Wildside Rainbows

Greg French revisits old favourites and explores new waters in New Zealand’s North Island

The chapter on the North Island’s rainbow trout in The Last Wild Trout inspired my mate Ric to invite me along on his latest trans-Tasman adventure. “Let’s revisit some of your favourite places,” he suggested, “then explore some new ones.” When we landed in Wellington, the city was still reeling from the Kaikoura earthquake a fortnight earlier. Most public buildings were full of dramatic cracks, and a tall excavator equipped with giant grab claws was hacking apart a nine-storey office block. Nonetheless the people seemed relaxed and, miraculously, getting camping supplies and maps was as easy as ever. Hangaroa Driving out of Wellington, though, our mood began to darken. We had planned to fish the nearby Tararua Forest Park, but rain had set in and everything was suddenly in flood. Our new aim, then, was to drive 500 km to Waimaha Station on the eastern fringe of the Te Urewera wilderness so that tomorrow, weather permitting, we could tramp through closed-canopy rainforest to the Anini Stream in the headwaters of the Ruakituri catchment. If it hadn’t been so late when we arrived at the Waimaha stationhouse on the banks of the Hangaroa River, we’d have stopped and asked for permission to drive out back. As it was, we were emboldened by some new Angler Access signs at the bridge and, on the other side, some ancient DOC signs indicating the way to Rua’s Track. Then we got lost amongst huge mobs of sheep and small clusters of farm buildings: it was well past midnight before we eventually found our way along 15 km of poorly formed road and set up our tent. Drizzle heralded the morning, and before heading off on our tramp Ric decided to drive the sedan a kilometre or so back to less slippery ground; where he was accosted by several young men on horseback. “There’s mustering to be done, and you shouldn’t be here,” they insisted grumpily. “Go back to the bridge. There’s plenty of fish back there.” Bugger… Still, the Hangaroa’s broadwaters ended up being good fun: we caught nymphing rainbows, and a few browns, most of which we polaroided on the papa flats adjacent to the main currents. Ruakituri If we couldn’t access the Anini via Waimaha, we’d just have to tramp in from another direction. We arrived at Puhoro Station (on the banks of the Ruakituri downstream from Te Urewera) an hour before dark, and parked the car on a grassy esplanade which the station owner had kindly designated for camping. As I set up the tent, Ric quickly nymphed up a fine rainbow, then landed several more on tiny dries during a baetid hatch. Early next day we tramped from the end of the Papuni Road across steep green pasture – comprehensively terraced with sheep trails – to the forested edge of the wilderness. It was wet and humid, but still too cold for cicadas: all that could be heard was the rush of water and melody of tuis. The forest floor had been thoroughly tilled by wild pigs, so the track was hard to follow in places, but we got to the spectacular Waitangi Falls soon enough. Above the falls it’s rainbows only – and they’re big – but high water made spotting hard. River crossings were hard too, so we eventually abandoned our plans to reach the Anini and resorted to fishing the main stem of the Ruakituri down and across. Only a few fish ate our big black Woolly Buggers, but they did so with gusto. Waikareiti After tramping out from Waitangi Falls, we drove straight around to the visitor centre at Aniwaniwa in the rainforest at the eastern end of Lake Waikaremoana. Here we paid $130 for two days boat hire, then tramped uphill to the shores of Lake Waikareiti, where we unlocked an aluminium dinghy and rowed three or four kilometres around the rainforested islands to a public hut at the far end of the lake. It rained most of the time, and scatty wind made polaroiding difficult. Still, the rainbows were leaping after dragonflies, and by casting big wets across the obvious currents that streamed past the islands we caught enough three-pounders to keep us happy. Waikaremoana inflows After Waikareiti, we grabbed a quick shower at the fully serviced Aniwaniwa campground, then drove around Lake Waikaremoana to the delightful Mokau camping area, which is located beside the small and slightly overgrown Mokau Stream. Being December, this lake tributary was full of post-spawned rainbows, and although most fish were a little tatty they were surprisingly feisty. Even better was the Hopuruahine Stream, just a short drive to the west. This water is larger than the Mokau: easier to fish and much more scenic. A suspension bridge and short walking track give access to a kilometre or more of delightful riffles and pools before the Takapou O Hinewai Cascade blocks access to lake spawners. Here we used weighted nymphs beneath a dry-fly indicator, and hooked rainbows one after the other until we got the itch to try somewhere completely new. Upper Mohaka Partway between Te Urewera and Wellington, south of Lake Taupo, are the conjoined Kaimanawa and Kaweka forest parks, which protect the headwaters of the Mohaka River. Access is via the Taharua Road, and the carpark is located right beside a helicopter charter, though the costs might make you blink. Accordingly, we chose to tramp to the Oamaru Hut. This can only be done via the poled Poronui route, which was supposed to be 9–10 km long. Actually the walk began at the very start of Poronui Station — at a pretentious stone entrance, complete with mechanical boom gate — and was at least 15 km long. Worse, most of the ‘route’ utilised formed roads and logging tracks and was extremely exposed and tedious. Still, I suppose we should have been grateful that public access was permitted at all. One kilometre short of the hut, we finally crossed the park boundary into primeval forest, where the foliage gave respite from the weather, and the pumice earth was mercifully soft underfoot. There was no obvious pig damage either, so suddenly things were looking up. The hut, built by DOC in the 1970s, is a typically spacious Lockwood design, made of thick tongue-and-groove pine slabs, which are renowned for their constant and loud creaking. A Lazerlite sunroom had recently been added, which was convenient for drying our sodden gear. On the first night we shared the hut with two young hunters — the area is famous for its sika deer — who claimed not to be responsible for the humorous graffiti on numerous arcane safety signs. DOC thought it useful to remind people not to eat 1080 poison, not to shoot towards the hut, and not to ford raging rivers. Unlike Papuni Station, which was cutting down stands of manuka so the sheep had nowhere to hide during the muster, Poronui Station had recently recognised the dollar value of manuka honey. From the porch of the Oamaru Hut at night, we watched thousands of beehives being trucked to a siding on the far side of the Taharua River, and at first-light a team of helicopters began the days-long task of transferring the hives to remote gullies. Over the next couple of days Ric and I had the Oamaru and Kaipo rivers to ourselves. Pods of fish — mostly rainbows, with a few giant browns — could be polaroided deep down in the holes at the heads of the bigger pools, but they were well protected by multi-layered currents that made it impossible to achieve natural drift. By late morning, however, some fish would always take up station in the shallow riffles, where they could be easily taken on dry flies. Then, for an hour every evening at dusk, the fast water downstream of the Kaipo junction would host an impressive baetid hatch. Upper Ngaruroro Signs suggested that the rainforest walk from the Oamaru Hut to the Boyd Hut in the neighbouring Ngaruroro catchment could take as little as 5 hours. There had been a record-breaking snowfall in winter, however, and we found the track littered with dramatic limb-fall from brittle red beech and silver beech, so it took us closer to 6 hours. The Ngaruroro itself, at an altitude of about 1000 m, proved to be a classic freestone stream set between forested hills but flanked by poa flats. We commented on how carefree it felt walking through snake-free tussocks. And cheered when we saw the stunning clarity of the water and the total absence of didymo (a stark reminder of what South Island rivers used to be). Fording the river was easy too, but well into the grass on the far side we noticed ominous tidelines of pumice. The Boyd Hut can sleep 16 people, but it was empty when we arrived and we spent the next few days utterly alone. During all our time in the valley it remained far too cold for cicadas. All that could be heard along the riverbanks were gusts of wind and the incessant honking of Canada geese, forever worried about us getting too close to their goslings. (The tuis in the forest had been far more comforting.) Still, despite a fair amount of rain, the river level remained stable and the polaroiding was superb in both the main stem of the Ngaruroro and in the Te Waiotupuritia Stream, where we enticed more rainbows to scoff a Royal Wulff. Waiohine On returning to our car, we were dismayed to discover that we’d spent eight nights (rather than six) in the Kaimanawa and Kaweka forests: it’s amazing how easy it is to lose track of time when you’ve over-catered and are having fun. With no time to lose, we sped off towards the Tararuas, stopping only to get supplies at Carterton, and somehow managed to reach the modest camping area at the end of the Waiohine Gorge Road by late evening. It rained all night, but at sunup we inspected the Waiohine from the swing bridge and were pleased to find the water low and clear. Then, in the time it took to have breakfast, the river became a raging muddy-grey torrent. Oh well, we thought, we might as well walk to the Totara Flats Hut anyway: exploring the low-altitude forest with its subtropical nikau palms would be a lot better than killing two days in the city. Halfway in, at the foot of an imposing landslip, we found a large section of track completely inundated. We pushed on — through dense scrub around a sheer cliff-face — but even on the Totara Flats the walking remained unpleasant, with huge water spouts sweeping off the rapids. Never have I been so grateful to reach the shelter of a hut. Amazingly, the river dropped two metres overnight, and the tramp out was easy. By the time we’d returned to the landslip, the water had lost most of its colour: we spent a barely affordable half-hour swinging Woolly Buggers – and I managed to quickly hook a couple of super-strong rainbows – but we had a plane to catch and, much too soon, we had to leave. “We’ll have to revisit this place next time,” I said. “Then explore some new ones,” Ric added happily.

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