T H E C A T C H: Fishing the sweetwater
The charms of freshwater fishing are often under-appreciated – particularly in New Zealand – but rekindling the interest is definitely worth the effort, with bountiful rewards.
For a variety of reasons fishing freshwater has kind of fallen off my radar.
I’m no longer really up for the one-day missions of the past, getting up in the early hours of the morning to drive south for several hours, fish all day and then drive back to Auckland in the dark. It’s also harder to find mates keen for this kind of caper, because they’re all at similar stages in their own lives.
The truth is, I can seldom spare a whole weekend to go fishing, and living in Auckland, a weekend is really what’s required to access and enjoy good trout fishing. Unfortunately, my wife is not especially charmed by Turangi, and since neither she nor my daughter much like fishing, a weekend on the river has limited family appeal. Suggesting a couple of days in Rotorua has a better chance of success, but fishing has to fit around ‘family’ activities. Consequently, I hardly go freshwater fishing anymore.
But a day on the Parana River during a recent family holiday to Argentina has really rekindled my interest in fishing the sweetwater. I thoroughly enjoyed the freshwater environment, the smell of the river, the wildlife and of course the fishing, though it was very different from home.
The target species wasn’t trout, or even carp, which I sometimes catch in New Zealand, but golden dorado, a spectacular looking, hard-pulling sportfish that inhabits many of the larger rivers of South America. I caught one, a small specimen, but hooked two much larger examples that leaped about spectacularly before eventually throwing the hooks.
Dorado have very hard jaws and a mouth full of teeth, so setting the hooks securely is difficult: a landed-to-hooked ratio of one in three dorado is apparently par for the course.
In addition to dorado, we caught powerful surubi catfish and scrappy piranha on baits of live catfish, as well as wolf fish on surface lures from among floating mats of vegetation. It was exotic, interesting and exciting fishing.
Ironically, our guide Alejandro, who also guides clients on the wonderful trout fisheries of Patagonia, was full of questions about trout fishing in New Zealand. From the stories of international anglers he had guided, he knew all about the rainbows of the Tongariro River and the South Island’s worldclass brown trout fishing. He was dead-keen to sample New Zealand fishing for himself.
Talking with Alejandro made me realise how much I’d missed the lakes and rivers of home. New Zealand’s trout fishing is rightly world-famous, but it is often undervalued by New Zealanders. Despite the best efforts of Fish and Game, including the introduction of affordable fishing licenses for families, weekend licenses and free licenses for kids under 10 years old, license sales to Kiwis continue to decline. That’s a shame, because high-quality trout fishing is relatively cheap and easy to access in this country, which is one of the reasons it draws so many tourist fishers from overseas.
Of course, freshwater fishing is more popular with Kiwis in some parts of New Zealand than in others. In the North Island, the central region encompassing Taupo and its environs, the Rotorua Lakes, and the many rivers and lakes of the surrounding ranges attract large numbers of trout fishers.
In the South Island, the MacKenzie Country has become a mecca for anglers, mostly from Christchurch, but also other parts of New Zealand, Australia and further afield. Keen fishers often set up for days beside the hydro canals hoping to catch gigantic rainbow and brown trout that have grown fat on fish pellets that fall through the salmon farm cages that are a feature of the canals. Escaped salmon, some also very large, are another drawcard.
This is a unique fishery where catching a 10kg trout barely raises an eyebrow.
Although ‘wilderness’ fly fishing in pristine wild rivers of New Zealand’s back country is internationally famous, most Kiwis fish for trout in lakes.
Anglers can use a variety of methods to fish for lake-dwelling trout, either from the shore or out of a boat. Freshwater fishing is more closely regulated than sea fishing, with size and bag limits, closed seasons and restrictions on the tackle and techniques. A thorough knowledge of the fishing regulations is advisable.
But fishing for trout is not otherwise difficult.
Fly-fishing is perhaps the most challenging method, but it’s hugely satisfying to master. Spin-fishing is relatively easy, though it takes practice and the ability to read the water to consistently catch fish.
Trolling – towing lures behind a slowly moving boat – is the simplest and most popular method. It’s practised all over New Zealand, especially in the major lakes of both main islands. Trolling can be a relaxed, social affair that’s great for families, as I keep trying to convince my wife, and many South Island lakes hold salmon in addition to trout, which adds another dimension to the fishing.
Harling – trolling a spoon or fly behind the boat on a monofilament line, a sinking fly line, Deepwater Express, LED (lead-impregnated Dacron) line or a line incorporating a sinking tip section – is a popular method at change of light. It is usually only effective when trout are patrolling in shallow water or feeding within a few metres of the surface.
When trout and salmon are holding deeper in the water, perhaps underneath the thermocline, trolling lures at depth using fast-sinking metal or metal-cored lines works better.
Deep trolling in lakes is still mostly done using reels spooled with lead-cored Dacron (leadcore) line, or more rarely copper or Monel (single-strand stainless steel) wire lines. Trolling with leadcore lines effectively presents lures down to 15m deep (10 colours/100m of leadcore line). Wire lines fish even deeper.
Where it’s permitted, the use of downriggers has transformed trolling, allowing anglers to fish deep using much lighter, more sporting fishing tackle. Regulations around downriggers differ between Fish and Game regions and even between lakes in the same region, including the length of downrigger cable allowed. In Lake Taupo, 40m of cable is allowed, which takes lures to a maximum depth of around 30m.
Skilled trollers use local knowledge, bathymetric charts and electronic aids such as fish finders (including forward and sidescanning sonars) and GPS-plotters to locate fish.
Other options for boat fishers include fly fishing from a drifting or anchored boat using sinking or floating fly lines tipped with wet flies/lures, dry flies or nymphs, fishing lightly weighted soft plastics and jigging.
Shore fishers can spin-fish, fly-fish, or cast soft plastics, but like boat fishers, there may be restrictions on where and when they can fish and the tackle and techniques they can use.
Jigging is a relatively new fishing style. Lures/flies are lowered to a depth where fish are expected to swim, or better, are visible on the fish finder. The boat may be anchored or allowed to slowly drift over fish holding areas; electric trolling motors can be used to control the drift or hold the boat in place. The jigging rig – usually up to three smelt-type flies and a sinker – is very gently ‘jigged’ up and down. Low-stretch braided lines, light traces and long, sensitive rods are used for this style of fishing, which is a fun and highly effective way to catch trout especially in the warmer months. BNZ