The first rod went off just as the second one had been set. As he grabbed the rod, Noel Bowden joked: “If it all goes like this, we’ll be finished by tonight!”

“Well, fishing and hunting isn’t always like this, Noel,” Geoff Thomas replied. “But it’s a hell of a start!”

Bowden, a plumber from Patumahoe in South Auckland, was embarking on the annual Rheem Big Six Challenge, and he began with trout fishing at Lake Tarawera.

The challenge is to shoot two different game animals, catch two freshwater fish, which can be trout or salmon, and two saltwater fish of different species.

To put the difficulty of the challenge into perspective: nobody has ever managed to bag all six species in the seven years of the Rheem Big Six Challenge.

For years, the best score was four out of six, until Wellington’s Tony Cain raised the bar to five last year.

The trout section had proven a real problem in many of the past challenges, but for Bowden – who had never even caught a trout before – it was seeming easy. Then, as he was playing the first trout hooked, the second rod started nodding. “A double strike!” Thomas said. “We have never had a start like this!”

Bowden brought his first fish to the boat, and everybody agreed it was a fantastic catch – fat and deep, a perfect six-pounder. Then he raced across and grabbed the other rod – under the rules nobody else was allowed to touch it – and that trout had played the game nicely and not thrown the hook while the rod was unattended with a slack line.

Bowden played the fish like a seasoned angler, and within three minutes of the clock starting, he had two trout on the board.

The challenger has 48 hours to complete the challenge, and the clock starts when the first fish is hooked or the first animal shot.

With the trout in the bag, the team headed down the middle of the North Island, from Lake Tarawera to Taupo, then over the hills to Napier and through Hawke’s Bay, to Dannevirke, where they turned off towards the coast.

“Conquering the Big Six is as much about skill and smarts as it is about planning. Hunting is always better at dawn or in the evening, and you can catch fish on the salt all day. And the weather is always a major factor.”

As they passed through the tiny township of Pongaroa, Thomas explained the choice of destination.
A couple of years earlier, he had been in town to film an Outdoors show about a local hunting competition.

Thomas had spotted locals weighing in impressive-looking stags and boars at the Pongaroa Hotel, and thought it would be the perfect spot to do the Big Six.

For this year’s competition, Thomas’ mate in the area, Paul Peeti, organised an expert hunting guide – known as Gonzo – to help them bag a stag, with hopes of also shooting a billy goat or a boar.

Peeti also arranged for a local fisherman to launch them off the beach at Akitio.

All the group needed was for the weather to play ball – but it wasn’t to be. That came as no surprise to the Big Six crew: every time they visit, it rains.

According to local legend, whenever there is a drought, locals call Peeti and ask when Thomas will next be in town, to bring them some much-needed rain. And this year, it was a deluge.

The rain began as the crew headed out on the coast road – a remote and spectacular stretch of the Wairarapa coast, with crayfish and paua among the rocks, and plenty of animals in the bush.

“The Rheem Big Six is always a monster challenge to tackle, but this year, Mother Nature made sure it was a wild experience for Noel and our crew.”

The remnants of Cyclone Hola also brought howling winds that smashed waves onto the beach and turned the rivers into brown torrents bubbling with trees and branches.

But the challenge clock was ticking, and the crew knew they would definitely get a goat, possibly a kahawai in the river mouth, and there was a good chance at a stag too, so they dug out the rain gear and went for it.

Bowden had also never shot a deer, so it was a big call for him to put his first shot with a high power into an animal, but that is what the Big Six is all about – it provides an opportunity to give something a go, even if you have no experience.

The following morning saw the team high in the mountains, waiting for the first flush of light to push through the dense fog which drifted over the tops.

Gonzo pointed to a little valley on the bush edge, where three deer were standing. The deer quickly spotted the four hunters and the film crew, and scampered into the scrub. A bunch of fallow then quickly sprang up and bounded over the ridge.

Gonzo and Bowden went ahead of the group, hoping to find a clear shot at a stag – but stags don’t read the script, and the only one that fell over was a hind for meat.

It was then time to head back for a breakfast feast, courtesy of Peeti, who put on a spread of baked and minced paua, sausages, eggs, and hash browns baked with cheese on top.

Bowden's Big Six Challenge - Bowden and Shane
Noel Bowden (right) had some help from his wingman, Shane Middleton.

The rain, which began as a morning mist, was now bucketing down. After fuelling themselves up, the team covered up and took buggies into the hills for a billy goat, one of which is almost guaranteed in the area. Bowden shot several, and his wingman, Shane Middleton, who is a serious hunter, added a few more to the bag.

By now, Bowden had a score of three, with 24 hours to go.

Ready to hit the river for fish, the crew loaded up the buggies with surf rods and headed to the rivermouth. The tide was coming in as Bowden cast his spinners. The team called a halt when their coats and clothes could not get any wetter, and it was back to the bar for a korero.

Bowden’s chance to bag all six looked lost as the weather worsened.

The sea was totally out of the question, the rivers were in flood, and the roads were closed by flooding and slips.

The worst was yet to come: the power went out, phone lines went dead, and it took the team all of the following day just to get into Hawke’s Bay, which was a sea of floodwater.

Nonetheless, Bowden was rapt with his trout and goat, and a final score of three out of six.

His freezer is packed with sausages and steaks from a lovely fallow, and the miserable weather is already a distant memory.