Like a lot of our trips, it all started from a simple phone call – like ‘Find time in ten days – we need to go to New Zealand” – ‘No I’m too busy!” “There’s a good chance of a twenty pounder!” – “OK let’s go!” The only problem was that we wanted to film an episode for our AFN TV Show and we had no camera man, so yes you guessed it, I was elected cameraman with not much of a chance to fish!
I had heard that Frank Prokop was going to be in the South Island around the same time so I put in a quick call to him and we quickly worked out that he too had been hearing snippets about these massive trout in the hydro canals around Twizel. Even better, he was in contact with an ex pat Aussie, Paul Spicer, who had moved to the South Island and was experimenting with Franks micro jigging techniques that Frank had developed for the Eucumbene River years ago.
So, on the 16th of October 2015 Nigel Webster and I took off for New Zealand planning to catch up with Frank Prokop and Paul Spicer on the morning of the 18th and go and have a look at what this canal fishing was all about!
My job was to film video for our TV Show and photograph for our magazine – Freshwater Fishing. Neither of us really had much of an idea as to what to expect except that we had high hopes of seeing and catching a trout in the 12-15 pound range. The jigs we knew about and we had left that side of things to Frank, electing ourselves to bring soft plastics and hard bodies and a range of the new Mustad X Rigging systems to rig and deliver the soft plastics.
There is no question that the snow-capped mountains surrounding Twizel make for a stunning backdrop. The highlight has to be majestic Mount Cook that is located in the Lake Pukaki headwaters. The amount of water that must flow down the combined systems from lakes Tekapo, Pukaki and Ohau would be mind blowing. Now to us Aussies, who have little experience with natural lakes, you have to realise that in their original form these are vast natural lakes – they flow in at one end and then just naturally flow out at the other. Big time!
What has happened in this system is that the outflows have been re directed down a canal system, often paralleling the natural river outflow. This system of canals is then linked into classic power station which drops down to generate massive amounts of hydroelectricity.
Interestingly some of the outlets obviously still allow a migratory movement of trout through them and this could have a lot to do with the natural and healthy stocks of both brown and rainbow trout in the canals themselves.
The town of Twizel is pretty well central to all these lakes, rivers and canals and offers all the facilities in the way of accommodation, food, eateries and a couple of tackle shops.
I guess my biggest impression with the canal system was the ease of access – every canal has a road running alongside it on both sides! Sometimes gravel but sometimes bitumen. Yes – it is not your classic bush bashing, wild river experience! But it is very extensive and without Paul it would have taken us much longer to sort things out and get the places wired.
As you can see I’ve put together a pretty detailed map for all who want to travel there and experience what is the best trophy trout fishery in the world today. For us though it was all new and at times perplexing. Paul had the experience of having fished the canals extensively for the last two years. Obviously he was very focussed on areas that had worked for him in the past and of those the Ohau Canal 1 near the outlet of Lake Ohau and in and around the salmon farm on the Ohau 2 canal, and the salmon farm on the lower part of the Ohau 1 canal near it’s confluence with the Pukaki canal were favourites.
Clearly the wild trout were associating themselves with the nutrient rich areas around the salmon farms, but I believe that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that these wild trout are not necessarily feeding on the pellet food used in the salmon farming. I say that because the method of disbursing the pellets is very specific and targeted within the pens. The Chinook salmon also seemed to clean up all the food dispersed. Plus they are certainly not overfed.
The canal systems just have the ideal environment conducive to growing massive trout. Ten to twelve degree water temperature all year round, no fluctuation in water level, nutrient rich waters containing a myriad of food sources from aquatic insects, forage (smaller fish, escapee salmon and small trout) to terrestrial insects and other food sources. There is and has never been any stocking of the system and the population is self- sustaining and fed through the system’s ability to populate through the lake/canal gateways.
Where to Fish – Ohau Canal A
The outflow from Lake Ohau into this canal is controlled by gates in a small, hundred metre wide dam. There is no power generation associated with this construction and trout are able to migrate through the gates with relative ease.
Anglers actually fish from the viewing area right at the outlet and we witnessed many good trout sitting in the eddy against the concrete wall. The preferred method here was to drift a Glo Bug on spin tackle using just a split shot for added weight. Others used soft plastics, but the trick was to get a natural drift. The only problem with hooking fish here is landing them! So, you will need to move off the viewing area and down onto the side of the canal to land them, which takes a bit of pre planning.
We did find a number of trout working the edge on the northern side of the canal near around 100 metres either side of the level post. Paul caught the first trout of the trip here, a sensational nine and a half pound rainbow (4.3 kilo), and an absolutely stunning trout that I filmed, but sadly didn’t photograph!
You will see that there is a salmon farm in Ohau A that is located just above its confluence with the Pukaki canal. This is a very popular area to fish and you will often polaroid huge trout actually in and around the area of these farms. We found trout in these salmon farm areas very difficult to get to bite. On the odd occasion that they did the result was inevitable as they ran around the huge cables that hold the pens in place.
However look closely at the areas at either end of the cages as you will have a good chance of landing a trout if it runs away from the cages.
Where to Fish – Pukaki Canal
This is a larger, longer canal that runs between its outlet from Lake Pukaki all the way down to where Ohau A runs in and then onwards for about 500 metres to where it drops into Lake Ruataniwha. This canal has two bitumen roads running the full length offering access all the way along the canal.
This canal was one of the best that we fished! The bank opposite where the Ohau canal A hits the Pukaki was the winner for us in the end! It took us a few days to work out that there was a serious population of big trout, mainly browns that seemed to be pushed onto this bank by the swirling current from the Ohua entering. They just seem to be located upstream of the main current in the convergence of the two canals.
Sometimes you’d drive up in the car and simply polaroid two or three fish sitting right against the bank and at other times they would be high in the water column, but out 20 metres and over deeper water. We filmed a lot here and Nigel caught his 22 pounder here on a Zerek 5” Flat Shad paddle tail out wide. Frank lost a monster, and then followed up with his 33 pounder on a black micro jig sitting behind a modified X Rig! You will notice in the TV Show that the wind is well over 30 knots and howling! I believe that this change of weather brought the trout on – big time!
After that red letter session, we had a bit of a break back at Twizel until late afternoon, when Nigel and I decided to do an evening search around some new sections of the canals. As we had limited light and limited time we tried polaroiding out of the car! Simply drive as close as safe along the side of the road and polaroid the edge from out of the car. We did about 3 kilometers of the Ohau A and the another 3 to 4 kays along the Pukaki upstream for not one sighting.
In the end we ended up looking at a section on the lower Pukaki where it ends and flows into the Ruataniwha power station and upstream to where the Ohau A flows in and saw some absolute crackers! They just seem to pop up in certain areas at certain times and where you see one, you will often see a few. Here Nigel hooked and landed his monster – a 37 pounder – that ran him to the other side of the canal, breaching several times before Nige finally pumped it back to his shore – luckily he was using extra heavy trout spin gear! This fish created enough excitement to attract anglers from the other side of the canal and was surely one of the largest caught in 2015! This trout took a 75mm sinking Barra X pimped with KVD treble hooks.
Where to Fish – Ohau B Canal
This is a short section of the canal system that runs between the end of Lake Ruataniwha and the drop through a power station into the longer Ohau C canal.
There is a salmon farm on the other side of the main road and this short section is a very popular area for campervans that park right on the edge of the canal. Often you’ll see over 20 campers here, all fishing for trout.
Where to Fish – Ohau C Canal
This canal runs between the outlet at Ruataniwha and flows down to Lake Benmore. The trout here are recruited from Lake Benmore as there is a large drop from the lake through the power station and it is unlikely that trout can move either through the power station or even less likely over the spillway and down the Ohau River.
We found that there was a much higher population of rainbow trout in this canal, probably due to its isolation from the other systems, and the fact that this canal linked to a solid rainbow trout fishery in Lake Benmore.
As you drive down to this canal and around the power station you will see a gravel road along the north western or left hand side of the canal. This allows access to the salmon farm some 500 metres downstream. There is a locked gate here and there is no vehicle access allowed, but it is fine to walk through and fish. The bank here down to the salmon farm is a favourite of Paul’s and he has caught many good trout in this area as well as in and around the salmon farm.
On our trip we had more success in this canal by driving down McAughties road to the top end of Benmore , crossing the canal over the bridge and driving back up to the salmon farm. We caught several really nice rainbows here on micro jigs including a monster 25 pound (11.4 kilo) buck rainbow, probably in its last year.
Where to Fish – Tekapo Canal
This is the longest canal in the system and runs all the way from Lake Tekapo to Lake Pukaki where it runs down through a power station and exits into Lake Pukaki. At the bottom end of the canal is a very large pool called the ‘The Fishbowl. This is a very popular area to fish and you can park on the southern side on the Tekapo Canal road and walk around to the northern side of the canal to try more water.
We elected to fish the other side of the canal by driving north east on Tekapo Canal road and crossing the canal over the bridge then driving back past the salmon farm and onto the locked gate to fish the canal from there and up to the Aquarium.
There are some beautiful rainbow and brown trout here that will take hard bodied lures, soft plastics and jigs. You will be fishing off a rock wall, so it is a bit more difficult than the more gently sloped canal banks of the other canals.
Where to Fish – The Lakes
Our focus was on the big trout in the canals, but we did also try some of the lakes as well. You can wade the top end of Lake Benmore and very effectively lure cast using log casts with soft plastics or floating diving minnows. If polaroiding then go to creature baits and ultra-light jig heads or take the fly gear. The trout here are browns and rainbows in the one to possibly two kilo range.
Lake Ohau also has a great stock of resident trout in the 550g to 1.5 kilo range and access is very good with a gravel road running right along the eastern shore. We spent an afternoon there and lure cast finesse minnows from shore for some very nice trout to about a kilo and a half.
Nigel also spoke to a local angler who fishes for larger canal trout that obviously migrate up through the gates and into the lake. These tend to be found down in the bottom end of the lake along the southern shore from the gates to the Ohau River outlet.
Tactics and Lures
While all forms of fishing is legal in the canal system – fly, lure and bait – we elected to concentrate on using soft plastics, hard bodied minnows, jigs and micro jigs. All I can say is that you need to be flexible and adaptable! We did it really tough for the first two days. The boys spotted fish and spooked them. They cast and cast and threatened to call it ‘The land of a Thousand Casts’ Nigel concentrated on 3-5” paddle tails using various Mustad Fastach jig heads to vary sink rates. But also mixed it up with sinking hard bodies out in deeper water, where prospecting would get occasional strikes. Medium to slow rolled retrieves seemed best .
Paul and Frank essentially concentrated on using black micro jigs, pretty much in an adaptive Eucumbene style with more retrieve than drift. But they also used hard bodies at times, especially in the slower moving waters of the Tekapo canal near the Aquarium.
When I eventually was allowed to fish! I opted for a creature bait – a Berkley Power Craw – as I was spotting trout right on the edges, as they slowly cruised up and then drifted off into deeper water. Just letting them sit on the bottom with a little twitch often did the trick.
Our gear was XOS for trout as we did hope for 20 pounders and it really came into its own when we had to pump in huge trout that fought until exhaustion. Our tackle specifically was Wilson Live Fibre RLFVS6 7 foot 2 piece 6-15 pound medium spin rods coupled with 4000 series ATV Valiant threadlines. Really an outfit that I would use to cast soft plastics to reasonable mulloway and snapper in Australia!
This was coupled with Mustad 18 pound actual breaking strain Wish braid ( 10 pound equivalent gelspun) with 10 pound fluoro carbon leader.
Highlights & the AFN Fishing Show
Without doubt the highlight for me was witnessing and filming Frank’s capture! After hundreds of casts for his elusive 20 pound plus trout – his lifetime’s dream – he lost what was easily a 30 pound plus trout right at the bank! You could tell he was absolutely gutted! Then, to follow up some hours later and nail a 33 pounder was something that was almost unbelievable. Just watch his reaction on The TV Show and you’ll see what I mean!
Nigel’s 37 pounder was clinical, tactical and almost equally just as surreal! I polaroided the trout out of the car and Nigel stalked it and got it to bite on about the third cast. Then it swam to the bank and just lugged it out for a couple of minutes. I honestly don’t think that it knew it was hooked! When it did it took off on an amazing 150 metre run to the other bank actually jumping and breeching on its side twice on the way.
Then, after four days of solid filming and putting the Show to bed, I finally convinced the guys to let me have a fish! On the way back to Christchurch Airport we stopped on the Pukaki opposite the Ohau A. Nigel and Frank quickly walked up the canal polaroiding leaving me at the car finally rigging up my gear. Yes, theirs was all ready to go!
Looking up the bank a bit I saw a nice fish move in from the deep, grabbed the nearest creature baits that I could find…and simply then messed up the cast completely. Luckily it was so bad it didn’t spook the trout. My second cast of the trip was probably one of the best I’ve done! The trout moved on and simply covered the craw and my whole system just tightened and locked solid! This fish knew it was hooked and went nuts from moment one. It made two one-hundred metre runs to the other side of the canal and ended up at least 300 metres down the canal from where it was hooked before the netting – the result, a 29 pounder! Two casts for my NZ trip! Certainly not the Land of a Thousand Casts for me!