Categories: OtagoSalmon

Otago Harbour Salmon Fishing in the Heart of Dunedin

Otago Harbour Salmon

How to catch salmon in Otago Harbour

In 1985, I.C.I. Watties, a New Zealand food manufacturing company specializing in canning released thousands of quinnat salmon smolt into a river near Dunedin. A couple of years later big salmon were being caught regularly from the wharves in Otago Harbour. A new fishery was born!

However, the Otago salmon fishery is not completely self-sustaining. It operates on a “put and take” basis. In other words, if smolt weren’t released each year the Otago Harbour fishery would eventually disappear. Restocking has been carried out by the Otago Branch of the New Zealand Salmon Anglers Association. The smolt paid for by donations from the public and local businesses.

A great salmon caught a few hundred metres from the centre of Dunedin by Bill Brown.

Salmon eggs have been planted in the nearby Taieri River and smolt have also been released there as well. No rivers flow directly into Otago Harbour other than the Leith Stream, the lower reaches of which have been concreted as a measure against flooding. Despite this, it is thought that at least some fish are returning and spawning in the local rivers.

Some Otago salmon anglers have come up with all sorts of extra items of tackle and kit that you don’t often see elsewhere. Various devices are employed to hold the rod safely so that the rod tip and the float are kept away from the wharf. As there are long hours of waiting for a bite involved with this fishing method some anglers bring small camp stoves, television sets, playing cards, and so on. Being in the harbour, of course, means that there are yachts and boats of every description going by so a pair of binoculars is a must.

Like salmon fisheries everywhere returns are variable. Some years there are considerable numbers caught, while other years catches and fish sizes are down. There were poor catches in Otago back in 2000-2001 much the same as elsewhere. This was likely the result of poor feeding conditions for the salmon at sea.

Pieter Van Haaften caught this big 24lb 8oz salmon off a Dunedin wharf. A good battle first fish for the season loving it big time. Photo courtesy of Pieter Van Haaften.
Amazingly big salmon like this one can be caught right in the middle of Dunedin City.
This superb 18 pounder was caught in Otago Harbour aboard Katrina.

Anglers fish for salmon in Otago Harbour in their own unique fashion. Whereas in the main salmon rivers to the north almost all fish are caught on zed spinners and hex-ticers, in Otago harbour fish are caught either on bait or by trolling lures behind a boat with the aid of a paravane, or in some cases a downrigger. These methods are rarely used for salmon fishing in New Zealand.

A huge salmon from the weigh-in during a salmon fishing contest in Otago Harbour.
This young bloke has landed a big Otago Harbour salmon.
11,000 salmon smolt being released into Otago Harbour, August 1995. Otago harbour is a put-and-take salmon fishery. As the salmon are not breeding in the harbour unless releases are maintained there would be no salmon in the harbour for local anglers, and visitors, to catch. Photo: K. Robinson.

Most salmon are caught trolling. Indeed this method is by far the most productive. Locals know the best places to troll their lures both within the harbour and outside the entrance off Taiaora Head. The salmon appear to gather at certain spots where they are detected by the boat’s echo sounder. The paravane seems to be the most popular way to get a spinner down to the salmon as the fish are mostly caught on or near the bottom. With a bit of thought and adjustment of the attachment point, it is possible to troll several paravanes at the same time without a tangle.

Video below: Dunedin’s Water of Leith could be home to thousands of smolt by the end of the year thanks to the Dunedin Community Salmon Trust’s breeding programme. Published on 1 Jun 2016

Another big salmon caught in Otago Harbour.

For those without boats, the inner harbour and Port Chalmers are very popular with anglers fishing with baited hooks. The method here is to use a whole baitfish bridle hooked with two to three hooks (1/0 – 3/0 Gamakatsu Octopus hooks) and suspended just off the bottom with the aid of a float. I’d use 40lb mono for the rig. The exact rig differs between anglers with many insisting their rigging method is the best. The baitfish are either locally caught yellow-eyed mullet about 10-20cm in length or frozen pilchards (imported from Australia) purchased from local tackle stores. This wharf fishing is an immensely enjoyable and laid-back form of fishing and a wonderful way to spend an afternoon with the kids.

Otago Harbour salmon Fishing Contest Winning Fish.
A drop net is an essential item of kit when fishing the wharves in Otago Harbour.
A salmon taken trolling from a boat in Otago Harbour.
Weighting for a bite. Salmon fishing from the wharves in Otago Harbour.

An essential item of kit is a drop-net. The water can be five meters or more from the wharf and any attempt to lift a 20-pound fish with the rod only will result in a certain bust-off. Most anglers make a drop-net from a 26-inch bicycle rim attaching a net from the local tackle store and tying on a rope to lower it down to the water with three or four attachment points.

There are few places where steps lead down to the water; so the net really is an essential item to have in the car boot! The hooked salmon is played out and eventually lead over the net before being lifted. The operation requires the help of another angler to guide and lift the net. Interestingly Dunedin and Port Chalmers continue to permit the public almost total access to their wharves while elsewhere in New Zealand anglers are met with high fences and locked gates!

Quinnat salmon are taken from the wharves in the inner harbour and by trolling from boats both inside and outside Taiaroa Head.

Rods and reels are generally the same as those used for river fishing. However many prefer a 12-foot rod as this helps to keep the float, and later the hooked salmon, away from a tangle with the dreaded wharf piles. Anglers fish with an eight-foot rod and 20lb monofilament line. Nowadays most anglers fish with braided lines instead of mono.

NZ Salmon Anglers Newsletter May 2015. These guys do great work to enhance our salmon fishery. The Daniels Showcase Jewellers Otago Harbour Salmon Fishing Competition was held on 28 February-1 March 2015. The event attracted 280 competitors. There are pictures and results included in this New Zealand Salmon Anglers Association May 2015 Newsletter .pdf  The part about the Otago Harbour competition starts on page 22. You may wish to consider joining the New Zealand Salmon Anglers Association. Family membership is just $30 pa.

Salmon City Dunedin Harbour video.

Dunedin is the only city in the world, other than Vancouver, where you can fish for salmon from a wharf in close proximity to the CBD. In this video, Brett Bensemann, the Chairman of the Dunedin Community Salmon Trust Inc, talks about his experiences of salmon fishing. The footage was shot during the opening weekend of the salmon season on the Dunedin Harbour.

This post was last modified on 17/05/2018 3:36 pm

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