Chapter 4. Fishing Different Rivers – The Mighty Rakaia
The Complete Guide to Sea-Run Trout Fishing by Allan Burgess
For those anglers living in Christchurch fishing, the Waimakariri River is like angling in your own backyard. Whereas a trip to the Rakaia River is more of an expedition! When it comes to sea-run trout fishing, the lower reaches of these rivers are quite different in several important ways. The lower Waimakariri River is slow and meandering; the lower Rakaia River is much wider, braided and rushing.
The mean flow of the Rakaia River is 215 cumecs which is almost twice that of the Waimakariri River. Almost everything about the Rakaia River is big. The State Highway One bridge over the river at the small township of Rakaia, about 20 kilometres from the mouth, is New Zealand’s longest bridge. It stretches for 1.75 kilometres.
Rakaia Huts on the northern side of the mouth is located approximately 67 kilometres south-west of Christchurch. It takes longer to get to the mouth on the south side because you have to drive to Rakaia township and then follow the road some 20 kilometres to South Rakaia Huts. I prefer to fish on the south side because the access is better unless you have a jet boat.
On the 9th of January 1994 following heavy and widespread rain in the South Island the Rakaia River reached a peak flood level measured at the Rakaia Gorge of 5,590 cumecs. A quick fresh can raise the river level from 200 to 600 cumecs within hours making the river unfishable.
It takes between 8 to 10 hours for the water to flow from Fighting Hill (approximately 67kms upstream) to the river mouth. A fresh (small flood) can come down the river following rain in the catchment. Some 90 percent of the Rakaia River catchment is above the gorge. For this reason, the river can flood quite suddenly even though there is blue sky and sunshine on the Canterbury Plains. It pays to check the weather forecast and river-flow level on the Ecan website: Ecan.govt.nz River Flows before heading to the Rakaia River on a fishing trip. There is nothing more disappointing than driving all the way to Rakaia only to find the river in flood and quite unfishable.
There is excellent spin fishing for trout and quinnat salmon in the lower reaches of the river. Use of the Canterbury Lure Rod is also popular. Rakaia River mouth access is difficult on foot with a long walk over loose shingle required to get to the actual river mouth proper. Note that each blue square on this map represents a distance of one kilometre.
Occasionally there can be two openings in the shingle spit which divides the Rakaia Lagoon from the sea. At such times access to the island then formed in the middle of the spit is only possible by jet boat. When the river floods it often punches a new hole through the shingle spit. The subsequent falling river level combined with wave action can close off these exits through the shingle spit. The river mouth is therefore in a constant state of change.
Many anglers use quad bikes to travel back and forth from the hut settlements at either end of the shingle spit. Jet-boats are also popular with trout and salmon anglers. The width of the lagoon changes depending on the state of the tide.
There are small camping grounds next to the hut settlements on both sides of the river mouth. It is important to check the river level before heading to Rakaia to go fishing. Above 230 cumecs the river is too dirty for fishing.
At the Rakaia River mouth, it is possible to fish for sea-run trout and salmon out in the surf, particularly the wash where the river meets the sea, given the sea is calm. You can also fish for sea-run trout in the river gut (the fast-flowing channel that exits the lagoon) provided you have the right gear, and the lagoon itself, and the lower braids to well upstream. Watch out for birds working smelt. Where the birds are the trout will be also.
The Rakaia River mouth can move up and down along a 4 kilometre stretch of the coastline from in front of North Rakaia Huts back towards South Rakaia Huts. This can mean a walk of up to 4 kilometres each way across the loose shingle, carrying all your gear. Unless you are physically fit the long walk can be quite a struggle.
It is possible to drive a four-wheel-drive vehicle down the spit to the mouth however this is not advised unless you are experienced driving in loose shingle and have a suitable vehicle. I have seen many 4x4s get hopelessly stuck along this shingle spit. Often inexperienced drivers discover that they are all right so long as they are moving. Once they stop they are unable to get started again. Quad bikes with balloon tyres are better able to negotiate the terrain and are very popular with hut owners and anglers.
There are small camping grounds with limited facilities on either side of the river mouth. My advice if you are travelling a long distance to get to the Rakaia River mouth to go sea-run trout, or salmon, fishing is to stay several days to really explore and get a feel for the place.
Let’s start with fishing for sea-run brown trout in the surf. This only fires when conditions are right. I think it has a lot to do with where the smelt are. But the surf needs to be clean for good sea-run trout and salmon fishing. At times surf fishing can be good even when the river is in flood, As the water exits the mouth it turns north sometimes leaving a pocket of clean water on the south side of the mouth. If birds are working out in the sea just off the river mouth you can be sure that kahawai will also be hitting the smelt from underneath. It is odds on that big sea-run trout will also be working. This is particularly the case by January and February. I have seen large fish taken far out on ticers and long rods by anglers fishing for salmon only to discover that they have caught a big sea-run trout instead.
Rakaia River Gut Sea-Run Trout Fishing. This fast-flowing water near the mouth is quite challenging. Wearing a life-jacket is worth doing. The sea-run brown trout are hunting silveries and whitebait in the spring and early summer.
Fishing the gut is something quite different. As water is pushed through the narrow channel on a falling tide it can really pick up momentum. The best fishing in the gut occurs during the second half of the incoming tide. Whatever the state of the tide you are going to need quite a bit of weight to take your lures down near the bottom to where the fish are. You could need 3 or 4 ounces depending on the flow rate. The best sea-run trout fishing takes place after a fresh has gone through the river.
The Canterbury Lure Rod comes into its own when fishing the gut. The lures are cast out and swing around fairly quickly while being retrieved. It is not unusual to see dozens of anglers lining both sides of the gut all fishing with lures rods. Extra space is needed for lure rod fishing compared to spinning in order to avoid tangles.
Fishing the lagoon is a bit more relaxed and you are likely to have more room to yourself as the “old guard” concentrate on fishing the gut. The lagoon swells in depth and width as the tide comes in and the river backs up. If the river is running high at 180 cumecs or more the lagoon can be very wide. There are two options for fishing it. The easiest is to walk down the spit and cast out upstream allowing your lures to swing around in the current. You can fish the lagoon from either side of the mouth but the south side generally offers better access and more water to fish because the swell is generally northwards. Either spin fishing or the lure rod can be used.
Exclusive “Members Only” Video. Fishing for sea-run brown trout on the edge of the main flow through the Rakaia River Lagoon. These rivers are often discoloured to some degree. A yellow lure (streamer fly) like a Parson’s Glory or Yellow-Rabbit is always a good choice. In milky water try a size 4 or even a size 2. This video was filmed in November 2012. The daily bag limit has since been reduced to one fish. Note a walk of several km is often required to reach the mouth from South Rakaia Huts.
If entering from the south side you can usually work your way across the braids to fish the lagoon from upstream. Most anglers like to work their way downstream and fish while standing on a point so they can fish a wide 270-degree arc. Trout fishing in the braids flowing into the lagoon is usually better as the tide drops and the water flows faster. As always watch for the action of the birds. If they are keen and hovering over the water the trout will be close by.
The Rakaia River is usually fishable right up to about 230 cumecs. The water colour is the most important. Sea-run trout will readily take yellow-rabbit lures fished on the lure rod in conditions that at first glance to the inexperienced might seem unfishable.
As the flow drops and the water turns blue sea-run trout fishing becomes more difficult during the day. You will find that most of the local anglers do not arrive to start fishing at the mouth on their quad bikes until about an hour or so before dusk. The same applies early in the morning with the locals heading down the spit on their quads in darkness and returning as the sun hits the water.