South of the North

Andrew Harding lifts the lid on the Wellington region

A slogan gleaned from Lonely Planet’s review of the city and adopted by Wellington Fish & Game, affectionately describes Wellington as ‘The coolest little trout capital in the world’, and to be fair, it’s pretty apt. Nestled at the bottom of the North Island, Wellington isn’t exactly a region that resonates in fly-fishing folklore; in fact, most people simply know it as New Zealand’s windiest location, home to bearded-hipsters, soy-latte sippers, mountainous terrain and the seat of parliament. People don’t come here in any numbers to fish for trout, and I don’t think they ever will. Why would you? Geographically hemmed in by Cook Strait, you can only roam north, the average wind speed is measured in double and often triple digits, and the wilderness areas we do have necessitate the fitness levels of an Olympic triathlete to negotiate… or deep pockets for a backcountry Uber (helicopter). Luckily, the Wellington Fish & Game region encompasses almost a quarter of the entire North Island! So broadly speaking, you have a few options in the area, and whenever I talk with good mate and fellow FlyLife writer Nick Reygaert, he continues to remind me of just how lucky we are here, and how great the fishing is — this coming from a man who’s roamed the world far and wide filming the best fly fishing on the planet. The Wellington Fish & Game region is managed by a small but highly motivated team of individuals who are incredibly passionate about what they do. This team pumps out an astounding amount of informative, map-based access and method-specific brochures for anglers new to Wellington — more than all other regions in New Zealand combined. It’s heartening to see such passion from fisheries management anywhere. The best rivers (I would normally add lakes too, but Wellington only has one!) are closely guarded secrets to the limited pool of anglers who fish here, myself included, and I am a little proud of my region and what it can offer anglers who are prepared to do their homework and put in some miles by foot. I can draw similarities with three other fantastic fly-fishing regions in this country you seldom hear about — Gisborne, Hawkes Bay and New Plymouth — all amazing fisheries to those who know them intimately. And you won’t be greeted by vast dense mats of invertebrate-sucking Didymo here. The region, and in fact the whole North Island, is Didymo free. THE HUTT Wellington’s crowning jewel in fly- fishing circles is undoubtedly the magnificent Hutt River. Running through a major urban population for much of its 56 km length, and not 15 minutes from the central city, this river is remarkable in the fact that it offers amazing fly fishing for generally good sized brown trout, and there are lots of them! Drift dives have revealed up to 200 browns per kilometre in some sections. The Hutt is unique in that its pristine, remote headwaters are blocked off for the provision of drinking water by a significant weir that is non-navigable to trout. The rest of the river is open all year round, inclusive of a rather substantial and deeply incised 10 km wilderness gorge that will have you thinking you’re in the heart of the South Island backcountry, although you do need to swim most of the pools to navigate it. And it has scenery to match! It’s a stunning river, perhaps with the exception of the middle reaches where the local council is dead-set on raking the riverbed with bulldozers on a daily basis under the guise of ‘flood protection’. Well, the river has been there for a few thousand years more than the houses that dot the banks! You know where I’m going with this… There are not many fisheries of this calibre where you can simply step off a plane and within 30 minutes be knee-deep in a wilderness section of river catching trout that average 2 to 5 lb. That’s in-between-meetings manageable, and it has been done! I have frequently guided overseas anglers on the Hutt River, and most were astounded at the quality of the fishing so close to an urban setting. So urban in fact, you really have to watch you don’t hit a vehicle on your back-cast on some sections of the river. The fish are beautiful too: shallow lying by nature, orange spotted, and ever so wary of the constant procession of stick-throwing dog-walkers. They can be a real challenge, their heightened senses developed from years of urban customisation. I have always loved the challenge of urban fisheries, and the under-bridge graffiti makes for some interesting photo backgrounds! One of the most stunning fish I have ever seen come from the Hutt was when fishing with Nick Reygaert. We had popped out for a ‘quick flick’ to get some B-roll footage for an up-coming film. In a moment of weakness, and feeling sorry for the cameraman, I handed Nick my rod to have a cast at a nice brown sitting deep in a current line. Of course, I had forgotten to push record on the stupidly complicated camera and missed the hook-jawed 8 lb slab of golden- brown pierce the surface and engulf Nick’s cicada fly… one of the largest fish I had seen from the river that year, and only eclipsed by my 10.5 lb brown from a small tributary further downstream a month later. THE WAINUIOMATA One of the lesser-known Wellington rivers is the Wainuiomata, around 40-mins drive east of the CBD. This remarkable stream, whilst not exactly scenic in the sense that it runs through pastoral land with the odd patch of toi-toi and scrub, holds a large population of browns for those who are prepared to door-knock for access. The Wainui is one of a handful of rivers in NZ where the landowners have riparian rights and can deny access to anyone, riverbed travel included. It’s a real hands-on-knees fishery, slow moving and weedy, with turbid water and large wary browns that can often run to more than 8 lb. Even with rampant cattle and irate landowners, it is so often worth it. I have fond memories of fishing the evening rise on the Wainui as a teenager. However, a late-night encounter with a raging bull with horns well suited to adorn a Texan rancher’s bonnet, meant I didn’t return for many years. Some sound advice: when a massive bull charges at you, simply dashing across a river won’t stop it… In my case, I found out that, yes, bulls are more than happy to charge across a body of water to kill you! I ran like the wind, right into an electric fence, gathered myself, and cleared it again on a high-jump inspired run-up, only to straddle my nether regions on the fence mid-jump… I did eventually have kids, much to my surprise. THE TARARUAS The Tararua ranges are like a 1570-metre high mountainous wedge dividing the region into two distinct fisheries, the East Coast and West Coast. Travel between the two means a substantial drive of some 150 km to either end. The Tararuas gain notoriety through weather — shrouded in cloud and rain for more than 250 days of the year, and with an average yearly rainfall exceeding 5000 mm! It’s obviously not a popular destination for sight fishing. The ridges and spurs dotted with clusters of crude wooden crosses serve as reminders of fatalities from days gone by. The Tararuas are steep, dark, uninviting and wet, but can offer fantastic fly fishing if you get your timing right. And therein lies the key… timing. The ranges are home to six major river systems — the Ruamahunga, Otaki, Mangahao, Waingawa, Waiohine and Tauherinikau and their numerous tributaries. Several of these look most uninviting where highways cross them, but don’t be fooled, once these rivers hit the soft alluvial plains, they dissipate underground, meaning a river that in high-summer looks like a trickle is in fact a boisterous, free-flowing river just a few kilometres upstream. You’ll seldom see other anglers too; it’s been this way for my 35 years of fishing these waters, but, as with any fishery close to people’s hearts, I’m sure the local lynch mob is quietly gathering arms after reading this… CICADA TIME Every region across Australia and New Zealand has some form of ‘claim to fame’ in regards to fly fishing. For Taupo it’s the winter spawning runs, the South Island has its massive mice-eating browns and canal fishery, Tasmania has its exceptional lake-edge stalking, and then there is Wellington… our claim to fame? No, not our beehive-shaped parliament building, but the best cicada fishing for brown trout in the country. Our lengthy cicada season, arguably the longest in New Zealand, typically sees the first fish coming up to cicadas around mid to late December with the season waning in late March. However, it’s not uncommon to have fish on cicada right up until the season close on the 30th of April! Whilst wearing Wellington’s inhabitants down, the persistent dry summer winds, married to ample lowland regenerating scrub, make for ideal cicada conditions. These tasty morsels are ‘protein powder’ to our local browns, and they are big! Not the tiny green tussock cicadas of the South Island, Wellington’s cicadas are huge in comparison, dark green, deafening in numbers, bumbling and plentiful. It’s not uncommon for the browns in the region to gain 2 to 3 lb in weight over the summer months — exceptional weight gain for non mouse-eating fish. THE RUAMAHUNGA If it’s rainbow trout that spin your wheels, Wellington has a few fisheries of note, located over the steep and winding Remutaka Range, 35 minutes north of the city. The Ruamahunga River emerges from a gorge in the Tararua Ranges and winds its way for some 100 kilometres to the sea. Traditionally a brown trout fishery, the river has gained a reputation over the last 10 years or so as a predominantly rainbow fishery — not large fish, but plentiful and spirited. It is an ideal proving ground for newcomers to the sport. Perhaps one of my favourite methods of fishing this large, slow moving and shingly river is to drift the lower reaches in a raft, firing Woolly Buggers to the margins for the beautifully marked estuarine browns that take up residence in early spring, chasing the whitebait runs from the ocean. But it’s not only browns: kahawai (salmon to you Aussies!) perch, mullet and rainbows are always present in big numbers and eager to take a fast-stripped whitebait imitation. It’s a real lucky dip and I love this facet of the river, especially when fishing it with my son Finn. TROPHIES Whilst Wellington is not regarded as a trophy fishery, it does produce some large browns. I have landed three over the magical ten pound mark and my fishing buddy Dan has landed four, including a stunning 12 lb bruiser a few years back from a tiny headwater tributary. Strangely, located not 100 km as the crow flies from the beech forested rivers of Nelson and Marlborough and their huge mouse-eating browns, we don’t fare quite as kindly for mouse plague years. This is not to say we don’t get them… we do, but I can only truly recollect the 1996 season as a mouse year, when the trout averaged over 6 lb and were commonly 8–9 lb. Each season I eagerly await the announcement from the Department of Conservation about ‘this year’ being a ‘beech mast year’ in the Wellington region… The problem is, they say this EVERY year and it never eventuates into the fabled mouse plague we’ve come to expect from angling publications and social media. But as I type this, guess what DOC has just announced… you guessed it! The coolest little trout capital in the world — it’s very fitting.

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