Chapter 5. The Waimakariri River – Sea-Run Trout
The Complete Guide to Sea-Run Trout Fishing by Allan Burgess
With the Waimakariri River close to the city of Christchurch it is well known as an “after work” fishery. For many years I lived in Papanui which is in north Christchurch and only a few kilometres from the river. During October, November and December I would fish it almost every night provided the river conditions were suitable. Over several decades of sea-run brown trout fishing, I got to know this river quite well.
The Waimakariri is one of New Zealand’s larger braided rivers. It is highly braided in its middle reaches but flows in just one main channel for the last few miles before emptying into the sea at the small holiday settlement of Pines Beach. Tidal influence affects the river as far up as the State Highway One bridge.
The river flow is measured at the Old Highway Bridge with the river having a mean flow measured over many years of 126 cubic metres per second (cumecs). During high summer the flow can drop as low as 25 cumecs. During floods, the flows can exceed 4,000 cumecs. Like Canterbury’s other large rivers, rainwater is stored in the form of snow and ice in the mountain catchment and released in the spring. Therefore you can expect higher flows in the spring when the snow melts. Some years we have a lot of north-west winds which means that it will be raining in the Waimakariri
River’s upper catchment. This means the river can run high and discoloured for long periods despite there being very little rain on the Canterbury Plains. This can at times lead to considerable frustration for anglers who can do little more than waiting for the river to drop. Another option is to travel further afield.
The lower 5 kilometres of the river is affected by the state of the tide. This causes two peak water levels each day as far up as the road bridges.
The best fishing for sea-run brown trout occurs when the flow rate is below 100 cumecs. Anything more than that and the trout will be unable to see your lure. The best time for sea-run trout is between October and January with the season covering perhaps an extra month at either end of that time frame. As any of the old-time anglers will tell you some years the trout arrive earlier; some years later! Probably it is to do with the river conditions and the arrival of the whitebait and silveries. When we get an extended period of nor’ west conditions in Canterbury it isn’t unusual for the river to be unfishable for weeks at a time.
When the river is very dirty it will appear brown in colour. As the water clears the colour changes to green. Only when the river water is almost clear will it appear blue in colour. The river becomes fishable for sea-run trout as the colour changes from brown to green. This will still seem quite dirty. It won’t be very appealing for swimming.
Those anglers experienced in fishing crystal clear water, where you can actually see the trout swimming in the river, maybe in for a shock. Perhaps be even a little surprised that you can catch trout in such dirty water! For the novice arriving at the river to fish it for the first time, my advice is if you can see others fishing it is probably clear enough to fish – even though it looks too dirty.
Once the river runs clear the main channel carrying water over the shingle
bed will be narrow and down to below 50 cumecs. By that stage, trout will be much harder to catch and smaller lures should be fished. These low flows aren’t reached until late January.
The slower moving lower tidal reaches of the Waimakariri River are quite different to the faster flowing braided shingle sections of the lower Rakaia or Rangitata Rivers, or indeed the Waimakariri River further upstream. The lower Waimakariri River has a sandy or muddy bottom. Trout generally do not like the sand and tend to move very quickly further upstream towards the bridges where the riverbed is shingle.
Unlike the Rakaia River, the Waimakariri does not have a fast-flowing narrow channel at its entrance to the sea. Rather at the mouth of the Waimakariri River, the bottom is sandy. Although the channel does narrow as the tide drops it never becomes sufficiently narrow for the water to gain the great pace it does at Rakaia. In the 30 odd years, I have been fishing at the mouth of the Waimakariri River I have seen very few trout caught there. However, it is an excellent spot for salmon fishing from January through until March. There are usually kahawai in the surf over summer.
Instead much of the sea-run brown trout fishing in the Waimakariri River centres around the braids above the Banana Hole to the area around the bridges. There is also good sea-run trout fishing upstream of the bridges, although this section is well fished prior to Christmas, it is less popular than the area downstream of the bridges. I have caught some good fish over the years in the area upstream of the bridges. Some of the side streams hold good size brown trout that can be stalked and ambushed as they rotate around their beat.
I suspect that many anglers who fish out in the main flow of the Waimakariri River for sea-run brown trout are unaware that there is often better fishing closer to the bank. Where there are rocks lining the riverbank trout will often rest in the slack water behind these rocks waiting to ambush smelt and whitebait. It is a good idea to quietly walk up to the rocks and stand for a few moments looking down at the river. After waiting and observing you may be surprised to see a trout’s head pop up and take something from or near the surface.
I have seen this many times and have caught some good trout by just waiting and watching. When a fish finds a good rock to hide behind you might be surprised to discover that it can remain there for days at a time – or until it is caught by a knowledgeable angler. Many of us will be aware of the old anglers’ advice to fish your feet first. Well, this is certainly true when it comes to sea-run trout fishing. Usually, the water will be discoloured to some degree affording the trout good cover. It is important to take your time and not crash around scaring the fish off!
If fishing the lure rod quietly lower your lures into the water without allowing the sinker to make a plopping sound. Work the lure up to where the fish is rising and be prepared for a hard take.
Even if there are no fish visible rising to the surface close to the rocks it pays to assume that one might be there. Just work your lures along the edge a foot or two beneath the surface. You might want to use a very light sinker just enough to take them down. Don’t let out too much line or you are sure to get snagged in the rocks.
Sea-run trout lose their fear of shallow water once darkness sets in. Often quite big fish will plough through a shoal of smelt in water only a few inches deep. Many times I have seen experienced anglers catch sea-run browns on the lure rod between the line of anglers out in the middle and the water’s edge.
The rise and fall of the tide makes fishing in the Waimakariri River a bit different. The trout tend to come on the bite once the tide starts to fall. You do have to be careful wading out to a shingle island uncovered by the tide as this will mean the water will be deep when you come to wade back to the bank.
Fishing in the Waimakariri River for sea-run brown trout in the area around the bridges is unlikely to be a solitary affair. At the hight of the season through November and December, provided the river conditions are right, there will be a good crowd of anglers fishing there. This is particularly so in the long early summer evenings.
The challenging width of the Waimakariri River near the bridges is one aspect that makes fishing here a little different. It can be like lake fishing. Keep in mind that the river is constantly changing its flow within the confines of the river bed. After a big flood, it can all change completely. At times the main channel near the bridges can be over 100 metres wide. This can be fished in one of two ways. Either by wading out and fishing in waist-deep water; or by attempting to cast with a longer rod as far as possible.
I remember one year when the flow between the bridges was for a time particularly wide. It was too deep close to the bank on the north side to wade out far from the edge. Instead we often fished this section with spinning rods and a D lead with two lures. With the right set up this outfit can be made to cast quite a long distance. We certainly caught plenty of trout using this method. I know some of my readers will be thinking that some of this stuff is a bit strange for trout fishing. Anglers have to adapt to the conditions to be successful. We didn’t have braid back then of course. Changing over to Tobys is also a good idea when you need a bit of extra distance.
The highest recorded flood in the Waimakariri River occurred in December
1957 of 3,990 cumecs.
Guide to Lower Waimakariri River Map
1. Between the Bridges. Top spot early season for sea-run brown trout (October – January). Trout sometimes in large numbers.
2. Top spot for sea-run trout fishing. Some wading my be necessary.
3. Known as Colombo Street this is also a top spot for sea-run trout fishing
between October and January.
4. The Banana Hole is a popular salmon fishing spot. Large rocks along the north bank make it similar to McIntoshes Rocks. Best time for salmon November to March. The best month is March. Too deep for wading.
5. Kaiapoi River Mouth. A top spot for salmon anglers both shore fishing
and from boats. A good spot for sea-run trout early in the season. Best late evening.
6. McIntoshes Rocks. At least 500m long. There is a good casting spot here for everyone. Salmon are caught all along here. No one spot seems better than any others for salmon. Big salmon are caught from the rocks from one end to the other. Drive down Ferry Road and park in the car park before walking over the stopbank. Temporary toilet at carpark during salmon season. A salmon net is essential to lift heavy fish up on to the rocks. This area is extremely popular when good numbers of salmon are running the river. I once counted 27 boats of salmon anglers anchored along this stretch. Boaties are advised to stay well over to the south side away from flying salmon spinners. Boat fishing for salmon at McIntoshes Hole. Not that popular for sea-run trout though some fish here on dark.
7. Waimakariri River Mouth north side. With dozens of anglers fishing both sides of the mouth some days one side seems to fish much better than the other. It was pointed out to me by John Hodgeson that the reason for this may be that in hot summer weather the relatively shallow lagoon heats up to be a few degrees warmer than the river. Then as the tide runs out this warmer water flows close to the south bank as it flows out of the lagoon! Salmonoids are very fussy when it comes to water temperature so this makes a lot of sense.
Unlike the other major Canterbury salmon and sea-run trout rivers the Waimakariri River mouth crosses a shallow sandy beach instead of the loose shingle. Sea-run brown trout fishing takes place several kilometres upstream rather than at the river mouth – as occurs at the Rakaia or Rangitata Rivers. Hence sea-run trout fishing in the lower Waimakariri River differs considerably with the river being wide, slower and estuarine in nature. Popular for salmon. There are nearly always kahawai in the breakers.
8. Waimakariri River mouth south side – This side is difficult to get to. Four-wheel-drive access from Spencer Park or boat from the north side, or you could walk and get fit. There is a locked gate at Spencer Park to which keys are available (lock changed each year – refer Spencer Park Camp Ground phone (03) 329-8721. Again not good for sea-run trout but popular for salmon and sometimes excellent kahawai fishing in the breakers on both sides of the mouth. Fish for kahawai with the same gear as for sea-run trout. Note: Each blue square on the map is 1km across.