Open Season Rainbows

Nick Reygaert evaluates a trial early-season opening targeting rainbows on the Ohau River

The Ohau River is a tailwater that drains Lake Ohau and enters Lake Ruataniwha just south of Twizel in the South Island of New Zealand. In the 1980s, the river sustained a renowned trout fishery. Then along came a new hydro-electric scheme which greatly reduced the natural flows and stuffed the fishery. The power company of the time worked with fisheries experts to identify the problems. Seasonal residual flows were restored in 1993 but not in great enough volume to rehabilitate the fishery. Since 1993 the river has become the main spawning ground for trout in the canals that were built for the hydro scheme. The canal fishery has become famous for producing enormous trout (FL#85) and is New Zealand’s most popular freshwater fishery. Many of those very large fish attain their size by feeding on pellets used in the salmon farms that dot the canals. SPRING SEASON Fish & Game NZ, the managers of the trout fishery, introduced a new ‘spring season’ initiative in 2019 on the upper Ohau River as a two-year trial run, opening the fishery two months earlier than the traditional November high-country starting date. The intention was to re-establish a valued fishery by allowing large canal-origin trout to be caught in a river environment. In so doing, Fish & Game NZ also needed to make sure this early opening didn’t have a seriously negative impact on trout spawning. Their research indicated that protecting two thirds of the spawning window would be enough to sustain recruitment. Hence the 1 September opening day was deemed viable as all brown trout spawning is over, and the majority of rainbow trout spawning happens in July and August in the river. Wrecking the valuable canal fishery is not an option, so they have to be careful. It’s a complex situation but I applaud Fish & Game NZ for thinking outside the box and at least trialing the spring season. Over the years of fly fishing and adventuring around New Zealand I’ve met a good number of crew living a similar lifestyle to my own. They are all loosely connected in one way or another, and swap information quite readily. It was surprising then that this ‘spring season’ slipped past almost everyone I know, and I didn’t hear about it until 2020. THE CREW It was Charles Smith who first mentioned it to me and we decided it would be a great opportunity to get a bunch of us together, do some filming, and make a week out of it. The call went out and we mustered up Charles, Anto Hall, Jeff Forsee and my brother Chris. The Jones brothers, Simon and Matt, were also going to be there (they’d fished opening day the year before) as was Ronan Creane on a ‘family holiday’ (nice bit of planning Ronan). My brother and I arrived in Twizel the afternoon before opening day. Anto and Charles had been scouting the river all day and had found a good number of pods of big rainbows. They drove us to a couple of those spots and between us we decided which one to target first. Some of the rainbows I saw seemed gigantic and I was looking forward to filming one out of the water. Jeff Forsee turned up later that night. Pizza and beer was consumed in large quantity while we made plans for filming and fishing. We were up at 4:00 the next morning. First glance outside confirmed that the forecast snow was already falling in large volume. It was going to be a crisp start but that could not dampen our enthusiasm. Anto and Charles were so keen they left in darkness to secure the spot. I needed to have my morning coffee before anything was going to happen, plus I had my filming gear to get in order. Chris and I arrived just as the first rays of the morning sun were peeking over the mountains — with fresh snow on the ground it was a beautiful scene. The spot we’d chosen was the tail-out of a large pool, and the rainbows were stacked up. Roughly 20 fish were easily visible and I’m sure there were plenty more that we couldn’t see. We agreed that Anto and Charles would fish and everyone else would spectate, film or take photos for the first day. A tent fly was set up as base camp where we could get out of the snow, brew coffees and have a place to stash all the gear. SPAWNING ETHICS Anto kindly offered Charles the first shot. These fish had been undisturbed by anglers for a long time, so getting a fly in there before they had clued onto the situation was very advantageous. The choice of fly pattern was not going to be too hard. Spawning rainbows in September stacked up in a tail-out — you’d be crazy to fish anything other than an egg pattern. The purity of this fishing situation has, probably legitimately, been questioned. Personally I’m content to fish to trout that are spawning. The fishery was opened up knowing full well that these fish would still be on redds in September. I understand that many anglers think that leaving trout to procreate in peace is a good thing, and I agree, but it should be viewed on a situational basis and as a matter of personal choice. As Rob Sloane observed in his excellent article in FlyLife #84: ‘Spawning and poaching go hand in hand, no doubt, and mud sticks. Hence, when the ethics of targeting trout spawning runs are debated, emotions run high.’ Fisheries like the Eucumbene River and the Taupo winter fishery are blueprints for sustainable, extended seasons. For me, fishing to giant canal-living, pellet feeding rainbows as they spawn is totally fine as long as it is well managed. Halford, widely recognised as the father of modern dry fly fishing, would no doubt be turning in his grave. FUNKY RIGS Charles had rigged his egg fly on a dropper about 20 cm up from some split shot tied in at the end of the tippet — very similar to a classic dropper rig used for snapper in the sea. It looks a little funky but is very effective as it allows the angler to bump the split shot along the bottom without hooking the fly on rocks. Spawning trout are not actively feeding so the fly needs to pass right in front of the fish. If you are bumping the split shot along the bottom then you know your fly is where it needs to be. It took about five casts before Charles came tight, but when the fish leapt from the water we were all a little disappointed. It was clearly not one of the bigger ones. It dropped into the rapid below the pool and he used its momentum to swing it into the net. It weighed 10 pounds — not a bad way to open the account. Next up was Anto. Snow was falling heavily again and the water reflected an annoying glare that was difficult to see into. The fish had re-gathered in the tail-out, although they were starting to get a little agitated. Charles was perched on a rock to see into the water and was giving Anto instructions on where to cast. The rest of us formed the peanut gallery on the bank. Anto was also using the egg/split-shot rig. Same again — a few casts and he was into a fish. This one didn’t jump but just rolled, which brought forth lots of noise from the boys. The fish boosted down river with Anto and Charles in hot pursuit. We caught up with them a couple of hundred metres downstream and the rainbow was in the net. A long fish that went just over 13 pounds — they were getting bigger. SPECTATOR SPORT This was an awesome spectator sport and spirits were high as everyone chatted excitedly about the fish caught and what would come for the rest of the day. Then it began to snow very heavily so the anglers had a short break and warmed up their hands with a couple of coffees — the trout were not going to go anywhere. Charles jumped in and was unlucky to hook a small rainbow on the first cast. He swung the little fella into the net without any fuss and handed centre stage back to Anto. The gallery knew that it was only a matter of time before a seriously large fish was hooked. Anto came tight soon after and this one ran him upstream through the long pool and then turned around and set off downstream with the power of a big trout. It hit the net and weighed 21 pounds. Anto was very happy, but it’s fair to say, it was one of the ugliest trout I’ve ever seen! Already our expectations had been exceeded. It was obvious that there was no shortage of huge fish in the river. By now the trout that remained in the tail-out were definitely showing signs of being stirred up, so Charles switched tactics and began swinging a small streamer through the fish. It took a while but eventually a large one had a swipe at it and Charles came tight. The fight was very dogged, slow and steady, for a long time. This one was a clean but coloured-up jack of epic proportions, deep set with a big hump. The net told us 27 pounds! Soon after, Chris returned from a bakery-run and it was warm pies all round. The fishing did slow down after that but the lads persisted and brought another couple of huge fish to the net. FISHY BUZZ We had a meal at a local bar that night and everyone was there. The Jones brothers recounted their incredible fishing in the pool below us. We had briefly seen Ronan on the river and he had us in hysterics as he recounted some of the huge fish he’d encountered by fishing a streamer through the deeper parts of the river. As I looked around the table at smiling faces there was a fishy buzz in the air, and it made me think that a September opening day is a novel concept with plenty of merit. The next day the weather had completely changed. As is often the case after a snowfall, it was blue sky and no wind. Another early rise had us down at a deep pool where we’d seen trout schooling up. It didn’t take long to locate the fish but they were definitely not as grabby as the day before. It took Anto an hour or more of fishing to hook up. It was a mighty animal and the biggest trout of his life at 26 pounds. Everybody had turns at fishing to the school through the day. If they persisted long enough they would get a hook-up and it was almost always a huge rainbow. But the fish were definitely showing signs of pressure. We encountered a fair few anglers as well. And it left us with questions regarding the etiquette in this fishing situation. We sat on that pod of fish for most of the day, but should we have moved on earlier? SOME CONCERNS For the 2021 season, Fish & Game NZ have now released the rules and there will be no ‘spring season’ on the upper Ohau River. I spoke with Rhys Adams about this and he told me that they are still assessing the impact of the early opening and will make a judgment for the 2022 season. My personal view is that it is a great initiative, but I do have some concerns. The upper Ohau has about 10 kilometres of fishable water. We noted that the trout were hanging in pods and these were the hot spots to fish. If the September opening was to continue I’m sure it would be popular and the river could become overcrowded. Perhaps a beat system or booking system could be used to control angler numbers, though I’m sure a fishing etiquette would establish over time. Making these fish accessible to anglers adds depth to the already outstanding South Island fishery, and I’m sure minor problems can be mitigated. Kudos to Fish & Game NZ. Now how about looking at the lower Mataura River for a ‘spring season’? Or am I getting greedy?

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