Travel Story Lured by a fishing heaven

Photo of Mark Thornton

Flies, lines, trout and picture-perfect settings: the bliss of an angling trip to New Zealand's Lake Taupo.

The first fish I ever caught was a hapless 10cm rabbit fish off a reef near Singapore in 1961 when I was 10. Not only was I amazed to actually catch one, I was stoked by the encouragement of a gorgeous girl four years older than me telling me I was a very clever boy. It was to be the first of many catches around the world — the fish, not the girl.

Six years later in England my father bought me my first fly rod to fish the famous chalk stream the Avon, near Salisbury in Wiltshire. I’ve never looked back. I loved the bucolic setting and the river with its gently flowing gin-clear water where you can see the fish you’re after but have to be very quiet and stealthy to catch it.

I would cast an artificial fly — only dry, or floating, flies were permitted on the Avon — about a metre or two upstream of the fish and hold my breath as the fly floated towards it. Crouched on the bank, I would will the fish to take the fly, every fibre of my body alert, electrified, before sagging down, dispirited, if it didn’t. Sometimes it did take the fly and the next few minutes would be a flurry of barely controlled insanity as it tried to escape which, in my inexperienced early days, it often did.

Even in the 60s the cost of fishing prime trout water was expensive. Now it’s ridiculous. A licence for just one day on the world famous River Test costs $600. In WA good trout fishing is available for just $40 for 12 months. But while the Warren, Donnelly and Blackwood rivers yield good stocked trout, there are not many others. No wonder I listened intently when New Zealand friends spoke of the bountiful rivers “back home”.

In New Zealand the rivers in both the North and South Islands are almost countless. More than 470,000 Australians visit New Zealand each year, that’s 12 per cent of the country’s population, many of them wanting specifically to fish the pristine waters.

I flew into Auckland with three friends, all experienced trout men. We hired an old banger and drove south to Lake Taupo and the village of Turangi where we’d rented a house for a week. We chose Turangi because it’s close to the famous Tongariro, Waimarino and Tauranga Taupo rivers that drain into Lake Taupo. Our group leader, David, had been there before and recommended fishing the famous “spawning run” in the winter months when rainbow and brown trout leave the lake and swim up the rivers to spawn.

Most other New Zealand rivers and streams are closed for spawning to preserve fish numbers between May and October but this doesn’t apply to lower sections of some rivers draining into Lake Taupo, including the Tongariro, because the fish are so numerous.

In places steam issued from fumaroles in the forested hills above the river, a reminder that the Taupo region is still volcanically active. Just 20km to the south west loom the snow-capped but still active peaks of Tongariro National Park. Mt Tongariro last erupted in 2012. The biggest volcano of all is beneath Lake Taupo, which has a surface area of 616sqkm and a depth of 186m. The lake fills the volcano’s caldera, created by a gigantic eruption that occurred 26,500 years ago. The steaming fumaroles suggest Taupo is also only dormant, rather than extinct. The mind boggles.

Anyone who has fished it regards the Tongariro as one of the best trout rivers in the world. The downside is it’s the country’s most fished river and you seldom get a stretch of water to yourself, particularly during a spawning run. It also means there are codes, generally unspoken, governing good behaviour, such as asking quietly if it’s OK to fish a pool if someone else is already doing so. I thought 50m was far enough until I heard a fishing guide bellow “’Ere mate!” Shamed, I splashed downstream while he muttered disparaging remarks to his clients.

Up at dawn we spread out to find our own stretches of river to fish. It was freezing — literally. If I did not cast every 10 seconds or so the line would freeze onto the rod’s line guides. I was amazed the river was actually flowing. I had four layers of thermal clothing under my jacket and waders so was warm enough, just, but it only lasted a couple of hours before I needed to retreat the 200m to our cottage to pile logs on the fire.

On David’s advice we used an orange “glo bug” fly pattern designed to mimic the eggs of spawning fish. Fly patterns change with conditions and the secret is to mimic whatever the fish are feeding on. On clearer water in summer the choice is patterns that imitate whatever insect is hatching at the time, such as midges or May flies. So “glo bugs” are not strictly flies at all, more lures really.

Back on the river again after warming up, I cast above an eddy close to the bank and let my fly wash down into it. A sudden swirl and a fish was on. I was so surprised I almost lost it in the first few seconds by allowing it a slack line, fortunately it was well hooked and after several minutes it came to the net, a fine 2kg rainbow trout, my biggest ever. I returned it unharmed to the water.

Later we attempted to fish the mouth of the Tongariro where trout gather in Lake Taupo waiting for rains to venture up the river. There was no room. It’s such a top spot a “picket fence” of fishermen lines up abreast, the only time such close fishing is permitted. We fished the smaller Waimarino River instead. By the end of the week it still hadn’t rained so the run of fish turned out to be a handful of stragglers. We’d booked the wrong week.

If you fancy your luck fishing these rivers you’ll need a fishing licence costing $36 for a week or $16 for 24 hours. I only caught one fish on that first day, though I saw many in the rivers we fished and hooked several that escaped. No matter. The days passed in a blur of amazement and delight. The views were breathtaking. The rivers, forests and scenery so different from home was picture-perfect. I even forgot the cold.

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