Hurunui River Secrets – How to Fish – Secrets of the Four Sections

A nice salmon from above Jack's Pass. Hurunui River Secrets.
A nice salmon from above Jack's Pass. Hurunui River Secrets.

Hurunui River Secrets – River-craft comes from experience and the application of an inquiring mind

by Paul Corliss

Some anglers find the Hurunui difficult to fish productively and if you relied solely on spotting all your trout before you wet a line then a fruitless day can be near certain. Blind fishing gives the impression that there is a major element of mindless stumbling-in-the-dark to the method. While there will always be shades of this to the method it is far from the truth. What may seem to the casual observer aimless casting, can in effect be the application of years of experience.

The preferred lies of trout vary from river to river, are affected by the amount of available cover according to the bottom topography and flow levels, and whether the targets are browns or rainbows. The abundance or otherwise of nymph-life and terrestrials also plays a part in the equation. Perhaps though the ultimate giver of knowledge is the time spent exploring and searching with your rod and lure on a specific river or stream.

If there are no telltale rises or flashes of visible nymphs, then you need to rely more heavily on your river-craft. The reading of flowing water to better assess the more likely positions of unseen trout is the challenge and this art certainly comes into play on the Hurunui, from the mouth to the outlet from

Lake Sumner and in the top end of the Hurunui above the lake itself. The South Branch of the Hurunui drains the main divide between the Crawford and Dampier Ranges while the North Branch drains the catchment between the Nelson Tops and the Crawford Range, flowing into and draining Lake Sumner. The two branches meet about 80 kilometres from the sea at the “Confluence”. The Hurunui flows some 150 kilometres from source to mouth and provides a huge variety of conditions to tempt the angler.

Hurunui River Secrets – Section 1

The river can be broken into four rather large sections for the purposes of an exploring angler. The first is from the mouth up to the main highway bridge. The lower stretches are more heavily targeted by salmon anglers, but some big trout frequent the deep holes and pools towards the main road. The smaller trout can be taken from the glides and runs, with an evening rise a not infrequent option.

Hurunui River Secrets – Section 2

The next section takes us from the main highway bridge up to the confluence with the Mandamus River. Access is reasonable and provides braided conditions, probably a bit more productive with the spinner, but still delivers on the fly. I haven’t explored this extensive reach as much as I would like, but there are some superb spots here that don’t get as much pressure as other sections, though salmon anglers reportedly do nearly as well as in the lower stretch and at the mouth.

Hurunui River Secrets – Section 3

The third section is from the Mandamus to the confluence of the North and South Branches of the Hurunui, a far wilder and more adventurous proposition for the keen and fit angler. It gets little pressure due to the gorges and cliff-lined banks, but there are trout and an acceptable number have a large size to commend them.

Hurunui River Secrets – Section 4

The fourth section is probably the more popular with fly-fishers, from the confluence up the North Branch to the lake. The South Branch has appeal but access problems generally rule this out as a viable alternative. It is the South Branch also that is more prone to discolouring, not having the catchment value of cushioning mud and flood that Lake Sumner performs for the North Branch. Again, the spinner can deliver the goods but the North Branch water is made for the dry and nymph.

There is potentially a fifth section, that of the North Branch above Lake Sumner to its source with the saddle that separates it from the Taramakau River at Harper Pass. Access can be extremely difficult around the lake with a 4 wheel-drive preferable, but again the effort should reward. The drop-off into the lake itself and searching for cruisers around the edges are quite fun if the foul north-westerly stays away. As with a lot of high country water, the nor-wester can quickly destroy an otherwise ideal day on the Hurunui. Take the spinning rod as a back-stop.

Most of the trout were taken along the bank, undr the tussock and manuka.
Most of the trout were taken along the bank, under the tussock and manuka.

Drift dive surveys by MAF produce interesting statistics that give the angler that inner assurance that he or she is not idly casting into barren waters. For the purposes of this survey, a large trout was classified as one greater than 400mm in length, a medium one as between 200mm and 400mm and a small one as less than 200mm. Below Lake Sumner two dives produced the following readings:

1. 91 large brown trout, 203 medium and 23 small
2. 56 large brown trout, 159 medium and 22 small

In another dive, 1600 metres of the river was covered near the Lake Sumner outlet during which the MAF team observed 86 large brown trout, 243 medium and 79 small. Over 400 trout in 1600 metres! My maths gives that as approximately one trout every 4 metres. While this particular dive was a few years back and may well have coincided with the Annual General Meeting of the Salmo trutta Industrial Union of Nymph-Eaters, this evidence of plenty is reassuring as you blindly thrash the water. As an aside, among those 400 plus trout, only 8 were identified as rainbows.

The density of trout in this area has seasonal variations, but this stretch has the better habitat of pools and runs, and as mentioned earlier, it benefits from being close to Lake Sumner and the “buffering” action this produces, ie flood peaks and sediment being reduced by passing into storage. The effect of habitat on trout density is worthy of note for the river-reader. Most trout were seen in pools, a lesser but still significant number was seen in runs, few were seen in rapids and virtually none were seen in riffles. Riffles were defined as fast shallow water whose surface was very broken and consisted if mainly white water over a short distance.

Access along the whole length is reasonable with swing bridges at the Jollie Brook and Sisters to assist the faint-hearted.

Frank and I had pitched the tent on the plateau we know as Manuka Flat, up on the bank where we could hear the Hurunui groaning through the boulders below. The sandflies descended not long after our only gas bottle coughed, spluttered then wheezed to a half. The carefully prepared stew had to be eaten a degree or two above stone-cold. We discovered the rocks beneath the tent floor long before we found out that both of us snored like stuck pigs.

The night could, theoretically, have been made more uncomfortable. If we’d rolled a couple of live hedgehogs into the bottom of our sleeping bags, it is just possible that we’d have had even less sleep than we did.

We were both awake to see the brilliant dawn that arrived with hints of frost. An angler’s day to be sure.

Already tacked up, we moved upstream into the first big glide. Having drift-dived this the previous year we knew that there was a ledge running the length of the north bank and trout had been seen hugging the deeper edge. We waded across and Frank had the first choice. He opted for a Hare & Copper Nymph and began the pleasant casting rhythm, swinging his casts in increasing arcs upstream. He paid extra attention to the edge-water, back eddies under the tussock and matagouri banks and carefully trotted his nymph both behind and in front of the bigger boulders that gave shelter from the flow. This technique of searching what is known as “pocket-water” is the key to success in this section but today it was faltering. Twice his indicator hesitated but the lift of the rod tip delivered nothing. And so it went for the first two hours.

As the heat of the sun flowed up the valley and ate the mist away we started seeing a few dimples in the slack water at the edge of the faster runs. Caddis were hatching and the change to a deer-hair Goddard dry seemed the right choice. Again nothing. A wet fished like an emerger might be the story and perhaps a size smaller. We were getting too clever for these fish and must now have their number. Once again no amount of delicacy or searching of the water was producing. We sat on the bank beaten, smoking quietly and eyeing the river with suspicion.

Ten metres above us there was a surge of water and a brief flash of silver. Further up by the stand of manuka another big fish rose from the water and slapped down onto the surface. We were stunned and had no idea what they were feeding on. There were no insects rising into the air yet the trout were avid all the way to the next bend in the river. While a few rose furiously, further out in the current most were taking along the bank, under the tussock and manuka.

We offered each other endless suggestions yet all the while the answer sat on the toe of Frank’s boot. It must have been screaming its presence to us since we’d sat down. Its fellows were there, all around us, leaping from blades of grass and stems as we‘d rustled through the tussock. Grasshoppers, faintly pink and yellow with a light tan head. Grasshoppers everywhere. So blatant and visible that we hadn’t seen them, busy looking for something more discreet, more purist. A few quaint American flies, Joe’s Hopper, had sat in my flybox for several years and had been purposefully ignored. A striking red tail with a tight body of yellow deer hair seemed too garish for my restrained Kiwi tastes. Today it came into its own.

The heavier the cast, the more drag, intentional or otherwise, the more the trout loved it. A splashy plop, a short drift and wham, bam. We lost five on the strike and netted four. Big fish with one stunner than managed to expose the backing before Frank slid the net over him. A jack of nearly seven pounds that finally beached himself, surging away from the first clumsy swipe with the net, he turned at speed and surprised us all by charging onto a small shingle bank midriver. He lay there wondering where the water had gone and Frank had floundered across the deep gut to lay claim before the jack could slither back.

Whether the grasshoppers had had enough of their fate or the dying northerly wind no longer provided the push to tumble them into the flow, we couldn’t say, but the surface action stopped as quickly as it began – we’d lucked on the right choice and reaped the brief rewards. We returned to the tried and true “picking the pocket” approach and had further browns take the big pheasant tail and blue darter nymphs, but the lesson from the day was to see the Joe’s Hopper move up a run on the Hurunui repertoire. Try picking a few pockets on the Hurunui this season, it’s legal if you’ve got your licence.


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