Gary Lyttle targets Taupo’s lakeshore smelt feeders

As the winter spawning runs slow down here in Taupo and spring starts to finally take hold, we begin to think of the new summer dry fly season ahead. It is a time of transition, and normally the much awaited start of the new trout season can be plagued with high river flows and rather spasmodic hatches, putting a dampener on best laid plans until the summer arrives and fish really start to look up. There is, however, a window of a couple of months from October through to December when a transition is also happening on our great Lake Taupo. As a fly fisherman from the UK, I have naturally always been drawn to still-waters despite being amongst some of the best river fishing in the world. I still love the challenge of large expanses of open water and this small window of opportunity has become one my most enjoyable periods on the Taupo fishing calendar. As spring arrives, large numbers of smelt gather at the shoreline to spawn. This coincides with numbers of very hungry rainbows coming back to the lake via the river mouths, where they find this protein-rich food source waiting to be harassed and chased all around the lake edge. Smelt amount to over 90% of the trout’s diet in this lake. They are a pelagic species that can be found at all depths, all round the lake, depending on weather, wind, atmospheric pressure and so on. SMELT TACTICS There’s nothing quite like the freedom of walking along a stunning beach beside a crystal clear, aqua blue lake, listening to the occasional iconic sounds of tuis and pigeons and enjoying the smell and sight of lupins along the shoreline. With the backdrop of distant mountains and volcanic peaks, it’s quite humbling — and often you have it all to yourself. Preferably pick a day with light wind and reasonably bright weather for spotting. Activity is quite obvious with fish often working in situ to round up and smash the shoals of smelt along the edges. They use the shallow water to literally push the smelt up the beach on occasions. Feeding activity can also be located by watching for birds working the water as fish push the smelt upwards to where silver sparks can be seen darting in all directions on the surface. If nothing is showing it can be productive to blind fish areas that have some structure — rocks, peninsulas and bush-lined beaches. I like to walk the beach at a reasonable pace, covering a lot of water and keeping close enough to the edge to be able to spot, but far enough away to keep my profile hidden as best I can. A straightforward cast and retrieve right into the activity can be very effective and very exciting with trout chasing right up to the edge, practically beaching themselves. I have found this activity to be similar to the fry-feeding season on the big reservoirs in the UK and some of the tactics used there have been effective for our smelting fish. Rather than retrieving the flies I have found that simply casting to the commotion and letting the fly fall slowly to the bottom will bring far more positive takes. This emulates a wounded fish that won’t need to be chased and offers the easiest meal of the day — same as emergers stuck in the surface film. Floating fry can also work well when fish are pushing smelt to the surface. Once again, just cast to the activity and let it float, just hanging under the surface — same scenario, dead or dying and holding on to the surface film, and another easy meal. An occasional twitch using this method can induce takes if they are being picky. Keep your eyes skinned for the occasional brown trout patrolling the same beaches. They are notoriously challenging and will test your skills to the limit. If you come across one swimming away from you, at least you have half a chance as he won’t have seen you and will more than likely be on patrol, coming back to where you will have laid out a fly in his path. You must stay low and motionless as he approaches and, at about two metres away, twitch the fly towards you and stop. You must stop as they nearly always refuse a full retrieve right on the beach. If you’ve done it correctly he’ll just charge it right under your nose… there is nothing quite like it. SIMPLE SMELTING Another reason I love this style of fishing is the lack of gear needed to be carried. I just use my favourite little 8½ foot 4- or 5-weight glass rods on fine days for this, as you don’t need to cast far and these rods are kind on light leaders and are also great fun on decent fish. A floating line is all that’s needed. For the days when you have to contend with heavy wind I will use a bigger #7 outfit. I will still use a floater but carry a range of lines that have an intermediate 5 or 10 foot tip with different sink rates to anchor the line better in a big chop. One of the most useful pieces of equipment that you can have on these windy days is a line tray (stripping basket). These aid distance and keep the line from catching on all the debris on the beach. The new style of micro Skagit head lines can be really useful when fishing beaches that have no back-cast room at all. Tapered leaders with a 5 or 6 lb point, some mono in 5 or 6 lb and a small fly-box carrying smelt imitations, some Woolly Buggers, some green beetle dries, some big terrestrials and a few chironomid (midge) patterns and that’s about it. Once the weather becomes more reliable all you’ll need is a pair of shorts and long sleeved shirt, with the usual sun protective gear, and most importantly, a really good pair of polaroids. I carry two pairs — with a light-enhancing lens for the overcast days and a standard brown or copper lens for the brighter days. The new ‘Ignitor’ type lenses can really make a massive difference on those darker days. Living on the lake, I just take a small sling pack with just those essentials, but if you’re planning a full day you’ll need plenty of drinking water and some rain gear if the weather packs in, which it can do and very quickly here at this time of year. To be honest this smelting activity happens all over the lake. There are no real hotspots but miles and miles of fine pumice beaches. As summer approaches I do like to jump in the boat and get over to the western side of the lake where I know I will have total seclusion. Don’t expect big numbers; for me it’s not about that at all, it’s just the location — the trout are a bonus. Once the boats and swimmers arrive it’s usually a sign for me that the water is starting to warm up, the smelt and the trout will be seeking the cooler depths out in the lake and it’s time to finally start planning for the summer dry fly season ahead.

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