By the time I’d got to him, exhausted, some random Englishman was in the water trying to help him land this … horse. And I mean, horse! It was bigger than any other trout I’d seen landed, and I’d seen some biggies! The net could only just fit half of it in, and the built-in scales went off the gauge when lifted …
FOR LOTS OF KIWIS, FISHING is a big part of our recreation. We’re a coastal nation, and the number of fishing vessels per head of population (everything from kayaks to 12-foot tinnies to luxurious launches), is the highest in the world. Probably. Actually, I completely fabricated that last statement – but after having a good think about it, I reckon it’s possibly true.
Your saltwater fisho is the most common kind of angler (at my last count, more than a million) – and your over-priced snapper is probably the most common quarry. But freshwater fisheries also claim a significant slice of the market. And, as New Zealand boasts one of the best trout fisheries in the world, loads of Kiwis can be found flicking a rod over the many rivers and lakes throughout the country. Go back six months, and loads of foreigners were doing the same – fly-fishing for trout is/was a huge income-earner for local guides, as thousands of wealthy tourists flocked into the country each year to chase a personal-best (PB) rainbow or brown trout.
But, according to Fish & Game, the most popular freshwater fishery in New Zealand isn’t in the stunning backcountry rivers of Central Otago or the Taupō region – it’s in the man-made canals of the Mackenzie Basin. And these hold some of the largest trout in the world.
First, a bit of background: The hydro canals of the Mackenzie Basin were constructed in the 1970s and 80s as part of the Upper Waitaki hydroelectricity scheme, which supplies renewable electricity throughout New Zealand. (Just watch the water-flow increase if Auckland goes through a cold spell!) The canals feed water from Lakes Tekapo, Pukaki and Ōhau to four powerstations – and their 50+km combined length is an amazing feat of engineering. The town of Twizel was built specifically to house the workers and was only meant to be a temporary community – with most of the houses prefabricated, meant to be portable, and no curbing or footpaths on the roads.
Anyway, by 1983, as the hydro project was winding up, the local residents fought to save the town … and obviously won, because it’s still there.
GREAT BIG FISH:
The fishing found in the canals during the early years was nothing significant – with a bunch of below-average trout finding their way into the system. But that all changed in the 1990s with the arrival of the first salmon farm. Not only did that farm, and the ones that came after, flood the canals with escaped salmon, but they also provided the resident trout with an additional food source: the pellets fed to the salmon. If you were to put on some scuba gear, dive into the canals and look under the cages, you’d see lots of trout scoffing the free food falling through the nets during feeding time. But don’t put on scuba gear and dive into the canals – it’s illegal!
Anyway, those salmon grow mighty quick, and so do the trout, which is partly why so many large fish are found in the hydro canals. The other reason is because of the substantial natural fishery that’s now established there. During the summers of 2013 and 2014, large sections of the Tekapo canal were closed and drained, allowing biologists to study what was going on beneath the milky waters. In a nutshell, they discovered (somewhat surprisingly) a thriving community of aquatic plants lining the sides and bottoms of the six-metre-deep canals. All that plant life provides shelter for a vast number of invertebrates, snails, eels, and small fish (mainly bullies and juvenile salmonids) – the latter providing a significant part of a large trout’s diet.
So, combine that diverse ecosystem with the canal’s stable environment (unlike a natural river, they have consistent temperatures and flow, and don’t flood) – you have a recipe for creating monster-sized fish …
So, just how big do these fish get? Well, sizes of 20lb and above are not uncommon … and there are rumours of a 55lb brown trout caught last year. However, the best way to find out is to go check it out for yourselves. So that’s what we did …
Armed with the caravan, wife and four children plus a plethora of fishing gear, we made Twizel our home for a few days, intent on securing ourselves at least one of the many behemoths mooching around the canals. While fly-fishing is my preferred method, we chose this time to use spinning rods – a more common way to fish these unique waters. This also meant it was easier for the kids to have a crack, as fly-fishing takes a fair bit of practice, and often ends in tears … usually my tears, as I watch another fly get snagged on a rock, or tree, or upper lip!
There’s a variety of equipment and techniques employed to fish the canals. You can use bait, sight-fish the edges of the canal with a flyrod, bounce a glow-bug or egg along the bottom, cast and retrieve a Tasmanian Devil or softbait … any number of things! The key is figuring out what works best on any given day – and, ultimately, there’s always a bit of luck involved.
Although some people are definitely luckier than others …
Take my eldest son for example. We’d all been catching fish over the last few days – and I’d taken my PB, a seven-pound brown trout. So, all-in-all, I was pretty happy. But none of us had managed to land one of the many monsters lurking beneath the surface. We’d seen them, though – rising out of the water like miniature humpback whales, and cruising the clear shallows. But none had been persuaded to nibble the various options we’d thrown their way. But on a clear, midwinter’s day, while fishing the Tekapo canal, all that changed …
It was a day I’d never forget. Son-number-two had pretty much given up. He’d had no luck, and was feeling sorry for himself. What made it extra-hard was the fact that there were a bunch of good-sized fish being hooked up around him. Though none by me, unfortunately.
No.1 son, meanwhile, had wandered about a kilometre down the canal by himself, trying the solitary approach. Which obviously worked, because a while later, I spotted someone running toward me, yelling something about a big fish … finding Dad … and needing a net. Apparently, my tin-bum son had hooked up a monster and was needing some help to land it.
So began my slow jog … wearing gumboots, net in one hand, rod in the other. By the time I’d got to him, exhausted, some random Englishman was in the water trying to help him land this … horse. And I mean, horse! It was bigger than any other trout I’d seen landed, and I’d seen some biggies! The net could barely fit half of it in, and the built-in scales went off the gauge when lifted.
It was a giant rainbow jack (male), and we estimated it to be somewhere around 30lbs …
After wrestling it to the bank, a couple of quick photos were taken before it was released. No.1 son was understandably stoked, I was jealous, No.2 son was grumpy, and the girls had long-gone and were ice-skating in Tekapo. But I was immensely proud of him. It had taken half an hour to land, (most of which he’d managed on his own) – so it was an epic achievement. And a true Mackenzie Monster!
There was, unfortunately, a downside. Despite many desperate attempts, my PB stayed at 7lbs – which wouldn’t have been so bad, except ‘7’ looks way smaller than ‘30’. And the fact that it was me who’d taught my son how to fish … me who’d tied his hooks and trace … me who’d supplied the gear and taken him to the spot – didn’t help! All I got for my hard work and sacrifice was a measly 7lb brown trout.
And to make matters worse, that same No.1 son caught a 15lb rainbow the next night!
My only comfort is that I’m still beating No.2 son …