Ugly River Brown Trout Fishing Paradise, Westland

The author's son Roy on an earlier trip to the Ugly River.
The author's son Roy on an earlier trip to the Ugly River.

Ugly River Trout Fishing Paradise

By Simon Snow

I am a wandering fisherman. I’m lucky enough to have a job that allows me several times a year, to disappear into the magnificent hinterland of New Zealand for a week or more at a time. I either go alone or with one of a very small group of close friends the sort of people you can talk that wide-ranging campfire talks with, or say nothing to for long periods of complete companionship. A trout fishing adventure into the rugged wild bush-covered backcountry of Westland in New Zealand’s upper South Island to fish the isolated Ugly River.

Although I still fish closer to home, it’s the big trips I value; and nowadays they are always to places beyond roads and even tracks, where the physical and mental challenge of getting in is the price I gladly pay for the fishing and the beauty of the environment.

My paradise is the West Coast of the South Island, from Greymouth right up to Farewell Spit. It’s a land where water is the dominant element and where by and large the water is unmodified by man; where the smaller streams are clear as new glass, but a night’s rain can lift them two metres and the big rivers will rise and fall fifteen metres in three days. Everywhere there are rivers, winding round the feet of mountains clothed with evergreen rain forest, or slashing through wild gorges down to the sea.

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The fishing is variable and fragile. Many of the rivers hold big fish, but not in great numbers; and in my observation, it takes a long time before a fish that has been killed is replaced by another.

The weather dominates the fishing, and indeed your ability to travel and even survive if you’re not well prepared. It’s not uncommon to spend two days walking in, and even then two more crouched under a tent-fly beside a roaring brown torrent while the rain hoses down with frightening force. But it only takes one perfect morning, with the rising sun marching down the ridges to light up a mist cold river, for me to be lured back.

The last trip I did was a solo, from the end of a logging road near Karamea, across a range of hills and into the Ugly River. The Ugly River is misnamed; it’s very beautiful if you like your country rough-edged and a bit wild, but the nine-hour bush bash to get in there may have given rise to the name. Here is a bit more info about the Karamea area.

The hills are steep, rising to 1500 metres, and the bush is typical of the coastal areas of the warmer Northwest. Beech predominates; on a warm day, the drone of millions of wasps sucking honeydew from the black beech is continuous and sinister.

On the way into the Ugly River the under scrub is luxuriant and often tangled; leaves seem bigger, juicer and a more vivid green than elsewhere in the South Island, with nikau palms a common sight especially near the coast.

There is a distinct, clean smell which is also different; not quite a hothouse smell, but a sharp, warm, watery scent of things growing.

Further into the bush travel becomnes hard going. Ugly River Westland.
Further into the bush travel becomes hard going.

Because of the dense bush, the only reliable route in here is up the bed of a stream, wading up to thigh-deep, dancing across rocks speckled like the eggs of ground-nesting birds, by-passing two waterfalls on the narrow ledges where old slips are covered by a ground creeper and russet moss.

After about three hours you leave the creek, scaling a near-cliff beside a third waterfall, a narrow white ribbon this far upstream.

A final push up a steep ridge and along hands-and-knees squirm under stunted mountain beech, and you stand gasping on the summit with the blue Tasman spread out behind you and the long, deep gash of the Ugly valley ahead.

The descent is a minimum of three hours, down a long leading ridge it’s easy to stray from under the masking trees. The first half is easy going, under big beeches with clear glades of fern underneath them; then it gets steeper and the bush thicker as the hill plunges down to the river. There are dramatic limestone bluffs waiting for those who lose the ridge, meaning at best a weary climb back to safer going.

On this occasion, I emerged just before dusk on the bank of the Ugly, at one of my favourite places in the world. Wild bush clad ridges frame a level flat area spread with fist-size rocks. These are bare at the water’s edge, but the higher areas are gloriously covered by olive and russet mosses, seedling beeches in the vivid green tinged with pink, and a startling white lichen that looks like a carpet of snow.

I made a bivouac among the beech saplings, had my usual first-night feed of steak and pasta, and went to sleep under a huge canopy of stars.

Sandflies woke me in the morning to the usual dilemma: to withdraw the whole head beneath the sleeping bag and stay half-smothered but unbitten, or to brave a valley floor as yet untouched by the sun.

The sandflies and the promise of perfect fishing finally routed me out; on went both jerseys and the long-johns, a quick flurry saw a fire started, tea brewed, and breakfast well underway as the sun leaned into the valley. The local weka prowled the undergrowth and a small group of keas yelled and strutted around the steep sunlit face across the river.

The ragged mist that I find so wild and romantic streamed up from among some of the trees still in shadow, and campfire smoke spread a blue, aromatic stain across the river.

I take a small range of flies into this country: greenstone, hare and copper and pheasant tail nymphs, a dry black spider and a coch-y-bondhu. The river here is wonderful – about as wide as a main road, easily fordable in places, with a mixture of bouldery rapids, deep round pools, and the most beautiful, slow-flowing reaches where waist-deep water glides steadily across brown and yellow boulders. The trout, usually one to a pool, are not hard to spot if the river is at normal flow; a sunny day and polaroids let you see every pebble on the bottom.

I love this kind of fishing – stalking every pool, peering through the masking foliage to find one among the many sticks and rocks facing upstream which has the magic difference that says life.

Sometimes a movement or the outline of a fin makes it very clear, but often a sort of glow or richness of colour, a subconscious suggestion of life, is all the bespeaks the trout. Then comes the careful, and often precarious, wading to a position exactly down-current from the fish, the slow approach to as close behind him as prudence allows, and then the cast.

MY first trout on this trip was a sitter at first sight. I saw him from well downstream, in the tail of one of the shorter, wilder pools. I’m always fascinated by the range of colours and shapes that trout present, which varies with the size of the fish, depth of the pool, sunlight and water clarity. In the shallower pools, in sunlight, there is a distinct steel-blue tinge to the Ugly River trout. This fish was dark violet-grey, and big enough to appear wedge-shaped from behind, the gills spreading wide and making a broad arrowhead above a tapering body.

He was on station behind a rock whose flat top was just submerged, hovering from side to side and harvesting nymphs that poured over the rock in a steady current.

The pool itself presented no real difficulties. The trees stand back from the margins of the Ugly, leaving a strip of broken boulders between the water’s edge and the dense growth along the sunlit bush fringe. In this case, the pool was short and deep, with water entering around a house-sized boulder on the near bank after tumbling down a hundred-metre section of rapid. The fish was in the tail on the far side, just above the scattered line of boulders through which the water poured into the next fall.

If I ever kill myself on one of these trips it will be in such a situation: a big fish visible on the wrong side of the river, the adrenaline flowing too strongly to hear the voice of prudence which insists that the water is only knee-deep a few hundred metres downstream.

That moving shadow draws the eye like a magnet, and to turn one’s back on him is unthinkable – he might change station, or go off to feed, or Scotty might beam him up, but if I look at him every twenty seconds, stumble over the rocks, a quick look at the racing water then back to the fish…yes, he’s still there.

The problem is always to get directly below the fish without appearing too high on the bank or fatally plunging into one of the churning eddies of the rapid.

In this case, the boulders were big and jumbled so that the current split into several smaller chutes, most of them narrow enough to jump. The last was too wide, its depth obscured by swirling bubbles.

Gingerly I felt my way along a submerged ledge, the current sweeping at each boot as I jammed it down into the crevice.

Finally, one last narrow chute coiling past at dizzy speed; too deep to wade, the rocks sharp to jump, a boiling pot of foam waiting below.

Judgement is clouded by the thought of a now invisible fish, the roar and glitter of the water, draw the feet up on a pinnacle of rock still knee-deep in foam, a body arch across the smooth current, hands limpet onto the rock on the other side, kick-off with feet and praise be, the current swings them round to scrabble and face a safe purchase.

A quick pause for breath and giving of thanks, then retrieve the rod which has survived being tossed over the narrow gap, check the fly reel, and begin the final act.

I slowly raised my head above the last boulder and saw the fish still on station, about five metres away and facing upstream. Although I hadn’t seen him rise I stayed with a dry black spider, which I find will usually raise these fish if they are feeding within a foot of the surface. Kneeling on the lumpy surface of a granite boulder I began to lay outline, well below the fish.

The first cast landed short; I picked it up and immediately fired it out again. Unusually for me it landed perfectly a couple of feet above him and six inches to the side.

The black fly swirled invitingly; I saw the lateral sweep of his body increase, a surge of power that took him up into the current above the rock, then the strange, liquid click as the upper jaw broke the surface and he inhaled the fly. A very short pause, then up went the arm and that incomparable, rubbery, intensely alive resistance as the rod transmitted the first astonished movements of a hooked trout.

I stood upon the boulder, all caution was thrown aside, to a spectacle never to be forgotten: a wild trout flashing around a deep, turbulent pool in crazy curves, now clearly visible above golden shadows, then lost in dark churning eddies, once breaking the surface in a series of short, lunging dives and a plume of spray in the Ugly River.

Well worth the effort. A wild brown trout caught where few anglers venture. Ugly River, Westland.
Well worth the effort. A wild brown trout caught where few anglers venture. Ugly River, Westland.

Rainbow purest who sneer at the browns fighting qualities can never have fought a mountain fish where browns are the dominant species.

This fish was landed after a fifteen-minute fight, freed of the hook, photographed and returned. I guessed his weight at five pounds.

I know that books tell us that fish should be released while still in the water and as quickly as possible; but I still took a fierce, guilty joy from laying him across the wet pebbles for a few seconds to admire his gleaming golden flanks, the random yet perfect scatter of crimson spots across his body, and the angular curves of his jaw.

After releasing him I fished upriver with mixed success, lining three fish in the slower, shallower pools but landing three more. My first fish was the biggest, but none was less than three pounds. All were spotted and stalked, although less precariously than the first one; one more fell to the black spider before I changed to the stonefly nymph.

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I returned downward along the Ugly River just as the sun mellowed towards evening, boulder-hopping rapidly along the edge of the bush. With tea cooked and eaten and the utensils scoured clean with gravel, I sat by the embers at my favourite time of day, when the breeze dies and darkness slowly thickens in the valleys.

The weka bugled to a neighbour across the river, and later, as I lay under the low-roofed protective cocoon of the flysheet, the night’s first kiwi began its short, flat, high-pitched scream.