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The secret to living in Taupo is, she says, to throw yourself into everything that’s on offer.
However, Libby clearly applies this philosophy wherever she lands. The former pipe band snare drummer spent a year playing her chosen instrument professionally in Australia before travelling to Scotland to drum and work in a kilt shop. And once her journalism career – she worked at the Taupo Times – propelled her towards politics, she spent four years working as parliamentary press secretary including for then-prime minister John Key.
So, when Libby O’Brien hooked a rainbow trout during her first attempt at fly fishing, the sport was never going to remain merely a casual pastime.
“It was so unexpected,” she says of that first thrilling encounter in a Central Plateau river. “You’ve got a fish on the line and it’s this insane feeling you can’t describe. I managed to land it and I was absolutely hooked from that moment. I got addicted, I guess.”
During early childhood days in the small settlement of Omori on the southwestern side of Lake Taupo, Libby watched people fishing but never thought to try it herself. Then, once her family moved into town, she was more captivated by high octane snow skiing than the fine art of fly fishing.
It was only when she returned to the region as an adult that she realized what she had been missing.
“I remember coming back from Scotland and looking at the mountains and lake in a new way.
“You don’t realise how beautiful it is until you go away and come back and fish on those rivers. It’s the lushness of it, that running water and the beauty of the native bush. You can feel like you’re in the back country, a world away from suburban Taupo, but it’s only two minutes from a carpark.
They say the tug is the drug and when I started out, catching fish was the goal and I admit that I still like out-fishing the boys, it’s my competitive streak. But it very quickly turned into more about being out there in nature and the fish was a bonus.”
She describes the thrill of learning to understand and then safely cross an unpredictable mountain-fed river, while hauling her precious rod and reel and backpack full of fly boxes. Or the startling moment when a kereru breaks the silence of a still spring morning to crash its way out of the bush alongside her. Or crouching beside a stream to release her catch, cradling it in the water as she awaits a telling flick of the tail to signal the trout is ready to be released back to the depths.
She also gets a kick out of seeing other young women discover the joys of her chosen sport. When Libby reeled in that first trout, in 2016, she looked hopefully for other female fly fishers locally and nationally. The few she did track down were older than her and it proved even more difficult to find clothing and equipment tailored for women.
“I have small feet and I couldn’t find a pair of boots. There was one pair of women-specific waders you could buy but they were designed for tall American women with no hips and I’m 5ft 5.
“So I started following international fly fishers on Instagram. Now, social media has made the sport known in New Zealand and there are more females proactively looking to give it a try, more women joining the fishing clubs. It’s still super male-dominated but at least it’s changing and there’s a real groundswell of support from anglers to get women into fishing.”
It isn’t that she is looking to fish in a crowd. For her, this is largely a solo pursuit and she will gladly spend hours standing in the water, refining her back-casting technique, always aiming for accuracy and grace, the perfect landing of a line on water.
This is Libby’s opportunity to recharge, an ideal antidote for the responsibilities and challenges of her weekday work as a Department of Conservation statutory manager. She helps to manage what happens on a vast swathe of public conservation land between Paeroa and Whanganui and as far east as the Bay of Plenty coastline.
“The job is relentless and it is hard but I love it and it’s a really good working environment. Besides, I like doing reactive stuff, keeping a lot of balls in the air at the same time and I’m naturally quite nosy.”
And she is rarely still. One room of the home she is renovating in suburban Taupo is crammed with her bikes and golf clubs, fishing gear and snow skis. The aluminium dinghy in the driveway is her escape craft. On a sunny summer weekend she likes to load the boat with a book, snacks and music, then point it to a hidden bay where she can lie on a secluded beach and gaze across the lake at the distant peaks of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu.
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For decades, anglers have come from all around the world to the Taupo region to enjoy the whizz-and-plop of a fishing line casting into a rushing river or lapping lake… not to mention the thrill of hauling in a fat, shining wild trout.