Doubtless Bay to Lake Taupo – Fishy Tales From The Far North

Doubtless Bay to Lake Taupo – Fishy Tales From The Far North By Lyn McKinnon

After some soul-searching about missing the height of the salmon season in March, we responded to the family’s call to their new bach at Cable Bay. Join us on our North Island fishing odyssey from Doubtless Bay to Lake Taupo.

After all, you can’t do everything, and a trip to the remote northern territory was long overdue for a couple of one-eyed Mainlanders.

Though the golden sands of Doubtless Bay seemed almost as far north as we could imagine, it would be a great opportunity to see if the fishing was as easy as they say. On the long drive up, we planned our budget during the three-week break, leaving enough for a charter trip from Mangōnui and also to bag a Taupo trout on the way home.

Penelope’s scorpion fish goes under the knife.

When we got to Cable Bay, we were extremely pleased with what we saw: a sub-tropical paradise with azure waters and exotic vegetation, the bach poised on the cliff above a pristine semi-private beach. The view from the breakfast deck right from the first morning was awe-in-spiring: dolphins frolicked in front of us, eager and energetic craft scooted to favourite fishing points, and flocks of seagulls followed schools of kahawai around the shoreline.

Kahawai, Doubtless Bay.

Our ambitions grew far and away past our actual capabilities: this, the landing place of Kupe on his first voyage from Hawaiiki, was certain to be our own fabled happy fishing ground.

The family are actually New Yorkers, so most of the local advice came from Paul, the builder who was working on the place. Lunch breaks had previously yielded his workmate an easy catch from the rocks on the beach below the house – probably trevally, he said.

As they say, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. But we borrowed his rod, looked in vain for bait on the rocks, and then picked up some squid from the local dive shop.

We waded out from the beach onto a rocky promontory which looked ideal. Though we could see the sparkling blue water teeming with small fish, and we had plenty of local company to assure us that we were in the right place and doing the right thing, we drew a complete blank bait-fishing – both here and at Smokehouse Bay, another beach property the family owns on the eastern tip of Doubtless Bay.

Instruction as the fish strikes. Note the big downrigger and heavy lead ball used for deep trolling.

It was time to summon up other skills. Fortunately, in our go-everywhere bumbag, we still had a few salmon ticers. The sudden arrival of seagulls very close in, near dusk one evening, alerted us to the kahawai. This was to prove the experience of the whole holiday – and it was free! Selwyn the rod-man experienced the exhilaration of repeated strikes – I was the fall guy on the rocks, slipping and slithering and getting soaked as I retrieved and released the fish.

The kahawai makes any encounter memorable, not only their fighting spirit but its steely-blue, streamlined beauty. We kept two – one for the pot, and one to give to our advisers.

The author with a rainbow trout for dinner, taken trolling on Lake Taupo.

With our appetites now whetted, not only by the kahawai which we find delicious in Tom Yum soup but by local fish sampled in the local restaurants, it was time for the big expense – a fishing trip in Doug McColl’s launch, The Happy Hooker.

Our American nieces, fresh from life in the Big Apple, had never ever been fishing, so were keen to come too. On a calm and pleasant morning, we boarded the boat fortified with ginger pills for seasickness. In a patronisingly-antipodean way, I agreed perhaps it was advisable for saltwater novices to be prepared.

As we moved away from the sleepy Mangōnui Harbour, Doug said he’d be taking us straight out to deep water. I looked at the long, loopy swells and thought – how pleasant. But as the boat hit one after the other at full speed, he advised us to hold tight, and as we clutched the handrail, our feet were repeatedly lifted right off the ground, then thumped down in a knee-graunching, teeth-jarring exercise of balance and self-control. It seemed forever before he decided on the spot and anchored.

At this stage I was looking anxiously at the others, wondering whether my inside condition of queasiness was general.

I asked intelligent questions about the fish finders, depth (51 metres, ) reefs, and bait (pilchards and squid). I held onto the rod and tried to look at the horizon, not at the swirling water below me. I thought not of ships and sealing wax, but many other things. All to no avail – in front of all present, I suddenly threw up, and this was just the beginning.

Doubtless Bay to Lake Taupo – Seasick, Oh No!

For the next four hours, I alternately pleaded to be released onto the nearest rock, clutched pitifully at the side of the boat while I lost stomach linings and eyeballs into the briny, and lay miserably unconscious on the cabin floor, wishing he’d take another $70 to get me off the boat.

Meanwhile, the New Yorkers fished happily on. Penelope caught a picturesque orange scorpion fish and hooked a mako shark which cut through the line as it performed its airborne dance of defiance. Juliet scored the biggest fish, trevally, some snapper and maomao. Justine took some snapper and maomao and blue cod, but Selwyn’s fate was once again kahawai, and a few other small boys.

Jeoff Prankerd with his catch.

My contribution was simply the ground bait, and some sort of penance in being the filleting fellow once I was happily back on shore. I have to say I differ from the enthusiasts in The Happy Hooker visitors’ book – this is not a trip I’d recommend.

We left the north, speeding south to Taupo where I hoped to be able to freshwater fish within a stone’s throw of dry land. A few childhood memories of rough boating conditions at Hatepe were enough to make me very nervous about our next planned expedition – lake fishing on the Super Cat, one of Chris Jolly’s four luxurious launches. Doubtless Bay to Lake Taupo might seem an odd mixture but for visiting tourist anglers with limited time it works very well.

View Larger Topographic Map of Doubtless Bay in New Zealand’s far north. Click or tap on the map to enlarge it.

Well, though our week in Taupo was unsettled, the day for our trip was beautiful, and with the comfort and stability of the larger vessel, my fears were allayed. 

I was pleased to hear the operators choose their fishing area for the comfort of passengers, with Lake Taupo so extensive it can always offer some shelter.

The Downrigger Lead Cannonball Was Set at 110 feet (33m).

Lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore is my kind of fishing, I’ve decided. I watched as Paul Beamish set up the rods – using the downrigger to set up the Tasmanian Devils and Cobras at about 110′ depth. He explained that trout are delicate fighters with soft mouths, and will come to the surface quickly.

The lake has been fishing consistently this year, he said. Usually, fish average 3.5 lbs, but this season have averaged 5 lbs, though there have been an encouraging number of smaller fish caught too.

The downriggers are used so that other lines can be left out. We fished around the Jerusalem Bay area, using Silstar rods and Newell graphite reels. Here, treble hooks are illegal, we heard, because of the catch and release policy, so many young fish, and strict adherence to the 45cm minimum length regulations. The lake has an average depth of 350‘, but they don’t fish lower than 120′, and this leaves plenty of habitats untouched.

I must admit to feeling a bit guilty, just watching for the telltale dip of the rod end, on the sort of day you could expect someone to appear with a gin and tonic. Nor was the actual catch of the trout very remarkable, except that I actually did reel it in. In the end, for the eight of us on the trip, there were only three trout to take away: though most of us felt the pleasure of the fish on the end of the line, many were too small to be kept.

The biggest, at 4.5 lbs, was to be taken out to dinner at one of the many Taupo restaurants which will prepare and cook your catch. Geoff Prankerd, a gurnard and snapper fisherman from Taranaki, decided to take his 31b trophy home to smoke. And mine, recorded on camera for the edification of the South, was to be the piece de resistance at a family reunion in Napier that night.

Rainbows End

Taylor in the Sunday Star Times March 29, claims Taupo’s trout are under threat, and with them the tourist-based economies of many towns and communities that depend on the gold-bearing rainbows.

The rainbow trout fishery is estimated to bring more than $100 million annually into the region’s coffers. More than 80% of the 70,000 Taupo fishing licences issued annually are for visiting New Zealand and overseas anglers. It’s estimated that trout fishing in Lake Taupo represents 40 per cent of all
freshwater fishing in New Zealand. 

Every year, millions of trout leave the lake and fight their way upstream to spawn in the shallow gravel beds of tributaries which are struggling to support fish populations. Ten years ago DOC reacted to reduced numbers by slashing bag limits from eight to three and increasing the minimum size from 35 to 45cm.

A trout is lifted aboard. It was taken on a lure run deep from the downrigger.

Taupo’s Fishery Management Plan says the fishery and habitat are sensitive to changes from land development, hydroelectric power developments, afforestation, and climatic factors, as well as heavy recreational use. There are other factors as well including large-scale poaching, the illegal introduction of other fish species, foreign water weeds, and noxious ash.

Residents of Waitahanui remember 60 anglers in the local picket fence catching all they wanted – now, an angler is lucky to get one.

The Lake Taupo Fishing Advisory Committee is recommending compulsory belts of native reserve on both sides of trout fishing streams, to ensure damage from forestry and farming is kept down, and retain breeding grounds for the manuka beetle, the brown beetle and cicadas.

Water quality is another concern, with sewage seepage likely to threaten smelt, the chief source of food for trout, and debris flushed from the Rongipo hydro dam entering the Tongariro River to smother trout fry and redds.

Poaching is frustrating to conservators, with nets being used to take up to 70 trout in half an hour. Another menace is the brown bullhead catfish, which competes with trout for food.

Severe measures taken by DOC seem to have worked for the moment, but to prevent the fishing from getting even tougher, it’s time for all New Zealanders to wake up to the important message – conserve the environment or lose a huge resource.

And so ends our little Doubtless Bay to Lake Taupo fishing trip.

This post was last modified on 14/03/2024 3:33 pm

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