The legacies of British colonialism are far-flung and fine, ranging from a touching faith in parliamentary government to a hearty taste for strong, bitter ale. Yet there is one colonial heritage that in its surpassing ubiquity exceeds all others. Wherever the Union Jack flew over cold, clear, running water, the British planted trout. Today, with the Empire only a memory, parliaments on the wane and even the ale gone weak and watery, trout still swim on the bamboo slopes of Mount Kenya, the noble Salmo trutta inhales mayflies in the high Himalayas and the spiritual heirs of gentle Izaak ply their delicate craft in the backwoods of Belize (formerly British Honduras). Nowhere, however, did the experiment work more successfully than in New Zealand, that green island nation antipodal to Britain herself.
It is almost as if New Zealand had been created solely to serve as God's great trout farm. When Captain James Cook scouted its two islands in 1770, about the only freshwater fish present were eels, smelt, cockabullies and a tiny whitebait known to the native Maoris as kokopu. The chilly volcanic lakes and glacial streams were rich in potential trout food—snails, caddis flies, exotic insect larvae and especially the freshwater crayfish called koura. Beginning in the mid-19th century, groups of New Zealand sportsmen, formed into "acclimatization societies," set about filling these virgin water systems with trout—first European browns imported from Tasmania, more than 1,000 miles away off the south coast of Australia, and later North American rainbows from the Russian River of California.
The brown trout, bigger and somewhat sluggish in comparison with the acrobatic rainbows, became the dominant fish in the more temperate South Island; the flashy rainbows took over the California-like waters of the North Island. Judging by the rapid growth rate of both species, there wasn't that much acclimatizing necessary. By the turn of the century, the most fertile lakes and rivers were producing brown trout averages of 17� pounds and rainbows of 13� pounds. In 1910 a visiting Englishman set out to establish a world record for pounds of trout caught on the fly in a single day. Fishing the Tongariro River above Lake Taupo, he killed 123 fish—a ton's worth—between sunup and dusk. They averaged 17 pounds.
Naturally there have been ups and downs in both the abundance and the size of New Zealand trout. According to some experts, as the fish population increases, peaking out every five to 10 years, food resources are depleted and some stunting occurs. Right now, the rainbows of the North Island seem to be at an ebb point in size. During last December's International Trout Fishing Competition at Rotorua, eight days of angling by 280 rods produced 1,166 trout with a total weight of 4,099 pounds seven ounces. That is a lot of rainbows, sure enough, but the average weight was a piddling 3� pounds. Indeed, the winning fish, a beautifully conditioned hen rainbow caught by Mrs. Alda McKeon, 60, of nearby Tokoroa, weighed in at a mere eight pounds seven ounces. Mrs. McKeon was delighted, of course, to win the competition (and the 10-foot aluminum boat plus outboard motor that went with it), but she was a bit blas� about the catch itself. "It bit on my wee little black and gold Toby and I cranked it in. It was all over in a minute. The big 'uns have no fight in 'em. Still, I'm told they'll mount the fish for me, so I'll hang it on the wall and when I'm too old to fish anymore I'll look up at it and say, 'Gotcha!' "
Actually, the largest fish caught during the competition was not even judged. An ethical angler named J. N. Barrowman, headmaster of a Rotorua high school, caught a 10-pound seven-ounce brown but refused to enter it because he feels the tournament is detrimental to fishing. "There's too much pressure on the lakes already," he said, "and this is supposed to be an introspective, individualistic sport, not an exercise in weights and measures." Even if Barrowman had entered his fish, it could not have won the top prize since brown trout are not considered in the same class as rainbows by North Island fishermen. This oldtime tradition of inter-island bigotry, when it is applied to two of the world's most exciting game fish, is patently absurd.
Trout are trout, regardless of race or color, and never more exciting than on opening day on the Ngongotaha (the first g is silent), a swift tumbling feeder stream of Lake Rotorua that pours down through native bush and hard-cleared sheep runs, providing excellent spawning ground for the lake's big rainbows. The opening is timed to come at the end of the spawning run, so the fish taken on opening day—which came on Dec. 1 last year—tend to be "slabs," which is what New Zealanders call the dark, skinny, spawned-out fish of that season. Still, even a slab can put up a considerable fight on a light fly rod when the fish weighs five or six pounds.
Long before first light last Dec. 1, young boys on bicycles pedaled up the road to get their positions for the opening. It was a foggy morning, ripe with the smell of sheep dung and spring flowers. Photographer George Silk, a native New Zealander, and I had been invited to fish on the farm of Ken Elphick, a lean, eminently hospitable rancher whose spread straddles the Ngongotaha near its source. The kettle was chortling on the hob of Mrs. Elphick's wood-burning Orion stove when we came in, and the rich odor of "lamb's fry"—tender liver sweetened in its own juices—filled the farmhouse. Over a breakfast of fry, scones and sweet black tea, Elphick introduced his youngest son, David, 13, who was to be our "gilly." He also pointed out a 9�-pound rainbow trout, mounted over the hallway door, that David had taken the previous year. "David's been a trout fisherman since he fell out of the pram," said Elphick. David blushed behind his freckles and pulled on his gum boots. "Let's get cracking," he gruffed.
Under David's tutelage, I caught three good-sized rainbows in half an hour, releasing two of them. Only one was truly acrobatic, jumping a dozen times before coming slowly, sullenly, with its head still shaking in anger, to the hand. These were fish of five pounds' weight, yet even when they are bigger, Kiwi anglers are loath to use a net or a gaff. "Nah," said David, "you just, like, boot 'em oop on the bank. Get your toe under their belly and, sploot! You saves time thataway, an' you kin release 'em if you're so minded."
For someone accustomed to North American trout streams, it was curious to be fishing for such large trout in the middle of a close-cropped sheep meadow. The fog persisted to midmorning, and as it began to burn off", shafts of amber light came slashing through, illuminating the waxy leaves of the bankside ti trees so that they looked like the pages of a prayer book. The Ngongotaha was clear and fast, and you could see the big, dark trout lying under the banks, the jacks with their jaws bent and angry-looking in the kype, the hens thicker through the belly, almost baby-faced. Shifting from the Parson's Glory, a yellow-bodied streamer fly suggested by David, to a dark-hackled, heavy dry fly called a Coch-y-Bondhu, I cast upstream into a promising riffle. Bingo! I caught the smallest trout in New Zealand—an infant that could not have measured more than four inches long. After releasing the dink, I cast again to the same spot. Ditto! I caught the same dink. Or his brother. David watched impassively. "Hoongry little booger," he said.
Driving back down the road we passed dozens of anglers returning home before noon with their eight-fish limits. The bicyclists, most of them boys no older than David Elphick, hooked the dead trout on their handle bars, tied their broken-down fly rods to the bike frames and freewheeled home with a week's worth of eating aflop beneath their hands. Many of the fish were as long as a boy's leg. Not one of the kids looked terribly impressed with his catch. "What a way to grow up," said Silk, grinning.