Fishing the Tongariro River by Raft

Fishing the Tongariro River, New Zealand

I recently returned from a trip to New Zealand, where my good friend Karl Gradon, fiancé Anna and I were excited to try raft fishing – something I’d never even heard of. We had originally planned to try heli-fishing, which for me held a special appeal. As a keen winter sports fan, I’ve always dreamed of going heli-skiing. Sadly I’ve never managed it (my only ever opportunity, in Canada’s Whistler, was called off due to bad weather). Heli fishing, on the other hand, seemed like a pretty safe bet. Years ago I’d fished New Zealand and watched with envy as the wealthier fishermen flew off into the distant mountains, where I was convinced they caught trout the size of Volkwagens. Meanwhile the poorer fishermen, like me, relied on very early starts and long walks in the morning darkness. Now I’m older and (a bit) less poor, I couldn’t think of a better way to get to the pools that nobody else fished. I was about to be convinced otherwise.

It turned out that fishing by helicopter, just like heli-skiing, is rather weather dependent. It also turns out that you need to rob a bank before hiring one for the day. We realised, with a sense of impending doom, that even between three of us this was going to hurt. That’s when Karl mentioned raft fishing.

“What the hell is raft fishing?” I asked.

“Well, it’s a little like heli fishing,” he replied, “but with a raft.”

Having known Karl for some time, I should have expected this. Nevertheless, in that lazy, reassuring tone that only New Zealanders and Australians are graced with, Karl promised me it would be great. And it was done. I gave up, once more, on my chance to ride in a helicopter.

“Just as well.” said Karl, “I’ve already booked it.”

“What the hell is raft fishing?”

So we set off, full of hope and curiosity, for the middle of New Zealand’s North Island. Trout (and hobbit) country!

Base camp for our fishing adventure was to be Taupo – a fun little town on the banks of a huge lake, overlooked by several of the North Island’s volcanos. Stunning. We rented motel rooms on the edge of the lake and headed into town, gazing at the amazing sunset, to formulate our plans for the morning. As it turned out, not a lot of formulation took place. We managed to find a restaurant serving Montieth’s Black – a dark beer I fell in love with more than ten years ago – and settled in for dinner. It turns out we’d found our way into a place called ‘JJ at On Tap’ – an infamous bar among locals, owned by former rugby player, bon viveur and all-round good bloke, JJ Williams. Legend has it that, back in the day, former bull rider and 6-foot-something man mountain, JJ, came very close to making New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby squad. Anyway, after a very good steak and a couple of bottles of Pinot Noir, we joined JJ at the bar for a couple of whiskies we really didn’t need. As you might imagine, this was not the perfect set-up for a day riding whitewater, but we realised that the next morning.

Guided trout fishing New Zealand North Island landscape

To our discredit, next day we arrived in Turangi a little late – mainly due to the pie shop serving us cold coffees. On better days we’d have left them. Nevertheless, when we reached our destination, our host was all smiles. Our guide for the day, we discovered, was to be Garth Oakden, owner and manager of New Zealand rafting company, Tongariro River Rafting. Garth has been a rafting guide since 1987, with more than 6,000 trips under his belt. Watch him make a cast and you’ll realise he’s also a hell of an angler. We were clearly in good hands.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it was only when I saw Garth loading up the equipment that I realised we were going whitewater rafting. It seems obvious in hindsight, but for some reason I had imagined us fishing on board some kind of Robinson Crusoe-style wooden raft. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It turned out we would be taking on class 3 rapids on board an inflatable rubber raft, equipped with fishing rods and chest waders. How this hadn’t occurred to me, I just don’t know.

Anyway, it wasn’t long before we were on our way. We made a quick stop at the local tackle shop to purchase our licences, and for Garth to replace some nymphs, then we were out on country roads, driving upstream, parallel to the Tongariro river, bound for the fishing.

Although actually the lower part of the Waikato River, the river entering Lake Taupo has been called the Tongariro since 1945. It now attracts anglers from all over the world, the attraction being the wild rainbow trout and brown trout, which run up the river to spawn in the colder winter months. As Garth explained, “these fish are wild and run the river naturally. 75% are rainbows and they’re about as close to steelhead as you’re going to get.”

Raft fishing New Zealand

It was a surprisingly short drive – I’d pictured us travelling deep into the mountains to get away from other anglers, so when we found ourselves unloading the raft, it seemed to me to be too soon. Nevertheless, without disputing, the three of us stood by watching the expert reverse the truck and getting the raft in the water. Garth made it all look very easy but I suspect it would have taken a whole lot longer, if left to us!

Just like that, we were afloat – rods in hand, hard hats and lifejackets over the top of our waders. We looked ridiculous but no-one was watching, so after a bit of mutual piss-taking, the novelty passed. Which was just as well, as in less than 150 metres we stopped and offloaded.

“What’s wrong Garth?”

“Nothing’s wrong, this is where we’re starting.”

It didn’t seem possible. We’d driven for less than twenty minutes, and here we were getting out of the boat almost before we got in. This must be the most overfished river in New Zealand, I thought to myself. Still, a faint heart never won a fair lady, as my father used to say, so I tackled up and set to it.

The method was ‘nymphing’ – a tactic I’d only seen in New Zealand and quite different from the ‘team-of-three’ reservoir-style nymph fishing I’d grown up with in the UK. This type of nymphing involves fishing two very heavy, leaded nymphs, tied quite close together, which sink to the river bed the moment they hit the water. Casting these upstream, the idea is to fish them like a dry fly – allowing the nymphs simply to tumble, naturally, downstream towards the fish, hugging the bottom with no sideways drag. Takes are identified using an indicator, which was essentially a tough bit of fluff secured onto the top of the leader with a loop (I’m sure it was more advanced than fluff, as it was very easy to cast, impossible to sink and, all-in-all, worked a treat!).

As I pondered my tackle Garth waded upstream from the raft. He wanted to get me fishing so he could join Karl, who hadn’t fly fished for ten years or more and wanted some help with his technique. I didn’t mind at all – I was confident I could look after myself, provided I was shown the ropes, and to be honest I prefer fishing without someone watching – it helps me concentrate (when nobody can see my duff casts). Before he left me Garth wanted to make sure I was set up ok, so I stripped some line and made half a cast, barely two rod lengths. We chatted as I prepared to cast again and the indicator dipped under, presumably with the fly caught on a rock.

“There you go!” said Garth.

I struck instinctively and found myself into a fish! “What the…?!”

I couldn’t believe it. I’d hooked one first cast… and it wasn’t a bad one either – a lovely rainbow of about 3lbs with the finest shovel-like tail you’ve ever seen. “What a belter!”

I turned to Karl who was still by the raft with Anna. He gave me the thumbs up and Anna flashed a semi-proud, semi-disinterested smile (she doesn’t fish but I’m happy when she comes on such trips, giving me moral support, even if it is only half-hearted!).

Guided trout fishing Taupo New Zealand

“Wow,” I said to Garth, “what a start! I’ll be ok now mate, I reckon.”

Garth stayed for a second, telling me how to fish my way through the run. I flicked out a bit more line. Next cast I was in again – a much smaller fish, but no less welcome. “I don’t believe it, this can’t be normal?!”

As we were to find out, Garth isn’t a man to keep quiet – he’s an absolute barrel of laughs – but at this point he was keeping his mouth shut, presumably not to tempt fate. Two fish in as many casts was a pretty good start in anyone’s book! Believe it or not, I hooked another fish third cast and another on the fourth. “This is easy!” I said. “Oi,” replied Garth, “don’t tempt fate!”. I laughed and told him I could manage, waving him away gratefully, so he could help Karl. Some of the fish are only a few ounces – something else you don’t find in reservoir fishing (like the immaculate tails!) – but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth catching. It’s really exciting watching the indicator disappear – no matter how big the fish on the end. In fact, it’s exciting even when you touch the bottom, as it still looks like a fish has grabbed it! Striking at false takes soon becomes part of the process.

As you might expect, with ten years absence from casting a fly, a long thin leader and two heavy nymphs, Karl’s casting was a bit rusty. I know plenty of experienced anglers who would struggle with that set-up. But unfortunately for Karl, this first pool seemed to be the hot spot. I landed 5 or 6 fish and lost another decent one after a good 5-minute battle, without ever seeing it. These fish fight hard in the fast flowing current, so there’s no telling how big it was, but it’s not uncommon for them to grow to well over ten pounds. It’s exciting stuff I can assure you.

Having fished the pool, we loaded up and hit our first rapids. Tongariro River Rafting is one of two companies that raft the river, but only Garth runs fishing trips. When you see what’s required, you can understand why. Although the water height varies with rainfall, at its normal level, the Tongariro’s whitewater is grade 3 – not enough to throw you out of the boat, but definitely enough to make you think it might. In fact I have no doubt that a bit of bad luck or an inexperienced helmsman would soon have had us swimming! Anna had never been rafting before and this was more than enough to bring a big grin to her face. It was great for everyone that Anna could genuinely enjoy the experience (and it’s a pointer to anyone out there looking for a trip to share with a non-fisher. This was a total winner!).

I have to say, although I’ve been whitewater rafting in New Zealand before, it was a long time ago and I enjoyed it this time a lot more than I expected to. In my previous attempt, everyone had a paddle and the guide sat at the back barking orders. On this fishing trip, we were merely ballast. Garth sat in the middle, paddling rowing boat style except facing forwards. Meanwhile we sat front and back, one hand gripping our fishing rods, the other hand holding onto the raft.

Despite the apparent brevity of our drive, we soon discovered that we had travelled further than we thought. We had a lot of river to fish, with more than 80 rapids and as many pools to cover, and every fishing spot was as beautiful as the next. What’s more, although we had an occasional fishless pool, it definitely seemed like we caught fish all the way. Between us we caught more than 20 wild trout – including both rainbows and a couple of the less abundant browns. We both had fish over 3lbs and I’m confident we each hooked one bigger.

Garth Oakden Guided trout fishing New Zealand

I know Karl won’t mind me saying that two experienced anglers would have caught more. Although it wasn’t necessary to cast far, sometimes the pools were restricted and at points only a roll cast would suffice. But that’s not to say you need to be an expert. There are plenty of open area where it’s possible to cast overhead. There are also some sections where you only need a short flick. Karl caught plenty of fish.

On that subject, Garth did an excellent job of placing us where we could fish and I never felt uncomfortable or overly impeded. He also taught me that I know very little about roll casting with a single-handed rod. I’ve done quite a bit of double-handed spey casting for salmon, but never had to use the technique with a short rod. The principle is the same, but it takes a bit of getting used to – especially with the heavy flies – and yet Garth fired out almost the entire fly line at first attempt. For all his joking around, he’s a modest man and he wasn’t doing it to show off. He did it to demonstrate a specific cast – the Tongariro Roll Cast, which to me was a revelation. In my opinion, having seen how effective it is, the Tongariro Roll Cast is something all fly anglers should learn. I can’t think of a better way to get more distance from a roll cast – especially if you’re fishing with light tackle and heavy flies, as we were. When your back cast is restricted, it’s a great tool to have in your arsenal. See our explanation in pictures here.

Our day with Garth was fantastic – MUCH better than expected and far more private and undisturbed. The reason for this is quite simple. This part of the Tongariro flows through a steep-sided canyon, with vertical cliffs on either side, reaching up a good forty or fifty metres. There is simply no way to access these pools on foot. if you don’t have a raft, you’d need a climbing rope and some big cojones. Even a helicopter would be tricky. For Garth, it’s ideal. His combination of fishing skill and rafting ability makes him unique and, as the reviews on his website suggest, a day in his company is safe, fun and, at least in our case, offered extremely productive trout fishing. If you find yourself in New Zealand, look him up. You can reach him here.

Wild Rainbow Trout Tongariro Fly Fishing

All photographs courtesy of Garth Oakden, Tongariro River Rafting.

James Green About James Green

James Green loves nothing more than casting a fly in pursuit of salmon, seatrout or, when the opportunity arises, a tailing bonefish, tarpon or permit.