A string of coincidences and opportunities brought Derek Grzelewski to New Zealand more than 30 years ago, and he fell into an eclectic mix of vocations, from professional diving to high-rise window cleaning. Then there was his work as a freelance cameraman where his full-immersion tendencies earmarked him for second unit footage (think aerial, underwater, and action sequences). But it’s writing and fly-fishing that kept him so close to New Zealand.
Over the past 25 years, Derek has written for magazines such as New Zealand Geographic, Australian Geographic, Smithsonian, and GEO, as well as fly-fishing stories and books, and his latest release, Fly-Fishing in NZ — what you NEED to know was the focus of our conversation.
But before we delve deeper into the book, let’s take a quick look at how this Polish-born writer found his way to our island nation.
From Poland to New Zealand
Growing up behind the Iron Curtain in the 1960s, Derek found freedom with mountaineering, literally, – and we don’t just throw out that word casually – when he escaped the Communist regime by climbing over the mountains into Slovakia. He made his way to Austria, then the UK, and finally New Zealand. And that’s where he set camp.
Over the years, he developed an all-consuming passion for fly-fishing. Magazine assignments gave him the opportunity to meet some of the best guides this country has and later, Derek took to guiding himself. This Wanaka- and Colorado-based fly-fisherman found New Zealand a thriving base for his passion for both mountains and writing. Fast forward to today, and Derek is a successful writer, filmmaker, explorer, and guide.
“I love diversity, learning new things, getting better, and being the best I can be at what I already know,” says Derek.
“I apply this concept and philosophy to everything I do, whether it’s writing, fishing, or guiding. I’ve recently created this umbrella entity for all the fun things I do and I called it Best Days Only. I was fishing with my wife Jennifer one time and at the end, she said: ‘This was the best day ever!’ And I thought: ‘Let’s make all our days like that – best days only – no matter what we are doing.’ My readers, guests, and clients really respond to this idea. I mean, why wouldn’t you?”
The Trout series
Going back to Derek’s latest release, which comes on the heels of his successful Trout Trilogy: The Trout Diaries, The Trout Bohemia, and The Trout Dreams.
Fly-Fishing in New Zealand – what you NEED to know has information that has been distilled from the skills and experience of some of New Zealand’s best anglers and guides who Derek has had the privilege to fish with.
“To the global fraternity of fly-fishers, New Zealand truly is what the Himalayas are to the mountaineers – the absolute pinnacle of the sport, a holy land with innumerable shrines,” says Derek.
“Fly-fishing is not difficult, but it is complex and there are plenty of ‘experts’ out there who insist on making it even more so. I wrote this book to describe what the key things are which a fly-fisher needs to know and what is optional. The underlying principles are universal and can apply to fish other than trout. You just have to tweak a few details.
“Fly-fishing is an evolving concept so there’s always more to learn and that’s one of its enduring attractions.”
For a novice, Derek’s book is almost like a bible. If you’re unfamiliar with trout and their environment, Derek says your best option is to hire a local guide and “pick their brains.”
“Ask lots of questions and see how they go about fishing. Ask them to show you how they do it. Be prepared to put in the time and effort to apply and integrate the progression of skills.”
Derek adds that often anglers are too focussed on bagging a big catch, thus missing out on the beauty of the sport.
“Too often, in our instant-gratification world, I see anglers so intent on catching above all else, they actually forget to fish. It is as if the trout was not a fish but some kind of proof and validation of their self-worth. And so, obsessed about the destination, they miss out on the journey, with all its infinite beauty and nuances.
“In fly-fishing, there are no shortcuts worth taking so enjoy the journey as it unfolds before you – the learning, the fishing, the catching; the people you meet, the places fly fishing takes you.”
Derek’s top tips for fly fishing include:
- to go slow – approach your fishing water as if seeing it for the first time and slow down to the pace of the water
- observe, observe, observe – the greatest skill is the ability to observe what’s going on in and above the water, and adapt the approach accordingly. You’ll see on the river almost all the information you need to catch the fish around you
- polish up all aspects of the craft – skills, gear, knowledge of habitats, fish food sources, and flies – then let the water do its own magic.
Go-to-Fly Fishing spots in New Zealand
Derek says choosing where to fish depends on how you like to fish, with fitness, eyesight, and general outdoorsmanship also weighing in.
“The all-including beauty of fly fishing is that it allows for many different styles and approaches, which become a reflection of the personalities and attitudes of the anglers who pursue them,” says Derek.
“Whichever path you choose, if you’re fly fishing for trout in New Zealand, you’re in for a lifetime of pleasure and excitement, learning and exploration.”
“Even if there were no other trout waters in New Zealand, the Taupo region alone would be enough to give the country its international reputation of an outstanding fishery.
“Lake Taupo is the hub of a large and robust trout ecosystem. It offers year-round fishing, predominately for rainbow trout, but there are also trophy browns around and in good number if you’re prepared to put in the time and effort.”
“In the headwaters of the Buller River, with Nelson Lakes, Murchison, and Inangahua as gateways, you’re truly in the epicentre of brown-trout sight-fishing action.
“There are more fishing guides working out of Nelson area than in any other part of the country, a fact that should alert you to just how significant the region is on the New Zealand trout map.”
The West Coast
“Everything on the Coast is a grade or two harder so this is not a place for a casual drive-by angler. “Frequent rains and sandflies are also a deterrent and, even on sunny days, dedicated sight-fishers can be plagued by poor visibility, which results from convective cumulus clouds. “Perseverance, however, can pay off handsomely, as on the Coast, you can catch some of the largest and prettiest trout you’ll find anywhere in the world, and the wild scenery only magnifies such experience.”
With six books out now (The Trout Trilogy, Going to Extremes, The Smallest Continent, and What you NEED to know), Derek recently moved to Colorado, which is where his wife is from.
“For all the bad press America gets, it is still a huge, diverse and amazing place – each state is like its own different and distinct country,” he says.
“When international travel is happening again, we’ll surely come back to New Zealand for a part of the trout season but for now, there is a lifetime of exploration to be done here in Murica. This will likely result in a road trip-style book at some point though I’m not rushing the process.
“To have something meaningful to write about, you first got to have lots of adventures and experiences and so this is where my attention is now – more best days only in the Rocky Mountains and beyond.”
You can find out more about Derek’s work and adventures on the writer’s website DerekGrzelewski.com.
Fly-Fishing in New Zealand – What you NEED to know (Bateman Books) is in book shops now.