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Bad weather, big trout - Winter trout fishing guide

December 19, 2019
Bad weather, big trout - Winter trout fishing guide

There are a surprising number of winter options for the angler, Mike Davis gives us the game plan on how to bag some prime winter trout.

For a large number of anglers, once the thick end of April has past and the onset of crisp morning frosts begin, many start packing up their fly fishing gear and storing it away for the winter period.  

The shame of it is that there is some really awesome fishing in early and late winter still to be experienced throughout the Central North Island for some of the biggest trout found in the land.

Most of the waterways in the Central North Island have large parts of their catchments that stay open to fishing throughout the winter period with some restrictions on fishing in the more sensitive spawning areas.

The fishing over the winter months is varied but it gives the angler a different experience. It also forces them to use different techniques as the fish ripen towards their spawning period.  

The trout having fed hard over the summer and autumn months have packed on as much weight as they possibly can to carry them through the rigors of spawning and then leave themselves with enough fat to last the remainder of the cold winter.  This means that the trout over the early part of the winter are in their prime as they prepare to spawn in their waters of origin, whether it be a stream, river or lake edge.  

Small water, big fish

The greatest thing about fishing over the late autumn and winter period is suddenly there are some really big fish in small waters or very close to the shoreline, making them more accessible to the fly angler.  

We will call the winter period from the start of June through to the end of September when the new fishing season starts on the October 1st and cover various fishing options over this time.

The hardest part about fishing over the winter period is that the angler has to re-think their plan of attack. There are very few insect hatches and the fish become less visible when feeding but are very catchable once you have understood the new fishing strategies.  

For the angler the biggest change in the winter period is that the weather holds the biggest influence. Over the summer months we look to fish when the barometer is rising and the weather is settled.

To be really successful over the winter months the opposite is true. We target cold unsettled nasty stuff to catch the most fish.  Most importantly buy yourself a really good rain jacket, layer up well and get out there just after or during periods of rain and really cold snaps.

Target your fishing around the big southerly storms that lash the country over the winter and your catch rate will triple.  

Winter storms stir spawning urges in trout and huge numbers of fish will be found running up the rivers when there is a fresh, (a discoloured river after heavy rain). This is most noticeable in the Taupo region with the Tongariro and Tauranga-Taupo Rivers.

Jim from Scott fly rods hoisting a crafty 3.9kg Tongariro Brown trout.

Rotorua lakes

If fishing in the Rotorua region you will soon notice that there are very few spawning tributaries for the fish to run up.  Many trout will instead build their spawning redds in the gravel of the sandy beaches around the lakes, especially Lakes Okataina and Rotoiti.

Fishing at the end of June (before boat fishing is prohibited) there is some really good fly fishing to be had from the boat, as well as jigging, harling and trolling.  The trout will round up schools of smelt and feed hard making these big fish accessible to a boatie before the end of their season.

Follow the contours of the lake and trust your fish finder, once the schools of fish have been found stick with them and the fishing should be fantastic.

Fishing with booby flies is very popular over the winter period in the lake and the retrieves are very slow and methodical. The angler is trying to keep their flies down in the strike zone for as long as they can. By retrieving up along the drop off, the flies will end up in the middle of the fleeing smelt where they will be smashed by the trout.

Line choice

Depending on the depth of the drop off, fish a fast sinking shooting head down deep or an intermediate sink fly line where it is shallower. The booby fly is tied with closed cell foam eyes to help it float off the bottom so use a very short leader (under one meter).  As the fly is stripped in it sinks and becomes very streamlined and in between strips the fly flares out and floats towards the surface.

For obvious safety reasons the boating should be done during settled weather but once the lake closes and is only open to the shoreline angler fish in and around the worst weather days.

When the weather is fine the fish will sit just out of reach of the shoreline angler, out over the drop off until the night period. At night they will venture back into the shallows where they can be targeted by the fly fisher.  

Fishing in the night will generally be long, slow and methodical but the fish will be really big.  The fish can average around 3kg when fishing lakes like Okataina and Rotoiti but there will be many fish around the 4.5kg mark and some up to 6kg.

When the weather turns bad during the day these lakes come alive with really aggressive fish.  For some reason the trout loose all their caution and for those that wait for these fronts to hit, the fly-fishing is unbelievable.  They fish best when the big, cold, southerly fronts dump rain and snow throughout the Central North Island.  Quality raincoats and waders are essential and will keep you dry and warm.  The fishing will be so good that you won’t notice the foul weather.  

Many people will fish large floating glo bugs but if it is windy, smelt patterns stripped quickly across the wind current will also work on the edge of the dirty shoreline water. By August many of these fish will have spawned in the lake and now be dark in colour and in average or poor condition so this is the prime time to hit the Taupo rivers.  

Using the booby fly pattern along the drop off, Simon Ward hooked and landed this lovely 3.7kg Rototiti rainbow.


The Taupo system works slightly different to Rotorua so when the weather is settled, the fish will congregate at the river mouths and sit in the deep water over the lip of the steep drop offs.  Anglers will usually target the fish here at the change of light at both ends of the day or by fishing into the night until the close off at midnight.

They will fish with slow methodical retrieves and most of the time will be fishing with fast sinking shooting heads.  Once again booby style flies and floating glo bugs will be very popular and at nighttime many will change to lumo fly patterns that glow when exposed to a flashlight. Lumo flies will glow for three or four casts before requiring ‘recharging’ with the flashlight.  Many anglers will fish a lumo and dark fly combination to double their chances and possibly pick up that shy fish.  The fish will continue to feed off these drop offs until they enter the rivers to spawn.

The fish hang around the river mouths until there is major rain or snow in the region and sometimes a big drop in the barometer can motivate them to run.

Once the fish have entered the river they will generally eat nothing or very little.  Their gut cavity will shrink and their colouring will change from bright silver to bright red gill plates and flanks. The longer they spend in the river the darker the fish become so catching them shortly after entering the river ensures a bright silver fish.

The secret is to move around the river until the run of fish is found.  Sometimes you would think that the river is empty, then when the run of fish is found the fishing is chaotic. Once the fish are located try to move up the river with the fish.

The big thing to understand is the fish need to rest as they move upstream.  If you can find a run or pool that sits above some really fast water or a rapid it will be a prime area for the trout to rest in as they move upstream.

Fish the lower stretches first

Explore the lower river first after the rain has fallen and the river has started to clear then move upstream until the fish are found. While the fish stop feeding they will bite flies out of aggression as they prepare to spawn.  It is not the place for the dry fly purist but it is the home of nymph fisherman and for those who love to swing wet flies downstream.

If the river is discoloured make sure that your flies are visible.  Glo bugs will be really popular when the river has any colour in it and as the river clears up begin to fish with more natural patterns such as the Prince Nymph, Pheasant Tail or Hare and Copper.  Sometimes a small bright hot spot on a natural pattern can be very effective but continue to change your tactics and flies to suit the state of the river.

When nymphing concentrate on getting your flies to drift just on the inside edge of the main current, remember the fish need to rest so it is very rare for the fish to be found battling in the strongest part of the river.

If you get on the river early fish the very inside edge of the river as the fish will have moved into the shallows over night and will move back out towards the deeper water when they have been disturbed.  Many good fish can be pulled out of the shallows first thing in the morning.

When fishing over the winter months use larger rods like an 8# for both the river and lake.  They are designed to fish in big water, play fish in heavy water and

have the ability to cast heavy flies in windy conditions.  Smaller summer weight rods like a 6 weight just don’t have the control on the big water as the 8# rods do.  If you are playing big fish on the river and it is running downstream you will have trouble turning the fish in the strong currents and ultimately you will end up annoying other anglers around you.

Etiquette is key

If you are sharing the water with others (especially when nymphing) move through the water.  Make two or three casts from the one spot and then take a few steps forward and repeat the process.  Once you reach the top of the run rejoin at the tail of the run. If everyone works in harmony to this simple rule then everyone will get a shot at the best water.  

When a fish is hooked work it to the tail of the pool away from other anglers and then once it is landed rejoin the line in the place that you hooked the fish.

While winter fishing may not be everyone’s cup of tea it is a great experience and is something that you can enjoy with several friends ¬ making it something special.  You can’t do that in the backcountry.  

If you are staying in Turangi get out for an early morning fish, go back to the motel for breakfast have another shot on the river then go for coffee.  Winter fishing can be as strenuous or relaxing as you want it to be.  This style of fishing is a different experience and can be a lot of fun, filled with plenty of banter.  The fish are big and angry and can leave you with some of your best fishing memories.

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