Published On: Sat, Aug 6th, 2016

The Best Salmon Fishing Rivers New Zealand Map – 27 waters in all

The Best Salmon Fishing Rivers in New Zealand

What salmon fishing in Canterbury is all about. Charles Smith with Hurunui River mouth silver. Condition seemed to be better this year with salmon up to 18lb seen and landed in our group of anglers. Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith.

What salmon fishing in Canterbury is all about. Charles Smith with Hurunui River mouth silver. Condition seemed to be better this year (2015-2016) with salmon up to 18lb seen and landed in our group of anglers. Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith.

The best salmon fishing rivers New Zealand map. The map is at the bottom of this page. We could also have called this piece The Best 27 New Zealand Salmon Fishing Waters. There is excellent salmon fishing to be had in all of these. Much of the secret to successful salmon angling is knowing where to fish, and when. Be prepared to move around depending on where the salmon are being caught, river levels, surf conditions, and so on. Having a circle of fishing mates who will let you know when a run is taking place is a big advantage. So too is being able to drop everything and hit the water when you hear the salmon are running!  

Salmon are well established on both the east and west coasts of New Zealand South Island. All of the waters shown on the map contain sea-run salmon. There are also a number of landlocked salmon populations in the South Island. Landlocked salmon are released into lakes by Fish & Game. These landlocked salmon populations are otherwise not self-supporting.

Unfortunately, there is no salmon fishing in the North Island, most probably because the water is too warm for salmon, and the river geography unfavourable. Although the odd fish has been caught at North Island river mouths over the years, salmon have never gained a foothold north of Cook Strait.

Sam Petrie with a good sized salmon from the Hurunui River. Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith.

Sam Petrie with a good sized salmon from the Hurunui River. Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith.

Of all our salmon rivers the Waimakariri, on the outskirts of Christchurch City, is by far the most heavily fished. That’s not surprising given the large population close by. However, there are other productive salmon waters that see far less angling pressure.

Many regard the mighty Rakaia as our best and most productive salmon river. Over time, some of our other rivers, have become less suited to salmon runs than they were in the past. The Ashburton River was at one time a highly productive salmon water. Today, the flow is so low, that salmon fishing no longer takes place at all. Other rivers listed here can be variable, some years being very good, other years less so. Since salmon were successfully introduced into New Zealand in the Waitaki River around 1907, salmon runs have always varied in size. The cycle between lean years and boom years is all part of the allure of salmon fishing. Catching them is a heady mixture of skill, luck, wit, and persistence!

Tyler Brown with a fresh super silver sea-run salmon from the Rakaia River. Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith.

Tyler Brown with a fresh super silver sea-run salmon from the Rakaia River. Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith.

Although titled The Best Salmon Rivers in New Zealand, the observant will notice that not all of the locations discussed are actually rivers. At Kaikoura, for example, salmon are caught every year from the beach behind the railway station right near the middle of town. In recent years, enthusiastic locals have rallied together to enhance salmon fishing at Kaikoura by releasing thousands of salmon yearlings into Lyall Creek in the hope that these fish will return and breed naturally in future years.

One of many big salmon caught in Otago Harbour every year.

One of many big salmon caught in Otago Harbour every year.

Further south in Otago Harbour an excellent put-and-take salmon fishery has been established over several decades. Otago Harbour, and Vancouver, Canada, are the only two cities in the world where large salmon can be caught right in the middle of town!

On the South Island’s West Coast many salmon caught by anglers are taken lake trolling from boats. In these instances, the wild salmon enter freshwater via a river and swim upstream to reach the lake. This is almost unique to the West Coast. On the East Coast, almost all salmon are taken surf or river fishing.

If you are new to New Zealand keep in mind that salmon run up all of these rivers to spawn between December and May. The best time to fish each water varies. Check out each listing for further details.

This piece will be updated regularly. Click the link text at the start of each water for details about each river, best fishing times, best fishing methods, and photographs. Access to our large number of salmon fishing articles can be found here on our main Salmon Fishing page.

A good salmon from the West Coast's Lake Paringa. Photograph courtesy of Lake Paringa Lodge. The best salmon fishing rivers New Zealand map

A good salmon from the West Coast’s Lake Paringa. Photograph courtesy of Lake Paringa Lodge.

West Coast

According to Dean Kelly, manager of West Coast Fish & Game, “Most of the West Coast rivers south of the Grey have a limited run. Our most productive fisheries are the Hokitika and Taramakau rivers with numbers estimated between 200-500 fish annually in each river.”

1. Taramakau: Large river with variable runs depending on the season. Access to mouth and tidal reaches from road/rail bridge on SH6 or turn off south of Kumara Junction. Mid-upper reaches easily accessible via Kumara/Marsden Road or at numerous points from SH73 between Kumara/Otira.

2. Kaniere: Small to medium river fed by Lake Kaniere. Easy access via Lake Road or from the bridge on Kokatahi Road. Fishes best later in the season (March).

3. Hokitika: This large river is best fished near the mouth and up to SH6 bridge at Kaniere township although access is available right up to gorge via Kokatahi/Kowhiterangi. Boat useful near mouth but not essential. Launching ramps at Hokitika and Kaniere.

4. Waitaha: Medium river best fished downstream of the SH6 bridge. Turn off on the north end of the bridge and follow road downstream for access to tidal reaches.

5. Poerua: Small to medium river best fished below SH6 although some good holes upstream accessible via Poerua Valley Road. Access to lower reaches via Patersons Road at Harihari.

6. Mapourika: The lake is best fished from a boat. Hire, or guide available at Franz Josef. Foot access to the outlet (Okarito River source) 2 minutes down McDonalds Creek from SH6 bridge. Lake edge fishing possible at various points off SH6. Road to Okarito follows river most of the way to the lagoon. Access difficult here due to swift flow and heavily dense bush right down to the water’s margins.

7 . Paringa: This lake is also best fished from a boat with most trout and salmon taken by trolling. Salmon enter the Paringa River from the sea and swim upstream for approximately 4km before turning off and running for another 3km up the Hall River to enter Paringa River.

8. Haast River. There is a limited run in the Hast River each year.

East Coast

Regan Harper with a fresh Hurunui River salmon. Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith.

Regan Harper with a fresh Hurunui River salmon. Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith.

9. Wairau: a Small river in Marlborough. The lower and middle reaches are braided over a wide shingle bed with the river for the most part flowing in a single channel. The lower reaches are broad and are under the tidal influence. Most salmon are taken in the middle reaches, with the odd one occasionally taken at the mouths of the Wairau River and the Diversion.

According to Fish & Game field officer Vaughan Lynn, there has always been a small salmon run in the Wairau River but it has remained relatively unknown. He believes the salmon run in the Wairau has increased over the last decade and more anglers have become aware of it and were now targeting the species. Data from spawning counts over the last seven years, together with catch reports, suggest the annual Wairau River salmon run be around 400-600 fish. There could be up to a 1000 fish in a good year – Nelson Marlborough Fish & Game. Most fish are taken on smaller Zed spinners well upstream.

10. Kaikoura: Beach behind the railway station. Salmon have been caught in small numbers for many years from the beach behind the railway station near the middle of Kaikoura township. Most likely these have been salmon making their way along the coast to rivers further south. During recent years 2014, 2015, and 2016 the Kaikoura Salmon Enhancement Society have released approximately 8,000 to 10,000 yearling salmon into the head of Lyell Creek above Kaikoura with the intention of boosting the numbers salmon returning to the river.

11. Waiau: Medium river recognised as at the northern end of the main salmon rivers. Salmon runs vary greatly from year to year. River mouth access is difficult except by boat, though the middle and upper reaches have good access. Accommodation is available at Cheviot and Hanmer.

Nik Christidis and Charles Smith with limit bags from the Hurunui River mouth 22 March 2017. An old salmon angler's measure is if the tail drags along the stones when held like this through the gill plates, you know it's a good sized salmon. By that measure, these are small fish. Nevertheless, it also shows that top anglers will be catching fish every season regardless of the size of the salmon run!

Nik Christidis and Charles Smith with limit bags from the Hurunui River mouth 22 March 2017. An old salmon angler’s measure is if the tail drags along the stones when held like this through the gill plates, you know it’s a good sized salmon. By that measure, these are small fish. Nevertheless, it also shows that top anglers will be catching fish every season regardless of the size of the salmon run! Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith. There is a larger version of this photograph on the Hurunui River Salmon page.

12. Hurunui: Medium river with variable salmon runs. Access to most areas is good. North Branch is often clear and fishable when other major rivers are dirty. Upper reaches are considered to be an outstanding fishery. Light lines and small gear can be most effective. The surf is often consistent when it isn’t too rough and can be fished for salmon in a 2m swell. Dinghy or kayak to cross the lagoon is an advantage.

Many anglers fish the river mouth by parking at the end of the road above the cliffs before walking down one of the steep hill tracks to the lagoon. When crossing the lagoon, or surf fishing, a floatation device is a must. Depending on the height of the tide crossing the lagoon can be a “hairy” experience! There is often a big drop in the lagoon water level between high and low tide. 

13. Waimakariri: Medium river highly braided in the middle reaches but flows in one channel for the last few kilometres. Moderate to large salmon runs. Most fishing is done in the lower to middle reaches. Access in the lower river is best on the north bank where the popular McIntosh‘s Rocks and the Banana Hole are almost as heavily fished as the mouth. In the middle reaches light gear and Colorado type spoons are effective during periods of low flow. Though salmon are caught throughout the season, the first three weeks of March are considered best. Try a ticer or double Zed spinner at the mouth. Zed spinners are more popular in the gut and up-river. Lead and Colorado spoons work well at McIntosh’s. If the river is low and clear try a smaller lure like a 22 gm silver Zed spinner.

Simon Jones with a bright silver fresh sea-run salmon from the Rakaia River. Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith.

Simon Jones with a bright silver fresh sea-run salmon from the Rakaia River. These are the best eating fish to catch. Photograph courtesy of Charles Smith.

14. Rakaia: Large, highly braided river considered the best salmon fishery in New Zealand. Angling is popular in all areas of the river from the mouth to well above the gorge. Access is good from many points on both banks, though, without a boat, it is generally best to approach the mouth from the south side. The best fishing is from late January to late March, but many fish are caught outside this period. Weight-forward ticers are used to fish the surf. Zed spinner are popular with anglers throughout the river. Fishing a lead and Colorado spoon was once very popular but seems to have gone out of favour. Fishing for salmon with feathered lures, using the Canterbury lure rod, is the preferred method of many at the gut and lower braids close to the river mouth.

15. Ashburton: Small river with highly variable salmon runs. The mouth provides the best angling but in recent years low flows have led to the mouth being blocked by shingle for weeks at a time. Access to mouth is good from the north side. Local information should be sought at Ashburton tackle stores before fishing this river. Sadly the Ashburton River is no longer fished by salmon anglers. Up to the 1960s, it was a premier salmon water with large numbers of fish being caught at the mouth. Nowadays it is not worth fishing for salmon mainly because of the lack of water in the river.

16. Rangitata: Medium river which is highly braided above the gorge but often in one channel in the middle to lower reaches. Fishes well in February and March. Access is generally good to most areas. Salmon/surf fishing is hugely popular at the river mouth. Best access usually is from the south side.

17. Orari: Small river often dries up in the middle reaches. Salmon fishing variable but often very good with most fishing occurring in the surf. Very easy access on the north side.

18. Opihi: Small river with a highly variable salmon run. Fishes best at the mouth but low flows have meant the mouth is often closed by a shingle bar. Access to the river is good. Check with sports shops in Temuka and Timaru about likely fishing conditions.

A brace of big salmon from the Waitaki River. The best salmon fishing rivers New Zealand map.

A brace of big salmon from the Waitaki River.

19. Waitaki: Very large, braided river with a medium to large salmon run. Fishing for sea-run salmon is restricted to the lower and middle reaches due to hydro dam barriers. Wading is often difficult due to the size of the river. The Waitaki River has a well-earned reputation for producing the heaviest salmon. Access to the river is good. A jet boat is a huge advantage when fishing the lower Waitaki River as the main flow is often too deep to reach by wading.

20. Moeraki: A sea fishery by boat or from shore. Salmon runs in January and February. Access via lighthouse and sometimes on foot. Local knowledge is necessary.

21. Otago Harbour: A put and take salmon fishery which has produced up to 1000 salmon to the angler annually. A boat is preferred but many salmon are caught from shore vantage points around the wharves. Most salmon caught from the wharves are caught on sprats and yellow-eyed mullet used whole as bait. Quite a few salmon are also taken in the harbour by anglers fishing from boats trolling a lure with the aid of a paravane.

22 Taieri River: A few salmon run the Taieri River each year. These fish are likely strays from Otago Harbour. There was ova planting in the Taieri some twenty years ago but these efforts do not appear to have established a run of any magnitude.

23. Clutha: Very large river with a moderate and variable salmon run which has increased in size as a result of salmon farming developments. The river flows in one channel for most of its length but stops abruptly at the wall of the Roxburgh dam, probably the most popular fishing spot on the river. Access is difficult in some areas and a boat is most useful.

24. Kaka Point: Catches off Kaka point from boats are probably the result of annual liberations to the Clutha River.

This salmon was caught in Bluff Harbour in 1998.

This salmon was caught in Bluff Harbour in 1998. It looks like a good sized fish.

25: Aprima River: Occasionally salmon are caught in the Aprima, but inconsistent and not really worth targeting.

26: Oreti River: A few salmon are caught each year in the middle reaches. Again the run is inconsistent and unreliable.

27: Waiau River – Southland: The Waiau had a large run of several hundred salmon about 12 years ago. A few salmon a caught in the middle reaches each year. The numbers are very small and not really worth the effort.

In general, salmon are caught in a number of rivers around the Otago and Southland coasts. The odd salmon is even taken each year in the Karitane River near Dunedin. These fish are likely strays from the substantial Otago Harbour and Clutha River releases. In most of these rivers, the salmon runs are small and inconsistent from year to year. Although I’m very reliably informed that two fish over 30 lbs were taken from one of these smaller rivers about three years ago. Local knowledge is the key to fishing some of the lesser known waters. Only by spending time on the river and talking to local anglers would it be possible to know what is happening in one of these lesser Southland or Otago Rivers.

Young salmon being released into Bluff Harbour 1996.

Young salmon being released into Bluff Harbour 1996.

In the mid and late 1990s, there were a number of substantial salmon smolt fingerling releases into Bluff Harbour. At one stage 400 salmon weighing between 1.3 and 9kg were caught by anglers fishing around Bluff Harbour in the space of a week. I also know of at least one salmon that was caught by a party of anglers fishing in one of the Fiordland Sounds.

Special thanks to Ian Hadland of Otago Fish & Game, and Zane Moss of Southland Fish & Game, for their valuable assistance providing insight about their local salmon rivers.

I doubt there is anyone who has caught a salmon in all 27 of these fishing waters. It is possible but would require much effort. Now there is a challenge for you. Here is a story about a bloke catching four salmon from four Canterbury rivers during one season. Please note that this page is a “work in progress,” we will be adding to it regularly. The best salmon fishing rivers New Zealand map.

Sea-run salmon are a difficult fish to catch. Every time you land one is cause for celebration. I offer a special thank you to the many anglers who have freely contributed advice and photographs to this page.

The best salmon fishing rivers New Zealand map. On mobile devices click the map and drag to expand.

“Liked this post? Subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of this page and get loads more!”

Best Salmon Fishing Rivers New Zealand map

The Best 27 New Zealand Salmon Fishing Waters map.

The Best 27 New Zealand Salmon Fishing Waters map.

About the Author

Profile photo of Allan Burgess

- Fishingmag.co.nz website editor.

Displaying 1 Comments
Have Your Say
  1. Profile photo of John Barnes John Barnes says:

    Cool article about salmon fishing.

Leave a comment

You must be Logged in to post comment.