To be fair, the lower North Island is better known for its rubbish weather and being the seat of government than for its trout fishing, but the Wairarapa region can offer a fly fishing experience that rivals the famed South Island waterways, and at times, can even better them!
The Wairarapa region is a vast fly fishing wonderland comprising spring creeks, a huge windswept lake (the third largest in the North Island!), verdant farm drains, crystal freestone streams and sprawling braided gems.
Sound too good to be true? Well, it kinda is.
WAIRARAPA FLY FISHING IN A NUTSHELL
There are no strolls along flat, beech-lined valleys bathed in wind-still sunlight here, rather the Wairarapa headwater fisheries offer up seemingly impassable rock-walled gorges that channel gale force winds with such reckless abandon. Couple this with the fact you can’t fish anywhere without going up - for several hours usually - it’s hilly and a knee-buster on a grand scale.
Are Wairarapa fish fussy? No, not really. There are few guides operating here with virtually zero overseas angling pressure which certainly makes the region a happy place for a few hardy Wellington anglers. But for some bizarre reason local fishing clubs seem to bypass Wairarapa waters, instead heading for the greener pastures and easier walking rivers of Hawkes Bay, Manawatu and Taupo.
The cragged in headwater valleys, shrouded in drizzle for two thirds of the year turn the tourist anglers away as the weather is a natural barrier to angling and chopper pressure. The spotting is tough in the permanently shadowed, gorges, so expect to do a fair bit of blind prospecting in such conditions.
Once these mountainous watercourses leave their, rock walled environs, they flow to the sea in a more sedate fashion over rolling pasture and heavily modified farmland. The fine shingle plains of the Wairarapa region reducing flows to a mere trickle in summer, most anglers, oblivious to the cold, sustained flows in “them thar hills” that dissipate and flow underground where thousands of motorists pass over the state highway bridges every day.
One of my favourite times of the year to head into the Wairarapa rivers is in November / December, you won’t encounter other anglers, the weather is generally stable, and the fish are looking up!
WHERE TO FLY FISH IN THE WAIRARAPA
The rivers on the eastern side of the Tararua ranges that make up the bulk of the Wairarapa fishery comprise of the Mangahao, Ruamahanga, Waingawa, Waiohine and Tauherinikau. In addition, their subsequent tributaries ALL hold fish at varying times of stable weather, however it may take a fair amount of walking and prospecting to find this out yourself.
- The Mangahao River
- The Ruamahanga River
- The Kopuaranga River
- The Tauweru River
- The Huangarua River
- The Waipoua River
- The Waingawa River
- The Waiohine River
- The Tauherenikau River
- Lake Wairarapa
THE MANGAHAO RIVER
The Mangahao is a tough one, it does hold a few big browns in the upper reaches above the water storage dams, but you will do a lot of walking between fish! The rest of the river can be good in low summer flows, but it’s hard going on the huge boulders, you do have to be aware they sometimes flush the dams which can create hazardous conditions if fishing downstream. It’s great cicada water and the tiny Ngapuketarua tributary can provide some great action during early summer.
THE RUAMAHANGA RIVER
The standout Wairarapa fishery is the Ruamahanga. From its tiny headwaters high in the Tararua Ranges, to the estuarine lower reaches where it flows into Lake Onoke, it’s a real fish factory. The evening rise is legendary in summer and headwater browns are in generally great condition and of large size despite being not overly populous.
The entire Ruamahanga system inherits substantial trout movement as to be expected with a large system open to the sea. It’s an amazing river, and within an hour’s drive from the Wellington CBD you can be on a spring creek tributary, drifting from a boat for sea-run fish, or sight fishing a large brown in the headwaters.
It’s a river suited to both fly and spin and many lower North Island anglers have caught their first fish in the Ruamahanga. Its middle reaches feature long glides with beautiful riffly heads with staggering numbers of both browns and rainbows; that’s if the Regional Council haven’t got in and totally destroyed the riverbed by cross-blading, which they seem hell-bent on doing every day for no apparent reason!
From December onwards it’s dry fly water, carefully stalking cruising browns and bows in the long pools will bring results. I’ll give a brief description of some of the larger Ruamahanga tributaries below.
RUAMAHANGA RIVER TRIBUTARIES
If stalking large trout in a small clear stream, navigating willows and ambushing cruisers, the Kopuaranga is a real gem, and not at all unlike the headwaters of the Mataura. It’s an up-close and personal kind of water, dotted with willows and browns that will dive into them given half a chance.
It’s not a long stream, but can sustain a day’s angling and the trout population is generally quite good!
THE TAUWERU RIVER
Further south, the Tauweru river can offer similar small-stream stalking action for great numbers of browns in it’s dead-still, milky pools.
THE HUANGARUA RIVER
Another of the small tributaries entering from the eastern side is the Huangarua at Martinborough, not big numbers if trout, but a fun stream to stalk cruising fish in the long papa-lined pools early season before the stream virtually dries up from neighbouring farms and vineyards sucking the life out of it with huge water pumps sadly.
THE WAIPOUA RIVER
The Waipoua is an interesting wee stream. Flowing through the town of Masterton, it doesn’t look like much from a casual glance but can at times hold some stunning browns and often of good size up to 6lbs!
Again, the council like to tear up this river for kicks and cross-blade the fragile bed, but it can early and late in the season hold a good head of fish in pleasant rural surroundings. The Waipoua has two excellent small tributaries, the Kiriwhakapapa and the Mikimiki stream, but these generally only hold early and late in the season.
THE WAINGAWA RIVER
The Waingawa is one of the larger Ruamahunga tributaries and its cool clear headwaters above the forest park boundary can provide some good fishing for those prepared to walk, but don’t expect large numbers of fish and the past few years for some reason, many fish have been in quite poor condition, which is of concern.
Trampers frequently take the river as a tramping route and can put the fish down for many hours, but it’s a stunning valley, especially the 10kms before it enters the forest park and is easily accessible from the close-by gravel road at ‘The Pines”.
The Atiwhakatu tributary holds some good fish early season, but you’ll have to be stealthy, as irate, and “uppity” hobby-farmers dot the banks and don’t like you fishing in “their stream”!! The Atiwhakatu also has many sections of riparian rights, so even the riverbed is technically private property.
THE WAIOHINE RIVER
The largest and by far the most popular back country fishery is the mighty Waiohine. Well it’s not a big river by South Island standards, but it deserves respect in any elevated flows.
The Waiohine holds a good number of fish in the numerous pockets and pools, is relatively easy going in the mid-reaches and has some fantastic tributaries to prospect. It’s one of few rivers in the region where you can comfortably fish up behind another party and still have great success, such is the rivers abundant trout population and stable nature.
It’s stable as hell and very scenic, as far as accessible back country rivers go, this one is right up there! It gets a great cicada hatch from around February through to late March too and is a great river for blind prospecting with a King Cicada from the Manic Fly Collection.
The Waiohine has a lengthy course and takes in some fabulous tributaries like the Hector, Park and Mangatarere where it crosses SH2.
THE TAUHERENIKAU RIVER
The Tauherenikau is technically not a Ruamahunga tributary as it flows into lake Wairarapa, but along with the Waingawa and Waiohine the river offers similar angling opportunities. Fish numbers are not high and fluctuate with flow but being very close to Lake Wairarapa it can have fish move in and out of the lake depending on river levels – trout only have to travel some 10km before being in a headwater’s environment!
It’s very scenic in the upper reaches after emerging from a substantial and impassable gorge and features a long open valley, but be aware, you will be disturbed by trampers here throughout the summer season.
Some of the best angling I have ever had on this river was only a few kms up from the lake, it’s barren, braided and un-inviting, but the day I struck gold on this river it had a significant run of fish from the lake, not large fish, but one after the other, silver browns of around 3lbs, super fun!
BONUS - LAKE WAIRARAPA
I love this lake! Casting from a drifting boat on any number of Lake Wairarapa farm drainage channels will ensure swift success come the arrival of the clouds of whitebait during September through December. This in fact has become one of my favoured forms of local fishing. The trout are numerous and fight with a dogged determination.
Casting a Manic Grey Ghost at the cruising browns, perch and kahawai, even carp is simply a sensational experience more reminiscent of northern Queensland run-off fishing at times. You could also be forgiven thinking you were a world away on a remote West Coast South Island estuary, but you are not, you are in a place seldom mentioned and even less fished, all within a stone’s throw of the capital city.
Arguably the Wairarapa region is one of the last, untapped and unexplored fly-fishing bastions in the country, she is begging for exploration. Me? I haven’t even scratched the surface after living here for over 30 years.
There are no trout themed cafes, no Fish & Game access signage here, larger than life trout sculptures on a small-town square and no well-trodden angler’s tracks.
It’s New Zealand bread and butter fly-fishing at its finest.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Andrew Harding is a die hard fly fisherman that spends more time on the water than most of us do at work. Check out some of his amazing fly fishing film work over on his Youtube channel.