Poolburn Dam

By Greg Morton
The stunning Poolburn Dam.
A colourful Poolburn trout.
New Zealand falcons add to the scenery.
Every town in New Zealand is sure to have a couple of fishing destinations that are part of the town fabric. They are as well-known as the town park. Alexandra is a case in point. Locals who drop in to buy angling gear at the Central Otago Sports Depot are sure to ask owner Stu Middendorf how the Poolburn Dam and the Upper Manorburn Dam are fishing. The news about them is usually positive as both are topclass fisheries.
These two high-country irrigation reservoirs sit close to each other on the Ida Valley side of the Rough Ridge Range. The main turnoff for both is at the old Poolburn Dam Hotel, and from here anglers travel along Ida Valley Road and then follow dam signposts. The Upper Manorburn Dam has rainbow trout only and the Poolburn Dam has brown trout only. Historically, the Upper Manorburn provides quantity fishing for mediumsized fish while the Poolburn Dam provides fewer fish but greater quality, with the largest browns reaching up to 3.5kg.
Both places are subject to four-seasons-inone-day weather but the scenery is breathtaking and the big sky grandeur is mesmerising. More people, not just anglers, visit the Poolburn than the Upper Manorburn Dam because it has a better network of roads and is more user-friendly. Most anglers targeting the Upper Manorburn are hardcore locals who use boats to get up into the top basin where the best fishing can be found. Huts up there are rudimentary, and shoreline anglers are restricted to a short section of road in the bottom basin.
People who visit the Poolburn Dam tend to stay longer, spread out around the whole dam, and many of the cabins look more like holiday homes than huts. Each is situated on a strategic spot close to a point, a bay, or even on an island. One has a landing strip. Camper vans and buses are often found here as well. Over the holiday period, it must feel like a small village.
What makes the Poolburn so unique is the impact of the total package. Big sky, barren hills, tussock landscape, and a multitude of rock tors that litter the sides of the inundated shallow basin. The tops of the tallest drowned tors are just below the surface, at the surface, or form small islands. A lot of boats over the years have hit badly placed rock obstacles while trolling. Fish & Game have helped out here, and some of the worst offenders have had flags attached to them to aid visibility.
Peter Jackson was so impressed with the bleak but stunning panorama of the place that it became a movie set in one of his Lord of the Rings films. The Poolburn basin became the plains of Rohan where the horse-riding Rohirrim tribe lived in villages.
I wonder if any of the actors tried the trout fishing while they were there, because the beautiful and potentially large trout are the glue which unites so many of the visitors. I have fished here for several decades so know it well. It was my dad’s favourite fishing spot, so every time I visited the town that is where he would take me. He was a very good spin/fly fishing angler but in later years was happy to take a sumptuous lunch and invite a good friend or family member up there to go worm fishing. Many of the problems of the world were solved while watching for a bite. On a good day, worms outfished all other methods.
His best spot was in shallow water between the shore and a small island. Feeding fish were using the gap as an alley between bays and couldn’t resist scoffing his worms as they cruised by. These days the special nature of the fishery is respected and the limit is just one, and I hope all anglers eat the average ones and release the really big ones. Poolburn trout are usually vivid gold in colour and have a mix of dark and red spots.
The fish often feed very close to shore, and I find that fishing the shallow water is more productive than the deeper water around the rocks. Some days the dam is just dead and I have a sneaky feeling that is because the fish that day were full after eating through the previous night. I remember a mate telling me that while tenting near the water one calm night he could hear fish feeding on the surface throughout the dark hours.
The largest trout I have ever caught here was 2.3kg, so I am a long way off the best this dam offers. The Poolburn browns are no mugs. Even when you finally hook them there are no guarantees because they are jumpers and that has ended badly for me in the past.
Recently I visited the Poolburn Dam for a day outing and conditions looked perfect – a light breeze on the surface and plenty of water in the dam. However, it was another dead day. My camera got a good scenery workout but nothing touched any of my various fishy offerings. On the way back to the car at afternoon’s end, I decided to have a few more casts off a point. On about the third cast I noticed a shadow following my Rapala into the shore. It developed into a large green/bronze-coloured trout and as it got closer I could see it was a huge jack with a hooked bottom jaw. It was the largest Poolburn brown I have ever seen and was obviously one of the Moby Dick denizens I had been told live here. About two metres out it turned sideways so I got a good look at his impressive girth. It never came back but I now know where he lives. Next time, maybe!