Flies from Middle Earth

Flies from Middle Earth

New Zealand trout specialties

  • By: Darrel Martin

Peter Jackson, a New Zealander, filmed the Lord of the Rings trilogy on his country’s North and South Island. The beauty of the landscape depicted throughout the films—the land called Middle Earth— was not cinematic trickery, as you’ll know when you fish there. Here is a land of beautiful rivers where you earn every wild brown caught in the clear, shallow waters.

Divided along its length by the Southern Alps, South Island has shadowy forests, craggy country, scrub bush and peaks—some over 12,000 feet—that scrape rain from the clouds. And, at Ohakune, beneath the rocky slopes of Mt. Ruapehu, that raspy-voiced Gollum caught his “fisshes.” Although I was a stranger to Middle Earth, perhaps I could do as well in this land of fast-flowing, freestone rivers as clear as chalk streams.

South Island is famous for its difficult trout in clear, thin water. Abrupt movement, pattern splash, rod flash and conspicuous clothing can kill a stalk. Holding large, wild browns in heavy current on a tender tippet shakes the soul. Then add stiff winds that skew casts, cold rain, few insect hatches, fine tippets and, occasionally, sparse trout. South Island angling can always be a challenge and the weather, during my recent stay, was unseasonably rough. The indigenous Maori call New Zealand Aotearoa, commonly translated as The Land of the Long White Clouds. And those clouds hung on the deck.

After wading through swift waters, stumbling over rock-strewn river beds and long trudges down abrupt canyons, I sensed that New Zealand might be no place for old men. Yet, the moment that I spotted a large, lovely brown, all was forgiven.

At Springs Junction in the Southern Alps, I met Barry and Ali Jaggar, owners and operators of the modest but gracious Western Rivers Lodge. Here Barry would guide me on many of the local quality rivers, such as the Inangahua and the Maruia. Yet, a glance in his fly box was puzzling. Most of the patterns were old friends—the Adams, the Humpies, the Pheasant Tails and the Blue-winged Olives. Where were the New Zealand patterns? Although New Zealanders use a wealth of international fly patterns, both British and American, there are, in fact, a few indigenous ones. Here is a look at four natives: Parsons’ Glory, Mrs. Simpson, Hamill’s Killer and Jaggar’s Nymph.

The Matuka Style
The Matuka (or more properly Matuku) is Maori for the Australasian bittern whose mottled brown and buff feathers created the first pattern. Allegedly, shaggy Kiwi feathers were also used. Both birds are now protected. Modern substitutes include grizzly, especially the pale, honey-barred feathers, Cree, furnace and banded Coq de Leon feathers.

The Matuka method, specifically two or more feathers matched and mounted upright on the body with ribbing, is uniquely New Zealand. The ribbing spirals forward catching the feather stems to create the over-wing. Both cock and hen hackles are used, but the webby hen hackle with a round tip is generally preferred when available. Matuka variations—such as an “Imperial” version that adds jungle-cock eyes—are legend and too numerous for inclusion here.

But the Parsons’ Glory is one that we must examine. Created by Phil Parsons, who farmed alongside the Meeanee River on North Island, the fly is an iconic Matuka pattern that imitates smelt, whitefish, fingerling trout and cockabully, a small native fish. Matukas are used in the large North Island lakes, such as Taupo and Rotorua, as well as the lakes and estuaries of South Island. A standard Parsons’ Glory wears a red tail, fine gold oval tinsel, pale yellow chenille body and two to six (or more) honey-barred or Cree hackles. Even the Parsons’ Glory has profuse mutations, including various colored over-wings.

The tying is simple, except for one snag. The problem arises when the ribbing spirals through the feather barbs. To spiral the ribbing through the barbs, three things must be done: the feather over-wings must be held down, the barbs opened at the proper positions and the ribbing passed through the openings. My solution is simple. I thread the ribbing twice through the eye of a needle. Now, I can hold the wings in position as the needle opens the barbs above the hackle stems and pulls the ribbing through. I merely “sew” the hackle stems down.

The Killer Style

The first Killer pattern, believed to be the Lord’s Killer, came from the early 1930s in New Zealand. Lord’s Killer had a woodcock feather body and a black squirrel tail. The full feathers are mounted, concave to concave, on each side of the hook shank. To thwart feather splay, any shank body, such as chenille, must be slender. For this reason, colored thread or flat tinsel often replaces the chenille.

Many tiers merely omit the body altogether, as it is concealed beneath the side-feathers. Avoid bulky bodies that splay or flare the feathers. Killer patterns must have feathers straight and flat against the hook shank, otherwise the pattern can twist or spin during the cast or retrieve. Carefully select only those feathers with straight stems and flat vanes. Some tiers crush the stem base flat for mounting. Body feathers include mallard, grouse, pheasant, wood duck and partridge. The Killer style produces a large prey image, but when taken by a trout, merely crumples into a hook. If large feathers are stacked, three or more on each side, then the pattern become less compressible and virtually weedless. The Killer, like the Matuka, may prove useful for bass and pike. Best of all, tying the Killer style is quick, simple and effective.

The Mrs. Simpson, presumably named for the Duchess of Windsor, is an excellent introduction to the Killer style. The tying materials are common: all that is required is cock pheasant rump and black squirrel tail. As the underbody is masked, the traditional chenille body may be omitted. The pattern is popular in New Zealand, South Africa and England. Claimed to be the best fly invented for southern-hemisphere trout, it should be more popular in the northern hemisphere. The number of wings varies: some long-shank patterns may have 18 rump feathers (three sets of three on each side). Mount the feathers, one pair or stacked set at a time on each side of the hook shank, starting at the rear and moving forward toward the head.

A small hook may require only four feathers, two on each side; longer hooks, however, may require three, four or five stacked sets. Moreover, a stacked set may be two or three feathers, depending on how full and large the particular pattern. The feather used for a traditional Mrs. Simpson is the bronze or blue-green rump feather rather than the gothic or arched “church window” feathers found near the upper back. However, for dramatic contrast, “church windows” may be used.

When mounting full feathers, avoid wrapping only on the stem. Wrapping only on the stem encourages the feathers to rotate or twist. Instead, overwrap a minute section of the base vane itself. This avoids skewed or flared feathers. This small maneuver makes a significant difference in the final pattern. Developed for large still-waters, the Mrs. Simpson is used in casting, trolling and harling (when the boat drifts with the current at the same speed as the fly).

Hamill’s Killer is another popular Killer pattern. Mount the side-feathers as directed for the Mrs. Simpson. Most tiers omit the original yellow wool body, which is concealed beneath the side-feathers. The original also wore a short, golden pheasant tippet “overtail.” For body color, yellow tying thread may be used. The body-feathers can hide much of the hook, exposing only the point and spear. Although the original had olive dyed partridge body feathers, dyed olive mallard is now common.

Hamill’s Killer imitates many large cryptically colored trout foods, such as dragonfly nymphs, large beetles or various baitfish. Like the Mrs. Simpson, Hamill’s Killer may wear 18 feather tips, tied in three layers of three sets overlapping along the shank. The pattern lacks ribbing and hackle.

A Native Nymph

Barry Jaggar developed this eclectic nymph for South Island browns. This pattern is often used as a dropper in conjunction with a size 14 Parachute Adams. The essential problem with a weighted nymph, Barry believes, is the splashy water entry. The Adams softly parachutes the nymph down to avoid spooking fish.

Jaggar’s Nymph is designed (with weight distributed along the full shank) to drift horizontally much like a natural nymph, rather than sink head first like a bead-head nymph. Part of its patrimony comes from the popular New Zealand nymph the Hare and Copper, an absurdly simple and effective pattern of hare dubbing and copper ribbing. Furthermore, the Jaggar blends two effective patterns: the Pheasant-tail and the Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear. The abdomen is akin to the Pheasant-tail Nymph and the thorax the Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ear. This pattern, an excellent offering for selective trout, takes what is best from a variety of sources and styles.

While in New Zealand, other oddities caught my attention. The Bushtailed Possum (Trichourus vulpecular), an exotic pest that destroys forests and kills native birds, is trapped in the wild and harvested for the garment trade. Unfortunately, only a few fly patterns use this fur.. The silky, plush pelts—a lovely cream, black, brown, gray—are apparently too soft for most patterns.

And the curious cicada, a chubby insect with a shrill stammer and swift scurry, is widely dispersed throughout New Zealand. They hatch during hot, dry, midsummer days and are fortuitously blown onto the waters. Patterns are usually made from spun deer hair or foam (such as Elvira's Cicada, above, from Solitude Flies www.solitudefly.com). No other country has such devotion to cicada patterns. Even now, I recall a wild brown bulging and rising, creating water rings. And for me, he was the lord of those rings.

New Zealand is a land of dramatic landscapes and strange creatures. It is craggy elf country and dark, tangled forests. It is a country of creative patterns and some of the most beautiful streams in the world.