Central North Island fishing guide.
Mouse feeders are often easy to identify, with wide thickset flanks, big full bellies with hard nugget-like chunks being able to be felt from the outside…
Huge New Zealand trout feasting on rats and mice are the stuff every trout angler dreams of. Big, fat, heavy brown trout, engorged on a turbo-charged, proteinrich diet of rodents are something to marvel at and enjoy. But it only happens once in a blue moon, in those special years when the native beech forest produces an abundance of surplus seed, which causes rodent populations to explode in number.
Most New Zealand trout are limited in size by the food available to them. Many trout streams here have limited fertility and are not the insect-rich waters that premier overseas waters often are. So, when they get a bumper terrestrial food source, trout are only too happy to take advantage of it.
Recently, I read reports in the Nelson Mail about increased catches of rodents and predators by volunteer trappers in the Brook Waimarama Sanctuary area. I also noticed a few more rodents around my garage this winter before I put out bait stations, with the excellent name of ‘‘departure lounges’’.
With the general trout fishing season due to open on October 1, I’ve been busy fielding inquiries from international anglers interested in the fishing prospects for the coming season. Reports from Nelson Lakes Conservation Department staff would indicate that a spectacular beech seeding in autumn has paved the way for a substantial increase in rodent populations in the spring and summer.
New Zealand rodents range from small to a massive 30 centimetres for a big norway rat. Rodents are prodigious breeders and a female rat can produce 12 litters of 20 rats each year, according to pest contractors Target Pest, potentially having the ability to have thousands of descendants a year, which is a lot of trout food.
When rodent populations boom, their predators, such as stoats, ferrets and weasels, also peak, which is bad news for native birds and invertebrates, which suffer when rodent numbers abate. Cuddly little critters such as rats and mice don’t get a lot of positive press from government organisations and the media, but they are actually pretty interesting animals and, whether we like it or not, they are part of the history of humanity as well.
European history is richly laced with tales of rats and mice. In New Zealand, rats were of cultural importance well before Europeans arrived on the scene, with kiore or Polynesian rats being a treasured part of Maori culture, having spiritual value to some iwi. Maori considered kiore a delicacy. Rats fattened on a diet of berries and invertebrates were trapped and preserved in their own fat for those cold winter days, long before Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, Ratatouille or self-styled love rat Major James Hewitt.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate as a recreational angler and professional fly-fishing guide to have been involved in the capture of an unfair share of very large brown trout, many of which have been fattened on rodents. Some seasons’ trout will be 1kg to 2kg heavier than normal in many rivers, and we all dream of trophy trout 4.5kg and bigger.
So how do the mice and rats end up in the water? It seems rodents range far and wide nocturnally for food, move to new territories, die of hypothermia, drown, and fall or swim in rivers and so become available as trout fodder.
Most mouse-fed trout are caught on traditional tackle offerings such as dry flies and weighted nymphs during the daytime, although we have caught trout on mouse imitations fished during the night shift. Slow-stripping a large floating deerhair mouse imitation across a still pool after dark can provide exciting fishing, although, interestingly, the trout usually take the mouse imitation quite softly.
Rubber mouse imitations or other topwater poppers also work well on spinfishing gear, with the advantage being that anglers can cover larger distances with longer casts and also avoid standing in the water among the eels. Mouse feeders are often easy to identify, with wide, thick-set flanks, big full bellies with hard nugget-like chunks being able to be felt from the outside of the fish. Trout can eat multiple rodents and fish with up to several dozen mice inside have been recorded.
Sometimes with rats, I’ve seen a rat’s tail hanging out of a captured fish’s mouth. I remember one captured trout regurgitating dead mice in the net. Big trout act like a magnet to overseas anglers and word of big fish present will prompt many anglers to book longer and more adventurous trips.
One overseas fishing agent is already playing the mouse card, with worldwide recession and lower than normal bookings requiring different strategies to attract high-value, big-spending tourist anglers. Personally, I’m waiting until I get on to the water and have a look around this coming fishing season before I talk too much about mice and rats. If the hype fails to match reality and the big fish just aren’t there, a river can be a lonely place as you attempt to be a modern-day Rumpelstiltskin trying to spin straw into gold.
Secretly, however, I’m hoping a big rodent year will happen and that the big trout will appear like magic. It might be tough on the native birds but the trout fisherman in me says ‘‘bring on the mice’’. Let’s just hope the Department of Conservation isn’t crying wolf – or in this case, rodent – because, when you’re a hardcore trout bum, you can never have too many mice. Hickory, dickory, dock.
Locally Produced: Zane caught this 11lb brown trout in Murchison with his friend Tony Entwistle.
The variety and diversity of angling opportunity is probably unmatched.
MURCHISON fishing guide Peter Carty once wrote that ‘‘fishing is a disease. It’s not usually fatal and there’s no known cure for it, but the therapy is wonderful.’’
I couldn’t agree more and often think back to when Pete and I began our guiding careers together in the mid-80s around the Nelson Lakes and Murchison areas.
They were halcyon days and we were just the latest in a long line of anglers intent on exploring and enjoying the rivers of Murchison. I still fish these rivers and Murchison has become a playground for anglers from all over the world.
Murchison is situated on the Four Rivers Plain – the flood plain of the Buller River, which flows through the centre of town, fed by tributaries the Mangles, Matiri and Matakitaki.
The thing that has always impressed me about the Murchison area is the people, and we anglers are lucky that Murchison landowners are so generous with access to the rivers. Developing relationships with many of these local families, watching their kids grow up, and enjoying good times along the way have made the fishery even more special in my mind.
Murchison is probably best known for the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that ripped the place apart on June 17, 1929, causing 17 deaths and untold mayhem. The landscape still bears the scars of this massive quake. The Mirfin family has a connection to the tragedy, with my grandfather’s elder sister, Jessie, being married to Murchison farmer Charlie Morel when the earthquake struck. Charlie was killed by a huge mudslide and flying roofing iron. According to witness Samuel Busch, the mudslide crossed the Matakitaki River from the west and wiped out Morel’s house at the Six Mile. A gentleman to the last, Charlie’s last words were, according to family folklore, ‘‘Save yourself Jessie, I’m done for.’’
Immediately after the earthquake, my grandfather Ash and his twin brother, Bryce, managed to ride and carry pushbikes through the mangled one lane Buller Gorge road from Reefton in a futile attempt to help their sister. Later, it took 18 months with pick, shovel and saw to re-open this vital link to the West Coast. Ironically, the road works and repair to the land after the earthquake created many jobs and insulated Murchison from the worst effects of the 1930s Depression.
The Buller River system is one of the world’s greatest brown trout fisheries. The variety and diversity of angling
opportunity is probably unmatched, with trout-filled small, medium and large freestone streams and rivers at virtually every point of the compass. Nearby are the waters of North Canterbury’s Waiau system to the south, the Grey and Inangahua catchments to the west, the Wairau catchment to the east, and the Motueka and its tributaries to the north.
The Buller River itself is a worthwhile fishery, but a shadow of its former glory due to the invasive alga didymo, which has choked the upper reaches above Murchison. Its stranglehold on the rivers of Murchison is expanding, but it isn’t the end of the world because the worst affected areas are the mainstem Buller and the Gowan River, which come out of Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa. Tributary streams that are not sourced from fertile lake waters seem to have fared much better. Virtually every river and stream in the Murchison area now has didymo, but even when its presence is heavy, the fishing can still be good, and excellent trout fishing can be had in areas that many anglers avoid.
The Matiri River is a great fishery for small to medium-size trout, but can be a little tough to fish these days, with a lot of didymo present, possibly due to the fertility effect of Lake Matiri.
The Matakitaki is a great blue river, alluvial in nature in its upper reaches and more confined within gorges as it makes its way to join the Buller atMurchison. A fabulous dry fly stream, it is also rich in gold and still mined to this day. Lately, the Matakitaki has been in the spotlight with Network Tasman looking at harnessing it for hydro-electricity generation, but the
river already has a rich history of intensive human use, including heavy mining activity in the late 1800s.
The Mangles River, along with its major tributary, the Tutaki, is a lovely fishery and I have great memories of wonderful days on-stream. There are some great scenic drives up these valleys, such as the track over the Braeburn saddle leading to Lake Rotoroa or the road through to the upper Matakitaki and Mataki Station.
Two other world-class Murchison rivers and Buller tributaries must also be mentioned. To the north is the small limestone river, the Owen, a bountiful fishery complete with challenging leopard-spotted browns. The Owen was
the apple of my eye when I was a boy, and it was where I learnt to fly fish and hunt with my father, Stuart.
To the south of Murchison is another great trout river, the Maruia and tributaries. The Maruia has always been revered as a fish factory, and this year the bonus for south bank tributaries such as the Maruia and Mataki has been some large mouse-fed trout, many into double-digit weights by imperial measurement.
However, there have been some low catch rates around Murchison the past few months. Many anglers and guides have told me their fishing has been the worst in living memory.
Fish and Game field officer Lawson says recent assessments of trout populations have shown up excellent quantities of medium and large fish. He believes that with so much trout food around this year, the fish don’t need to feed as often or for as long, making them less vulnerable to capture. Let’s hope this is the case and that the Murchison fishery is in good shape for future generations to enjoy.
The Murchison area, people, land, rivers and trout fishery will always be special in the minds of many. Recently Murchison dairy farmer Ken Caldwell struck a chord when he talked glowingly about his new farm in the area and described how he was ‘‘farming it already in my mind’’. Fly fishing addiction and love of rivers is no different and I, for one, will be fishing the trout streams of Murchison in my mind forever.
Zane Mirfin – http://www.strikeadventure.com