From Rotorua we headed south to Lake Taupo, the most productive trout water in New Zealand. This is the "thermal region" of the North Island, a stretch of more than 100 miles in which the bowels of the earth present themselves at the surface more spectacularly than anywhere west of the Yellowstone. The western shore of Lake Rotomahana, southeast of Rotorua, sports steaming cliffs. Rainbow Mountain is named not for a trout but for the colorful striations of its giddy ridges. Mount Tarawera, which last erupted on June 10, 1886, glowers down on the lake of the same name which produces the biggest trout of the region. It is a deep, dark-blue lake, chilly beneath the surface, ideal for trout, and on its western bank there is a spot where you can catch a rainbow and then immediately dunk it in a hot spring behind you and enjoy instant poached trout. According to another native recipe, the fish are smoked on the spot over ti tree chips.
Lake Taupo itself is a 240-square-mile volcanic crater filled with water to an average depth of 200 feet; its maximum depth is 534 feet. During its last major eruption, about 2,000 years ago, Taupo spewed five cubic miles of ash into the air, covering 8,800 square miles of surrounding countryside with a layer of pumice half a foot deep. A number of rivers enter the lake from the south, foremost among them the powerful Tongariro, a crashing, broad-shouldered torrent that has become one of the world's most famous trout streams. But the lake has only one known outlet—the Waikato River, which pours over the 90-foot-high Huka Falls a few miles north of the crater.
Thanks to the falls, there are no eels in Taupo. New Zealand eels, which grow to a length of five feet and weigh up to 50 pounds, are a tenacious lot. It is not uncommon in other lakes to be fighting a trout and suddenly feel it go dead, increasing grotesquely in weight and sluggishness. Reel in and you find an eel happily gorging itself at the end of your line. Fishermen who trail their catch from their belts often pick up slippery hitchhikers. (In fact, one of the ugliest creatures in the Maori bestiary is the legendary taniwha, a Down Under Loch Ness monster, clearly patterned on the freshwater eel.) The eels' absence from Lake Taupo makes the angling a good deal gentler.
Anyone fishing Taupo for the first time should spend at least one day at Huka Lodge, on the Waikato, as the guest of a highly cultured Kiwi named Harland Harland-Baker, whose great-uncle, Alma Baker, was Zane Grey's host during the great fisherman's 1926 New Zealand trip. The lodge, which was founded in 1904 as Pye's Camp by Alma Baker's good friend Alan Pye, has been a mecca for the trout-minded through most of the century. During World War II, every general and admiral in the Pacific who could spare the time wended his way Huka-ward, fly rod in hand, to sample the fishing.
When the visiting brass grew tired of kerosene lighting, they cumshawed a generator and dispatched a team of Seabees to wire the place for a 110-volt electrical system. After the war, however, the lodge fell into disrepair. North American interests were angling to buy the property and put up a high-rise monstrosity on the site, but Harland-Baker forestalled them. He has renovated the lodge into one of the most comfortable, and historically rich, fishing camps in the world. What's more, Harland-Baker is a splendid chef, particularly when he is working with wild pig, shot by himself in the nearby bush. A slim, soft-spoken esthete with a salt-and-pepper beard, he has a taste for vintage everything. He drives a resuscitated 1930 Lagonda sports car; sherry is served in 17th-century glasses; the bedrooms bear the names of traditional New Zealand trout flies—Taupo Tiger, Hairy Dog, Taihape Tickler, Bishop's Blessing.
Our guide on Taupo was a tall, sunburned sporting-goods dealer named Bob Sullivan, 49, a transplanted Yorkshireman who came to New Zealand in 1950 after army service in Africa. He is as avid and competent a flycaster as you are likely to find in New Zealand. "This lake fishin's more like surf castin'," he explained as we circled the huge blue hole, stopping from time to time to sample what Sullivan called "the noble savagery of the noble savage Salmo gairdneri." At the mouth of Hatepe Stream, early one foggy morning, we learned what it was all about. Three fishermen were standing armpit-deep in the icy water, about a hundred yards offshore, casting into a stiff wind that slopped water into their waders. They were casting easily 100 feet of line.
"Just beyond them, maybe a step or two, the lake bottom drops off to 200 feet," said Sullivan. "You throw a fast-sinking shooting head, or maybe a weight-forward line if you're young and strong, and let the fly—usually a smelt imitation—drift down with the current from the stream outlet. Then you retrieve ever so slow and steady. Over and over again. Sure, we have lots of trout here, and big ones, but the lake is big, too. Taupo is an angler's paradise only for the angler who's willing to bloody work for his bit of heaven."
Heaven for this trio came in six plump, silvery, bullet-headed beauties, each weighing about four pounds—excellently conditioned rainbow hens, shaped more like tuna than trout. The fishermen were blue-lipped with the cold, but game to try the stream itself for a few casts before heading home.
Dr. David Westwood, an Auckland dentist, picked up a final fish, a 4�-pound jack rainbow that tailwalked up and down the stream for 10 minutes before coming in to the doctor's boot. The battle was punctuated with birdsong from the almost obscenely bright underbrush on the banks—purple lupine, buttery broom, white-blossomed manuka, the golden-flowered kowhai tree that Kipling apostrophized thusly: "Flung for gift on Taupo's face,/Sign that spring is come." The birds uttered a sound like crystal goblets falling into soapy water. "Tuis," said Sullivan. "The little jokers are everywhere, imitating one another. Bloody acrobats, the tuis. They can do anything upside down or sideways. Look out for the fantails, though. They'll bloody land on your head while you're fighting a fish—scare the starch out of your collar."
Plovers, bitterns, grebes, kingfishers and cormorants abounded on the shoreline, while the odd harrier circled high over the wooded cliffs of the crater's edge. To the south, the snow-clad peak of Mount Ruapehu hunched over the lake, flanked on its northeastern slope by the nearly perfect volcanic cone of Ngauruhoe, grumbling now and then as it spewed a steady streamer of smoke into the hard blue sky. "Best bloody weather vane in the country," said Sullivan. "Scares you a bit, though, when she goes off at night. You wake up with a start and reckon the kids have blown up the house."