North Island Winter Opportunities

You don’t have to wait until October to enjoy some first-class NZ flyfishing, writes Nick.

Winter can be a down time for some trout fishers; a chance to fix gear and replenish fly boxes. But if you visit the trout mecca of New Zealand’s North Island, all that may have to wait. The cooler months here are packed with great fishing options. Let’s have a look at the famous flyfishing opportunities, and also some that are lesser-known.

Tongariro River & Taupo tributaries

The most obvious and famous fishery in the North Island is a good place to start: the mighty Tongariro River. The Tongariro is a tributary of Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s biggest lake. Lake Taupo is a very fertile body of water and carries a huge head of trout, both browns and rainbows. The Tongariro is the main spawning tributary of the lake and as a result, it experiences large runs of fish during the winter months. The size of these spawning runs, coupled with easy access and reasonably friendly wading, has led to the Tongariro becoming New Zealand’s most iconic flyfishing river.

The mighty Tongariro.

Its legendary status was developed in the 1930s, when 20 pound fish were a common catch. Then, to the dismay of anglers, the average size of the trout gradually slipped to little more than a couple of pounds by the ‘noughties.’ But nature has flipped the trend once again, and over the last few seasons there has been a resurgence in trout quality, and the chrome-bright, fat-as-butter 5 pounders that were the hallmark of the fishery, are once again running the rivers in big numbers.

The Tongariro carries trout running to spawn in almost every month of the year, but there are some definite peaks to the runs and these are good to know before booking a trip. The peak months for rainbow trout have shifted in the last decade. Late June and July were once regarded as the prime times, but now August and September and even October are considered the best months. The gaps are filled somewhat by a nice run of big brown trout that hits the river in May and continues into June. While the browns don’t run in huge numbers, their larger size makes them well worth targeting.

For those who seek some early rainbow run action, some of the smaller Taupo tributaries see good numbers of rainbows before the Tongariro, with pulses of fish from late May right through June and July.  The Hinemaiaia River is well known for early running fish and, although it is quite straight and fast-flowing, the fish stack up, and any small depression or obstruction in the streambed will hold fish. The Waitahanui and Tauranga-Taupo are also well worth a look for early running rainbows, and continue to produce right through the winter season.

The smaller Taupo feeders produce some cracking fish.

Getting your flies deep and on a nice, long drag-free drift, is fundamental to success on these fisheries, especially on a big river like the Tongariro. The first principle you need to understand is that these fish are on their way to somewhere else, and are therefore unlikely to lift far off the bottom to eat. Therefore, fish with flies that have enough weight to get down to the bottom in the particular water you are fishing: more weight or less depending on current and depth. The next element to get right is the drift. This often means an early and aggressive stack mend that travels most of the way down your line and ends up close to your flies. This is a difficult technique to execute, but those who get it right will be rewarded.

Roll-casting or Spey casting variations are also useful skills to have in your armoury on these rivers, as you often have thick vegetation obstructing your back-cast. The heavy flies needed here make this much more challenging than flicking a small dry fly around. Overhead casting with heavy flies all day can also take its toll on your body, especially the wrists and shoulders. Efficient roll casting is a good way to reduce body stress as it requires less overall effort. If you are really keen on upping your game, learn the Tongariro Roll Cast. There are plenty of tutorials online.

Contemplating the next stretch.


The Rotorua fishery is less glamorous than its Taupo cousin, but it still has plenty to offer flyfishers. The fishery is mostly based around the 13 lakes of the region containing trout, the main ones being Rotorua, Rotoiti, Tarawera, Rotomā, Ōkaro, Rerewhakaaitu and Ōkataina.

Lake Rotorua is the largest lake in the Rotorua Lakes district but is also one of the shallowest, being only 25 metres at its deepest. The shallow, clear water allows light to penetrate to most of the lakebed and this contributes to luscious weedbeds that in turn provide food and shelter for many insects and small fish. The trout, both rainbows and browns, grow very quickly with the abundance of food and reach large sizes. The main tributaries are the Ngongotaha Stream and Waiteti Stream, which each have good spawning runs of rainbows and browns, starting as the temperatures cool in May. Both streams have sections that are open in June and provide spectacular late season action.

Rotorua district brown.

The other lakes of the region tend to be mostly stocked as they have limited spawning streams, but they are still great fisheries. Rainbow trout are favoured as the species to stock as they grow quickly and are generally easier to catch. The edges of these lakes fish well all through winter as fish congregate in shallow water in an attempt to spawn. Hot spots include anywhere a small stream enters the lake, or the location where the fry were originally stocked – sometimes this means adult trout are drawn back to boat ramps!

Night fishing is commonly practised and often produces the cream of the action when winter fishing the lake shores. Best results are achieved using streamers or big wets, slowly retrieved near the bottom. Big Glo Bugs also work well, either under an indicator or fished on a sinking line with a slow retrieve. Some anglers even use fluorescent flies at night, regularly ‘recharged’ with a powerful torch or camera flash. The best nights will be after a big storm or even during it.

If you prefer fishing during the day, the Ohau Channel is a great option. It drains Lake Rotorua into Lake Rotoiti and is a major fishery in its own right. Trout move through here to spawn in the Lake Rotorua tributaries. Flies and techniques as above work best. It’s worth noting though that this location can get very crowded at times.

East Cape

The East Cape water can be hard to access, but it’s worth the effort.

The East Cape fishery receives very little publicity. Even among Kiwi anglers, its little known geographical isolation, nightmarishly thick bush, numerous impassable gorges and a tiny local population, combine to make this, in trout fishing parlance, one of the last true frontiers in New Zealand.

Dense bush surrounds many East Cape streams.

Kiwis use the term ‘East Cape’ to refer to the portion of land that lies in the easternmost point of the North Island of New Zealand. East Cape is not an official region and therefore there is no official boundary, but it is generally regarded as stretching from Opotiki in the north around the Cape and stretching down the coast to the Mahia Peninsula south of Gisborne. The inland portion stretches east to Te Urewera National Park and then north again through the bush back to Opotiki.

The cooler water of late autumn and early winter suits the rainbow fishing.

While not a true winter fishery, the rivers of the East Cape are open until the end of June. Autumn is considered one of the best times to fish as water temperatures in summer are often high and result in sluggish fish. As temperatures drop, fish come back on the feed with vigour. The rainbow trout fishing can be spectacular on rivers such as the Waioeka and Ruakituri, even during the short days of June.

Hawkes Bay

Hawkes Bay region offers a huge range of angling opportunities, with some of the best and easiest access in the country. There are some large river systems in the region; the Mohaka, Tutaekuri, Ngaruroro, Waipawa and Tukituki, all of which hold brown and rainbow trout. While not a true winter fishery, these rivers, like the rivers of the East Cape, are open until the end of June. They are predominantly rainbow trout fisheries which sustain high numbers of fish, and with an impressive average size.

The Hawkes Bay streams produce impressive June rainbows.

For some true winter fishing, the Tukituki River is open year round below the SH50 highway bridge. Turbidity can be a problem, as the stream frequently discolours after even light rain, but there are loads of fish. Most of the rainbows are in 1-3lb range but 5lb fish are reasonably common. The river is on a very low gradient here and forms big, slow pools that can be difficult to fish. It is best to concentrate on the faster water at the head of the pool – which is often where the fish that are feeding the hardest are gathered anyway.

Lake Tutira is the major lake fishery in the region, and it is open right through the winter. Stocked with fish sourced from Lake Tarawera, the trout grow quickly and provide excellent sport for shore-based anglers in the winter months. The same tactics as used for the Rotorua lakes work here, and these trout can be fished for effectively during the day.

Northland Saltwater

Northland may not be a legendary flyfishing destination, but it has plenty to offer the travelling angler. It has a semi-tropical climate and being a relatively thin wedge of land, it is constantly under the influence of rain-bearing westerly winds. So annual rainfall here is high, but don’t let that put you off: this is a big bonus for the fish. Freshwater washes nutrients from the land into the sea, which in turn feeds plankton, which are then devoured by baitfish and shellfish – and we know what eats those!

A reasonable tidal range is another factor which adds to the dynamic nature of the aquatic environment. Each tide flushes nutrient-rich water out of the bays and into the oceanic currents that sweep down the coast. In short, this coast is a fisher’s paradise and holds an incredible biomass.

Although winter is not prime time for this fishery, there is still enough action to make a trip well worth it. Your prime targets are the big three; kahawai (Australian salmon), snapper and kingfish. Land-based fly fishing can be very productive here. The whole East Coast of Northland is quite protected and offers good fishing from rock platforms. Dirty water can be a bit of a problem during the winter months and is generally not great for fishing. Look for a platform that has deep, clear water in front of it. Points at the mouths of bays or along open bits of coastline will tick this box.

Kahawai are a winter staple.

Burley is a must when fishing the rocks, the more the better. Generally, as soon as you begin to burley, fish will appear. Often kahawai are the first to arrive and can provide endless fun on an 8-weight set up. As the action heats up, be ready for a kingfish to materialise – in winter, these are often big fish travelling solo or in pairs. You will only get a small window of opportunity to hook these fish as they are pretty educated. A big popper fly and a 12-weight outfit are your best chance.

Burley helps off the rocks.

When the burley trail becomes established, also keep an eye out for big snapper.   A flash of crimson down deep is a dead giveaway. These snapper will take a Clouser cast out and left to hang on a floating line with no retrieve. It feels like a strange method, but it’s the best technique to fool these wary fish.

Snapper on a Clouser fished dead drift!

If you are lucky enough to get your hands on a boat, then numerous options will open up. Seemingly endless schools of kahawai regularly rip into anchovies and can be pinpointed by sea birds. Meanwhile, big kingfish patrol deep water with a bit of structure. You’ll need some sinking lines in the 600 or 700 grain range and some big flies tied on solid hooks.

The spectacular phenomenon of krill-feeding trevally is also on the cards in winter. When the schools are feeding at the peak of the tide, it is quite a sight to behold. Thousands of big trevally mixed in with blue maomao and kahawai breach the surface as they plough into the krill schools from below. Sometimes, the work-up can be hundreds of metres across. It can be spectacular to witness, but quite frustrating fishing, as the predators are locked onto the tiny krill and will often completely ignore anything else. Krill feeding often occurs around offshore islands and at the mouth of big bays. The islands out the front of the Bay of Islands are a well-known hot spot for this activity.

Krill feeding frenzy.

Northland has a very pleasant climate even during the winter months, with plenty of beautiful deserted beaches. A bonus is that not many kiwis travel to this area in the cooler months, so you’ll find plenty of accommodation options and quiet roads. A great family holiday perhaps, with some saltwater fly mixed in.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the winter flyfishing options in the North Island, but there are only so many pages I have time to write! The travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia seems to be working quite well despite the odd hiccup, so this winter is a good time to cross the ditch and get your NZ fix.

FLYSTREAM FACTS – A selection of guides to help your North Island winter fishing

East Cape

Cory Scott

Hawkes Bay

Tony Hildeshiem


Miles Rushmer


Bryce Curle