March 31, 2022
By Ross Purnell
“This is the river God created for the days He wanted to go fishing,” said guide Tim McCarthy as we waited for our helicopter ride into the Rangitaiki River on New Zealand’s North Island.
The “Tiki” was everything Tim promised—aqua blue/green water, clear enough to count the spots on a rainbow sitting in 4 feet of water, small enough to cross above and below every good pool, and with a history of double-digit trout. (My biggest that day was over 8 pounds, a modest trout for this river.)
But if you were omnipotent, why limit yourself to one “perfect” river? Why not an entire remote island country with a mountainous geology bursting a fountain of intimate, cold trout streams with optimum habitat for growing large trout—and the perfect size and clarity for dependable sight-fishing with large dry flies? Indeed, why not New Zealand?
While the Rangitaiki seemed (on the first day of a 13-day trip) to be a benchmark river by which all other rivers could be compared, what I discovered is that it is not in a class by itself. The North Island is strewn with dozens of pristine wilderness rivers like the Ngaruroro, Taruarau, Ikawatea, and many others.
When you regularly take 6- to 10-pound trout in what would be headwater streams back home, you have to ponder: “What makes these waters so special compared to our North American trout streams?”
Is there more food, a secret elixir in Southern Hemisphere water, or a better breed of trout? Nope. What makes them special is mostly their untouched habitat and extremely limited access.
In the backcountry of New Zealand’s North Island there are huge roadless tracts—national parks and other public lands, Maori-owned forests, and vast private ranches—that both isolate and protect both the fish and their habitat.
On the upper Rangitaiki and many other clear, iconic North Island sight-fishing streams, the surrounding landscape is dense old-growth forest that has never been logged. With little history of logging, industry, roads, or plow-and-seed agriculture in some upper watersheds, it’s little wonder the streams there are clear and productive.
Of course, this isn’t true of all North Island streams. In the lower reaches of many streams—where there are roads, easy public access, heavy agriculture, factories, and industry—all bets are off. In the developed parts of the country you’ll find some turbid streams, public stretches of rivers near lake mouths where crowds compete for space, and in many cases, fairly mediocre fishing.
If you are going to fly to the opposite side of the globe to go trout fishing, your vision should be focused on backcountry fishing, one of the best spot-and-stalk trout hunting experiences in the world.
The preserved habitat of the remote North Island streams creates a perfect storm of trout growing conditions. With no pollution, mild winters, and only one native predator (carnivorous eels) the trout live up to twice as long as their North American counterparts. And although the streams are not excessively fertile, the 12-month growing season and additional food sources like mice and terrestrials produce trout that are never measured in inches. Only poundage can describe and constructively compare fish like these.
In headwater streams in the U.S., where the trout are generally tiny, the consolation is usually that there are a lot of them. In North Island mountain streams with big trout, the opposite is usually true, with (generally) one big trout dominating and controlling an entire pool. On one memorable walk with New Zealand guiding legend Simon Dickie, we hiked 5 kilometers of stream (about 3 miles), spotted 15 trout, hooked 14, and landed 12 of them—all on Mike Lawson’s Green Machine cicada imitation.
Despite these statistics, the fishing wasn’t easy by any standard definition. The trout sit in the deeper, slower parts of the pools and show outstanding awareness of their domains. You often crawl on your knees, cast from a distance, use 12- to 14-foot leaders, and lay your casts down gently. The trout are not used to seeing people, so anything unusual can alert them. The guides won’t even cross the river upstream of a pool they plan to fish.
Once you’ve passed the “sneaky” threshold, however, the trout are relatively naïve and show how they attain their girths—they eat nearly everything that drifts into view. They act as though they don’t see many artificial flies, and this is the second crucially important aspect of New Zealand backcountry fishing. The trout act like hungry, wild creatures untrained by catch-and-release—because they have in many cases experienced little fishing pressure.
In the U.S. we are used to sharing the water on streams where there are many fish. On a productive U.S. tailwater for instance, there may be 3,000 trout per mile, so sharing that mile with several other fly fishers isn’t a problem.
On some New Zealand streams with only a handful of big resident fish per beat, a single catch-and-release angler can have a significant effect on the local fishery. Every day I spent on the North Island was exciting, with numerous opportunities at big fish. I never had a “bad” day, but it was easy to see how, if another angler had fished up the same stream ahead of me, I could have easily been skunked.
In fact, my guide said that if the water had been fished that week, I would have had considerably poorer fishing. They try to rest each piece of water for at least two weeks between guests. Most of the water is rested much longer.
In New Zealand, the rivers and streams are public resources. As in Montana, fly fishers can walk/wade their way upstream on most rivers from public access points like bridges. Unlike Montana, on the best streams the public accesses are often a long way from the prime fishing.
If you are willing to walk, the New Zealand Department of Conservation manages a network of more than 950 backcountry huts nationwide, many of them located within walking distance of each other on remote trout streams. The huts cost $5 NZ per night and come with bunks and sleeping pads. All you need to carry is a light sleeping bag and food. (For more information see doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-stay.) The huts are used mostly by hunters and backpackers, and local guides and helicopter pilots who watch the comings and goings from on high say that Kiwi or visiting fly fishers rarely stay in them.
I visited the Kaweka Forest Park Cameron Car Park—a camping area and trailhead for three major “tracks” (trails), as well as the hut system that extends more than 30 miles up the Ngaruroro River. It was early February and local schools were on summer vacation, yet there were no campers at the trailhead and ours was the only vehicle at the car park. Based on everything I saw, we were the only ones on the Ngaruroro that day.
Hut-to-hut backpacking is a viable option for the do-it-yourself crowd, but most visiting fly fishers access the remote reaches of the best rivers by helicopter. This transforms your day from an 80:20 hiking/fishing ratio to a full day of fishing.
While anyone can take a long walk up a river like the Rangitaiki or the Ngaruroro, you cannot just fly your own helicopter and land wherever you please. The best lodges and guides work with chopper companies like Helisika—a company that specializes in hunting and fishing excursions, and thrives on its extensive agreements with both government agencies and private landowners for riverside landing privileges (helisika.co.nz).
The pilots consult with the guides to make sure that your “trip of a lifetime” occurs on unfished water. And there is so much water, and so few backcountry fly fishers (walking or heli-fishing), that every day of heli-fishing is like a trip in a time machine—back to when the habitat was perfect, and giant trout fed in clear water as though they’d never seen a hook in their lives.
Lake Taupo is the largest freshwater lake in New Zealand and the hub in the wheel of North Island trout fishing. The lake is home to a special breed of rainbow trout that grows quickly on a diet consisting primarily of smelt. Years ago, the lake itself was a fantastic fly-fishing venue, and anglers could wade the shallow edges—right along the roadside in some cases—and cast to large trout feeding on schools of smelt trapped along the shore. This opportunity has arisen less frequently in the past decade, due in large part to consumptive fishing regulations (bag limit of three trout per day) and an explosive growth in the popularity of bottom jigging in the lake itself.
The best fishing in the area occurs on tributary streams that feed directly into Taupo—like the Tongariro—or headwater streams like the Rangitaiki and the Whanganui, which eventually feed directly into the ocean.
In 1927 Zane Grey called the Tongariro the “green-white thundering Athabasca River of New Zealand” and it has been globally famous for its outstanding fishing ever since. It has excellent backcountry fishing for resident rainbows in its upper reaches, and both resident rainbows and browns in its lower reaches. It also has seasonal migrations of spawning lake rainbows, comparable to runs of Great Lakes steelhead. In fact, Taupo rainbows were first imported from Sonoma Creek, a tributary of the Russian River in California. Genetically, they are steelhead.
In some years the spawning run in the Tongariro consists of 40,000 to 50,000 trout, and they average 3 to 4 pounds—with many running much larger. Taupo migrations peak in April/May (fall) and October/November (spring), but there are also fresh fish coming into the river all winter.
During winter, water temperatures are lower, and there can be frost on the fields alongside the Tongariro. While there is snow on some of the volcanic peaks, winter on the North Island is much milder than in the trout belt of North America, and springtime is not marked by snowmelt and a deluge of high, muddy rivers.
Tongariro Lodge sits on the northeast bank of the Tongariro, just 8 kilometers upstream from the river mouth. With access to property on both sides down to the lake, it’s an easy and productive day to raft from the lodge to the estuary, and fish the winding bends, gravel bars, and deep, undercut banks.
Although you can blind-cast cicada patterns and beadheads against the bank à la hopper-dropper from an anchored raft, the best experiences still come when you stop the boat above the big pools, and spot-and-stalk the large resident browns or migrating rainbows.
Upstream, there are also two exceptional Tongariro River wilderness raft-fishing options. One is in the headwaters of the Tongariro, where floating is the only way to access 13 kilometers of pools and runs.
Tongariro Lodge also does heli trips to regional backcountry streams, as well as a choreographed three-day, tent-camping tramp through the “no-fly zone” on the Rangitaiki. This is not for the faint of heart, and still requires helicopter access at the drop-off and pickup spots, but it gets you deep into the heart of one of the North Island’s most remote areas and allows you to spend mornings and evenings on the river.
Over the past 30 years, Tongariro Lodge owner Tony Hayes has built a reputation for an outstanding fishing lodge. He employs top guides and offers access to more than 40 streams and four lakes using four-wheel-drive vehicles, and has made special arrangements with area landowners, so his clients can fish vast sheep ranches and other holdings. At Tongariro Lodge you don’t have to heli-fish to get to undisturbed water, but the option is there.
In addition to outstanding accommodations and dining, the lodge is on the doorstep of Tongariro World Heritage National Park—home to New Zealand’s most popular one-day hike, the Alpine Tongariro Crossing. There is also golfing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking, and a host of other activities nearby.
Exceptional fly fishing isn’t the only reason to visit New Zealand. A much larger tourism business in New Zealand centers around the country’s $1 billion wine industry, and most visiting fly fishers also want to get a taste of the local vineyards.
Hawke’s Bay, for instance, is New Zealand’s original wine-growing region, and today the largest red wine–producing region in the country, with 172 vineyards producing over 80 percent of the national vintage for both Cabernet Merlot and Syrah. To the west are the nearby Kaweka and Ruahine forest parks, both with trout-bearing watersheds that drain into Hawke’s Bay.
Mike McClelland at Best of New Zealand Fly Fishing (bestofnzflyfishing.com) has found that many visitors prefer the bed-and-breakfast lifestyle of the wine-tasting circuit, with alternating days of guided fly fishing.
A group of guys on a fishing trip often prefer a fishing lodge—or something more rustic—where the activities are all fishing. Traveling couples enjoy the variety of a bed and breakfast with its own wine label, preferably close to the beach, and a 45-minute drive to Kuripapango, where the Taihape Road crosses the Ngaruroro. Such a place is Cardoness Lodge & Vineyard (cardoness.co.nz), a 32-acre spread with 144,000 vines, 250 olive trees, and gracious accommodations provided by owners Sarah and Neil Smith.
McClelland has a short list of the country’s best small-venue accommodations. Cardoness is close to great fishing, but if you let him know your other interests, he can mix fly fishing with just about anything or anywhere you want to stay.
Manawa Ridge (manawaridge.co.nz) is a eco-dream home built by hand over seven years by Willem and Carla van de Veen. They’ve spent their lives as dairy farmers, but Carla is also an artist who sculpted the basins in every room, created the stained glass windows, chiseled the statues in each private garden, and inset each pebble into the hand-laid outdoor hot tubs. Together Willem and Carla raised the frames made of recycled telephone poles and railroad ties, and poured each 90-kilogram mud brick to create the walls. Carla teaches sculpting on the property while Willem takes guests on Harley tours of the countryside. (We rode Harleys to the Ohinemuri River. The fishing was poor, but the riding was outstanding.)
If you prefer great beaches and both Maori and Pakeha history, McClelland can put you in 970 Lonely Bay Lodge in Whitianga (970lonelybay.co.nz). From the patio doors you can walk to the undeveloped Cooks Beach where in 1769, Captain James Cook aboard the Endeavour watched the passage of Mercury across the sun, and calculated the first accurate longitude and location of New Zealand. You can also rent sea kayaks and take guided tours of Cathedral Cove, but don’t fish there—it’s a marine preserve.
New Zealand was the first country to raise the alarm about the invasive nuisance Didymosphenia geminata, and today has the strictest regulations and enforcement of protective measures against invasives of any country I’ve every visited. At the baggage claim they have beagles sniffing not for drugs, but for agricultural products such as oranges, or maybe farm mud on the bottoms of shoes in your luggage.
If you bring used wading boots, or flies that may harbor algae, biosecurity agents may determine the items are a threat, dip them in disinfectant, and return them in a plastic bag.
To avoid complications, I brought a new box of all-new flies, new waders, and new boots with the hang-tags still attached. I told the agent I was well aware of aquatic nuisances, that I brought all new tackle to New Zealand, and I walked through with no problems. Both Tongariro and Poronui lodges also have waders and boots available for use by their fishing guests, and cleaning stations at the lodge for visits to other watersheds.
Bring sturdy, comfortable boots to New Zealand. You don’t get beautiful, clear-running water in streams with muddy bottoms. The best New Zealand rivers have clean, round gravel in the tailouts, and bedrock and huge boulders nearly everyplace else. Plain rubber soles are great on mud bottoms and on mostly small gravel, but on big, round boulders you’ll need heavy-duty boots with metal studs.
Bring longer rods than you are used to—9½- and 10-foot, 5-weight or 6-weights rods are about right. You often sit or kneel when casting, and the extra length provides more clearance on the backcast and for mending.
New Zealand Gold
Simon Dickie—the smiling Kiwi guide on the cover of this magazine—is a two-time Olympic Gold Medal winner. He was rowing cox at the 1968 Mexico City and 1972 Munich games, where his truly amateur team beat powerful opposition from larger countries like U.S.A. and communist East Germany, and made the New Zealand team members heroes in their home country.
After the 1972 Olympics, he started the company Simon Dickie Adventures and specialized in guided fishing and shooting expeditions. During the same period when Tony Hayes was developing Tongariro Lodge, Dickie was building Poronui Lodge and acquiring prime real estate nearby. The full-service sporting venue he created stretches over 16,000 acres and includes 25 river miles. The Taharua spring creek winds through a valley in the middle of the property, while the tumbling Mohaka River forms one of the boundaries.
In 1878 the first recorded stocking of brown trout in New Zealand took place at the bridge crossing on Taharua Road. Simon and I stood on the bridge, looking at the pool that received those first English brown trout from the Itchen and the Wye. He said that no other trout have ever been released into the Taharua, but the stock has been used to transplant to other watersheds in New Zealand. English streams in the past 100 years have been repeatedly replenished with mixed brown trout stock from Germany and elsewhere, making many fly fishers postulate that Taharua browns are the truest bloodline of English chalkstream browns on the planet.
Dickie sold Poronui in 1998 during an explosive period in the fly-fishing industry when lodges and manufacturers were being swept up by entrepreneurs—many of them from the dot-com world with little experience in fly fishing. (Poronui sold again in 2006—the asking price was $62 million.) Today the lodge is still one of New Zealand’s best all-around sporting venues.
After selling the lodge, Dickie turned his business interests to fruit orchards—he is the largest exporter of gold kiwi fruit in New Zealand. He still loves to fish, and more interestingly, he still loves to guide other fly fishers and show them the North Island streams he has enjoyed most of his life. The three days I spent with him on the Ngaruroro, Taruarau, and Ikawatea rivers were some of the most idyllic days I’ve ever had onstream with any companion. A day fishing with him is like meeting your long-lost older brother, who happens to have the eyes of an osprey, has a key to every gate, always lets you fish, and somehow manages to provide a fine bottle of wine at the end of each day.
Dickie is obviously an extremely limited resource. He can be booked only through Best of New Zealand Fly Fishing (bestofnzflyfishing.com). Owner Mike McClelland has known Dickie for more than 20 years—since the days when McClelland booked his American clients into Poronui Ranch, and Dickie was both owner and host.
Ross Purnell is the editor of Fly Fisherman magazine.