HEAVEN DOWN UNDER

Planted way back in the mid-1800s, brown and rainbow trout have flourished to the point where New Zealand's waters now form a sort of celestial fish farm
October 06, 1974

The legacies of British colonialism are far-flung and fine, ranging from a touching faith in parliamentary government to a hearty taste for strong, bitter ale. Yet there is one colonial heritage that in its surpassing ubiquity exceeds all others. Wherever the Union Jack flew over cold, clear, running water, the British planted trout. Today, with the Empire only a memory, parliaments on the wane and even the ale gone weak and watery, trout still swim on the bamboo slopes of Mount Kenya, the noble Salmo trutta inhales mayflies in the high Himalayas and the spiritual heirs of gentle Izaak ply their delicate craft in the backwoods of Belize (formerly British Honduras). Nowhere, however, did the experiment work more successfully than in New Zealand, that green island nation antipodal to Britain herself.

It is almost as if New Zealand had been created solely to serve as God's great trout farm. When Captain James Cook scouted its two islands in 1770, about the only freshwater fish present were eels, smelt, cockabullies and a tiny whitebait known to the native Maoris as kokopu. The chilly volcanic lakes and glacial streams were rich in potential trout food—snails, caddis flies, exotic insect larvae and especially the freshwater crayfish called koura. Beginning in the mid-19th century, groups of New Zealand sportsmen, formed into "acclimatization societies," set about filling these virgin water systems with trout—first European browns imported from Tasmania, more than 1,000 miles away off the south coast of Australia, and later North American rainbows from the Russian River of California.

The brown trout, bigger and somewhat sluggish in comparison with the acrobatic rainbows, became the dominant fish in the more temperate South Island; the flashy rainbows took over the California-like waters of the North Island. Judging by the rapid growth rate of both species, there wasn't that much acclimatizing necessary. By the turn of the century, the most fertile lakes and rivers were producing brown trout averages of 17½ pounds and rainbows of 13½ pounds. In 1910 a visiting Englishman set out to establish a world record for pounds of trout caught on the fly in a single day. Fishing the Tongariro River above Lake Taupo, he killed 123 fish—a ton's worth—between sunup and dusk. They averaged 17 pounds.

Naturally there have been ups and downs in both the abundance and the size of New Zealand trout. According to some experts, as the fish population increases, peaking out every five to 10 years, food resources are depleted and some stunting occurs. Right now, the rainbows of the North Island seem to be at an ebb point in size. During last December's International Trout Fishing Competition at Rotorua, eight days of angling by 280 rods produced 1,166 trout with a total weight of 4,099 pounds seven ounces. That is a lot of rainbows, sure enough, but the average weight was a piddling 3½ pounds. Indeed, the winning fish, a beautifully conditioned hen rainbow caught by Mrs. Alda McKeon, 60, of nearby Tokoroa, weighed in at a mere eight pounds seven ounces. Mrs. McKeon was delighted, of course, to win the competition (and the 10-foot aluminum boat plus outboard motor that went with it), but she was a bit blasé about the catch itself. "It bit on my wee little black and gold Toby and I cranked it in. It was all over in a minute. The big 'uns have no fight in 'em. Still, I'm told they'll mount the fish for me, so I'll hang it on the wall and when I'm too old to fish anymore I'll look up at it and say, 'Gotcha!' "

Actually, the largest fish caught during the competition was not even judged. An ethical angler named J. N. Barrowman, headmaster of a Rotorua high school, caught a 10-pound seven-ounce brown but refused to enter it because he feels the tournament is detrimental to fishing. "There's too much pressure on the lakes already," he said, "and this is supposed to be an introspective, individualistic sport, not an exercise in weights and measures." Even if Barrowman had entered his fish, it could not have won the top prize since brown trout are not considered in the same class as rainbows by North Island fishermen. This oldtime tradition of inter-island bigotry, when it is applied to two of the world's most exciting game fish, is patently absurd.

Trout are trout, regardless of race or color, and never more exciting than on opening day on the Ngongotaha (the first g is silent), a swift tumbling feeder stream of Lake Rotorua that pours down through native bush and hard-cleared sheep runs, providing excellent spawning ground for the lake's big rainbows. The opening is timed to come at the end of the spawning run, so the fish taken on opening day—which came on Dec. 1 last year—tend to be "slabs," which is what New Zealanders call the dark, skinny, spawned-out fish of that season. Still, even a slab can put up a considerable fight on a light fly rod when the fish weighs five or six pounds.

Long before first light last Dec. 1, young boys on bicycles pedaled up the road to get their positions for the opening. It was a foggy morning, ripe with the smell of sheep dung and spring flowers. Photographer George Silk, a native New Zealander, and I had been invited to fish on the farm of Ken Elphick, a lean, eminently hospitable rancher whose spread straddles the Ngongotaha near its source. The kettle was chortling on the hob of Mrs. Elphick's wood-burning Orion stove when we came in, and the rich odor of "lamb's fry"—tender liver sweetened in its own juices—filled the farmhouse. Over a breakfast of fry, scones and sweet black tea, Elphick introduced his youngest son, David, 13, who was to be our "gilly." He also pointed out a 9½-pound rainbow trout, mounted over the hallway door, that David had taken the previous year. "David's been a trout fisherman since he fell out of the pram," said Elphick. David blushed behind his freckles and pulled on his gum boots. "Let's get cracking," he gruffed.

Under David's tutelage, I caught three good-sized rainbows in half an hour, releasing two of them. Only one was truly acrobatic, jumping a dozen times before coming slowly, sullenly, with its head still shaking in anger, to the hand. These were fish of five pounds' weight, yet even when they are bigger, Kiwi anglers are loath to use a net or a gaff. "Nah," said David, "you just, like, boot 'em oop on the bank. Get your toe under their belly and, sploot! You saves time thataway, an' you kin release 'em if you're so minded."

For someone accustomed to North American trout streams, it was curious to be fishing for such large trout in the middle of a close-cropped sheep meadow. The fog persisted to midmorning, and as it began to burn off", shafts of amber light came slashing through, illuminating the waxy leaves of the bankside ti trees so that they looked like the pages of a prayer book. The Ngongotaha was clear and fast, and you could see the big, dark trout lying under the banks, the jacks with their jaws bent and angry-looking in the kype, the hens thicker through the belly, almost baby-faced. Shifting from the Parson's Glory, a yellow-bodied streamer fly suggested by David, to a dark-hackled, heavy dry fly called a Coch-y-Bondhu, I cast upstream into a promising riffle. Bingo! I caught the smallest trout in New Zealand—an infant that could not have measured more than four inches long. After releasing the dink, I cast again to the same spot. Ditto! I caught the same dink. Or his brother. David watched impassively. "Hoongry little booger," he said.

Driving back down the road we passed dozens of anglers returning home before noon with their eight-fish limits. The bicyclists, most of them boys no older than David Elphick, hooked the dead trout on their handle bars, tied their broken-down fly rods to the bike frames and freewheeled home with a week's worth of eating aflop beneath their hands. Many of the fish were as long as a boy's leg. Not one of the kids looked terribly impressed with his catch. "What a way to grow up," said Silk, grinning.

From Rotorua we headed south to Lake Taupo, the most productive trout water in New Zealand. This is the "thermal region" of the North Island, a stretch of more than 100 miles in which the bowels of the earth present themselves at the surface more spectacularly than anywhere west of the Yellowstone. The western shore of Lake Rotomahana, southeast of Rotorua, sports steaming cliffs. Rainbow Mountain is named not for a trout but for the colorful striations of its giddy ridges. Mount Tarawera, which last erupted on June 10, 1886, glowers down on the lake of the same name which produces the biggest trout of the region. It is a deep, dark-blue lake, chilly beneath the surface, ideal for trout, and on its western bank there is a spot where you can catch a rainbow and then immediately dunk it in a hot spring behind you and enjoy instant poached trout. According to another native recipe, the fish are smoked on the spot over ti tree chips.

Lake Taupo itself is a 240-square-mile volcanic crater filled with water to an average depth of 200 feet; its maximum depth is 534 feet. During its last major eruption, about 2,000 years ago, Taupo spewed five cubic miles of ash into the air, covering 8,800 square miles of surrounding countryside with a layer of pumice half a foot deep. A number of rivers enter the lake from the south, foremost among them the powerful Tongariro, a crashing, broad-shouldered torrent that has become one of the world's most famous trout streams. But the lake has only one known outlet—the Waikato River, which pours over the 90-foot-high Huka Falls a few miles north of the crater.

Thanks to the falls, there are no eels in Taupo. New Zealand eels, which grow to a length of five feet and weigh up to 50 pounds, are a tenacious lot. It is not uncommon in other lakes to be fighting a trout and suddenly feel it go dead, increasing grotesquely in weight and sluggishness. Reel in and you find an eel happily gorging itself at the end of your line. Fishermen who trail their catch from their belts often pick up slippery hitchhikers. (In fact, one of the ugliest creatures in the Maori bestiary is the legendary taniwha, a Down Under Loch Ness monster, clearly patterned on the freshwater eel.) The eels' absence from Lake Taupo makes the angling a good deal gentler.

Anyone fishing Taupo for the first time should spend at least one day at Huka Lodge, on the Waikato, as the guest of a highly cultured Kiwi named Harland Harland-Baker, whose great-uncle, Alma Baker, was Zane Grey's host during the great fisherman's 1926 New Zealand trip. The lodge, which was founded in 1904 as Pye's Camp by Alma Baker's good friend Alan Pye, has been a mecca for the trout-minded through most of the century. During World War II, every general and admiral in the Pacific who could spare the time wended his way Huka-ward, fly rod in hand, to sample the fishing.

When the visiting brass grew tired of kerosene lighting, they cumshawed a generator and dispatched a team of Seabees to wire the place for a 110-volt electrical system. After the war, however, the lodge fell into disrepair. North American interests were angling to buy the property and put up a high-rise monstrosity on the site, but Harland-Baker forestalled them. He has renovated the lodge into one of the most comfortable, and historically rich, fishing camps in the world. What's more, Harland-Baker is a splendid chef, particularly when he is working with wild pig, shot by himself in the nearby bush. A slim, soft-spoken esthete with a salt-and-pepper beard, he has a taste for vintage everything. He drives a resuscitated 1930 Lagonda sports car; sherry is served in 17th-century glasses; the bedrooms bear the names of traditional New Zealand trout flies—Taupo Tiger, Hairy Dog, Taihape Tickler, Bishop's Blessing.

Our guide on Taupo was a tall, sunburned sporting-goods dealer named Bob Sullivan, 49, a transplanted Yorkshireman who came to New Zealand in 1950 after army service in Africa. He is as avid and competent a flycaster as you are likely to find in New Zealand. "This lake fishin's more like surf castin'," he explained as we circled the huge blue hole, stopping from time to time to sample what Sullivan called "the noble savagery of the noble savage Salmo gairdneri." At the mouth of Hatepe Stream, early one foggy morning, we learned what it was all about. Three fishermen were standing armpit-deep in the icy water, about a hundred yards offshore, casting into a stiff wind that slopped water into their waders. They were casting easily 100 feet of line.

"Just beyond them, maybe a step or two, the lake bottom drops off to 200 feet," said Sullivan. "You throw a fast-sinking shooting head, or maybe a weight-forward line if you're young and strong, and let the fly—usually a smelt imitation—drift down with the current from the stream outlet. Then you retrieve ever so slow and steady. Over and over again. Sure, we have lots of trout here, and big ones, but the lake is big, too. Taupo is an angler's paradise only for the angler who's willing to bloody work for his bit of heaven."

Heaven for this trio came in six plump, silvery, bullet-headed beauties, each weighing about four pounds—excellently conditioned rainbow hens, shaped more like tuna than trout. The fishermen were blue-lipped with the cold, but game to try the stream itself for a few casts before heading home.

Dr. David Westwood, an Auckland dentist, picked up a final fish, a 4½-pound jack rainbow that tailwalked up and down the stream for 10 minutes before coming in to the doctor's boot. The battle was punctuated with birdsong from the almost obscenely bright underbrush on the banks—purple lupine, buttery broom, white-blossomed manuka, the golden-flowered kowhai tree that Kipling apostrophized thusly: "Flung for gift on Taupo's face,/Sign that spring is come." The birds uttered a sound like crystal goblets falling into soapy water. "Tuis," said Sullivan. "The little jokers are everywhere, imitating one another. Bloody acrobats, the tuis. They can do anything upside down or sideways. Look out for the fantails, though. They'll bloody land on your head while you're fighting a fish—scare the starch out of your collar."

Plovers, bitterns, grebes, kingfishers and cormorants abounded on the shoreline, while the odd harrier circled high over the wooded cliffs of the crater's edge. To the south, the snow-clad peak of Mount Ruapehu hunched over the lake, flanked on its northeastern slope by the nearly perfect volcanic cone of Ngauruhoe, grumbling now and then as it spewed a steady streamer of smoke into the hard blue sky. "Best bloody weather vane in the country," said Sullivan. "Scares you a bit, though, when she goes off at night. You wake up with a start and reckon the kids have blown up the house."

Towards noon we stopped at Jellicoe Point on the southern shore for a "shufty"—New Zealandish for a look-see, derived from the Arabic; the Kiwis distinguished themselves in Egypt in World War II. Here a tiny, purling stream, the Waipehi, flows into the lake. Its cold water and the insect life washed down from the bush draw trout, which lie in wait for a free lunch. Just offshore rises the bread-loaf shape of Motutaiko, an islet sacred to the Maoris. Many chiefs and tohungas (shamans) are buried there. The water was as clear and blue as a tropical lagoon. Sullivan and I donned our waders and pushed into the lake, one to either side of the stream mouth. With the water up to my waist, and the prospect of filled waders spelling a quick death by drowning, I was more concerned with my footing than my casting. Nonetheless, on about the fiftieth fling, I saw a trout slash at the fly and the combat was joined. The fish—a 4½-pound hen rainbow—jumped and juked like a soul singer, but the hook was firmly buried in her jawbone and there was no escape. I beached her gently, then kicked her Kiwi-fashion up onto the pumice beach.

The real test of Taupo is the night fishing. The truly big fish, both rainbows and browns, are night feeders. Walking those slippery shelves, the mind inflamed with Maori legends of the Great Taniwha, the flesh creeping with cold and caution, one wades ever deeper, casting into the night wind until the arm grows thick and wooden, never seeing the line except as a pale, flickering, snickering ghost as it passes overhead. Zane Grey couldn't stand it.

"Again I was distracted," he wrote in Tales of the Angler's Eldorado. The "plaguey old" volcano, Ngauruhoe, had belched and spooked him. "So I wound in my line, sat down, and gave myself up to the profundity of the heavens and the mystery of the firmament." Fiddling with a fly he thought was his own in the dark, and trying to hook it into the rod eye by feeling along, "suddenly the feathery-covered hook went snip! and whipped out of my fingers. At the same instant I heard a swish." It was his partner, Captain Laurie Mitchell, casting the fly Grey had thought his own. Hell to pay!

" 'This night fishing is not so much to my liking,' quoth the Captain.

" '...it's the bunk,' " replied Grey. " 'Let's go back to camp.' "

Using miners' headlamps and warmly wrapped against the winds of December, Sullivan and I fished until the legal closing hour of 11 p.m. I would like to describe the fierce battles we endured against monster cannibal trout—how they surged and leaped out there in the dark, slapping louder than the pounding surf that broke against our chest waders, how the line hissed through the water like a herd of sea snakes, how most of the lunkers cannily broke off, wrapping the leaders around submerged, mossy boulders, how the few we took were solid, strong, gigantic fish. The truth of the matter is that the only thing I caught was my right eyebrow. The wind took the hook right back to me—surprise, fella!—but fortunately the barb did not set. Still, night fishing on Taupo is a considerable adventure. Give it about five nights, though, if you try it. Indeed, time is of the essence when you are fishing New Zealand trout. These fish did not reach their considerable size by being dummies, no matter how rich the food supply.

The best dry-fly water in New Zealand is on the brown-trout streams of the steep, glacier-clad South Island. These are fast, often turbid waters, especially in the spring when the 12,000-foot Southern Alps are shedding their blankets of snow and ice, so it is always wise to check up on the runoff conditions before leaving the reliable rainbow waters of the North Island for a shot in the Southland dark. And the best man to check with is Alfred W. Gill, better known as Fred, of Otautau. Fred is a retired sheep rancher and at 60 an indefatigable dry-fly fisherman. As tough and craggy as the country that shaped him, he knows the lie of nearly every huge brown in Southland, and the fly that will take the fish. The rest is up to you, and it is a lot.

When conditions are right, as they were when Fred took us up past the Mavora lakes onto the Mararoa River drainage, the water is so clear that you can see a trout a hundred yards away—and of course he can see you, too. "It's like English chalk-stream fishing," said Fred. "You must walk very softly, stopping when the trout turns your way. Always approach from the rear and cast the shortest line possible. Just drop the fly as gently as you can, about three feet or less ahead of the fish...."

The browns were lined up and waiting, within six feet of the boulder-strewn beach of the Mararoa. It seemed almost unfair to go after them, so huge and sluggish they looked, and so eminently attainable. Ha! In water that clear, even the finest leader looks like an anchor chain, and sounds like one when it hits the dead-calm surface. The trout did not so much spook as they seemed to sneer. As the fly hit the water with the grace of a crashing Canada goose, the big browns would turn, like Jack Benny doing his slow scorn number, cock a scaly eyebrow and sink into the blue depths offshore. Hiking the wooded shoreline under the gnarled arms of black and red beech trees, one came often upon the skulls and skeletons of dead sheep, washed down from the crags overlooking the Mararoa. Paradise ducks sprang from the coves and flapped back and forth in fowl temper, wide-eyed and squalling. Once, on the first afternoon, a goggling owl slipped past overhead. "A morepork," said Fred. "The Maori legend has it that if you hear one during the daytime, you're in trouble." With that the morepork squawked. Thanks, old buddy.

The only brown caught that day succumbed to Fred's dark, shaggy-hackled Coch-y-Bondhu fly—on a cast of no more than nine feet. A fish of about six pounds, it brought off a series of reel-scorching runs that kept Fred busy for 10 minutes. When it finally came into the bank, rolling heavily on its bright-spotted side, he gently removed the hook and then worked the fish back and forth through the water, reviving it. When it regained its balance, he gave it a shove in the direction of deepwater safety. "I don't like to kill anymore," he said. "An old man's temperament, I guess." We broke out a bottle of Scotch and Fred swallowed his neat, three hearty chugs from the neck of the jug. "Ah," he sighed, wiping his mouth with his sleeve, "that's the way to do it. When they make that stuff, you know, they put a lot of water in it. No need to dilute it further."

That evening, after wading through the long dusk far up a side stream, we returned to a sheepherder's scruffy hut where we planned to camp. This was no Huka Lodge. The corpses of a few hundred huge, bottle-green bush flies adorned the windowsills, and heat was provided by a shocking-pink wood-burning stove. On the walls of the hut, ripped out of magazines, were black and white photographs of immensely obese people, among them one identified as Fran Fullenwider ("42-36-60"), America's answer to Twiggy. "Some sheepherders get jaded," explained Fred.

The country was bald and brown in the last light, bigger even than Montana, but with much the same sense of barren, impartial strength. We camped at the head of the Mararoa flowage, where two rivers snaked down from the cold, hard heights and a clump of virgin bush remained. "The Shirker's Bush, we call it," said Fred. "Back during World War I a bloke hid out up there; lived off rabbits and trout, he did. In those days the rabbits were so thick that at dusk, when they came out to feed, you would swear the mountain was walking away from you. The whole ruddy thing quivered and shook and stalked about. The shirker's family was Irish Republicans, you see, and they hated Britain. After the war, he came out of the bush and lived a normal life, happily ever after."

The next morning we cast to 34 fish, all clearly visible under the banks of the brightly lit lake. No more than six of them cased the offering; only two rose to the fly. One merely mouthed it, then spat it out. The other took the fly with gusto, but as the loglike fish sank back down to holding depth, I struck so hard in my frustrated eagerness that the fly flew 10 feet behind me, hanging up in the bush while the big, contemptuous brownie turned his back and sank out of sight. "He was a player, all right," said laconic Fred. Gentleman to the end, he made no reference to the angler's incompetence.

The situation was rectified later, on both the Upukerora and Clinton rivers, but that first experience with the disdainful brownies of Southland is perhaps the most realistic for an American fly fisherman approaching New Zealand with visions of plenty dancing in his head. The brown trout of Kiwiland are as wily as their relatives anywhere in the world, whether on the Test in England or the Yellowstone in Montana. They are, however, about twice as big on the average, thus no one should feel put-upon by having to exert twice the effort to catch them or to exercise twice the willpower to release them when and if the chance comes to do so. Thanks to the British Empire, which brought the fly rod and its unique sporting mystique with it, along with those splendid trout, a man could fish New Zealand all his life and never grow bored.

PHOTOGEORGE SILK PHOTOGEORGE SILKONE RAINBOW beached, a Kiwi angler goes for another in North Island's deep Lake Taupo. PHOTOGEORGE SILKON OPENING DAY on the Ngongotaha no one need feel sheepish about getting his limit. PHOTOGEORGE SILKONE DAY in 1910 an Englishman killed 123 trout totaling a ton on the Tongariro River. THREE PHOTOSGEORGE SILKWORKING the Waikato River, flycasters practice an oldtime New Zealand custom: one doesn't net or gaff—one gently boots the trout ashore. The next custom is more to everyone's taste: the fish are smoked over ti tree chips, Maori-style, rendering them simply delicious.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)