This article is written by Blair Whiting – an all-round angler based in Hawkes Bay, New Zealand.
Blair spends a lot of his free time fishing for trout on New Zealand’s Ngaruroro and Tutaekuri rivers, and over the years he has listened and learnt from older generations, put new found knowledge into practice and separated fact from fiction. In this article, he will share with you his valuable knowledge around shingle bed river habitat and the lifestyle of trout in these rivers so you can better understand the tactics required to improve your game. If you are wanting to give freshwater fishing a crack but don’t know where to start, then read on!
The Ngaruroro River and the Tutaekuri River are both renowned for their excellent sight fishing with good numbers of trout averaging 3lb.
Over the years I have picked up a good amount of knowledge of these two rivers. The first to share is the fact that trout will never be far away from food. As the saying goes, “if you find the food, in turn, you will find the fish”. However, hold your horse’s, food isn’t the only thing trout need to survive. Oxygen, temperature and shelter are all essential parts of a trout’s life. Finding all four can be a little tricky but if you keep reading I will teach you how I’ve managed to narrow it down and make the trout hunt a lot easier.
The majority of a trout’s diet is insect larvae which are called ‘nymphs’, the top 3 in Hawkes Bay would be caddisfly, mayfly and stonefly.
All of these species grow up in between the rocks and shingle and are very easily picked up by the current and carried down to a waiting mouth. Where the current speeds up these little morsels congregate into larger numbers making them easy food without a heap of effort.
Habitat – Food, Oxygen, Temperature and Shelter
Trout have a very important survival skill, this is the art of determining if food is worth the energy spent to catch it, a skill I’m sure a lot of readers can relate to. We all know the feeling of laziness, this is the mindset of trout. They will not work too hard to catch food and it is this mindset that mostly affects where trout hold in the river.
The other top priority is the level of oxygen in the water. Trout search this out and will always hold in areas with high oxygen levels. It is produced from flowing water, so finding the moving water will narrow down the areas fish can be found.
The next two river characteristics to keep a keen eye for are depth and structure. These aren’t quite as important for survival as the former points, but are still a big influence on trout life, as they form the protection required for trout to stay safe from predators and the sun.
Overhanging willow trees provide tons of shade and form the majority of structure on both the Ngaruroro and Tutaekuri. Often fish will stay under the trees in total safety only moving into open water when feeding.
Once you understand the four necessities for a happy trout; food, oxygen, temperature and shelter, you are ready to start looking for them.
Choosing a likely spot to begin your search can seem quite daunting at first as rivers are long and winding with so many different areas to consider. Below is a list of the main areas I choose to search first…
For those new to river fishing, a backwater is the part of a river in which there is little or no current. It can refer to a branch of the main river, which lies alongside it and then re-joins it (often the most underfished pieces of water on the rivers). In my experience, people walk right past these in favour of the main flow to drift nymphs in, but they miss out on the stunning sight fishing that can be had on these little gems.
Not all backwaters hold fish, most do not have the right combination of fish habitat. What I look for, is where a piece of backwater combines depth of 1 – 3m with overhanging willows, here you are quite likely to find high numbers of fish.
In the height of summer, the water temperature in the main flows become too high for trout to survive in and these deeper ponds of water become a haven for trout seeking refuge.
(image source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ux2rLs1USho)
In one year on the Tutaekuri, after the winter floods, the river changed course and created a large pond right up against a bank with many overhanging willows. As the temperature of summer got higher the trout were unable to live comfortably in the main river, so they moved into this pond. When I first found the spot, I assumed there to be around 10 fish living in the backwater. After I made the call to get a snorkel on and dive in to have a look one day I was very wrong. There were 50+ rainbow trout from 1lb all the way up to 7lb lazing about in the shade of the trees. This is what to look out for. This many fish is a huge rarity, but if the stars align and create a perfect section of water, this awesome freak of nature can and will happen.
Changes in depth provide slack current and trout love this water. For minimal effort a trout can sit in place and have the food come to them with the current above. Quite often, drop-offs can fill up with trout with the largest fish holding in the prime water at the head with smaller fish spread behind them. Look for the colour change in the water, it will go from a shingle colour to a deep blue and right on the edge you will be able to spot the dark shapes of trout moving back and forth intercepting food. These areas drop away even further, forming deep pools where the trout stay hard on the bottom feeding similar to the fish at the front of the drop-off. These areas are where I focus the majority of my fishing efforts over the summer months. Every drop-off is likely to hold at least one fish and I make sure to have an extra good look to see if I can spot them.
Runs are the shallow space between other areas of the river. They are usually fast flowing with little to no shelter for trout. The fish are crafty though, any change in depth that allows water to pass over their back they will take. Sometimes you will nearly step on fish in ankle deep water, these fish are usually feeding too. So, it pays to keep an eye out at all times. Sometimes runs can have lots of fish which are resting in between moving up a river. These fish can be incredibly camouflage, as the rocks near the river’s edge are a browner colour since there is less flow, a trout back blends in against it perfectly. Make sure you do look hard and fish them well even if you don’t spot a trout.
This 1.4kg fish was caught completely blind whilst fishing a run. Tip: Keep a close eye on your indicator!
Pools provide a deep haven for resting trout; a pool is what runs turn into as they get deeper. Much of the water column has little to no flow so trout can feed, rest and do what they like without using too much energy. Always fish pools especially the head of them, the largest will hold at the front.
A stunning example of where a run turns into a pool – there is a large rainbow feeding midwater below me.
Perseverance in a tough downstream cast paid off with this absolute gem 5lb rainbow.
Differences in Trout Species
There are big differences between the two trout species and where they like to hold. The first difference is Rainbows outnumber Browns by about 50 – 1 within the Ngaruroro and Tutaekuri rivers. Finding Browns takes lots of walking, even a little luck. The holding water they pick is very different too, here are the main things to help you find each of the species…
These trout tend to be very wary and sit under willows for the majority of the day. This isn’t always the case as they will come out to feed in the sun occasionally. Browns tend to be much lazier than Rainbows so the slower the water the better when it comes to looking for them in the Ngaruroro and Tutaekuri. A lot of the time this can mean very shallow water. You will usually find them in depths from 30cm to 1m deep. On slack drop-offs, shallow back waters and especially the head of runs, these tend to be a favourite of Ngaruroro browns. The fast water rushes over the fish’s head while it sits in slack, usually behind a rock or gravel build up. Brown trout have a lighter back than the Rainbows so looking for a light brown or cream will give them away. Often Brown trout will sit in water barely deeper than their body width, when walking through the river I have nearly stepped on Brown trout on more than 10 occasions. Fish your feet first and expect the unexpected with these fish!
Rainbows are much more commonly out in the open feeding in direct sunlight, the majority will still be under the willows though. Rainbow Trout are an active species residing in mostly slow water but will go into fast if the food is there. You can find them from 30cm deep all the way down to 3m in the deepest backwaters. The location for Rainbows is quite easy: they love drop-offs! Anywhere that concentrates food and requires minimal effort for the fish is a great start. Rainbows also love backwaters, especially in summer time when the main river heats up (as previously mentioned) these locations have cold water, food and shelter – the trout search this out. Compared to Brown trout Rainbows are much less fussy and will take a variety of flies and move around and eat much more aggressively.
Fishing for trout is never going to be easy, but if you are willing to research and put proven tactics to practice, then you will have a considerable advantage. Like anything, practice makes perfect and learning from experienced people provides you with a shortcut to success.
Please share this article with your friends and encourage each other to get outside and give trout fishing a go. Catching and releasing your first trout will be a memory that sticks with you forever.