My Fishing Mate Rusty! – Clutha River Salmon

My Fishing Mate Rusty. "Rusty" Russell Duncan on the left with his 25.5lb salmon at Roxburgh, Otago.
"Rusty" Russell Duncan on the left with his 25.5lb salmon at Roxburgh, Otago.

My Fishing Mate Rusty! A story from the good old days!

By Frank Cartwright

No, he’s not losing his ability nor looking like a piece of old corroded anchor chain, it’s just that Rusty is an affectionate nickname for Russell, a fishing mate of 30 years standing. Back then in the mid-60s that was mostly sea fishing around Karitane, Shag Point and Moeraki. That was in the days before quotas and heavy commercial fishing pressures. This is the story of my fishing mate Rusty.

Even Paua was somewhat despised by the public in general then. Our catches were massive by today’s standards. A set net was never left down for more than one hour. To leave it longer would give you more fish than you could handle! Ah! Those were the days! Lots of fish, lots of fun, and lots of good comradeship.

The Rus-Tic Salmon Ticer (blade spinner) Rusty's Veltic.

But 30 years on, the youthful vigour we employed is now much reduced. Boat fishing has given way to shore-based fishing and fresh water has become more attractive to salt water as the years pile on. Rusty is still as keen to cast a line as he ever was, and the friendly rivalry that existed so long ago is still very much alive today. Although now separated by about 700 kilometres, we keep in touch and regularly boast about our successes with the rod.

Come the Otago whitebait season, you will find rusty camped on the banks of the shag River for weeks on end. For a pleasant evening diversion, he has some great posies for trout where big browns lurk.  Fish that weigh six, seven or eight pounds are not uncommon for him to bring to the net. What a gourmet diet. Whitebait and trout and a few mushrooms from the paddocks. 

At this stage of his career, he has still to master the fly rod, but his luck with live bait and spinning gear will probably see him stay with the old tried and true for a long time to come.

During high summer he is off to Cape Saunders on the Otago Peninsula with a heavy casting rod and his faithful old Alvey side cast reel for the blue cod. It is a tricky place to get to and is extremely dangerous to the inexperienced. A large number of fisherman have lost their lives over the years, being swept off the rocks by massive upwellings from the huge tidal pressures that build up at the base of the cliffs. I lost two good fishing mates in a terrible double tragedy in the 1970s, but to the cautious fisher, the cod are still caught in good numbers.

Craypotting is popular too. During the right weather and tidal conditions, good crays can be taken as the cliffs and wave action mean that the commercial boys can’t get their boats in too close. Rusty has had his fair share of the noble crab over the years!

With the passing of the blue cod season and the onset of autumn, Rusty turns to another fishing passion. The salmon run on the mighty Clutha River at Roxburgh.

By late March or early April, all interest focuses on reports of any fish seen, river conditions and weather reports, plus any gossip (relevant or not) on how the run might be for the season. There is not much difference between fishermen and migrating salmon. Both become agitated and highly emotional. Bad temperedness flares up and the characteristic snappiness of salmon is matched by touchy anglers, itching to get away and up the road to Roxburgh. 

And so it is time to kiss the dear wife goodbye, hitch up the caravan, full of life’s necessities such as all your fishing gear, tucker and grog. 

In the early 1950s, before the Roxburgh hydro dam was built the runs of salmon and trout were tremendous. Trout of around 20 pounds were not uncommon, but restrictions on the way upstream now mean lower fish weights, plus more fishing pressures on the existing fish.

Popular spots are ”The Orchard” a bit downstream, or “The Wall,” which is close to the dam face. From those vantage points, most fish are taken.

At “The Wall” it is necessary to have access to a large landing net on a long rope to secure any fish taken, however, the locals are a friendly lot and local character Les Henderson will readily lend his, or net it for you, even unsnagging lines for new chums. The area is Electricorp property, and fisherfolk are asked to respect the access to corporation ground.

It is a legacy of former days when the works superintendent, himself a keen fisherman, got everything nicely set up for the public to fish. A highly commendable action which one might not find emulated in future hydro schemes.

This past season, Rusty had an outstanding catch rate, taking a total of 15 salmon. His best fish was weighed in at 25.5 lbs. Now that is a decent fish for even the Rakaia or the Waitaki. His success is possibly due to his homemade lures, similar to a Veltic in design and action. The weight behind the spinner blade is fashioned from a spent .303 rifle bullet, dug out of a rifle range! And the spinner is hammered out of scrap stainless steel plate. All very ingenious and effective. 

He uses the conventional banana lead weight to get the ticer down on the 25-pound monofilament line. Nothing state of the art, just good conventional gear, plus a lot of fishing hours! Of the 15 fish taken, his lowest weight was 4 pounds, but the average was much higher. 

The previous season, one fellow named “Hoppy” took a 32 lb beauty, and some bloke named “Scotty” got one at 31 lb this year. The proof that Roxburgh can turn it on for salmon catches!

In the off-season, it is time for my old mate to overhaul all his fishing gear, beat out new spoons and spinners, and construct new ticers (blade spinners) as the loss rate is fairly high in the Clutha River at Roxburgh.

Then it is time for my fishing mate “Rusty” to turn his attention to the condition of the whitebait net in readiness for the spring whitebait season on the Shag River. Every year the pattern is the same, but with the wide variety of fishing available, plus his extraordinary success rate in every sphere of his hobby, it never becomes boring for him. Whitebait, trout, blue cod and salmon run like the four seasons. What a wonderful piscatorial calendar for Rusty, my old mate.

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