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Adventure fishing on the Tongariro River: raft fishing

Long-time river rafter Garth Oakden caters for anglers who prefer a little action and adventure alongside their serene casting moments. Tongariro River Rafting owner discusses his favourite form of adventure fishing, which takes people to scenic fishing spots they would never otherwise visit.

Accessible wilderness 

"All these people who’ve come to New Zealand over the years to take helicopter flights into cool fishing spots, they don’t realise what’s right on our doorstep.

The top 13km of the Tongariro River is just 20 minutes’ drive and a short raft ride away from Turangi.  

It’s an incredibly stunning part of the river you can’t get to any other way than by raft.

So you get the adventure of grade three rafting, the thrill of having guides navigate the obstacles on the river, bumping through rapids and dropping 235m in the course of the journey. And then you have this serene, accessible wilderness. Pristine native bush, pristine river, tui, bellbirds, plenty of kereru and all these fantails and swallows flitting around, taking the insect life off the surface of the water. It’s the start of the Kaimanawa Forest Park and it’s never been logged so you’ll see old rata, miro and rimu but predominantly beech forest. Wilderness in the front country, we call it."

Gin clear water

"In the top third of the river, the cliffs are all close to 30m so you’re in these deep gorges where you can’t see out. We don’t fish from the raft. We pull over to the bank, hop out, get the flies on the rod, get into casting position and away you go. You might stop for five or 10 minutes or spend two hours in one spot, it all depends on the fishing. We can supply a fishing guide or sometimes people bring their own, we don’t mind either way.

Fishers can expect to see blue ducks, too. When I set up a project 12 years ago to protect the whio, there were only 25 on the river. Now there are more than 250.

On our raft fishing trips, you don’t have to do any paddling so it’s very accessible for all sorts of people. The river is a wonderful place because it levels people pretty quickly, you can be from quite different backgrounds or socio-economic groups and you find this commonality. The oldest person we’ve had fishing with us on the river was 91 and some of my best friends now are people I’ve met on the river over the years.

In terms of the trout, there are some brown but it’s predominantly rainbows. They’re your standard Lake Taupo fish, around 2kg, and you’re sight fishing in gin clear water. It’ll be 20cm deep in some places and 6 or 7 metres in others but so clear you can see the fish sitting on the bottom."

No helipads

"There’s plenty of blind fishing, too. We’ll nymph the river quite a bit, using flies that sink down to the fish. Once the weather warms up, the cicadas hatch and you’re casting these big imitation cicada that sits up on the surface. Watching the fish come up off the bottom to take what they think is a cicada is really, really exciting.

In summer, the fish move out of the pools into all the little pockets in the rapids, behind and under rocks so you’re casting to a fish and watching it all happen.

I’ve been rafting for 35 years and owned Tongariro River Rafting since 1990, which was when guided raft fishing really started to take off in New Zealand. I’ve done a bit of lake and sea fishing and I sometimes use my electric mountain bike to ride into the backcountry to fish.

But for me, the magic of raft fishing is that you’re at one with the river the whole day.

You use it as your road and you get to see parts of the river you can’t see any other way. There are no helipads up there, no bike tracks. Just you and your friends or family, plenty of fish and a lot of beauty."

Five life lessons the river has taught me

- Garth Oakden


1) There is never a better time than now

Over the years, we have seen people unsure about doing a trip because of a bit of rain or the river not being as clear as they would like. Some of the best days fishing we have had have been on those very days when we have gone anyway. The fish are still there and, as long as it's safe, why not go and enjoy a day in the outdoors?

2) Take it all in

Make sure that you look around and enjoy the space that you are in. Nature has a special way of showing you her secrets. Be open to just sitting for a bit and watching what is happening around you. After 35 years, I still see new and amazing things when I'm out on the central North Island rivers.

3) Don’t take it for granted

It doesn't take much for things to change on the river. A flood or slip can take away pools or features and also give you some amazing new opportunities both for fishing and fun. Approach every day in the outdoors as a new day of discovery. Where possible, share it with others - it makes it more fulfilling.

4) People are real in the outdoors

There is nothing like having a yarn with someone on the riverbank to find out who they really are. Socio-economic barriers don’t exist out there. Everyone is pretty much the same and you might just find that you have a lot in common with someone you think is not your kind of person.

5) Laugh lots

There is nothing like having a good giggle. It might be about hooking the same branch 10 times whilst trying to catch the big one, only to then have the fish break off in the end. Or filling your waders up after tripping over a rock while trying to back up to the shore to land the fish of a lifetime. Fishing can be a challenge so laugh at your inadequacies. By all means, savour the triumphs but remember to have fun doing it.

I reckon all these lessons are applicable to life in general.

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