Fly Fishing New Zealand

Backwaters – West Coast Spring Creeks to Canterbury Braided Rivers

Backwaters and Backwater Angling with Tom Frazer

The author with a good fish taken on a Black Gnat in one of our backwaters.

Backwaters are formed by changes in a river’s flow following flooding and they pose a challenge for anglers because the odds are firmly stacked in the favour of the fish. Trout cruise them only periodically and in some instances, awkward currents rents and back-eddies create a challenge to present a perfect drift.

On slow moving, or still backwaters angler concealment can be difficult and delicate casts are required. When hooked trout often race into the main river current where due to the rough terrain it can be difficult to stop or follow them. Similarly, the presence of submerged obstacles such as logs and boulders can see a whole fish quickly breaking off and hurrying and to safety.

But backwater angling can be an exciting part of the day spent clambering up a riverbed. I adopt different skills and techniques that are a compromise between lake and river fishing.

A typical glorious Canterbury high country backwater.

Backwaters can be particularly productive if anglers spend the time and effort watching and reading of water. Because trout cruise them intermittently it is important to spend time watching the water. In many cases, this is easily done because the backwater has been formed by water hitting a cliff face or bank or bank and it is possible to sit and watch the surroundings from a lofty vantage point. Often large shapes cruise slowly through the water many metres below you, while at other times you must sit quietly just feet from the water and use the background to cut clear while a trout lurks close by. In

If there is no vantage point it is important to adopt a low profile. In many cases backwaters, are separated from the main flow in by low lying shingle, stand or grass spits and often there’s little or no background vegetation in which to blend or hide. As a result, it becomes final to use any form of cover. Backwaters on many rivers are an area where river debris is deposited during floods and as a result, anglers can use old logs, boulders and debris to crouch and watch the water. Often fish cruise tantalizingly close and it becomes necessary to crouch motionless on sand or rock banks, all the time wishing you could shrivel into a small ball.

Guy Pasco with a 5 1/2 lb rainbow trout from a backwater.

Several years ago on a North Canterbury river, I watched a friend as he stalked a brown trout that cruised a large backwater. Mike was sitting on his haunches with a small Royal Wulff placed in the path of the approaching fish. The fly rod was held low to the sand and his rod tip was touching the sand to eliminate any rod flash. As the trout came into view along its beat I could see my mate’s physical presence change. Mike lowered his head slowly towards his shoulders and dipped it forward so his peaked hat eliminated most of the background. From my concealed position I chuckled quietly as I knew as well as he did that his action would not help him in any way. His actions were a physical response to attempt to conceal his position. On this occasion, Mike hooked the trout only to lose it just a few seconds later when it wrapped the leader around a submerged log. North Canterbury Fish & Game.

Backwaters can range in size and may sometimes have a small flow of water entering them at the head. If it’s Often just one fish will cruise the backwater but in many instances, a large backwater will be home to numerous undetected fish that regularly patrol the area.

Early this season I learnt an important lesson about keeping alert for other undetected fish. Bruce and I were fishing a familiar West Coast river when we came to a backwater that in the past always held a fish. On this occasion we knew a fish was also present, having seen one cruising the still water from the cliff that overlooked the high and slightly discoloured river.

There was no vegetation on the riverbed surrounding the backwater and we crouched on the sandy spit watching and waiting for a trout to return. Being my tum to fish I flicked my small nymph into the deep water away from where we expected to see the fish return. Soon however and much to my surprise came a quick tug on the end of the line. An undetected fish had seen and engulfed the nymph. Needless to say I now always leave the fly on the water away from the area you expect to see the fish. Not only could you pick up another fish but all that is required when you spot your fish is a quick pick up and redirected cast to the correct spot.

From personal experience trout that cruise backwaters are scavenging and prepared to take a wide selection of flies that are offered. Friends I fish with would agree I am not a particularly technical angler and nor am I specifically interested in riverbed entomology. As a result, I rely on a small selection of trusted flies in numerous sizes. When you see a backwater it is often obvious that the natural action of the river sweeps food into them. Watch any floating debris that is swept down a river and enters a backwater, the chances of it returning to the main flow are low.

Bruce Thomas surveys a West Coast backwater.

The same can be said for the food that trout feed on and as a result backwater can be an area where food accumulates and trout do not have to work hard to forage. Likewise, overhanging vegetation can be home to insects such as Green beetles and Cicadas which periodically drop into the water and provide easy pickings for hungry trout.

From my experience smaller dry flies are more effective on small, still, backwaters while correspondingly larger flies are more effective for bigger water.

Nymph fishing in backwaters can be effective because they are home to numerous species including water boatmen, backswimmers, caddisflies, damselflies, water lice and bullies. Trout are best ambushed by placing the nymph in front of the fish and then twitching it as the fish approaches.

Spin fishermen too must choose their lures wisely. In deep backwaters and eddies, heavier lures are more effective but often not appropriate to shallow water. In some instances, a bubble and fly are a productive method and it can be useful to use a long trace and have the bubble well away from the cruising fish or even lying on the ground next to the water’s edge.

There is a trade-off between the diameter of tippet and the chance of landing the fish. As I stated the presence of underwater obstacles requires anglers to be in a position to get the fish under control quickly. Likewise, the physical characteristic of the riverbed may mean you are unable to follow the fish if it enters the main flow.

Both these reasons prove you need to get a hooked fished quickly under control and therefore strong line is important. Personally, I seldom use tippet thinner than 3X. It is more resistant to abrasion, has a breaking strain of 8lbs yet has a thinner diameter than 6lb line from some other manufacturers. By choosing to use strong tippet I can control the fish and therefore reduce the chance of a break off around obstacles. It also means a fish can be landed and released quickly.

Backwaters pose a challenge for anglers but can be highly productive areas to fish. Because food accumulates in these areas trout cruise them periodically and eagerly accept carefully presented flies. Then, as a fish is hooked wait for the fireworks as it desperately attempts to escape. Be prepared to spend time watching the water and adopt techniques and flies more commonly used on lakes.


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This post was last modified on 28/11/2018 2:00 pm

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