Harling Lake Dunstan – Best Fly Colours, Line Setups and Harling Tips

Orange Woolly Buggar harling lure similar to that which Cliff Halford called B.O.B.s or Big Orange Buggers.
Orange Woolly Buggar harling lure similar to that which Cliff Halford called B.O.B.s or Big Orange Buggers.

by Peter Lemin –

Harling Lake Dunstan Part 1

The main angling methods in Lake Dunstan have been trolling as well as fly fishing and thread-lining from the shore. During January, the fishing slowed down considerably, no doubt partly due to the angling pressure the lake received over the Christmas holiday period. I felt sure that there was a need for a fresh approach as while out on Lake Dunstan, I often saw big trout cruising over the flooded farmland, obviously in search of food. Having read articles about harling, I approached Dick Marquand about using this method on Lake Dunstan. Shine came to his eyes and he said that it worked well on most lakes and he saw no reason why it shouldn’t work on Lake Dunstan. I decided to try harling on my next outing.

The author with a 3kg rainbow trout taken while harling on Lake Dunstan.
The author with a 3kg rainbow trout taken while harling on Lake Dunstan.

Saturday dawned fine and sunny with no wind, which was disappointing as I found that the lake fishes best with a slight breeze blowing. However, after three hours, a light northerly started to ripple the surface, so we decided to try harling some big Taupo flies. As we were keen to get the best sport from the trout, Dick and I decided to use our fly fishing gear, the streamers being tied on four-metre leaders attached to sinking fly lines.

All was quiet for three-quarters of an hour, and then a couple of touches were followed by a heavy strike. The fish gave a good account of itself and after several minutes, I eased a nice condition rainbow hen of about 1.5 kg alongside the boat and into Dick’s waiting net.

The second fish came soon after, another good-condition rainbow of around half a kilo. We had proved a point, harling was an effective method of fishing on Lake Dunstan.

The next day we were back out on the lake to carry on our harling experiment and what a day it turned out to be. I was harling a Yellow Rabbit on a sinking fly line while Gavin Leefe, a keen angler from Queenstown used a light thread-line outfit, on the end of which was a No.4 Dorothy weighted with six split-shot. The area that we fished over was flooded tussock farmland, dredge tailings and raupo swamp in about three to five metres of water. I lost three trout of obviously good size and landed two rainbows, both of which we released to fight another day. Gavin landed the biggest trout, a good-condition brown that weighed 2.3 kg. He also landed a smaller brownie and a fat rainbow trout of 1.7 kg. In all, we landed five and lost five in about three hours of fishing.

What was interesting was that almost without exception, the trout would strike the fly once or twice before becoming hooked.

Again we found that harling a yellow-bodied Taupo fly such as a Dorothy, Taupo Tiger or a Yellow Rabbit was a successful way of catching Lake Dunstan’s rainbow and brown trout. Perhaps other colours will also work, only time and more experimenting will tell.

As word gets out on harling, I dare say that a few other anglers will try it and find the method a success. One advantage we have is that we spend a lot of time on the lake and consequently, we get to know where the fish are. By the time you read this, the next fill to 190 m.a.s.l. will have occurred and we may have to start the learning process all over again. I am sure, however, that harling will continue to remain an effective method for catching big Lake Dunstan trout.

Shoreline trees around Lake Dunstan in autumn colours.
Shoreline trees around Lake Dunstan in autumn colours.

Harling Lake Dunstan Tips

1. Use a yellow-bodied fly such as a Dorothy, Taupo Tiger or Yellow Rabit, preferably in size 4.

2. Use a sinking fly line to which at least four metres have been added.

3. Harl with the entire fly line and about ten metres of backing out the back of the boat.

4. Fish over shallow areas as these are usually the most productive.

5. If you don’t get any strikes, try a different boat speed.

6. Kill only what you can use and release the small trout.

Finally, good luck, and I look forward to seeing you out there.

Harling Lake Dunstan Part 2

At the time of writing, Lake Dunstan is being held at 190 metres above sea level, which is 4.5 metres below its maximum operating level. The final “topping up” of the lake has been delayed because of excessive movement in landslides above the lake, one of which has been described as “potentially catastrophic.”

The fishing in the lake has taken off and as to be expected, the hot spots are at the head of the Clutha Arm where the depth is around three to four metres. When the lake was raised from 185 to 190 m.a.s.l., four major backwaters were flooded. These contained a lot of brownies with some being around the double-figure mark of 10 pounds. With the new lake level flooding farmland, new feeding grounds have been provided and the trout have been gorging themselves on the plentiful supply of worms and insects.

Approximately a week after the 190 level was reached, my harling experiments started again in earnest. For these trials, I changed from a sinking fly line to a length of lead core trolling line, the reason being so that the fly would go a bit deeper.

First, I tried a ten-metre length of this line but found that I tended to get caught up on the bottom and as a result of this, I lost many flies. However, some great trout were caught. I decided to shorten the length of the lead line to five metres and to date, this has worked very successfully and has not been altered. To get the maximum sport, I use a fly rod and reel which is loaded up with 8kg monofilament backing, the five-metre length of lead core trolling line and a ten to fifteen metre length of 4kg monofilament to which the fly is attached.

For a start, I just put the line out and hung onto the rod waiting for the strikes. They came, but not very often. I noticed that a lot of the hook-ups and strikes I was getting were while I was feeding outline, and sometimes these occurred within twelve metres of the boat. It was soon realised that by constantly drawing in about a metre of the line in a series of jerks and allowing it to drop back gave the fly movement which attracted fish and resulted in more hook-ups.

View across Lake Dunstan to the township of Cromwell.
View across Lake Dunstan towards the township of Cromwell.

Different lengths of line were used although a lot depended on weather conditions. When the lake was smooth or only had a slight ripple, as much as 100 metres of line was required behind the boat, while in choppy water, only 30 metres was required. I believe that the wake behind the boat was more noticeable on calm days and this had an adverse effect on the strike rate.

With the approach of winter, the weather started to cool and with this, the trout’s preference for colour changed. The yellow-bodied flies which worked well during the warmer months were no longer as successful. I changed to red-bodied flies with instant success. The catch rate went up at an extraordinary rate, from four to six fish to sometimes as many as 25 trout for two rods on a two-hour trip. The average trip lasted about 2.5 hours and usually about 20 fish were caught. A hell of a lot of fish were also lost with a fair percentage of these being big brownies which took advantage of the briar bushes and mullein stalks on the lake bed.

By now, it was obvious that a pattern was appearing as to when the boat fishing occurred. It was found that when a southerly was blowing, the fishing was slow with only a couple of trout being landed each hour. However, when the wind came from the northerly quarter, the catch rate went up considerably, on one occasion to twelve fish in one hour for one rod.

The time of day that fished best was from early morning till around lunchtime, and then from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., although this was dependent on both water and weather conditions. I believe that with the winds from the southerly direction, we get air pressure drops and this keeps the fish down making them hard to catch, while winds from a northerly direction have the opposite effect.

Harling Lake Dunstan Versus Rapalas

At the end of May, I decided to compare harling against other trolling methods. I was out with Dick Marquand who is a big fan of Rapalas when I carried out one test. We were both jiving each other as to what would work the best, but I’m sorry to report that harling won hands down at a mean rate of 4 to 1. However, there have been days when trolling lures has beaten harling, but this does not happen very often.

One day that it did happen was when I decided to take my daughter Sarah out and show her how the fish could be caught. As it was, she showed me catching five to my one, hers being taken on a Tasmanian Devil. She returned three and kept a 2kg rainbow and a 1.6kg brownie. So much for taking a kid fishing, this was a case of taking a parent fishing.

The flies I have found to be most successful are the rabbits. I tie mine on a No. 2 hook with plenty of fur on the body, as this tends to pulsate as the fly is drawn through the water with a jerky motion. I also tie in a big red hen hackle at the head of the fly. The point is sharpened to increase my chances of a hook-up from each strike.

Recently, I was on the lake with John Barlow, chairperson of the Otago Fish and Game Council and Dick Marquand. Dick was telling John that the results from the angling creel census surveys he was undertaking On Lake Dunstan were showing the catch rates by anglers to be surprisingly low. It was Dick’s opinion that this was because the average angler did not practice the methods likely to produce after all the fish were there and our catch rates certainly weren’t low.

After a couple of hours of harling, John’s mind was made up. There was a strong southerly blowing making the fishing hard, but in a couple of hours, we managed to land 17 and lose 6 for two rods. John had a smile from ear to ear and said it was the best day’s fishing he had ever experienced. He added that he would be informing his fellow councillors that there was nothing wrong with his catch rate on Lake Dunstan.

Orange and Yellow marabou fly.
Orange and Yellow marabou fly. For harling try a larger size 2 or 4. Once wet the marabou feather packs down giving the fly a silky sinuous swimming action.
Flourescent Green Body Yellow Marabou Wing trout harling fly.
Fluorescent Green Body Yellow Marabou Wing trout harling fly. If the fishing is slow often a change to a different colour will trigger a strike. 

A few days later we had our first taste of floodwater in the lake. This time, Cliff Halford, the Otago Fish and Game officer who is based in Wanaka, was with us. He had heard about the fishing in this lake and wanted to see it for himself. The water was murky and there was a strong northerly blowing. On this day my red flies did not work as well as the flies Cliff was using. Cliff calls them B.O.B.s or Big Orange Buggers. It proved the point that depending on weather and water conditions, other coloured flies will work and are worth trying if the fishing goes slow.

Orange Woolly Buggar harling lure similar to that which Cliff Halford called B.O.B.s or Big Orange Buggers.
Orange Woolly Buggar harling lure similar to that which Cliff Halford called B.O.B.s or Big Orange Buggers.

Altogether, on that day we caught around 20 trout some of them being the hatchery-released rainbows which were liberated in mid-December last year. Cliff was impressed with the size and condition of these trout as he had been responsible for rearing them from eggs at the
Wanaka Hatchery.

One thing is for sure, these trout, both rainbows and brownies, fight well and provide excellent sport on fly fishing gear. When hooked, the rainbows tend to jump and provide powerful runs, sometimes nearly spooling the reel. On a number of occasions, I have even seen the rainbows try to tail walk. On the other hand, the brownies do not jump as often, preferring instead to lug it out amongst the sunken briar bushes and mullein stalks on the lake bed. A fair percentage of them,.usually the biggest, earn their freedom from this tactic.

On one occasion I was out harling with Bill Chisholm, an Environmental Adviser who works part-time for Electricorp. We had released quite a few trout in the l kg to 2 kg range and had turned to do a run down a favoured piece of water. Bill’s line snagged on the bottom and with the boat stopped, I wound my reel frantically to avoid the same predicament. I had most of my line in when I felt a slight pull. I stopped for a couple of seconds and as I started to wind again, there was a heavy smack and the battle was on. After a fight lasting ten minutes, I eased a beautifully conditioned 3kg (6.6lb) rainbow hen into the landing net. It was 6.5cm long and had a condition factor of 66.

It is obvious that Lake Dunstan has a great future as a trout angling paradise. The next few years will without a doubt see some big trout

Harling Lake Dunstan line setup.
Harling Lake Dunstan line setup.


I have found this Red Rabbit lure to be very effective as a harling fly on Lake Dunstan. Harling Lake Dunstan.
I have found this Red Rabbit lure in size 2 to be very effective as a harling fly on Lake Dunstan. Also good with a yellow body.

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