A tribute to John Milner:
Into the Night –
by Dave Conely – following feature article from Target Taupo April 2008 Issue 57 –
One thing really stood out for me on the first visit I had to the River Walk at the Trout Centre. There was this chap whose photo appears repeatedly, beaming from behind a succession of VERY large trout. Next to each photo is the fish itself, mounted on the wall for posterity. These fish are very impressive, both Rainbow and Brown, and clearly the results of a fisherman who has learnt a thing or two about catching big fish. The man in question is John Milner, who I first came to know as my neighbour while I worked as a fishing guide. In those days we would discuss fishing in much like a boxing match, John leading with jabs across the fence extolling the virtues of fishing the wet-fly in the traditional style, me counter-punching with the more modern technique of nymphing with indicator and heavily weighted nymphs.
These exchanges were usually one-sided affairs, as John carried the day with sunken line with a passion uniquely his own, and I would beat a tactical retreat to consider the error of my ways. I am sure I read somewhere it was dumb to bring a knife to a gunfight….
The irony of the situation for me is that I have come to know John much better since leaving the neighbourhood, having regular contact with him in a working capacity through my involvement with the Trout Centre. John has been a pivotal figure in the development of the Trout Centre, and continues to make a tremendous contribution to the Trout Centre Society since stepping down as Society Chair in 2005.
Now, I have to be clear in my motivation at this point. Clearly, John knows a great deal about how to catch the denizens of the dark, as is evident in his results. I, on the other hand, have made only fleeting attempts at tackling the Tongariro after dark, with mixed results to be fair! To say I was curious to learn what he may have to say on the topic would be something of an understatement. However, fishermen are famously reticent when it comes to divulging the secrets of their success, and I must admit to thinking John would be no different. After a good deal of time thinking about how I could formulate a plan to ‘trick’ him into giving me the good oil, the best I could come up with was, “why not just ask him?” Genius!
Armed with this cunning plan, I worked up the courage to ‘pop the question’, and John graciously obliged, and the following article was gleaned from a couple of very interesting chats I had with him at home. These chats were aided in no small way by a bottle of John’s delicious homegrown Pinot Noir, named Paratiho after his homestead above Pukawa. My hope is this story, like the wine, does justice to a man with a deep and abiding passion for the fishery.
Obviously enough, we started at the start, and John described how a book called The Trout and I, by George Ferris, had an enormous impact on him as a youngster. The book was given to him by his then Scoutmaster, and so began a lifelong love for fishing the fly. Growing up as he did in Canterbury, and a dyed in the wool red and black man to this day, he first began to fish for browns in the Selwyn River. It was here that he first began to learn some of the nocturnal habits of the Brown, describing how during the day they would lie up in the network of canals which drained into the Selwyn. At dusk, they would mobilise seemingly en-masse, and venture into the river itself, where they became a more viable target for the fly.
For the next decade or two John was the scourge of Salmonids the length and breadth of Canterbury and Otago, with favourite haunts including the Hurunui outlet on Lake Sumner, and the Waitaki River near Oamaru. It was the Waitaki that fuelled his enthusiasm for salmon fishing, and he concentrated his efforts largely on the salmon fishery. Brown trout did not completely slip from his radar, as sea-run browns were a frequent by-catch at the mouth of the Waitaki. Despite catching large numbers of salmon by day, they appeared to be virtually impossible to catch after dark. “I never caught a single salmon at night, and Lord knows we tried hard enough. We caught a lot of sea-runs browns though, usually on a Yellow Dorothy.”
His first visit to the Tongariro was immaculately timed to coincide with one of the great events in the history of the fishery. Whilst on a business trip in 1958 with a friend from Whakatane, John had decided on a day or two fishing the Tongariro. His friend camped at the Downs Camp as it was then, which was the original camp at the Tongariro National Trout Centre, whilst John headed to Taylors Camp on Taupahi Road. After one and a half day of fishing, the 1958 flood occurred. John claims not to remember a great deal about the fishing before the flood arrived, other than suggesting the river reminded him of the Waitaki at Kurau, “big water, good water”, and it always inspired him to want to return. One abiding memory of the flood is of being rowed around the small settlement of Turangi by Rangi Downs, as the flooding was so severe there was no other way of getting about until the flood receded.
John was employed at the time with LD Nathan in the liquor industry, and he had a great deal to do with the Rotorua International Hotel. Regular visits to Rotorua meant he developed an interest in fishing the Rotorua lakes, and Tarawera in particular. His interest in returning to fish the Tongariro was heightened by his contact with two people in particular. He had regular business contact with a keen flyfisherman from the United States called Bob O’Brian, who was an executive with the Jack Daniels Distillery. Bob had wanted to fish the Tongariro since he was a boy, and he and John made a plan to fish the river on Bob’s next visit to New Zealand. Ray Legg, who is another fishing identity on the Tongariro, also happened to work at LD Nathan and provided John with an insight into what the river could offer.
When Bob and John finally made it down to fish the Tongariro, John says it took “just one trip and I forgot all about Tarawera”. Bob was so impressed that he returned for 38 consecutive years to fish the river with John, only missing his annual pilgrimage in the last couple of years as time inevitably caught up with him.
John describes the river in the early 70’s as being “a big river with much more water than today. There was no way you could cross it, and we used boats to get around”. Another key difference he sees is the relative strength of the fishing lobby as a political force. “The fishing lobby was much stronger then than it is now, and we need it to get strong again if we are to have a voice around some of the challenges facing the fishery”. By now he was fishing the river a lot, and had bought a caravan to stay in on his annual fishing trips.
It was at this stage that he began to renew his interest in fishing for brownies at night, due in some part to another local identity, Jeff Sanderson. Jeff had a dingy on the lower river, which was where much of the best angling opportunities were in those days. Jeff would make John row the boat down to Dan’s Creek, a by-pass on the lower river, and they would fish mouse patterns and large flies for the browns at night. Here John noticed the same behaviour he had seen as a boy on the Selwyn. The browns would hold up in the by-pass by day, before making their way into the main river at night to feed. A mouse (either live, dead or imitation) fished across the junction between Dan’s creek and the main river was a sure fire way of catching them.
John’s reminiscences about the lower river make a relative newcomer to the fishery like me somewhat sad to have missed seeing the river as it was then. He describes a lower river which ran some 10 feet below the level of the paddocks alongside it and had shingle beaches all the way to the lake. “Between 1971 and 1983-4 we fished below the Downs pool, nowhere else. The river was a series of big holes and runs which could hold more rods than they do now, and we caught an awful lot of fish. These were also the days of the 8 fish bag limit, so we used to can and bottle our catch to take home. Catch and release was not given any thought at all”.
(Image copied from Target Taupo – April 2008 by Dave Conley – John Milner donating a 13.4 pound Brown Trout to Mike Nicholson, Educator for the Taupo for Tomorrow programme, caught with his favourite black rabbit..)
After moving to Turangi permanently in 1985, John started to turn his attention to the water closer to town. “Everyone fished hell out of the Hydro pool at night, so I thought I would go elsewhere.” Using his theory that Browns liked to hold in backwaters during the day, John found that a number of pools with backwaters attached to them were prime spots to target big fish at night. Over the next few years Kamahi, Shag, Red Hut and Pouto pools all became regular haunts for John in his search for success at night. Each pool had a large backwater on them, and he thinks this is the real key to helping you decide where to find a good spot to try your luck. “I owned Anglers Paradise over this time, and I used to print T-shirts to give to clients who caught a brown over 10 pounds. During our best year I printed 35 T-shirts in all and during our best year 15”.
Ultimately his tips for success on Browns are relatively simple. “Essentially fishing the river hasn’t changed much since I started. The key is to fish what you see. Go and do your research during the day before attempting to fish at night.” While this may seem self evident, what John stresses is the importance of looking at a pool with the intention of fishing it when it is dark and your sense of sight deserts you. “You look for trips and traps in the wading, and you look at the skyline to give you an idea of where you need to cast at night”. It is also important to know how far to cast, rather than just the direction, and a simple system is to “fish by numbers. When you are there in daylight count the number of pulls off the reel you need in order to reach the desired lie in the river. This way, when you fish at night you can be confident your fly is in the right place”.
Another really crucial aspect of night fishing is timing. A familiar adage in all fishing is that dark moonless nights are best, and this certainly applies to fishing the river at night. No moon is best, but you can also have success before the moon rises if you are fishing on a moonlit night. John is adamant that the early part of the night is the best time too. Rather than fishing through to midnight, he would often be off the river by 10.30 pm, as in his experience the fishing is very slow after that.
When it comes to terminal tackle, John does not alter much from what is the tried and true Tongariro wet fly approach. A rod in 7-9 weight, with a sinking shooting head between 200 and 300 grain will suffice for most situations. As for flies, he definitely has one firm favourite, a small black rabbit tied in sizes 6-10. Tied with a short, compact body the fly will look much like a bully when wet. “I have always believed it should be natural black too, not dyed. The natural seems to work better for me”. Many night fishermen hold to the belief that flies for night fishing should have some bulk to them to help fish locate them. The theory is that a bulky fly is ‘noisy’ underwater as it wriggles in the current, in much the same way as a flag makes a flapping sound in a breeze.
Because you are fishing at night, your leader should be strong (10 -14 lb breaking strain) and abrasion resistant.
You don’t need to move far; rather you should concentrate on fishing your chosen water thoroughly. John achieves this by making 3 casts before taking a step downstream and repeating. The first cast is at 90 degrees to the current, and the fly is swung quite fast across the flow before being allowed to ‘dangle’ at the end of the swing. Most takes occur on the dangle with this cast, and can be a very soft ‘sucking’ take.
The second cast is made at a 60 degree angle and is allowed to swing more gently while being retrieved. This is John’s favourite cast, as he has taken most fish with it, “retrieving slowly as the fly swings so you keep in touch with the fly. Browns can take incredibly gently and feel is the key. It almost becomes instinct with time, in that you sometimes sense a take almost before you have felt it”.
The last cast is designed to fish the shallow edge below where you are wading. It is made at a 25 degree angle, and the fly retrieved more quickly. Fish will often take this retrieve quite aggressively. As a general rule, John advises to “strike at every bump, knock, anything you feel. Don’t assume anything, as you will often be surprised that what you thought was a rock turns out to be a fish”.
Having hooked your quarry, there are several key things John has to pass on in regards to landing them. In his experience the bigger fish will tend to go ‘doggo’ and lie on the bottom of a rapid or run, or after short upstream run they will make a determined bid to go downstream.
In both cases you should get out of the water and change angles on the fish. If they are doggo, try applying side strain in a number of directions without getting yourself upstream of the fish, and they will normally begin to swim upstream. “The key then is to walk inland if you can, and the fish will just swim ashore. They can be quite silly like that! If you don’t get them close before they decide to head downriver, that’s when you lose them”. You get the distinct impression not many managed to get away though!
John doesn’t fish the night much anymore, instead concentrating his efforts towards the daylight hours when the surety of his footfall is more assured. His enthusiasm for the topic seems endless though, and our conversation meandered for several hours, always returning to discussions about the fishery, and the changes John has seen over his many active years of fishing. We chatted about his theory that the browns will eventually dominate the Tongariro river, the perils of nymphing, and tips too numerous to mention.
This all leads me to reflect on what a great pastime fishing is, and the opportunities it provides to build indelible memories and lifelong relationships. Just having the privilege to share a few secrets, and hear a gnarled gent with a gravelled voice pass on just a portion of a lifetime of learning is truly rewarding for me.
It gets you to thinking he just may be right about how much things have changed, and yet we still have things pretty good all the same.
Further memories by Andrew Perring:
(Image on right is Andrew dancing the Tongariro jig)
It was the saddest of news I learned of the passing of John Hamilton Milner of Turangi on Thursday 8 Feb 2018 aged 85. I couldn’t hold back the tears of what will be one of my saddest days.
A historic date in fishing circles, never to be forgotten, occurred on 27 August 1985. John and Valda Milner formed Milner Holdings known to anglers across the world as Anglers Paradise Motel. John would set record drive times travelling between Auckland and Turangi – 3 Hours! No way that would be beaten today as most anglers wouldn’t have got off the end of the motorway.
On 17 Dec 1998 Milners holdings ceased trading.
In 1986 fishing licence sales peaked at 83829, a coincidence or was this the Milner effect. Back then there was no internet, no face book, no Instagram. Anglers had to earn their right to fame resulting in their pictures displayed on the photo board.
Anglers Paradise was a buzz of angler activity with anglers from across the world and around New Zealand.
I first meet John and Val just a few days after they had taken on their new venture. We had just attended my Grandfathers funeral and needed a place to stay. From that day on Val and John would open their home and welcome me in as family, one of her sons as Val would say.
This kindness never stopped. On arriving at Anglers Paradise regular quests would gather around a warm fire in the lounge, Val would bring out snacks, food and a few ales. Life long friendships were made stories were told. But with out selfies for evidence who today would believe our exploits?.
John’s fishing enthusiasm was infectious, no wonder angling activity peak with such an iconic personality building up such an air of excitement around Turangi.
In 1989 while staying at Anglers Paradise to fish I had a work ball on at the Chateau. As a young 20 something year old I owned a fishing rod, pair of waders and a tackle box full of flies but no suit. Val went through John’s wardrobe and pulled out a couple of suits for Sieg and I too wear. But not before we had a chance to fish the Hydro Pool catch a couple of big browns and have some great polaroids taken. Caroline fussed over Sieg and I to make sure we were presented well for the occasion. The ball was pretty much lost on me but fishing in John’s suit in the Hydro a priceless memory
(Andrew on right – not on the Tongariro…)
During the early 1990s John and Val kindly took me in to live with them. Sometimes in the Caravan sometimes in a unit to paint.
Upon leaving Anglers Paradise John and Val moved to Kowhai Drive in Pukawa where they built their retirement home overlooking Lake Taupo. Old friends would visit from time to time but for many of us we held tight to the memories. During the 2000s fishing licence sales started to plummet to half of what they had been during the Milner era.
During the early 2000s John invested his time into the Tongariro National Trout Centre. Receiving a Queens Service Medal in the 2005 birthday honors. By mid 2010s John was facing new challenges at the Trout Centre regarding land ownership and treaty settlements. John fought tirelessly to preserve his legacy.
John has two great children Caroline (my sister) and Ferg. And one very special life partner Valda Milner.
John and Val had made many life long friends during their time at Anglers Paradise. One of those was American Sieg Taylor. John had taken Sieg in and as John did with so many he mentored Sieg. In 2015 Sieg brought his family to New Zealand to meet with John and Val. Sieg knew this would be the last chance he had to introduce his family to people that will mean so much to him through his life. Deedrian, Zac, McKenzie and Sieg Taylor, Nicola and Andrew Perring and Ross and Pip Baker spent what was to be our last and special evening together with John and Val Milner.
As extended family John was always there to offer advice and mentor. As a young fella who knew best I hid just how much an influence Johns wisdom had on me. Today that wisdom of Johns is often accounted for.
I use to bait John I had secrets on the Tongariro he did not know about. John use to try and follow me down river and see where I was fishing. He had a few regulars who would also try and follow me. He knew my secret pool was super productive
On one of my last visits to Angler Paradise John proclaimed he knew where I was fishing – at the nursery pool! I agreed and John finally felt proud he had learnt my secrets. A decade on whilst on that special last night at dinner in 2015, John raised he had known all along where I fished he knew my secrets, John looked so proud the look in his eyes that evening was priceless, no one knew something about the Tongariro he didn’t.
However unknown to John I had taken Ross Baker to my secret lower river pool in the mid 1990s. Here was my decade long revenge I got to tell John I had flipped him off in regards to my favourite pool but Ross knew where my secret pool was as I had taken Ross there. The look on John’s face that someone had a secret pool on the Tongariro River that he didn’t know about was priceless. Ross went on to explain the location details and sure enough my secret location had remained unknown to John until Ross started to promote it on the TRM reports.
On Feb 8 2018 John Milner entered the pearly gates and asked God if he had his reservation. God flicked through his check in book filled with orange pen marks to confirm bookings. God explained that he had not been expecting John for some time. John explained he had packed his rod and the time had come, he was ready to check in.
John asked God if he could have a room with the other wet-liners and didn’t want to share a room with the nymphers. God flicked through his booking sheet and announced he had found Johns reservation. However John Milner you are not booked in with the wet-liners I have you booked in with those that have “made a positive influence in other peoples lives” John I have you sharing with the good buggers.
Celebrating the life of John Milner
I rolled into the Angler’s Paradise in the summer of 1986. The owners, John and Val Milner, warmly greeted me. Not knowing at the time that I would become life long friends with this wonderful couple. Over the years I would fly from California to visit John and Val. Many a times I would spend time with John on the river, only to have him out fish me. His smile and his way of letting me know that the Tongariro was his river. This was always followed up with a shot of John’s best whiskey, Jack Daniels.
John would introduce one of my dearest friends to me, Andrew Perring. Every chance Andrew and I would get, we’d race down to Turangi where John and Val would have their camper van ready for us. On our last trip, my wife, Deedrian and I were able to bring our children and introduce them to John and Val. From their beautiful home, we overlooked Lake Taupo and drink some of John’s fantastic wine. I will miss my friend. He taught me so much. I share John’s wisdom of life with others. John you were truly a master of life’s lessons, taught through your passion of fishing.
God bless, your dear friend, Sieg Taylor