[Editor’s note: Here’s a classic story, about a 2004 journey to New Zealand’s North Island, with my buddy Sandy Hays and another more famous angler. By the way, that day on Mystery Creek still hasn’t been topped.]
As the thirty-six-foot Top Cat plowed through the mounting whitecaps in the middle of the lake and sheeting rain lashed at the windows of the cabin, I found perverse comfort in singing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” under my breath. The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead. . . . Even on flat-calm days, big boats in deep water give me the willies, and this was no exception. The fact that Brian, our captain, seemed relatively sure that we would not capsize and sink was heartening, although my confidence in his judgment was somewhat shaken by the discovery of a four-CD set called “Beer-Drinking Songs” next to the boat’s stereo.
Our first full day on New Zealand’s North Island had dawned gray and rainy, so guides Chris Brennan and Leigh McCarty had scrapped plans to helicopter into the backcountry and had instead arranged to fish on Lake Taupo, which lay across the street from our hotel. The Top Cat’s destination was the Western Bays, a series of coves where the mouths of feeder streams concentrate the large rainbow trout for which the lake is famous. Unfortunately, the town of Taupo lies at the northeastern corner of the lake, so the trip required motoring some twenty-odd miles in nasty weather, right through the center of New Zealand’s largest body of water.
Joining the expedition were my high-school buddy, Sandy Hays—who played the roles of photographer and ball-buster—and Lori Ann Murphy, founder of Reel Women Outfitters and recipient of the 2015 Orvis Breaking Barriers Award. Lori Ann’s infectious personality and sharp wit make her fun to be around, but put a fly rod in her hand and point out a big trout, and suddenly she’s all business. Then you see why she’s considered one of the better fly fishers and casters in the world.
As Brian had predicted, we made it through the typhoon without incident, and he dropped us off on a rocky ledge, along with our gear and three belly boats. Lori Ann, Chris, and I suited up and kicked our way through the rain toward a plume of off-color water created by a nearly hidden stream flowing between two large boulders beneath some overhanging bushes. The drill was fairly simple: there was quite a lot of current extending far into the lake, so we’d cast our streamers up and across, give the fly time to sink, and then strip it back on the swing.
Lori Ann hooked up first—as custom and manners dictate—and the trout took off for the center of the lake. After she managed to get most of her line back, Lori Ann expertly maneuvered the fish into Chris’s net, and we got a look at our first New Zealand trout—a streamlined, 18-inch rainbow that sported the beautiful silvery sheen of a lake dweller. It felt good to get the skunk off so quickly, especially given the nasty weather and torturous crossing.
Over the next few hours, we caught perhaps a dozen trout ranging in size from 16 to 24 inches. The fish pulled hard and peeled off line on long runs. Although we saw a few rising fish, we couldn’t tempt any to strike a dry fly, scoring instead with a variety of flashy smelt imitations and Woolly Buggers. It wasn’t the kind of angling we’d traveled halfway around the globe for, but it felt good to feel the tug of a trout in the middle of winter.
The next morning, Taupo was bathed in bright sun, and from the hotel dining room we saw the incredible vista that had been obscured by the previous day’s clouds. Beyond the far end of the lake stood three volcanoes in sharp relief against a blue sky. In the foreground, the lake was flat calm and a pair of waterskiers was putting on a decent show, complete with spectacular wipeouts.
Chris and Leigh were wearing big grins when they met us in the parking lot; the forecast was perfect for a day in the back country. The plan was to fly in to a remote stream that they refer to only as “Mystery Creek,” which flows through land owned by the Maori, New Zealand’s native people. The Maori lease access to the helicopter company, which then divvies the waters among the local guides and lodges. Because trout populations are generally much lower than you’ll find in the states, all parties involved are wary of the damage overfishing could do. Therefore, there are strict rules about how often anglers can visit each stream. For instance, Chris and Leigh must rest Mystery Creek for five days after each trip. We were about to find out how well that system works.
The flight in was stunning. To the west, the peak of Mount Ruapehu—the largest of the volcanoes—lay shrouded in mist. The mountains of the Kaweka Range below us were steep and thickly forested with red and silver beech trees, creating a maze of deep, narrow, lush valleys. Rivers coursed through many of these shadowed valley bottoms, and Leigh pointed out the ones that they fished regularly.
Finally, the chopper crested a ridge, and a wide, softly sloping valley spread out before us. Through tussocks of tall, brown grass meandered a small freestone stream, which looked plenty “trouty” from the air. This was Mystery Creek, and it was about to become my favorite trout river in the entire world.
Simply The Best
As a former magazine editor, I am fully aware that outdoor writing tends to hyperbole, and it’s important to keep a salt lick handy for dealing with overwrought tales of “100-fish days” and “monstrous, gullible trout.” So here’s a disclaimer: our day on Mystery Creek did not produce fantastic numbers of trout, and none of them was over 25 inches. But this was, without a doubt, the best day of fly fishing in my life. The beautiful scenery, the variety of water, the style of fishing, the demanding and hard-fighting trout, and the company made for a near-perfect angling experience.
As we stood beside the creek gearing up, Lori Ann asked what dry-fly patterns we’d be using. Chris became quite secretive and turned his back to us as he opened his fly box.
“You’ve gotta match the hatch perfectly to catch these fish, so we use our own special fly that no one’s never heard of,” he said.
He turned back around with a big grin on his face, holding the fly aloft, as if it were a holy relic.
“The Royal Wulff!”
He cackled as he took note of our skepticism.
“Yeah, you Americans always come down here expecting to fish special flies and lines for the spookiest fish in the world,” Leigh explained. “I think a lot of that is for the South Island, but we don’t really need to do that here. That doesn’t mean the fishing’s easy, though. The trout are pretty spooky, and you’ve gotta be able to make a perfect drift, or they won’t touch it.”
(This turned about to be true for our entire trip. Rarely did we see a trout refuse a well-presented fly. Most of the trout that we saw but couldn’t catch were holding in spots where it was difficult or impossible to get a good drift. For instance, on our second-to-last day, Lori Ann spent about 45 minutes being tortured by an overhanging branch between her and a 10-pound brown trout lying in a foot of water.)
Mystery Creek holds wild rainbow trout and features an astonishing variety of riffles, runs, pools, and cutbanks for a stream that is rarely more than 15 feet wide. What makes it—and all the rivers we fished in New Zealand—different from similar-looking waters in the U.S. is that the trout-per-mile numbers are much lower. Several times, I’d stop to fish an obvious lie, and the guides would advise against it because they couldn’t see a fish or knew from experience that there was probably nothing there. So we simply hiked upstream until someone (almost always Chris or Leigh) spotted a trout, and whoever was up would wade in and start casting.
I caught my first rainbow by accident. The first time it struck, I was too quick on the trigger and snatched the fly right out of the trout’s mouth, so I stopped for a few minutes to rest the fish and to berate myself (Sandy helped) before I cast again. The fly elicited no response as it drifted over the trout a second time, so I let my guard down and had a look around. Suddenly, there was a tremendous splash, and the peanut gallery on the bank let out a yell.
While I had been admiring the scenery, the trout had apparently had second thoughts and had chased the fly downstream. Now the fish was headed downstream and trying to drag me with it. Chris and I chased it around a bend, whereupon he executed a nifty scoop with the net. The trout had gorgeous, deep colors—much richer than those of the silvery lake fish we had caught the day before—and it felt firm, strong, and healthy in my hands. At about 20 inches and three and a half pounds, it seemed to me the perfect trout.
Lori Ann, Sandy, and I took turns casting, and each of us caught at least a half dozen fish up to 24 inches. In fact, we didn’t see one under 18 inches all day. As usual, Sandy—the least experienced angler—caught the biggest trout. All but three fish fell for a size 12 Royal Wulff, and the others took a fairly simple bead-head copper nymph fished as a dropper. It was fun and challenging to spot a trout, plan your approach, and make the right presentation—all with a four-person audience. Sharing in each other’s successes and failures made us feel like a team, and I enjoyed watching the others take fish as much as I enjoyed my own opportunities. Well…almost as much.
Searching for a Monster
Since we’d had such a great day of dry-fly fishing and had caught good numbers of fish, Chris and Leigh decided that the rest of our time should be spent in search of the giant trout for which New Zealand is famous. On day three, we flew in to the Ngaruroro, a much larger river of which Mystery Creek is a tributary, and caught more big rainbows on Royal Wulffs and nymphs. I hooked what was certainly my largest fish of the trip from a deep pool, but the fish straightened the heavy-wire hook of my Ugly Bug nymph.
Our last day in the backcountry was spent hiking up the Ripia River, famous for its big browns. The water was quite high, so we spent most of the day walking in the river itself and doing some serious bushwhacking, which was pretty exhausting. Lori Ann landed a gorgeous 6-pound brown trout right off the bat, but that was followed by a long dry spell. At lunchtime, we spotted an 8-pound beauty finning in the tailout of a pool. Crouching behind a boulder, I made two drifts with a nymph, but the current created a tiny bit of drag just before the fly got to the fish. I was sitting there pondering my next presentation when, for no discernible reason, a smaller trout charged out of the main pool and spooked my monster. Out of spite, I caught the smaller fish, but the image of that giant brown is a painful memory.
To cap off our trip, we checked out two of the road-accessible rivers around Lake Taupo—the Kuratau and the Tongariro. Although these waters are obviously under more pressure than those in the backcountry, we caught decent fish, and we saw some giants. In one pool on the Tongariro, we could see at least a dozen trout, including a tremendous brown. Chris tied on an egg pattern and hooked the beast, which proceeded to jump right in front of us—leaving Sandy and me with mouths agape—before it took off downstream, never to be seen again. Chris estimated the trout at about 9 pounds.
On the long journey back to the states, Sandy and I talked about how different this trip had been from our previous fishing adventures. Plagued by high water, unseasonably hot weather, or simple bad luck, none had turned out as well as we had hoped, but Taupo had ended the streak. And I can hardly image a day in the future that can top our Mystery Creek experience.