Story: Freshwater fishing

Page 3. Fly fishing

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Fly fishing involves different gear from spin fishing.


Flies are imitations of insects and other life forms that trout eat. They are made of thread, fur, feathers and other materials, tied onto hooks. Some are designed to imitate small fish, or nymphs (the larval stage of the mayfly) and other aquatic life forms. These sink beneath the surface so are known as wet flies.

Dry flies float on the surface – many look like beetles or the adult stages of mayflies. When trout rise, they take food off the surface of the water, forming distinctive circular ripples – and can often be caught using a dry fly.


Fly-fishing rods are typically longer than spinning rods – about 9 feet (2.75 metres).

In the 1800s fly rods were made of sections of greenheart wood, which could bend without breaking. Next came split cane rods – lengths of split bamboo glued together. From the Second World War to the 1970s, most rods were fibreglass. In the 2000s, most fly rods were made of carbon fibre.

Changing luck

One angler wrote of the joys and trials of fishing for trout in Southland: ‘Mataura trout as a general rule are not unduly fussy feeders. A blank evening can be discouraging, specially when the trout are rising thickly, but take heart, next day the sun will burn again; the stream will flow and the mayflies hatch. Next day your luck will alter.’ 1

Reels and lines

The reel is an open spool onto which the fly line is wound. The line is much thicker than that used for spin fishing, and the weight of the line carries the fly out to the fish when the rod is cast.

Fly lines are made so they float or sink at different rates. Sinking lines are mainly used to fish in lakes – the line’s weight sinks it to the level where the fish feed, and then the angler begins to retrieve the fly. Sinking lines are also used in rivers. For decades, the main way of fishing the Tongariro River was to cast a sinking line down and across the current, but from the 1980s it became more common to cast a floating line upstream. Floating lines are often used to fish rivers and streams.

The fly-fishing process

Trout face upstream waiting for the current to carry drifting food to them, so most anglers walk upstream, approaching the fish from behind. Polaroid sunglasses help cut glare on the water surface as fishers attempt to spot fish in the river. They then cast flies slightly upstream of the fish. The current carries the fly downstream, and if the trout takes the fly the angler raises the rod with one hand while pulling the fly line with the other hand – this hooks the fish.

Trout put up a good fight, but most are landed within minutes. Brown trout tend to swim doggedly, boring down to the bottom. Rainbow trout are more likely to take off on fast runs with the reel screaming as it rapidly unwinds. They also sometimes jump out of the water. The angler lets the fish run and reels it in when it tires. Anglers often release trout after catching them – especially on back-country rivers, where over 90% are let go.

Fly patterns and names

Many early fly patterns were imported from Britain. Some were changed to suit local conditions. Distinct New Zealand patterns emerged, with their own colourful names – for example the large wet flies used in the Rotorua and Taupō area, including the Matuku (originally tied with bittern feathers), Mrs Simpson, and Craig’s Nighttime (tied with pūkeko feathers). Home-grown South Island patterns included Canterbury lures – large feathered lures such as Hopes Silvery, imitating the smelt found in Canterbury estuaries.

Until the 1970s most small wet flies and dry flies used in New Zealand were standard British patterns with some customisation. With more American anglers visiting from the 1970s, patterns such as Humpy, Adams and other North American flies became more common.

In the early 2000s traditional patterns were not so important. Many anglers tied their own flies, imitating the insects that trout actually ate.

  1. Quoted in Brian Turner, ed., The guide to trout fishing in Otago. Dunedin: Otago Fish and Game Council, 1994, p. 79. › Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Freshwater fishing - Fly fishing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 29 May 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 24 Nov 2008