A steady breeze blew down from the mountains, carrying the chill of high country snow. I paused to turn up the collar of my jacket, then fired a cast above an obvious mid-stream boulder.
The fly line was swept downstream by the fast current but the heavily weighted streamer sank quickly.
Suddenly I noticed a pause in the passage of the line and struck with my stripping hand. The weight came up tight and I felt the first run of the fish.
Using the speed of the current, the trout worked down towards the lake but eventually I managed to guide it to the gravel beach and into the net.
Over the next half- hour I raised another four rainbow trout from the same position.
Clearly the school was held up below the drop-off and the action was fast and furious. It was late May in New Zealand’s South Island and we were fishing the Eglinton River delta on Lake Te Anau.
Daz and I had arrived in New Zealand hoping to climb Mount Aspiring but a week of severe weather had forced us to swap crampons and ice axes for waders and fly rods. Still, we weren’t complaining – the fishing had been superb.
I’ve always been a fan of late-season trout angling.
The fish usually respond to the change of seasons and, as a rule, the stream or lakeside angler crowds tend to thin. I guess not everyone likes the frost!
Late-season trout angling can usually be defined as the period of transition from Autumn into the early Winter.
Day length shortens, the waters cool, streams flow more slowly and the fish begin to think of all things romantic.
Shortened day length means less sun hitting the water and hence cooler water. This is especially true on bush-fringed highland streams where shaded runs are commonplace.
Consequently, you can expect the better action to occur between 10am and 2pm when the high sun shines down longest on the stream.
A little bit of sunlight switches on the brief, late-season insect hatches and the trout will become more active.
Out on the lakes you’ll also find less need to be up with the sparrows. Generally, patrolling fish will wait until the waters warm a little before venturing into the margins. The reason quite simply is that the usual food items such as yabbies, nymphs and baitfish don’t switch on until these waters warm.
Look for areas of shallow water where weed growth coincides with medium drop-offs. Fish tend to hold along here of an evening and move into the shallows in mid-morning to hunt food. In fact, on overcast days you can expect to polaroid roving fish throughout the day.
As the season advances, stream and lake fish will begin to take on the brighter spawning colours and move towards the headwaters.
In the smaller creeks and streams these movements may actually be rather limited. Fish that traditionally hold in the runs will often concentrate in the bigger pools to feed heavily and improve condition.
In the lakes most fish, but not all, gravitate towards the inflows of the dams.
The key here is that fish move to all inflows, not just those at the head of the lake. True, most activity is a function of inflow rate so more fish head towards the larger river mouths.
However, canny anglers should seek out and target areas where less substantial waters flow into the impoundments. These areas generally receive less angler attention and less wary fish usually spell more hook-ups.
The two prime types of water to target in lakes are delta drop-offs and their adjacent bays.
Depending on the size of the inflow or creek, substantial deltas may form as the river’s fast current slows on entering the lake. Here the suspended sediment, as well as flood-induced gravel, form shallow ‘beaches’ and associated drop-offs.
Late-season fish, especially those preparing to enter the river, often school up along the edge of these drop-offs.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the larger New Zealand lakes on both islands. In the north, lakes such as Taupo have earned a reputation for the spectacular delta fishing that occurs.
River mouths become crowded during periods of fish movement and the action can be quite intense. The same opportunities are present in many of the Snowy Mountain's lakes, as well as smaller regional impoundments.
Generally, rain periods in the catchments induce lake fish to enter the river while rain falling on the lake generally contributes little to fish activity.
Prior to fish movements, focus your efforts on the river mouth drop-offs and once the river levels rise from upstream rain, shift your attention to the lower reaches of the river.
Targeting drop-offs calls for fishing deep. Fly anglers will usually find the better action with sink-tip lines, short leaders and medium-sized streamer patterns.
Fish preparing to leave the lake know the energy required for the trip ahead and will be looking for high-energy meals such as baitfish. Leave your delicate mayfly patterns at home.
Generally I fish weighted patterns and a bead-head fry imitation in size 6 would be ideal.
Spin anglers will do the best with weighted lures. I have a soft spot for metal spoons under such situations; they combine action on the drop and during the retrieve and, when fitted with a small trailing soft plastic grub, are absolute dynamite.
Another good alternative is a larger Tassie Devil or Cobra lure in pink or orange.
Trolling along the drop-off margins is another terrific option.
Again, you’ll need to get deep and your lures should be bumping along the face because the fish are generally well tucked against the shoulder. Depending on the depth, it may be necessary to use a lead-core line but if you’re not deep enough, you’ll be missing out.
As mentioned earlier, use lures with bright highlights or solid colours. Troll slower than normal because fish generally will not chase lures far from the shoulder of the drop-off.
If you are getting only tentative hits, try adding a feathered treble to your lure to reduce short strikes.
Fish numbers also often increase at this time in smaller bays close to stream inflows.
Quite often, those bays with some standing timber will be prime locations.
As a rule, such areas are probably best fished towards the shore from a boat although there’s plenty of potential for bank-based fishos.
Again, metal spoons are quite effective or, in particularly deep water, try jigging.
Drop a metal jig to the lake floor and then lift with a sharp jerk of the rod tip. Let the lure fall back to the bottom; don’t hold it up off the lake bed.
I was introduced to this tactic by Kiwi angler Geoff Thomas and it really is dynamite when trout are schooled up and holding deep.
Once fish are stimulated to enter the river, you again need to look for deep water.
Lake fish don’t like fighting current and for this reason will seek out holding water where they can rest.
Rest areas are typically deeper pockets, undercut banks and mid-stream drop-offs. Cast your lure or fly well upstream to allow plenty of time for it to reach the stream bed where the fish will be holding.
When fly casting I prefer to use a floating line and weighted fly, along with a longer than usual leader.
Flies should be quite heavily weighted because we want it to be hugging the bottom. Leader length will be dictated by the depth of the pocket, although as a rule your overall leader should be three times the water depth.
In a particularly deep section a sink-tip or short sinking-butt section coupled to a short leader will ‘bomb’ the depths.
Fly patterns for this scenario are generally big, rough nymphs in sizes 8 to 10.
Alternatively, a Glo Bug or egg pattern can be deadly.
Despite my earlier comments, the exception when fishing ‘egg’ patterns is to tie them unweighted on large-gape hooks and pinch some split shot to carry the rig to the bottom. This results in better hook penetration than a weighted egg fly.
Rather than place split shot on the main line, I tie in a dropper about 10cm above the fly and pinch the split shot onto the tag. This serves two purposes: It allows the fly to drift slightly above the stream bed and increase its detection by the fish and you also will have fewer problems with the fly fouling on the bottom.
An excellent compromise pattern is to use a weighted Egg Sucking Leech. The rainbows love ’em in Alaska and it’s no different with their Southern Hemisphere cousins!
Lure-tossers also need to fish the bottom and 90% of the time minnow patterns just won’t cut it.
In shallower sections you may get away by casting a Celta cross-current and allowing it to swing downstream. However, once the water depth gets serious you’ll never be deep enough with this technique.
By far my preferred options are bucktail or marabou jigs. The advantage with marabou jigs is that they impart action even when sitting dead in the water.
These lures have largely fallen out of favour in recent years but to those who persist they are deadly, cheap and a whole lot of fun.
Any competent angler can tie up some jigs but if you’re short of time or have five thumbs you’ll find them available from reputable tackle outlets. Most commercial patterns are way too large; you’ll not be casting long distances so go for the smallest jig your rig will comfortably cast.
Cast your jigs upstream of any pool inflow or drop-off and allow the current to sweep them into the rough water. Expect most of the hits to come as the jig trickles down the face into deepening water.
Work your jigs back by hopping them briskly along the bottom. I like bright patterns, or at the very least bright coloured jig heads with more sombre tails.
Late-season trout offer a range of situations for you to employ your favourite angling tactics.
It’s more a case of being prepared to move about until finding the schooled-up trout. A pool may be empty today and stacked tomorrow.
Successful late season anglers don’t get locked into one location.
Pull on a beanie, pack a thermos and get out there! If you’re comfortable there is a better chance you’ll explore more water.
Late season fish are often on the move. Find them and you’ll experience some of the best action of the entire season!
Fish holding in deeper water generally don’t spook too easily.
For this reason, and to eliminate the amount of slack line out on the water, fish close.
Keep a low profile and move in adjacent to the chosen run. Follow the fly or lure with the rod tip as it drifts downstream and prepare for the slightest bump to signal a strike.
Drifting flies and lures along the stream bed can quickly blunt hooks so always carry a small sharpener and regularly touch up your hook points. Blunt hooks don’t penetrate well and are quickly thrown by an acrobatic trout.