After spending some time in New Zealand I have the idea a competent fly-fisher could set out by car in just about any direction and find big trout in public water within an hour or two of anywhere.
Unfortunately, I haven't had time to adequately test the theory. I spent the winter Down Under but was busy working in the city most of the time. I managed two outings for trout, one to the famous Tongariro River off Lake Taupo and another to a mountain stream in the middle of nowhere. Both were driving distance from Auckland and both were smashing successes.
While the fish were bigger in the Tongariro, the little Whirinake River running out of the mountains in Te Urewera National Park left a more lasting impression.
"You won't see any sign of anyone on this stream," promised Scott Hollis-Johns. "No footprints, no campfires, nothing."
Hollis-Johns guides on several streams like the Whirinake that feed the Rangitaiki River, which flows into the Bay of Plenty near Whakatane, a couple of hours south of Auckland. I'd heard about the Rangitaiki from a stranger sitting next to me on a bus. "You like to fish?" he asked out of the blue, then proceeded to describe his honey holes.
It wasn't easy finding a guide for the unheralded Rangitaiki region but eventually I tracked down Hollis-Johns, a longhaired, cheerful former South Islander who collected me from a motel in Mount Maunganui and headed off down back roads past Lake Rotorua with its bubbling hot mud pools to the Urewera Mountains, where we spent the night at a humble outpost owned by a Kiwi bushman called Graeme Rider.
Rider had deer, pigs, ostriches and dogs in pens circling his Lake Aniwhenua Lodge and a big, bushy black beard encircling a mostly toothless mouth. He worked nonstop on various projects but occasionally took time off, Hollis-Johns confided, to compete in triathlons, which seems to be the Kiwi national sport.
We were off at dawn to the Whirinake, access to which lay at the end of a two-mile dirt track through thick brush that grew so narrow and weed-choked, Hollis-Johns's diesel Pathfinder could barely forge through.
My guide had lied. There were people back there -- a group of 20 aging, bedraggled backpackers from the Ngatapuwae o-Taneatua Tramping Club who appeared out nowhere, having crossed the mountains on a two-day trek, and greeted us cheerfully. The average age was about 60. That was the last sign of humans we saw.
The Whirinake (the "wh" is pronounced "f" in names of Maori origin, so it comes out "Firinaki") is an easy-flowing, shallow, chalky stream surrounded by deep brush. We forged a mile upstream on foot and waded in, armed with six-weight rigs loaded with nymph and dry-fly combinations.
One of the disappointments of New Zealand's North Island is that most trout fishing there is under the surface. Big hatches of dry flies are not common but there's heaps of stuff on the bottom for trout to gobble. We rigged up big dry flies to float on the surface as strike-indicators and put a tungsten-head, claret-colored nymph a few feet below to tumble along the bottom where the fish lay feeding.
Bang! It wasn't long before I had a plump two-pound rainbow hooked and the fun was on.
Hollis-Johns and I fished hole-and-hole all the way back to the truck, which took most of the day. He said he normally doesn't fish when guiding but I convinced him I like watching almost as much as catching because you learn so much observing experts on their home waters, so he flailed away on every second hole while I took a break.
It wasn't easy fishing, with overhanging foliage to hang up on and fish lying low and well protected behind rocks and blowdowns. But the average size was stupendous by East Coast U.S. standards, with many two-pound fish and the odd three- or four-pounder mixed in. Most were rainbows with a few browns. All were born and bred in the stream.
Trout are not native to New Zealand, having been imported by settlers over the last century or so, Hollis-Johns said. But the transplanted ones are fat and happy and reproduce like rabbits, with no predators to pester them and plenty of insect and aquatic life to munch.
Now they're even getting protection from human predators. I told Hollis-Johns I was keen to bring a couple of fish back to Auckland for a dinner party and he expressed no reluctance about putting some in the creel.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the broiling pan. It seemed that any time either of us caught a good fish, something stood in the way of knocking it on the head.
"Too early to keep one now,' said Hollis-Johns in the morning.
"Too hot," he said at noon. "How would we keep him fresh?"
"That's a beautiful fish," he said at 3 p.m. when I landed a three-pound brown that fairly pleaded to be taken. "But we never keep brown trout. They're too scarce."
On and on the excuse-making went until the fish quit feeding about 4 p.m. and we were back at the truck with miles to go before we slept.
There was no stopping at the fish store, either. It's illegal to sell trout in New Zealand, which may explain why there are so many in the streams.
In any event, no one went hungry and I've got photos to feast on for years to come, and dreams to dream.