This time last year I was back in New Zealand for the first time in five years and, taking the opportunity to sidestep family obligations for a few days, headed to the hills, fly rod in hand.
My destination was a friend’s cabin on the lower reaches of the Tauranga-Taupo River, or TT as it is called locally, in the central North Island. It is a short river, as most are in New Zealand, originating in the Kaimanawa Ranges and flowing due west for 17 miles before emptying into Lake Taupo. The lake itself lies in an old caldera, formed by a series of vast volcanic eruptions beginning some 25,000 years ago and continuing to this day, which collectively have flung an estimated 500 cubic miles of earth into the atmosphere.
As a consequence, the river carves its path through relatively soft volcanic substrate, particularly in its lower reaches where it fans out onto a flood plain, its course following the pull of gravity and the impetus of the latest flood surge, frequent in a region where annual rainfall is measured in feet rather than inches. The higher up toward the headwaters you hike, the more stable becomes the terrain, the bush-clad banks narrower, higher and better able to contain the flood waters and confine the river to its banks.
From the cabin I hiked downstream for fifteen minutes then cut through the bush to emerge onto a rocky beach on the inside of a bend, tying on a big attractor with a deep tungsten dropper, then sitting on a boulder at the river’s edge for a few minutes to take in my surroundings. This particular afternoon the river was low and clear, cutting through wide gravel bars lined with thick blackberry brambles, tall spindly manuka and tangles of deadfall stacked like matchwood against the tops of islands and the banks of back eddies. The tree tops bent and swayed to a gusting northerly that pushed rain clouds before it, scudding across the sky to the accompaniment of an occasional rumble of thunder off in the distance. The air was humid and carried with it the scent of toe-toe and kowhai overlaid with a hint of sulphur given off by the patches of black sand that lay among the rocks along the shore. Somewhere behind me in the shade of the forest a tui cackled and wheezed, and I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, absorbing sponge-like the familiar scents and sounds.
A keen pair of eyes is the most important piece of equipment an angler can have in New Zealand, the ability to be able to see a fish before it sees you critical to the process. I worked my way slowly upstream, studying the water carefully as I went, looking for torpedo shapes among the rocks on the bed, or a shadow or flicker of movement indicating a fish holding higher in the water column. Once, at the top of an aerated run, the dry took a dive and I set to feel a writhing on the end of the line for a second or two before the hook pulled free, and I cursed my inattention, recalling the definition of fishing as a jerk on one end, waiting for a jerk on the other. I wanted little more from the day than to cradle the fat belly of a fish in my hand, to reassure myself I still had the requisite mojo, and to gain a sense of closing the loop on my homecoming.
With the sun close to dipping below the tree line, it began to look like that closure might have to wait for another day. One more pool lay ahead of me before a deep crossing would be required if I wanted to continue upstream. It was a long pool, fast and narrow at its head, widening and slowing at the tail out where I stood, the gradient of the bed sloping away from me toward the far shore. It was there I saw the movement, or rather several movements. Half way across to the far bank was a shelf line, and as I watched I saw three fish working the line of the shelf, staying deep but moving to and fro, feeding freely, dark shadows among the mottled greys of the rocky bed. On my sixth cast the dry fly stopped dead in the current, and I set hard and felt the weight of the fish immediately, playing it cautiously downstream to the slower water of the tail out before feeling confident enough to unsnap my net and bring it to me.
Trout are not native to New Zealand, and all rainbows are descended from a single batch of eggs imported from the Russian River in northern California. Having developed in isolation, free from cross contamination from other species and strains, they are regarded as one of the purest strains of rainbow in the world, in some cases now exported back to their ancestral homeland to help restore the genetic integrity of their ancestors. This particular fish had a livid wound on one flank, evidence perhaps of an encounter with a shag, a cormorant-type bird that sits high on overhanging trees, silent and still, before diving spear-like into the water. Kneeling in the river to release it, I stood and reeled in my line, happy with the day, feeling well and truly home.