Some really interesting viewing – anglers particularly enjoyed the drone images of the lower Tongariro – thank you to Chris Beattie for promoting this wonderful wild river delta. This is where all the boaties go during winter months waiting for Lake O to open again. It should be on every TRM fishos bucket list.
TRM cannot mention the Tongariro Delta without somehow including John Milner. John owned and operated Anglers Paradise Motel in Turangi for many years and was pivotal in the development of the Trout Centre. But this report is all about how to fish the lower Tongariro Delta…
Following extract of some sage advice from his interview with Dave Conely from DOC, recorded in the Target Taupo, Issue 57 dated April 2008, as follows:
Into the night
…. 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.
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.
The changing nature of the lower Tongariro is the theme in TRM’s brief video: