Towards noon we stopped at Jellicoe Point on the southern shore for a "shufty"—New Zealandish for a look-see, derived from the Arabic; the Kiwis distinguished themselves in Egypt in World War II. Here a tiny, purling stream, the Waipehi, flows into the lake. Its cold water and the insect life washed down from the bush draw trout, which lie in wait for a free lunch. Just offshore rises the bread-loaf shape of Motutaiko, an islet sacred to the Maoris. Many chiefs and tohungas (shamans) are buried there. The water was as clear and blue as a tropical lagoon. Sullivan and I donned our waders and pushed into the lake, one to either side of the stream mouth. With the water up to my waist, and the prospect of filled waders spelling a quick death by drowning, I was more concerned with my footing than my casting. Nonetheless, on about the fiftieth fling, I saw a trout slash at the fly and the combat was joined. The fish—a 4�-pound hen rainbow—jumped and juked like a soul singer, but the hook was firmly buried in her jawbone and there was no escape. I beached her gently, then kicked her Kiwi-fashion up onto the pumice beach.
The real test of Taupo is the night fishing. The truly big fish, both rainbows and browns, are night feeders. Walking those slippery shelves, the mind inflamed with Maori legends of the Great Taniwha, the flesh creeping with cold and caution, one wades ever deeper, casting into the night wind until the arm grows thick and wooden, never seeing the line except as a pale, flickering, snickering ghost as it passes overhead. Zane Grey couldn't stand it.
"Again I was distracted," he wrote in Tales of the Angler's Eldorado
. The "plaguey old" volcano, Ngauruhoe, had belched and spooked him. "So I wound in my line, sat down, and gave myself up to the profundity of the heavens and the mystery of the firmament." Fiddling with a fly he thought was his own in the dark, and trying to hook it into the rod eye by feeling along, "suddenly the feathery-covered hook went snip! and whipped out of my fingers. At the same instant I heard a swish." It was his partner, Captain Laurie Mitchell, casting the fly Grey had thought his own. Hell to pay!
" 'This night fishing is not so much to my liking,' quoth the Captain.
" '...it's the bunk,' " replied Grey. " 'Let's go back to camp.' "
Using miners' headlamps and warmly wrapped against the winds of December, Sullivan and I fished until the legal closing hour of 11 p.m. I would like to describe the fierce battles we endured against monster cannibal trout—how they surged and leaped out there in the dark, slapping louder than the pounding surf that broke against our chest waders, how the line hissed through the water like a herd of sea snakes, how most of the lunkers cannily broke off, wrapping the leaders around submerged, mossy boulders, how the few we took were solid, strong, gigantic fish. The truth of the matter is that the only thing I caught was my right eyebrow. The wind took the hook right back to me—surprise, fella!—but fortunately the barb did not set. Still, night fishing on Taupo is a considerable adventure. Give it about five nights, though, if you try it. Indeed, time is of the essence when you are fishing New Zealand trout. These fish did not reach their considerable size by being dummies, no matter how rich the food supply.
The best dry-fly water in New Zealand is on the brown-trout streams of the steep, glacier-clad South Island. These are fast, often turbid waters, especially in the spring when the 12,000-foot Southern Alps are shedding their blankets of snow and ice, so it is always wise to check up on the runoff conditions before leaving the reliable rainbow waters of the North Island for a shot in the Southland dark. And the best man to check with is Alfred W. Gill, better known as Fred, of Otautau. Fred is a retired sheep rancher and at 60 an indefatigable dry-fly fisherman. As tough and craggy as the country that shaped him, he knows the lie of nearly every huge brown in Southland, and the fly that will take the fish. The rest is up to you, and it is a lot.
When conditions are right, as they were when Fred took us up past the Mavora lakes onto the Mararoa River drainage, the water is so clear that you can see a trout a hundred yards away—and of course he can see you, too. "It's like English chalk-stream fishing," said Fred. "You must walk very softly, stopping when the trout turns your way. Always approach from the rear and cast the shortest line possible. Just drop the fly as gently as you can, about three feet or less ahead of the fish...."
The browns were lined up and waiting, within six feet of the boulder-strewn beach of the Mararoa. It seemed almost unfair to go after them, so huge and sluggish they looked, and so eminently attainable. Ha! In water that clear, even the finest leader looks like an anchor chain, and sounds like one when it hits the dead-calm surface. The trout did not so much spook as they seemed to sneer. As the fly hit the water with the grace of a crashing Canada goose, the big browns would turn, like Jack Benny doing his slow scorn number, cock a scaly eyebrow and sink into the blue depths offshore. Hiking the wooded shoreline under the gnarled arms of black and red beech trees, one came often upon the skulls and skeletons of dead sheep, washed down from the crags overlooking the Mararoa. Paradise ducks sprang from the coves and flapped back and forth in fowl temper, wide-eyed and squalling. Once, on the first afternoon, a goggling owl slipped past overhead. "A morepork," said Fred. "The Maori legend has it that if you hear one during the daytime, you're in trouble." With that the morepork squawked. Thanks, old buddy.
The only brown caught that day succumbed to Fred's dark, shaggy-hackled Coch-y-Bondhu fly—on a cast of no more than nine feet. A fish of about six pounds, it brought off a series of reel-scorching runs that kept Fred busy for 10 minutes. When it finally came into the bank, rolling heavily on its bright-spotted side, he gently removed the hook and then worked the fish back and forth through the water, reviving it. When it regained its balance, he gave it a shove in the direction of deepwater safety. "I don't like to kill anymore," he said. "An old man's temperament, I guess." We broke out a bottle of Scotch and Fred swallowed his neat, three hearty chugs from the neck of the jug. "Ah," he sighed, wiping his mouth with his sleeve, "that's the way to do it. When they make that stuff, you know, they put a lot of water in it. No need to dilute it further."