Tailers at Otamangakau

Andrew Harding stalks the margins of an iconic New Zealand stillwater.

Whilst it might not measure up to the snow-clad peaks and beach-lined river valleys of the South Island in terms of scenery to most, it more than makes up for it in trout size and quality. It’s New Zealand’s answer to Jurassic Lake, without the three days travel and re-mortgaging the house. It’s Lake Otamangakau. It’s a mouthful, so I’ll break it down in Kiwi — O-taa-man-ga-cow. Affectionately known as the ‘O’. A tiny, man-made spec of hydro lake, spawned from the headwaters of the mighty Whanganui River then channelled through a series of canals that ultimately feed lakes Rotoaira and Taupo in a ‘top-up’ capacity. I keep coming back to this place year after year — 30 years’ worth — it’s always a case of the older we get, the easier the fishing we seek. “Fishing next week? Back country? Yeah Nahhh, let’s hit the O, at least we don’t have to walk!” It’s in New Zealand’s ‘other island’, you know, the one you don’t see in the brochures or magazines so much, and yes, it’s about the size of your average urban duckpond, but ‘O’ what a place! You won’t find hordes of guides either, there is plenty of room for all to fish, and year on year the fishery goes from strength to strength in both trout size and numbers, shore-based or boat. And the scenery, nestled at the foot of New Zealand’s most active and majestic volcanic peaks — Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe — is, on a nice day, simply breathtaking. It’s as alpine an environment as it gets, being some 650 metres above sea level and nestled in a basin that is remarkably sheltered — its biggest burden to anglers, because no wind usually equates to hard fishing on stillwater environs. The often mirror-like conditions gives the ‘O’ a reputation for being a hard fishery, especially from a new-visitor’s point of view. It simply isn’t, but it does take a while to crack the code, and there are some crucial elements to success here to follow religiously. Not dissimilar to Tasmania’s tailing fisheries and with an average depth of only three metres, the extensive weed beds are rich in insects and snails. It’s not hard to see why the trout, both rainbow and brown, thrive and grow to such exceptional size, often exceeding 4.5 kg through the height of the summer. The water is cold, topped up from Ruapehu’s icy slopes, and crystal clear by nature. TAILING BROWNS Most anglers will sit in boats and watch indicators in the deeper channels, drifting bloodworms and other multi-coloured monstrosities — a proven method and hugely successful. But I personally find this as exciting as watching paint dry, more akin to float fishing with bait in many regards. I’d much rather seek, stalk and cast to sighted fish, the early morning tailing browns being particularly addictive. Come November through March, they congregate in the shallows in large numbers. These fish are clearly not the most clued-up on spatial awareness, trying to squeeze their average 3-kg bulk into water that’s merely 15 cm deep — you can picture the outcome… Marry an overcast early morning with a slight breeze to ruffle the surface, get your presentation accurate and you are in for a treat. Making up around 30% of the angler catch, the browns are not so much pattern specific, but rather presentation crucial. There are no second chances, and the nature of this shallow weedy lake necessitates tippets than are both high in strength and abrasion resistant. Monofilament shines here, its forgiving, elastic characteristics on the often-savage hits allowing you just that bit more buffer before they dive into the nearest weed bed. ON THE MENU As with many shallow lake fisheries in New Zealand, there are three forms of food that make up the bulk of the trout’s diet here. These being damselfly nymphs, which will mass in their thousands in the right conditions and decorate your body like a Christmas tree; chironomids in their various stages, and snails, the latter reaching extremely large sizes and responsible for the often distended vent on the trout. Not exactly pretty to look at or pose for a photograph, but nonetheless an extremely important food item but a right pain to imitate and fish successfully and consistently. Midging fish can be very selective and frustrating also, leaving the humble olive damsel as the number one staple to use on sighted fish. Strip, strip BANG, it truly can be, and a fast, erratic retrieve is preferred over slow pulls. Damsel imitations can take the form of small Woolly Buggers, or true slim representations. On darker days when wind is prevalent, you can go quite large in pattern, up to #8, but when that wind drops it’s a #14 on a tippet of no more than 6 lb. Long leaders of around 16 to 20 feet are a necessity — going shorter is simply not an option. Another fantastic method on selective fish in calm conditions is a small dry/dropper combo. Not the sort of rig many use in lakes, but a small #14 Parachute Adams as a visual aid and the shortest dropper of around 10 cm to a non-weighted #16 bloodworm pattern can work marvelously on cruising fish. Casting well ahead of your quarry and leaving everything motionless, the slightest twitch of the Para Adams is your cue to set the hook — all extremely visual and not for those with a weak ticker. As with any tailing fishery, early morning reigns supreme. At daybreak on any sandy bottom fringed in weed you will find the browns happily waggling away, their tails breaking the surface whilst they nose around in the mud for bloodworms. A well-placed cast ahead of their general direction with a damsel imitation will be met with an explosive, off-the-mark sprint to engulf your fly, leaving a hole in the water not too dissimilar to a stingray moving off once stepped on! The numerous duck shooting mai-mais provide an ideal elevated platform from which to spot cruising browns from a distance. I’m a river fisherman through and through, but this form of stalking huge fish in super shallow water is right up there with backcountry cicada fishing in my eyes. A WORD OF CAUTION The shore-based wading (my preferred method to fish here) can be treacherous, with the silty bottom seemingly sucking you down to a watery grave. A few years back Jack Kos and I were wading the flats that make up the start of the lake’s outlet canal, and the bottom here can go from firm to bottomless in a matter of centimetres. Jack was working a nice brown tailing in the weed when he let out a scream: “Help! I’ve gone under!” I could see him up to his neck in water, though the bottom looked no more than knee deep. I quickly headed over to assist but also went down. It was extremely unnerving as we both, in a mad-panic, proceeded to thrash the water to foam in pursuit of some semi-solid ground. Fortunately we were both carrying waterproof roll-top backpacks. These air-filled bags are an invaluable tool for fishing and have ‘saved my bacon’ on more than one occasion! When you do go under, they act as a crude form of lifejacket, and this is one of the reasons I use them on river and lake. An important tip if you do find yourself truly stuck in mud, is to position yourself so you are kneeling and shuffle along, the resulting increase of surface area on your lower legs making progress across the soft bottom that much easier — it’s like using your legs as tank tracks and it works remarkably well and could very well save your life. INS AND OUTS The ‘O’ is not truly much of a lake at all, but more a large pool on a canal. The inflowing canal is known simply as the inlet, and the outflowing canal is known as errrr the outlet! Both of these narrow, heavily weed-fringed channels are unique fisheries in their own right, and my favourite spots to fish from a watercraft on the lake. The inlet’s snow-fed mountain inflow is a popular spot for rainbows on a hot day. The weed beds in the inlet and outlet are very well defined and on a calm evening, drifting down the subtle current throwing frog imitations or tadpole style lures against the weed edge can be fantastic sport. Strikes will occur within a metre or two of landing the fly, and then it’s cast and repeat again, and again, and again. This is floating line territory; in fact the whole lake requires nothing more than a floating line of no more than a 6-weight. It’s a very active lake in fishing terms — you never stop casting, either at fish, or blindly at weed edges — but boy, you really have to hone those skills on hookup. The one deciding factor is slipping some line at that crucial minute of connection. It helps to retrieve with a slight rod-tip-up stance to allow a small buffer on the strike, as a rod tip pointed at the retrieve will almost certainly result in a bust-off. I can’t stress how hard these fish hit a fly, and you need to be ready. Then comes the fun of extracting your quarry from the weed. Never give up. A sustained pull under hard pressure often releases the fish from the dense weed beds, and to their detriment, any movement the fish makes will assist you greatly. This advice is in contrast to the often-touted rule of ‘just let the line go slack’ which never ever works and just results in the fish burying itself even deeper into oblivion. With accommodation options in nearby Turangi (a town that needs no introduction) 15 minutes down the road, why go anywhere else?

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