Memories of Salmon Fishing Days Past – 70 Years of Salmon Fishing
by Clive Morriss
After so many years of fishing my enthusiasm to get up early, walk for hours to find suitable fishing water has slowed considerably. However, I do get out a few times each season but now I tend to live on the memories of past experiences and more successful days fishing with friends. We can all remember those good days but forget the many other days when we drew a blank. Even in those ’good old days’ when salmon were more plentiful, I considered catching fish one day out of three was good going. Often you would have fish rising in the water you were fishing but no way could you get a touch. Those days when you would see many salmon going up the rapids. But just like today, ’every dog has his day ’, and when you least expect it fish are on the take. Here are some of my salmon fishing memories.
My father had a farm which backed onto the Rakaia River about 12 km’s above the mouth so my salmon fishing from schoolboy days, was mainly done in that vicinity. I became interested in fishing in 1947. It was soon after the end of World War 2, so fishing gear was limited. My first rod was made from bamboo. Fishing tackle shops imported this material from India. I bound on porcelain rings and a reel seat to hold a large Bakelite reel holding cutty hunk line. A 2 oz. lead and a metre long wire trace with a Colorado spoon tied onto the trace and I was ready to go.
Rushing out to the river after school, I still remember my first salmon taking the spoon and swirling around in the calm water at the top of the pool. I was waiting for it to put up a big battle, but it didn’t happen, and I soon pulled the fish ashore. It was one very excited boy taking that fish home. The daily limit catch for salmon at that time was six. I think previously it may have been ten fish.
Salmon Fishing Memories
Looking back we were rather greedy in those days. There was no thought of releasing fish. There were always friends and relations who were pleased to receive some as well as our own bottling in the Agee preserver for out of season meals.
In later years, my next door neighbour at Rakaia was a keen fisherman and I used to try and stir him up by nailing up the tails on the front of our fowl house, as I progressively caught salmon during the season. But he won the most Brownie points later by bringing home a 33-pound fish. I remember a well-known farmer fisherman in the area who had caught 99 salmon for the season but try as he may for the last weeks he couldn’t catch that last one to reach his tonne. I certainly didn’t catch anywhere near that number, usually 12 to 25 salmon at most. My job with the Grain and Seed business did limit the time I could get out.
April 1971, I had a business friend who insisted on taking me fishing. He knew of the perfect place to catch fish. We walked for miles up the river to his secret spot and with half a dozen casts I had caught and landed two fish and this action continued. I caught and released another eight and my friend caught and released five salmon. By 2 PM we were fagged out and headed for home. What a day !
Usually, the fishing has been more sedate. I have caught four within a very short time from the Waitaki in 1968. Another four at Barrhill in 1973 in 1½ hours, four from the Rakaia Gorge in two hours in 1990 and another four from the lower Rakaia in 1996. When the fish are there it can happen, but I have found that going back expectantly to the same Eldorado, is usually disappointing. Then the river came down in flood and washes out the good water and you have to find another good site.
I’ve caught three fish about 32-pound but this doesn’t compare with Ray French’s 46-pound salmon caught at the Rakaia River mouth in 1978 or Ross Lightfoot’s 43-pound fish caught in January 1978 at the Ashburton Mouth. Or Alan Pratt’s 41-pounder from the Waitaki in 1995. Ted Millichamp also caught a 41-pound fish in the Rakaia in 1970. There have been numerous other large fish landed that I haven’t named.
A salmon that could have outweighed all the fish above, was caught several kilometres above the Rakaia Gorge bridge in April 1984 by Geoff Elliot of Ashburton. It was very dark and had lost a lot of weight since leaving the sea. It still weighed in at 18.4 kg, close to 41 lbs. ’ Experts’ felt it could have weighed the magical 50 lbs when it left the sea. It was a four-year-old fish and had been tagged. It’s interesting the variations in fish weights you can get from different publications. With Ray French’s salmon I find, 19.5kg, 21kg, 21.10 and 21.11kg. The latter is equal to 46.53 lbs.
One of my big fish was hooked at Barrhill. I’d played him for a considerable time without sighting the fish and I became a little impatient, so put the pressure on to bring him to the shallower water. The fish didn’t like that and I saw this huge tail as it took off out of the calm water I’d been fishing, into the mainstream. I couldn’t land him at the next bend in the river and he continued downstream where there was solid gorse right to the water’s edge. I ploughed into the gorse holding the rod up high and trying to keep a constant pressure on the fish. I had been losing line as I pushed through the gorse but I hadn’t been able to see the river or the fish. Finally, I broke through into the clear and found that the salmon had stranded itself on a shingle bar. Rather an anti-climax.
Over the years I have unavoidably foul hooked many salmon and usually, the fighting ability of the unrestrained fish leads to some exciting moments and often requires chasing after them. I have hooked a couple in the adipose fin and what battles I had. With one, I followed him into shallow water and had him sending up a spray of water as he circled me. With the excitement, I didn’t sleep very well that night. Older fishermen will remember the MAF Fisheries Glenariffe Research Station on the Upper Rakaia. It operated from 1965 until the mid-1990s when it was incorporated with the National Institute of Water
and Atmospheric Research. With a lack of funding and probably other ramifications, the agreement for the yearly release of one million salmon smelt from Glenariffe was discontinued. This must have contributed to our decreased salmon numbers returning to the Rakaia River. Other factors, such as global warming, shifting and harvesting of their feed in the ocean and also catching the fish at sea hasn’t helped.
The recorded numbers of salmon coming into the Glenariffe stream trap are interesting: 1965, 2121. In 1966 there were only 1134. The highest was 1968, 3245 and the lowest 1970, with just 622. You can see, even then there were big variations, perhaps because of loss in the flooded river or lack of feed at sea.
After 70 years of salmon fishing, I’m very lucky to have a younger friend who also takes me out in his jet boat and this in itself is thrilling. But, as has always been the case, the fish were here yesterday or they are expected tomorrow !! I still like to believe, ‘every dog has his day’, for all of us. The local salmon may not be as plentiful, but I can still get my thrills and enjoyment catching and releasing kahawai at the Waimakariri and Rakaia River mouths.
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