CENTRAL SOUTH ISLAND
Less than two hours north of Dunedin is the Waitaki Basin, the southern gateway to the Mackenzie Country. You can also access the area from Queenstown and Wanaka by the Lindis Pass.
The region was named after James McKenzie, a Celtic immigrant who was caught herding flocks of stolen sheep in the 1850s into an area previously undeveloped by European settlers. After being imprisoned then escaping several times, Mackenzie was later pardoned when investigations proved his first trial was flawed and others may have organised the theft. The case led to the discovery of one of the best areas for raising sheep in New Zealand.
This is big-sky tussock country akin to the leeward side of the Rockies. On sunny days the light is so bright your eyes water. Beware of the northwesterly winds, which can make casting quite challenging. Sometimes they start at nine or ten a.m. and don't let up til evening--or for days. But the first calm day after a three-day flow, the dry-fly and sight-fishing can be fantastic.
The Waitaki River is one of New Zealand’s most daunting rivers to fish, with flows sometimes exceeding 300 cumecs. But it can reward the thoughtful angler with large, hard-fighting brown and rainbow trout and salmon that regularly run 20-30 pounds. In its headwaters is the majestic Ahuriri River, a scenic fly-fishing and tramping paradise. This is one of the most photographed of New Zealand's fly fishing rivers. On either side of the Waitaki basin are excellent feeder streams that make good destinations in wetter months of spring and autumn.
The Waitaki lakes are also open in winter are often sunny and offer untapped angling on par with Lake Taupo's more famous fishery--but not the crowds. They're a great place to keep angling skills sharp and catch Vitamin D. Lakes Aviemore and Benmore are excellent stillwater destinations in late spring and summer. Such fishing hones both your spotting and casting skills because it requires good observation and quick, accurate presentation with long leaders. Lake Benmore is particularly interesting because it has one of the densest salmonid populations of any New Zealand lake. The area can easily be added to South Island fly-fishing road trips that include Queenstown, Wanaka and Dunedin.
A little further north, towards Twizel and Tekapo, is the Tekapo River. The Tekapo River has a high trout population, and its tributaries can also fish well and lend themselves to sight-fishing techniques. Because it's controlled by a hydro-electric scheme, the river is buffered from snowmelt, which can trouble some of the larger Mackenzie Country rivers in spring and early summer.
Further to the north lies an abundance of lakes, streams and rivers, including the Opihi, Opuha, Orari, Rakaia and Rangitata watersheds. The latter two rivers hold some of the country's best runs of salmon and sea-run browns. Growing numbers of anglers are exploring the rivers with two-handed Spey and switch-rod techniques.
A little further north still is the Waimakariri River, which has good populations of sea-run browns, king salmon and resident brown and rainbow trout. Tributaries like Broken River, Winding Creek and the Porter River fish well in spring, while the best time for salmon fishing is February and March.
Coming off the Mount Cook drainage are a host of big glacial rivers that run coloured with snowmelt in the early season. But some of them can fish well when they clear. Several of them also have spring creeks running in their margins, separate from the main river flow. Like good truffle-hunting areas, spring creeks are closely guarded secrets. If you want to prospect for them, examine a good map of the area and look for little blue squiggles that seem to pop up abruptly on the margins on large braided rivers.