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Tongariro Flyfishing Basics

Peter Julian finds a solution to a winter without stream fishing. 

Okay, so I admit it. I’m mainly a fair weather stream flyfisher, who fishes when the conditions in southern Australia are the most comfortable from about mid-September until mid-April. That leaves about five months for me either to grit my teeth and head for the lakes, or to take trips down memory lane.

The Solution

Yes, there really is a solution which can brighten up the middle of the off season so much that, just potentially, it will change the way you fish forever at home. It’s a solution which will change the way you think about what is too deep or too fast. This solution involves a plane trip, relatively modest overall cost in comparison to a normal week’s holiday in Australia, a week of flyfishing learning (what could be tough about that?) and a willingness to change your fishing mindset.

You need to get to Turangi, in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island, pop on appropriate cold weather clothing and be prepared to hold onto your waders in case a rainbow pulls you out of them.

Turangi and the Tongariro

Turangi is located on the banks of the famous Tongariro River near the south-eastern corner of giant Lake Taupo. The main reason for the river’s fame is that the rainbows from the lake head up it for about 10 months each year to spawn. Although the food supply in Lake Taupo varies from year to year (especially the smelt population) the average size of the rainbows is currently somewhere about 1.3 kilograms. In the past, average size has been up to two or three times this, but what the heck, a 1.3 kg rainbow with deep silver flanks and the arrogance which comes from a constantly fully belly makes wonderful sport.  Combine a rainbow of this size or above, lots of deep, cold racing water and you have a cocktail which is called Excitement. And yes, it is served chilled, but more about this later.

The Fish

From my Australian perspective, the fact that the browns run up the Tongariro for about 10 months each year is just odd. But it is fact. As one would expect, however, the browns run first, the conventional wisdom being that they start somewhere early in April, although some start in December. The rainbows follow a month or two later with the 50,000 or so run peaking somewhere in September or perhaps October. Then there are the resident fish to consider on top of this and they are no small sluggards. They are a great catch in their own right they are wonderful.

During the course of the run there are the resident fish, the fresh running fish (which are characterised by their muscular build and deep silver flanks) the darker running fish (which have been in the system for over a few weeks or so) the recovering fish (which are making their way hungrily back to the lake) and the juvenile fish. The New Zealanders seem to consider anything below about 1 kg to be juvenile. How spoilt can you be?

River Residents

Sometimes these are unkindly called the river rodents. They tend to be a bit smaller than the running fish but I would like to put it out there that on the Tongariro River and pretty much anywhere else, I am perfectly happy latching onto rainbows of a kilogram or so. Plenty of the residents are considerably larger than this too, just to keep you guessing.

The river residents tend to occupy what I consider to be relatively predictable positions in the pools and runs. They are skittish and consequently need care to be tempted. But they certainly can be fooled, and when you hook up on one which heads downstream on a hundred metre run, there is no alternative other than to stumble behind in pursuit. You will see your backing possibly for the first time. Seeing all your backing is a distinct possibility so make sure your knots are all good. What a dent in the day it would be to lose not only the fish, but also all your fly line and backing due to a lazily tied knot around the spool.


Sometimes these trout are justifiably called silver bullets. Their condition is fabulous, their runs searing, their stamina breathtaking and the fact that it is possible to actually land them occasionally is the stuff of memories. As far as rainbows are concerned, you would have to travel a long way to find their match.

The freshies are not the same as the resident fish. They travel in schools. They are stimulated to travel upstream especially by fresh rain in the river itself. A minor flood at the right time of year on the Tongariro is a good thing, as the water discolours slightly and a fresh wave of fit trout makes its way up the river.

I suppose the trout sometimes travel a long way in a relatively short time, but this is not necessarily the case, with the running fish sometimes hanging around the pools and glides for considerable periods of time. They are not spooked in the same way as a resident fish is spooked. For example walking across the tail of a pool one day I saw a school of a dozen or so running fish zipping virtually between my legs. An hour later, they were still there and the next day they were still there, too. All were 1.5 kg and over.

On another sunny day in September, I was peering down from a high bank and despite my modest fish spotting ability I could see a dozen or so trout finning about six metres down, spread out over 50 metres of river. Most were somewhere around 3 kilograms. This was amazing enough, but then I looked to the far side of and noticed another 30 smudges on the bottom moving gradually up into the pool. Who knows whether this school of ‘average’ rainbows had just arrived in this large pool? My guess is that the first lot of trout fish I saw were resident fish, while the second group were freshies just making their way around the pool in the bright conditions, unwilling to run further until things got duller or dirtier.  Over a couple of days I saw what I assume was the same large school in the pool, sometimes in the tail, sometimes in the depths and sometimes in the head.

Recovering fish

These trout can be pretty bashed about by the excitement, aggression and sustained nature of the spawning cycle, but they tend to recover quickly. There is plenty of natural food in the Tongariro to assist the fish in regaining condition. You only need to turn over a rock and see the dozens of nymphs and larvae to realise the river is an ideal place for the fish to add a bit of condition. Once back in the lake, some will make a full recovery and return again next year.

Catching Them

During this winter / spring fishing the gear has to be cranked up to allow heavy nymphs to be cast long distances with ease. By and large, the secret to the Tongariro at this time is getting deep, and the trick for depth is weight and length of leader. If in doubt add either more weight or more depth. About four metres is a good starting point.

To throw this weight, you need a 7 to 9 weight, 9’to 9’6” rod. I’ve often used a 7 weight rod and found casting the clunky rig manageable. However lately I’ve tried a heavier rod and I’ve discovered I can cast further and easier. A well placed long cast results in a deep, natural and long drift in the strike zone, which results in more fish. A heavier outfit also helps to cast a strike indicator large enough to remain buoyant above heavy nymphs. The whole mix of big indicator and heavy nymph or nymphs is not easy to present at first, but the process soon becomes addictive.

Most fishers cast an extremely heavy tungsten nymph like a big Copper John or even a bomb which is little more than a glorified sinker. Incredibly though, trout still eat these flies. Off the back a foot or so trails a lighter, more realistic pattern like an egg imitation. We’ve also found caddis grub or horned caddis imitations very effective – no wonder given the zillions of naturals under the river rocks.

What Water?

In terms of the type of water to fish, the short answer is hardly any of it can be safely ignored. While the resident fish hold in familiar feeding lies, the migrating freshies and recovering trout can be almost anywhere – as per the high bank spotting example earlier. Although the named pools are widely regarded as holding water where the migrating trout will stop, rest up and be more vulnerable to flies, we’ve caught these fish in everything from rapids, to anabranches to deep runs. 

Rig Details

Your Tongariro nymphing rig begins with a decent indicator. The New Zealanders call these budgies, because they are almost the size of one! Multi-coloured ones are the best as they are visible in all shades of light and water.

You can fish with a fixed indicator near the end of the fly line, then about 3.5 metres of 3 - 4 kg fluorocarbon or mono (some experts surprisingly favour mono) attached to a heavy nymph, then 30 centimetres of fluoro attached to the bend of this fly running to another smaller fly as described above.

An alternative to using a heavy top fly, is to use a large, black swivel to get two trailing flies down. This works well and I’m adopting the method on some of the large Australian rivers. The swivel seems to catch the bottom less than a bomb.

Another option is:

  • Run 2.5 metres of 7 kg nylon or fluoro from your fly line.
  • Onto this, thread the smallest black swivel that you can find.
  • On either side of the swivel you need a pair of rubber grommets – float stops are the best.
  • To the threaded swivel, you clip your strike indicator which can be moved back & forth along this first length of line.
  • Next, tie one end of a second small black swivel to the end of this line. To the other end of the swivel, tie about a metre of 3 – 4 kg nylon or fluoro.
  • Once again, tie a heavy fly/bomb to this, with a smaller more imitative off the bend 30 or so centimetres back.

The beauty of this system is it enables you to easily slide the strike indicator up and down the thicker line – and thus alter depth – without fear of scuffing or curling the line. You may need to add more grommets if the strike indicator slides up or down when casting.

Other methods

To me the Tongariro in the cooler months is primarily a deep nymphing fishery. However if you’re there in early spring, the weather is mild and the flows are moderate, there’s a chance of a brief, sparse evening rise – an opportunity to scratch that dry fly itch! And if your spotting skills are up to it, try polaroiding trout in the smaller anabranches and presenting a single lightly weighted nymph under a smaller indicator. Swinging wet flies on sinking lines is another method some anglers use with success, though I haven’t felt inclined to try it yet.   

 No More Cabin Fever     

Around Turangi, those no stream fishing winter blues can be a thing of the past. Go and chase rainbows and a brown or two in the Tongariro. You may actually find yourself looking forward to winter instead of dreading it! 

Flyfisher Facts – Tongariro Summary

Getting There

Fly to Auckland or Wellington, then hire a car. There are plenty of car options and deals. Check the internet. You can shop along the way at one of the larger towns, but keep in mind that the shops tend to shut at 5.00pm and are closed on Sundays.


The town calls itself the trout capital of the world. Population 3200, Turangi has about half a dozen fishing stores, more luxury fishing lodges than you could ever hope to stay in over a decade of visits, plus plenty of flyfishing guides.  There are two decent supermarkets in the town too, so it’s easy to self-cater if that is the way you choose to go. (In many other more remote parts of NZ, it’s not that easy.) To paraphrase a popular old Kiwi pop song, Turangi is a slice of Heaven, which equipped with everything a visiting flyfisher could possibly desire. Check it out on Google, Google Maps and Google Earth.

The Good Oil

There are lots of articles on the internet and lots of clips on YouTube. The YouTube clips are almost as much fun as being there. Almost. Also have a look at the fishing report at It’s updated daily.

The Accommodation

Once again, check out the internet. Tongariro Lodge and the Creel Lodge are famous ones. We had a look around Tui Lodge, which was owned by our guide on the last and it looked terrific. We stayed at Tongariro River Motel one time and it was good. The owner is a keen troutie who will lend you the needed gear and take you for a tour of the river so you get your bearings. He also maintains a daily report. It’s possible to hire a house for very modest price via sites such as We hired a house the second time and it was good too.

Waders and Boots

You need chest waders and good wading boots. You will be frustrated if you only have thigh waders and, more to the point, you won’t be able to situate yourself to achieve the maximum drift. Waders and boots need to be clean and bone dry travelling into New Zealand and home again to Australia. Felt-soled boots are banned. You can hire neoprene chest waders from Sporting Life.

The Guides

Check out the internet. We employed Ian Jenkins, from Tui Lodge. He was professional, knowledgeable and, most important of all, good company. He connected us to half a dozen or more fish in a morning when we would have expected perhaps to connect to a couple. There are plenty of others, too.

The Flies

If you are not using tungsten on at least one fly, you are kidding yourself that you are fishing. Most nymphs seem to work, but we had special success on green caddis grubs and hornback caddis. Glo-bugs come in all sorts of sizes and colours ranging from red, to orange to champagne. The fish seem to favour the lighter colours the clearer water.

The Weather

On June trips, the temperature started a bit below zero at dawn and struggled up to about 7 C at lunchtime. One time a fly froze to a rock and we were able to pick the rock up with the line. Despite this we had sun and had to beware of sunburn. We had lunch each day sitting in the sun. There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.

In September/ October there is blossom everywhere and sunny days can reach about 18 C. Probably bad for the fishing, but great for the morale and suntan.

The Floods

These occur a number of times each year and change the river each time. Because the river is short and relatively steep it only seems to take a day or so to begin to clear and this is the best time to fish. But then, any time is good to fish really, except at the height of the flood itself. Don’t be put off by a big flood just before you arrive or while you are there.

The Other Rivers

When you want a change try one of the smaller nearby rivers such as the Tauranga Taupo, the Waitako or the Waitahanui. The same fish, but just less water mixed in.

The Learning

  1. It’s almost never too deep or too fast to get down deep. Just add more weight or length. Or both.
  2. A big swivel is a good alternative to a bomb and catches snags less frequently.
  3. Allow your rig to drift 10-15 metres down the river past you to maximise the drift of your nymphs.
  4. When striking at a fish downstream of you, don’t try to lift all the line off the water. Instead, pull the rod horizontally, thereby using the drag on the fly line to pull the fly back and set the hook. It works, but it’s hard to change decades old habits.
  5. A guide can be fun as well as informative, even for a few hours.
  6. Take a few spare rods just in case. The heavy nymphs can dent and weaken perfectly good rods. We’ve broken three rods in three different ways. Whoops.

Licences & Regulations

The Tongariro and neighbouring streams fall within the Taupo District which has its own fishing regulations and licence requirements. There are quite specific rules applying to seasons, stream sections closed to fishing, gear restrictions (including fly hook and indicator specifications) etc. Familiarise yourself with the details here:

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