Ever wondered whether there is anywhere else to fish outside of the maddening crowds in the NZ tourist traps of Taupo and Rotorua? Somewhere a little more challenging perhaps, a little quieter, a little more of an intimate experience, which better reflects what the New Zealand angling experience is ultimately about? A boutique fishery…without compromising your chances of success? Enter Tauranga, and the Kaimai/Mamaku Range.
The best thing about Tauranga's Kaimai/Mamaku Ranges are that they aren't famous (yet) for their trout fishing. Better known for trophy stags, wild boar and superb upland gamebird hunting, these ranges, which divide the East coast from the East Cape region, and Rotorua district, are fairly riddled with all manner of pristine trout delights. For the angler seeking peace, solitude and big fish encounters amongst stunning wilderness, the Kaimai/Mamaku Range is for you.
The Tauranga and East Cape areas are guide country. Most of the back country rivers require local knowledge to even get on, and there may only be five large fish per kilometer of water. There will often be a bit of a bush walk into the Kaimai/Mamaku forest park in the Tauranga region to get to the best areas of river and it's easy to get lost. Do yourself a favour and hire a guide to save time and make accessing the waters easier!
Having said this…the highway from Tauranga to the Waikato, crosses the Kaimai Range. It's a thirty minute drive which crosses or touches 13 productive rivers, reservoirs and lakes. A further ten minutes over the hill and you have another 11 different spring creeks and rivers! It's easy to find a stream with no-one else on it. I call it the “Trout Highway”! The biggest problem some days is deciding from so many choices where to fish. It really can do your head in!
Perhaps the most striking aspect about the Tauranga regions fishery is its distinct lack of freshwater anglers (the marine front is another story!). One can fish for weeks on end, on a variety of rivers, spring creeks and lakes, and never lay eyes on another person. In seventy-three angling days straight last summer I crossed three other anglers on the public waters I fish!
“Is it because there are not many fish present?” I hear you ask…
On the contrary. There are plenty, with a wonderful mix of rainbows and browns in small water, lakes, and larger rivers, and quite a few brown trout only waters too, presenting perfect opportunities to secure the toughest adversary in the freshwater domain – the wise old big brown. My client's top three fish last season were, 18 and 15 pound browns with an 11 pound rainbow to boot. Nine fish in all broke the magic double figure mark. The average size for the area is around the three to four pound mark.
They are all wild fish, and it is possible that there are only six to eight good fish per kilometer of water. As a result, catch and release is strongly adhered to and spotting and stalking is the most successful method of finding and catching them.
October 1st sees the opening of most fishable trout waterways in the BOP, with several Rotorua rivers remaining closed until Dec1st. The beginning of the summer fishing tends to start November. Summer fishing offers unique opportunities to stalk trout that have been sighted using polaroid glasses. Casting to these fish with the dry fly is considered by many to be the ultimate fly fishing experience.
Late May sees the trout start to gear up for spawning. Since most tributary streams close for the spawning season on July 31st, these last two months of the fishing season are highly favourable for the angler. Fish will congregate in large numbers, in prime condition, before running to their actual spawning area. A fresh-run trout presents the angler with the ultimate prize. The climate is cooler in winter, but no-where near the steely freeze encountered in areas like Alaska, where similar activities still endure their winter climate.
Most waters close on 30th June, however enough water remains open all year to keep the avid angler from going crazy!
Summer fishing is where it's really at, for in summer (Nov – May) comes the best sight fishing opportunities. This type of fishing should be re-named “Trout Hunting”, since the angler stalks the river bank until a fish is seen. This individual fish is then watched for a while to determine feeding habits, whereupon the angler makes a stealthy approach staying well hidden from the fish. A shot is taken (the presentation cast), usually with a dry fly, and the fish's reaction clearly observed by the angler. If the cast is good, the rise is thrilling to watch. A poor cast will see the fish disappear upstream! It is so very like deer hunting, except the fish can't smell you from downstream. If they see you, they're gone. If they hear you, they're gone. If they suspect that anything is wrong – they're gone. Just like a deer.
Your shot must be true – or they're gone. Considering that trout have so few natural predators in their New Zealand river environments, other than man, eel and cormorant (shag), they are surprisingly wary and spook easily. Angler camouflage is essential! There will often be an intricate plan devised to get a shot at your fish – which may involve a lengthy stalk using all available cover, or the laying of an ambush and awaiting the fish to return on its beat. This all adds to the thrill of the final battle royal, and the harder the fish, the higher the final sense of reward.
Sight fishing will educate you a great deal about trout behaviour and feeding patterns, and is a great way to learn about which patterns of fly are readily taken and which are not. Often a fish will rise to your fly mere metres in front of you in crystal clear aquarium-esque waters, only to nudge it with its snout and return to its feeding lie. The fly is changed and another presentation is made. Sometimes, if the casts are good and the fish remains un-spooked, it may take fifteen fly changes to catch your fish. Thrilling stuff when the trout in front of you is the biggest you've ever seen! I often present any newly tied “experimental” flies in this manner to the ultimate critics. You soon find out whether they work or not!
Flies and equipment:
A five weight rod and line is ideal for most waters in the vicinity, and I often take a little three weight outfit when fishing the tiny spring creeks. Remember that we are stalking fish here – so a long cast is seldom needed as everything happens at extremely close quarters.
Fluorocarbon leader material is really not necessary – but light tippets are! Make sure you have four pound standard leader – dropping to three pound on wary fish. Also pays to carry some ten-twelve pound leader for when you run into the big boys.
Wet wading is most pleasant in summer, however lightweight thigh waders are handy when getting in amongst the BOP backcountry waters. So few anglers means very few tracks along the rivers, and thigh boots provide a certain amount of leg protection when bank-side scrambling. Crossings are seldom more than shin deep during the low, clear flows of summer.
I will sway towards fly selection for back country stalking in summer….and it is a fairly simple selection. I carry merely five types of flies for summer guiding, as there are really only two main types of hatches going on. The first is the sedge and caddis hatch, starting late October this hatch lasts for most of the summer, and when trout are feeding on these they will hardly look at anything else. A variety of sizes is the key here, and a size 16 is most realistic. Keep dropping in size until it takes! Presentation needs to be very careful and light and a double taper floating line is best across the board.
Turkey Sedge, Adams, Royal Wulff, and Cicada's are really all you need in the dry department, with a variety of Hare and copper nymphs as backup incase you put a fish down. Summer is all about taking them off the surface, right in front of your eyes!
From late November is the cicada hatch, and these noisy critters are trout magnets. The bigger and bushier your cicada imitation, the better, and a fish will travel all the way across the river to take such a worthwhile snack. One thing to note about using big cicada dry flies is that the harder your fly hits the water, the better. This creates quite a noise, and serves to alert the trout that dinner is served. Great for the novice angler, and great for pulling trout up from the bottom of the deepest pools. However, one will find that most trout will be found just a few inches under the surface in summer, slurping dry flies all day (and night) long).
One thing I was taught about night casting to rising fish was to cast nine foot shorter than I thought I was! An old master was fishing alongside me one night….and after numerous “refusals” from a madly rising fish he quietly suggested that I shorten my cast by about nine feet. Next cast, strike! Thanks Jack!!!! Something to do with optical illusions and thinking that the end of my flyline was the fly landing.
Actually, old Jack taught us another trick, and it goes against everything you've ever learnt about keeping a tight line on a hooked fish. I had a stroppy seven pound rainbow on which was getting the better of me downstream on a tiny spring creek. Jack instructed me to throw a big loop of slack line onto the water….yep – you heard right. What happened next was quite amazing. The fish lost all upstream pressure, so swung into the nearest comfortable lie, the loose line then took on a downstream pressure from the fish (which was enough to hold the hook in), and as soon as this downstream pressure came on from the current dragging the line, it slowly started swimming back up to me, giving me all the time in the world to regain line, footing, general positioning and my composure, whence forth the battle continued. Try it one day just for practice – I've never had a fish fall off the end as a result of slack line on the water, just don't try it on the lake!
Little tricks like these can be very handy when fishing the backcountry rivers around Tauranga. With so much small, intimate water the casting surrounds can often be extremely challenging. For a start you will often be casting from the bank amongst tall grasses and ferns. Line control and rod awareness are very important. Loose line can easily snag in the grass, and an out of control rod tip will catch every bush in the vicinity. Keep all movements slow and purposeful to reduce these factors. Oh, and for heavens sake – go out on the lawn and practice keeping your backcast high in the air behind you. This can be done by abruptly stopping your rod on the backcast at 12.00 – not a minute past. The result is a steeple cast – and is great for keeping your fly out of the rough stuff behind you.
Another handy cast is the bow and arrow cast. This is a great one for firing out your fly a short distance with a wall of bush behind you. The fly is held (gingerly) by the hook bend between thumb and forefinger of your free hand and the line held firmly against the rod with your rod hand. Draw back the fly to create a bend in the rod and release the fly keeping the rod as still as possible. Two things to remember and practice here are that you don't need to power up the bend in the rod as much as you might imagine…..a gentle draw is better as it lessens the after shocks in the rod tip that will drag your cast back. The second thing to remember is to turn your rod upside down to execute the entire cast. With the reel on top and a gentle, smooth draw and release you can get a surprising amount of distance – especially if a little slack line lies at your feet. To aim it – imagine finishing the cast with the rod pointing straight out and about two feet above your target! Aim the butt from the beginning so the rod will achieve this position in finality.
Last June we discovered a small “ditch” off the side of the road. We had to crawl through a small tunnel of blackberry to get into it. The stream at the bottom was perhaps only three metres wide and one metre deep, but in a section only 800 metres long we spotted over 20 brown trout each weighing between 10 and 20 pounds! With no room to swing a cat, bow and arrow casting and dapping was employed to get a presentation. They were very hard to bank in such water, however we managed to land four over the season between 11 and 15 pounds. Two fly rods were snapped during the many lost battles, by fish running downstream between the anglers' legs! At one small pool we sat and watched two jacks over 20 lb's smacking the scales off each other. High speed collisions and audible smacks of heavy flesh on flesh had us stunned on the bank. We never reached for the rod's - there wouldn't have been any point!
So why have the Bay of Plenty's, Tauranga, and East Cape, regions escaped unnoticed from the Troutfishers discerning eye for detail? Perhaps because its big game fishing, sailing, diving, surfing, beach resort pursuits have clouded the water so to speak….or maybe being so close to such a heavily promoted Rotorua fishery has left it lying in its shadows.
Tauranga is a Sportsman's Paradise – several of the country's top trophy hunting arena's are minutes up into the hills behind. World record SCI trophy stags were taken here last season, the wild boar are great sport and the gamebird habitat….well, feral pheasant, quail, turkey and peacock run riot. We often take the little side by side out alongside the flyrod from May through August – handy plumage on the old cock pheasant – and the peacocks!
So if you're sick of the crowds, 'copters and educated fish, and want quality flyfishing for big, wild NZ trout in serene, pristine backcountry waters, or on the Pacific ocean… Try Mount Maunganui/Tauranga as your base – you, and the family, won't be disappointed!
Miles lives and guides the Bay of Plenty region (close to Auckland, top of the North Island) and writes for NZ Troutfisher magazine. One of Miles' many pursuits is trophy eel hunting! I'm planning a visit later in the year. More articles to follow! - Paul