Looming large as we head up State Highway 1 towards Turangi are the three crowns of Tongariro National Park, their distinctive volcanic peaks piercing the clear blue sky. The regal bulk of Mt Ruapehu dominates, ominous and powerful with its snowy cap and temperamental crater lake. In its shadow sprawls Mt Tongariro, its raw, reddened craters glowering in the sunlight, while the charred cinder cone of Mt Ngauruhoe coughs and grumbles at their side.
As the barren lunar landscape gives way to gentle hills, lush oases with bubbling brooks, and huge, twisted thickets of native bush, we arrive in Turangi and check into River Birches, a lodge situated on the banks of the Tongariro River. After a tour of the property, our hosts settle us in, and then hook me up with a local trout fishing guide, Bryce Curle.
The river is running high but we head out anyway, Bryce giving me the lowdown on the lifecycle of the trout as he scouts for a good fishing spot. We stop beside a smooth pool with brown and rainbow trout undulating in the current beneath its glassy surface. Bruce wades into the river and picks up a stone, revealing classic trout tucker: live nymphs and caddice. My rod is then set with a weight-forward floating fly line and a nymphing rig. The latter has a small nymph on the bottom, a weighted nymph above, and a strike indicator attached so I can easily identify a strike.
Slowly we work the pools, intent on the task, casting the lines in and out of the water with a gentle mesmerising motion. Suddenly, a sharp whistle pierces the air. Bryce’s rod bends tautly and the reel spins as the line is taken: it’s a strike! A beautiful brown trout leaps out of the water, bucking furiously. It puts on a good show, writhing two or three times before it tires, and is guided into the shallows to be scooped up in the net. It’s a fine fish, thick through the belly with a glossy, mottled-brown coat flecked with iridescent red markings.
Carefully the hook is extracted and the trout placed back in the river. Then it’s time for a casting lesson. “Look where you’re aiming,” Bryce says, patiently coaxing me over and over until he’s satisfied that I’m landing in pretty much the ‘right’ place. The indicator floats merrily past and I practise mending the line, then wait for it to become taut again before casting upstream.
Suddenly the indicator disappears – a strike! I yank my rod upwards and holler for help. Bryce calmly guides me through what proves to be the hardest task of all, hauling the fish ashore, but before I know it, I’m eyeball to eyeball with my very first landed brown trout.
If you’ve been put off fly-fishing by the tedium of lean pickings in less bountiful waters, then this is certainly the place to rediscover the thrill of angling. Be warned though: once hooked, it’s hard to give up the lure of rods and waders to dip into the region’s other highlights, like hiking or mountain-biking the Tongariro River walk, or experiencing the river by kayak.