Moana Kotuku – The Waters of Lake Brunner
by Paul Corliss
Moana-Kotuku (Sea of the White Heron) or Lake Brunner, choose which name has the most appeal. They both represent the largest lake in Westland. A body of water some 16 square miles in area, it draws strength from and gives strength to some of the most varied trout waters in the South Island.
Waters spring-fed and weed-bottomed, flood-prone shingle beds, broad beaches of lake-lapped sand and stable bush-clothed depths. Of most interest to anglers are the lake itself, the Orangipuku River, Bruce Creek, Hohonu River, Crooked River and the proliﬁc Arnold River and its tributaries. All about are smaller lakes, rivers and spring-fed streams that can deliver the goods. Lakes like Poerua and rivers like the Héupiri are all within easy distance, the spring-fed streams are there for the discovering.
There are acres of trout-laden water on the Arnold River. Immense ﬂats that because of their width and slow flow you think of more as paddocks. In places, the bottom is garlanded with weed and on a sunny day can be viewed at leisure from beneath the bushes and trees at the tail. Trout graze the nymphal harvest, so busy in the warmth and still of the late evening that the water literally boils for as far up the shining alleyway that one can see, the dark Arnold trapped between the forest of kahikatea, beech, rimu and fern. If you time your angling for dusk you will be witness to the evening ﬂashes of trout as they leave the water in their eagerness.
Moana-Kotuku Fly Selection
It is just able to be waded but beware the shelving drop that heralds the deep gut that wanders from bank to bank. Slippery stones and boulders underfoot, the Arnold at full ﬂow is not to be taken casually. When a full lake delivers the tan waters up and through the bush edges you are likely to have more than access problems. With a fat hare and copper nymph, I have taken a trout as it cruised in water that the day before had been a dry clearing between clumps of crown fern which I had walked through on my way to the river.
The hatching caddis and mayfly are so thick at times that you have to brush them from your face. They pour off the water like rising smoke and ash. Here, the delicate upstream cast to a chosen fish often goes unrewarded as the plenty leaves your imitation simply one of the hundreds from which feeding fish can choose. The chanced-on solution requires a big deer-hair or elk-hair imitation to be either swung across the current to skitter attraction to itself or jerked back upstream on a long line. If that fails, a short, sharp strip-retrieve from below the ﬂy, to ﬂick the whisks of hackle across the surface and draw attention, makes it stand out from the swarm. Remember, if this does not get the desired returns, the trout may be dining on aborted nymphs or emergers trapped on or under the surface film. A greased and unweighted hare and copper, wet caddis or similar ﬂy will fit the bill but, again, it is up against a lot of competition. The bushy American imports do the job well, the Royal Wulff, the Adams, the Humpy range and the Elk-Hair caddis.
The Goddard Caddis is a superb imitation but do not neglect the more traditional and long proven dries, particularly the Coch-y-Bondhu, Moleﬂy, Greenwell’s Glory or the Twilight Beauty. These flies are probably more productive for the angler in the daylight when the naturals are not as abundant.
The bigger bushier flies can signal their presence better to a trout that has plenty of choices late evening. Do not despair if Coast mist descends, the fishing carries on. I have ﬁshed the evening rise with fishing mate Keith Loader, while it rained so thick and near vertical that I was unable to see Keith, who stood downstream in waist deep water only a couple of rod lengths away from me. As the river and the air become one, we landed ﬁsh and laughed at our affliction.
Often you ﬁsh with another sullen angler, rigid in the shadows. The white-faced heron daintily stalks the edges, striking at bullies and inanga. A lesson in careful movement, concealment and poise for the flyﬁsher to follow.
Moana-Kotuku Spin Fishing
Strike it low and the Arnold becomes a different river altogether. Those featureless reaches, previously deep and broad, shrink down to mirror the undulating bed. A new river then becomes available, not so imposing, visible trout, with runs and rapids to spot in. If all else fails, resort to the spinner, not as aesthetic maybe but the results can be just as pleasing. A green and yellow Tassie Devil, silver glimmy, chrome or black Toby or any of the deadly but expensive range of Rapalas will serve you well.
The mouth of the Arnold by the swingbridge is often ﬁshed late evening and into the night by exponents of the sunken lure. Big trout cruise up from the deep channel or sidle in from the depths of the lake and come searching along the margins. The whole length of the river abounds in trout, from the source at the lake to where it empties into the mighty Grey River. A MAF drift dive survey in 1987 showed nearly 250 trout sighted in one 1400 metre reach. Numbers do vary throughout its length and, while most anglers target the lower 11 kilometres, to neglect the top stretch is to deny yourself the chance of considerable pleasure.
In about 1932 a small hydro dam was established on the Arnold about 13 kilometres from the lake. The considerable body of water that was created is known as Lake Ullstrom and it backs up for some 3 or 4 kilometres. There is a fish ladder on the dam but, as far as I am aware, this has been non-operational since 1938 at the request of the local Acclimatisation Society. Do not ignore the pools and runs between the dam and the powerhouse; some 2 kilometres of fine trouting from waters that dawdle compared with the pace of some of the lower stretches.
Stalking the edge of the Moana Kotuku, with the sun highlighting the trout cruising or surfacing as they take, can be a rewarding exercise but do not expect these conditions too regularly.
The beauty of the West Coast is not created by drought conditions and the gentle rain has to fall sometimes. Some anglers cruise the shallow bays spotting trout from softly sculled canoes, quickly flicking out a dry or nymph to wait in ambush. Bush-fringed magic and a delight when the conditions are right, but beware of the nature of big lakes and rising wind if you venture too far from shore. With the bed up to 100 metres deep in places and eels as fat as your canoe, this lake is not to be taken lightly.
Trolling the deep drop-offs where the rivers enter the lake and exploring the bays is favoured by some water-born anglers, who like to have their hands free for other activity.
The Bruce and Orangipuku, on the Mitchells side of Moana-Kotuku, provide unique and charming waters. Native bush stands of manuka, scrub and cursed blackberry straggle along the banks before these two rivers combine their strengths and empty into Swan Bay.
Using little dinghies, many anglers work upstream from the mouth where the trout fishing can be spectacular. There are a few rainbows about but the trollers in the lake account for most of them. The clear waters of the Bruce, with its weed bed, provides the ﬁnest spotting conditions imaginable for the well-fed and easily spooked browns. The renowned fly-tier, John Morton, didn’t maintain a caravan up this river just for the solitude.
The Orangipuku is more shingle bottomed but inviting ripples and pools formed by ﬂood-strewn logs provide superb flyfishing opportunities. Draining the eastern edge of the Hohonu Range, the lower and middle reaches of the Orangipuku are the more productive as the upper part suffers from low flow, particularly in late summer. Rolling close to the edge of the bush as it travels, the river is a delight to share with the fantail or bellbird. The catchment of the Orangipuku supports one of the most important spawning areas for trout from Lake Brunner.
The fish are suspicious and call for carefully presented nymphs and drys attached to delicate leaders. However, I remember when, in the bright sun of summer, I could see a big trout very clearly. It was solid and fat and wary of everything with which I tried to tempt him. In the clear water, I could watch him sliding from side to side, sucking drifting nymphs from the faster water to his right. Occasionally, he would rise lazily to the surface and extract a ﬂoating mayfly dun, a ﬂash of white mouth and starred back.
I had peppered him with most ﬂies and, while I had managed not to put him down, he was not interested. I was struggling, small nymphs, emergers and a good selection of tiny drys were ignored. It would sometimes move half-heartedly towards a nymph or drift apace with a molefly, seemingly sniffing something that was not quite to its liking before turning back down to the quiet water.
With what little finesse I possess soon exhausted, and my fly options shrinking, desperate measures were needed. A plump and cumbersome deer-hair cicada would either create some interest or, as was more likely, send the big trout ﬂeeing beneath the banks. A first accurate cast, the cicada landed heavily and had the big fly scurrying past the lie as it rode the ripples. It was the size of a large sparrow compared with earlier offerings and the trout turned away from it as if tensing to run.
The shock was probably greater for me than the fish. It turned unexpectedly on its tail and charged the cicada, engulfing it completely before it felt the barb take hold. I reacted slowly but it did not matter, the trout had hooked himself and gave a good account before 5 pounds of fat jack was slipped back into the Orangipuku.
One of the pleasant vagaries of trouting is this regular breaking of the “rules” by the fish themselves. Exceptions abound and experimenting with the unusual can deliver when the rules do not seem to apply.
Terrestrial patterns can be very productive on the West Coast. Norman Marsh’s cicada pattern is a good one to try and quite aptly described by John Parsons as “Chirp and Slurp” in his book “Deceiving Trout.”
Moana-Kotuku and Cicadas
The cicada and grasshopper dry have also worked for me on the bigger browns that cruise the holes in the Crooked River. The Crooked twists its way from high above the gorge where it is joined by the spawning water of the Evans River. The headwaters are walking country with permission required. The effort needed to access this quality water gives opportunities to entice the very large resident browns from their deep strongholds. These trout are prime examples of “timid;” they have survived to plump old age by being extremely fussy with their food. Still, maybe at night with a big cicada twitching vibrating circles on the surface.
Above the Moana/Rotomanu bridge, the Crooked has deep shingle-bottomed pools and slow glides that require heavier nymphs like a big gold-ribbed hare’s ear, hare and copper or pheasant tail to get down.
In another example of the rules not applying I had a great battle up here with a big brown. It hugged the bottom of a long pool against a string of granite boulders. Probably ten feet deep, my heavy nymphs made no impression. It was disdainful and choosy. Faced with the choice of walking on and conceding the fight or trying the unusual, I shamelessly tied on one of those ridiculous Tongariro-style copper bombs lavishly adorned with silver bead eyes! The plop as it was artlessly slung into the head of the pool echoed from the rock groynes, but it sunk, no question of that. The trout swung to the right and grabbed it without hesitation. If it had not run my leader straight beneath a sharp boulder I am confident I could have won the day.
Below the bridge, the Crooked slowly changes character as it winds through swamp and willow before rolling over the lip into the dark waters of Moana-Kotuku. Access by boat to the lower reaches is preferable to the torture of slogging through swamp and scrub. The Poerua River joins the Crooked on its way to the mouth, and all of this water produces plenty of fish.
The Crooked ﬂoods quickly and can become a banker as the heavy headwater rains thunder down it. However, the river mends and clears just as quickly as it rises. It is at this time of clearing that spinning is best employed, the cloudy water making the trout less wary of the flashing metal. Access at Te Kinga, the Moana road bridge and the Crooked River Scenic Reserve provide enough fishing to satisfy the keenest angler.
I have not spent enough time on the Hohonu to be able to give fair advice but know that the trout move up from the lake early season and do respond a little more eagerly than the other rivers ﬂowing into the lake. I have fluked an eight-pound brown from here a few years back but I am not sure that foul-hooking a black and skinny slab qualifies as good fishing, snagged punga logs provide more entertainment.
Access to the mouth is by boat but forestry tracks take you up through the scenic reserve and give entry to miles of water. Drive cautiously though, competition for use of the road is heavily weighted in favour of the big logging trucks, whose drivers have the roads named after them and are generally running late for smoko!
If the rivers refuse to clear, if the downpour persists or if the trout express no interest in all that you have to offer, do not despair. The hotel at Moana provides (among other delights) a view to complement the most desperate of anglers, Moana-Kotuku, the Sea of the White Heron.