50 Years of Salmon Fishing
By Clive Morriss
After 50 years of salmon fishing, the anticipation and expectation are as strong as ever as I begin fishing a stretch of nice water. After I’ve had a good battle with a fish, particularly when I’ve had to chase it several hundred meters down the river, the adrenaline rush can still keep me awake at night!
Looking back on my first days of fishing, my rod was a length of bamboo, specially selected from a heap which had been imported from India. I think they cost 10 shillings ($1.00) each. You also bought the wire rings with porcelain inserts and a reel holder and you put your rod together yourself. Remember it was 1947 and the Second World War had only just finished and imports were very limited.
The reel was heavy bakelite and cost 30 shillings ($3.00). It had a type of star drag to alter tension, mainly for casting and when you did cast or caught a fish, you used the side of your finger on the free running reel edge to apply drag pressure. Your fingers and hand were often pummeled by the action of an unwilling salmon.
Probably they would have been pre-war purchases. We looked with envy at the wooden Nottingham reel with the leather strip for braking and also the metal Hardy reel with the ivory knobbed braking handle. However, these were beyond my budget, even if they had been readily available.
The first line I bought was cuttyhunk. I think nylon first became available the following year. We used wire traces. We bought what we called piano wire. It would become kinked and had to be renewed.
The standard rig was a 1 to 2-ounce lead weight with a meter long trace using a Punjab type spoon for faster water, and a Colorado spoon for quieter stretches. Because of this heavy gear we snagged and lost more spoons than with today’s weighted spoons. We used silver and copper and also brass spoons.
My fishing has mainly been on the south side of the Rakaia River between the main road bridge and river mouth. My family farmed on the river bank and the fisherman’s access now known as Maginness’s was through our farm.
Fifty years ago there certainly wasn’t the fishermen on the river and you would only have a few concentrating on a good hole.
In those days an etiquette was adhered to where the last person arriving at the water went to the top of the hole. Up-river fishermen would work their way through the fishing stretch and then move to the top of the line giving everybody a turn.
This same etiquette applied at the river mouth but people did stop still. Woe betides anybody who pushed in!
I can still remember my first salmon. Rushing out to the river after school there was nobody on the water so I started fishing at the calmer top of the pool when a fish took. I stood terrified as the fish swirled around but I was ready to repel the runs and leaps with my steel trace and strong line! Nothing happened so I simply pulled the fish from the water, grabbed it up in my arms, without killing it, I regret, and headed for home.
That’s 50 years ago. The bamboo rods soon became fragile after a few years and I recall two breaking as I played fish. The next one I made up I bound between the rings and this lasted until I graduated to a glass rod. My first good reel was an Australian Kalua 850 Surfcaster with a star drag. It was quite expensive at 12 pounds ($24.00) but it lasted well.
The next purchase was a Penn Squidder at 8 pounds 5 shillings ($16.50). This was a great reel and was used until I bought an Ambassadeur 7000C to compliment an Abu Garcia rod ten years ago.
About 1949 fishing gear was still in short supply but I bought a Heddon Pal tubular steel baitcasting rod with a Crouch casting reel. You put the reel out of gear to cast otherwise it was off balance with the single handle. The reel was well made and long casting was controlled by the tension and thumb use.
We spent many enjoyable days lake fishing, mainly Coleridge not only using spinners but with fly and lure rods. The next step was to use the bait-caster for salmon and I did so for many years. I and friends may have been the first to use weighted lake spoons to catch salmon up the river from 1954 onward. We were young and fit and because of the tight line and risk of a break we were happy to chase salmon hundreds of yards down river.
I used the weighted spoon in suitable water until mid-1960 when I was fishing a pool with some Christchurch anglers and one suggested I try one of his Z spinners. I hadn’t seen one before. The five of us caught 11 salmon within the next few hours so the Z spinner has been my main fishing lure since.
The first jet boats appeared on the river from 1959 and we couldn’t believe the sight of the first one going up river and through shallow water. Previously the odd fishermen would drift and row down the river in a flat-bottomed boat and these people were usually very successful being able to fish those good holes that are always on the other side of the river.
We always hear that the fishing was “better in the years gone past.” I would have agreed a few years back when the salmon were scarce but I have found the last two years have been as good as I can remember. The fish have been plentiful but still just as unpredictable, – the more fish you see the less you seem to catch. The fish haven’t been quite as big this year, my biggest being 25 pounds.
Over recent years salmon are coming back into the rivers much earlier than in the past. My early fishing diaries often show my first salmon wouldn’t be caught until January, even February.
During the seasons 1972 – 1975 the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries Division, requested for fishermen to help with surveys of the salmon caught for the whole of the Rakaia River to ascertain the percentage of remaining fish passing through the Glenariffe System to spawn. They wanted to estimate the total run.
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Roger Good was the Technician responsible for the postal survey results that were returned each month showing the hours fished, area fished and salmon caught. This survey was also complimented with aerial counts of fishermen on the water so as to calculate the percentage of non-participating survey anglers. The results were enlightening but I’m not sure how the results were used.
I see from the 1972/73 survey I averaged 6.6 hours fishing for each salmon caught. My success rate would not have exceeded 5 hours per fish over the 1995/96 season. How does that compare with your fishing?
Over the years I have tended to avoid the river mouth in the salmon season and prefer to walk the river and select my own water. Arriving on the river at first light, the smell of the lupins, the scuttle of a rabbit, the seagulls kicking up a din, the
company of a good friend and the anticipation of a day’s fishing with the hope of finding that El Dorado where the salmon are co-operative. We might even release some and that can make you feel really good. We live in a wonderful country.
Many thanks to Clive Morriss for sharing his great stories about salmon angling. This piece was written in 1997.