The Tongariro River is one of the most famous rivers in New Zealand and for good reason. It's a stunning big river that has some incredible fly fishing for big rainbow and brown trout. The productivity of Lake Taupo, which the Tongariro flows into, assures the river has an ample supply of trout throughout the seasons, but it's the world-famous winter runs that really get the attention of fly anglers.
However, to the uninitiated, it can be a daunting experience when you visit Turangi for the first time and find yourself on the banks of a massive river with no real idea where to start. It has been the undoing of plenty of experienced anglers, not just the novices. So here are a few tips to help you understand the winter fishery and how to approach this big river.
1 - Understand how the fish behave in winter
In winter, from May to October, the trout you find in the river has only one thing on their mind and that is spawning. These trout are running up from Lake Taupo to the headwaters and tributaries of the Tongariro to spawn. The lower parts of the river remain open for anglers to target these trout on their upstream migration. It's a unique opportunity to catch these large, well-conditioned trout on their way upstream.
These trout behave very differently than your average summer trout. Firstly, they move around in schools as they head up the river and they aren't actively feeding. The water is cold and on top of that the fish hug the bottom. They won't be taking your dry fly off the surface or any fly that is not directly in front of them or very close to them. Couple this with the deep pools and fast flows of the Tongariro and the best solution to get those fish is to make sure you are fishing at their depth. That depth is pretty much on the bottom.
2 - Find the fish
The trout aren't evenly spread through the river. They move through in schools and hold in certain areas. This is especially the case early season when there are fewer fish in the river. At the peak, the trout can be pretty much everywhere but it still pays to move and cover water until you find fish, then slow down and fish that area thoroughly as there is likely to be more.
3 - Fish the water others don't
Fly anglers can be creatures of habit hopping from one big beautiful pool to the next and all ending up in a big line together. While it can be fun to be social and hang out, it is often more productive to seek out the "in-between" spots. Side channels, pocket water, small fast runs and the like. Break the river down into bits and don't hesitate to explore that little knee-deep pocket behind the boulders. Rainbows in particular like the fast water, sometimes frothing, as the boulders give them sanctuary from the current and anglers that don't know they are there.
4 - You don't need a huge indicator and a heavy rod
While there is definitely a case to be made for a 7 or 8-weight rod, a super long leader and very heavy flies, a 6-weight with a smaller indicator and a 12-foot 8lb straight-through leader can get the job done very well. Especially if you focus on those in-between spots I just mentioned.
5 - Fish dirty
Don't be a purist, stick on an egg pattern. Soft eggs, globugs, slushies and everything egg-like are very good choices throughout the season, whether you are nymphing or euro nymphing. Naturals may be a better option when it is crystal clear and low, but even then I find that egg patterns are still more consistent. Accept it, it's just a part of winter fly fishing.
6 - Be adaptable
Nymphing with double nymphs and an indicator is not the only method that works, nor is euro nymphing, wet lining or trout spey. All these methods work and some are better suited to certain types of water and conditions. Sometimes it's just fun to try something new and often it ends up being the difference between a blank and a cracker day.
7 - Learn the Tongariro River access points
Yes, the pools above and below the SH1 bridge produce fish, but honestly, there is something like 15km of river to explore up to the winter limit. It's easy to get stuck in a few tried and tested spots but allow yourself at least part of your trip to explore new access points and get to know the river along its entire length if you can.
8 - A high river does not spoil the fishing
There are dangerous times when the Tongariro is in full flood and you are best to stay safe in your warm accommodation. A bit high and dirty river is not one of those times. As long as you can safely access the water and there is no risk of it rising further then it's time to put your rain jacket on and go fishing. I have caught trout in a chocolate milk 120 cumec (but dropping) Tongariro river by fishing the shallow edges. The trout get pushed out right onto shallow sand banks and side channels and if you cover enough of those you will eventually hit some fish. Strip some big streamers or chuck a big globug or soft egg on and work your way through the soft edges. You will be surprised at just how successful you can be.
9 - Be persistent
If you have found fish and they have lock-jaw it's often worth persisting. Leaving fish to find fish is seldom a good idea and if you have a large number of trout in front of you (not a couple of fish) it is often best to just keep trying until you work it out. Most often it's a case of not being at the right depth, second, it's often a poor drift with drag and sometimes a fly change or 20 can do the trick.
10 - Enlist help
If you are a stubborn DIYer like me then you will probably eventually figure it out, but there are faster ways to learn how to successfully catch trout. Fly fishing clubs are a good option if you have one in your area. At a club, you will likely find yourself surrounded by a bunch of experienced fly fishers keen to get out and fish every chance they get. Then there is the expensive but very good way of hiring a trusty guide, one that is a specialist. It's costly but you will learn a heap in the process that will set you up for life. Someone like Rob Vaz from Robfish Aotearoa is a great option.
Lastly, if you want to learn to consistently catch trout in the Tongariro and other Taupo rivers in winter and you want to DIY but get all the information you need in one place, then I have the solution for you.
I put all my 20+ years of New Zealand fly fishing experience into my guide to fly fishing taupo rivers in winter online course. Have a look at the preview video below and visit the information page to decide if it is for you.
You can see just how good the winter fly fishing on the Tongariro River can be in the video below.