Which New Zealand River Has the Most Trout?

With the borders still closed due to corona, I have not seen much point about writing much about trout fishing in New Zealand, but there are now a few signs that border restrictions are to be relaxed throughout 2022, and in doing so, many world class trout rivers will be accessible by international anglers again. I for one am waiting for another chance to target the backcountry trophys.

Many backcountry trout rivers and streams have seen extremely light fishing pressure over the last few years. Few local anglers have been prepared to charter a helicopter to fly into the more remote stretches. This means, once heavily pressured waters have had a chance for a breather. .

In some years, international anglers made up 70% of the angler numbers on famous rivers like the Greenstone. Since the pandemic closed the borders that number has dropped close to zero. Once the borders do reopen, I feel it will be the best time in decades to experience the world class trout fishing New Zealand has to offer.

With the introduction out of the way, I will now tackle the topic of this article. Which rivers in New Zealand have the most trout?

Well, I will start by saying. The iconic backcountry trout rivers famous for their trophy size brown trout rarely hold large number of trout. Trout are few and far between, but the lack of trout is more than made up for by the size.

I will start by sharing my own experiences. I have been lucky enough to have spent the best part of a decade trout fishing around the upper half of the South Island. So I know these waters very well and what they have to offer. One river immediately springs to mind.

The River I have Seen the Most Trout

The river I have personally seen the most trout in is the Maruia which is a tributary to the large Buller River. It is also very easy to access from state highway 65. The Maruia flows through a mixture of farmland and bush clad hills. The nearby country town of Murchison is widely considered to be one of the premier trout fishing destinations in the country. The upper river, above the falls contains large numbers of brown trout. While beneath the falls, the river is wider and deeper and a mixture of both Browns and Rainbow can be caught.

Whenever I am in the Murchison area, I always make time to fish the Maruia. It contains a large number of trout of all age groups and the water is usually very clear. Sometimes a large number of juvenile fish can make casting difficult, they spook at any threat and their fleeing alerts the bigger trout nearby. I have read reports that it contains over 130 trout per kilometre.

My favourite section of the Maruia is a remote section called the Maruia gorge. The gorge should not be underestimated, and to fish its entire length takes the best part of a day and a half. I have heard stories of anglers who underestimated the amount of time it takes and were forced to abandon gear to harry out before sunset. Others were forced to spend cold nights rough sleeping on the river bank. When I fish the gorge, I plan to stay the night so pack the appropriate camping gear. If time is limited, I just fish the first few kilometres then walk back out.

I am not going to give their exact locations, but there are several rather divine spring creeks within the Buller catchment. For anglers who have several days to explore they are worth discovering.

The New Zealand Back Country River with the Most Large Fish

The Karamea River is also worthy of a mention. The Karamea is a very remote river, with only the lower reaches accessible from the road. The headwaters offers some of the best fishing in the country. They are only accessible by an overnight hike or expensive helicopter flight. According to survey numbers by Fish and Game the Karamea contains large numbers of big trout. Some drift dives have revealed over 40 large trout per kilometre. I will also add, that drift dives of its less famous neighbour the Mokihinui often result in a higher number of trout including large fish.

The upper Karamea use to see a lot of angling pressure, and prior to the pandemic, the feedback I have received is that fishing has gotten difficult. I know of more than a few anglers who no gave up on hiking in due to the pressure it receives from helicopter drop offs.

Fish and game does frequently drift dive the Karamea, and according to their count’s trout numbers have remained fairly stable despite the increase in angler pressure. It just seems that the trout have been seeing too many people and have gotten shy and becoming harder to catch.

I remember chatting with a couple of South African anglers who I gave a lift back to their car while fishing a different river. Just a few days prior they spent several days fishing the upper Karamea and its famous tributary the Roaring Lion and only saw a handful of fish. It was towards the end of the season, but quite disappointing results from such an iconic stream. The two year break, thanks to the pandemic might just be what the upper Karamea needed to recover and for the trout to regain their confidence.

I personally once hiked into the extremely isolated middle sections of the river. I choose that part of the river because it was the summer holiday’s and I was expecting anywhere more accessible to be extremely pressured. It involved following a non-existing and heavily overgrown route up the Karamea gorge. At the end of the Gorge, is Grey’s hut which only sees three or four visitors most years. It is amazing looking country, vast deep pools and long runs. Well, I spent two days fishing it and only saw one trout. A healthy 2lb jack. While fishing, I did count 8 helicopters which I can only assume were dropping anglers off at the more famous headwater.

The Matarua River in Southland Is Home to a Lot of Trout.

There are two more rivers which I feel deserve a mention. I left them until last because I am less familiar with them. The first is the Mataura River. According to NZ Fish and Game surveys, it has among the highest number of trout of any river in New Zealand, and they are not all small fish.

The Mataura is also one of the more accessible trout rivers in NZ, it flows through farmland for much of its length and it offers over 150km of easily accessible water. It should come at little surprise that the Mataura sees a lot of fishing reputation. It is widely regarded as one of the best fly fishing rivers in the country.

The Tongario is well known for large runs of rainbow trout

It also has some of the best mayfly, caddis and midge hatches in the country, making it a popular river to fish with dry flies. The Mataura is another river that is a victim of its own success. By late in the summer, the trout are wary and becoming increasingly line shy.

Finally, I need to mention the Tongariro river. The Tongariro is one of the main tributaries which feed into lake Taupo, the largest lake in New Zealand. During the winter, and into the spring large numbers of rainbow trout migrate upstream to spawn. Local fishermen use to, and some still do travel from all around New Zealand to fish its many pools, although the runs are only a fraction of what they once were.

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