Taupo and Rotorua – Tongariro River – Beginners Fishing Guide

Bill Nike with a good metalic looking fish from the Bend Pool on the Tongariro River.
Bill Nike with a good metalic looking fish from the Bend Pool on the Tongariro River.

Taupo and Rotorua by Herb Spannagl

Every winter l run into at least one group of South Islanders who migrate north to fish the great rainbow spawning waters of the Taupo System. Some like Malcolm Bell and friends are old hands at the game, but many others struggle to make the mental and technical adjustments that are necessary to successfully fish for the spawning run trout. By the time they find their feet the long dreamt of holiday is over. l know how that feels because it happened to me on my first South Island salmon safari. It is to those hapless newcomers that l want to address this article.

South Island anglers

Rightly or wrongly, l assume that you from the deep south come north during the winter because many of your great fisheries close after April, forcing you into angling hibernation until spring or even later. In summer, you have good fishing much closer to home.

For us northerners, winter opens up an exciting new fishing season. We flock to the great lakes of the Taupo and Rotorua region to fish for prime Condition rainbow trout on their annual migration.

They don't come any fresher than this. Taupo and Rotorua.
They don’t come any fresher than this.

Spawning run trout do not feed

The first and most important thing to know about spawning run rainbows, and to some extent browns, is their lack of “feeding”. By that, I mean swallowing food to fuel the digestive system.

Whether it is their loss of appetite that shrinks their stomachs to a frizzle or the other way around, the end result is the same. They give up hunting for food. Why some still take imitative flies or other junk, remains one of the great mysteries, for which theories abound aplenty. However, one thing everyone agrees on, to rekindle the taking urge, your flies need to be close to the fish. Whatever the reason for this fatal habit, it is the trout’s interest in our flies that keep us interested in braving the cold of a long winter day.

Lake Taupo / Tongariro River. Click on map to zoom in and out.

The Crowds of Taupo

The second rule of winter fishing is even harder to swallow for you solitary summer anglers, who probably drive on when you find a car parked already at your chosen fishing destination.

Up here, we react differently. As a rule, when a popular Taupo winter fishing spot is deserted, the fishing has been lousy. That could be for a variety of reasons. Either the fish have not been running, fishing conditions have been tough, or the time is an ungodly 4 o’clock in the morning. Good fishing spots are never deserted when there are fish about, even in the worst of weather. The local grapevine is so good. The only exception is during an All Black Test. Then, for a magic afternoon, you can have the river and all the fish almost to yourself.

Like seagulls, winter anglers gather where fish gather. It is your best guarantee that you are in the right place at the right time. Of course that means that you need to be on your best behaviour, since in the confines of a crowded pool tensions often run high. But despite what you hear, “incidents” are rare. Most people adhere to the simple etiquette of starting downstream of a nympher and upstream of a wetliner. If you are not sure what to do, just ask. There is always someone who will pass on a few tips to a new chum from the Mainland.

How to fish Lake Taupo

For a holidaying fly fisher, there are two no risk ways to fish Taupo waters during that time of the year. The rips where the feeder streams enter the lake and the spawning streams that are open to winter fishing. Let’s start with the rips first, because most South Islanders are already familiar with this type of fishing.

Another smart reason to target the rips, is that before the mature fish enter their native river, they mass around the delta waiting for the next fresh. If they are not in the river, head for the rips.

A fat 6-pounder from the French Pool. Taupo and Rotorua.
A fat 6-pounder from the French Pool.

The Rips

Almost without exception, shallow rip fishing is better after dark. It is even better in the week before and after a new moon. Sometimes one hears of good catches during a bright moon, but the opposite tales outnumber those at least 10:1. At times, rips with deep drop-offs can fish quite well during the day. If that is the case, they fish even better at night orearly morning. This is the style of fishing for which Lake Taupo is world reknowned.

So, all things being equal, the darker the night the better the fishing. If nothing else, it rules out another excuse if you go empty handed. Yes, one more thing. You boys from the Sub Antarctic might be a hardy lot, but believe me a long stint in cold water on a frosty night will chill even an Eskimo to the bone.

The discomfort usually starts when your fingers become numb. Progressively, the cold seeps to your very core, testing your resolve and your intelligence. I have had nights when my fingers were so sore that l dreaded the thought of touching a wet fish.

Night flies

The North Island is the birthplace of the lumo nightfly. Nowadays, patterns are as plentiful as theories about the ideal size and when to use them. It all started off with the largish Lumo Squid, that when first charged up with a torch, lit up the night sky like a little comet. There is now a popular consensus that this level of luminosity is too much. Over the yea rs some of the most successful locals (the only people worth listening to) have reduced their lumo flies to mere slivers with barely a touch of luminescence. For some obscure reason, lumo flies don’t deliver all the time.

One night they take all the fish, the next traditional night flies are just what St Peter ordered. That is why many anglers fish with a combination of both. They have more hassles with tangles, but at least they have covered another base.

Unless you are a confirmed ”do it yourselfer” or a tiger for punishment, don’t fish with your own untried fly patterns first up. Pick up a few “hot” ones at the local tackle store. Their staff know from daily feedback from anglers what works and what doesn’t. This way you can eliminate another of the many variables you will have to sort out during your short stay. In recent years the fly scene has become so dynamic, that I see heaps of new patterns every time I do the rounds. Popular additions are the silicon smelt and the buoyant booby fly. I always include a skeleton tying kit when I am over there for longer than a weekend.

David making hard work in fast water.
David making hard work in fast water.

What lines shall I take

These days a lot of people use floating lines, especially for shallow rips. There are really no hard and fast rules. Among a line-up of ten anglers, you can find everything from floaters to Hl-Dl sinkers for fishing deep d rop-offs. Be prepared to experiment but always take note, ifyou can, what the successful locals are doing. ln the numbing darkness it won’t be easy. ln my experience you have more chance to get a squeak out of an Egyptian Mummy, than to make meaningful onversation with the black shape next to you. You can cover most situations with a 8/9 weight WF floater, WF intermediate or slow sinker and a 10 weight super fast sinking shooting head.

Rod and reel for Taupo and Rotorua

Because the rips go out a long way into the lake, the fish could be anywhere between the lip or where the cold current mingles with the warmer lake. At times they are not even in the flow but cruise within a wide radius of the mouth. The night fisher must be able to probe far and wide until he makes his first contact. If that is a long way out, that’s where you should concentrate your efforts for a while, since rainbows often move about in schools.

When you are standing waist deep in the lake you have not got a lot of choice to pick your conditions. You need a rod that can handle all sorts of trauma. The most versatile rod for Lake Taupo and the Tongariro River is a 9′ – 9 1/2‘ fast actioned graphite rod rated for 8-9 weight lines. Team that up with a good reel that holds at least 50 metres of backing. It is a good assurance against foul-ups in the dark when a hot fish tears off into the backing.


Aside from warm, wind and water-proof clothing, you will also need a set of neoprene chest waders for virtually all Taupo fishing to save your legs and your reproductive system. You can hire them locally if you have no use for them at home. Unless you eat lots of carrots you also need a good torch to see and to charge up your lumos. The light should have some means of attachment to leave your hands free to attend to your tackle. Fingerless gloves are always very cosy, but really come into their own when the wind chill on your wet line hand drops to minus twenty. With them on, only your finger tips are in danger of turning black.

River fish

Until recently, it was thought that once the fish entered a river they waste no time to get to their spawning grounds. This belief stems from the time honoured experience that the fishing is always better when the river comes down after a flood. New fish seem to be plentiful and easily caught in the still slightly discoloured water. In the following days when the water clears, the fishing tends to get harder and harder. Many anglers believe the fish had already passed through.

New research by DOC has thrown up an entirely different picture. Their scientists radio tracked a number of fish in the Tongariro River. Most hung around for weeks, moving up slowly from pool to pool, sometimes even dropping downstream for a while.

Now, though your catch rate might be steadily dropping, at least you know that most of the fish are still there. But as the water clears they no longer fall for poorly presented flies. Fish which only a few days ago happily sampled from the drifting smorgasbord offlies have become cautious and very dour. The situation gets worse during a spell of frosty nights and clear days, especially when water level is down also. Then it is almost mandatory to hit the water at first light to ambush the few fish with memory lapses of the thousand glowbugs they have avoided on previous days.

The persistent angler will still catch his share by targeting unfished lies with smaller nymphs tied to finer tippets. You have all heard the saying about the tough keep on fishing on tough days. Well, that phrase was probably coined on the Tongariro.

River fishing

By and large, river fishing is a daytime activity. But don’tbe fooled. A Tongariro day starts at 5 am, even if you can’t see a thing for at least another hour. It is a good time to stake out your chosen pool, though. Some gannets get there even earlier.

There is a very good reason for sitting on icy boulders at the coldest hour of the day. The first few through a pool have the best chance to catch all the dumb fish. I have seen and experienced this myself so often, that I only mention it for the benefit of the uninitiated. The regulars live by that practice. If you want to beat them at their game you have to set your alarm for 4 am.

As a wet liner, you can catch fish from the legal 5 o’clock start onwards. That gives you almost two hours before the nymphers have enough light to see their chartreuse coloured indicators. It is best to stay at the top of the pool though, as some nymphers get very septic watching you sweep the whole pool before they can start.

l guess l don’t have to tell you in great detail how to wet line, except to emphasise that no matter how deep the pool is, you must present your fly at the level of the fish. ln winter, that is always near the bottom. You get there with a super fast sinking line. For bigger waters like the Tongariro River, most wet liners use a high density shooting head for casting the extra distance.

Over the years, nymphing has slowly replaced wet lining throughout the Taupo river system. There are still anglers about who wet line exclusively, but many carry a wet line only as a standby. In the Upper Tongariro and on most smaller streams, nymphing has become the predominant fishing method It is common to share a pool with a number of others.

Nymphing Tongariro style

Whilst nymphing has become the favourite way of catching trout throughout New Zealand, nymphing for winter spawners in the bigger rivers is very different from what you do down south.

Let’s take the Tongariro, as an example. There, nearly all fish lie so deep that they are invisible to the angler. To get their nymphs down quickly, anglers regularly use heavily weighted nymphs. Sometimes in tandem, or one weighted nymph with an unweighted one on the dropper. Newcomers to this famous river have greatdifficulty casting so much lead.

If you live in Christchurch, see Malcolm Bell at the Complete Angler and buy a few Tongariro Bombs. Then, before you come north, go to a private stretch of water and practice casting these brutes. Even with the points removed, it will be dangerous work, so don’t leave any body parts ba re. The flying nasties sting worse than a hornet.

Double hauling is the only way to achieve super high line speed, which will keep lead high enough airborne to clear your head. Don’t lose heart, it can be done. You will be amazed what phenomenal weights Tongariro anglers routinely cast. Every hour you put in practice at home, you won’t need to waste during your precious holiday. Besides, you won’t enjoy forever picking flies from the back of your fishing vest in the company of amused onlookers.

The ideal nymphing rig for the famous Tongariro River

As l have already said a 9-10 foot fast action graphite rod rated for 8 /9 weight lines is ideal for all Taupo fishing, including catapulting weighted nymphs.

l use a light graphite reel to reduce the overall weight. lf you are a good caster, you will get the benefit of greater distance and a greater mending range from a long bellied weight forward line. Popular choices are the Cortland 444SL or the new Scientific Anglers High Plateau lines. Otherwise, go for a standard belly weight forward. Anything shorter and you have trouble mending atnormal fishing distances. Whatever line type you use, you will mend sooner if you can always see your line. Leave the brown, grey or green floaters so beloved by South Islanders at home. They will drive you and everybody else in the same pool around the bend.

Yarn indicators are the only ones permitted at Taupo. Buy several in different Hl-VIS colours for different light conditions. You will find looking at a new colour from time to time also makes a refreshing change. Thoroughly water-proof all your indicators at home. Believe me, there is nothing more annoying than when you or your neighbour fail to see your indicator, because it has become waterlogged. You will miss takes while he will accidentally cast over your line. The Tongariro indicator is always attached to the end-of the fly line.

The leader should be constructed from a single strand of the thinnest nylon you can trust. l always use about four metres of 6 kg Dai-Riki as my main leader, and 3-5 kg of the same brand for a dropper. Experiment with different dropped lengths. l have found that a longer, say half a metre dropper gives the nymph more freedom to be tossed and turned in the most tantalising fashion.

For smaller Taupo feeder streams, where you often see fish (and no doubt they can see you) tone down your colours and scale down the rig by a factor of two. lt is much more like the fishing you get at home, only that there could be 20 big fish stacked in a small pool!

George Johnson casting into the perfect lie at the Poutu Pool, Tongariro River.
George Johnson casting into the perfect lie at the Poutu Pool, Tongariro River.

Synchronised Casting

Always start below the last down-stream angler. Don’t rush in. Instead, wait for a sufficiently large gap to open before you make your first cast. This will provide you with a big enough radius to land your line upstream at a 45 degree angle. Remember, the further up you cast the longer your drift will be. Then you will need a bigger gap. You can pick up a lot of useful information if you note what the angler ahead of you is doing.

Be ready to cast seconds after he has shot his line. A good cast should land in the empty water ahead and out from you. If you hesitate or make too many false casts, your neighbour’s line will drift into your own casting radius. To avoid casting over his line, you now have no other option but to cast straight out from you. Your drift will be so short that your fly will barely get to the bottom before you have to pull out. What’s more, you have got out of sync with everybody.

On paper all this sounds worse than it is on the water. You will soon get the hang of it, as long as you don’t pick a fast water pool like the Whitikau for your initiation into synchronised casting.

More than a strike indicator

Once the line has landed, never take your eyes off your indicator. Watch out, not just for strikes but for other signs which can give you vital clues about your fly’s underwater drift. Observe its speed in relation to other objects, its angle of tilt or whether it is ticking or drifting quietly. The angler who can read these signs can make the necessary corrections in order to prolong his fly’s optimum drift through the strike zone. So despite what you hear about this being a crude “chucking and chancing” way of nymphing, the thinking anglers still catch 90 percent of the fish.

They may not all be great casters (many are), but without exception they are great line menders. ln addition, big tally men are also very efficient. They know that the more good drifts they get through a lie, the more chance they have to seduce a fish into picking up their flies. Spawning run trout fishing is a percentage game.

I have notcovered everything you should know before you embark on that trip up north, but I hope I have been able to give you a good introduction to a new experience in a new fishery. I hope you get there when the action is hot!