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Countless hours of casting have produced far more than trout for champion fly fisher Ollie Bassett.
By age 18, he had represented New Zealand internationally, achieved a commonwealth podium finish at Lake Taupo and won a national title thanks to his talent with a fly rod.
But the young fisherman – he is now 20 – also credits the pursuit with instilling a love of nature and helping with his bachelor of science university studies. And fly fishing keeps him calmer and happier.
“It’s really good for my mental health,” he says. “I’m quite a stressed-out person and I find it a relaxation.”
These days, he has little interest in taking home a trophy trout, preferring barbless hooks and the pleasure of watching his catch swim away.
“I got into competitions as a way to learn because I wanted to know how to get really good. I’ve always been quite competitive. And it started opening doors. I was able to go overseas to the Czech Republic, to compete with the New Zealand youth team.
“But mostly it’s the joy of it for me. It’s fun. I like the process of it, trying to think, come up with ideas. Then, if I catch something, I feel stoked.”
Ollie was a pre-schooler when his father taught him to dangle a line from a wharf in San Francisco, where the Bassett family lived for several years. Back in New Zealand, he discovered ocean fishing and had a crack at spinning for trout in a river during a camping trip. The first time he caught a trout in Lake Taupo, it was at sunrise and he was perched on the back of a kayak with a rod and lure, while his father paddled.
But he grew increasingly curious about those people he had watched flicking fly rods from river banks and begged an uncle to show him some basic casting techniques. A bright, anxious boy, he was bored and unhappy at school but utterly content to practice swinging a line on the lawn at home, over and over, every day. He watched YouTube videos and nagged his parents to ferry him to likely-looking spots each weekend, to try his luck. Fishing the Hinemaiaia River early one winter morning, biting cold left him close to tears, with streaming eyes and uncontrollable shivers. Yet he persisted.
“I was stubborn about it, didn’t want to give up. If I’m interested in something, I’m pretty driven. It took me about six months to catch a trout with a fly rod.”
In the intervening years, he has returned again and again to the Taupo region.
“I fish a lot in Taupo because it’s open all year round and because the quality of the fish is really good. And it’s quite central, so I’ll often meet friends there.”
The Hinemaiaia River proved an ideal place to hone his craft; safer, not too wide, plenty of trout. Increasingly, though, one river has captured his fishing heart.
“The Tongariro River is where I normally go now. It’s a big, intimidating river. There are lots of water types and the fish that are moving through, they’re chrome, silver, fat. There’s the upper river, with native bush so you’re in amongst forest. The lower river is boulders and shorter, deeper pools. There’s always something different to do up there, a lot of variety.”
With luck, he will fish in northwestern Spain next September. Ollie has been named on the New Zealand team that is training to compete at the 2022 World Fly Fishing Championships.
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Professional fly fishing guide Dave Wood quickly spotted the silver lining after Covid-19 snatched away overseas visitors and battered his business. Now, he has more time to cast for joy.