The Complete Guide to Sea-Run Trout Fishing

by Allan Burgess – Contents, Acknowledgements and Introduction

The Complete Guide to Sea-Run Trout Fishing by Allan Burgess

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise without prior written permission of the publisher.

ISBN 978-0-9582933-6-5. Published by Allan Burgess.
Copyright © Allan Burgess 2013. First Published 2013.

Tackle and Techniques for Sea-Run Trout Fishing in the Coastal Rivers of New Zealand


Contents, Acknowledgements and Introduction

1. Where Do Sea-Run Trout Come From

2. Cucumber Fish, Smelt or Silveries

3. Tackle for Sea-Run Brown Trout

4. Fishing Different Rivers – The Mighty Rakaia

5. The Waimakariri River

6. Other Sea-Run Trout Fishing Rivers

7. Dead Drifting Soft Baits 

Acknowledgements and Introduction

As I’ve gathered the information for this book about sea-run trout fishing many anglers have willingly shared their most successful, and time-tested fishing methods and techniques. After more than thirty years of fishing, I am still learning new things all the time. I am very grateful for their assistance and enthusiasm to help out with my projects in any way they could. The willingness to pass on information to help a fellow angler is a commendable trait many of us share. So often with fishing, a few small changes to the way you are going about it can improve your success rate considerably.

Most of us will have heard the old saying about a small number of anglers catching most of the fish. This is especially true when it comes to fishing for sea-run brown trout. Knowing the best way to go about it makes a huge difference.

Over the countless hours I have spent fishing over the years, I have noticed that a small number of fishermen definitely do catch a disproportionately large number of sea-run trout. It doesn’t matter if they are fishing the fast water of the lower Rakaia River, or the slower meandering, at times almost lake-like sections of the Waimakariri River, certain anglers regularly hook way more fish.

Sea-run trout fishing in the Waimakariri River is where I started out many years ago. I had a great teacher named Athol Marley. We would fish the Waimakariri River along a 2km stretch between the bridges and the Banana Hole, almost every evening between October and Christmas. In those days almost everyone fished two feathered lures with a fibreglass lure rod and used a small lead weight to take the hooks down near the bottom.

I fished a 9-weight Fenwick Ferralite that I bought cheap somewhere. We also used the same rig on spinning gear at times when fishing wider stretches. 

Some nights, depending on the river level, we would wade across a deep run to gain access to a long island out in the middle of the river. I remember being more than a little frightened as we locked arms to wade across the fast-flowing greeny-brown torrent. At its deepest, it would be only an inch or two from the top of my waders! Provided the tide was falling you would at least have the comfort of knowing the return journey would be less perilous. Once across we would fish a good run in waist-deep water. In no time at all, we would be into fish. With the water carrying a bit of colour, the sea-runs would often take the lure right at the rod tip.

Sea-run brown trout taken on spin fishing gear in the Waimakariri River. The Yellow-Rabbit lures are fished with the aid of a D lead. A small baitcaster reel permits very accurate casting.

For some reason I would snag almost every submerged stick in the river; often busting-off lures left, right, and centre! While Anthol hardly ever seemed to lose his as he hooked fish after fish. Soon after that, I got into tying my own yellow-rabbit lures – more out of economic necessity than anything else.

In those days that section of the river was called Colombo Street. I think the name was a reference to the number of anglers who liked to fish that popular stretch of water! That brings me to an interesting aside. Sea-run trout fishing can be a strangely communal activity. As a group of anglers fish together night after night in close proximity they soon get to know one another. This has its benefits. As each angler arrives and joins the line in the river he learns how many fish have been caught by the earlier arrivals. If he has missed a few days he can quickly be updated on what has been happening in his absence. As the years pass friendships are created.

Interestingly even though there might be twenty people standing in a line in the river you will soon discover that certain anglers nearly always catch most of the fish. They are perhaps winding their lures at the speed most attractive to the trout, using just the right amount of weight to get their lures down, or letting their gear sink sufficiently first! For the novice, this is a wonderful place to be. By joining in and simply copying the more successful anglers you will learn a great deal in a short time.


Welcome to The Complete Guide to Sea-Run Trout Fishing. In this online ebook, we’ll learn about sea-run brown trout, where they come from, when and where to fish for them, and we’ll also take a closer look at the tackle and fishing methods used to target these big silver-coloured fish as they return to our rivers from the sea where they have been feeding.

Although this book refers mostly to fishing for sea-run brown trout in my home province of Canterbury, the techniques and methods employed can be used to catch sea-run trout throughout New Zealand. Sea-run brown trout by their very nature of going to sea, and later returning to our coastal rivers, have been able to colonize almost every coastal river, stream, estuary and lagoon throughout New Zealand.

This brown trout was caught at the mouth of the Waimakariri River on a lure intended for salmon. It was taken on the same day as the big sea-run brown trout caught by Bal Ram in the photograph on the opposite page. Although both fish are the same species you can clearly see how this specimen has larger blotchy spots and the buttery-brown colouration of a resident river fish. It is unusual for trout to be caught over sand close to the breakers at the Waimakariri River mouth.

Sea-run browns are particularly plentiful around the coast of the South Island. They can be surprisingly numerous in Canterbury during spring and early summer. These fish represent a significant angling resource in this part of the country where they attract considerable angler attention.

Bal Ram displays a huge silver sea-run brown trout he caught at Macintoshes Rocks, about 2km upstream from the mouth of the Waimakariri River.

In Canterbury, as in many other areas, sea-run brown trout fishing is an important time on the angler’s calendar. Sea-run trout fishing fits in somewhere between the whitebait season and Christmas. It is the entrée before the start of the salmon season in late November and early December.

A brace of sea-run brown trout caught next to the bridges on the Waimakariri River; some 5km up from the river mouth. Much of the sea-run trout fishing in this river is focused well upstream from the mouth. The lower 5km section is subject to tidal influence. Note the typical metallic silver colouration of these fish.

In Canterbury, sea-run trout fishing overlaps the whitebait season which starts on the 15th of August and continues on until the end of November. Sea-run browns begin entering the rivers following whitebait and smelt in the spring. For many Canterbury anglers, sea-run brown trout fishing in the lower coastal rivers means the first time rods and reels will have come out of the garage since the previous summer.
The trout fishing season starts with the new annual fishing license becoming available on the 1st of October. In decades past few anglers would fish for sea-run brown trout before 1 October. Nowadays fishing is permitted in the lower rivers all year and many anglers now start fishing for them in September. Though generally, these early fresh-run fish will be smaller and thinner than those caught later in the season around Christmas time.

Trout Fishing Season and Bag Limits

Please note that the regulations regarding trout fishing in Canterbury are being changed more often nowadays. As always anglers must check the regulations with Fish & Game before going fishing on any water.

For example, For the 2018/2019 season, it is now not permitted to take trout from the Rakaia River, downstream of Coleridge Tailrace confluence (Eastern Zone) to State Highway One during the winter season 1 May – 30 September. 

Bag Limit. Rakaia River, downstream of Coleridge Tailrace confluence (Eastern Zone) to State Highway One 1 Oct – 30 April Fly, Spin and Bait. The limit is two trout and two salmon.

Rakaia River, downstream of State Highway One, 1 October – 30 April FSB. The limit is two trout and two salmon. North Canterbury Fish & Game Fishing Regulations from 1 October 2018/2019 in .pdf format. Note that the new fishing regulations come in on 1 October each year. When they are released they may be different. Check the booklet that comes with the latest fishing licence. If in doubt telephone Fish & Game before you go fishing (0800 347 426). 

This rainbow trout was caught in the lower Waimakariri River in February. This part of the river is subject to estuarine tidal influence. Although it is bright silver in colour there is no evidence that rainbow trout are sea-migratory in New Zealand. It has its adipose fin intact but might still be a hatchery-reared fish.

It is not unusual for sea-run browns to be caught in the lower Rakaia River in December, January and February that are as big, if not bigger, than some of the salmon being caught! Sea-run brown trout weighing over ten pounds are not unusual after Christmas. Big sea-run browns are still entering the rivers as late as March.

Sea-run brown trout on the lure rod, Rakaia River gut.

Around the start of the new fishing season on 1 October many of the browns caught will be darker-coloured resident fish. A few sea-run brown trout will appear, but generally, these fish will be smaller at 3 pounds or less. As the season progresses throughout October and into November more sea-run trout will appear, and many of the later arrivals will be in better condition.

This sea-run brown trout was taken in the Rakaia River on a Canterbury lure rod. It is the same fish that was on the line in the picture above. Note the short stocky frame of this bright silver-coloured sea-run brown trout.

As the season progresses quite large numbers of sea-run brown trout will be entering the lower rivers from the sea. The big silver-coloured browns will be feeding on the enormous numbers of seasonally abundant smelt, or silveries, which are also returning to the rivers from the sea to spawn.

It is worth noting that sea-run trout fishing varies from year to year. Some years the fish seem to arrive later. The weather also plays a significant part. Some years over the spring period we get a lot of northwest winds in Canterbury meaning heavy rain in the Southern Alps. This causes our big rivers to run high and discoloured; sometimes for long periods making them frustratingly unfishable. However sea-run trout fishing is possible in water that seems quite dirty. The rivers generally clear sufficiently for sea-run brown trout fishing within a few days once the rain stops falling in the mountains.

A large sea-run brown trout caught on a lure rod in the fast-flowing water of the Rakaia River gut. The sea-run browns put on weight quickly as they gorge themselves on the abundant food supply. The bigger fish are mostly caught after Christmas.

You will notice in the photographs that some of the trout caught are being released to fight another day; some have been accidentally foul-hooked, and so must be released unharmed. With the limit now having been reduced to two fish per day in the North Canterbury Fish and game region, many anglers choose to release fish so they can continue fishing. There is nothing wrong with keeping a fish or two for dinner.

If you are new to sea-run brown trout fishing I hope this book will set you on the right path to catching fish like one of the old hands. With fishing experience counts for a lot. You don’t need heaps of expensive gear for sea-run trout fishing. Purchase a fishing license and get out there and give it a go!

I have been sea-run trout fishing now for at least 30 years. Over that time the gear used by anglers to catch these fish has changed quite a lot. Back in the 1980s almost everyone fished for sea-run brown trout with a pair of feathered lures like the Yellow Rabbit and Hopes Silvery. These were fished with the aid of a D lead a meter or so up the line cast with a fibreglass lure rod.

When we needed more casting distance we used our salmon spinning rods with the same D lead and feathered lures. Nowadays that sort of uniformity of tackle has largely disappeared. If you go down to the rivers during the season now you will see anglers fishing for sea-run trout with all manner of bibbed minnows, spinners, and more recently, soft plastics fished on braid. Older guys like me who have witnessed these changes often “scratch our heads” in amazement! I have also been giving new tackle and ideas a try. Braided fishing lines have been a huge improvement for spin anglers.

There are more people fishing for sea-run trout nowadays than was the case 30 years ago. However, in my opinion, the numbers of sea-run trout available for anglers to catch are as good as they have ever been. It amazes me just how many good-sized sea-run brown trout are caught between the bridges on the Waimakariri River some evenings. If you are just starting out that location is a great place to learn the ropes by watching the experts!

NEXT Chapter 1. Where Do Sea-Run Trout Come From

This post was last modified on 07/02/2023 2:25 am

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