Somewhere in the darkness, six pounds of angry trout took exception to the sting of the hook and headed for the far side of the lake. My cold, clumsy fingers tried to add some order to the rapidly disappearing flyline coiled loosely in the water beside me. As the fish departed, the swish and rattle of line against runners was suddenly drowned out by the scream of the reel!
Finally, mercifully, the fish stopped. Gaining some semblance of control, I backed up the beach, frantically winding the tiny reel to keep tension as the trout changed direction. The faint moonlight played on a satisfying bow in the bucking rod. I peered into the night, my eyes following the shadow of the line to the water. Where was he? The answer came as a massive tail thrashed the water to foam and ignited the next run. I had been expecting it. My hand came clear of the handle just in time, then sensing him tire I applied my palm to the base of the reel.
When he stopped again, we were still attached and the odds had swung in my favour. With increasing pressure, I guided him towards me, ever wary of the run that would come when he first hit the shallows. It came, of course, but still I held on. Slowly, ever so slowly, the trout turned sideways and I moved him towards the bank. As his head came clear I took my chance and surfed him towards the beach. I was past the point of no return, a fraction more power would have him in range of my wader-clad foot and I would flick him thrashing up onto the sand.
It took me an eternity to comprehend what happened in that last millisecond of action. Suddenly, the short, wet length of flyline between rod and fish was around my head and shoulders. Everything went quiet as the pressure came off. The hook had pulled! The inch-long smelt-fly seized the side of my rain jacket hood, and the trout seized the moment. As I dropped my rod in the sand and flung myself desperately at the water, that big, beautiful bar of silver, shining in the moonlit shallows, flicked its tired fins and swam slowly into the dark.
An expletive pierced the night silence! Then another, louder this time. Muffled laughter emanated from the shadowy figures lined like fence posts along the rip. I sank into the sand. More laughter, not so muffled, preluded a crude reference to my country of birth from my unseen Kiwi mates, still fishing the dark water. I resisted the temptation to give them some advice of their own as I turned my attention to untangling my equipment.
It was then that I noticed my hands were trembling uncontrollably and my heart was pounding as though it might burst from my chest at any moment. I had that shaky, weak, hard-to-describe feeling that follows a massive adrenaline rush. I put my gear aside and savoured the moment. The fact that the fish was gone no longer mattered. I realised that this feeling was the reason I went fishing. This feeling was what drove me back time and time again. And this feeling was the very reason I had come to New Zealand.
The hideaway homeland of our cousins from ‘across the ditch’ is definitely a place every Victorian trout angler should visit. It makes a lot of sense too, not only because the angling is superb, but because it is so accessible. You won’t need a guide if you don’t want one, it’s close (closer than Perth) and it’s cheap. With discount airfares, and sharing other costs with a friend or two, visiting Victorians could get out of a week long fishing trip for around a grand. But be prepared: you might never be satisfied with Victorian trout fishing again!
Between 1995 and 2002 I lived in the Shaky Isles, working and fishing in the North Island. In that time, I sampled many of the flyfishing delights this beautiful country has to offer. I cast a fly in gin-clear high-country streams, bush-clad mountain lakes, even the smelly shallows of Lake Rotorua. For sheer quality and quantity of fish, however, the magnificent Taupo fishery is unmatched anywhere in the country, possibly the world. The fishery is dominated by the seemingly endless expanse of the huge lake, and the mighty Tongariro River has earned worldwide acclaim.
For me though, the most exciting fishing is to be had at the mouths of the smaller rivers and streams that feed Lake Taupo. At these stream mouths a rip is formed where the outflowing water hits the still water of the lake. Here, at times, trout gather in their hundreds, perhaps thousands, providing what must surely be one of the greatest trout flyfishing opportunities on the planet.
Trout can be taken from these rips all year round, but most success comes in the summer months. Early in summer and beyond Christmas, the trout are chasing smelt – small fodder fish introduced to supplement the ravenous diet of the trout – that come into the shallows to spawn. Later, the trout gather to commence their own upstream spawning runs. No matter the reason for their presence, when trout swarm in the rips they provide fantastic opportunities for the shore-based flyfisher from November until at least April.
Streamer flies designed to imitate smelt can deceive the trout. There are many patterns available, and every angler has their favourite. I’ve found there is no substitute for experimentation. If you’re not hitting fish, change your fly and change it often – even the subtlest change can be the difference between a great night out and getting skunked. Luminous flies and silicon flies, or a combination of both, have become very popular for night fishing, although some traditionalists spurn them as being unsporting. Personally I’m attracted to the eclectic mix of modern materials and primeval sport, and besides that – they work! If you are using lumo, recharge it with a torch or camera flash every five or six casts. I’ve been hit first cast after a charge-up too many times for it to be a coincidence! You won’t catch a brown on a lumo though, as they’re far too cunning for that!
Any time of day can produce fish but the hours of darkness are the best, when the fish venture up over the lip of the rip and into the shallows. If you hook into trout before dark, you could be in for a great session! By law you must stop fishing in Taupo at midnight, then you can start again at 5am. The magical pre-dawn hour between 5 and 6am can be the most productive of all. It is truly captivating to be waiting on the beach for the stroke of 5, watching dozens of undisturbed trout jumping and splashing in the faint glow of the moon. Likewise, slowly retrieving your fly up a rip in total darkness on a beautiful night, knowing there could a trout cruising by only feet away, is a special experience.
For me, fishing the Taupo rips is flyfishing stripped to its bare bones. Stripped of its mystery, stripped of its intrigue and its poncy image, stripped right down until all that’s left is raw, adrenaline pumping excitement. There are no English chalk streams around here. No tapered leaders, no need for finesse or delicate placement, no need to pussyfoot along as if you’re stalking a deer. Just plenty of chances to roll up your sleeves and fight dirty with big, wild Kiwi trout.
Some days, some rare but glorious days, the fishing simply has to be experienced to be believed. The rip boils with feeding trout as they herd schools of terrified smelt into the shallows and cut them to shreds. On those days, the biggest problem is deciding which section of this aquatic restaurant to cast to. Every cast produces a hook up with a marauding trout that smashes your fly like it hasn’t seen a smelt for a week. Yet, when you beach a fish, dozens of smelt spill from their mouths, still wriggling, onto the sand. They are literally stuffed to the gills and you wonder how they could possibly have room for more. It’s a feeding frenzy akin to that of saltwater pelagics like tailor, and the vast expanse of the lake can indeed make you forget you’re in freshwater!
It’s not always like that of course. Some days, just when you think you’ve got them sorted, the trout won’t co-operate. Oh, they’re there alright, they always are. It’s just that they’re not in the mood. On these nights all you take home is a small piece of sanity gleaned from an all-too-brief break from an insane world. That’s the thing about fishing – time is never wasted.
Usually though, at least some fish will come to the fly. Almost always they will catch you unawares, when your mind is in neutral and you’ve long given up thinking about when the action might start. Your mind is miles away, your cast and retrieve almost robotic. That is when they will jolt you back into reality. Beautiful reality!
One such morning, when the fishing had been hard, the sun came up and the fish went down. One by one the anglers left the water, until only myself and one other were left. He was an older gentleman, a talkative chap, and we soon started to chat. “Have you fished all your life?” I asked him. “Not yet” he replied – and laid out another cast. Sort of sums it up really!
The dominant fish in the Taupo fishery is the rainbow trout. Originally from California, these trout were introduced into Taupo waters in 1898. There are also brown trout though they are less common.
Populations of both species are self-supporting, and generally there are no trout released into Taupo waters. Expect to catch fish weighing 3 to 6 pounds, but be prepared for much larger specimens – 10 pounders are not uncommon!
New Zealand’s largest lake, Lake Taupo is a magnificent, crystal clear lake, located smack in the centre of the North Island. It is the area of Singapore, and as deep as the MCG is long.
The main river flowing into the lake is the Tongariro, but there is a plethora of smaller rivers and streams flowing in all around the shore. Streams of note include the Waitahanui, Tauranga-Taupo, Waimarino, Kuratau, Whareroa and Kinloch, but the mouth of any inflowing stream, from the largest river to the smallest drain, can provide spectacular fishing when conditions are right. Wharewaka Point and Kuratau Spit are also renowned smelting grounds. Be prepared to move around the lake to escape the wind if necessary.
Legal limits and local regulations
The minimum legal size limit for trout taken within the Taupo fishery is 45cm. Yes, 45cm! Three such fish may be taken on any one day.
All lake waters, most stream mouths and some parts of the larger rivers (e.g. the lower Tongariro) are open all year round. Most rivers and stream mouths are flyfishing only.
The Taupo fishery is not covered by the national New Zealand-wide licence. An annual Taupo licence costs $68, but monthly, weekly and daily licences are also available.
Any fly designed to imitate smelt will be successful at the Taupo stream mouths. Common favourites include Parson’s Glory, Grey Ghost, Mallard Smelt, Ginger Mick, Doll Flies and Silicon Smelt. Luminous versions of Doll Flies and Silicon Smelt are very effective at night. When things are quiet, try a booby fly on a short trace and a sinking line, way out the back of the rip.
Make sure your equipment is heavy enough to handle these big fish: take at least a 7-weight rod with matching line. Often a floating line is all you will need, but in deeper water or in bright conditions, a fast sinking line can improve success. A good compromise is a sink-tip line. Shooting heads are used by some stream mouth specialists for extra distance when the fishing is hard.
For most situations, use a flat 3-metre trace of 10 to 12 pound monofilament. This heavier line resists tangles better, and helps prevent breakages from unseen wind knots.
Only experimentation can provide the answer to the best technique on any particular occasion. The basics are to cast out – across the current when there is room, but straight out down the rip will do – then retrieve the fly in an erratic fashion, 6 or 12 inches at a time. Allow enough time after casting for the fly to sink to the appropriate depth.
One note of caution: on the backcast, these large flies come flying out of the darkness at tremendous speed. The damage they could do to an eye doesn’t bear thinking about. Extreme care should be taken; employing a somewhat round-arm action is prudent!
The best option for Victorian visitors is to fly Freedom Air to either Hamilton or Palmerston North from A$528 including taxes. The airfares are cheaper (check prices at www.freedomair.com) and these cities are significantly closer to Lake Taupo than the main international gateway of Auckland. A car can then be hired for travel to the lake.
Tackle and licences
Fly and Gunn (Hunting & Fishing NZ), 34 Heu Heu St, Taupo +64-7-378 4449
This Sporting Life, The Mall, Turangi +64-7-386 8996
Barry Greig’s Sporting World, The Mall, Turangi +64-7-386-6911
Sportsman’s Lodge, 15 Taupehi Rd, Turangi +64-7-386-8150 (rooms with shared kitchen)
Club Habitat, Ohuanga Rd, Turangi +64-7-386-7492 (hostel rooms, cabins and camping)
Taupo Motor Camp, 15 Redoubt St, Taupo +64-7-377-3080 (cabins and campsites)
Mototere Bay Holiday Park, State Highway 1, Turangi +64-7-386-8963 (campsites)
Cambridge Car Hire (+64-7-823-0990) has cheap reliable cars that they will deliver to Hamilton International Airport. The other major rental companies are also available.
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