Navigating the North Island

New Zealand’s north island shudders with cold, clear, fresh water. Anglers like myself who have read the magazines and scanned the websites are familiar with the more famous wet lines like the Tongariro and other Taupo tributaries. But the sheer quantity of trout rivers and creeks can feel overwhelming to a visiting angler.

My time here has helped me empathize with the many fly fishing tourists I meet in my home state each season. Montana also abounds with fertile rivers and creeks. They fall from nearly every mountain in a state that takes its name from the Spanish word for mountain. But in Montana I know where to go, and if I don’t know where to go, I know who to ask. Not so in New Zealand, and while Kiwis are, in my limited experience, friendly and forthcoming (more on that later), it’s difficult to even know where to begin. Most of us travel on limited time. Time here can feel exceptionally limited, because traveling this spectacular island nation without exploring it beyond the realms of fish would be shameful. While every fishing trip to a new destination should include at least one gamble–hopefully exploring a blue line on a map that may or may not hold fish–few of us are willing to risk all our valuable angling days that way.

Even the “small fish” rivers he suggested held fat rainbows of 16-20 inches in nearly every likely looking pool.

Below are a few resources that were instrumental in planning and facilitating my time on the North Island.

If you’re looking for a local agent to design a vacation to your liking, The Best of New Zealand specializes in doing just that Their knowledge and contacts extend well beyond the north island, and they facilitate far more than just fly fishing travel, but that’s how I used their services. Because I wanted to experience the famous Turangi region at the south end of Lake Taupo, they booked me at the Tongariro River Lodge, where my wife and I enjoyed exceptional dining and accommodation to compliment the outstanding fishing. For more on the fishing we had with the lodge guide staff, check out my previous post:

As just about every article about fishing New Zealand will tell you, it’s worth your time and money to book at least a couple days with a guide, even if you’re planning to do the majority of your fishing without one (as we were). I’ve guided trout anglers for much of my adult life and caught them all over the U.S. and the world, yet my time with the Tongariro River Lodge’s head guide Tim McCarthy proved to be immensely helpful in learning some of the nuances of north island fisheries. Plus, he helped my wife catch her largest trout to date, bigger than any I’ve ever been able to guide her into. Additionally, splurging for a few nights of top-notch accommodation can be well worth the money, even on a budgeted vacation. Amy and I spent most of our travel nights sleeping at friends’ houses, in mid-priced airbnbs, or “freedom camping”, so our nights at the lodge refreshed and rejuvenated us with a bit of comfort, luxury, and solitude. Of course, if you’re able to spend the majority of your time in a lodge setting, do so, but I think everyone who fishes in New Zealand should spend at least one night in a tent beside a river. Preferably several.

After leaving the Tongariro River Lodge, Amy and I hung around Turangi for a few more days, enjoying the quaint town and spending more time on the storied river. One afternoon while I was working a run with nymphs and an indicator, killing time before the evening rise, a stranger walked up to me and struck up a conversation. I started out skeptical. While fly anglers in the States are usually cordial, we don’t walk up to complete strangers in the midst of a drift and begin discussions. My suspicion demonstrates my lack of understanding in regard to New Zealand’s cultural context. The stranger, Doug Sevens, didn’t want anything from me other than a conversation. Kiwis tend to be friendlier than yanks.

Doug’s a local resident, and expert on the fisheries of the north island. Within ten minutes of meeting me, Doug had given me advice on effective flies, informed me of a specific regulation on the Tongariro that prohibits the type of strike indicator I was using (yarn only on the Tongariro; now you know), invited me to his home, and offered to take me fishing. For the record, Doug had no idea that I make my living as an outdoor writer. Unfortunately, our differing schedules prevented us from getting out on the water together, but I did visit his house (where he gifted me a package of legal indicators). Doug runs a website called dedicated to helping anglers find and access excellent water all over the county. He asked about Amy and my upcoming travel plans and suggested rivers where we could stop and fish along the way.

Being that I am still an American and a fishing guide, my personal code of ethics prevents me from telling you exactly which rivers we fished, but I can tell you that Doug’s website provides maps and details on each of them, along with dozens of others. Even the “small fish” rivers he suggested held fat rainbows of 16-20 inches in nearly every likely looking pool. Outside the famed radius of Taupo, we never saw another angler.

The highlight of my time on the north island came beside a wide pool on another unnamed river just a few hours’ drive from the Tongariro River Lodge. Tim, the guide we fished with, suggested that spot when I asked him about camping opportunities in the area with fishing possibilities. The short dusk window showed a handful of dimpling rises I. didn’t land them all, but I’ll not soon forget the rainbow that broke my leader with his initial headshake and proceeded to leap steadily and consistently down the pool, shattering the reflected sunset.