Monday 20 May 2013

Tongariro and Poronui, NZ, Pt 3, December 2012

Georgina Swan plays a nice rainbow trout; Poronui guide,
 Craig Aspinall, attempts to net
There are plenty of stories about the wonders of sight casting to big New Zealand trout, and the joys of heli-fishing in remote wilderness country, but can the average flyfisher actually cut it or is it really a level too high. Sydney husband and wife team, MIKE GEE and GEORGINA SWAN, took up up the challenge. This is the third and final part of the feature.


A typical Waipunga River run
DAY THREE bloomed moody and stayed that way. The sun poked through between bouts of scudding white puffy clouds and grey-capped stillness. Craig decided it was a good day to tackle the Waipunga River, a tributary of the Mohaka about 30 kilometres up State Highway 5, and good 60 minute walk upstream.

It is a river of extremes, caught for much of the distance we covered between towering cliffs and forests. The wind eddies and curls, one moment in your face, the next at your back, before falling away to dead calm around the next bend. It isn't a big river but it is a perfect trout river. 

Long riffles, big pools, stony bottoms, dead timber lining drop offs. It comes as no surprise that the Waipunga has one of the highest densities of trout per kilometre on North Island.

A nice 4lb Rainbow hen for Georgina ...
and a happy guide
A word of warning though: it requires a fair amount of wading and crisscrossing from bank to bank. We were lucky in that water was quite low which made it easier to wade but Craig warns it flows much higher and can be very difficult to get far up at all. Its waters flow fast even at moderate levels.

Craig was intent on sight casting to trout and Georgina struck early in a nice deep pool when a rainbow hen of better than 4 pounds obliged by taking a hare'n'copper beadhead and running downstream before thoughtfully beaching herself.

Swimming the fish
I should have had an even bigger fish which swirled incessantly beneath a brown beadhead nymph, before a change of depth driven by a switch to a bigger beadhead made its mind up. Craig was calling it up from the depths but I anticipated his call to strike too early. The result was a puzzled trout looking up at a rapidly disappearing fly. Craig shed a few more hairs.

A couple more big fish were disinterested and we managed to spook another two. But there was still plenty of fun to be had. Between us we caught five 'pannies', perfect pan-sized rainbows with bodies like little footballs, which took off with abandon, flipped, flopped, tail-walked, splished and splashed before running out of steam and submitting to the indignity of having a fly removed from their mouths.

Craig couldn't understand why Georgina and I considered this so much fun.
A typical small Waipunga Rainbow for Mike
In New Zealand, trout don't seem to count until they are at least 45 centimetres, but for Australian mountain stream fishers like us there's an absolute joy in catching these little scrappers.

So six for the day, three each and a bundle more missed. But somewhat surprisingly the moment I will always remember had nothing to do with fish; flashing across the sky, high above this wild river, a pair of very rare New Zealand Bush Falcons reminded us that here in these towering ancient forests they are making their stand for survival.

A raft of the endangered Blue Duck ... fantastic
Earlier we had the pleasure of seeing two separate rafts of the also endangered Blue Duck which is endemic to New Zealand – 15 in all, and a hint that the country's conservation program is working for this rare shelduck.

To see the falcons though, well, that was special.

So this was our North Island adventure. We proved that wilderness fishing is not just the pursuit of mad British actors or men who began their fly fishing story with cane and enter the twilight with nano carbon lightweights slung over their shoulders.

Georgina fishes with an
Innovator HLS 9ft 6wt rod
 matched with a Greys
G-Tec 350 
Our New Zealand fly fishing tale has just begun and we intend to write many more chapters. It would be remiss not to thank our guide, Craig Aspinall, a man whose own fly passion is night fishing; he put us on the fish day in, day out, and made this part of the story possible.

Also to everybody at Poronui, especially Lodge Manager, Eve Reilly  and head guide, Grant Petherick, all we can say is that the time on the river was equalled by the time away from it. And that is just as important.
The final night's dinner in the underground wine cellar was unforgettable (check out the gallery linked above for photos).

We have already returned to the Tongariro and Whanganui rivers since this trip and that report is up next on The Wet & The Dry

There were plenty of line-busting big rainbows and dozens of smaller trout to be caught. We ended up with 44 in three days of incredible fishing in near perfect Autumn conditions!

Georgina and Mike with Poronui Lodge
 manager, Eve Reilly
And we'll introduce you to legendary New Zealand guide, Ken Drummond, one of the nicest guys in the business.

See you on the rivers. The trout are waiting.

Mike Gee is a dual Walkley Award winning journalist, author and editor. Georgina Swan is a multiple award-winning journalist, editor and communications expert. They work to fish.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Tongariro and Poronui, NZ, Pt 2, December 2012

Mike Gee with a beautiful Mystery Creek rainbow around the 5.5lb mark 

There are plenty of stories about the wonders of sight casting to big New Zealand trout, and the joys of heli-fishing in remote wilderness country, but can the average flyfisher actually cut it or is it really a level too high. Sydney husband and wife team, MIKE GEE and GEORGINA SWAN, took up up the challenge. This is part two of a three-part feature.


DAY TWO dawned  as a perfect blue sky day for heli-fishing. Our destination was a river known throughout the Taupo region as ‘Mystery Creek’ – a 15-minute chopper ride from Poronui. Craig promised sight fishing to big rainbows. Better still – it hadn’t been fished for seven weeks.

As ranges rise and fall away at your feet it’s easy to forget fishing for a while and just wonder at wilderness New Zealand. There’s a lot of it. Only four million people stretched across two islands. Amid the forests and peaks, valleys caress the hillsides and rivers shimmer blue and white through its deserted heart. The odd deer scrambles up a mountainside as the chopper’s blades catch its attention. On a bad day it would be the most inhospitable of places; on this day it was perfect.

Mystery Creek from the air
Mystery Creek is a mostly shingle bottomed river that hugs some relatively low (by New Zealand standards) cliffs and meanders easily walked scrub and grass covered flats. It is literally in the middle of nowhere. Its water does run gin-clear and the fish are as big as the legends say they are.

It does have a name but the Poronui guides like to keep it under their hats. I could tell but I won’t.

This is what sight fishing to rainbows is all about. We spent the better part of seven hours working our way down to the helicopter pick up point and it was never less than challenging but well within the reach of the trout fisherman who can cast consistently and with some distance.

Mike stalks - and catches ... a scale
Because of the gin-clear water casts of up to 50 metres are necessary some of the time and they need to lay nicely on the water otherwise some – not all – of the fish spook.

My first catch of the day was a scale. It’s the first time I’ve brought in a scale. Close, but too slow on the strike. The weight was there for a few seconds; that surge for the bottom of this modest riffle. Then gone. Still, it was enough to boost the confidence. And I've still got the scale tucked away ... err, somewhere.

After spooking a couple, Georgina delivered what I consider the best moment in her trout fishing career. The rainbow was swimming in a lovely stretch of deep water abutting a moss and plant-covered cliff face; patrolling its beat it moved regularly up and down. 

Georgina Swan hooks the first trout
You don’t even have to catch them when you can watch trout like this just doing what comes naturally.

So after a little stalking, Georgina was in position as the trout headed off upstream. Just before it turned she plopped the blowfly imitation down behind it. The sound was audible from metres away. To the trout it must have been even louder. It turned and sighted the source of the noise and moved with supreme confidence and languid grace towards its target. That large mouth opened and sucked the fly in. Craig didn’t even have to call strike. Georgina held her nerve, counted one-two-three and struck.

The battle was relatively short but worthy of such a fish. At least five pounds, perhaps six, he was a glorious beast of a rainbow.

Hard to pick who was happiest .. our guide Craig Aspinall or Georgina  
Half-an-hour later she landed a second. Again the water was probably no more than 10 metres wide with a pool and a deeper channel cliff-face side. This time the cast and the Tripney blowfly imitation was upstream and a drift down past the fish.

Her third rainbow – on a hare’s ear beadhead from Australia – was taken from a corner pool. This time the drift was much deeper so Craig changed the tippett length and put on a slightly larger beadhead.

Georgina plays out her second fish
It's a good tip for any fly fisher: always think about the depth you need to reach when using a wet and alter what you are presenting to the fish accordingly.

In the meantime, my casting had taken a turn for the better and I’d lost another fish by the narrowest of margins.

Finally though, my moment came. In one of the deeper pools a 5 pound-plus rainbow was actively feeding. We positioned, the cast was good (but not difficult), the fish cruised up, looked and thought better of it. Change of fly; a slightly heavier beadhead to sink further down in the water column; the rainbow had missed it completely the first time. 

And this beauty was her third
Second swim-by and a cast later it didn’t. I struck with conviction – Tongariro Lodge’s Tim McCarthy had constantly emphasised a year earlier: If you are going to strike, strike like your life depends on it. So I did. The jolt of contact fires the adrenalin instantly. This rainbow though didn’t want to sprint, it wanted to deep dive, to roll over and over and to turn back on itself.

Trout have their own ways of dealing with the fly fisherman but if you absorb the tactics you see in the videos, digest the tips in specialist mags, and, most importantly, listen to your guide, you will land at least a fair proportion of the fish you hook.

Oh, and, when in New Zealand - Let It Run. Every guide says that, again and again and again.

Mike celebrates his Mystery Creek rainbow
So a very average trout fisherman had now landed a trout in the Tongariro and Mystery Creek. It’s the stuff of dreams.

Between us, Georgina and I spooked or lost a couple more fish – Georgina just too slow twice on one fish, although after the day she’d had I fancy she had nothing left to prove. But the final act played out in the shallowest of ripples in a section no wider than five metres.

Craig had seen a fish that neither Georgina or I could see but he pointed out the slightly larger rock it was tucked in behind in the riffle. The sun was at the wrong angle so I couldn’t see the Parachute Adams on the water’s surface at all. Just a lot of shimmer and reflection. I took directions and fired off three casts. 

Mike fished with an Orvis Helios #5
Tip Flex with 
an Orvis Mirage #5 reel

 ... the rod suits my casting action
 and both are extra light
The third went straight over its nose apparently. There was nothing delicate about the take. Craig screamed ‘strike’, and next second this truly enraged trout took off across Mystery Creek like a speedboat in overdrive. The white bow wave was entrancing as was its reaction on reaching the far side, where it just flipped and ploughed back the way it had come, passing through the slack as I hastily hauled it in and snapping the line on one of the rocks in the shallows. 
For me, it was just about the best five or 10 seconds of the trip.

The power was breathtaking as was its mad rush for freedom. This was wilderness fishing at its most elemental.

it was a fitting end to a day that lived up to everything we had heard about heli-fishing in New Zealand. It isn't cheap but it is worth every cent. A fly fishing must! And all of the trout we caught are still out there waiting for you.

Mike and Georgina at the end of an outstanding day's fishing

Saturday 4 May 2013

Tongariro and Poronui Pt 1, NZ, December 2012

Georgina Swan and guide Craig Aspinall work up the Mohaka River

There are plenty of stories about the wonders of sight casting to big New Zealand trout, and the joys of heli-fishing in remote wilderness country, but can the average flyfisher actually cut it or is it really a level too high. Sydney husband and wife team, MIKE GEE and GEORGINA SWAN, took up up the challenge.  


There are two defining moments on this journey of discovery: The first was watching a rainbow take my dry fly and in a rage at being hooked storm across a five-metre wide, shallow river, find itself up against a cliff face, and storm back, leaving a bow wave in both directions.

The other was watching my wife drop a perfect cast just behind a large rainbow cruising just below the surface in gin-clear water. Alerted by the plop of the blowfly imitation (one of Stu Tripney’s marvellous flies) it turned and in slow motion slipped up to the dry, opened its mouth and engulfed. You could replay that 15 seconds a million times and never get bored of it.

But we get ahead of ourselves. A little background first. Georgina has been trout fishing since she was four, and fly fishing about 15 years – she can cast a 60m straight line, eight times out of ten; I, on the otherhand, having been introduced to trout fishing (read ‘spinning’) by her a decade ago,  then decided about five years ago that what she could do I could at least have a go at and be on the same page (read ‘competitive’). The result is mildly irritating to guides to say the least: one cast straight 50m, followed by a 15m crash and burn next, and who knows what on the third. I am getting more consistent but slowly.

Until 2011, our experience was in the mountain streams and rivers of NSW, Victoria, and occasionally Tasmania. ,  We’ve caught our fair share of ‘pannies’ and the odd bigger version, most notably my first ever trout on fly – a 47cm brown  - which I plucked from Arthur’s Lake on a day when the wind was blowing a gale, the temperature sat at 6C, Georgina thought we should be back in the hotel but I, dosed up on theory, Greg  French and John Scholes, decided that the wind and waves would force the trout to the water’s edge to search for frogs.  I picked a point where the bay pushed out into the lake that I thought looked perfect, waded 400m out to it, and five minutes later hooked the brown on a black Woolly Bugger with the second of only two straight casts I managed all trip. Georgina while ecstatic at getting me hooked was also less than amused as it beat her best trout on a fly PB at the time.

In 2011, fuelled by stories in flyfishing magazines and a bundle of dreams (read ‘the romance of’), we decided to tackle New Zealand. After much huffing and puffing we decided that North Island’s mighty – and legendary - Tongariro River, should be our focus, and after that we’d do an 8-day discovery drive around South Island. We booked a four nights three-day guided package for December at the highly reputed Tongariro Lodge – warning: these things don’t come cheap, but, then again, nothing good rarely does -  and a campervan for the southern portion.

The result: In pouring rain, we both caught nice 4.5-5lb fish – a brown for me, a rainbow for Georgina - in the Whanganui River under the firm direction of excellent guide, Ken Drummond, and I lost what Ken estimated as a 12lb or perhaps even bigger fish. My casting also nearly had him reaching for a retirement package. Two days under leaden skies on the Tongariro with head guide, Tim McCarthy, produced two nice rainbows for Georgina but a blank for me as my casting fell apart more often than not. Tim looked resigned, more often than not.

South Island was a revelation: We caught fish of 4.5lb to 6lb – on our own – in the Eglington, Mataura, Ahuriri, and a stream we still don’t know the name of. Not a lot – but enough to keep us satisfied. By trip end we had nine – all on nymphs -  between us and lost a few more. I even managed three and on the Ahuriri had one of those days when I got the casting rhythm going and gave myself hope for the future – and a nice 4.5lb rainbow which roared up a channel like a Harley Davidson down an open road.  Georgina’s 6lb rainbow out of the Eglington came from a pool a mere 35m from the main road and reached it’s final act with a bunch of Asian tourists videoing and some ski dudes applauding. Talk about rock star moment.

The Mataura was difficult – the fish can be quite spooky - but there were plenty of browns around and my 5lb fish surprised me and itself when it took a black beadhead nymph on the retrieve!

More importantly, we learnt a lot - enough to want to go back and immerse ourselves in these wonderful rivers and streams. To be good enough to catch fish in those wilderness New Zealand destinations you read about it. But not just on wets – on dry flies to cagey headwaters and back country trout.

Poronui from the air
So we decided to book a four-night, three-day guide package in December at Poronui Lodge, named by Forbes magazine as one of the top 10 fishing lodges in the world.

The modern chapter in the Poronui story began in in 1986 when a small fishing lodge was established on this 16,000-acre century plus old property by Simon Dickie, a former New Zealand rowing cox who won 3 Olympic medals,  two golds and a bronze. The lodge, perched on an outcrop overlooking the Taharua River, soon became world famous for its outstanding fishing.

Dickie helped take New Zealand fly fishing to the world, and as the lodge became more popular he expanded his operation and built the current lodge. Several of the current team still remember those early days including head guide, Grant Petherick, our guide for the duration, Craig Aspinall, and manager Eve Reilly.

In 1998, the property and the lodge business were bought by the Blake Family, the first time both came under the same ownership.  Principal shareholder Mark Blake soon began developing Poronui into a world class facility. The Blake House, Stables, Safari Camp and Game Ranch are all legacies of that era. 

Having completed these projects the Blake Family sold to the current owners, the Westervelt Company of Alabama, and  Poronui is now one of the Westervelt Sporting Lodges. 

Poronui was perfect. It’s simple as that. Expensive, yes, but worth every cent of it. World-class fishing, guiding, food (plus a 10,000 bottle wine cellar!) and company. And the accommodation is magnificent. But the bottom line for us was, of course, the fishing.

We decided to warm up for Poronui with a couple of days on our own in Turangi, fishing the Tongariro again. I don’t think we’ll ever get sick of this extraordinary river. Fifty-plus pools, endless kilometres of ever-changing water. It has a thousand characters and we only know a few. Every time out is a further chance to learn more about the river that author, Zane Grey, made famous back in the 1930s and has drawn everybody from Australian prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and US president, Jimmy Carter, to actors Robert Mitchum, Liam Neeson, Larry Hagman and Timothy Dalton to its shores.

A lovely Tongariro River rainbow
I just wanted to get the monkey off my back. Catching a Tongariro trout is on of the bucket list of every serious flyfisher. This time it took just a dozen casts in an un-named pool 150m down from the road bridge and I had a 3.5lb rainbow on a hairs ear beadhead nymph posing for photos. Relief. Sheer relief. I shook for a minute or two afterwards. I hate flyfishing about 50 per cent of the time (think trees, bushes, wind knots, poor casts, tangles, falling over, falling in),  and adore it about four per cent of the time. About 40 per cent falls under the joy of just being out there in a river, virtually no people, nature, the elements. It’s raw, unproduced, unpredictable life. And the remaining one per cent? It’s as good as it gets.  Maybe even better. It’s why you keep coming back. You just have to experience it to understand it.

Incidentally, Georgina dropped a rainbow in the same pool a little earlier when it decided airborn meant taking off. It was all of 1.5m and more in the air as it shook and shimmied. Dancing queen.

And, a first for us, the sun came out on the Tongariro.

Blue Pool on the Tongariro River
Next day, we hammered the Blue Pool for several hours. Under a sky that couldn’t make its mind up, four trout sat in its depths, placidly gazing at a variety of flies tossed with increasing rapidity of change at them, mostly by Georgina. In desperation, she put on an orange Australian Glo-Bug – the New Zealand version is different! The biggest of the four was in her terms “like a child with a new toy”, fascinated by the bright orange bug as rolled across the bottom, approaching it from very angle, following it along. When I got back from fruitlessly working the nearby riffles, she told me about it and I asked her to show me. Back on went the Glo-Bug. First cast it was ignored. Second cast drifted past the mighty fish’s nose, it moved immediately, repositioned itself and then gently sucked it in. Georgina was on, the trout took off, and then a knot – one she’s tied thousands of times before without a problem - decided it was the perfect time to give.  It is at times like these a flyfishing partner has to enter support mode.

Pouto intake
Later that day, we found some big fish up at the Pouto Intake where the white water rafters put into the Tongariro River. Tim McCarthy had tipped us off on the previous trip that some late post-spawners can sometimes be found in the lovely waters behind the dam.  I dropped one as the light faded; other than that they couldn’t be tempted, despite Georgina’s best attempts.

So to Poronui, about 50 minutes from Taupo, hidden away 21km down a road that leads to very little else. The Taharua River runs through the property, a brown trout fishery with a relatively small number of fish. But as it charges down its valley through the heart of Poronui it hints at what might be.

Remarkably, apart from a few hours at the beginning of day one, the weather performed above par. In fact, our poor guide, Craig Aspinall, he’s been at Poronui 16 years and can see fish where Georgina and I could only see rocks, did it tough that day as he lugged a full pack up hill and down dale through the headwaters of the Mohaka River which is at the heart of Poronui fishing. The temperature went above the mid-20s and the only relief was wading the river itself.

Prey sighted, ready to cast
The Mohaka is a strong river that has a particularly slippery rocky bottom that makes it difficult to wade in some places and like most of the rivers in the area it can change mood from bend to bend. Georgina did the early fishing as we wanted to get her on the board after she emerged from the Tongariro fish-less. At one point she was casting to at least four big fish on a sand bank. They considered her perfectly cast offerings, inspected them and drove Craig nuts as he changed fly after fly to no avail. It’s endlessly satisfying though to see such big fish as kings of their world.

In the net
Salvation , however, wasn’t too far away. Around a bend and Craig’s hand went up. A big brown sat in some rocks no more than a metre, perhaps less, from the shingle bank we were creeping up. Georgina’s second cast from a slight stoop only had to travel 15 metres; the dry drifted past the big bloke perfectly. He turned and idled up behind it, I didn’t see the take but I did see the resultant splash.

Like a true brown he muscled it out up and down stream before Georgina finally had a perfectly-conditioned near 6lb fish in her hands. Georgina describes it as “the highlight of my life”. A perfect fish in a perfect river in the middle of nowhere. And a PB brown on fly.

A magnificent Mohaka River 6lb Brown Trout
The rest of the day we worked up our way up this beautiful river for no more reward, missing a couple and spooking a few more. This wasn’t the Mohaka at its peak but it was an indicator of what it can offer. Incidentally, there is plenty of public access to the mid and lower sections of the river from various roads between Taupo and Napier including the main State Highway 5 but be prepared to walk (or raft or kayak)  for the best beats.

Mike Gee is a dual Walkley Award winning journalist, author and editor. Georgina Swan is a multiple award-winning journalist, editor and communications expert. They work to fish.