Summertime Taupo Tributaries

Thomas Clancy avoids peak season on the Taupo streams

Lake Taupo, the vast body of water that defines the central volcanic plateau of New Zealand’s North Island, needs very little by way of introduction to fly fishers. The region is revered across the globe as an angler’s paradise; its piscatorial lore immortalised in the 1920s by Zane Grey in his book Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado. The consistency in number, size and strength of the trout in Lake Taupo and its tributaries has ensured that its worldwide reputation has remained to this day. The main attraction for most anglers visiting the Taupo region is the migratory run of rainbows up the lake’s many tributaries in late autumn and winter. From the end of March through to the end of November, most Lake Taupo trout intent on spawning enter the rivers and streams. This of course is hugely variable, but safe to say that by the end of May, the rivers are full of fish in prime condition. Although summer spawning runs do occasionally occur on rivers such as the Tongariro, the main event is generally over and done with by November. After this time the fish exit the lake’s tributaries en masse and so too do the anglers that pursue them. Over summer, rivers such as the Tongariro, Waitahanui and Hinemaiaia see as many anglers along their entire length as any one of their famous pools would in winter. The perception that the rivers are devoid of anything worth catching over the warmer months is unfortunate for two reasons: one, the lakeside townships lean heavily on the tourist industry to survive, and two, the fishing is remarkable over the summer months. Something my partner Bec and I found out on a recent trip to New Zealand to celebrate my 30th birthday. TAUPO BOUND We chose the Taupo region as we wanted a holiday that was equal parts fishing, relaxing and adventure. Having both visited the region very briefly many years ago, we knew Lake Taupo could deliver. We chose to stay in the small lakeside village of Waitahanui on the lake’s eastern shore. This afforded us easy access to the restaurants and bars of Taupo (a 10-minute drive) and its plethora of attractions and activities, while also putting us right next to the rivers and streams we wanted to fish. It also turned out to have the perfect secluded little pumice-and-black-sand beach for swimming, reading and watching the famous ‘picket fence’ at the mouth of the Waitahanui Stream after a long day’s fishing. Many rivers and streams flow into Lake Taupo. Over the cooler months they provide temporary residence for waves of spawn-run rainbows, however, not all tributaries can support large fish populations outside of the migration. Of course, the Tongariro was an obvious choice, but I was excited to focus most of our efforts on comparatively less popular summer haunts. After a little research, we found two rivers that were said to hold good populations of fish over summer: the Waitahanui Stream and the Tuaranga-Taupo River. Curious as to the current state of the fishing, I reached out to two locals who know the area like the back of their hands: Andrew Burden from Sporting Life, and Trout Hunting NZ’s head guide, Gareth Bayliss. Both were happy to share their knowledge and provide a fishing report. While the cicada fishing was essentially a non-event this year (the Taupo tributaries can have some world-class cicada action towards the end of summer I’ve been told), the rivers were full of good sized, healthy fish that were responding well to all the standard fare. THE WAITAHANUI After checking into our Airbnb cabin in Waitahanui, I set about readying our fishing gear for a quick afternoon cast on the stream. The Waitahanui Stream is unique amongst the Lake Taupo tributaries in that it is spring fed. A classic meandering stream if ever one existed, the Waitahanui snakes its way through a lush ensemble of iconic New Zealand flora, with strappy kowharawhara shrubs overhanging into the swiftly flowing water. The substrate varies from light volcanic sand to small dark river stones which, when interspersed regularly with clumps of thick ribbon weed, makes for an extremely picturesque and easy backdrop to spot fish against. Most of the fishable water is within a scenic reserve, with well-defined paths that either follow the curves of the stream or cross it via quaint arched bridges. With the fading light placing its curfew on our first outing, Bec and I crossed the first of these bridges only a few minutes from the cabin and made our way upstream to the Cliff Pool. The cold, spring water was unbelievably clear, so much so that comparing the Waitahanui to gin would be an insult to the stream’s clarity. The combination of the clear water and the lighter substrate made sighting fish almost too easy, and almost immediately I had spotted a pod of chunky rainbows feeding at the head of the pool. Before the sun had set each fish had been caught and carefully released. They were in impeccable condition: averaging 3–4 lb with beautiful markings and vivid colours. While stalking these fighting-fit rainbows in the Waitahanui provided excellent fishing over the weeks we were there, it was the brown trout fishery that was especially memorable. Fortuitously, our stay coincided with two natural phenomena that placed large numbers of quality brown trout in most of the Taupo tributaries. Late summer saw these fish either drawn to the rivers to prey on the huge schools of rainbow fingerlings from the previous winter’s spawning efforts, or to travel far upstream in preparation for spawning. While we spotted brown trout in both waterways we fished, it was the Waitahanui that held the highest population by far. Numbers were so high that unavoidably spooking dozens of 6–8 lb fish from undercut banks and overhanging vegetation as we waded upstream became the norm. While the fish were extremely plentiful, they were also extremely difficult to catch. No matter what combination of flies and tippet were used, next to nothing could persuade these leviathans to rise to a fly. And, to add insult to injury, when the planets did finally align and a big bruiser decided to play, it played very dirty. Out of the dozen I managed to hook during my time fishing the Waitahanui, I was able to land four. The others ensured I left the river that day a broken man. Eventually I learnt a thing or two that swayed the odds in my favour. Time of day was key, with midday to early afternoon providing the most action. Presenting each fish with a dozen or so perfect drifts was also vital. The fish didn’t spook unless you were practically stepping on them, so getting up close and personal allowed me to perfect my presentations more often than not. I had the most success fishing a double nymph rig with a size 10 or 12 stonefly pattern (I had great success with a Simons Ugly in hare and copper) with a size 14–16 Hares Ear trailing a foot behind. The nymphs were fished on a 12 ft leader ending in 2–3 ft of 4X tippet. 4X nylon gave me a tensile strength of around 7 pounds: an ideal balance of finesse and durability, especially important on this stream with its clear water, fallen timber and undercut banks. This rig also accounted for the bulk of the rainbows caught on the Waitahanui, with the Simons Ugly taking the lion’s share. THE TAURANGA-TAUPO The Tauranga-Taupo, or TT as it’s locally known, is a beautiful freestone river that lies roughly halfway between the towns of Turangi and Waitahanui. Like all Taupo tributaries in autumn and winter, it’s descended upon by crowds of local and visiting anglers hoping to capitalise on the rainbow spawn runs. Over summer though, the locals look to backcountry options and the visiting anglers simply don’t visit as much. The TT boasts a very healthy resident fish population, and it provided us with some very enjoyable fishing. The dry few months prior had the TT low, clear and relatively slow flowing, which made it ideal for dry-dropper presentations. With the cicada season as temperamental as it was, we shied away from committing to a proper cicada pattern, instead opting for a large Stimulator that could represent any manner of terrestrials. Our choice proved wise, as I had two near heart attacks on the water thanks to big angry brown trout attempting to aggressively inhale my dry. Even though they didn’t hook up, the experience is one I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. For the dropper, a Nosebleed pattern in size 14 was kind to us. Its pulsating hackle was just too tempting to be ignored, much to our delight, with fish often swimming a few feet from their post to slam the nymph. Both days we fished the TT, we only shared the river with one other angler who, after a friendly chat, we didn’t see for the rest of the day. The bulk of the fish we came across were hard fighting, handsome rainbows of between 3 and 5 pounds. Bec, while working her dry-dropper rig through a very fishy run, came up tight on something heavy. After hearing her call out, I turned in time to see an extremely well-conditioned fish of at least 6 lb leap clean out of the water before deciding to turn and head back to the lake. It was a tense few minutes as Bec madly tried to persuade it to think otherwise, only to have the fish make one final run straight into a messy collection of timber, and pop the tippet. While the cicada fishing wasn’t terribly consistent, there was still epic dry fly fishing to be had on the TT. The fish were gorging themselves on passion vine hoppers, otherwise known as lace moth, with the river resembling boiling water almost consistently from dawn to dusk. I’d love to tell you we capitalised on this, but embarrassingly we came unprepared. Passion vine hoppers throw a unique silhouette on the water and sit in the film in such a way that the fish focus intently on these traits to the exclusion of everything else. Only one fly is commercially tied to represent the passion vine hopper, and unsurprisingly it was sold out of every tackle shop between Turangi and Taupo! We had very minor success presenting tiny light-coloured Elk Hair Caddis on extremely light tippet, but I suspect the fish just took pity on us. The bastards. A WORTHY CONSIDERATION While exploring Lake Taupo’s tributaries doesn’t offer the backcountry experience that many anglers visiting New Zealand seek during summer, it’s a destination that is absolutely worth considering. Apart from the quality fishing on offer, the region boasts an amazing culture, unique landscape and outstanding food, drink and entertainment. While the reputation of Lake Taupo’s rivers and streams over winter is of course undeniable, I strongly encourage you to look to Taupo over the warmer months as well. With next to no fishing pressure and rivers capable of producing genuine trophies, it may not be the backcountry, but it will feel like it.

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