Makarora and Wilkin Rivers Lake Wanaka Otago

By Monty Wright

Being on holiday Colleen and I woke at a respectable hour. We had stayed overnight at Makarora House which is a farm stay facility in the Makarora Valley. From our bedroom, we could look right up the Wilkin River Valley – a beautiful sight for anyone to behold first thing in the morning. But slipping over the top of the mountains was an obvious change and as we dressed ready for breakfast it moved on down through the valley.

We sat down for a good hearty breakfast prepared by Barbara O’Brien our host, as Clinton her husband had already gone to work up at the Department of Conservation headquarters. Unfortunately, the weather kept closing in and temperatures dropped quite considerably. For me, this meant a change of plans as I had intended to fish the Young River that day and Colleen had several good magazines that she intended to read and just enjoy the relaxation. The southerly wind then blew up the Makarora with the change, lifting the glacial silt in the valley and forming quite a dust storm as it blew out through to its headwaters. I decided to join Colleen and read some of the Southern Fishing just to catch up on what the other contributors to the magazine were doing.

The Mouth of the Makarora River

After two hours there was a sudden change, as only can happen in the high country of New Zealand. The southerly wind immediately stopped and the valley was calm again. As it was nearly dinner time I decided to have lunch and go down and fish the mouth of the Makarora where it enters Lake Wanaka. Colleen accompanied me in the car, along with her reading material, and sat in the sun enjoying her leisure time. Over the floodbank, I went and down to the river. It was running reasonably high but still clear. I made my way down the broken flood margins and looked carefully for trout sitting in the shallows but alas observed none. My intention was to fish the mouth for a wee while and then come back upstream fishing along the edge of the runs and ripples in the quiet waters along the banks. I moved out into the open braided plain and there on the edge of the last run before the mainstream of the Makarora entered the lake I started fishing.

Jack Sprat trout fly.

Grey Ghost, Badger Smelt and Jack Sprat

My experience in the past on this water has taught me that one of the best methods of fishing it at this time of the year is with a sink-tipped line and a small whitebait imitation such as Grey Ghost, Badger Smelt, Jack Sprat or similar. I had tied a new creation with some Flashabou especially for the occasion and used a small lure on the bottom and a larger one on the dropper. After getting some line out into the water I roll cast the line over several times and brought it back into the lee of the ripple. Here is a very good whitebait streamer fly by Chris Tonkin

Grey Ghost trout fly.
Badger lure or streamer fly. The Badger differs only very slightly from the Badger Smelt. The latter has a tail of golden pheasant tippets and the wing is tied on at the head only. Because the wing of the Badger Smelt isn’t tied down in the typical Matuka style with oval tinsel it is better suited to harling rather than casting which would cause the wing to wrap around the hook on virtually every cast.

After I had fished about 20 metres I observed a quick flash in the water and waited with bated breath for the bang at the lure. Nothing happened. Quickly rolling the line over back out into the water and bringing it back through the same section I slowed the retrieve down by moving the rod from my right side over to my left so it would swing through the shallow margin slower. Again I saw the flash and with that, the rod and line bounced. The reel sang with a high pitch as the fish ran parallel to the bank in only 30cm of water. There was a small gravel bar in front of it and I thought it was going to the beach itself but all of a sudden it changed direction and headed out into the fast-flowing river.

It pulled and fought its way back towards me and just when I thought I had everything under control the line came free and the fish swam away to fight another day. Standing in the same place I immediately pulled off more line and cast back out into the same section of water.

Nothing happened for three casts, then I spied a flash again as it came out of the edge of the blue water onto the shallower gravel margin. It was a hit but no take. Two casts later the same occurred. Being surprised at this I wound the line in just to check that the hooks were still in place and I hadn’t bashed them on the rock and broken them off, but everything was in order.

I cast the line back out I thought maybe I should move the bigger lure to the bottom. At the end of that cast, I decided to do that and lifted the line back in. Going up a size immediately had an effect as on the next cast and four paces downstream from the one hook up and two bashers, I hooked another fish. The reel sang with the current whacking against it. I applied side strain the fish slowly moved round to my side of the river and after a good fight, it came out of the blue water and onto the shallow margin. I withdrew my net from my back and quickly netted it.

What a surprise – expecting it to be a rainbow because of the silver which I had observed from the other fish – I was pleasantly surprised to find it was a salmon. This would be the first time over many years that I had ever caught a salmon up in the run itself. Yes in the past I had caught them by letting the line go down over the lake edge at the river mouth and retrieving it back up, but never up in the river. It wasn’t a large fish – about 1.5kg and roughly 46-46cm long – but it had given me an excellent fight. It had taken the bottom lure which had been made out of Flashabou and nylon lure dressing.

Pulling off the line again I took three paces and cast out and low and behold on the next cast – bang – another hookup. This fish decided that the lake was the best place to go and it took off downstream running just on the edge of the blue water. I applied some side strain but to no avail. Out went the fly line, out went a considerable amount of the backing and I thought “Boy – this one’s got to be a good one”. It then turned, swam into the current and as fast as it had taken off downstream returned back upstream. This caused me all sorts of confusion was winding the reel I couldn’t keep the strain up and I had to revert to striping the line in with quick grabs with my hand. It at last stopped and I had it still under control. Phew, what a relief.

I managed to take up all the slack before it decided to do another short run out into the middle of the river. At the end of that run, it had had enough and came straight back into the net. Another salmon – about the same size – so I released it to the water. I had now double the salmon numbers I had taken in the river in one cast and thought there must be a pod of them just sitting there so I walked back up about 20 paces, pulling off the line and swinging it back out into the river again. Nothing. Two casts later still nothing.

But on the third – bang and off we go again, the same performance, straight down to the lake, nowhere near as far this time though, the fly line just going off the end of the rod, quickly under control, the fish back up ready to be netted and a few shakes of the head and away it swam. At this stage, the wind started to blow down the valley from the north and it got stronger and stronger. By the time I had three casts, it was necessary to put all my wet weather gear on just to keep the coolness from my back and legs.

Back out into the river in the same place. Two casts – bang – another fish. This one had nowhere near the strength of the previous one and immediately came straight into the edge. I saw my chance and netted it and released it back to the water. It was a slightly smaller fish from the two previously caught.

As I went to cast the line out the wind blew it back and the hook caught in the edge of the leg of my all-weather pants. I was only standing ankle-deep in the water at this stage. As I bent down to retrieve the hook I noted why the pod of fish were feeding. The Galaxias brevipinnis, whitebait were in quite good numbers all through the edge of the rocks. They were making their way upstream. Commonly known as the Koaro, or to some other people as New Zealand’s walking fish or mountain trout, and one other strange name called “the elephant ears” because of the large front fins. They can walk up vertical surfaces virtually as long as they are wet.

These native fish are part of the whitebait family, the same fish occurs on the Coast. In the inland area where there are lakes, their life cycle is somewhat different. They prefer forested areas to live in and have a life span of between 6-8 years. Mainly feed on stream invertebrates but occasional they will take terrestrial insects off the surface of the water. It appears after maturing they lay their eggs in the rivers and as the larvae hatch they are washed out into the lakes and live in planktonic life in the surface water. In lakes, it takes them much longer to mature and they, therefore, enter the rivers generally during March, April and sometimes into May looking for places to set up their new homes back in the bush stream areas. Apart from the Southern Lakes, according to R M McDowell, they also appear in some North Island lakes.

The fry which were returning were larger than I expected for this time of year so I again changed my rig. Removing the top feathered lure I replaced it with the Flashabou lure I had had on the bottom and then put a large one below that.

After several casts, there was no further action so I moved back up to where I had hooked the first fish. Half an hour had gone by and still no action. I was about to change back to the smaller size after covering 100 metres of water and getting close to the lake edge when I noticed what I thought could be a brown trout sitting on the edge of the fine gravel bottom. Lengthened the line as it swung with the current, low and behold the fish quickly charged forward and took it.

This was obviously a Brownie as he bored and bored and bored out into the middle and back again, out into the middle and back again. He looked to be a good fish of about 2kgs. There was no huge excitement with this fish. It was just a steady fighting motion as I applied the pressure from one side to the other. He slowly succumbed and I must admit I was quite pleased as the wind was quite chilling standing in one place. I quickly netted him. Browns that enter the river have a very silver appearance as this one did. He was in great nick but would have been just under 2kgs so I released him back to the water.

Three casts later using the same technique the line suddenly stopped and a brown trout hit the airways. He fumbled and bumbled around and then charged straight at my feet. There was no way I could retrieve the line at the speed he was travelling and when he turned after observing me the hook immediately pulled loose.

Fifteen more minutes passed and the cold was quite chilling and I was thinking to myself, “It’s time to return to a nice warm cup of Earl Grey tea” and I decided two more casts would do me. This turned out only to be one as on the next cast the line stopped.

I thought I was snagged for a few seconds as there was no movement and then I managed to make some line back onto the reel before I observed a fish slowly coming out of the blue water. He obviously saw me and took off straight across to the other side of the river. Out went the line, out went half the backing and I thought “This is a good fish”. I then saw a fish jump in the shallows on the other side, “Surely that’s not my fish”. But yes it was.

The battle lasted for quite some time as I slowly gained line and gave a bit, gained line and gave a bit, gained a bit more and then I thought “I’ve got him”. I thought if I can land this fish I’ll take it as it’s obviously a lake fish just up feeding. However, the trout had a different view and kept on battling away, greeting the airways several times and I noticed at this stage that it was a rainbow. It was a strange start for a rainbow trout to not move at all as they generally take off with great speed.

Lifting the net off my back and preparing to net the fish as he bored back out onto the edge of the blue water. I took two paces into the water and the lure came free and he sat there on the edge for a few seconds, unsure whether he was free or not, and then slid off into the blue water never to be seen again. I may not have landed him but it was a great battle and it was an excellent finish to a wonderful afternoon, even though conditions had deteriorated considerably.

As I turned and headed back to the car it was a chilling wind that cut my face, blowing down the Makarora, but inside I was fulfilled as only one can be fishing a section of water for over three hours, hooking and landing a few fish with magnificent scenery and not even seeing another angler. The wind may have been cold but I was warm inside and at peace with the world.

Makaroro River flows into the northern-most end of Lake Wanaka. Sourced from LINZ Crown Copyright Reserved.

This post was last modified on 13/03/2024 3:31 pm

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