The Roll Cast Academy

Piero Bertocchi unravels the story behind the Tongariro Roll Cast

They say you are continually learning when fly fishing, and so often that learning is inspired by a chance event. For me, it happened when I stumbled upon Herb Spannagl. It had been the first day of a week-long trip on the Tongariro River with Shawn Mitchell, who was new to the river. We covered a number of the well-known pools through the day, and ended on Lower Bridge Pool. It had been a good day, but I was feeling the dull stiffness in my shoulder that comes from casting heavy Tongariro bombs all day. The daylight was slowly leaving the rich landscape and the cold had started to bite. Having made my last cast, I watched Shawn further up the pool make a series of stylish Spey casts with his double-hander. It was then I noticed a senior angler, steadily making his way up the track towards me. He was carrying two solid rainbows, one being the biggest fish I’d seen come out of the Tongariro in a long time. I commended him on his catch and we got talking, as you do, about the fishing. Soon we got on to the topic of casting, as Shawn was intending to give me a few lessons in doubled handed Spey casting during the trip. Herb mentioned using the Tongariro Roll Cast, performed with a conventional rod. It rang a bell, as I’d read a promo for an upcoming clinic about this cast. Offering to demonstrate the cast, Herb slowly made his way into the river. At 80, and having just had two knee replacements, I was impressed he was able to fish at all. After stripping line off the reel he made a short cast, laying the line on the water in front of him and then, after some wizard-like strokes, he shot out the enormous but smooth cast, almost reaching the far bank. To prove that the Tongariro Roll Cast can handle super heavy nymphs with ease, he then proceeded to attach a 2.5-gram split shot. Seemingly defying gravity and physics, the next cast punched out with great efficiency, and similar impressive distance. Astounded, I thought to myself, why bother with a Spey rod if I could cast bombs like that on a single-handed rod? We talked some more and I established that Herb was actually giving the clinic I’d read about. By this stage it was getting dark and we parted ways, leaving me with an overwhelming urge to learn more about this amazing cast. A few days later, I happened upon Herb again, fishing the pool below me. I went to greet him and find out more about his casting clinic. It was a slow day by all accounts, but that didn’t seem to apply to Herb, as I had already seen him land a few good fish. Indeed, when I waded towards him, he was fighting another. I couldn’t help but study his guise — he was the antithesis of ‘all the gear and no idea’. Sporting only basic kit, he radiated confidence and competence, but in an understated way. We got talking and unfortunately I couldn’t make the clinic as I needed to get Shawn back to Wellington to catch his flight, but Herb agreed to give me a lesson at his hometown of New Plymouth in a few weeks, if I didn’t mind travelling up there. THE MAN Streamside on the Tongariro and later in New Plymouth, I was able to get to know Herb and discovered he was an amazing outdoorsman. His stories could easily fill the pages of a book. Heralding from Austria, Herb yearned to hunt and fish, but in those days these sports were reserved for the wealthy elite of Austrian society. In 1960, as a spritely 20-year-old, he headed to Australia and New Zealand on what was meant to be a six month hunting and fishing trip. This extended a further six months and then another, and he never returned. Whilst working in a uranium mine in the Northern Territory he met a Maori man who told him the New Zealand Government was employing hunters to cull deer. Two weeks later Herb and a friend were on their way to New Zealand. Passing the course, Herb became a deer culler hunting the West Coast, Ruahines and Nelson. It was in Nelson he met his wife. Recognising that Herb’s new domestic responsibilities weren’t entirely compatible with extended deer culling trips, his supervisor found him a job doing pest control in the North Island. Later, he secured employment as a rabbiter. Although he enjoyed it, Herb thought this somewhat of a dead-end job and he ultimately went on to have a successful career as a park ranger and conservation officer with the Department of Conservation. Hunting and fishing was clearly in his blood. On his weekends he would stalk deer, claiming that for the first eight years of his marriage they only ate venison. Throughout this time he was also fishing the headwaters and lakes of the country. In particular, he formed a strong relationship with the Tongariro River. He fished the mighty river in its former glory, before it was dammed for the hydro scheme. Herb witnessed the advent of upstream nymphing and the ensuing conflicts with the traditional downstream anglers swinging wet flies. He even regaled me with a story of unknowingly fishing and having a cup of tea with the Governor General of the day at Major Jones Pool. Of the many stories, one in particular had a significant influence on Herb’s fishing… The Rollcast Academy Herb explained that each year on the Tongariro a particular pool will fish better than others, but word soon gets out. In the late 90s, Silly Pool proved to be the best holding water. To be first on the river, cold pre-dawn starts were necessary. Getting to Silly Pool involved scrambling down a precarious track and slippery boulders by torchlight. The first casts were made once the bright indicators were visible against the dark current. On this unforgettable morning, Herb and some mates had done well and were taking a break for a well-earned cuppa when a stranger arrived from down river. Chatting about the fishing, Herb noticed the angler was using an old Sage RP3 rod. He commented on its relic nature, to which the stranger replied: “I do a bit of roll casting and this is a good rod for roll casting.” Displaying good etiquette, the new arrival asked to fish the pool, to which they happily agreed. Enjoying their brew, they watched the angler strip line off the reel, but instead of making a back cast he flicked a large loop of extra line onto the water and then shot it forward as the longest roll cast they had ever seen. Herb was staggered as the stranger launched beautiful casts from his antique rod and sent them sailing out across the wide pool. In no time at all, his rod bent into a good fish, which the angler skilfully landed and dispatched. He fished to the head of the pool and before they could interrogate him about his technique, he collected his fish and disappeared up the track. Herb thought he had remembered enough to perform the cast. However, he struggled and only managed to tangle himself in line. What had looked so effortless in the hands of an expert now had Herb entirely bewildered. Without making any progress, Herb gave up in frustration, but not without vowing to his mates that before he died, he would master this cast. Herb began a slow and excruciating journey of self-directed learning, which often ended up as self-punishment. He had no one to teach him. Success came in tiny increments, mainly from studying Spey casting videos and analysing his own progress. Occasionally he was fortunate to observe a few young TRC practitioners on the Hydro Pool, which he dubbed the ‘Rollcast Academy’. Herb believes they were some of the first people to have used the TRC, and it was most likely conceived on the Tongariro River, but the exact origins of the cast were sketchy. Origins of the Cast Herb insisted that if I was to write this story I should properly research how the cast came about, so he passed on the name and email of one of the anglers he befriended from the Rollcast Academy. By making a few calls to various people, I discovered that the instigator of the TRC was Chris Brennan, now a Taupo-based guide. I phoned Chris; he was very unassuming and appreciated being asked about his story and how he accidently stumbled upon the cast. A local Taupo boy, Chris was only sixteen at the time and like any keen angler arriving on the water, he eagerly wanted to get his line and fly out as quickly as possible. Unclipping and tossing his fly down, he rapidly stripped line off the reel whilst shaking his rod, back and forth, parallel with the water, slipping all the line out. In the process, he formed loops on the water and, somehow, because the line and weighted flies were still moving, Chris managed to lift out the stowed loops with the belly of the line and then unexpectedly shot out a sizable cast. Chris had the sense to replicate the cast, getting the casting sequence faster and faster with greater efficiency and distance. Chris spent countless hours on the Hydro Pool refining the cast, more so out of necessity to target hard-to-reach fish. Before the 2004 flood, the Hydro Pool had a small ledge on the bank opposite where the Mangamawhitwhiti Stream flowed into the tail of the pool. There was a deep channel around the mouth of this important spawning stream where numerous rainbows and browns would hold in front of large boulders. The centre of the channel was fifty feet or so from the ledge, which could only be reached with a long roll cast due to the limited back-cast room. Using the TRC, Chris was able to get his nymphs far enough upstream to throw a mend and get the flies to drift past the fish. This spot would become a memorable place for Chris, as he went on to catch numerous, sizeable fish including a good number of browns over ten pounds. Interestingly, when Chris realised he could roll cast so much fly line, he began using the cast even when no trees were behind him. Chris found it was an easier and more efficient way to cast, and even to this day will often use the TRC exclusively depending on the situation. Later, Chris taught a few of his mates – the ones in the Rollcast Academy. Auspiciously, he also taught a fellow at his local tackle shop, who was the same angler that Herb would later see performing the cast at Silly Pool, ultimately setting Herb on a mission to learn and analyse the cast, and take it to a new level. GuardiAN of the cast Herb realised from the outset that this was a very special cast, but with only a small user-base it could easily fade into obscurity. Having analysed the cast for his own benefit, he then wrote about it to share his knowledge more widely. Perhaps more significantly, Herb conducted annual casting clinics at the Tongariro Trout Centre to teach the cast. Along with raising funds for the Trout Centre, the underlying impact was to develop a broader base of anglers who could perform the TRC, ensuring the cast would survive. Herb named it the Tongariro Roll Cast, to clearly establish its origin and promote the country’s contributions to fly fishing. With Herb preserving the TRC through his teachings, the modern day angler has an opportunity to learn the cast and add another arrow to their quiver.

Current FlyLife Subscribers can login to read the full article.
To access this article, back issues & more Subscribe to FlyLife today.