Rotorua and Taupō were ‘thermal wonderlands’. But they also drew visitors who wanted to try the superb fishing in the region’s rivers and lakes.
Native freshwater fish
Before European arrival, the only fish in the Rotorua lakes were toitoi (bullies), īnanga, kōkopu, kōaro, kākahi (mussels) and kōura (freshwater crayfish). Lake Taupō had all those except for toitoi, which were introduced around the 1930s along with smelt.
Brown trout and rainbow trout
Brown trout were introduced into Lake Taupō in 1887 and Lake Rotorua in 1888. They grew to 20 kilograms in weight, but were very difficult to catch. Rainbow trout were introduced to both lakes in 1898. By 1903 they were established in every Rotorua lake except Rotomahana. The first rainbow trout was caught in Lake Taupō in 1904.
There was great enthusiasm for stocking the plateau’s waters with trout. On one occasion in 1894, the Wellington Acclimatisation Society sent 110,000 trout eggs to Taupō. One coach driver en route from Taupō to Tokaanu released fish in every stream he passed. And Dan Ferney and Henry Fletcher carried 20,000 trout in a steamer on Lake Taupō, leaving them in streams between the Karangahape Cliffs and Tokaanu.
Supply and demand
Trout fishing was originally at river mouths around the lake, but soon also took place in pools. Trout became so numerous that they ran out of food, and their size decreased. Netting was resorted to, and trout grew bigger by the 1920s. Smelt were also introduced to expand the food supply for trout. For Māori, smelt made up for the reduced numbers of īnanga and kōkopu.
A trout hatchery was set up at Fairy Springs near Rotorua, and another on the Tongariro River after a 1926 agreement between the government and Ngāti Tūwharetoa on control of the lake and its catchment.
Nine-kilogram fish were caught in Taupō in the 1920s, and bag limits were 25 fish per day. Publicity came from visits by American writer Zane Grey and the Duchess of York, and Lake Taupō and the Tongariro River developed a profile among well-heeled, well-travelled anglers. In the 1930s there were too many trout and not enough food, until smelt were introduced to Lake Taupō in 1934.
By the late 1980s, the problem was too many anglers. In 1990, the average weight of rainbow trout had dropped to 2 kilograms and daily bag limits in Taupō waters were reduced from eight to three. The daily limit in the Rotorua lakes is eight trout.
The anglers’ world
The world of trout fishing included campsites, cabins, long rubber waders, ‘picket fences’ of chest-deep anglers in the Waitahanui Stream and the deep pools of the Tongariro River, and an arcane vocabulary of flies and lures.
Māori often guided visiting anglers. Campsites were still the usual accommodation when Zane Grey and the Duchess of York visited in the late 1920s. Huka Lodge opened on the Waikato River below Taupō in 1930, and the Bridge Lodge at Tūrangi in 1933.
The one that got away
A punter at the Terraces Hotel in Taupō recalled his delight in listening to ‘the yarns of the old hands. Fish at that [after dinner] hour … break all records. Their weights increase as the hours go by, rods and tackle stand unheard of strain and the fish become expert hurdle racers.’ 1
Today trout can be found in rivers and lakes throughout the region – but the Rotorua lakes, and Lake Taupō and its catchment, remain the most fished waters. Anglers range from wealthy guests at secluded luxury lodges like Treetops and Huka Lodge to locals grabbing a couple of hours at a river mouth after work.
The Tongariro National Trout Centre, 4 kilometres south of Tūrangi, displays information about the trout life cycle and fishing. Live trout can be viewed at Rainbow Springs and Paradise Valley Springs, near Rotorua.