Dispatch from the North Island of New Zealand

Tongariro Lodge, After the Storm

[by Miles Nolte]

Driving over a pass through the Kaimai mountains, I couldn’t stop blinking. Partially, this compulsion resulted from the scenery: lush native forests stretch above vertical valleys, that cascade down into bright green pastures, before being swallowed by the sea. The landscapes (and the fishing) in New Zealand are the mantle of myths for good reason, and I spent the past three decades hoping to make this trip. I’m now finally here, with my wife Amy, two months of winding road (remember to stay on the left side–my driving mantra) open before us.

But the sublime vistas and the reality of actually being here, experiencing this place I’ve heard and read so much about, weren’t the only reasons for my continual blinking. I’d spent most of the previous afternoon ducking and gliding across the stormy surf of Waihi Beach, where a single grain of sand scoured my left eyeball. The result wasn’t serious, more of a reminder–something tactile for me to fiddle with, a physical souvenir from the sea.

Just a few hours driving parabolic, narrow highways carried us from the blue lines of waves tracing lipped arcs on sandy beach breaks to the blue lines of mountain rivers pouring into Lake Taupo. Such a quick transition from marine to alpine seems like it should be jarring, but it didn’t feel that way. Towering forests of native Kauri and Kahikatea buffer the transition in a steady shade of dark green on the hilltops and steep valleys. The primary difference marking the change once we descended into the valley of Taupo was the planted pine in orderly rows, crops that require a quarter century to harvest.

We arrived at the Tongariro Lodge in the late afternoon to patchy skies and birdsong. The same storm that churned up the surf and sand on the coast had unleashed torrents of rain inland, causing some rivers to rise more than ten-fold, including the Tongariro itself at the edge of the lodge. Much of the riverside foliage pointed, horizontal and bare, toward the lake, and logs wider than my torso lay in tangled heaps more than ten feet from the main streambed. Amy and I settled into our villa and sipped cold beers on a deck less than fifty yards from the earthen dyke that stopped the flooding from reaching the property. I felt content, but skeptical about our fishing chances for the next couple of days; massive floods don’t often improve fishing conditions.

Fishing Day 1:

Tim McCarthy, the lodge’s head guide for more than two decades, arrived in the morning to pick me up. He suggested fishing a small, out of the way river that required some hiking, and was somewhat technical.

“There aren’t many fish up there; we might get one or two. Four or five on a really good day, but you’ll have a decent chance at a real big one. I’ve been skunked there plenty.”

I knew Amy was keen to fish, but she excused herself graciously and told me to have a good time. We would fish the Tongariro together the following day which, Tim assured, should be back in decent fishing shape even though the massive floods were only three days abated.

In what I came to recognize as his usual style, Tim’s descriptions were understated. The river poured through steep, dripping canyons, the walls alive with ferns, seeps, and waterfalls. The first pool opened up in a wide sweep that looked promising. I attached a brand-new leader and handed it to Tim, who proceeded to break off several feet in short snaps of the wrist, before adding a new section of his own tippet. He gave my fly boxes a cursory glance, handed them back, and tied on a dry fly from his vest that seemed mostly to consist of deer hair, hackle, and rubberlegs.

“What’s that imitate?” I asked. “A cicada?”

“Maybe. A cicada? A tarantula? A small bird? I just know they eat it.”

Three casts into the first pool and the bulbous bug disappeared without ripple. I lifted, expecting a foot-long trout, at best, then the flyline ripped out of my fingers and hissed through surface tension.

“That’s a good one.” Tim said, his tone far more arid than the air at altitude.

It was, indeed, a good one, a thick rainbow of four or five pounds, my first fish in New Zealand. After the requisite photos and a clean release, I felt the urge to mark the moment, to celebrate, to hoot through the empty canyon, but Tim just nodded and said, “That’ll be all for this pool.”

He set out across the swift, knee-deep water at the tailout, his wooden wading staff tapping an upbeat rhythm between boulders. I kept a quiet moment for myself, then rushed to keep his blue backpack in view, something that would become a theme in the next two days. Tim may be fifteen years my senior, but his hiking can outpace most American teenagers.

As promised, we only caught three fish that day, with a couple of others sighted. None were less than four pounds, and the biggest was close to eight. The water was deep, blue, and clear. The fish were all bright and healthy. The only air-breathing beings who shared the pools with us were New Zealand Blue Ducks, an endemic, threatened species with indigo plumage and short, fleshy beaks. Less than 3,000 of these birds remain, but they appeared common on this stretch, a different family every mile or so.


Fishing Day 2:

“What Amy lacks in experience, she makes up for in enthusiasm,” I told Tim on our drive back to the lodge after the first day.

“She’ll be happy to learn a few things, and catch a fish or two, but if she does catch one, they’ll probably hear her yell back at the lodge.”

Tim nodded. “Right. Well, we’ll give it a go.”

The next morning, he drove us a few miles upstream. The Tongariro is a big river, made larger that day by remnants of the recent storm. The water flowed a glacial blue that matched the color of Tim’s pack, our beacon through a labyrinth of dense and winding bush. We eventually spat out of the foliage at a long, slow glide. Rigged with simple Hare’s Ear nymphs and a tuft of yarn for an indicator, I ventured to a small pool downstream while Tim walked Amy to the sweet spot.

My expectations were low. Being at the tail-end of a flood, on the most popular river in the country, just a short drive from town, I was assuming we might get a couple of fish, and that Tim would help Amy tune her cast for our next couple of months traveling and fishing around the country. That, to me, would have been a great day.

I landed a couple of very small rainbows, no bigger than six or eight inches, and I thought I heard Amy hoot once from where she fished about 50 yards upstream. I worked my way up the run, eventually finding a slightly larger trout–somewhere around a foot–until I was close enough to clearly see the two of them fishing the soft water pool ahead of me. What I saw was impressive: Amy’s casts arced forward in tight loops that reached well beyond her normal range, and she fished through her drifts, bent toward the river with her usual intensity, willing the fish to play.

She struck midway through a drift, and I saw the 6-weight rod bow down in deference to something clearly more significant than what I had been catching. Hopscotching over the tops of river stones, I arrived in time to watch her work the fish into the net, surprised to see a hen rainbow pushing two feet, by far her biggest trout–though not her first, nor her last, of the day.

She continued to out-fish me all morning, Tim’s primary advice to me being, “Stop picking on the children.” Eventually, I did get to experience the actual average on the Tongariro–18-20 inch rainbows that are, essentially, landlocked steelhead that migrate in and out of Lake Taupo, and fight similarly to their oceanic cousins.

That night at the lodge, we toasted Amy’s fish and Tim’s patience, wit, and instruction.

She talked about her first fish, the one I’d been too far away to see. “After I let it go, Tim said, ‘Yep, he told me you’d yell.’”

Amy’s hand remains sore from fighting fish, and we’ve got a couple days to recover before moving on to the next set of rivers.