How to Catch Salmon – 12 Tips to get you started landing a salmon!

Photograph: Lyndsay Bishop (left), and Allan Burgess with limit bags caught from small boat in the Waimakariri River.
Lyndsay Bishop (left), and Allan Burgess with limit bags from the Waimakariri River.

How to Catch Salmon – 12 Tips to get you started

by Allan Burgess

How to catch salmon comes down to knowledge and persistence. No matter how knowledgeable you are in the ways of the salmon it still takes time and sustained effort to catch them. If you have never caught a salmon before I suggest a good place to start would be at Macintoshes Rocks 2 km upstream from the mouth of the Waimakariri River.

Provided river conditions are favourable try to fish every day if possible between late December and early April. At the very least you are sure to see salmon being caught. Some days there will be none taken. Other days there may be just a few taken throughout the entire day. However, on some of those approximately 120 days, there may be several dozen caught – sometimes day after day.

If you are only a very occasional salmon angler who fishes on just six of those days you will need to be very lucky! Although it can get crowded along there when the salmon are running you will get the advantage of finding out from other anglers how many salmon were caught during your absence. The anglers who consistently catch lots of salmon each season at Macintoshes’s are there nearly every day!

How to catch salmon with Allan Burgess
This brace of salmon was caught at Macintosh’s Rocks near the Kaiapoi River-Mouth. Persistence is the key to successful salmon fishing. You have to be there and doing the right thing at the right time. The more times you go salmon fishing the luckier you get.

Salmon angling in Canterbury takes one of two forms; up river fishing, which involves a certain amount of scouting and travelling; and lower river fishing, which includes the river mouth, and surf! The difference is between the two is best explained like this.  You can either find a good hole to fish up-river, which generally takes more travel time to find and access; or you can fish in the lower river and at the mouth, waiting for the salmon to come to you!

The best places to fish in the lower river will be more obvious because other salmon anglers will be fishing there. Salmon run the river when the flow rate best suits them. They need the flow to be high enough so they won’t find themselves stranded. When the river is low they will tend to congregate in the surf off the river mouth waiting for a fresh before running the river.

Once in the river, they will in general swim up-stream from one deep part of the river to the next. As the river drops, they may hold up in deeper holes waiting for the flow to increase. They will move quickly across the thin water where their backs are out of the water and rest in deeper holes. So the name of the game when up-river salmon fishing is to fish the holes where the fish are resting. This means recognizing likely holding water, and also necessitates a good deal of travelling.

When the river floods it can change everything. Following a flood that good salmon hole which until recently had been so productive may now be bypassed altogether by the river’s main channel leaving it high and dry. Spotting the best places to fish for salmon up-river also requires more knowledge and experience.

Salmon anglers fishing from jet boats on the lower Waitaki River.
Salmon anglers straddle the main flow fishing from their anchored jet boats on the lower Waitaki River. The lower river is like a lake with a river flowing through it. Here jet boaters have a considerable advantage. This stretch would be unfishable otherwise!

A jet-boat is an obvious advantage for up-river salmon fishing but is less of an advantage near the mouth. The Waitaki River is something of an exception as the huge wide flows in the lower river often make it impossible to gain access to the main channel.

A jet-boat is a big advantage for gaining access where the main channel passes across the lagoon – a bit like a river flowing through a lake! You will often see a line of jet-boats anchored along the main flow in the lower Waitaki River. In these big flows salmon can easily travel in through the mouth, and head upstream without shore-based anglers getting a shot at them. Having a jet boat, knowing where to look up-river, and finding good holding, then fishing at first light will be way more productive

How to Catch Salmon. The author with another salmon from the Waimakariri River. In those days I would travel far and wide in search of fish.
The author with another salmon from the Waimakariri River. In those days I would travel far and wide in search of fish.

The salmon angler who fishes morning and evening at Macintoshes Rocks, on the lower Waimakariri River, stands a good chance of catching a salmon without burning a lot of petrol. He is staying in one place and waiting for salmon to come to him instead of going upstream to look for them up-stream. This strategy has the additional advantage in that he will be able to see other salmon being caught and so will have a good idea of when salmon are present. If you are just starting out as a salmon angler I recommend you give Macintoshes Hole a good try for your first season.

How to catch salmon.
When the salmon are running you need to drop what you are doing and get down to the river. Salmon won’t wait while you mow the lawn!

Occasional Anglers and the Hardcore

Salmon anglers fall into one of two groups. The first group is composed of the occasional angler. He or she might catch the odd salmon, perhaps no more than one or two each year. Some years they will take none, despite many fruitless hours on the water. Frustratingly they may go several years without taking a fish! For salmon are, as we all know, hard to catch.

Our second, smaller, group is composed of experienced and successful salmon anglers, some of whom will go on to catch several dozens, or even more, fish in a good season. Just as importantly they will still catch their share of salmon even in a poor season.

There are several reasons why those in our second group are so much more successful. To begin with many Canterbury and Otago salmon anglers learn the secrets of salmon angling from their fathers, uncles, or grandads. As children, they remember dad coming home in the evening with big salmon in the boot of the car. Others spent their summer holidays camping at the Rangitata, Waitaki, Waimakariri and Rakaia River mouths. To this second group, salmon angling comes as second nature. It is in their blood!

There is no substitute for being taught about salmon fishing from an early age by an expert, especially if that expert happens to be a dad. If you weren’t so lucky as a youngster all is not lost. In this article, we’ll go back to basics so you’ll learn how to catch these most elusive of fish like an expert. I have often heard even experienced anglers say things like, “I’ve been out fourteen times this season and haven’t had a salmon yet!” Or worse, “I’ve been out twenty-five times this season, still haven’t touched a fish, are sick of wasting my time, so have given up!” This sort of thing can happen at times to the best of us. It is often the first fish of the season that is the most difficult to catch. A second fish will often follow straight after the first.

The real secret to catching salmon is persistence. Sometimes it seems hopeless. Sometimes it seems everyone can catch a salmon except you. Keep at it. Eventually, you’ll be catching two at a time!

Time on the Water

Rule number one is that you have to put the time in. Sure, if you know what you are doing it will take a lot less time to get a fish on the stones, but you are still going to have to put the time in to catch salmon. Time is at the top of my list. It is the most important single factor with salmon angling.

Let’s consider this a little further. There are 365 days in the year. Only for five months, or about 150 of those days will there be significant numbers of salmon about. The months that salmon will run the rivers, and be available for anglers to catch, are between late November through to late April. Though this varies from year to year and river to river. 

During part of these 150 days, the rivers will be high and dirty following north-west conditions meaning rain in the Southern Alps. During these periods of discoloured water, the fish will be very difficult to catch because they can’t see your hardware (lures). Salmon will still run up-river even when the water has the consistency of thick brown onion gravy, but you won’t be able to catch them. You’ll see them porpoise upstream and wish! In this situation being able to travel to other rivers which aren’t in flood will be a big advantage increasing your potential fishing time.

Let’s say that another 30 days are lost to dirty water or otherwise unfavourable conditions. We are now down to 120 days of good fishable water at best. Again some years the rivers flood quite a lot. Others years the rivers are low and the fish may hold off in the surf. 

The fish won’t be running on all of these 120 days. Some will be better than others. If you have to work for a living that might only leave you the weekends for chasing salmon. This could see you down to just 34 days a year, plus, maybe, two weeks at Christmas in which to do the business!

If the rivers seem to be at their discoloured, logs-floating-down worst conditions on the weekends, a regular occurrence, then you could be in trouble. You might well miss many of the most productive periods on the river!

In Christchurch, you have good salmon water nearby at the Waimakariri River. You might get in a few casts before and after work, but it can be a frustrating business if duty calls elsewhere. 

This is the main reason the mouths of the Rakaia and Waimakariri Rivers are so crowded on weekends at the peak of the season. Hundreds of anglers have the same good idea. It might be stating the obvious but you will never catch a salmon unless you are down at the river casting your zed spinner.

Being able to drop everything and spend some of that precious time casting a line mid-week when you hear the fish are running, gives you a huge advantage in the salmon angling stakes. Getting together to share information about when the salmon are running with a group of mates is a great idea.

Another tactic is to keep in touch with the top tackle stores. These guys are at the centre of salmon fishing in Canterbury and are the first to hear when and where salmon are being caught. If your phone rings late on Tuesday afternoon with the news that 27 salmon have been caught at the mouth of the Hurunui River earlier that day, it is hard to point the car in the direction of work on Wednesday morning! The salmon will be there at first light for sure. Your chances of taking a fish are just that much greater.

Try to use your salmon angling time wisely. The more time you can afford to put into it during the peak of the salmon season the more fish you are going to catch. Clive Morriss on Salmon Fishing North Canterbury Fish and Game Newsletters

Winding Speed

It is surprising how many salmon anglers adopt the least productive fishing methods without realizing it. Chief among these is winding the handle on their reels far too quickly. If you turn your handle at half the speed of the bloke next to you, you are more likely to be on the right track. The salmon will be down on the bottom. I mean right on the bottom. Sure you’ll find the odd fish jumping out of the water. But the majority of salmon will be down hard on the bottom.

The only general exception to this rule is when fishing for salmon in the surf off a river mouth. In that situation, the salmon gain no advantage by hugging the bottom and fish are often taken near the surface. If you wind too quickly your zed spinner will plane to the surface and you won’t catch many fish. More about winding speed for salmon.

Salmon will be close to the Bottom

Back in May 1996, I was helping to remove salmon from the dead-end of the Highbank tailrace and transfer them back to the Rakaia River so they could continue their upstream journey.  The water in the tailrace was just waist-deep. Even after the salmon were herded down to one end by the net, there was still no sign of fish at the surface. Yet well over 100 big salmon were lifted out. All had been milling around on the bottom. Even when chased they stayed hard down.

Highbank Power Station tail race. You can tell by looking at this milky-blue water but it contains approximately 100 large salmon.
Highbank Power Station tailrace. You can’t tell by looking at the milky-blue water but it contains approximately 100 large salmon. Salmon are unable to climb the concrete wall – though some attempt to do so. The Highbank Power Station gets its water from the Rangitata Diversion Canal. The power station prevents the salmon from going any further hence the need for the salvage operation to transfer the fish back to the Rakaia River so they can continue on their way upstream to spawn.
How to Catch Salmon. Lifting salmon from the High Bank Power Station tail race. Ross Millichamp, of North Canterbury Fish and Game in center of picture in black and yellow wet-suit.
Lifting salmon from the High Bank Power Station tailrace. Ross Millichamp, of North Canterbury Fish and Game in centre of the picture in black and yellow wet-suit. Photograph: Allan Burgess
Salmon being lifted out of the High Bank Power Station tail race to the fish transporter for the short trip back to the Rakaia River.
Salmon being lifted out of the High Bank Power Station tailrace to the fish transporter for the short trip back to the Rakaia River. Looking down at the waist-deep water you could easily make the mistake of believing there are no salmon in there. Photograph: Allan Burgess

If fishing in the river cast upstream to give your zed spinner time to sink. Even when you think it will be on the bottom, wait a second before putting your reel in gear. Then wind very slowly. About two turns every five seconds is somewhere around the best speed – though obviously water speed and depth must be taken into account.

As mentioned earlier, many start winding the moment the lure hits the water’s surface and then wind flat-out. You should be able to feel the lure hit bottom every now and again as you wind, depending on the flow rate. Sure, you are going to lose a bit of gear from time to time when you snag a stick or get stuck behind a big rock – a particular problem with the big stones just above the state highway bridge on the Rakaia River – but if you aren’t dropping a bit of gear you are most likely winding too fast.

If you can afford it, always buy your zed spinners in bulk. Get a couple of dozen ticers or zed spinners at once. Losing the odd one seems somehow less painful if you still have plenty more in your bag and back at the car!

Where to Fish?

The answer to this question lies with how much time and, to a certain extent, how much money you have. If you live close to the mouth of the Waimakariri River, it might not make a lot of sense to fish mostly at the Hurunui, Rakaia, Rangitata, or Waitaki Rivers. 

Of these main salmon rivers, the Rakaia is by far the most productive in terms of fish numbers. If you live in Christchurch and own a gas guzzler car, the cost of frequent trips to distant water can soon add up. On the other hand, if you live in Kaiapoi and only ever fish at Mclntoshes on the Waimakariri River – where you don’t even need waders to fish from the rocks – salmon angling can be a very inexpensive past-time.

The angler who lives locally is always at an advantage. Fish will often move up to Macintoshes Hole overnight. If you can fish there at first light most mornings during the season you are certain to catch salmon.

A day or two spent fishing the surf at the mouth of the Rangitata River can be a very pleasant interlude. You shouldn’t get stuck in a rut, only ever fishing your own backyard. Be adventurous this season. Check out a bit of distant water. In years past my best salmon seasons have been when I was willing to travel from one river to the next in search of fish.

If you really want a challenge this season, why not try to catch a fish in all five main east coast salmon rivers: the HurunuiWaimakariri, Rakaia, Rangitata, and the Waitaki? It could take some doing, and a bit of time at that! Many very successful salmon anglers from Christchurch regularly fish the four northern rivers. The Waitaki being the greatest distance, at almost three hours drive from Christchurch. Catching a salmon in four different rivers.

Upstream or Down River?

You can change rivers in search of fish. You can also change tactics within the same river. It is at times possible to fish the pocket of clear water in the surf (usually on the south side) even when the river is in flood.

You can, of course, fish in the river when the sea is rough. On the morning of the final day of the 2015 Rakaia Salmon Fishing Competition, there was a run of salmon taken in the surf on the south side near low tide. Late in the day, there was a run of salmon taken on the north side of the gut at high tide. You can see some of this action in the video below.

Having a long rod to fish the surf adds another string to your salmon fishing bow. To be able to take advantage of both options you really need two fishing rods. For river work, a graphite rod of around seven feet in length is best for the job. Such a rod is also ideal when salmon fishing from a boat. It pays to buy the best salmon gear you can afford because the constant casting and continual use required of salmon tackle will soon show up the shortcomings of lesser quality products.

Final Thoughts

At times it seems like catching a salmon is impossible. While other anglers catch their first one almost immediately. If there is just one tip I can give you when it comes to catching your first salmon; it would be persistence. Good anglers are always optimistic. We all have blank days. Even the very best salmon anglers don’t catch a salmon every time they go out.

We all tend to be very good at remembering the good days when we catch a fish, but quickly forget how many blank days it took to catch it. Above all be persistent. Stick at it and you will catch one. The more times you go salmon fishing during the season (between December and April), the greater the chance you will find yourself in the right place, at the right time. Good luck!

Sharp hooks are a must. They can be the difference between a half-chance and a solid hook-up! You can get chemically sharpened salmon hooks at The Complete Angler in Christchurch.

Salmon Fishing Tips for: How to Catch Salmon

  1. Up-river salmon fishing means finding fish-holding water. Generally requires more travel and reconnaissance.
  2. Fishing near the mouth offers easier access, the company of other salmon anglers, regular updates about fish caught. Even if you don’t catch a salmon yourself, seeing fish caught will boost your spirits. 
  3. Only a wet line catches fish! No matter how expensive your fishing gear it won’t catch fish unless you use it. An old one but true. I have caught salmon even when I thought I wouldn’t that day. Sometimes you arrive at the river and catch a salmon straight away. The more times you can “arrive” at the river the better.
  4. Try to fish hard during the peak of the season between January and March.
  5. Salmon may be present even if you can’t see them. Expect a fish on every cast.
  6. The salmon will almost always be near the bottom. Cast upstream and don’t wind too fast! When fishing the surf you can hook salmon anywhere from near the surface to the bottom.
  7. Read Tips to maximize your chances on the river by Clive Morriss
  8. This is a bonus tip: keep your hook points super sharp. Better still use chemically sharpened hooks. Often salmon will “mouth the hook” and not give a sharp tug. It can be more of a gentle increase of weight on the line; not unlike snagging the bottom! Strike your rod if you suspect a touch from a salmon.
  9. The best time to fish for salmon is often at first light. “Fresh” fish arriving overnight won’t have seen any ticers and are more likely to bite yours.
  10. Fish the surf on the bottom half of the tide and move back up the gut and lower braids as the tide comes in. The salmon caught in the video below was taken in the Rakaia River gut at the top of the tide.
  11. When starting out go salmon fishing with an experienced mate. It will “up” your chances considerably. Plus you’ll learn a lot you’ll be able to put into practice when out on your own.
  12. Luck. All salmon anglers experience a difficult patch from time to time when they struggle to catch a fish. You have to preserve to succeed. Eventually, your luck will change. Even in a poor season, there will still be anglers who catch a dozen or more salmon. When you do hook and land a salmon it will be worth all the effort!   
YouTube video

Provided the sea and river are clear, salmon anglers fish the surf at low tide and then move back up to fish the gut and lower braids as the tide comes in. Here an angler has hooked a salmon in the fast-flowing gut. You have to keep an eye out for sweeper waves coming over the spit. Video filmed and edited by Allan Burgess


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