Lord of the Flies

On New Zealand's South Island, mouse-eating brown trout can grow to 15 pounds, reports EVAN MCGLINN. And Lake Rotoroa Lodge is the place to catch them.

Every seven years or so, deep in the woods of New Zealand's South Island, something savage happens—a spectacle of nature that locals refer to as a mouse year. It all begins with the beech trees. After a particularly hot summer the beeches produce larger than usual flowers, which in turn shed millions of seeds onto the forest floor. In a feeding frenzy, mice devour them like bonbons—or rather, Viagra tablets, since the seeds are said to act as a kind of aphrodisiac. The population explosion that follows sends many of the rodents off in search of new, less-crowded quarters. And that's when the trouble starts.

The mice, sated and delirious with lust, dive recklessly into lakes and rivers, hoping to find peace and quiet. Instead they encounter brown trout roaming the rivers like great whites, gobbling up the rodents whole. As a result of this high-protein diet, the trout grow to world-record size, more than 15 pounds in some cases. Just how many mice a brown trout can consume at a time isn't known (90 percent of all backcountry New Zealand trout caught are released), but in one published report a zoologist describes cutting open the stomach of a badly injured seven and a half-pound brown trout: It had swallowed 13 mice.

Even without a steady supply of mice, the trout swimming the country's rivers, particularly in the northern region of the South Island, are preternaturally hearty. In fact, these rivers constitute one of the best habitats for fish on earth: Fed by glacial waters, they are crystal clear and unpolluted, and rarely flood. Mayflies, ants, beetles, crayfish, and other trout favorites abound. Add to this the fact that New Zealand is that rare habitat devoid of the fish's natural predators. There are no bears, no ospreys, no eagles. As it happens, this corner of the animal kingdom knows few perils—which is remarkable given that the country is only 1,000 miles southeast of Australia, a continent with one of the highest densities of lethal critters on the planet. Australia's inland taipan snake, for example, delivers enough venom to kill more than 100 people. In New Zealand, though, danger is so scarce that I had a devil of a time tracking down anything deadly. Poring over a report from the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the best I could come up with was the katipo spider, which resembles a black widow and lives near the coast.

With its bountiful waters, New Zealand has more than its share of fly-fishing outposts. You've heard the names Blanket Bay and Huka Lodge (which is on the North Island). But for the fanatic angler such as myself, Lake Rotoroa Lodge is the ultimate place to cast your line. Set seven miles off the main road, 90 minutes south of the Nelson airport, the ten-room gem is within an hour's drive of 26 rivers, and another 18 streams are a 30-minute helicopter ride away.

Built in 1924 out of pine, beech, matai, and rimu wood, the lodge sits at the edge of Lake Rotoroa, a 12-mile-long, 465-foot-deep natural body of water, which drains into the Gowan River. Rotoroa feels the way I imagine a classic Rockefeller camp once did: old-world, sportsmanlike, and totally luxurious. "We wanted to create a nice old hunting lodge that looked like the original article," says Tarquin Millington-Drake, chief operations officer for Shackleton International, which bought the lodge in 2001 and spent $1 million saving it from ruin. "It was a complete nightmare to restore. We had to put on a new roof. There were false walls with rotten beams behind them. Even the survey was inaccurate."

A division of the highly regarded travel outfitter Frontiers, Shackleton operates six of the world's best fishing properties, including a camp on Russia's Ponoi River (which I wrote about in the March/April 2004 issue), Mangrove Cay in the Bahamas, Alaska's Bristol Bay Lodge, and Laxa in Kjos, Iceland. The Eton-educated Millington-Drake oversaw Rotoroa's transformation from crumbling pile to exquisite lodge where a massive red-deer head hangs above one fireplace and antique leather club chairs surround the fully stocked bar.

Staying here is not like staying at an inn. "It's more like a house party where managers are hosts," says Millington-Drake. Dinners are served communally at two large tables (guests can request a private dining room, but then they'd miss the joy of trading tall tales with other anglers), with views of the snowcapped Travers Mountains looming above the lake. On my visit the kitchen prepared a superb peppered fillet of venison with red wine sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and steamed asparagus. The wine cellar—with some 50 New Zealand and Australian vintages, among them a 2000 D'Arenberg "Dead Arm" Shiraz—is also impressive. But you will be spared the tedium of fussing pairings menus and five-course meals. "Three are enough," says Brent Hyde, who manages Rotoroa with his wife, Sharleen. "Our guests are tired at the end of the day." No kidding.

Beyond the abundance of textbook-perfect fishing spots nearby, the fish themselves are astonishing. In 18 years of angling in Montana, I've caught one four-pound trout. Maybe. In a single week here I caught several four-pounders and a couple of bruisers in the six-pound range. No doubt I owe part of my success to Rotoroa's seasoned guides. Most are in their forties and grew up fishing these streams and eddies well before the sport got slicked up with Abel reels and Winston rods and polarized sunglasses (essential for cutting glare on water). My guide was Pete Flintoft, who wore a 14-karat gold nugget—just under an ounce—on a chain around his neck. On his right hand was a gold ring embossed with the image of a trout. When I asked him where he got them, he made it clear he didn't pick them up at a shop in Christchurch. "I used to pan for gold in these rivers," he told me on a hike to one of his secret pools. He mentioned with a smile that his father was a well-known poacher. I got the distinct feeling that Flintoft owned these rivers. His colleague, Scott Murray, was equally as intense. During a day on the Gowan, just a mile from the lodge, he led me through a virtual obstacle course, bushwhacking under low-hanging tree limbs and scrambling over dead logs and slippery-wet river rocks.

Over the past 15 years at Rotoroa, fishermen have caught an average of 3.6 four-and-a-half-pound fish per day—impressive numbers considering that brown trout aren't even native to New Zealand. British settlers, always keen protectors of their sporting pursuits, introduced the species to local waters. (What's more, the mice on which the trout feed are foreign intruders themselves, having arrived as stowaways on British ships.) But there are even bigger lunkers living in the isolated backcountry rivers, and John Part is the man who knows them best. A retired 65-year-old lawyer from London, Part comes to Lake Rotoroa Lodge twice a year and drops several thousand dollars to search for big trout in remote waters reached by helicopter. He has the trophies to prove what sorts of beasts lurk in these secluded mountain streams. In the lodge hang replicas of his two biggest catches (the real fish were released unharmed): a 15-pound and a 16-pound trout so large that I initially thought they were salmon. In all, Part has landed 22 fish more than 10 pounds each. I asked him why he's so dedicated to this pursuit. "I wanted to do something where the skill-to-reward ratio is the highest," he said. "Fishing here is hard because you have to be quick and very accurate." Part has also caught Atlantic salmon in Russia and sea trout in Patagonia. But for him New Zealand has a certain urgency. "I realize my time here is limited because the fishing is so physical."

Inspired by Part's devotion—not to mention his enviable record—I decided to try my hand at a remote stream. On my third day at Rotoroa, I climbed into a Hughes 500E helicopter on the long manicured lawn behind the lodge. Accompanying me were Millington-Drake, Flintoft, and the photographer William Meppem. "How do you like my office?" the pilot, Alan Rosanowski, asked through the headset. Buzzing over the white-headed peaks, I was awed by lush green meadows dotted with sheep and framed by yet more snowy mountain ranges in the distance. As clichéd as the observation has become, I understood why director Peter Jackson chose to film much of The Lord of the Rings here: Surveying such earthly magnificence from on high takes on the quality of cinema, or of dreams.

The Hughes chopper descended onto a river so narrow that it seemed absent of water. Our landing zone was a scattering of river rocks, and I grew concerned that the helicopter's blades might hit the trees on either side. Soon, as I hunched beneath the menacing whir of the blades, I could make out the stream flowing into several long pools separated by huge boulders. The stones in the river formed a mosaic of beiges and grays—perfect camouflage for the browns. I watched as the pilot tilted up the nose of the Hughes and vanished from sight. We were at least a day's trek from civilization.

I'm sworn to secrecy about the location. So let's just say the stream was one of those places where Part makes his jaw-dropping catches. In the glacial water, I could see the trout as clearly as if I were on a bonefishing flat. And even when I couldn't, my guide could. Which is good news for amateurs: The prospect of visually picking out fish is intimidating, even when the water is transparent. When the light is bad or the rocks blend with the color of the trout, you need all the help you can get.

For the next eight hours, Pete and I methodically sight-fished for trout. I watched in amazement as big browns occasionally swam from their lies to eat my tiny No. 16 dry flies and small nymphs. After a good fight, we would release the hook and ease our catches back into the water. It was the first time in my life that I was able to watch these magnificent fish in their natural environment. I didn't happen to spot any 16-pounders that particular day, but I didn't mind. Doing some quick math—I'm 42 and my son, Jack, is six months old—I figured I would be back when I'm 60, still plenty spry to hire a helicopter to take my 18-year-old boy and me to this wild and untrammeled terrain. As I plodded upstream, I wondered what the world—and this river—would look like in 17 and a half years. Would John Part's 16-pound brown still be out here somewhere, longer and stouter than ever? Maybe I'll be back sooner.

EVAN MCGLINN LAST WROTE ABOUT SILVER ENGRAVERS FOR THE NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2004 ISSUE.

WHEN TO GO Fishing season runs from October through April and is predominantly nymphing year-round (although there's dry-fly fishing, too). The most popular time to visit Rotoroa is from January to March, but the time for serious anglers to go is the early part of the season, when the trout are still relatively unfished. Most guests stay five nights.

HOW TO GET THERE From Nelson airport, the lodge is 90 minutes by car or 15 minutes by helicopter (which can be arranged ahead of time). Air New Zealand flies to Nelson from Los Angeles through Auckland.

WHAT TO BRING A dark-colored rain jacket and polarized sunglasses are essential. The lodge provides all other equipment, but especially keen fishermen should bring their own rod and reel.

RATES AND RESERVATIONS $390 per person a night. Book through Shackleton International, 800-772-7479; www.lakerotoroalodge.com.