Sunday 12 April 2015

We smash North Island, again: 2 days, 40 trout

Mike fishing a bank run on the Whanganui River


"We outfished the 2008 French World Fly Fishing Championships team, 11-0"

It's becoming a pleasant habit. Fly into Auckland on North Island, New Zealand, at Easter, drive to Turangi, stay at Sportsman's Lodge, hit the mighty Tongariro River and the superb Whanganui River, add in the beautiful Tauranga-Taupo (TT) River, catch a lot of fish, drop a whole lot more, and have some of the best trout fishing you'll ever experience.

This time it was a flying visit over Easter; two-and-a-bit-days, five hours on the Tongariro, three hours on the Tauranga-Taupo and a day on the Whanganui with our mate and guide, Ken Drummond. The weather stayed perfect - 21C days, a little cloud, the odd drizzle over night. And the fish? Over the years we've always asked 'where do the small trout go in New Zealand rivers?' The answer in 2015 is all over the place.

The rivers were literally teeming with little tykes starting at around 10-12cm. They were everywhere: small, crazy hyped-up rainbows. In one hour on the TT, we cast small size 16 dry flies into every possible river scenario: riffles, pools, currents, flat patches, under banks, and no matter where we cast one of these little trout would have a go at the fly. If we had dropped to size 20 or smaller, we could have caught 60 in an hour.

A typical 'tyke' taken from the Tongariro River; they were everywhere in the region
A day later, standing on the banks of the Whanganui, we watched them skipping downstream, hopping out of the water at anything they could imagine might be edible. Even the Tongariro, that most esteemed and difficult of rivers, was full of the little beasts, and amongst them on all the rivers were what Australian fly fishers would call "pannies"- 30-40cm pan-sized trout. It doesn't get much more fun. And, of course, lurking here and there were much bigger fish.

Our first hour hour on the Tongariro was a late afternoon burst just up from the Judges Pool after driving down from Auckland in Easter Friday traffic (tip: leave early to avoid the worst of it). First cast I had a 20cm rainbow on a hare and copper gold beadhead nymph, the top fly in my two nymph set-up - with a pheasant-tail nymph as the dropper. To be honest, the little bugger scoffed the fly on the swing, thus reducing the skill level involved in catching it to not much at all. However, I'll always take it!

It should be said that this weekend there was plenty of 'picket fencing' on the Tongariro in the more popular spots, yet strangely if you walked and bush bashed for 300-400m you had a lengthy section of water to yourself. When we left on Monday morning around 8am there were six fly fishers in the water just down from the highway bridge which crosses the river in about 200 metres. Not our idea of fun.

Nearing dusk on the Tongariro River
Anyway, that first day it got cold as the sun disappeared behind the volcanoes and Georgina remembered as her toes began to freeze that she had holes in the neoprene feet on her waders which hadn't been fixed (tip 2: remember to check your gear well before you leave; you've heard that one before haven't you!).

Easter Saturday dawned as near perfect as days get. It was market day in Turangi which means cake, fairy floss, more cake, stuff, and more cake stalls. We ventured into Sporting Life to see if they could help with Georgina's wader problem. While they didn't have the right size in women's waders they did spend 25 minutes finding a pair of men's waders that would fit her well and then took her damaged waders away to repair. When we came back two days later the holes had been fixed and there was no charge!

Founded by Graham and Cathy Whyman 30 years ago - the nicest couple you could meet - and run with the assistance of an all-star team including arch blogger and fly fishing fanatic, Jared Goedhart, Sporting Life not only looks after all the needs of the fly fisher hoping to nail a Tongariro monster but is a real part of the legend of fly fishing in the region. And what these people don't know about fly-fishing probably hasn't been discovered. So a big hats off and thank you to everybody at Sporting Life.

Georgina pulled six rainbows in as many casts
from this corner pool on the Tongariro
Back to the river in her borrowed waders, Georgina wasted no time in hooking up. In one pool just up upstream from the famous Blue Pool she pulled out six rainbows to 35cm in as many casts. I, meanwhile, hooked a couple as well and had that ultimate frustration of watching a nice 3.5-4lb fish follow my nymphs along for a good 15 metres, its head never more than a few centimetres away from the hare and copper gold beadhead. Ten for the morning - Georgina already had a couple of small ones before she hit the pool of plenty - was a good outcome for two hours fishing.

With the river beginning to fill up around us - there were at least three flyfishers in the Blue Pool  - we decided to take lunch and then head for somewhere a little less crowded.

A nice feisty rainbow from the Tauranga-Taupo river
Mid-afternoon found us on a sweeping bend - with pools at the both ends - of the Tauranga-Taupo (TT). Perhaps 15 minutes from Turangi, it is a world apart from the boisterous Tongariro, yet it is no less a major trout stream. The TT is a classic fly fishing river - never big and broad and hard to handle, it is a sleek small to medium beauty that according to our guide of the next day, Ken Drummond, fills with spawners a little later in the year. But for now it was filled with little fish - as mentioned above. Little fish that would hit any dry fly you presented to them. Talk about fun. And to cap it off Georgina hooked a lovely 35-40cm fish that did the classic dry approach and nailed it with gusto. Fabulous.

Wading upstream at this time of the year is easy - none of those large, slippery boulders that dominate the Tongariro and Whanganui, just a nice sandy bottom with plenty of crossing points. But like all impossibly attractive fly streams, the TT has a sting in its tail: timber.  Many of the best pools and runs have some associated wood - and that, of course, is where the bigger fish tend to sit, and we saw at least three or four nice specimens that refused to budge. The question was if they did, could we keep them out of the timber once hooked. Hopefully, we'll answer that in future trips.

It doesn't get much better than this: Fishing the TT
 as the sun sets
All in all we caught three more rainbows each and dropped another 5 between us. That meant 16 for the day with 6 dropped.

Easter Sunday promised some rain but dawned a little cloudy before giving way to the sun as the day progressed. We had a date with our mate Ken Drummond, who has been guiding in this region for years. It was our third time out with Ken following three previously memorable days that featured 'the submarine' and a fishing orgy on the Whanganui that saw us catch 41 and drop 12 trout over two days.

This time round Ken decided we should revisit the scene of that exciting - although very wet - first trip and see what damage we could do on a fine day. The Whanganui is one of my favourite three New Zealand rivers. Classic back country fishing through pools, runs and rapids it's broad sweep carries more than a hint of difficulty and danger but the promise of plenty of fish. And, once again, it didn't disappoint.

On this section which runs through private property, the Whanganui is about a perfect trout river as you can find. As we stood on the rock laden banks, small trout hurled themselves out of the water close to the far bank where the water ran still and fast, their targets so small they could hardly be seen.

This Whanganui rainbow weighed in at 4.25lb
Ken headed us off downstream so we could access the back end of a 60-metre section that featured a lot of ripples running off some small rapids with nice lines of flat water between the chopped up faster water. It was in this flatter water, he had us cast. Two hours later George had four rainbows to 4.25lb and had dropped another two, while I had three rainbows including a nice 5lb pound fish and had also dropped three more fish around the 3-5lb mark, the first of which had Ken scratching his head.

When I hooked into it - on a purple caddis that matched what Ken showed was attached to many of the rocks - it didn't go left, it didn't go right, it didn't go upstream, it just took off at breakneck speed straight at me. Now as I hooked it no more than four metres in front of me, this meant by the time it passed over my boot I had a wall of line and leader in my face. a section of leader snagged the reel handle and 'snap' the fish was gone. Ken, who was watching from a few metres away reckons he's never seen a fish do anything like that before. It did mean I got a close and personal look at it in the crystal clear water as it went by though.

Five pounds of Whanganui rainbow
The five-pounder was a beauty. A typical Whanganui rainbow on steroids. As we've mentioned previously in this blog, Whanganui rainbows are brutes. They bend your arms, your rod, your muscles, your mind, like no other trout. They are as unpredictable as they are unbowed. Even the smaller fish come with super strength. This one took about 10 minutes to subdue. It's weight was in its girth: one fat fish. Likewise, Georgina's 4.25lb fish gave her a good work out, heading upstream, downstream, across stream, back downstream, upstream and around behind her, before finally succumbing.

The afternoon session was spent fishing longer runs in deeper water. Georgina pulled out a couple of nice fish in the 2.5-3.5lb range while I landed a couple of those feisty smaller fish and dropped a nice 3.5-4lb fish that hopped out of the water five times before finally managing to throw the hooks.

Georgina and Ken shared the credit for this fish
As a finale, while walking Georgina out of the water, Ken was idly casting around with her Sage - he makes it look ridiculously easy - and hooked into a good three-pound fish which he left Georgina to land. So they shared it.

But a word of warning: never underestimate the dangers associated with big New Zealand rivers like the Tongariro and Whanganui: Ken went over despite using a wading stick and got a soaking from head to foot while I ended the day by sliding down a high bank, hitting a flat rock which was wet and very slippery, meaning there was no grip for my boots which went out from underneath me and I slammed back down into the surface. A week later the bruising on my arms is beginning to fade, the internal soft tissue damage in my back is beginning to heal and the fractured rib is a little less painful. It could have a been a lot worse. According to my doctor 3cm to the right and the bole on the rock that slammed into back would have slammed into my spine; 5cm south it would have hit a kidney. I was lucky. I walked out of there.

Selfie with Whanganui trout
So tread very carefully when you fish these rivers. The Whanganui is very slippery - in and out of the water - and there are deep holes where you least expect them so a walking stick is very necessary. On several occasions I could have easily taken one or two steps left or right and dropped from water that was just above my waist to water that would have been well above my head (and I'm 186cm).

All up the day delivered 12 rainbows with another six dropped. For the trip, we came away with 29 fish landed and 12 dropped in just over two days - about 14 hours - of fishing.

To Ken Drummond - you're a legend!, the folk at Sporting Life, Sportman's Lodge, and the people of Turangi and its surrounds, our thanks. You make these trips so special. And, of course, we will be back.

Oh, and one final thing, we would like to state for the record that we outfished the 2008 French World Fly Fishing Championships team which were revisiting the Whanganui the day we took it on and fished upstream from us. End result: Australia/New Zealand 11, France 0!!!!!

The beauty of a release from Georgina Swan on Vimeo.

Mike fished with an Orvis Helios Tip Flex 7-weight rod and Orvis Battkenkill Large Arbor IV reel. George fished with a Sage One 6-weight rod and Grey's G-Tec 350 reel.