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The Wangapeka River
A Chapter From Hooked on Trout
Ron Giles - 27/04/01

Description and directions
The depths of the Kahurangi National Park in northwest Nelson are the source of the beautiful Wangapeka River. This rises on the slopes of Mt Patriarch, so steep and mountainous it has been used by climbers training for assaults on Mt Everest. The upper river is easily accessed from the Wangapeka Track, which follows it for over 15 km. The track is well formed, and winds through dense red and silver beech forest. It is often above the river, making it necessary to push down through the trees and ferns to get to the water.

The deep, turquoise-green pools look as if they are bound to hold trout - and they do, but mainly old and wily browns that have survived the onslaught of passing trampers. The average weight is 2 kg, though 5 kg fish are not uncommon. They do not get that big by being easy to catch though, so stealth is essential. But the cautious approach should not include the use of ultralight leaders. Any leader under 2 kg will not last long, thanks to the legendary power of the Wangapeka trout. Be ready for a charge downstream over and around huge boulders to follow your big fish.

Make sure, too, that you take only a photo of your trophy, as this is a delicately balanced fishery thanks to a huge flood in early 1998 that killed half of the resident fish. Most of the damage from that '100-year' event can be seen in the middle reaches, along the road leading to the start of the track. The road is well signposted from Tapawera and first meets the river about 10 km from the road end. There are two designated 'anglers' access' points, and it is possible to do a day's fishing there and walk back to your car along the road.

From the Dart River confluence down, the water has a slightly brown colour from the dark, peat-coloured inflow from that tributary. Above the confluence are 6 km of runs, riffles and pools up to the end of the park access road and the start of the track. This is beautiful water, with browns feeding freely in the shallows of the bubbly runs. Fish numbers can be variable but careful observation will ensure enough to keep most anglers happy.

The lower reaches are accessed from the road on the right just over the Motueka River bridge near Tapawera. This road follows the Motueka for some way before it veers left and meets the Wangapeka just up from the confluence with the Motueka. There are several designated 'anglers' access' points along the road, and again it is easy to fish from one to the next and stroll back down the road. The river here is quite wide but relatively shallow, so it can be crossed easily in normal flows. The fish tend to be smaller than in the upper reaches but give a good account of themselves. They average around 1.25 kg, with good numbers of larger trout, although these usually appear only at dawn and dusk, as they tend to feed in the glides and runs rather than the pools. The lack of cover in the shallow water means the trout do not feel secure if there is light on the water. Poor light for the angler means fish are hard to spot, and prospecting techniques are required. As there is a lot of water to cover, it is essential to fish slowly and carefully, or fish will be missed. During the day, it is often also necessary to fish 'blind', as the smaller ones are difficult to see in the boisterous water. The lower reaches are nowhere near as scenic as the upper, so for those wanting beauty and the beast, the longer trek to the upper section is well worthwhile.

Tales and techniques
The upper reaches of the Wangapeka are an example of a true New Zealand wilderness river. Fortunately for anglers, the beauty of the area has resulted in a well-formed tramping track alongside. This makes it easy to walk beside the river, stopping off to fish at likely looking spots, of which there are plenty. The best time to be on the river is early or late, as the bigger fish tend to hide in the depths of the huge pools during the day. Sometimes they can be tempted to come up for a big Stonefly, and I have even seen the odd one rise to the surface for a Cicada in the middle of a hot summer's day. Generally, though, they are active early on and then lie 'doggo' for the remaining daylight hours, moving into the shallows to feed only when the light has begun to fade. This makes life a bit difficult for the daytime angler, as it is a long drive from civilisation to the upper reaches of the Wangapeka. Unless you feel like rising well before dawn or walking home in darkness, the only option for giving yourself a decent chance at the big fish is to stay in one of the park huts.

The pristine waters of the Wangapeka
The pristine waters of the Wangapeka
A trout lying at the bottom of a deep pool, is there because it feels secure and will rarely come up to take a fly. It may feed if something tempting is drifted along the bottom of the pool, but otherwise the trout remain in the security of the deep water until the light lessens and they feel it is safe to move to shallower water. On many rivers, they might feed in the security of the riffles, but the upper Wangapeka is one of those rivers that can be described as having a 'classical' structure. Such rivers have cavernous deep pools fed by turbulent rapids at the head and a shallow tail leading to the next rapid. There are few riffly stretches as the river consists of a long series of these classic pools. Spotting fish in the clear pools is relatively easy, but getting down to their level is not. It is necessary to resort to long leaders and heavy flies. However, when fishing such a beautiful wilderness river, you don't feel much like employing 'Tongariro' techniques. The first time I fished the upper Wangapeka, I wasn't expecting to use such tactics and set off with my 6 weight, four-piece rod in my backpack. My wife, Sue, came along for the walk, and we hiked for an hour or so before I started to examine the water. Peering through the beech trees, I saw a nice rocky run that looked very 'fishy'. I asked Sue to stay on the track where she could look down into the water. It is really handy, on clear South Island rivers, to have a spotter. The best way to operate is in pairs, with partners fishing and spotting by turn. It is a lot easier to see trout from above the river than down next to it. The spotter can give directions, enabling the angler to keep well back from the fish and avoid getting too close trying to see where it is lying and how it is feeding. Having someone feeding you a running commentary on the movements of the fish gives you a distinct advantage. Although Sue does not fish, I was hoping she could undertake spotting duties for a while.

I slithered down the bank and crossed the river at the tail of the run. As is usual with clear rivers, it was deeper than it looked and a trifle cold around the nether regions. Regaining the far bank, I tackled up and advanced to the water's edge.
'Can you see anything?' I asked my spotter.
'Not yet,' came the reply.
'Well, go up a bit further but make sure you stay back in the trees.'
'Yeah, yeah,' came the reply, 'I'm not stupid, you know.'
Not wanting to lose her services so early, I choked back my rejoinder.
'I can see one!' came the cry a couple of minutes later. 'Just above that light-coloured rock up there.'
'How far out is it lying?' I asked.
'About 2 metres from the bank,' Sue replied.
'Is it moving about much?'
Sue studied the water for a minute. 'No, it seems to be just sitting there.'
I carefully walked up to about 10 m below the indicated rock and stripped out some line.
'Still there?' I asked.
'Yep, it hasn't moved.'
I made a cast deliberately short of the indicated position just to get a feel for the distance.
'That was too far below it,' came the immediate response. I didn't bother to field that one but recast, this time a metre above the light rock and half a metre to one side.
'That was right over its nose,' Sue informed me.
'Did it move at all?'
I cast again, this time closer to the indicated position. No response. Twenty casts later, and still no response, I advanced to where I could see the target. Peering into the water, I identified the problem.
'You know what that is?' I asked the spotter.
'It's a "rock fish",' I informed her.
'What's a . . . oh, I see. Well, how am I supposed to know what's a fish and what's a rock?' Sue asked. 'I'll go and read my book and you can find them yourself.'
That was it for trout-spotting for the day. But I had to admit the rock did look very fishy, even through my Polaroids. It was the right length, and the flow patterns around it gave the impression of movement. The only giveaway was that on a bright sunny day there was no fish-shaped shadow on the riverbed.

Spotting by colour
Spotting by colour
Spotting trout is an inexact science at the best of times. When conditions are on your side, it is easy to see fish, especially in clear, placid waters. But such trout will tend to be cautious, as they are well aware of how visible they are. In rougher, more turbulent water, trout are much harder to see. It pays to look for movement first, as this is the most reliable indic-ator. (Rocks do not tend to move much.) Or you may see just a flash of colour, particularly from rainbows or golden-sided browns. The white flash of a jaw opening is another good pointer, especially as it indicates a feeding trout. If a fish is not moving much, look for a shadow on the side away from the sun. Because it will be lying clear of the bottom, its shadow will be more distinct than that of an embedded rock. And rock shadows do not move, so a bit of patient observation will usually determine if the likely object is worth a cast. The best idea is to mark its position against a distinctive rock, stone or other natural feature. Keep checking its position against this, and if it doesn't move in relation to the marker, it is either unlikely to be a trout or is asleep and not feeding.

When conditions become difficult, as on overcast days, expert spotters come into their own. Unfortunately I am not of this elite breed. I can peer into a pool for several minutes before someone like my Napier mate Frank comes along and immediately points out a good fish I haven't seen. I can then stare, for another minute or so, right at the indicated spot before a vague troutlike shape materialises against the riverbed. I have no idea how these guys do it. When you ask them, they say they're examining the water for something that doesn't look quite right. It may be a suggestion of movement, a hint of a shadow, a variation in colour or a shape that suggests a fish. These are the indicators an expert spotter uses to distinguish a trout from a likely-looking stone or clump of weed. Whatever the level of your spotting skills, they need to be honed. Regularly. There is no doubt that the more you look for fish, the easier it becomes to register their presence. It may not be possible for all of us to be experts, but we can, with practice, become reasonably proficient.

Spotting by shape
Spotting by shape
The next trout spotted on that day was a few hundred metres further up the track. The river was out of sight as the track had veered away and we were walking through some attractive bush. I noticed a cairn of rocks piled up at the start of a rough side path. Acting on a hunch, I detoured down the path and a few minutes later emerged by a glorious pool. The water tumbled down steep rapids, smashed into a large cliff on the far side, then surged along the cliff face, widening into a large, deep, aquamarine pool.

As I peered through the trees, I immediately saw a big fish lying very deep in the heart of the pool. Presumably a previous angler had built the cairn to remind them where the fish was on their way back. I pushed through the trees down to the tail of the pool and crept out onto the bank. I figured the fish was lying at least 3 m deep, so changed my tippet nylon for a longer one of 2 m to go with my 3 m leader. I added a small indicator to the top of the leader, then dug out a Tongariro 'bomb' as a sinker fly to get my size 14 Pheasant Tail down to the trout's level. I tied on the sinker with its attendant fly and tossed the whole lot downstream into the rapids at the pool tail.

There was no way the poor little 6 weight was going to keep 5 m of leader and a heavy nymph airborne. Allowing the leader to straighten, I hauled on the line to break the surface tension, then tossed the whole caboodle into the centre current well above the trout. The line drifted down nicely but I wasn't sure if I should concentrate on the trout or the indicator. It was rather unusual to be able to see a fish at such depth so clearly. I saw the trout move, and then looked at the indicator. After what seemed a long time, it moved. I struck hard to straighten the long leader, and there was a satisfying jerk as the fly bit home. But elation was brief. I had been too slow with the take, and a few seconds later the trout threw the hook. If only I had struck when I had seen the trout move! However, the experience had been a good lesson in how long it takes an indicator, positioned 5 m from the fly, to register the take. It was only the clarity of the water that had enabled me to see a fish, 3 m down, move to the fly. A good trout had been lost, but another piece had been fitted into the fishing-knowledge jigsaw.

Further up the river, there were more fish to be seen - not many, but easily enough to fill the remaining three hours' fishing time. All were lying deep in the huge pools, and it was hard work getting a fly down to them. They may have been where they were because they had sought a stable refuge after the flood, but I would like to have been there at dusk, when I suspect they would have moved up to feed in the eye of the pool. Unfortunately that was not to be, and soon it was time to start back down the track. It had been a delightful day - even if I had lost the services of one spotter.

In the Wangapeka's peat-coloured middle reaches, spotting is more difficult. It is necessary to fish the pools blind, as trout cannot be seen in the depths. However, there are more secondary runs and riffles below the Dart confluence, and trout can be spotted there when they are feeding in the shallows. They tend to do this most often when the light is low, but as there are some good riffles not far from the road it is possible to fish through the evening feeding time. You can wander down the river and fish your way back up, timing your arrival for the moment when the sun falls below the high mountains.

Similar tactics work well on the lower river, near the confluence with the Motueka River. The trout here also seem to prefer the deep pools during the day and venture out into the shallows only when the sun is off the water. As the road follows the river for much of this section, again it is possible to fish near your car. This means you can safely negotiate your way back to the road and don't have to stumble through scrub or bush in failing light. There is some very good evening fishing water near the last 'anglers' access', not far up the road from the bridge. The river has an open, braided nature on the road side, and you fish towards the beech forest lining the far bank. It is a delightful spot to be in as the sun sinks behind the mountains of the Kahurangi National Park - particularly when the snout of a large brown breaks through the silvery surface.

Click here to read about the author, Ron Giles

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