The lure of trout
Ever since the American writer Zane Grey fished these waters in the 1920s and declared New Zealand to be the “angler’s Eldorado,” fly-fishing enthusiasts have beaten a path to our river-banks and lake shores to test their skills against the trout’s cunning. In central North Island rivers such as the renowned Tongariro River rainbow trout predominate: hard-fighting, fine-tasting fish whose speckled flanks and blush of pink make them an alluring as well as a challenging quarry.
Twilight was drawing on, and beneath the willows that shaded the river the mayflies were swarming. They milled about in clouds, rising and falling in a hypnotic love dance like twisters of confetti. Only yesterday, they had emerged into the terrestrial world after a year under water. They broke the surface, their wings blossoming like flowers in time-lapse photography, and flew off, their only purpose to attend this swooping aerial orgy that was the climax of their lives, to seed the new generation, to complete the cycle. Now, exhausted and spent, they were falling into the river in their hundreds. And the water below them was boiling.
Trout had sensed the banquet. Instinct told them that on windless spring evenings the willows would rain the ephemeral manna of mayflies. Now they were feeding with a frenzy, engrossed in a happy hour of greed, their mouths flashing open and white, snapping and gulping without pause.
Kneeling down on the bank, I strained a handful of water through my fingers, picked up a bedraggled mayfly and let it down into my open fly box. Still looking for a mate or just a place to die, it crawled among the dozens of artificial flies pinned to a foam cushion in tidy rows. Tired or hopeful, it settled by one named Twilight Beauty.
They could have been twins, I thought, tying the artificial fly to the end of my nylon leader and casting it into the boil with a whip of the rod. The fly disappeared in the throng of wriggling, wing-flapping insects like a well-dressed English gentleman at a rock concert. I twitched it, jiggled it, recast it, and waited for a fish to take it. I changed it for other equally persuasive flies—Kakahi Queen, Royal Wulff, Dad’s Favourite—but as time and the river flowed, the daylight waned, and with it my hopes. No more than a rod-length away, trout were gorging themselves silly. I could hear the almost continuous splashing of their feast. Only I, it appeared, would not be feasting tonight.
“All good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy,” wrote Norman Maclean in his saga of family and fishing, A River Runs through It. Anyone who has stood in a bone-chilling river at dawn, trying to outsmart a fish with a few bits of silk and feather tied to a hook, will attest to the difficulty. Indeed, such are the skills and knowledge required that the road to trout-fishing grace—or, more to the point, trout-catching grace—can be as long as a lifetime.
Ah, but there’s no life so happy as that of the well-governed angler, observed Izaak Walton, the father of trout writing, in the 17th century. And few so educative. The pursuit of trout opens new doors to understanding the natural world. Trout dwell in an intricate web of rivers and lakes, streams and brooks—the very bloodstream of the Earth—and the angler fingering his flyline adrift in the current is, on one level, doing nothing less than taking its aquatic pulse.
On the Mataura River, where the gluttonous trout were spurning my immaculate flies, that heartbeat felt reassuringly strong. The Mataura rises in the Eyre Mountains of South Otago and flows for 160 unhurried kilometres across the Southland plains, through the town of Gore and out to sea. To those who fish its waters, it is a river of legend, offering a fly-fishing experience that is close to perfection. But thumb through any New Zealand trout-fishing guidebook and you will find dozens more rivers that fit that description—lauded for their solitude, breathtaking surroundings, crystal-clear water and trophy-sized fish. Surely we live in the Country of Trout!
Little wonder, then, that the people of Gore built a monument to the fish and proclaimed their town the brown trout capital of the world. Or that Taupo, Rotorua and Nelson have become angling Meccas, each with its pilgrims and devotees.
Yet 150 years ago New Zealand—along with the rest of the southern hemisphere—was a trout-free zone. Trout, members of the salmon family, are natives of the north. It has been only through the efforts of humans that they are today found in such places as Patagonia, South Africa, southern Australia and New Zealand. The fact that these demanding and fastidious creatures have done so well in New Zealand waters says something about the quality of our waterways—something that can no longer be taken for granted.
According to the latest classification scheme, there is no distinction between a “trout” and a “salmon.” The 13 trout species recognised today are classified largely on a geographical basis. For example, Atlantic salmonids (brown trout and Atlantic salmon) are grouped together in the genus Salmo, while rainbows (originating on the west coast of North America) are placed with cutthroat trout and Pacific salmon in Oncorhynchus.
Although trout are usually thought of as freshwater fish, some are equally at home in the sea. These species are anadromous, meaning they live in the sea but travel up freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Unlike salmon, trout, particularly browns, are flexible in their anadromy. Some individuals move from one river system to another via the sea. Many become permanent river residents, forgoing their migrations altogether, while others settle in lakes, treating them as seas of a sort and using the inflowing rivers as their spawning grounds. And while moving and well-oxygenated water is a cardinal requirement for breeding, some trout even spawn along lake edges where there is enough wind-induced wave action to supply the ova with oxygen.
Why many trout favour an exclusively freshwater existence is something of a mystery. Food is more plentiful in the sea, which is why sea-run brown trout (actually silver in colour) can grow so large that they are sometimes mistaken for salmon. Their growth is also helped by warmer temperatures in the sea, for lakes and rivers cool and freeze much more readily than the sea does. Against these advantages, freshwater habitats contain fewer predators, and it may be that river-and lake-run trout are playing a safety game, sacrificing size for greater odds of survival to breeding age.
Fish biologists remain unsure whether the migratory impulse is an attribute of particular strains or races within a species, or whether it is purely up to the individual. Sometimes fish representing all three life-history options—river, lake and sea—coexist in the same waterway.
The idiosyncratic lives of trout, their slender form and pied beauty, their large mouths and predatory disposition, their unpredictability as a sporting quarry—all of these aspects contribute to the aura of mystique that surrounds them. No other fish have become the subject of so much art, literature and esoteric rumination (see sidebar, page 118).
There is an air of exclusiveness about fly-fishing, a residue of the times when English landlords fished their private rivers that flowed “clear as gin and twice as expensive.” Fly-fishing is associated with a certain aristocracy of mind and spirit which comes from deliberately taking the harder road, pitting one’s skill against the trout’s wily capriciousness. It is a well-blended cocktail of arcane tradition, the nobility of the quarry (casting to a flounder wouldn’t be the same!) and the meditative quality of moving water that evokes freshness and renewal.
Traditionally, fly-fishing has been the pursuit of men of means, and it was such men who initiated the introduction of trout to New Zealand in the 1860s (see sidebar; page 105). Specifically, it was the well-to-do gentlemen in tweeds who chaired this country’s acclimatisation societies who advocated seeding the country’s rivers with salmonids. Somehow, as the young colony evolved, an egalitarian trout dream was born: the aristocrat of fish gracing the tables of everyman.
On foot and horseback, good keen men fanned out into the country, releasing hatchery-raised trout fry into every river, tarn or pond they could find. Later, their efforts were supplemented from the air. While pilots skimmed low across high-country lakes, assistants frantically dished out bucketfuls of fish through an open hatch, mostly into the water, but on mistimed occasions into the tussock as well.
Later still, and sometimes illegally, came helicopters with monsoon buckets—ideal containers for dropping fish quickly and accurately into some of the country’s most remote locales. The fish did the rest, colonising vigorously until there was hardly a waterway that did not have trout in it.
Trout fever spread like a goldrush, the dream coming true faster than anyone could have imagined. Hamish Furneaux, a retired pharmacist in Wanaka and a lifetime angler, recalls his childhood in the Manawatu: “It was a truly remarkable time. Farmers would keep their rods in the cowshed, and in the evening, after milking, walk across the paddocks to the river, and easily catch enough trout to feed the whole family. In the Old Country this was simply unthinkable.”
Unthinkable, too, was the size of the fish. Early reports reaching England were greeted with head-wagging incredulity. What could the angling Establishment make of news of a pair of 15 kg brown trout taken from Lake Heron in 1884? Such monsters were unknown in merry England. How would one go about catching one? With a rifle? A harpoon?
But the stories kept on coming. In 1927, using a spinner, a Dunedin dentist named Boot caught a brown trout in Lake Wakatipu that weighed close to 17 kg. A similar-sized rainbow was winched out of the Mangamutu Stream, near Taupo, and in the lake itself, one night in 1925, an angler caught 11 fish, 10 of which were over 9 kg. At around the same time, Rotorua anglers routinely released any fish under 5 kg. Even today—although many an angler laments that the fishing isn’t what it used to be—lunker trout are undoubtedly out there. Only a decade ago, Kaikoura pilot Noel Boyd got himself one such trophy. He was working on deer recovery in the mountains near Molesworth Station, when, from the air, he saw a mammoth trout floating on the surface on Lake McRae. He landed nearby and recovered the fish, which had been dead for some time. It weighed 15 kg, and is now on display in a Nelson hangar, procured, you might say, with an imitation of a dragonfly: a helicopter.
If anywhere can claim to be trophy territory, it is Taupo. The lake that gives its name to the region and town is the largest lake in Australasia. It is the size of Singapore and contains 60 cubic kilometres of water—enough to cover the land area of the North Island to a depth of half a metre. The lake is the caldera of an ancient volcano which last erupted in 186 A.D. This blow-out is considered to be the most violent in Earth’s recent history, but it was only a fraction of the magnitude of many previous Taupo eruptions. One in 20,000 B.C. covered the Chatham Islands, more than 800 km away, with a layer of ash 12 cm thick. Another produced enough pumice to fill the present lake twice.
Over the millennia, as the volcano has intermittently blown, gargled, hawked and spat, its caldera has slowly filled up with water, in time becoming one of the most famous fishbowls in the world.
Although both brown and rainbow trout are to be found in Lake Taupo, it is the feisty rainbows that have given the lake its international reputation. Their progenitors were first released into a tributary of the Tongariro River in 1898. Within four years, rainbow trout weighing 3.5-4 kg were being caught in the Waikato River, which flows out of Lake Taupo, and in the lake itself a 10 kg fish was caught five years after the first releases. In one season, 56,000 fish, totalling 112 tonnes, were taken from the lake and its associated rivers. Trout were so plentiful that they were given to local farmers as pig food.
Then, in 1912, the size and the quality of the fish rapidly deteriorated. It was a textbook case of an introduced predator—trout—upsetting the balance of an existing ecosystem, in this case decimating the resident population of koaro, a native galaxiid fish. To remedy the situation, gamekeepers embarked on a massive netting exercise to reduce trout numbers. The solution worked for a while, but by the early 1930s there were again too many trout and not enough food. This time the wardens employed a different strategy: rather than culling the predator they bolstered the prey. Common smelt, a small silvery fish, were introduced. They spread like locusts and have thrived in Lake Taupo ever since. The trout population bounced back with vigour.
Those early years of the Taupo fishery were a time of great secrecy among anglers. One Taupo saga tells of an Irishman named de Lautour, who was the first to fish the Waitahanui River—today one of the country’s premier trout venues. The reclusive de Lautour lived in a reed but on a Maori burial ground, for which he paid rent of two bags of flour a year. He tied his flies on the riverbank, never keeping spares in case someone should find them. For seven years he lived there on trout and the vegetables he grew, until the idyll came to an abrupt end when he poisoned a litter of his landlord’s pigs, which kept rooting in his garden, and was banished from the area. But by then the secret was already out, and someone else was about to trumpet it to the world.
That person was Zane Grey, writer of Westerns and catcher of fish. In 1926, the New Zealand government invited him to fish here in the hope that he would promote the country as a fishing destination.
As a tourism promotion, it was wildly successful. Grey and his entourage fished for marlin in the Bay of Islands and for trout in Taupo. And although, as his biographer, Robert Davis, points out, “If Zane went out with a mosquito net to catch minnows, he could make it sound like a Roman gladiator setting forth to slay whales in the Tiber,” Grey’s antipodean adventures needed no literary embellishment. The resultant books, Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado: New Zealand and Tales from a Fisherman’s Log, became instant classics. The title of the former created an image that stuck, and Grey’s prose gave New Zealand an angling reputation that has not faded since.
But Grey’s enthusiasm went further than it was welcomed. He was so thrilled by the quality of fishing in Taupo that he wanted to buy the entire Tongariro River.
Fortunately for other anglers, Grey’s dream of owning one of the best trout rivers in the world did not eventuate. In 1926, the year Tales of the Angler’s Eldorado was published, the government passed laws to ensure Lake Taupo and its tributary rivers remained in public ownership.
Grey returned to the Rogue River in Oregon, where he wrote his cowboy romances and fished for steelheads (sea-run rainbow trout). On his front porch, he installed a gamefishing chair rigged up with a system of pulleys and weights like a gym machine, but with a rod instead of a bench press. In this chair he worked out, preparing for his expeditions, and it was here, just before the outbreak of World War II, that he died of heart failure at the age of 68, pumping iron the angler’s way.
The river of Grey’s dreams rises from the snows of Ruapehu as the upper Waikato, and is named Tongariro only after it joins with Waihohonu Stream, 35 km from its four-armed delta on the shores of Lake Taupo. No other stretch of water in the country, with the possible exception of the neighbouring Waitahanui and Tauranga-Taupo Rivers, is so steeped in angling history and tradition. Every pool has a name and a story … and at least half a dozen anglers.
For many of them, fishing the Tongariro is a pinnacle in a lifetime of angling. When standing shoulder to shoulder with such devoted fishers, it pays to have a reasonable command of casting—if for no other reason than to reduce the chance of hooking your neighbour’s ear with a wayward fly.
The perfect cast is accurate and effortless, and delivers the lure to the quarry without arousing its suspicion. It looks simple but is, in fact, bafflingly complex. The soaring arc of the line can be likened to an angler’s aerial signature—an illegible scribble in the case of the beginner, calligraphy in motion when performed by the expert.
When I first visited Taupo, I had barely learnt the letters of the angling alphabet. As luck would have it, I found myself in a master caster class with Carol Harwood, a sprightly woman in her 60s who, when I met her, was nursing a sprained elbow from tussling with a 10 kg salmon in Alaska.
She learned to fish the hard way, she told me, by watching and emulating her 69-year-old husband, Frank, a Yorkshire-born Taupo fly-fishing guide. He had been a merciless teacher, Carol recalled, citing the example of a fly-tying session. To make a fly you place the business end of a hook in a miniature vice and wrap bits of feathers, fur or chenille around the shank, tying them down with multiple wraps of fine thread. If her fly were anything but perfect, Frank would shave it off the shank with a razor blade and make her start again.
Thanks to her aptitude with needlework, Carol gave him few opportunities to wield the blade, but still, for the first year of her tough apprenticeship she just stood behind her husband in the river, looking over his shoulder and listening. That was 16 years ago. Now this “five-foot-nothing old girl,” as she describes herself, has been admitted into the ranks of the New Zealand Professional Fishing Guides Association, one of only two female guides in what remains a male-dominated sport.
On her Turangi lawn, Carol took me through one of Frank’s diabolical exercises. The daisies were out in force, and she pointed out a clump of three about 10 m away. With a quick backcast she had the line in the air. She paused momentarily to let it straighten behind her back, then her forearm came down like a hammer, her thumb on the rod’s cork handle, sighting one of the flowers. The line shot forward like a whip, its tip patted the daisy’s head and left it quivering. One! A backcast, another daisy. Two! Another backcast and a miss, though not by much.
“Oops! I’ll do it again,” she said, her face focused as if she were threading a needle. One! Two! Three! The daisies quivered.
“Your turn,” she said. “Pick your flowers.”
I made a couple of false casts to judge the distance, then let the line fly and—lo and behold—the line-tip hit a daisy on the head!
“Excellent!” Carol applauded, “See, it’s not that hard!”
I smiled uneasily. Should I tell her? The daisy I had aimed for was another metre to the side.
Most towns have their fairs, fetes and galas—the occasions that put them fleetingly into the limelight—but Taupo and its environs seem able to sustain a year-long celebration of trout. Even when the upper reaches of the spawning rivers are closed to fishing in winter, the lake and river mouths remain accessible and productive.
In a Turangi hostel shortly after New Year—the height of the summer angling season—I met Paul Adren, a 27-year-old Englishman whose lobster-tan face bore the unmistakable bug-eye imprint of his polarising angling sunglasses. Back home, he works as a casting tutor and representative for a fishing gear manufacturer, but every English off-season he comes to New Zealand for his share of the angler’s Arcadia. Where else but here, he asked me, can you fish for world‑class trout every day of the year for a mere $55?
“All trout and salmon rivers in the UK are privately owned, so fishing is exclusive and expensive,” he told me as we motored in his aluminium dinghy towards the Tongariro delta. “You pay the owner and get an allocated stretch of the river, say 200 yards of the left bank, from one fence to another. For a well-known chalk stream like the Test or the Itchen [from which some of New Zealand’s brown trout originate] it can cost you a hundred quid a day, and you have to book months ahead. And these are the rivers where you can go. There are many more where you can’t, not unless you have a ‘Sir’ to your name.”
We beached the boat on a gravel bar and waded up one of the delta channels, thigh-deep in the water, volcanic sand squirting between our toes with every step. In a river, the trout nose into the current, so by walking upstream you can often sneak to within a good casting distance.
That day we surprised many fish. One which remains fixed in my memory lay in mid-stream, a big brown trout finning just enough to maintain its position. I cast repeatedly, but the fish refused all my offerings, sometimes ignoring them completely, sometimes coming in for a closer look, then turning back without a take. My hands shook every time I changed a fly.
“Here, try this,” Paul whispered over my shoulder. From his backpack, he produced a wooden box the size of a laptop computer, which, like a portable entomological museum, contained sheets and sheets of insects, all of them artificial. Earlier that day Paul had told me that, as a boy, he had owned a set of aquaria in which he kept not fish but bugs. He watched them grow and metamorphose, from eggs to larvae to nymphs to adults. He studied their behaviour and habits, then tied precisely matching imitations. Now he carried the fruit of this and other research in his wooden box: 8000 different flies in all colours and sizes—at shop prices worth about $20,000—covering most foreseeable fishing scenarios.
He handed me a large dry fly, which I tied on and cast. It floated on the surface like a bird’s feather and the trout snatched it the way a dog snatches a stick. My line went as taut as a guitar string and the water exploded around the fish. A few minutes later, I scooped the trout out with my landing net. Its body was flecked like greenstone, and just as cold. On the pilgrimage to Tongariro I had found my shrine.
We caught and missed other fish that day before dusk fell, and then a warm summer night. Stumbling in the darkness, we waded downstream, sweeping the way ahead for obstacles with our rods until the dagger of a young moon came out to guide us. At first, the outboard would not start, and when it did the boat’s lights short-circuited. We puttered at a snail’s pace, groping our way through the narrow channel from one marker to another, alone on the lake, laughing a lot. We seemed to step outside of time and into our boyhood again, playing Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer adrift in a clapped-out boat. I thought there was no other place I would rather be.
I returned to Taupo the following July because from late autumn to early spring, when the water is at its coolest, rainbow trout return to their spawning streams. What guides them? No one knows for sure. Perhaps it is the bouquet of tastes and odours peculiar to each stream. Perhaps the Earth’s magnetic field plays a part. But, almost unfailingly, they come back to their own birthplace to breed.
Unlike salmon, which die after spawning, trout can make their river run several times. But the journey of up to 20 km—an obstacle course of rapids and shallows, culminating in mating battles and the excavation of the spawning beds, the reddsis hard on a fish. On their way back to lake or sea, they often look emaciated.
At Taupo, when autumn has been dry and the river levels low, trout congregate in vast numbers at the stream mouths, waiting for rain. A downpour literally opens the floodgates, and the fish surge upriver. These piscatorial rush hours, when fish from the whole lake must pass through the narrows of the river mouths, are eagerly awaited by anglers, who, on days when the fish are running, form “picket fences,” rod-wielding human palisades which the fish must pass.
But pass they do—in astonishing numbers. On the upper reaches of the Whitikau Stream, across from the Rangipo Prison grounds, I witnessed the end of the journey: several hundred rainbow trout in water so shallow their backs were half above the surface while their bellies rubbed against the coarse gravel bottom.
With Turangi Department of Conservation fisheries scientist Michel Dedual, I crept along the stony bank to the water’s edge. The trout, preoccupied with the business of sex, were so close we could almost touch them.
Dedual, an affable Swiss ichthyologist who has been in Turangi long enough to acquire a Billy T James giggle, knows trout intimately. He has caught and eaten them, radio-tracked and dived with them and watched them for hours, yet even he could not contain his excitement at the sight of such abundance.
“Amazing, huh?” he exclaimed. “As a fisheries scientist I follow closely what happens with fish populations around the world—in Alaska, Patagonia, Europe. They all pale next to this. I know of no better place than Lake Taupo for wild rainbow trout. New Zealanders—even the locals—just don’t realise how good we have it.”
Taupo’s brown trout spawn earlier, Dedual told me, moving up the rivers in April and May, and the resident rainbows often gather just below the redds, feeding on eggs which get washed downstream. But the rivers that drain the Volcanic Plateau contain large amounts of pumice and small stones, some of which are similar in shape and size to trout ova. Dedual has caught rainbows with their bellies full of ova-size pumice. “They feel as crunchy as bean bags,” he said.
Why is Taupo such an outstanding fishery, I asked? “It’s a combination of things,” Dedual explained. “The water is very clean, because there is relatively little farming around the lake edges. There are buffer zones of forest along the length of the inflowing rivers and streams, and their bottoms are made of porous, volcanic gravel, which purifies the water like a carbon filter. Then there is a profusion of smelt in the lake, which the trout can hunt with little effort. Also, the fish can spawn all year round. Although they prefer the colder months, you can see spawning runs happening in summer as well. But most importantly, the entire system is large, diverse and robust. If a cataclysm should strike at one end—a flood, localised pollution, or even a volcanic eruption—there will be rivers and streams at the other end which are not affected. The trout population is healthy and self-sustaining. Even if severely depleted, it will bounce back quickly. And of course, we monitor it closely.”
They do so because in Taupo, where 60,000-70,000 fishing licences are sold annually, angling is big business, bringing close to $100 million a year to the local economy. Using echo-sounding surveys, DoC’s fisheries managers can estimate the number of fish of legal angling size in the lake. (It fluctuates between 80,000 and 220,000.) In summer, they make aerial sweeps, counting boats and assessing the fishing pressure. They interview and educate anglers, run a hatchery for public-relations purposes (being a self-sustaining fishery, Taupo does not need to be topped up with hatchery-raised trout, as Lake Rotorua and some other lakes do), set minimum legal sizes and bag limits and curb poaching. Their work seems to be paying off handsomely: the trout fishing at Taupo is as good as it’s ever been.
To gain a trout’s-eye view of the situation, I teamed up with local scuba instructor Damian McMillan for a drift-dive down the Waikato, the only river draining Lake Taupo.
“If you hear a thundering noise, we’ve gone too far!” McMillan told me, nodding to where, three kilometres downstream, the Huka Falls barricade the river, forming a natural dam that keeps downstream fish out of the greater Taupo system. Then he lowered himself into the 12°C water and swam off in that direction.
The visibility was six or seven metres, and small rainbow trout seemed to hang in the current like seabirds riding the wind. Tiny twisters of gravel and sand travelled along the pale-yellow riverbed, which otherwise looked as barren as a moonscape. The world of the trout can be surprisingly austere and bleak, flushed by regular floods and almost devoid of colour, furnished only with rocks and occasional sunken trees.
To a terrestrial observer, trout may appear indolent, lying inside eddies, waiting for food to float past, but the truth is that, in a fast river, they do not have much choice. Every metre of up- or cross-stream travel requires a major investment of energy. While a lake trout can cruise its beat at leisure, snacking on a morsel here and there, the river trout must master the vagaries of the current.
When the river pours over and around obstacles, it swirls and buckles and folds back on itself, creating pockets of almost stationary water. These sheltered niches are a trout’s prime real estate, and there you find them, almost motionless, fins twitching with minor adjustments, only centimetres away from a swifter flow which, like a conveyor belt, delivers a continuous smorgasbord of insects, the trout’s “fast food.”
The current also brings oxygen, but before the water enters the trout’s gills it passes through a series of comb-like gill rakes which sieve out the debris. These crude strainers cannot remove fine silt, however, which can clog the gills and kill the fish. This is why you find trout only in relatively clean water. For them, a silty stream is like living in a continuous sandstorm.
Water clarity has a bearing on the size of fish, too. River trout hunt primarily by sight. In order to catch prey they need to see it coming well in advance, so that they have time to intercept it. The clearer the water, the better the hunting and the bigger the fish. The fact that New Zealand boasts such large river trout can be attributed partly to water purity. But in many parts of the country, that purity is under threat.
“Rivers will be tomorrow’s beech forests—the next environmental battleground,” predicts Bryce Johnson, national director of Fish & Game New Zealand, the statutory body that manages freshwater fishing and game-bird hunting. His organisation, which evolved out of the country’s two dozen acclimatisation societies in the late 1980s, represents the interests of the country’s anglers and shooters and is financed from the annual sale of fishing and hunting licences (in 1999, 123,000 and 34,500 respectively). Though characterised by some as a bloodsports lobby, it functions as a vocal and effective conservation group.
“You won’t find more vigilant environmental watchdogs than anglers, particularly fly-fishermen,” Neil Deans, Fish & Game’s regional manager for Nelson and Marlborough, tells me. “They spend a lot of time on the water. They study the river flows and the insect life, and they are the first to know if there is a problem. And because they’re so passionate about trout, they also take the initiative and act. Of the 25 water conservation orders [the equivalent of national-park legislation for rivers and lakes] covering the country’s signature waterways, such as the Mataura, Pomahaka, Rakaia, Buller, Rangitikei, Mohaka and Motu Rivers, 19 were initiated and seen through by anglers.”
Deans’ demeanour is far from that of a dreamy-eyed angler watching the mayfly hatch. He is a veteran of many courtroom battles on behalf of Fish & Game. Fluent in legalese, he speaks with enough let-me-finish determination to make the voice of the angler heard even during the most heated debates. “Hydro-electricity proposals, particularly on small trout rivers, used to be our main headache,” he says, “but now we have to deal with a host of other issues as well. Clean water is in such demand that our rivers are virtually under siege. In some cases the allocated water permits exceed the river flow. So although our job is to look after fisheries, in reality we find ourselves lobbying for sustainable water management, because this is the bottom line for trout—for the whole country, in fact.”
Scientists, too, speak of a crisis in the health of our streams—of waters which once ran clear and sweet, now murky and lacklustre, flowing at a fraction of their previous strength. “Our clean, green image is wearing thinner every day,” says freshwater ecologist John Hayes. “What sustains the illusion is the fact that we have so much relatively unaltered and mountainous backcountry. But we are losing lowland trout rivers and creeks right across the populated countryside. They are being clogged up by erosion, siphoned off for irrigation, even used as drains.”
Hayes is running several trout research projects under the aegis of Nelson’s Cawthron Institute. He says trout make excellent indicators of the health of our waterways because they are the most studied freshwater fish in the world, they are sensitive to contamination and they are found throughout the country. Like canaries in a coalmine, what they indicate can be alarming.
Hayes gives the example of Otago’s Pomahaka River. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Pomahaka yielded a third of all trout caught in Otago. It was considered on a par with the Mataura. Says Hayes: “The local farmers will tell you how they tickled the trout there, and how good the fishing was, but now some of them won’t let their kids swim in the river.” Despite being protected by a water conservation order, the middle and lower reaches of the Pomahaka run dirty and turbid for most of the time. Angler use of the river has declined by more than 80 per cent in the past 20 years.
Bob McDowall, an eminent fisheries scientist at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, offers another example: the Selwyn River, just south of Christchurch. Locals used to boast that it was the best brown-trout river in the world. Their catch bags seemed limitless. Trophy trout reaching 11 kg and 90 cm were caught, and millions of ova were taken from the river and sold to acclimatisation societies elsewhere in the country. In 1949, a trap installed across the river registered 65,000 fish running upstream to spawn. In the 1980s, that number dropped to 500. Today the Selwyn state highway bridge crosses a dry river bed. The river’s troubles are largely the result of abstraction of water for irrigation.
The expansion of dairying into low-rainfall areas such as south Canterbury is putting heavy pressure on a scarce water resource. “Dairying is possible in dry regions only with irrigation, and much of the water is taken from rivers,” says Bryce Johnson. “Farmers want most of their water when it’s hot and dry, just when the rivers are least able to supply it without damage to trout and other organisms. Local bodies have the right to temporarily suspend irrigation rights to preserve aquatic life, but taking that sort of action isn’t going to win them any friends in local farming communities. So they often turn a blind eye.”
It is not just the removal of water from rivers that is a problem. Water flowing back into rivers from farmland ferries a load of trouble: silt, faecal bacteria, nitrogen and phosphate. In moderation, some of this material can be beneficial. New Zealand rivers tend to be low in nutrients, and some increase boosts life in the system. A Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries study of 100 rivers in the 1980s found that where up to 30 per cent of a river catchment was in pasture, water and trout suffered little harm. Beyond 30 per cent, deterioration commenced. Many of our catchments are way beyond 30 per cent.
Increasingly, agriculture is being identified as a major culprit in river decline. Yet agriculture has been the economic backbone of the country for a long time, and the amount of land in cultivation or pasture today (16.5 million hectares) is no greater than it was in the early 1900s. Certainly, farming is more intensive these days, but total animal numbers have remained more or less static over the past 30 years (fewer sheep, more cows) and a lot of land has been transferred from livestock to forestry, which is generally good for water quality—at least until harvest time. The Resource Management Act (RMA), which provides more enlightened environmental control than that which most of the world enjoys, has been in place for a decade. So why should our waterways suddenly be in trouble now?
More to the point, says Hayes, is that we are only now realising the extent of damage which has been steadily accumulating for decades. The degradation of water quality is a slow process which sometimes does not even register in the collective environmental memory. That is why it is important to document the changes, to realise that, for example, there were once trout of up to 10 kg in the Avon, in the very heart of Christchurch city. Or to listen to someone such as Frank Saunders of Waimate, who still fishes at the age of 97 and who can tell you just how much more alive our rivers were in his younger days; alive not only with trout but with bullies and mayflies and caddises and every swimming, crawling and flying insect, many of which have since disappeared, smothered by sediments, killed off by pollution.
Of course, agriculture cannot carry the can for all murky water and the corresponding reduction in trout numbers. Leachate from tips, mining operations and septic tanks and silt from subdivisions, roadworks and industrial development all contribute to the demise of trout. So, too, do natural disasters. Hayes says that part of the reason for continuing stream degradation is the incidence of infrequent, very large storms. Land in pasture is less well knitted together than forested land bound by tree roots. In flood conditions, such land—especially if it is steep country—is a slip waiting to happen. Although clearance may have taken place decades ago, with little apparent harm to a watershed, that land remains vulnerable. It is likely that more damage is done to a catchment under pasture by a one-in-20-years storm than was caused by a one-in-100-years storm when it was in bush.
Such damage can take a long time to heal. When a stream at Kapuni was badly affected by a big slip on Mt Taranaki, biologists found that aquatic life took 10 years to recover. Even in relatively unmodified country, streams can take a hammering from heavy rainfall. Anglers in Queenstown estimate it will be several years before favoured trout waters in their area recover from the November 1999 floods.
From both natural and human quarters, the country’s waterways are suffering. What can be done? All parties agree that sustainable land management is the goal, and to this end Fish & Game, Federated Farmers and others have formed the New Zealand Landcare Trust, a group which seeks to mobilise land users to take collective responsibility for their own environmental impact. National coordinator Don Ross says the trust encourages farmers to reduce the effects of their activities on the land through such practical steps as keeping stock out of streams, taking better care of riparian strips, improving the retention of nutrients on pasture and monitoring water quality in conjunction with councils.
Bryce Johnson is positive about the work of the trust, which provides resources to 350 landcare groups around the country, and praises the push towards sustainable land use, adding that, as a nation, we really have no other choice. Trout, after all, like their rivers the same way we do—refreshingly cool, crystal-clear and well shaded with trees. Even a quick glimpse overseas reveals a very unappealing alternative. Both the Wycombe Stream in England and Sonoma Creek in California, two of the very waters from which our brown and rainbow trout originate, have declined to the point where they are described as communal sewers.
Satisfying the needs of development and recreational use is no easy balancing act, and it is worth remembering that trout make a significant contribution to the national balance sheet. “Trout bring around $600 million to the economy,” Johnson tells me, “but what they signify is not just about money. We have always lobbied against trout farming, and the sale of trout, and any other form of putting a dollar value on the fish. In this country we still have a lifestyle and environment that most of the world envies, and we can’t afford to squander it. Trout are a part of our heritage, and you can’t put a price on that.”
When I first picked up a fly-rod three years ago, it was the mystique of the sport that attracted me, the sense of being inducted into an ancient order—the “Brotherhood of the Angle,” as Izaak Walton called it. The lure of trout hooked me firmly through the heart, and, being of the barbed variety, has proved impossible to extract.
As I have fished my way up and down the country, I have been following a mental path others have walked before me. First it is the fish that is important, then the fishing, then, ultimately, neither: it is the context, the being there, the river itself. At that point, as the American writer Tom McGuane has observed, angling is more about capturing a truth than capturing a fish. Tonight, truth, trout and river are all part of a contemplative reverie. Outside, equinoctial gales are churning the surface of the lake by which I live into big swells and whitecaps, and sleet is buffeting the house. It sounds as if someone is throwing fistfuls of lead shot against the windows. The angling season will open in a few days; I saw my neighbour patching up his waders and airing them on the fence. I’m sitting in my office tying flies.
I never thought it would come to this, for I’d always considered fly-tying to be an activity for people who lacked something better to do. Now I take it back. It’s not just coiling thread around clumps of feather and fur. To tie these flies I had to learn the life cycles of mayflies and caddises and damselflies, to distinguish beetle larvae from cicada larvae. I had to learn about insects with names like elderly aunts—Zygoptera and Zephlebia. I even met a world expert on stoneflies, a plecopterologist, and keep his telephone number handy should an emergency arise.
I’ve tied a few fancy flies—Slim Jims, Woolly Buggers, Lumi Zonkers—but usually I go for simplicity. Zane Mirfin, a Nelson Lakes fishing guide, once told me: “Fish eat bugs. Green bugs, brown bugs and yellow bugs. Small bugs and big bugs. Whether you comb or not, it makes no difference to the fish.” So I let my imagination roam and create my own monstrosities while Miles Davis purrs on the boom-box and beads of dew trickle down a glass of single malt.
And I think of the river that pours out of the lake and into a forested gorge, as good in the rain as it is in the sunlight, a river so clear I have no hesitation to drink from it. I like the feeling of its current pressing against my waist, squeezing the waders, and the wake forming on my downstream side as the river tells me, in a congenial sort of way, that I am, after all, just another annoying obstruction.
Soon I’ll be there, alone or with a friend, our only conversation the swish of fly-lines through the air. You don’t talk a lot when you’re fishing. You let the river do the talking. During those interludes of perfect stillness there are times of concentration so intense that the world as you know it no longer exists, for a few moments at least. Some people go to Himalayan monasteries or gaze for hours at a candle flame to feel this. I prefer the river and the mesmerising flow of its muscular current. And who knows, perhaps one day I won’t even bother with a rod.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter whether we fish for trout or not. The important thing is that they are there. They have become more than just an angling quarry, food for table or soul, an excuse to venture into the outdoors. Trout have come to embody pure, cold fresh water—the very elixir of life. In New Zealand, they seem particularly at home.