Dark nights and big trout

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Mike Davis

The cold winter nights bring out a special type of fly fisherman on the Rotorua lakes, one who is dedicated to casting long lines while wading in knee deep water, often shoulder to shoulder with similar keen types – all hoping to feel the tug in the dark that signals a fat, thick bodied rainbow trout.

Many fly fishermen put their fly rods to the back of the cupboard as the warmth gets drained from the autumn sunlight, particularly as the days begin to shorten with the onset of the cold winter ahead.  The traditional stream fly fishermen often go into hibernation for the winter period until the beginning of the following opening season on October 1, but in doing so miss out on some fantastic fishing options and the opportunity to target large fish at their absolute peak in physical condition.

Traditionally in the large lakes of the central North Island the first frosts of the year are the stimuli for the large mature rainbow trout to start congregating towards their streams and release sites of origin.  

In waterways where browns and rainbows mix such as Lake Rotorua and the Ngongotaha Stream or Lake Taupo with the Tongariro River the browns have usually entered the spawning streams three or four months earlier than the late running rainbows.  

Trout reach sexual maturity in their third or fourth year and in doing so most fish return to their stream or place of origin to spawn and repopulate the waterway.  

In the central North Island mid to late May is usually the time when the first frosts of the season arrive and the fish congregate at the stream mouths until a fresh - small flood or discolouration of water from rain - or a dramatic drop in barometric pressure stimulates the fish to enter the rivers and streams on their journey to their spawning beds.  During prolonged fine spells with heavy frost hundreds of fish can gather at the stream mouths waiting for the weather to trigger their runs. This is usually the first time of the season that these large mature fish in their best physical condition are readily available to the shore-based fly fisherman.

Paul Neilson’s 5.2kg Rotoiti trout is only 56.5cm long, typical of the trout which grow so quickly they may only be three years old.


As a general rule the larger the river entering the lake is the more numbers of fish will run the river to spawn, but even the smallest of streams entering lakes will attract a population of spawning fish.

In regions such as the Rotorua lakes district some of the lakes like Rotoiti and Okataina have very little available spawning tributaries unlike Lake Taupo that has dozens of spawning tributaries. The largest spawning streams in Lakes Okataina and Rotoiti are only a couple of metres wide at best, so Fish and Game have created specific release sites for fingerlings and when the fish have reached sexual maturity after their third or fourth year they then return back to these release sites and attempt to dig redds in the shallow, sandy lake shore where they endeavour to spawn. For the fly fisherman this is fantastic as these fish can be targeted while they cruise in the lake shallows next to the release areas.

The rainbows take on their dark spawning colours when they run on the beaches in the big Rotorua lakes.

In the Rotorua region many of these trout are very large and most years the average size of the returning trout is around 3-4kg.  Most years fish of up to twelve pound are common, and every season there will be several extraordinary beasts weighed that vary between 7kg and 9kg.

With fish of this size coming in the competition for the best spots can be fierce when the fishing is hot although the fishing is rarely easy, but for those prepared to put in the hard yards some very large fish can be caught.  The fishing is all fly fishing, and it is mainly done at night when the trout move closer to shore. Many fishermen will only land one or two fish each with perhaps another couple of hook ups. For the hours put in the catch rates are low, but the quality of fish more than makes up for it. Even the best fisherman on earth will get blanked at one time or another you certainly pay your dues when it comes to winter lake fishing.

The best time to target the big guys is before the change of light in the morning, starting at 05:30am or after the evening twilight has waned and fishing into the darkness all the way through to midnight. Obviously in the middle of winter fishing at these times can be very cold standing knee deep in the water waiting for something to tug on the other end of the line, but the prospect of a trophy trout keeps anglers returning night after night.


During the daytime very good fishing can be had by those prepared to fight the elements when driving onshore winds send waist-height waves crashing onto the beach and the water flowing back attracts the trout which run right into the shallows.  This is often experienced when fishing at Lake Okataina as the southerly wind whips straight up the lake and onto the main beach at the boat ramp.

By standing on the jetty next to the boat ramp or by literally surfing the floating ramp to the right of it some phenomenal angling can be had. The secret is not to cast straight out into the wind but to get side on to it and cast across the wind. When fishing in the wind you should use a sinking line so the fly line lies straight in the water when it is being retrieved.  

If using a floating line in these conditions the wind creates a belly in the fly line as it is pushed around, and it is very hard to detect strikes from the fish. The sinking line is also denser in weight and will cast much easier in trying elements.

Fishing along the edge of the dirty water as the fish cruise the shoreline can be amazing and fishing smelt patterns in these conditions can produce deadly fishing while the food is being churned up in the shallows.

The other hot time to fish around Rotorua and in particular Rotoiti and Okataina for the spawning fish is when the heavens open up and heavy rain hits the district.  During these spates in the weather all of the small feeder streams and tiny rivulets entering the lakes fill up and send food and debris out into the lake. With the limited spawning streams entering the two lakes these temporary waterways become absolute fish magnets.  

Although these conditions are not ideal for comfort fishing we have experienced our biggest numbers of fish caught in these trying times. On the eastern side of Lake Rotoiti sites such as the Dump, Transformer and the Pipe come alive in these conditions.  

Fishing at night is very different from the day and can turn very good casters into fumbling messes once the sun has gone down. Many people can cast well when they can see what they’re doing but as soon as they are forced to use other senses such as feel they loose all co-ordination.  

If during the daytime you can cast 25 metres comfortably then at night you should drop your cast back to 20 or 22 metres.  At night casting is all done by feel and by understanding how the rod responds during the loading and unloading phase of casting will greatly aid in eradicating unwanted tangles. By understanding these basics you can eliminate many tangles because you are naturally casting within your maximum distance.  

Another reason why at night you should never over-extend your casting range is the fish will often move in very close to the shoreline if anglers refrain from wading too deep into the water.  

Many people wade out far too deep when fishing river and stream mouths and end up pushing the fish out further into the lake and ruining a good night’s sport for everyone in doing so. Wherever possible try to avoid wading at all costs and you will hook many fish right in front of your feet.  

During the night anglers tend to retrieve their flies very slowly and often they will try and get their flies as close to the bottom as possible.

Doll flies with luminous bodies work well on dark nights.


Most of the winter shoreline fishing is done on large lakes so the gear used must match the fish that they’re attempting to catch. Therefore most people will use rods of #8 or #9 with lines to suit.  The matching weight rods are powerful to cast and will handle windy conditions much easier than the smaller #5 and #6 outfits that people use on the streams during the summer.  

The butt sections of the big rods are much stiffer than their lighter cousins, allowing the angler to cast a lot further with less effort. This is very important when fishing over deep drop-offs with shooting head lines as the angler will try and cast as far as possible.

Around the Central North Island the winter fly fisherman will need a diverse range of fly lines because there is such a huge range of different options and varying situations in where to fish. The many different sized streams and drop-offs that are targeted by the angler will require different lines to reach the bottom.

Around the shallow bays such as Ruato in Rotoiti only a floating line may be needed to reach the target zone, but if you wish to fish over the weed banks on the main beach at Okataina an intermediate line that sinks at 1.5 ips will be preferable because you will be covering water up to 2 or 3 metres deep.  

When fishing the picket fence at the mouth of the Waitahanui Stream in Taupo a type 3 sinking line is best to reach the bottom comfortably while if you wish to throw shooting heads at the Delta on the Tongariro, or search the depths with booby flies in Okataina at the Log pool which falls away to 20 metres in depth, a Di7 line that sinks at 7ips will be required to get the flies down to the fish as fast as possible.


During the hours of darkness many people will fish with an attractor fly such as a Doll fly tied in at the dropper position particularly when a floating line is being used.  When a floating line is used the dropper is tied in approximately 1.5m from the fly  line. One metre behind the dropper a dark fly such as a Scotch Poacher or Craig’s Nighttime will be fished as the point fly. This is often the favoured rig when both brown and rainbow trout are present in a waterway.  The Doll fly, which has a luminous body, is designed to draw fish in close as an attractor pattern and can be a deadly fly on rainbows, while the dark subtle pattern is used to coax more timid fish such as brown trout into taking the other fly. Other flies can be mixed and matched until the angler works out what is the right combination for them.

Booby flies have become increasingly popular over the last 15 years and are an incredible fish-catching fly.  The Booby fly has polystyrene eyes that makes the fly float up off the bottom and helps to avoid the hook of the fly catching on the weed banks as the flies are being retrieved.  

Essentially the floating properties of the fly help it to impart an amazing action into the fly as it is stripped down the fly becomes sleek and very streamlined, and then the marabou feather pulsates out as it floats back up; almost like a stunned or wounded baitfish.  

Because the Booby fly floats it must be fished with a sinking line so the fly can actually get down into the depths at which the fish are cruising. The trace length should be kept as short as possible when fishing with Booby flies and should never exceed 1 metre in length. Often people will fish them with a trace as short as 30cm.

The Booby fly can be tied in a wide range of colours, all of which are successful, and many people tie the polystyrene eyes into an oversized globug pattern, which is basically left to sit static just off the lakebed where cruising fish will pick them up.  Over the years some people have had moral issues with this style of fishing as the booby globugs are often swallowed whole by the fish, instead of being hooked in the side of the mouth as with other fly patterns.  But as time has progressed the method has become increasingly popular with winter anglers and at times it can be used with devastating effect.

Different patterns can be used, from Marabou (left), dark night flies like these Fuzzy Wuzzys and orange Globugs.


When fishing over the winter months and especially at night most people will retrieve the flies as slowly as possible. Basically the rule of thumb is that you can’t retrieve the flies slow enough and the only time this changes is when strong onshore winds force the angler to strip back faster to keep up with the flies and fly line pushed by the wind.

When fishing for these large fish it is wise to always carry at least 100 metres of backing on the reel as many a heart has been broken by strong fish as they run out into the lake when hooked. The winter fishing around the Rotorua region has been subject of many a long story told over a drink or two afterwards when fish have taken all of the line from an angler’s reel.

While for many people standing knee deep in a lake on a frosty night waiting for a fish to take is not their cup of tea, for those people who are avid big fish chasers the cold winter nights cast a hypnotic trance over them.

For the doubters as to whether or not there are still huge trout out there to be caught a trip into any of the Rotorua tackle shops will show an over abundance of the monster trout pulled out of the lakes from the local fishery. A trip down to see the local taxidermist, Ray Port will soon show you that we are living the “good old days,” as this is the time of the year when the most consistently large fish are caught and for many anglers the winter fishing has produced their fish of a lifetime that keeps them coming back for more season after season.

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