable history will be worthy of the pursuit.
Brown trout were introduced to New Zealand from England, mostly via Tasmania, starting
in the late 1860s and continuing until about 1920, according to Rodway. The trout did very well here on their own, but it is not known what contribution later introductions made to the modern stocks.
And there are numerous ways to target these brown beauts.
While 70 percent of Beaumont's business revolves around walk-in fisheries within an hour's drive from Te Anau, the Milford Sound whirlybird option, while more expensive and time-consuming, can be one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
The chopper ride from the Milford Helicopters outfit — the only aircraft firm based in Milford Sound — is a short 10 minutes. But with the sound and estuaries and falls and forest en route, it is exceedingly sweet.
The immediate access provides opportunities most visitors miss, said company pilot and proprietor Jeff Shanks.
"The fishing around Milford is increasing every year, more people are doing it, so they can target rivers where there's not too many people," Shanks said.
If that's the case, I made the most of my chance the only time all day I saw my fly line move upstream, which happened to be 20 minutes after the day's first cast. It was a subtle strike and that brown shook its head just once; there was no jump and shout of its cousin the rainbow, no fireworks to speak of.
I palmed the reel and worked the fish for what seemed like 10 minutes. Although I did haul in a camcorder, we never got any video of the fight. And the underwater still shot I took of the fish didn't pan out. But we did get a snapshot of me and Beaumont and the brown on the bank.
The whole episode was over way too soon. The line dimpling the water in a zigzag of diamonds. The fresh aroma of the wild valley. The tug of the trout yearning to escape the hook.
Despite its brevity, the images from Fiordland's flyfishing will season my days back at the office long after the jet lag has subsided.
For more information, contact Kevin Beaumont at email@example.com, visit the Kiwi Reel & Rifle website or phone him at 011-64-3-249-9071. The fee for guided walk-in fishing is $400 NZ, or currently about $195 US, and the rate for guided helifishing is $1,000 NZ, or about $490 US. For more information on Milford Helicopters, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 011-64-3-249-7845.