Eastern Region Trout Fishing in New Zealand’s North Island

A very well conditioned rainbow from Lake Rotoiti. Photo courtesy of Pat Swift.
A very well conditioned rainbow from Lake Rotoiti. Photo courtesy of Pat Swift.

Eastern Region Rotorua Trout Fishing Lakes and Rivers By Ken Duncan

When you first hear about trout fishing in New Zealand most visitors will tend to tell you of the magnificent brownies in the south Island, or the migrating rainbows on the Tongariro, but for me, when I get asked, I have no problems telling everyone about my favourite haunt, the Eastern Region of the North Island.

I shifted from Tauranga to Dunedin in 1979, looking to explore the rest of my country, having lived in the south for 27 years and drawn by stories of the runs of rainbows in the Taupo Rivers and of the massive rainbows in Lake Tarawera. The Tongariro saw most of my early endeavours, but soon thirst for new waters saw me begin to explore this region. 

Rotorua Lakes
Rotorua Lakes Map Eastern Region.

The Rotorua lakes are the most accessible waters in our region. Rotorua, open all year, is the boat fishermen’s paradise. The local guides guarantee you will catch a fish, with Tassie Devils, Cobras and King Kobras all working well.

For the fly fisher, all of the stream mouths provide good sport when the conditions suit. There are brown trout in the lake, with the guides telling of good-sized fish being caught on the fly and by trolling.

Foggy Lake Tarawera. Photo courtesy of Pat Swift.
Foggy Lake Tarawera. Photo courtesy of Pat Swift.

Lake Tarawera in the Eastern Region

Lake Tarawera is the most well known of these lakes. A deep lake that used to produce many large rainbows until a change in the lake’s ecosystem saw a massive decline in the size of fish being caught. A local DOC scientist began a programme to enhance the fish size and retain what he saw as a genetic link to the big fish in the lake. This programme, the Tarawera Big Fish Programme, as its instigator, Dr Peter Mylechreest, called it, has seen the return of the awesome fish of yesteryear with a fish of 6.4kg (14lb) caught. This was a naturally bred wild fish and indicates the fishery is on the mend.

Lake Okataina is a famed Eastern Region lake noted for its big rainbows

If Tarawera was the most well known of the lakes in the Rotorua district, then Lake Okataina has taken over as the trophy lake. One season saw over 100 double-figure fish weighed in at a local competition; the biggest was 18lb. How many places do you see 8 and 9-pound fish returned, as the anglers strive for that magic double figure fish? Now the regular Okataina fishermen are talking about and chasing the first 20lb plus fish to come from the lake, only a matter of time before we see it I’m sure. The big fish here have been developed as an off-shoot of the big fish programme from Tarawera.

Okataina is a pristine lake, completely surrounded by native bush, with only one access road. The water is clear and unpolluted and the lake swarms with smelt and Koura providing perfect trout growing conditions. Add to this the progeny of the big Tarawera trout and you have the ingredients for very large fish. An added bonus is the beautiful natural bush-clad mountains as a backdrop for your trophy experience.

The Log Pool, a 30-minute walk from the main beach, would be the most talked-about and fished area on the lake, but still has a reputation as the best fish producing area, well worth the walk.

Lake Rotoiti. Image by Makalu - Pixabay.com. Lakes in the Eastern Region often have native bush surroundings.
Lake Rotoiti. Image by Makalu – Pixabay.com. Lakes in the Eastern Region often have native bush surroundings.

Lake Rotoiti

Lake Rotoiti provided me with my first experience of the large rainbows of this lake system. Again, stocked with the Tarawera “big fish” progeny double figure fish are not uncommon. More accessible than Okataina, and bigger than the others, bar Rotorua, this lake is another popular trolling lake, but still provides good sport for the fly fisher, with big rainbows cruising the shallow gravel beaches. They are suckers for a rough hare bodied fly during the day, or a glow fly at night.

Lake Okareka

Lake Okareka has been the site of a stocking trial over past years, so produces good numbers of smaller sized fish up to 4-pound. So if you want good fun fishing in beautiful surroundings then give Okareka a try.

The other lakes in the Rotorua area all hold good numbers of fish and are predominantly fished by the boat fishermen. That is not to say that other methods will not produce good fish. Lakes Rotomahana, Tikitapu, Rotoehu, and Rotoma, are all worthy of a look if time allows.

Lake Rereakaaitu is a shallow exposed lake well stocked with rainbows, usually up to 4-pound, but I have seen one fish of 9-pound taken trolling a couple of years back. A lovely place to go and camp in summer and take the kids out for a bit of sport.

Lake Waikaremoana

The other major lake in the Eastern Region is my favourite, worth every inch of the bumpy, twisty, gravel road to get there, and that is Lake Waikaremoana. A large lake set in the Urewera National Park, surrounded by bush and stocked with both rainbows and browns. The lake is open all year round, with the rivers flowing into the lake opening on the 1st of December. We used to camp there for a week or so when the rivers opened, enjoying good sport on the
spawned fish dropping back to fatten up in the lake, and in the evening use a little dry to catch the well-conditioned fish in the estuary type part of the rivers. When we tired of that we would pair up and go spotting for the big cruising browns on the beaches and flats around the edge of the lake itself.

At the end of the week, we were all fished out with plenty of happy memories to get us through the busy Christmas times.

When I came to this area it was the lake fishing that attracted my attention and imagination. But my roots were based on the dry fly, nymph techniques, so it wasn’t long before the urge to return to the type of fishing I enjoyed the most on the streams and rivers, took over. I found my waders and 8/9 rod packed away, and out came the tramping boots and 6 weight rod, and more surprises were to come from my explorations.

The local Tauranga rivers and small hydro lakes surprised me with the variety of fishing available. From small bush streams with brown trout up to 8-pound and the main hydro lake, Lake McLarens, holding browns and rainbows up to 6-pound.

Kaituna River

The Kaituna river that flows out of Lake Rotoiti and flows to the sea near Te Puke holds good numbers of fish through its length, with the well-publicised trout pools just as it leaves the lake, providing good nymph and dry fly fishing close to Rotorua.

Tarawera River

As you travel into the Eastern Bay of Plenty, towards Whakatane, you cross the Tarawera River. Unfortunately, the effluent from the Paper Mill at Kawerau has made the river unfishable below the town, but recent work by the local fish and game council with considerable help from Tasman Forestry between the town and the lake should bring a huge improvement to the access and the productivity of this river.

The Rangitaiki River is probably the biggest river system in this region, having its headwaters on Lochinvar Station on the Napier Taupo Highway, flowing through the pine plantations of the Kaiangaroa Forest, through two hydro lakes to the sea. The hydro lakes hold good fish, with Lake Aniwhenua being the most productive. Fish of over 10-pound have regularly been caught here.

Just above this lake, the Horomanga Stream joins the river. It is the main spawning stream of fish from the lake and has its headwaters deep in the Urewera Mountains. It provides excellent early and late season fishing for both browns and rainbows, with two rainbows, landed over 5kg (11-pound), and many fish in the 7 to 9-pound class reported. Two huts on the river provide for a comfortable 2 to the 3-day tramping fishing experience.

Ten kilometres upstream from the Horomanga the main tributary joins the Rangitaiki at the township of Murupara. The Whirinaki flows out of the State forest bordering the Ureweras.

The upper bush section has low numbers of fish but provides good sport for the trampers on the Whirinaki track. When the river reaches the town of Minginui it opens out and provides excellent fishing, again for both browns and rainbows. We seem to catch the rainbows on nymph during the day, and the browns on a dry in the evening and night.

Below the road to Waikaremoana, the Whirinaki heads into a section called the Gorge. This section is best approached from the Murupara end and will provide the experienced angler with some excellent results.

Above the town of Murupara and Rangitaiki flows through the forests and access permits are obtained from Tasman Forestry or Forestcorp. They will also provide an access map to allow you to navigate the forest roads. Good fishing is available here, but you need to allow plenty of time to explore the waters as you go.

Whakatane River

The Whakatane River also flows north out of the Ureweras. It is a river I have only fished once, due to problems with leaving cars at road ends. We caught some lovely fish, all rainbows, on the nymph and dry fly, and I would love to go back there again if they ever get the access and car interference problems sorted out.

I have only just started exploring the Waioeka River in the last few years and it is rapidly becoming one of my favourites. The river flows beside the Opotiki/Gisborne highway for about 40km, before the main road leaves the river and heads over the hill to the Motu. The lower river holds good stocks of smaller fish, up to 4-pound, but an Eastern Fish and Game Councillor, Sandy Lawrie, landed a magnificent 15-pound brown, below Opunae.

After Christmas, there is a magic Lacemoth hatch and the fish will rise to nothing else, and provide excellent sport. The river in these lower reaches provides hard fighting fish in some heavy water, providing an excellent test of skill There is a gravel road carrying on upstream after the main road leaves and for those wanting a tramping/fishing holiday, there is some excellent water above Wairata, well serviced by DOC huts.

The Motu has been a disappointment to me. After a brilliant start, when I caught 7 fish in an afternoon, I have struggled to produce fish. It always seems to be murky and I seem to bypass it on the way to the upper Waioeka or the Ruakituri. The Ruakituri River has become the river I like to go to when it is time for me to get away from it all. The lower section from Te Reinga Falls to Papuni flows through farmland. Mainly rainbows live in this section, but they can be stalked as they lie out on the papa slabs, almost as if they are sunning themselves.

Above Papuni the river becomes more of the traditional water, with rainbows in the faster moving runs, and some very large browns in the pools, all the way up to the Waitangi Falls. This section of the river is another of the tramping type waters, with excellent results to the patient stalker of trout.

Up to this point, our travels have taken us around the outskirts of the area. But, for me, the best fishing in the area is in the backcountry of the Urewera and Whirinaki mountains. Access is by tramping or helicopter but the rewards are there for those who are prepared to pay or take the time. A small stream in the Ureweras is supposed to have the purest strain of rainbows in New Zealand. Fish of up to 16-pound have been landed from this small stream.

Twenty-four Rainbow Trout averaging 7 1/4 lbs. each taken by two rods in the Rotorua district in 1920. Rollett, F. Carr (1920) Angling in New Zealand. Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, p. 31
Twenty-four Rainbow Trout averaging 7 1/4 lbs. each taken by two rods in the Rotorua district circa 1920. Rollett, F. Carr (1920) Angling in New Zealand. Whitcombe & Tombs Limited, p. 31

Others, like the Waiau, Waikare, Kahanui, are all small wilderness streams that provide the angler with the ultimate in backcountry fishing.

The Eastern Region of the North Island to me has something for every fisherman, young or old, fit or fat. So next time you want to get away from it all, give us a call or come and see us, we are “somewhere near Taupo,” but we have a lot more to offer.

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