The Tongariro River rises in the central volcanic plateau of the North Island of New Zealand and wends it way in a roughly northerly direction through the township of Turangi to eventually enter Lake Taupo near Tokaanu. It is easily the largest and most important spawning river in the Lake Taupo fishing region. Ever since Zane Grey fished the river and immortalised it in his book “Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado” in the 1920s, the Tongariro River has gained a reputation as a world-class river to fish for prime rainbow and brown trout. Anglers travel from all over the world to fish it.
Recently I was one of many anglers to be asked by Ross Baker, owner of the Tongariro River Motel, to recount their life long relationship with the river and answer some specific questions for a historical series of pieces that he was assembling for his blog aptly named “The Daily Report” (http://www.tongarirorivermotel.co.nz/daily-report/) This is what I wrote:-
“As one ages the memory dulls but I reserve space for fishing experiences and forget much of the daily dross, much to my wife’s disgust. My first visit to Turangi was as a six year old in 1966. We stayed at a Bach on the waterfront at Te Rangiita and my father fished the Waitetoko stream at dawn and dusk. He always seemed to come back to the Bach carrying a couple of freshly minted bars of silver, hanging off his index and middle fingers, brimming with bonhomie. It was this obvious delight which drove me to learn to fly fish.
Back in the day, before the Tongariro was throttled by hydro-electric development, the pool everyone fished was the Red Hut and I can remember standing on the swing bridge in the sub-zero first light playfully exhaling thin tendrils of vapour as I watched an orderly procession of anglers steadily work their way down the Red Hutt from head to tail. The “rig de jour” was a high density sinking fly line with either a Red Setter or Orange Rabbit fly attached to the end by a short trace. At the start my father reluctantly became an Indian in the downstream file but he did not enjoy it and forbade me from joining in. He was never one to join the throng and was always looking to do something different. On one occasion he fashioned a makeshift wooden ladder in the garage of a friend in Turangi and used this to access a small branch of the river at the tail of the Red Hutt from the true left bank. He took great delight in appearing out of nowhere, wading out to a gravel bar he’d spotted from the swing bridge and catching fish after fish before they entered the pool proper. Every time he hooked up and other anglers heard the loud squeal of ecstasy from his Hardy Perfect anglers would yell out “past hard” or a word that sounded something similar to that.
Several years later we opted to fish a side branch running into the Red Hut from the true right bank near the head of the pool. It took a fair bit of “bush bashing” to find a way to the water through the Manuka and bush lawyer (or Perry Mason as he called it) but when we did it was well worth it. The small runs and deep holes were alive with fish and he targeted these with a copper wire weighted nymph fashioned from the discarded tail feathers of a neighbour’s recently deceased parrot (blue one side and yellow on the other). The variegated colour scheme was deadly.
My abiding memories of those early days are not the fish I landed but the fish I lost. I can vividly remember hooking what was my first potential trophy trout in a deep hole on this side stream and losing it after 20 minutes when it exited the pool and drifted spent downstream. The drift took it over a Manuka sapling that was draped across the channel. The sapling reached out and grabbed the trace firmly as the fish floated past. The trout swung in behind the sapling and the line parted as I tried to gain control. On another occasion I lost another solid fish on a Bloody Butcher at my feet. No-one had caught anything that day and I wanted it badly. I now know where the trout all of sudden got the energy to take off as if it had been tasered but I can still hear the audible crack as it snapped the trace, another cruel lesson in the journey that is fly fishing. https://activeanglingnz.com/2015/12/14/why-do-some-trophy-trout-fight-better/
Several years later we got the opportunity to fish exclusively in the Rangipo prison farm through a family friend who was an influential figure in the Ministry of Works. He got to know the Prison Superintendent and cunningly loaned him heavy machinery to do jobs around the farm when the equipment was not being used in the hydroelectric development project. The quid pro quo was unfettered fishing access. This was before rafting trips became common and nobody was allowed inside the prison boundaries. The fishing was outstanding, at times it was as if you were fishing in a highlights package, and limit bags were common. My favourite Tongariro pool was in the prison farm and has no official name. It was a massive pool. Deep on the true left bank with excellent access from the true right. It always seemed to be loaded with fish. The only downside was that if you hooked something large and it headed off downstream you could not follow it. This happened to me many times and it still “grinds my gears” every time I think about it.
My best Tongariro achievement happened two years ago when I hooked five fish in a session and landed them all. This in itself is nothing outstanding but four of them were foul hooked, three in the back third, so it took a huge amount of luck to land plus a small amount of skill to land and release them. Some days you can do no wrong whereas others you can do no right. C’est la vie.
I’ve yet to land a trophy trout on the Tongariro but I’ve landed two fish of 9 ¼ lb., one a brown and one a rainbow. I’ve been attached to a few over 10 lb. over the years but have never quite been able to crack double figures. My favourite fly fishing trip was in spring 2014 and I wrote about it in the following Active Angling article:- https://activeanglingnz.com/2014/12/03/tongariro-2014/
My most forgettable incident happened this year when I broke my first fly rod in nearly 50 years of angling. I was using a six piece 9’6” #7 weight Hardy rod and was playing a trout. The second section from the tip just exploded mid fight. The fish was small, the water shallow and the rod was not point loaded. As a rod maker it was obvious to me that the blank had a flaw and research has subsequently shown that this was not an uncommon occurrence. The most galling thing was that the local agent, Pure Fishing, charged me $ 225 to replace the section even though the original Hardy guarantee capped the replacement at £35. New owners, new rules but they just lost a loyal Hardy customer for ever.
Fishing dry flies at dusk to rising trout or casting lightly weighted nymphs to trout that are holding in comparatively shallow water are my two favourite ways of fishing the Tongariro. I hate bombs with a vengeance and rarely wet line nowadays. Fishing blind doesn’t “rock my cradle” any more.
The Tongariro not only is in my blood but it is deeply etched in my soul. It is not just the river but everything about the experience. There is nothing more cathartic than a day spent ambling along the Tongariro drinking in the scenery and becoming at one with nature. Those who take the time to appreciate the beauty will understand what I mean”.
If you’ve ever wanted to fish the Tongariro and not done it yet then you really need to make it happen. Stay at the Tongariro River Motel along with the other anglers as Ross Baker has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the river. (Really?? I am so embarrassed. All I really know is the boring TRM laundry routine… check, clean, dry) He will go all out to help you find the fish and make your stay memorable. http://www.tongarirorivermotel.co.nz/