Where Trout and Thrills Abound
By JULIE EARLE-LEVINE Published: January 30, 2005
WITH one hand gripping a native manuka tree, the stocky yet agile Maori fishing guide swung out over the stream and jumped into the churning water. He grabbed his client for the day, steadying them both and shouted at him to lift his fishing rod higher. The brown trout, seemingly under control and nearly at the angler's feet, thrashed silver and brown on the foaming surface and bolted.
''This guy is too smart,'' said Greg Tuuta, the guide, hands on hips. ''He trashed my line last week, but we'll get him. He's a trophy, no doubt.'' Mr. Tuuta has fished at Rotorua, in the central part of New Zealand's North Island, for more than 30 years. As a child, he used traditional Maori lures like bread crumbs and bits of wool to catch fish. Now he takes wealthy tourists from around the world to places only he knows about, in a four-wheel-drive vehicle or a helicopter, to track down what he calls ''trophies.''
Trophy fish -- 10 pounds and above -- are every angler's dream. But in New Zealand, a country so bounteous in delicacies from land and sea that local people call it ''Godzone'' (God's own country), chances are that even novice anglers will snag a trophy, maybe even two. In a place with an abundance of both salt and freshwater fish, it is stretching the truth even for anglers to describe fishing here as a sport. The fish don't stand a chance.
New Zealand, better known to tourists for its ratio of 44 million sheep to 4 million people and its heart-stirring scenery, is a trout-fishing paradise. Visitors from around the world come to reap a plentiful harvest of fish, much like the Maoris, who migrated from Polynesia to New Zealand about 1,000 years ago. Many of them head directly to Rotorua, often called ''the trout fishing capital of the world.''
Part of the thrill of fishing in Rotorua is the scenery, with its breathtaking views and unspoiled wilderness. Rotorua is famous for active volcanoes that gurgle grey, sulfurous mud, the steaming waters of the Inferno Crater, the ''champagne pool'' at Wai-O-Tapu, and the Pohutu Geyser, which erupts up to 20 times a day. On the trout-packed Lake Tarawera, named after the adjacent volcanic mountain, which blew its top off in 1886, anglers can stand in geothermally heated water at the lake's edge.
Rotoruas lakes are the most intensely fished waters in New Zealand. The lakes are dotted with fishing enthusiasts in boats, and on the shore trying to land fish. Rotorua has the highest hourly catch rate in the world, according to Fish and Game New Zealand, an anglers' organization. ''It is a fish factory,'' said Mr. Tuuta, who added that skillful anglers can catch 30 to 40 fish in a day.
Visitors fish in streams so clear that the fish can see you. Crouching behind a bush, out of a target's line of vision, it is thrilling to see a trout break the surface to snap at a tempting lure.
New Zealanders call most waterways streams, but this term seems to cover everything from a trickle to a 15-foot-deep torrent of crystal blue water of glacial origin. The vegetation is intense and colorful with beech trees, green and yellow flax (a bush that looks as if it is weeping) and tussock and toi toi grass, with its white ostrich-like plumage blowing gracefully in the wind. The kereru, a native New Zealand pigeon, flaps noisily above the forest canopy. The only other noise is gum boots crunching sticks on the grassy bank, and the melodic Tui, or parson bird, which preaches its sermon in deep growls and trills. Sulfur in the soil shimmers in reds and yellows.
''Anglers come to New Zealand with the clean, green image as a major attraction,'' said Helen O'Keefe, owner of Blarney Lodge, a small lodge on Lake Rerewhakaaitu, popular with anglers. ''The enticement is back country waters, with wild fish, not hatchery fish.'' Her husband, Pat, a world-ranking fly fisherman and a popular guide, believes Lake Rotorua and its streams offer ''easily the most prolific and hungry trout population in New Zealand.'' Despite the intense fishing, there are plenty of fish to go around because fishing activities are closely monitored and regulated by Fish and Game New Zealand. Lake Taupo, about 50 miles south of Rotorua, the nearby lakes, Rotoaira and Otamangakau, and Kuratau and Hinemaiaia Rivers are stocked with fingerlings that grow to become fat, healthy trout.
In Rotorua, there is no limit on the number of fish that may be caught and released, Fish and Game New Zealand says, but anglers can keep eight a day over 14 inches in length. The average rainbow trout caught on Lake Rotorua is two and a half pounds, probably twice the size of those in most streams in America, said Mr. Tuuta.
Fly-fishing guides can be extremely helpful to the novice, as well as seasoned anglers. First, they explain how to land a fish, either by trolling (dragging a line from a boat) or standing in a stream. Nymphing -- finding a trout feeding on nymphs and then imitating those nymphs on a line cast a few feet above the fish -- is challenging but exhilarating. In slow-moving streams, trout often cruise the pools looking for such delights.
Stalking trout is what guides' eyes have been trained to do. ''He's sitting right there, just waiting. Next cast, two feet up'' Mr. Tuuta, wearing polarized sunglasses with yellow lenses to help him see the fish, told my father, Graham Earle, who accompanied me on the trip.
''But I can't see anything,'' he replied.
''Look closer,'' said Mr. Tuuta. The trout's head emerged.
Rainbow trout -- notable for their silver coloring with small, dark spots on their back and a reddish-pink band along each side -- are native to North America, and were used to stock New Zealand as early as 1883. Experts believe the reason they grow so large in this country is that they have more to eat and a longer season to enjoy the bounty, unlike their North American cousins, who must survive dark winter months in rivers covered with ice and snow. Brown trout were first introduced to New Zealand in the late 1860's, from British stock, and rarely have spots on their tails like their attractive rainbow cousins. Both types grow to enormous size.
Mr. Tuuta explains that traditionally oriented Maoris have watched white people, whom they call pakeha, and younger Maori ignore the tribal rule, sometimes called kaitiaki, or looking after your food. ''You never take more than you can eat in one day.'' The advent of high-tech fishing, with depth-sounders and fish-finders did not help. But enforcement of regulations on fishing was tightened in the mid-1980's and, thanks to restocking in recent years (about 6,000 tagged trout are put into the Rotorua lakes each year), fish are again plentiful.
Some guides will smoke your fish, so you can take it with you after your journey ends. But for the local people, it seems the only acceptable way to eat fish is to do so on the day it is caught -- frying the fresh trout in a little butter and finishing it off with a squeeze of lemon. Think of it as fast food, New Zealand style.
TROPHIES IN NEW ZEALAND
The season for line fishing from boats in New Zealand is from November until March. River fishing for trout is best from May until October.
Travelers can fly from New York to Auckland on Air New Zealand, on the Web at www.airnewzealand.com/usa, (in partnership with United Airlines), and Qantas, www.Qantas.com, for fares ranging from about $1,450 to about $2,300; Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Rotorua for about $100 for tickets bought in advance in the United States. A car rental costs around $239 for a week, at 1.41 New Zealand dollars to the United States dollar, or $47 a day.
WHERE TO STAY
Treetops Lodge, 351 Kearoa Road, Horohoro, Rotorua, (64-7) 333 2066; www.treetops.co.nz. Suites are $579 a person a night, double occupancy; villas are $685 a person double occupancy; an additional adult in costs $284 a night, not including tax; rates include breakfast, predinner cocktails, dinner and access to hiking and jogging trails, nature walks, unguided trout fishing and mountain bike riding. Treetops has eight villas and four lodge suites.
Blarney Lodge, 803 Ashpit Road, Lake Rerewhakaaitu, Rotorua, (64-7) 366 6144, fax (64-7) 366 6155; online at www.blarneylodge.co.nz.
Rooms cost $177 to $250 a night, including breakfast but not tax. The lodge has four guest rooms with lake views and a suite with views of the lake and Mount Tarawera. GUIDES
Locally hired guides provide fishing rods, lures, and waders. The guides also provide lunch (this might be a salmon salad, roast chicken sandwiches, cookies and drinks). Fishing in New Zealand requires a license, but guides are registered so their guests do not need these. You can use your own equipment. Contact: www.fishandgame.org.nz
Guides at Blarney Lodge charge about $360 a person a day or $430 for two anglers.
Greg Tuuta, the Maori fishing guide, can be reached at (64-7) 362-7794 or www.ikanuicharters.com. Mr. Tuuta charges $500 to $540 a day, or about $286 for a half day. Helicopters cost $1,150 to $1,435 for a drop-off at a fishing place and a pick up. For all-day use of the helicopter the charge is $4,160.