A Game Of Two Halves: From The Salt To The Stream

There are certainly more evocative names in New Zealand fly fishing destinations than Tauranga. For many, fly fishing doesn’t even necessarily come to mind when you mention the city’s name. But each time I go back, mainly to visit my parents who have lived there for the past 25 years, I’m struck by the opportunities that abound for a keen fly angler. With kilometres of saltwater flats to be explored (many of which are accessible on foot) and some beautiful streams, at least one canal and a lake less than half an hour’s drive away, there is plenty of decent fly fishing to be had close by and even more if you venture slightly further afield.

Looking to make the most of those opportunities, last summer I set myself a goal: to catch a Yellowtail Kingfish (Seriola lalandi) on the flats and a trout up in one particular river which flows down from the nearby Kaimai Range and which I consider to be something of a hidden gem. I had packed and brought over with me from New Caledonia everything I needed. For the salt, my TFO Mangrove #9 paired with a Redington Behemoth reel, loaded with 300 yards of 30lb backing and a Rio Outbound Short WF9F/I coldwater/saltwater fly line (I should give huge thanks to the guys at Rod and Reel in Newmarket, Auckland, who sorted me out for the reel, backing and fly line over the phone and couriered it down to Tauranga so that it was waiting when I arrived and ready to fish). And for the freshwater, my trusty Kilwell 9064 #6.

And so, with limited time and maximum enthusiasm I headed out on the first part of my DIY mission to the flats which run for miles through Tauranga Harbour, having studied channels, tides and various other forms of internet-based intelligence. I had chosen to fish the incoming tide that afternoon and my eyes scanned the water as I waded slowly out across the hard packed sand of the flat. After only a couple of minutes I spotted my first stingray but couldn’t see any “ray riders”. I decided to make a cast anyway, just in case, and unfurled 50 feet of line to lead the ray by about 6 feet. I stripped the line in, hoping to feel a jarring strike and the line tighten… but to no avail. After about an hour of slow wading, skirting channels, spotting several more stingrays but no green and silver missiles, I headed towards a deeper channel and positioned myself a metre or so back from the edge. The flat dropped abruptly at this point, and the clear water became a deeper blue green.

I decided to blind cast for a while, trying another option after my not-so-productive first hour or so spent sight fishing. After only a couple of casts I felt the light tighten and swiftly set the hook, feeling and seeing the rod bend to the butt section. I quickly got any slack line back on the reel and slowly began the retrieve, pulling against quite a weight of inertia only to find that I had caught myself a trophy sized clump of sea lettuce! Having untangled the green mass from my line and fly, I made several more casts, letting the fly sink before beginning the retrieve and varying the speed and style from quick jerks to long smooth strips. At last I felt the line go taught and made a strip strike. The rod began to bend and the reel began to sing as line and then backing peeled out at speed. I hadn’t caught a clump of weed again, that was certain! Keeping low rod angles and gradually tightening the drag I kept the fish out of the current and began to draw it up onto the flat. I spotted a decent sized silver glint in the water before it made another run for the deep, so I kept the pressure on and gradually moved backward at the same time to avoid the deeper water. After a five minute fight, I had my fish in hand. Not the hoped for Kingfish, but another prized New Zealand saltwater gamefish, the Kahawai (Arripis Trutta). It was soon time to head back home, so I left the flat without having fulfilled my goal but pleased with the afternoon’s fishing which had yielded a nice wee Kahawai together with around eight smaller fish.

The next day it was time for the freshwater portion of my DIY challenge. The year before I had only encountered one river where I had fished with no success whatsoever, and I had decided to test myself there again. I was also secretly hoping to get a brown trout, since I had mostly been catching and releasing Rainbows until then. My Dad was coming along also, so father and son piled into the car with waders and boots already on, wound down the windows to let in the Summer breeze and headed off on the 25 minute drive up into the Kaimais, until we hit the turnoff and wound our way up a narrow dirt road into the hills, with the river on the right hand side glinting through the native bush.

Ten minutes later, the car was parked and we quickly rigged our rods and made our way upstream, cutting through the sometimes dense vegetation until we reached our first spot: a nice riffle which fed into the head of long pool. The water here was clear but tea stained and we could see through to the rocks and branches on the riverbed as if through a sepia filter. There were no fish in sight, so we decided to run our nymphing rigs through the oxygenated currents, past any obvious structure, in the hope of rousing a lurking predator. After several unsuccessful drifts we headed further upstream, fishing the riffles and pools as we went, clambering from rock to rock and enjoying the quiet of the forest and unspoiled the beauty of the riverside environment.

As we eased back into the river after some through-the-bush hiking, we saw a decent-size shape dart from under the bank, clearly outlined against a light coloured bed of river rock, only to disappear upstream. We continued to work our way upstream, enjoying the cool of the river’s flow as we waded and surround by the native forest’s multiple shades of green and brown, with the occasional fleck of brighter colour. We had no luck on this portion of the river either, so we made the choice to head back downstream and to cast our flies in the pools and riffles near where we had left the car. We tried several runs with water gurgling over the boulders into small pockets, still to no avail. It was almost time to go and we had one easily accessible spot left to fish, a boulder strewn pool fed by a small rapid with a deeper section running past the far bank.

I carefully walked out using the boulders as stepping stones and positioned myself back from the head of the pool so that I could cast into the tail of the rapid, hoping to get my nymphs drifting deep and naturally through the deeper waters. One cast, then another and a third, and still the strike indicator didn’t as much as bobble. I was getting desperate. Surely I wasn’t going to blank on this river again. There must be a trout in here, I said to myself, everything looks “fishy”: the swift flow of the rapid, the lines of oxygenated water gliding down the main current, a deep pool right alongside the bank. Even the late afternoon sun was playing its part (at least for the eye of the beholder) as it dappled the surfacing with its golden shimmer. I checked my rig, adjusted the strike indicator a little higher on the leader and made my cast, both nymphs landing just to the right of the rapid as it entered the pool. Mending upstream I kept a close eye on the drift of the indicator which was passing right through the white froth specks of the oxygenated current. And then, as quick as a flash, the strike indicator disappeared from the surface. I struck immediately (and probably too hard in my enthusiasm) and felt the tug straight away. My line veered upstream and I put the pressure on sideways to pull the fish out of the swift water. Then it turned and sped downstream, seeking the tail of the pool. Keeping the pressure constant I stripped line in and from the green depths of the pool I saw my trout emerge. A beautiful brown trout. Certainly not a trophy sized monster, but I really wasn’t worried. I was simply thrilled to have hooked “my” brownie. Now I just had to net it and avoid a last minute break off. With net in hand I stretched my rod hand as far as possible behind me, raising the rod tip until the fish slowly came with range. Gliding the net below the surface I waited patiently and somewhat tensely for the right moment and then smoothly scooped the trout from the water.

I beamed with satisfaction, as did Dad. There’s something special about these shared moments on the river and this was certainly a memorable one. I had a lovely fish, a brown trout to boot, and had completed the freshwater part of the challenge I had set myself.

It had been a close run thing, as we were only minutes from having to head back down. It just goes to show, you never know what you’ll get right up until the last cast of the day!

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