Adventure Fishing the Whanganui River
March 18, 2021
If you’re anything like me, when it comes to holiday time, the first thing you think is…I wonder if I can take a rod and reel. If it’s a YES, this thought process quickly evolves into some research, and subsequent agonizing, over how much gear, how many lures, what weight line, when you’ll escape and so on. This year, a family escape actually meant escaping the family. Well, the kids anyway. Just my wife, brother, and sister-in-law, all alone on a four day journey canoeing 145 kilometres down the middle reaches of the mighty Whanganui (once Wanganui) River from Taumarunui to Pipiriki. The plan was to canoe the river and stay at the camping and glamping opportunities on offer along the way. Just good outdoor action adventure paddling our way through canyons and the odd rapids. In my mind…surely there would be trout fishing opportunities?
To put this journey in perspective, it is a popular tourist activity, also enjoyed by many kiwis, and is well catered for by several canoe and kayak companies that operate from Taumarunui, who supply the boats, brief you, drop you off, and collect you at the end of the trip for a bus ride back to where you start.
Living with the reality of Covid 19’s impact on the world’s travel arrangements, the ratio of tourists to kiwis on the river has changed a bit, however it was surprising how many English and Spanish accents we picked up, that were along for the ride in our original group of thirty or so starters.
With overseas travel off the menu for the foreseeable future, taking the opportunity to see part of our magnificent country, and push the boundaries on comfort zones seemed like a pretty good idea.
Staying in tents or cabins at campgrounds is not everyone’s cup of tea, and at times, the river will let you know who is boss, but after four days experiencing some of the most incredible pre-historic environments you could hope to see anywhere, I will always remember this as a truly unforgettable experience, that was worth every ounce of the considerable effort put in to make it happen.
This area of river would be considered the mid-Whanganui. A reach mostly inaccessible by normal means of transport.
Here, is one of the most unique north island river fishing opportunities you could possibly wish for.
1) The river is an absolute monster that breaks up its cavernous slow-moving durge through magnificent gorges with countless stony breaks and riffles that can easily be trout fished from the banks, or with a little wading in your canoe/kayak ensemble.
2) There are plenty of trout in it, both brown and rainbows, in reasonable numbers and sizes.
3) You can fish all year round, the season being 1 Oct – 30 September
4) You can use a wide range of gear and methods to suit your preference, including spinners and soft baits, and you will find water to suit all methods of fly fishing, wet, dry and nymph.
5) And here is the absolute kicker. Access. If you want water that has not seen another fisherman for a looong time, you can find it here. There is really no way to get to these spots other than by canoe or kayak. I would hazard a guess that around 99% of people on the river are not carrying a rod, and when I had the opportunity to stop and have a flick, at any time of the day, I knew nobody had fished it that day prior to me, and I would certainly have my chosen spots all to myself.
As I mentioned, this is a monster river, and is affected by rain even from far, far away, and as a result, will silt up to a thick brown colour fairly easily and regularly, making it all but unfishable until it clears.
There are also numerous rapids to navigate that range from a bit of rough water to a roaring torrent, but the worst that can generally happen is that you get wet if you go over.
The access is by canoe and kayak, and you have to work through the journey, including the paddling (which is about four or five hours a day).
This is really a canoe and camping adventure, that offers the bonus of some trout fishing.
However, there’s no reason you can’t make it as fishing oriented as you like, just be aware that any rain prior to the trip is really going to muddy the river and it takes three rainless days to clear.
I discovered this first hand. Our trip was pushed back a day with the river in flood, and three of the four days we had on the river saw it running thick and brown, clearing to a nice fishable clear-tea colour on day four.
That was the day I didn’t have time to fish as we headed home!
I had a go anyway, and by fishing the shallow edges of a couple of runs, where the sun allowed the trout a tiny bit of visibility, I was able to pick up three little rainbows.
Some of the water you could fish if the river was clear was truly beautiful, and would have doubtless provided some spectacular fishing with the nymphs I was throwing about.
What gear to take
This is a big river, and at some points is bottomless.
The shallower runs are the place to stop to fly fish, and they are still quite wide and deep in places, so ideally a #6 or #7 weight line with a good arsenal of weighted nymphs would be ideal for most situations.
Standard nymphs such as hare and coppers, pheasant tails, etc with tungsten weighted heads are the go, and if the water is not clear, a bit of flash from a gold head is good.
Also, remember to grab your license at a fishing retailer or buy one online before you are out of phone coverage on the river.
If you like wet flys and streamers, there is a ton of good water, and by the same token spinners and soft bait fisho’s can also find plenty of opportunity, where big, flashy lures can be seen in the sometime murky waters.
You will be transporting everything by canoe, so a rod that breaks down into a four piece is best suited for safe travel. I took a 4 piece SAGE #5 weight and it was able to be strapped easily to the top of the luggage where it survived our capsize on the last day.
The journey is great
This is adventure camping for sure. Taumarunui to Pipiriki is the ‘full’ distance and can be covered in either four or five days depending on your enthusiasm with the oars.
There are one and two day options starting lower down, so talk to the tour operators about the dynamics of this if you are keen. We used Taumarunui Canoe and Jet Tours , who were really great.
How does it work? All your gear is stored in dry bags (that you provide yourself) which in turn, go into sealed(ish) drums strapped onto the canoes. Our beast held a 60 litre, and four thirty litre drums, with room for extra fishing gear and water etc.
You get a briefing and a bit of instruction and practice on the canoes, before heading off into the wild blue yonder by yourself. A moment that is quite exciting and a little nerve tingling.
There are numerous campgrounds that have cabin facilities or areas for tents along the way. All are pretty awesome spots to stay the night, depending on your level of camping experience. The best option is to talk to the tour operators and work out the perfect itinerary to suit your specific needs.
Luxury in the wilderness
One real highlight of the tour, if you start at Taumarunui, or travel by jetboat, was a deluxe retreat hidden in the bush where you can stay on night one.
If you have the inclination to enjoy a steaming hot shower, real coffee, a home cooked meal, and luxurious beds cocooned with fine linen, then you are just going to love a night or two at Posh Pioneers.
Here, you can stay the night and chill, or stay another day and enjoy a range of activities from nature walks, fly fishing by jet boat, knife and soap making courses, and more.
Hosts Fritz and Heather are truly charming and lovely characters, and made the first night of this tour one we will remember fondly.
They have done such an incredible job to build this haven in the bush, and it really is worthwhile and exceptional value.
If you have the inclination to experience it with them, I’m sure you won’t regret staying at this spectacularly presented oasis.
Get out and do it
Do more stuff!
After four days of adventure, we felt like it had been a week (in a good way) and we were all buzzing from the experience and the memories of the trip, which gave us a great break from the crazy year that has been.
Our country is stunning, and it’s often easy to not see enough of it, so if you like the look of this, do a bit of homework, and organize your own adventure.