New Zealand Oct, 2004
Two and half years have past since I fished the Tongariro River, my most distant and utmost memorable fishing trip to date. It has taken this long for the images to, even subtly, fade; a reminder of how visual and indelibly lasting the experience was and why the images of New Zealand are etched in my mind.
2004 was, in part, a year of reflection and thought, although I admit not deep thought. After eighteen years of working for a high-tech company, I found myself off the organizational chart. I considered it an opportunity to rejuvenate and focus on a long nurtured obsession, fly-fishing.
With a sense of anxiousness, not uncommon when I travel far distances and by myself, I arrived in Auckland Friday, October the 22nd. I had left Toronto on the 20th and only twenty-four hours, not forty-eight, had past by. I was thinking the International Date Line, being an imaginary line to begin with, was a hoax. How do you lose a day when the line is imaginary to begin with? Anyway, I knew I would get a day back, even if it wasn’t the same day, on my return.
I discovered that New Zealand’s airport Customs is very meticulous about what comes into the country and in what condition. The Declaration form required checking off used knapsacks, hiking and fishing boots. At first I thought it was a ploy to get visitors to buy all new equipment. After asking for my boots and then taking them away, I was relieved to see them returned. In a back room, someone had thoroughly sprayed them against invasive parasites. I would not have been surprised if they had asked me when I showered last….Was it one or two days? You know, with the International Date Line and all that.
Driving in my rented car to Lake Taupo– a four hours drive south from the airport – I started to lose the sense of panic and confusion I had experienced while driving in London a few years back, where left-hand-drive is also the norm and an excellent rule to follow, if only, to avoid oncoming traffic.Although it was late October the weather was reminiscent of June in the Northern Hemisphere. The lilac bushes framing the roads with their violet and pink flowers occasionally exposed many, yet un-sheared sheep grazing along the fences. There were fields with horses and deer farms. Although the deer are not native, since imported from England and Scotland, there are more than four thousand deer farms in New Zealand – making the deer, perhaps, more common than the rabbit.By mid afternoon, I arrived in the town of Turangi –self-proclaimed Trout capital of the World –located at the bottom of Lake Taupo and built on the banks of the Tongariro River. After checking into the Sportsman’s Lodge, I visited four fly shops, all within walking distance of the lodge. A fishing license for the two weeks came to a mere $5.00 NZ (about $ 4.00 CAD). Having purchased the can-not-do-without local flies and consolidated the information received from each shop, I was fishing the Judges Pool directly behind the lodge by 4PM. The pool, a good two hundred feet long and half as wide, ran slow and flat, making it easy to spot the floating dry flies, while the drifting nymphs, unseen beneath the surface, hugged the stony bottom. I thought I might have had a take, but take or not, it had been a perfect day both off and on the water.After a quick walk back to the lodge and an equally quick changing of clothes, I walked to the Bridge Tongariro Resort Restaurant –not quite as lofty as it sounds – where I enjoyed a very hefty fillet of beef , followed by a very good night’s sleep.The next morning, fishing the Island Pool, I netted and then quickly released a very handsome rainbow trout. Glancing over my shoulder, I glimpsed an angler’s bent rod – snagged it seemed on a rock - and then suddenly the line rushed off the reel. He landed that fish and then another.For the most part, there’s a footpath on both sides of the river. On one side it periodically turns into a lane engulfed by Forsythia shrubs that in spring, before the leaves unfold, produce brilliant yellow flowers. On my way up the lane to the Major Jones Pool, I came across three mountain bikers. My accent prompted them to ask where I was from. Telling them Toronto, one of them said, “You fly fishing guys will go anywhere for fish.” I came back with, “Like you mountain bikers will go anywhere for mud.” And we all laughed. One of the fellows said, “You’re Bruce Coburn aren’t you?” Before I could say anything, he leaned over and shaking my hand said, “I have lots of your albums.” His enthusiasm and excitement stalled my instinct to tell him he had the wrong guy. I was thinking I could make his day – having met and shaken the hand of Bruce Coburn – or tell him I was a look alike. I chose to make his day. As he started talking favourite songs, I wished them a good ride and hastened down stream. Later I discovered it was not uncommon to see, actors, the likes of John Travolta and Liam Nielsen on the river. Apparently, Travolta has flown in on his personal jet. Many celebrities make the Tongariro River their fishing destination.I walked to where I had previously seen an angler take two fish. Copying his technique, I hooked a fish and ten minutes later managed to get a photo before watching it swim away. Not long after, I engaged another fish and thought about the on screen air-born jumps of Fred Astaire as the fish tail-danced then leaped skyward. Having jumped twice, it then got off. I was still shaking from the adrenalin hit of the first fish and decided to head back to the lodge for a gin and tonic, and a cigar.The next day at the Island Pool I met, John, a local from Auckland, who had a weekend place in Taupo. Smiling he said, “I’ve never missed getting a fish here!” And, this was no exception as he hoisted a four-pounder onto shore. It was a feisty fish that fought back. On taking out the hook, John had securely anchored it in the palm of his hand, where it remained until later that night.The Lodge had a large self-help kitchen with numerous fridges and stoves where guests simultaneously cooked their meals. While making my dinner, I met Philip and his wife. They had come from Auckland for the long weekend to fish. Of the two, Philip was the designated cook and a good one at that. My concoction of boiled potatoes, fried peppers and a make shift Caesar salad was no match for Philip’s ambrosial smelling chicken curry. Before heading back to their room, he extended an invitation to fish early the next morning. Midday they wanted to be on their way back to the city. After dinner and before retiring for the night, I lazed in the main room off the kitchen enjoying the wood fire. While it warded off the pervasive dampness inside, outside the rain continued to clatter unceasingly on the metal roof.My stay at the Lodge was ending. Surfing the net back home, I came across a stone cottage for rent just down the road from the Lodge. It conveniently backed onto the river and gave me lots of space to spread out. It had a washroom with bath, a kitchen, two bedrooms and a large combination living and dining room. I had met the owners the day before and after a tour of the cottage, I walked the winding path through the perennial garden leading to a secret gate; nothing but a short dangling rope-pull marked it from the rest of the high-reaching fence. Only the river’s babbling riffles conveyed what was on the other side.The Tui Birds’ loud chirping and the flapping of their wings proved a reliable alarm clock. Like roosters and equally annoying, they came alive with the dawning of each day. On my fourth day shortly after daybreak and a short walk along the river path while avoiding crisscrossing rabbits, I arrived at the Bridge Pool, where most of the locals fish before going to work. After nabbing a four pound rainbow and missing numerous other takes, I decided to walk upstream toward the bridge. A Maori, using an effective and seemingly effortless cast, easily placed his fly a good ninety feet from shore. Seeing me standing there and watching, he offered to make room if I wanted to fish. I said, “I’m happy just to watch.” We didn’t formally introduce ourselves until later in the week. I speculated he mastered the long distance cast to compensate for not having waders. He wore a short pair of rubber boots and fished exclusively from shore. I concluded both jacket and waders weren’t in his budget and that a rainproof jacket served him better.In the afternoon, I met Phil McKeawn from Wellington, the capital of New Zealand and a few hours drive south of Turangi. He had a place here he referred to as a work-in- progress. Together we fished the Major Jones Pool, a very wide stretch of river that requires either a long cast, or a deep stance in fast moving water. It was getting late in the day and the fishing was slow. Slow, in fishermen’s terms, usually means you’re not catching anything. Phil invited me to join him the next morning to fish one of his favourite holes, the Duchess Pool, too far to walk but only a short drive. All the anglers I met added up to one big-hearted welcoming committee that chose to take me under its wing, to ensure my fishing experience, on their turf, was a good one; Phil was no exception. I had not felt a need to hire a guide. So far, all those I had met had guided me.The staff at the fly shops confirmed that I was there “between” runs. Most of the fish, having recently spawned and now spent, were on their way back to Lake Taupo. Supposedly, I was doing well catching a fish or two a day, since, during this time, they are reluctant to take a fly. They probably wanted me to feel good about not catching dozens of fish – well it worked.It had been five days since my arrival and only five remained. I have discovered time and flies have something in common; eventually you lose both.The next morning I met up with Phil and we walked the tree-lined path under overhanging leaves to the Duchess Pool. These were Phil’s last couple of hours on the water before heading back to Wellington. Since our arrival at the pool, neither one of us had hooked a fish. On the walk back, Phil gave one more cast into a sliver of flat water surrounded by riffles near the edge of the shore and landed the only fish of the morning.After an exchange of emails and wishing each other well, I returned to the Duchess Pool. What a time I had. It was the most exciting fishing day ever. If today had been my last day fishing on the island, it would have exceeded all my expectations – not that they were high to begin with. There are always the unknowns, where to fish, what flies to use, whether to use a guide or not to use a guide.I hadn’t had a take all afternoon when suddenly the tap turned on and “bang” out went the line. I had made numerous changes to my rig and finally hit the right combination of flies and leader. Within an hour, I had lost three fish after a lengthy bout with each. All had performed out-of-water acrobatics to show their disdain for my efforts, while I bemoaned my losses. I stood bent forward, hands on my knees with arms shaking and a pained wrist from fighting fish I couldn’t land. I was mentally and physically out-right fatigued. It was getting late and I decided to give it one more go. Again, a fish was on. Would I land him or lose him? Thinking I had rushed the others, I decided to let him run and tire himself out. Finally, and more tired than the fish, I scooped him up to see the fly (a Copper John) fall to the water and not a minute too soon.On and off during the week, I had fished and chatted, always at the Bridge Pool, with the Maori who wore the short rubber boots and had the great cast. When I asked him if he ever fished any of the other pools, he said,”Why do all that walking when you can spend the time fishing? The fish are everywhere!” Everyday he wore the rubber boots, the same pants, T-shirt, red and grey jacket and black wool toque. His pupils, a dark chocolate brown accentuated the surrounding whites of his eyes. Although he had only just turned forty-one, his scruffy beard had turned a mousy grey and made him look older. His face revealed a permanent tan and his smile laid bare a gentle soul.On my second last day of fishing, he arrived at the pool shortly after me and witnessed the landing of two fish. Later, on leaving, he said, “You’ve had a time of it.” I replied, “Yes, today has been another good day!”He said, “If you think today was good, come back tomorrow. It’s always better three days after a rain.” It was then that we shared names. “I’m Claire”, he said shyly.Having seen him catch more fish than he could eat in a week, I asked him what he did with his catches. “I take them back to the senior natives –folks too old to come and fish, and too poor to buy them.” I offered to give him what I caught but for the most part my fish were slightly too discoloured for his liking. As he left he asked, “Will you be here later?” He knew I was leaving tomorrow; I think he wanted to say goodbye if he wasn’t going to see me again. I told him I would be back in the morning before driving back to Auckland in the afternoon. When I first arrived, I was thinking in days; now I was thinking in minutes.The next morning I made my way to the Bridge Pool. Today the hard rain of the previous day had tapered off to a penetrating drizzle. I was on the river when Claire arrived. I hadn’t had any luck. Within five minutes he had two strikes. Sauntering over he said, “Try this.” It was an egg imitation just like mine but slightly smaller. Casting it to the far bank, I landed two Rainbows within ten minutes. He was good!Earlier in the week, I had mentioned to Claire that I wanted to take back something indigenous to New Zealand. I was thinking a Jade stone; referred to by New Zealanders as the “Green” stone, and asked if he knew where I could get one. He suggested that stores in the town of Taupo had a fair selection.It was late morning when he asked, “When will you leave?”Knowing I still needed to pack and stop in Taupo, I said, “Shortly.”He then handed me a very sizable Green stone. Although it hadn’t been worked into a piece of jewelry, I recognized it as a very special offering since it symbolizes everlasting good luck. Only Maoris, Claire told me, are allowed to extract these stones, who then sold them to merchants and artists, who in turn sold them to the tourists. Completely astounded by his gesture, and almost speechless, I thanked him. My gratitude, heartfelt though it was, seemed inadequate.He said, “When you look at the stone, you’ll remember me.”As I left the cottage for the last time and while driving across the bridge over looking the, now, very familiar Bridge Pool, I saw Claire where he always stood and as I remember him –on shore in his red and grey jacket, wearing his rubber boots and black wool toque, and, of course, performing another flawless cast.Getting there:Fly to Auckland and then to Taupo. If you’re on a package, the Lodges provide transportation from Taupo to Turangi (approximately a 40 minute drive). Another option is to rent a car in Auckland and drive the scenic route to Taupo and then on to Turangi.Fishing License: The Taupo fishing season runs from July 1 - June 30. A special licence is required to fish in the Taupo District. Fish & Game licences cannot be used here. An annual license is $75 NZD and $34. per week. Please note that all costs quoted are as of October 2004.When to go: Dry fly fishing is best in January, February, and March.Nymphing is especially productive during the winter spawning migration. (April May, June, July, and August).Nymphing is the most effective method for year around fishing in all rivers.Where to Stay:Sportsman’s Lodge: (Turangi) (07)386 8150. rates go from $60 to $80 NZD. This includes a room with washroom, a private food locker and use of fridges and stoves in the communal kitchen. Off the kitchen is a comfortable living area with couches and a wood burning fireplace. It’s located on the Tongariro River. Grocery shopping and restaurants are in walking distance.Turangi Cabins and Holiday Park: (Turangi) (07)386-8754.http://firstname.lastname@example.orgFor those on a budget. Camping is $11. per day. Amenities include a kitchen, ablutions with a bath and laundry facilities. It’s open 365 days a year and situated only five minutes from the Turangi town centre, and only about a 10 minutes walk from the Tongariro RiverAkepiro Cottage: Turangi (07) 386 7384. beautiful two bedroom stone cottage on the river. Amenities include kitchen and laundry facilities. Single rate is $60. NZD; double rate is $100. NXD. In walking distance of local stores and fly shops.Outfitter: The Creel Tackle House: Turangi, (o7) 386 5828http://www.creel.co.nz/Open from 7 am to 5 pm daily. It sells all the flies you’ll need; fishing licenses and sells and rents fishing tackle. It’s located on the Tongariro River down the road from both the Sportsman’s Lodge and Akepiro Cottage.What to bring: All the traditional gear: rain wear, waders, vest, flies, sinking tips, floating line, split shots, etc.Rods: six and eight weight. You’ll land them on a six weight, however an eight weight makes it easier to cast the larger and heavier flies.tall, imposing letters. 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