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.

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