A Portrait of New Zealand by Darren Woodmass and Dave Parker
Any angler drawing up a bucket list of worldwide fishing destinations would surely include New Zealand in that list and in doing so it would occupy a lofty position. So it was with childlike enthusiasm that Dave Parker and I made the meticulous preparations for our destination half way around the world in February 2015. New Zealand has such a rich diversity of fishing that choosing between the North and South comes down mainly to how much importance you attach to your prerequisites. If Brown Trout are to be your preferred quarry then head South. If you want a mixture of Rainbows and Browns together with a higher density of fish to the rivers then head north.
Many anglers' preconception of the Taupo region is sometimes their misconception. To many the region conjures up images of anglers rubbing shoulders in large pools in rivers such as the famed Tongariro with large nymph rigs supported by preposterously large indicators. True this area does have that but it also has some of the best backcountry fishing New Zealand has to offer. It is with this in mind that Dave and I boarded the plane to hook up with one of the region's best guides - Shane French of Dragonfly Taupo. Throughout our trip Shane would introduce us to the less celebrated rivers and streams of the North Island backcountry.
The Internet is now an important information resource along with books but can only provide certain information on wilderness fishing. To my mind this is the most important aspect to get right in respect of backcountry fishing. By all means do the research court fellow anglers' advice buy the topo maps and watch the DVD's. But if you want to experience the full ‘shebang' - hire a guide. The most diligent research in the world cannot provide the up to date information on wilderness fishing anything like a local guide can and in this respect Shane is your man. He is a superb conduit of local up to date information can accelerate your learning curve on how to fish these out of the way rivers and fast track you into waters that would take you years to discover. After all it's all about economy of effort. Our visit was for three weeks and we sure not going to be spending an inordinate amount of time searching out these waters on our own - we wanted to be fast tracked into the best waters possible.
So what is a backcountry river? It can be described as any waterway that is remote from a settled area and very sparsely populated. Access is usually difficult frequently involving a combination of 4 x 4 and long walks. In short these are generally rugged and inhospitable places requiring effort to access.
If your usual river forays involve whiling away the hours on a southern chalkstream or fishing a long glide on the River Tweed then you need to seriously up the ante in terms of river fitness if you are to navigate the freestone backcountry rivers of the North Island. Generally these are seriously challenging rivers not only to get in to but also to negotiate. Many of the rivers we encountered are situated in valleys and gorges and were super difficult to get into. The rivers themselves are boulder strewn and with a combination of multi depth water and swift crossings they make for a challenging day. Frequently your path up the river would come to an abrupt halt and it would be necessary to scale up the banks of a steep bush infested gorge and drop down the other side to more accessible water and resume progress. It soon became evident that the least accessible water proved to be the most prolific in terms of fishing so if you want the best fishing you need to put the miles in.
What about the fishing? Well it's all it's cracked up to be and better. Shane accessed us into water that gave us some of the most memorable fishing we a have ever encountered. Every river was different in character but all of them offered changeable vistas and with epic backdrops. If like Dave and I your fishing apprenticeship was served extracting 12oz to 2lb Trout from our UK rivers you had better recalibrate your fishing senses in preparation for the first time you strike into 5lb of New Zealand Salmo Trutta. I am convinced these fish fight harder than their South Island cousins do.
February in New Zealand is the equivalent to back end summer in the UK and these backcountry rivers tend to be on the low side. That's not to say the fish won't play ball it just means that you need to fish the pools slightly different to the start of the season. Forget the tails of the pools these fish tend to take comfort in the faster and more turbulent water where they can enjoy the oxygenated water and pick of the many terrestrials falling on to the water. Time and again Shane would instruct us to fire for the ‘guts' of the pool where the slightly deeper water provided some sanctuary and the faster flow offered plenty of oxygen. Fishing the inside line was sometimes productive but you kind of got a nose for where the fish would hit and it was nearly always towards the head of the pool. At this time of year the fish tend to be locked on to Cicada terrestrials. These provide a substantial mouthful for a trout and range in size from size 4 to 10. A typical day would see us start with a dry fly / dropper rig until the weather warmed up. The first sound of Cicada's chirping was usually the precursor for some excellent fishing and it signalled time to dispense with the dropper and concentrate solely on the dry fly. Time after time Trout would smash the Cicada pattern and once hooked would take off down the pool at rate of knots. These fish travelled. Factor in sunken logs tree routes and large boulders and you have an underwater obstacle course clearly set up in the fishes favour. Extracting these fish which usually ranged from 3lb to 6lb was not easy. So many times you would have them beaten and near the net only for them to get second wind and gain instant underwater traction and it's off again on another searing heart pumping run.
Which brings me neatly onto tackle. Your typical 9' #5 pride and joy used to fool fish in the UK simply won't cut it on these freshwater leviathans. Think powerful fast actioned 5 and 6 weights with plenty of power in the butt section to subdue the powerful runs. The Hardy Zenith and Jet range incorporating SINTRIX technology are perfect partners for subduing the searing runs of these fish and the Hardy Ultralight DD large arbour reel provided ample pick up speed and a strong drag.
In my next article we will look more closely at the individual rivers and pay attention to the vital equipment needed to tackle the backcountry rivers of the North Island.
An annual trip to the wonderful lochs of Orkney Scotland helped fuel the enthusiasm for Darren Woodmass to channel his efforts into searching out worldwide fishing destinations to pursue wild Trout. Having left the fly fishing competition scene many years ago his fervour for the sport led him to exploring the breathtaking waterways of New Zealand's South Island. The magical allure of the North Island was the next logical destination.
Hailing from Newcastle UK Dave Parker is a well-travelled and passionate angler. His effort and enthusiasm was rewarded when he was part of the Gold Medal winning team in the FIPS Mouche World Fly-Fishing Championships. Much to his chagrin work commitments prevented his inclusion in the team when the England Squad visited New Zealand in 2008. His visit to the North Island in February 2015 was the perfect tonic.