Tongariro River Trout Fishing – Return Trip
Written a few years back but very interesting for those contemplating chasing winter rainbows on this world famous river!
Not without a sense of deja-vu that I sat on board a Mount Cook Airline’s flight to Taupo, on the tarmac at Christchurch airport. The previous year I had boarded the same flight for my first trip to fish the fabled Tongariro River. However, nothing remains the same and in the interim marked differences had taken place. For instance, the plane itself was the new ATR 72, turboprop, Link service which Mount Cook introduced just this year, and outside snow was gently falling onto the wet tarmac. Remnants of a polar southerly had Christchurch shrouded under a dark cloud cover, which broke to the west reveals the snow-covered Alps, bathed in bright sunshine.
Foremost in my mind was the major change wrought on the Tongariro itself by two dramatic eruptions of Mt Ruapehu. One in spring of last year, the other more recently in June. I hoped that Ruapehu, though not sleeping, maybe content to slumber for the few days of my holiday. Maybe I would need to do more than just appease the river gods on this excursion!
I had phoned my friend Bill in Turangi at the weekend, to find him recovering from the flu. “I haven’t swept the ash from the roof yet,” he confided. He went on to tell me about the ash filling some of
the river pools, how the fish wouldn’t lie on it and were to be found in lies and parts of the river not usually favoured by the running rainbows.
Whatever the week ahead held in store, I was full of excited anticipation as I tucked into my hot pie and ogled the stewardess. Down below the restless sea was covered in white ﬂecks, betraying its true nature. The pilot cheerfully announced 20 knot southerly winds and a temperature of 2 degrees awaited us in
Taupo. I was glad I had packed my thermals.
My friends, Bill and Pam, greeted me on my arrival at the airport and soon whisked me away in the
warmth of their car. A quick waltz around ”Pak n Save” to stock up on staples for the week ahead, then away to Turangi for lunch, followed by a trip to the tackle shop to buy my licence. In no time at all, I had deposited my gear at the TALTAC accommodation and grabbed my camera to accompany Bill
down to judges pool. At this stage, I would have to be content to spectate, as my weekly licence to fish the Tongariro River And the Taupo region didn’t begin until the next day.
It was great to step out into a sunny day under a pale blue sky, so unlike the waterlogged city, I had left
earlier that immediately I felt my spirits lift. Two anglers were already present at Judges pool, but there was space for one more, quickly filled by Bill.
“See where the water surface is disturbed, just there,” Bill pointed out. “There’s a submerged rock where they like to lie.”
Nymphing with an orange, lead eye bomb and glo-bug, it wasn’t long before Bill was into a fish and I started warming up the camera. The fish was content to slug it out in the depths of the pool and eventually I slid a well-conditioned 5.5 lb hen fish up the beach where Bill administered last rites with the priest he always carries. (Not much catch and release here).
Within half an hour, the other two anglers had both landed fish, which augured well for the morrow I thought. l seldom sleep well in a strange bed on the first night and this was no exception.
Six forty-five a.m. found me sitting on frost rimmed grass at Judges, waiting for enough light to commence casting. Three other insomniacs soon joined me and we stamped around together trying
to keep warm and sending our hot, steamy breaths skywards in the still dawn. The glow in the sky strengthened and, as one, we approached the water and began casting our offerings into the
dark depths as if we performed some ancient, mysterious rites to a pagan god.
It quickly became apparent that my double hauling skills were rustier than I thought until I discovered that my rod rings were full of ice. (The anti-freeze I had liberally partaken of the night before had done nothing for them, it seemed). A quick dip in the river, (the rod, not me) soon restored my casting confidence, but fish were sadly lacking. I left to explore other pools and runs, but later heard, to
my chagrin, that few anglers leave Judges unrewarded for their persistence.
Bill picked me up at lunchtime and we headed upstream to fish the Whitikau, the Fence, and the Red Hut pools. At the Fence, I dropped a fish of about 3 lb and landed a slab of 1.5 lb. At the Red Hut, I lost a good one, and Bill landed a 4 pounder from the same lie. I reckon there’s no justice, not even at Judges
After a good night’s sleep, I ventured forth, well after first light, into a severe frost. The grass crackled under my feet as I made my way down to Judges after crossing the Major Jones footbridge. I was surprised to find the pool unoccupied, but word travels fast and the other side was full of hopeful punters. Free to choose, I waded out in the tail of the pool, until ash gave way to bouldery bottom underfoot and began casting, in this case, a weighted Vegas nymph attached to my own blue darter imitation.
At the end of the third drift, a strong fish took hold and hared off downstream with the major part of my fly line. It took 10 minutes of elbow aching effort to work it back up through the fast flow, to finally
beach a finely conditioned jackfish, which later tipped the scales at 5.25 lb with a condition factor of 52.
I carefully checked the leader for kinks and nicks and re-tied both nymphs before fishing on up through the pool, but it was an hour later when I returned to the tail of the pool that I got my second, very aggressive strike.
The trout simply picked up the nymph and ran with it like an All Black forward. It felt about the same weight too, as in three powerful runs down the heavy water it was only a matter of seconds before I felt the backing rattling up the rod rings! Then it stopped and the seesawing effect, produced by a big fish
swinging its head from side to side in order to dislodge the irritating hook, was transmitted up the bowed rod. Stalemate now, as I struggled with both hands to hold the rod high, keeping as much heavy line as possible out of the water.
Grimly I hung on but at this moment I was convinced the battle was lost.
Keeping the pressure on, I was thankful for the eight-pound leader I was using and very aware
of my tennis elbow, which had returned with a vengeance.
Imperceptibly, I felt a gradual reduction of tension before with increasing speed, the trout ran towards me.
Now I was reeling frantically to regain precious metres of backing and line. Down below I caught
the sight of my indicator and dared to hope I would be the victor, but it was not to be. The fish took off on another powerful run and all went slack! A sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach told me how much I wanted that fish. The real hurtful part though was finding the break where the leader joined the braided connector, the only knot I hadn’t re-tied after the previous fish!
Sunday was a day to be remembered. l had offered to help Bill run the children’s fishing day at the Tongariro hatchery. These days are held five times a year and prove to be very popular with
both children and their parents. What a smoothly run operation it turned out to be. All those involved can be justifiably proud of their participation. Children from 6 years upwards can take part. On this day, between 9 am and 4.30 pm, 440 children passed through the capable hands of Bill and his team of helpers.
The number of girls keen to try their hand was surprising, probably as many as the boys. Our perception of trout fishing as a mainly male preserve could well be under siege in the not too distant future.
The children are given basic casting tuition before purchasing a two dollar licence and being directed to one of eight fishing stations, situated around a pool containing approximately 8000 rainbow trout.
Experienced anglers help each one to cast, retrieve, hook and land a fish, which they then take to be measured and weighed. The details are recorded on a certificate each child receives as a memento of the day. I’m sure that the reward for all involved was the smiles of delight on the faces of so many of the
Ruapehu blew again in the night. A dark cloud of ash cut a swathe across the morning blue sky when I emerged to fish on Monday morning. The Hydro pool was empty of other anglers, though
four hopefuls were nymphing up from where the Mangawhitwhiti flows in.
I worked my way upstream, searching the edge water, channels and the pockets around boulders
and submerged rocks. Suddenly, the indicator darted sideways and I lifted to solid resistance. The fish
replied by shooting out to the middle of the river and leaping clear of the water. For a moment it hung
suspended in a spray of droplets before charging off down the pool. It seemed to have exhausted its repertoire of tricks and I was able to beach quite a dark jackfish of about 4 lb.
At the top of the fishable water I struck one more, another jack of only about 2 lb, but in excellent condition and scrappy as hell. Walking back, carrying my fish through the fine, steadily falling
ash, I noticed that the dirty cloud had spread to cover a large part of the sky and a smell of brimstone was in the air.
The afternoon saw Bill and me trudging through mounds of volcanic ash in the tail of the Major Jones pool, on the Tongariro. We both caught fish nevertheless, Bill’s was a dark 4 lb jack, mine a sexy, bright-eyed, pink gilled virgin of about 12 oz!
Moving to the Hydro paid off for me, as I got into a fresh run fish of 4 lb plus, which to my relief,
fought upstream on a short line. I soon had it beached and despatched, after which it was enjoyable to just relax and watch Bill fish while I basked in the warm, rosy glow of a limit bag.
Shortly after 6.00 am on Tuesday morning, I heard a car pull up outside, followed by heavy knocking on my door. Alf had arrived! A friend and fellow member of the Canterbury Fly Fishing Club, he had driven through the night after catching the late sailing of the Arahura from Picton. He didn’t look too bad on it, other than perhaps a little fly struck.
”You’re early,” I needlessly pointed out.
“I’ve been here a couple of hours,” he replied, “but thought 4.00 a.m. was a bit early to wake you, so I slept in the car outside the police station.”
I never did get round to asking him if he was hoping for cheap accommodation but invited him fishing instead. ”Can’t do that until the tackle shop opens and I can buy a licence,” he explained, ”but what about later?”
We arranged to meet at lunch and I left him to get settled in while I went off to try my luck, which was all bad. I hooked a reasonable fish in an unnamed piece of water and struggled with it down some
bouldery rapids, at great risk of injury to myself, only to have the hook pull out as I was sliding it
up the beach! After an admonition to the fish to go off and procreate, I made my way to Admirals pool, where I was briefly attached to a fish which took the nymph as it was sinking, and just as quickly got rid of it, and that was my lot.
Acting on a hot tip, Alf and I headed for the Duchess pool at Kowhai Flat. The fish were certainly present, if only we could hang on to one. After several hookups each, we only had one 4 lb hen to show for our efforts. I realise now that Alf was only warming up for breaking his duck the following morning, with a fish of nearly 7 lb from the Poutu pool.
All too soon, it seemed, I was packing my gear away in preparation for the return flight to Christchurch. I hope to be back to fish the mighty Tongariro River next year, but while Ruapehu continues to erupt, who knows what the long-term effects are likely to be on the Tongariro fishery? I’ll‘be keeping my fingers crossed though.