As many of you know, the two Canadian teams that were going to represent Canada at the 2020 Commonwealth Championships in New Zealand had to come home early due to the Covid-19 travel uncertainties. As a member of Team Canada While, while I did not get to compete, I still spent a week of preparation time in the Taupo area with my teammates and our coach, four time world champion David Arcay. We learned a lot and we were very well prepared for the competition but it was not in the cards for us to be part of it this time. Nevertheless, without any exaggeration, we enjoyed what must be some of the finest, most adrenaline filled trout fishing to be had on planet Earth.
It is the preparation period where techniques, equipment and tactics are tested extensively and choices narrowed down for what would be used in the competition. One thing we found shortly after hitting the water on day one is that New Zealand's fish of any size tend to be exceptionally strong and there is no lack of 20+ inch brutes. As competitive fishermen we had to deal with the dilemma of finding the right set of technique and gear that would allow us to balance the ability to hook many fish and be able to land a reasonable number of them.
We started practice on the lower stretches of the allocated practice water of the world-famous Tongariro river: an exceptional wild rainbow trout fishery, that also holds the occasional brown.
And while the Tongariro is normally a very productive water, mother nature had decided to throw a challenge at us. The fish were keyed on the Lace Moth, or to give it its proper name the Passion Vine Hopper. This "imported" insect reached New Zealand in 1876 and is regarded as a pest specie. A headache for commercial fruit growers, the Lace Moth can make fishing the lower Tongariro both exciting and challenging. The trees around the river were covered with these little insects, and quite a few were being blown down on the water causing a feeding frenzy. Legions of trout of all sizes were rising for them steadily throughout the day, oblivious, by and large, to other offerings.
We were able to catch fish on nymphs and wets, but it was clear that for a successful session on this part of the river one had to figure out the key to the Lace Moth feeders. It turned out to be a challenge, even for our coach, who happens to be one of the world's highest skilled dry fly anglers.
There was no doubt about the right dry fly technique. Even though everyone on our team is still far from David's incredible skill level, the Spanish style allowed us long, dragless drifts. It worked even when fish were holding tight to the far bank and we had to make long casts across Tongariro's strong currents. The essence of the Spanish style is using a specially designed extra long leader with under-powered casts that allow for a long drift where the fly follows the natural path of the current and is seen by the fish before any part of the leader, even with an upstream cast.
Here is a video of David fooling a hefty Tongariro rainbow on the dry (shot by Colin Huff):
We were told that the Tongarito is usually fished with 5wt or 6wt rods and a pretty thick tippet, at least 0.18 mm. But as competitive fishermen we had to try to push the limit and see if more delicate gear will allow us to hook and land more fish during our 3 hours sessions, even if we knew that some of the big boys and girls will inevitably break us off. These fish are seriously strong to booth with and Tongariro's strong current is also on their side.
The Spanish style can be, to a degree, practiced with "conventional" dry fly equipment, but having the right gear makes a big difference. Arcay is the only company that makes rods, lines an leaders specifically designed for this style and we were happy to have them. Several of us, and Mr. Arcay himself, use 3/4 wt, 9.6 ft Arcay rods of the World Cup and the Kingfisher models: the first has a bit faster action for those who prefer that, the second comes with the benefits of a nano-technology rod that is close to impossible to break in fishing conditions. The Arcay dry fly lines, contrary to most lines on the market, are designed to help deliver an under powered cast that does not straighten up the leader. The extra long leaders are tied by David himself using a formula tried and tested in countless competitions in Spain.
We played with different tippet diameters to figure out that anything below 6x is way too weak for the Tongariro fish. Ultimately, with a bit more trying we concluded that the fish were OK with 5x, even when using very small flies. In this diameter, the Arcay competition tippet that we used has a braking strain of 5.15 lbs. A few of us were using the Fish On dry fly floatant to make the CDC flies float longer. There are plenty of dry fly floatants on the market, but this one is definitely among the top quality ones. The Arcay floatant, on the other hand, was quite useful in applying to the tapered portion of the leaders and on the first few feet of fly line: another trick we have learned from our coach, this helps keep line and leader floating making mending easier and helping to extend the no-drag drift of the fly.
Photo: Team Canada White member and Smart Angling Pro Staff Ian Troup with a Tongariro resident that put up quite a fight.
The real challenge was figuring out a fly that works with enough consistency. That took some time and brought us back to the lower Tongariro several times in the next few days. As we went through the somewhat frustrating experience, we even came up with our own version of Queen's famous song "Another One Bites the Dust", which on the lower Tongariro sounded more like "Another Trout Bites the Moth"...;)
After a lot of trying, we settle to CDC patterns with a dark-ish body in size 18 and 20. The first few times I cast size 20 to those big rainbows I was afraid that even if they fool the fish, the hook would be opened up by these brutes or may not hold them so well. Our flies were tied on Hanak 130 BL, a light, fine wire hook ideal for CDC patterns, but one that did not look too strong to me at first sight. I was wrong: it held up very well to all big fish that my teammates and I hooked, with absolutely no issues. Well, it did not prevent the extra big fish from breaking us off...but that's another story.
Ultimately, we only half-solved the Lace Moth puzzle. We were able to catch a few from each pod of risers, before the fish would respond to the pressure and refuse all offers, while continuing to rise to the real insect. The other teams had also been frequenting the practice sector, so our hope was that in the non-pressured competition water the fish would be a lot more willing to play; plus there were only a few beats on the lower Tongariro, with the upper part offering a much easier and very productive nymph fishing for those who would be lucky to draw a beat there.
The sight of multiple 20+ inch fish rising in front of us was simultaneously intoxicating and frustrating and will be coming back in my (night and day) dreams...I hope that one day I will be back to fish the moth fall again!
Photo: the Lace Moth
Ivo Balinov, March 20, 2020
More about Ivo:
Ivo has been fishing for over 35 years. His experience covers North America, Europe and the Caribbean. He is an experienced instructor who has helped countless people with their first steps into fly fishing while also coaching many advanced anglers, including several national champions of Canada as well as members of Canada's National Youth Team. He himself has learned from some of the world's very best competition anglers from the Czech Republic, Spain and the UK.
Ivo has been a successful competition angler with top finishes at major tournaments including team gold and individual bronze at the 2016 Commonwealth Fly Fishing Championships, team silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Fly Fishing Championships and numerous top finishes at national, provincial and regional tournaments in Canada. He has served as Pro Staff for several fly fishing brands and is now Co-owner and Marketing Director of Smart Angling.