On a day in late February 1898 Mr and Mrs Malcolm and Forrestina Ross and Mr A.R. Lowe left Wellington to climb the mountains of Tongariro National Park. Lowe, who was the Assistant Secretary of the Wellington Acclimatisation Society, had also in his care 5000 rainbow trout fry from the society's Masterton hatchery.
The party traveled north to Mangaonoho on the main trunk line and then by coach to Ohingaiti where they overnighted. On waking the next morning they were disappointed to discover that fish in two of the three cans had died. They continued on by coach to Waiouru, described by Malcolm Ross as "an outpost on a wilderness of tussock plain backed by the snows of Ruapehu and the steaming Ngauruhoe". A combination of a rough road which shook the cans, aerating the water, and frequent changes of fresh water whenever they crossed small streams ensured the remaining fry survived.
On reaching Waiouru they liberated the first of the fry in a dam near the stables. It is likely that it is from this release that the trout population in the Waitangi stream, which flows west from Waiouru, was established. The next morning, 24 February 1898, the party hired a wagonette and continued their journey north. Close to the summit of the Desert Road they came to the first of several streams which flow into the Tongariro River. Here at the ford on the upper Waikato stream the party conducted a small ceremony and Forrestina Ross, by virtue of being the only woman in the party, released the first pannikin-full of rainbow trout into Taupo waters. Later on the party also made releases into the Te Piripiri and Mangatoetoenui streams on their way to successfully climb all three mountains in the national park.
A year later, in 1899, Mr Cecil Whitney approached the Auckland Acclimatisation Society to make further releases of rainbow trout in Taupo. The suggestion received little enthusiasm, in part because it was considered that Taupo was too remote. What angler would bother to travel for several days, often through bad weather, to fish at Taupo? In response Whitney circulated a petition at Taupo requesting that the society stock Lake Taupo and its rivers with rainbow trout in the spring of 1900. In a paper he wrote in 1937 Whitney claimed all but one person signed the petition which, when presented to the society, had the desired result.
In late 1900 a "liberal allocation" of trout was released into the Waikato River and the streams flowing into the lake. Further releases followed in 1901 and 1902. In 1903 Reverend Henry Fletcher arranged that the Auckland Acclimatisation Society send a further 5000 fry, which were received by Captain Thomas Ryan. Ryan was the master of the steamer "R.M.S.Tongariro" which provided a regular mail, passenger and goods service between Taupo and Tokaanu. The fish were immediately loaded aboard the steamer to be released into all the tributaries on the western side of the lake. Ryan undertook similar releases through to 1906, in the later years receiving the consignment as eyed ova which were then hatched under his supervision. The society allowed him as much ova as he could handle and in evidence given later Ryan claimed to have released about 220,000 fry in the years 1905 and 1906.
In April 1904 the first rainbow trout was caught which weighed 1.36kg. Yet by 1906 Count Fritz von Hochberg, who otherwise found very little to commend the North Island, wrote of being impressed by a rainbow trout caught by Robert Jones, landlord of the Tokaanu Hotel, which weighed 8kg. By 1907 rainbow trout were the dominant species in the lake, surpassing the brown trout which were introduced in 1887, in numbers although not in weight. Anglers were delighted; the whole impetus for the introduction of rainbow trout had arisen through disappointment with the difficulty of catching brown trout.
Word quickly spread and anglers in New Zealand and from overseas were soon flocking to Taupo. In the beginning the fishing was confined to the Waikato River and the stream mouths around the lake. Gradually though, anglers tested the rivers, many developing a preference for this form of angling. One of the first to fish the Tongariro River was Major Rhys Wykeham Jones who with a party of friends moved upstream from the Delta to fish near the road bridge in 1909. Facilities quickly established to cater for the rush of anglers. Robert Jones built a camp at the mouth of the Tongariro River and another on the banks near the Hut Pool some 400 metres downstream of the road bridge. This camp was a favourite of anglers and staying there brought certain privileges. Each angler was allowed a pool to themselves until midday when they changed with another angler. A few anglers chose to fish with a fly but most fished with Devon spinners, a metal minnow with two or three treble hooks. A typical catch was that of Charles C. Percival of England, who between 26 March and 25 May 1911 caught 354 fish weighing 1376kg, the largest 6.8kg.
Then in about 1912 the size and quality of the trout began to decline rapidly as the population of the native fish, the koaro, collapsed under the predatory pressure. The authorities decided the trout population should be reduced and in 1912 the Tourist Department began buying trout from anglers. Anglers however were reluctant to sell their catch and so controlled netting was undertaken, the fish smoked and sent to markets in Auckland and Wellington to defray expenses. Between 1913 and 1920 103,000 trout were sold and many others unfit for eating were buried. In 1917 the average size had fallen to 1.45kg but by 1920 the population was making a remarkable recovery and netting ceased. By 1924 the size and condition of trout exceeded the peak of 1910, and the mid-1920s probably reflect the best years of the Taupo fishery. Pat Burstall, a former Conservator of Wildlife, lists a rainbow of 12.5kg caught at the mouth of the Waitahanui River in 1924 as the largest caught on a rod and line in this period while Ralph Ward, a Taupo historian, suggests a fish of 9.9kg caught by William Branson in the 1923/24 season was the largest ever caught on a fly. There is also a report of J.D.A. Painton of Taupo catching a 10.6kg rainbow at the Waitahanui stream mouth one night in 1925, a night in which he caught 11 fish, 10 of which were over 9kg. These fish all pale in comparison though to a fish described by Budge Hintz, a 17kg (37.51b) rainbow caught in the Mangamutu stream prior to the First World War. He records Awhi Northcroft as saying "Big fish! We had to cut it in two to weigh it".
In 1926 Zane Grey, a noted Western author, made the first of his three visits to the Taupo area. Prior to this all the fishing on the Tongariro River essentially occurred in an area between the Hut camp up to the bluff above the road bridge. However Grey's party was taken by Hoka Downs, whose family owned a large area along the upper Tongariro, to the Dreadnought Pool just upstream of the Poutu confluence. Grey wrote of his outstanding success in Tales of the Angler's Eldorado: New Zealand and the government also took the opportunity to publicise his visit to the area. Suddenly the lower river was not the only area of the Tongariro. This was further emphasised . when the Duchess of York expressed a wish to undertake some trout fishing. Following Grey's success a camp was erected at Kowhai flat beside what became known as the Duchess Pool. The 10-day visit by the Duke and Duchess of York in March 1927 along with Grey's visit the previous year promoted Lake Taupo around the world. This period was to have an important influence on the future management of the fishery, a direction entwined in the developing relationship between Ngati Tuwharetoa and the Crown.
Through the first few years of the Taupo fishery it was, along with the Rotorua fishery, under the control of the Auckland Acclimatisation Society. This did not rest easily with Rotorua anglers who argued that they had little say in the management of Rotorua and they petitioned the government to set up a new society based on the local region. In 1906 the government, realising the tourism potential and the need to ensure the sustainability of the fisheries, instead took control, initially vesting the fisheries in the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts. The Department employed rangers and issued licences, which were accepted in Rotorua but only to a limited extent in Taupo. Trout were held to be the property of the Crown but in Taupo anglers' access to the waters and control of the rivers and streams was contested by the Maori landowners, some of whom issued their own licences.
As the number of anglers attracted by the fishing increased in the early 1920s so too did concern over landowners charging anglers to fish across their land and over the lease or purchase of land by wealthy visitors to obtain exclusive access to prime sections of the fishery. This was not in keeping with the desire that the fishery should be accessible to all New Zealanders, and so in 1924 the Crown entered into negotiation with Ngati Tuwharetoa reaching an agreement later enshrined in an Act of Parliament. That Act, the Maori Land Amendment and Maori Land Claims Adjustment Act 1926 (or "the special Act" as it is more commonly known) guarantees a licensed angler foot access to fish the streams and lake, and the general public access to the lake. The Tuwharetoa Maori Trust Board was paid £3,000 per annum plus a sum equivalent to half of the revenue from fishing licences, licensing of commercial boats, camp ground fees and fishing fines in excess of this. Not until 1938 did licence revenue exceed £3,000. Today the cost is borne by taxpayers and not anglers, in recognition of the benefits to all New Zealanders of this agreement. It is very easy to take the access for granted but it is one of the major attributes of the Act and therefore the Taupo fishery.
In addition to the access provisions, the 1926 Act required that the Taupo fishery was managed by the Crown. The responsibility for management was vested with the Department of Internal Affairs. Full-time rangers were appointed at Taupo and Turangi, and the Tongariro Trout Hatchery (now the National Trout Centre) was established to collect wild eggs and distribute them locally and for the maintenance of trout fisheries elsewhere.
New regulations issued under the 1926 act included different licence fees for local residents (Adult Season £1.10s), other New Zealanders (£3) and anyone else (£6). Without allowing for inflation over the last 62 years, these equate to $3, $6 and $12 respectively. The season ran from 1 November to the 31 May and the daily bag limit was set at 25 fish with a minimum legal length of 300mm (12"). 'Fly fishing only' waters were established on the Waitahanui River and tributary streams of the Tongariro but not on the mainstream, as Zane Grey would lament in his last visit in 1929.
The golden years were short lived and by the 1930s it was again apparent that the trout population had outgrown its food supply. Coincidentally a similar situation was also occurring in Lakes Tarawera and Okataina and smelt, which had been successfully released into Lake Rotorua in 1907, were in turn released into these lakes. Within two years a huge turnaround occurred in the size and condition of the trout and so not surprisingly the release of smelt from Lake Tarawera into Lake Taupo was trialed in 1934. Releases of smelt continued at intervals through to October 1939 and by 1940 smelt were clearly established in the lake. By 1942 smelt were a large part of the diet of Taupo trout, which has remained unchanged to today.
Despite the downturn in the fishery in the 1930s an issue arose over the number of anglers fishing on the Tongariro and on 20 June 1933 the Upper Waikato and Tongariro Anglers' Club passed a remit "That the Minister of Internal Affairs be asked to open up more fishing waters above the Dreadnought Pool, to relieve the congestion of rods on the river". In a supporting article in the October issue of N.Z Fishing and Shooting Gazette, L. Hanlon, the president of the club wrote "It is felt by all anglers who visit the Tongariro, that owing to the congestion of rods on the pools now available there is urgent need of more angling water being made accessible to them ... arrive to find the famous pools occupied by a dozen rods or more, to their profound astonishment and disgust, many of them finding it hard to find a place where they can get a fish as most of them are not inclined to take part in the unseemly rush to get there first, which has, of late years, become the common order of the day".
By 1934 fishing between the Delta and Kowhai Flat on the Tongariro was restricted to fly only which was extended to cover the whole river during the month of May.
Licence sales, which had numbered 4000 in the 1930/31 season, rose steadily to 8500 in the 1938/39 season before the Second World War caused a marked drop. However by 1948/49 licence sales had exceeded those of the 1938/39 season. Concern increased about maintaining the fishery in a satisfactory state in the face of this rapidly expanding angling pressure.
Steps were taken to reduce the pressure including closing the Whitikau stream to angling in 1950, reduction of the daily bag limit from 12 to 10 fish in 1938 and from 10 to 6 fish in 1948, as well as shortening the season on both the lake and tributaries. In addition stricter enforcement of the regulations and protection of spawning fish was carried out and the Whitikau Falls were blasted to improve access to the upper spawning grounds. The fall in angling pressure was not immediately reflected in the size and condition of the fish, but became apparent after the war. Many poorly conditioned fish were caught and the Department of Internal Affairs in association with scientists from the Marine Department saw an urgent need for a detailed study into the trout populations. In 1951 the first major study was undertaken, the results of which provided a significant advance in the understanding of how the Taupo trout fishery functioned. One of the most important discoveries was that poorly conditioned trout were not diseased as previously thought, but fish which had spawned and not recovered condition.
Regulations of the time included an open season from 1 November to 31 May, a daily bag limit of six fish and a prohibition on trolling within 200 metres of the shore around the whole lake. In addition more than one million fry from the Tongariro trout hatchery were liberated into the lake annually. Data from angling surveys indicated anglers were returning 30% of their catch, inevitably rejecting the poorer conditioned fish which contributed to the high proportion of older fish in the population. Despite the large trout population the Department of Internal Affairs in a report on the situation commented "The individual angler today catches less trout than formerly, largely because with the great increase in numbers of anglers, congested conditions make for competition among them". From the results of the studies the scientist in charge, D.F. Hobbs, commented in 1954 "From evidence now becoming available it would appear that the cumulative effects of a series of happenings which tended to limit exploitation, outweighed the results of expanding angling pressure. There was probably inadequate allowance for the natural resiliency of a wild stock under increasing pressure, and for the extent to which additional angling effort tended to be competitive between anglers with the result that cropping of the stock did not increase proportionately to the enormously increased sale of licences".
To improve the condition of the trout it was decided that greater harvesting of unthrifty" old trout would divert the available food to the younger, stronger growing fish which should improve the average size. Therefore in 1954 and 1955, a special winter fishing season was permitted under strict controls. However to ensure sufficient fish were able to spawn angling was stopped on all the western and northern streams around the lake and restricted to the lower reaches in the eastern tributaries. The bag limit was increased to eight fish and all fish caught were included in the bag, whether they were killed or not, to encourage anglers not to be selective.
By 1960 the quality of the fishery had still not improved very much and so fishing was permitted all year, the bag limit was removed and lead and wire lines allowed. This time the fishery responded and in 1963 a bag limit of 20 fish was reimposed. In the early 1960s an experiment began to test the effects of large-scale hatchery stocking of the lake. This involved releasing up to 100,000 marked rainbow trout per year and then looking at the proportion of stocked to wild fish in subsequent anglers' catches. This indicated the practice achieved very little in terms of putting more fish in anglers bags and so stocking of the lake ceased in 1965. Instead of the widespread netting practiced early in the century to reduce trout numbers, the same effect had been achieved through adjustment of angling pressure and angling methods, the anglers maintaining the balance between trout numbers and the food supply.
The number of anglers using the fishery continued to grow steadily, reaching 69,105 in the 1980/81 season and peaking at 82,000 in the 1987/88 season. At this time it was considered that the fishery was so large that it was a long way from facing any problems as a result of the increasing angling harvest. D.J. Stack, the Conservator of Wildlife in charge of the Taupo fishery wrote in 1983 "There is little concern that increasing tourist angling will ever exploit our trout stocks. There is simple evidence that angling pressure is far from saturation point".
In 1987 the Wildlife Service of the Department of Internal Affairs, which managed the Taupo Fishery, was restructured into the new Department of Conservation. Under the Conservation Act acclimatisation societies and conservancy councils were abolished and replaced by regional fish and game councils. However the 1926 Act required that the Crown manage the Taupo Fishery and the Conservation Act stipulated the Director General of Conservation to undertake this role with all the powers of a fish and game council to do so. Prior to this, expenditure on management of the Taupo Fishery bore little relationship to the revenue derived from fishing licence sales. Instead revenues were absorbed into the government's consolidated fund and an annual allocation of a much smaller sum was made. However the Conservation Act required sports fish and game management to become totally user funded, the corollary being all the money derived from licence sales be spent on management. Therefore since 1987 all expenditure on the Taupo fishery has been equivalent to its level of use. Recognising that user input to the fishery was essential, the Taupo Fishery Advisory Committee was established in 1990. The committee is made up of representatives of local fishing clubs and groups, national fishing interests and the Tuwharetoa Maori Trust Board to advise the Minister of Conservation and the Department of Conservation on management policies and activities.
Coinciding with this change, the fishery entered a period of decline reflected in particular by very low catch rates amongst winter anglers on the rivers. The fishery managers began to suspect that overharvest could after all be having a major impact and undertook a three-year study to assess trout production in the lake. The fishery reached a low point in the 1990/91 season. In this same season an intensive year long survey estimated the angling harvest to be approximately 113,000 trout or 30% to 50% of the total estimated trout production in 1988 and 1989. It was clear overharvest was occurring in the lake, which was limiting the number of fish surviving to reach maturity and so run the rivers to spawn. The managers were confident sufficient fish were spawning to ensure the sustainability of the fishery but there were not enough fish in the runs to provide satisfactory winter angling.
The response was to reduce the daily bag limit from eight fish down to three from December 1990. Aided by several seasons of favourable conditions the fishery quickly responded, reaching a peak of 205,000 legal-sized trout in the lake in November 1994, three times more than the numbers measured in 1988 and 1989.
The 1926 Act had secured to the Crown title to the beds of Lake Taupo and certain parts of its tributaries. In 1993 title was returned to the Ngati Tuwharetoa people and is now administered by a Crown iwi structure called the Taupo-nui-a-Tia Management Board. This did not affect the public's access to Taupo waters but was another step in strengthening the relationship between Ngati Tuwharetoa and the Crown.
In September 1995 Mount Ruapehu erupted, depositing ash into the lake and rivers, and in the same month and again in December two very large floods swept down the rivers. A research project in the mid-1980s had established that large floods in spring have a very detrimental effect on the survival of young trout fry. As a consequence the fishery managers expected the year class to be very weak and implemented an increase in the minimum legal size of trout from 35cm to 45cm. This had the effect of protecting the year class through the main period of lake angling, ensuring a greater proportion of fish reached maturity. The fishery has faced such adverse situations before and will continue to do so; it is all part of a wild fishery in such a rugged landscape. However the regulation changes reflect how the knowledge and management of the fishery have developed over the last 100 years.
It is fitting that l00 years on the rainbow trout fishery is in a golden year, the size and condition of the fish the equal of any year since the 1920s and unmatched elsewhere.
With the advances in knowledge, in environmental care and awareness and with the ever-developing relationship between the Crown and Ngati Tuwharetoa there is every reason to look forward to another 100 years of great fishing.