Mataura River – Southland’s Famed Brown Trout River was Running High and Discoloured
by Bryce Stupples
It was early October and my father Ken had come down from Christchurch for his grandson’s birthday, plus of course, the mandatory few beers and a spot of fishing. I was eager to go to the Mataura and try to find this spot my neighbour had told me about. Ken, who was brought up in Southland was keen to check out some of his old stamping grounds. Daylight saving still hadn’t started so we left home straight after tea and headed for Wyndham some 30 minutes drive from Invercargill.
As we crossed the Wyndham bridge we were gutted to ﬁnd the mighty Mataura high and discoloured. We ﬁgured it must be the result of rain further inland.
Ken suggested that as we were in the area that we have a look at the Mimihau and/or the Wyndham Rivers which flow into the Mataura, as these rivers might we be unaffected by rain further inland. As we drove Ken recounted stories of excellent dryﬂy ﬁshing and limit bags from these rivers.
On arrival, we were once again disappointed. Although not running high, both rivers were discoloured and didn’t inspire much enthusiasm to set up a ﬂy rod and explore their reaches. However, all was not lost. We had come this far and I was eager to ﬁnd the spot my friendly neighbour had disclosed, albeit for future reference. Fish & Game Southland Mataura Angler Access pamphlet .pdf.
As we drove up the road on the east side of the Mataura we stopped at the ﬁrst ”Anglers Access” sign for a look. There are large numbers of these very helpful signs along the banks of the Mataura River, and there is a list available from local tackle stores and Fish & Game Southland.
On arrival at the riverbank, I was surprised to see a family just packing up after a worm fishing expedition. The father had caught three or four good sized trout. Seeing that someone had caught fish in this dirty water was inspiration enough to quickly set up my spinning rod with a silver Tasmanian Devil and flick it in the water. Ken thought I was mad! But he wasn’t about to sit in the car and do nothing, so he set up his ﬂy rod with a big feathered lure and a nymph.
We ﬁshing with little hope of catching anything for about 30 minutes when we noticed that the water was running higher and becoming even more discoloured.
We returned to the car and drove up the road stopping periodically to check the course of the river and access options.
At one such stop, I set up my rod again and flicked the lure into a ripple. “Bugger, I’m snagged,” I thought. I was slowly beginning to retrieve line and it became obvious that I had caught some old nylon fishing line. My luck had changed for at the end of this line was a very new looking black and gold Toby – a bonus for sure!
To add to that on my next cast a fish grabbed the lure as I retrieved my line up the edge. Alas, after a brief struggle it got off. Nevertheless, I was amused that I had hooked a fish in such atrocious conditions. Remembering in the past how I had fished for hours in ideal conditions and not even touched a fish!
To add to the drama it started to drizzle. Neither Ken nor I were keen to get a wet bum so we set off again on our search for my neighbour’s spot.
Five minutes up the road we found the spot that had been described to me. We parked the car and went to start the five-minute walk to the river to have a “quick look.” Bearing in mind the fish I dropped at the last stop I decided to grab my rod and net.
We had to jump over a small creek and walk across a paddock to get to the river. This was surely the spot my neighbour had described. The river was wide and all in one channel. You could imagine it at its normal level. There would be ripple, deep boulder-strewn pools and coal seam ledges, all of which would provide good feeding options, and cover for trout.
We stood and watched I passed comment to Ken that I thought I had seen a fish rise in a dead bit of water right at the edge. I had a couple of lacklustre casts in the general direction without success.
It started to drizzle once again and Ken said he was going back to the car. If we headed back now we could still get to see the rugby on television.
”I’ll be right behind you after I just have a few more flicks,” I said, as Ken started heading off. After a dozen casts, I thought I’d head back as well as it was almost dark and I didn’t have a torch.
One last cast upstream to cover the area where I thought I saw that fish rise earlier. I was standing on a point and winding with the current when I felt a subtle take! I struck and felt resistance and the jiggle of what I thought was a small fish.
It came towards me without incident but stayed deep. ”No worries,” I thought as I grabbed my net in readiness, congratulating myself at the same time for thinking to bring the net from the car.
I dropped to my knees and lifted the rod tip to bring the fish to the surface and my waiting net. When I got my first glimpse of the fish on the line I was surprised to see that it wasn’t as small as I had thought.
I then had to lie on my stomach with my rod above my head to reach the water. When I got the fish to the surface and managed a decent look, I knew I was wasting my time trying to net this fish myself as my arms weren’t long enough to reach into the water, and once again my net wasn’t big enough to cope with a fish of these proportions. While writing this I once again make myself a mental note – or should that be a hint to my wife Vanessa – that I need to acquire a decent sized landing net.
As I stood up the big fish woke up! It took off into the swollen swift ﬂowing river. I followed it down the bank for about five metres until I hit the mouth of the small creek I mentioned earlier. As is often the case the small creek widened significantly over its last ten metres. Where it entered the main river it was deep with steep overhanging banks. There was no way I could jump it.
Meanwhile, the fish had held up in a rapid. With the volume of water and the weight of the fish, I had visions of being spooled.
I did two things. Firstly I did something I hadn’t done for 25 years and yelled “Dad” for all I was worth!
Secondly, I applied as much side strain as I dared, and let the strong current steer the fish back over towards the bank. Feeling now a little more in control, and having regained some composure, I yelled again. This time “Ken!” I remembered thinking that Ken wouldn’t be able to hear me sitting in the car. But I also knew he would eventually grow impatient, and come looking for me.
Miraculously the trout having come back to the near bank swam straight up the small creek and sat right under the bank on the far side. Periodically the fish would swim up the bank, turn around, and come back under the bank on my side drawing the monofilament fishing line through the long overhanging grass. It would then make a break for the main-stream again.
I’d apply side strain and the fish would steer off under the far bank again. After what seemed like an eternity (in reality probably ten minutes) Ken appeared at the top of a crest and shouted something like “Bryce what are you doing?”
I’m into a good fish and need some help,” I replied.
Ken arrived but hadn’t bothered to cross the creek in the dark, so was standing on the opposite bank. He had also taken off his waders and was wearing running shoes. I threw my net over to him as the grass wasn’t overhanging as much on his side.
With Ken’s ﬁrst glimpse of the fish, he said something like, ” Gee – or something similar but more colourful – it’s a good one!”
“How are we going to get it into the net?”
We both agreed that it had to be netted directly from behind or straight on. The next problem was that while the fish was on Ken’s side somewhere, I’d try to lift it to the surface. The angle of the line would steer the fish back over to my side.
By this stage, the problem was made more difficult to solve because it was now pitch black and we had no torch. Combined with the dirty water it was almost impossible to see anything! After two or three botched attempts and a few comments along the lines of ”the old boy’s eyesight isn’t as good as it once was.”
Followed by, “do you want to net the @?$!? fish yourself.”
Ken finally got the net halfway up the fish and lifted it up. In the darkness, I didn’t see exactly what happened but I think the fish had ﬂipped out of the net, and Ken was wrestling with it on the bank.
I congratulated Ken on finally pinning the big trout to the ground. Ken replied that I was a “jammy bugger!”
The fish weighed in at nine pounds. Thanks to Ken it proved to be extremely photogenic. This fish is the biggest trout I have ever caught. It always seems ironic to me that I caught it in water conditions that most wouldn’t bother to fish. Plus I was in a frame of mind where I really didn’t expect to catch a fish at all.
Upon recounting this experience to other Southland anglers some weren’t surprised at all. They said that often fishing the calm areas at the edge of the main current with the spinning gear during periods of ﬂooding will produce good fish. The conditions force the fish out of their regular lies and make them hungry.
Admittedly you have to put the spinner right past their nose, but if they get the opportunity to sense it they will snap at it!
Having previously written about unlikely shallow water on the Oreti, and this time about dirty swollen water in the Mataura, it’s obvious that when trout fishing in Southland you can make the most of every opportunity you can to get out fishing and still catch fish. Indeed a lesson for us all to remember, and my five-year-old daughter Emily often reminds me of my own words, ”Dad you can’t catch fish if your line isn’t in the water.”