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New Zealand Then and Now

Feb 13, 2018 | Mike Lawson Larrys_Cr_Big_Brown3.jpg

Some of the things I enjoyed most about growing up in rural Southern Idaho was the highways weren’t freeways, most of the businesses were small family owned operations, there were no big box stores, and people respected each other no matter their political or religious views or opinions. Highway 20 ran through our towns instead of around them. The main highway to Island Park was the old highway, now known as State Highway 47. The speed limit was 55 mph. We didn’t live in big mansions where every member of the family had their own bedroom. I grew up in the living quarters of a railroad depot with 5 brothers and sisters. We shared two small bedrooms. I can’t turn back the clock. There is no way that old highway 20 could manage the level of traffic it does today.

The primary reason I continue to go back to New Zealand is for the fishing. However, over the years since my first trip in 1980 I have learned to appreciate other aspects of this wonderful country more and more. While I can’t turn back the clock here in Idaho, in many ways our trips to New Zealand have been like turning back the clock. There are no freeways. The highways are narrow with two lanes and many still have single lane bridges. These highways go through the towns instead of around them. Big box stores only exist in a few of the largest cities. There are almost no large homes with a separate bedroom for every family member. Local people respect each other no matter their political or religious beliefs. On top of that there are great mountain ranges with breathtaking scenery, picturesque lakes, gin clear rivers and spring creeks.


My first trip was something I could have only dreamed about. Sheralee and I had recently opened Henry’s Fork Anglers when Frank Bertaina, retired MLB pitcher and co-owner of the travel company Fishing International, called me and asked if I would like to come to New Zealand. My dad taught me early on in life that when something is too good to be true it usually is. Of course I was very skeptical. Frank said all I had to do was get myself to and from San Francisco. The rest of the trip would be covered by the New Zealand government’s department of tourism. The only other issue was how could I justify leaving Sheralee and the kids for three weeks? In those days we had to borrow money from the bank just to live through the winter. Frank convinced me that the opportunity to host future trips with the prospect of increased equipment and fly sales could be a worthwhile investment. The final hurdle cleared when Sheralee gave me the green light.

When I arrived at the gate in San Francisco I was told I couldn’t board the plane because my ticket was a diplomatic document that required wearing a tie. After the realization that the guy was really serious I bounded through the airport asking every person I spotted wearing a tie if he would sell me his. After a number of strange looks and responses I realized it was a lost cause. My only thought was to go back to the gate, jump the attendant, and race on to the plane. As I walked past a small retail shop full of 49ers paraphernalia I spotted some ties. I’ve never liked the 49ers much but suddenly I was in love with them. The gate attendant gave me a skeptical look but he let me on. To my astonishment my seat was first class in the upper deck of the huge Pan Am 747.

As a representative of Fishing International, Frank hosted a small group of anglers including Dell Brown who was to become one of the most legendary Permit anglers of our time. Later in the trip we hooked up with good friends, Mel and Fanny Krieger.


When we started fishing I ate a huge helping of humble pie. After growing up fishing the Railroad Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork I expected to have no problem whipping those New Zealand trout into shape. After the first three days of not even hooking a fish I was crying the blues. Frank explained the importance of the first cast and he meant what he said. I was used to firing to adjust before firing for effect. This method usually included several casts to get the fly into the trout’s feeding lane. On top of that I was accustomed to casting across and downstream. Getting upstream in this gin clear water was virtually impossible. With these trout it was casting upstream so the trout would see the fly but not your leader and flyline. After a crash course in upstream presentation I finally started hooking some big trout. Spotting big trout in shallow, clear water and watching them come to the fly was really invigorating. Not only that but if you didn’t do it right the trout quickly let you know.

Our group started out the trip fishing with individual guides on a day by day basis much like we do here in Idaho. I didn’t have a guide, partnering instead with Frank, Mel or Fanny. Later we traveled to one of the few actual fishing lodges that had just opened, Cedar Lodge near Wanaka, owned by a charismatic character named Dick Frazer. Almost all of the fishing was fly out with fixed wing aircraft. The flights were sometimes hairy and scary but we experienced some great fishing. Cedar Lodge is still a great lodging option today under new ownership. Instead of fixed wing aircraft they now utilize helicopters.


The New Zealand government’s investment turned out to be a win-win thing for them and for us. Since that initial trip I have taken a number of hosted trips back to this magical place. As Frank had predicted we made money from commissions and from sales of equipment and flies. The downside was that I always had to leave Sheralee at home with our family. Also, the members of our group fished with guides while I was usually on my own. The advantage was that I learned to spot fish and to catch them through my own experience.


One of my most memorable trips was when Jack Dennis, Gary Lafontaine and I hosted a large group of anglers. After completing a tour as the Traveling Fly Fishermen in Australia and fishing few days in Tasmania, we met our group in Taupo, New Zealand. We divided the group into three different lodges. Most of the time we worked directly with our individual groups but we had the opportunity to fish together as well.


It wasn’t until February of 1999 that Sheralee was finally able to accompany me to New Zealand. We hosted 3 couples where we stayed at the Tongariro Lodge on the North Island and both Cedar Lodge and Rotoroa Lodge on the South Island. We had a wonderful time and Sheralee also fell in love with New Zealand. The only misfortune of this trip was when we arrived at the gate in LAX we were informed that there was only one seat available. Since I had reserved two rental cars in my name to transport our group I took the seat leaving Sheralee alone in the airport. She had never traveled outside the country. It was the fault of the airline, not Mike McClelland’s Best of New Zealand travel agency. They quickly jumped in and did whatever possible to solve the problem and Sheralee arrived safely the following day. The first year we were married she lost my best hunting dog. This fiasco leaving her standing alone at the gate in LAX made us even.

Since then I have never gone back without Sheralee. We hosted another trip or two with couples with accommodations and guiding at some of the best fishing lodges in the country. All of the accommodations were very comfortable, the food was superb and the guides were experienced and competent. The only disadvantage was we felt a bit captive with the regimented programs offered by the lodges.


In February of 2015 we elected to try something a little different. We didn’t host a group and struck out on our own. We started out at one of our favorite lodges, the Riverview Lodge located near some of the best large brown trout waters on the South Island. After that we hired guides for a few day trips but mostly we fished on our own. We stayed in motels or whatever other accommodations we could find. Unfortunately it was the busiest time of tourist season and all of the accommodations were full by early afternoon. It was a far cry from the old days when you could show up after dinner and find a nice place to stay. We had some great fishing, usually on the days we hired guides. We also had some difficult days. All in all it was a great trip and we learned a lot.

One thing we learned was to be better prepared. We took our next trip in late January 2017. This time I contacted Mike McClelland. Back in the days of hosted trips I worked with several different agencies in the fly fishing industry. Mike’s company, the Best of New Zealand Fly Fishing, had proven over the years to be the best of the best. I explained that we didn’t want to stay in all-inclusive fishing lodges. We preferred to stay in smaller accommodations with guiding independently arranged on a day-to-day basis. They not only arranged some really first class places but also our rental car and our international and domestic flights. We also spent about a week renting a small cottage that my old friend David Lambroughton located for us in 2015.


The travel time will occupy a good 24 hours each way by the time you leave home and get to your final destination. With this consideration along with the fact that the weather can be very unpredictable you should plan to stay a minimum of 2 weeks. For your first trip you should consider one of several top all-inclusive fishing lodges. I have been to many of these lodges. Each of them offer fine dining, comfortable accommodations, and experienced competent fishing guides. There are great lodges on both the North and South Islands.

If you’re interested in going for the first time I highly recommend you work directly with Mike McClelland’s Best of New Zealand Fly Fishing or Yellow Dog Fly Fishing. We have continued with Mike McClelland because we established a relationship with his company many years ago. Virtually all of the other destination trips we have taken in recent years have been through Yellow Dog Fly Fishing. Both of these fly fishing booking agents have a spotless reputation for making sure every “I” is dotted and every “t” is crossed to the tiniest detail. You can’t go wrong with either of these great companies.

Although we are no longer planning to host trips to this magical place we will be more than happy to help answer any questions you might have to help plan your trip.