Everyone says New Zealand is the greatest place to fly-fish for trout but my experience hasn't been the best. Fifteen years ago I toured the North Island for a week with the family and asked about fishing wherever we stopped, but all I got was invitations to go trolling in lakes.
Three years ago I hooked up a one-day visit to an exclusive fly-fishing lodge that was productive as advertised, but it was very expensive and mainly relied on helicopter trips into the back country to catch the good fish. I don't have $800 a day per person to spend on choppers and anyway I'd rather walk.
This year I hunted for a happy medium and wound up fishing the mighty Tongariro River for wild rainbow trout in public water that's easily accessible on foot. It couldn't have been a better choice.
The Tongariro is a brawling, Western-style river that tumbles out of snowy mountains to feed Lake Taupo, a 45-mile-wide, circular crater left by a volcano that blew 2,000 years ago. The lake is rich in trout food and fed by a score of forested rivers, all of which hold fish. The Tongariro is the biggest and most productive of them all.
It was praised by the famous American angler Zane Grey in the 1930s, about a decade after the New Zealand government signed a pact with native Maoris guaranteeing fishing access to all Taupo's rivers in return for a share of license fees. The arrangement continues today.
The Tongariro is known for abundant, hungry, wild rainbow trout during the Southern Hemisphere winter, which is June through September, when big roe fish forge upstream to spawn alongside attentive males. Six- and seven-pound trout are not uncommon then, and an average fish is around four pounds, according to guide Heather Macdonald, who runs a small bed and breakfast here alongside the stream.
The weather is not too harsh in winter when angling is best but it's nicer now in the summer, which runs from November to February. Unfortunately, many trout move to cool, deep holes in the lake then, which explains why everyone kept trying to take me trolling all those years ago.
If I'm going to catch big trout, I want to do it on a fly in a stream. Macdonald said it was doable, so my fishing pal Stuart Alexander of the London Independent and I made the four-hour drive down from Auckland last week to try.
By law, the Tongariro and the other Taupo rivers are flyfishing only, with a limit of three trout a day over 45 centimeters, which is 18 inches. Access points with parking are frequent on all the rivers and paths run along the banks with signs pointing to pools and holes. Access is protected by a 20-yard strip on both sides that is publicly owned. A season license costs just $60 NZ (about $30 U.S.).
Armed with licenses and rental waders and rods, we made our way the afternoon we arrived to the Duchess Pool, named after England's recently deceased Queen Mother, who fished there 60 years ago. Macdonald led the way, pointed to a run of deep water and had Alexander toss a nymph in. Moments later as I rigged up I heard a whoop and saw he was fast to a four-pounder that leaped spectacularly twice before it spat the hook.
This was enough to unnerve me for the next four hours, during which I hooked but failed to land four trout of similar size. "When they strike," Macdonald advised, "count to four out loud before you raise the rod to set the hook." For an Eastern angler used to trout that spit the fly the instant you feel a tap, that's like telling a starving man to chew his food carefully. It ain't gonna happen.
I slept poorly that night despite a fine meal of wild venison steak and fresh asparagus prepared by Macdonald's partner, Jenn Shieff. Visions of leaping trout danced in my head -- like the ones up to five pounds I'd watched other anglers land while Alexander and I muffed our chances.
Next morning, Mcdonald led us to the Major Jones Pool, which lies directly behind her house. "Never overlook the home pool," she advised.
As he had the evening before, Alexander hooked up almost instantly. This time he played his trout carefully and brought it to net -- a bright, plump, 22-inch rainbow, fresh up from the lake. "It's late, but a few fish are still spawning because of the late spring," said Macdonald.
An hour later I was still zero for New Zealand and fuming as yet another fellow next to me landed five straight trout from a quiet pool, including two bruisers of about five pounds. At long last he left, carting off his two biggest trout, and I slipped quickly into his casting spot.
Almost immediately I had a strike and a great, screeching run from a big fish, but again it spat the hook before showing itself. I checked the fly, a size 14 nymph suspended under a bead-head bomber, and began casting again, dead-drifting the fly through the deep water.
Bang! Fish on at last, and this one was a keeper -- another 22-incher that was almost the twin of Alexander's, though slimmer. I knocked it on the head and between the two of us, we had dinner for eight.
We managed to hook a few more trout and even land another good one before the noon bell struck and it was time to head back to the city. In one afternoon and one morning, I'd seen more big trout caught than I ever have seen anywhere in my life, and eventually managed to join the fun and catch a few myself.
The fish were astonishingly good the next night, baked in the oven with potatoes and served with a mixed green salad.
It was a relief to find a place where the catch-and-release police don't rule the roost, as they do in most trout waters in the United States, and people still appreciate taking a fish or two home for the pot.
It was comforting, too, to fish a big stream where only flies are permitted. Because of the strict rules, anyone who wants to trout-fish must wield the long rod, which meant half the anglers were rough-cut casters like Alexander and me, but we still managed to land a few.
All of which is to say New Zealand is indeed a great place to trout-fish, and not just for wealthy lodge dwellers and helicopter jockeys. They say the South Island is even better. That's next on the list.
A number of guides work around Turangi, a small fishing town at the south end of the lake about 30 miles from the tourist town of Taupo. Some guides in Turangi work the big water of the Tongariro, others run four-wheel-drive trips up smaller creeks and still others troll the lake in the summer.
Headquarters for fishing information is the Sporting Life outdoors store, where owner Graham Whyman rents or sells everything needed to fish the area and will point you to the right guide. Check the Web site at www.sportinglife-turangi.co.nz Heather Macdonald is a skilled angler who specializes in working with relatively inexperienced flyrodders, particularly women. Her Rainbow Trout Lodge (www.turangi-nz.co.nz) overlooking the Major Jones Pool is perfectly placed for fishing, modestly priced and the food is superb.