Published On: Mon, Aug 28th, 2017

Rakaia River Salmon Fishing Tips, Access, 66 photos, maps, video

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Foggy early morning salmon fishing in the surf at Canterbury’s Rakaia River Mouth – March 2015.
These two salmon were caught in the surf at the mouth of Canterbury's Rakaia River. They were caught on 27 February 2010. That was the day before the Tsunami alert.

These two salmon were caught in the surf at the mouth of Canterbury’s Rakaia River. They were caught on 27 February 2010. That was the day before the Tsunami alert. 

Rakaia River salmon fishing is highly regarded. Many believe the Rakaia is the best salmon river in New Zealand. The salmon run begins in November and peaks in February and March. The Rakaia also has very good runs of sea-run brown trout in its lower reaches over spring and summer. There are also resident trout populations in the rivers middle and upper reaches.

The Rakaia River is very wide and highly braided over almost its entire 125 km length. Though access is good from either bank all the way back into the Southern Alps most angling pressure is concentrated in the 22 km between the SH 1 bridge and the river mouth.

This big 34 pound salmon was taken in the surf at the mouth of the Rakaia River at Waitangi Weekend 1996.

This big 34 pound salmon was taken in the surf at the mouth of the Rakaia River at Waitangi Weekend 1996.

Twenty years ago it was unknown for anglers to fish for salmon above the gorge but this is now more common. The dry and dusty shingle riverbed often spans over a kilometre in width interrupted with slow flowing braids ranging from just a few inches to fast water several metres deep.

It is susceptible to rain in the mountains. The Rakaia River can flood quite suddenly following heavy rain in the Southern Alps even though the sky above the Canterbury Plains remains clear and blue. Occasionally anglers vehicles are lost to the river when they are caught out by a sudden dramatic rise in the river flow.

Alex Nehlebaeff caught this 24.5 pound salmon just upstream from the SH1 bridge on the first day of the Rakaia Salmon Fishing Competition March 1996.

Alex Nehlebaeff caught this 24.5-pound salmon just upstream from the SH1 bridge on the first day of the Rakaia Salmon Fishing Competition March 1996.

Rising Rivers Warning

Anglers must always keep a constant lookout for any rise in the river level which could see their 4wd stranded in the middle of the river. Vehicles being swept away is not uncommon following sudden heavy rain in the mountains. Watch out for sudden water discoloration that can also herald a sudden flood. It is an awesome sight to see dirty brown water flowing from bank to bank across the entire length of the 1.6 km long SH1 bridge.

There are also very good numbers of brown and rainbow trout in the Rakaia River. Down at the mouth where fishing pressure is greatest there are sea-run brown trout, salmon, mullet and during summer schools of kahawai in the surf.

Rakaia River Salmon Run

The salmon runs are variable in both fish size and numbers from year to year. This of applies to all the salmon rivers in New Zealand’s South Island. Back in 1996, there was an enormous run of salmon into the Rakaia River. That year fish weighing in excess of 30 pounds were not uncommon. Since then returns have been patchy.

Giant salmon statue at Rakaia stands 12 metres high. On the State Highway. You can't miss it.

Giant salmon statue at Rakaia stands 12 metres high. On the State Highway. You can’t miss it.

The 2014/2015 season has seen much smaller fish returning. The numbers have also been well down. Interestingly I saw an angler at the mouth of the Rakaia River during the 2015 Rakaia Salmon Fishing Contest held in late February – early March, land a salmon from the surf weighing about 5kg, then loose the second fish in the last breaker, only to land a third a short time later. He is a very good salmon surf angler.

Many experienced salmon anglers have landed only one or two salmon or none at all this 2014/2015 salmon season. This summer has been marked by low flows in the east coast rivers. If you haven’t managed a salmon this season you are not alone

Rakaia Hut Owners Competition 2014/2015

The hut owners at South Rakaia hold a fishing competition which runs throughout the salmon fishing season from November through to April. Here are the fish weights. They make interesting reading. Note the heaviest fish caught weighed 7.97kg (17.5 pounds). The average weight (excluding the very small fish at the top of the list) was just 5.54kg (12.2 pounds). From memory, the last time the salmon got down to these sort of weights was the 2000 season. The most likely reason for these low fish weights is poor feeding conditions at sea.

South Rakaia Hut Owners Salmon Fishing Competition fish weights 2014/2015

South Rakaia Hut Owners Competition fish weights 2014/2015 season.

River Conditions

Like all of our east coast rivers runs in the Rakaia River are variable in terms of numbers of fish returning to the river and fish size. No two salmon seasons are the same. The weather plays a big part. Some years we get a lot of rain caused by north-westerly winds in the upper Rakaia River catchment. This can result in the river flooding and be unfishable. Some years the river just clears from one flood and then we get another one. Whilst other years the problem is not enough water for farmers or fish. Watching the forecast and checking the river levels, is all part and parcel of a salmon angler’s season.

River Flow Conditions

You can check up-to-date river flows here at the Environment Canterbury website. The Rakaia River is generally fishable once it drops below about 180 cumecs measured at Fighting Hill. The old time anglers would say the river is fishable for salmon when you can see the toes of your waders while standing in water up to your knees (about 300 to 400 mm).

The Rakaia River fishes well as the river is dropping after a flood. Salmon will head up river quite quickly the day after the peak flood level. So keep an eye on the river flow on the Environment Canterbury website and hit the river as soon as it becomes fishable following a flood.

Video: Kevin O’Hanlons Salmon Fishing the Middle Reaches of the Rakaia River, January 2014. All tackle used in this video kindly supplied by the Fisherman’s Loft, 359 Lincoln Road, Addington, Christchurch. Phone 03 338-3131

Rakaia River Surf Salmon Fishing

Johnny Richards with a brace, and limit bag, of big salmon from the lower Rakaia River caught at Waitangi Weekend sometime around the mid 1990s. The fish weighed 20 and 23.5 lbs.

Johnny Richards with a brace, and limit bag, of big salmon from the lower Rakaia River, caught at Waitangi Weekend sometime around the mid-1990s. The fish weighed 20 and 23.5 lbs.

The best time to fish the Rakaia Surf is generally the bottom of the outgoing tide and the first half of the incoming. At the Rakaia River mouth, the sea is quite shallow. Ideally, you don’t want the surf to be any more than one metre or it is usually too rough and dirty for surf fishing. The gut at Rakaia tends to fish best during the top half of the incoming tide. Many anglers fish the surf on the bottom half of the tide and then move back up the gut as the tide comes in and the gut slows. Most of the salmon will be caught far out in the surf at low tide. Later in the day on the second half of the tide most of the fish caught will be taken in the gut and lower river.

Download the North Canterbury Fish & Game Rakaia River fishing information and access pdf brochure. This brochure includes all the main river access points of interest to anglers.

Rakaia River Accommodation

A very good place for anglers to stay when fishing the Rakaia River is the Rakaia River Holiday Park which is just over the State Highway One bridge on the south side. There is a range of good basic accommodation available, as well as powered and non-powered campervan and tent sites. Many of the competitors stay there during the annual Rakaia River Salmon Fishing Competition held in late February. A service station and shops are just a few hundred metres from the campground.

There is another smaller camping ground located at the river mouth on the south side, at South Rakaia Huts (17 km from Rakaia). It has only limited facilities – a toilet and running water. But it does have the advantage that you can camp there and ride your quad bike down the shingle spit to the mouth.

A magnificent view over the Rakaia River from just above the Rakaia Gorge. Over 20 years ago this area of the river was rarely fished. With jet boats and 4WD vehicles now more common anglers can fish almost every inch of the river.

A magnificent view over the Rakaia River from just above the Rakaia Gorge. Over 20 years ago this area of the river was rarely fished. With jet boats and 4WD vehicles now more common anglers can fish almost every inch of the river. To get an idea of the scale of the picture the white streak in the centre is the wake of a jet boat.

Rakaia Gorge

The best fishing in this upper section of the Rakaia River is later in the season between January and March. Salmon will have lost a fair bit of condition by the time they reach this far upstream and they will appear darker and pinkish in colour.

Fishing access to the narrow gorge section is limited to jet boats. Once you get about 10 km above the gorge the river opens out again with good access for the angler on foot. The Rakaia Gorge is located about 52km from Rakaia township. It is a journey of around 40 minutes by car.

The trout and salmon fishing season extend to the whole year below the Lake Coleridge Tailrace. You are not permitted to take salmon above the Lake Coleridge Tailrace at any time of the year. Once the salmon reach this point they are safe!

There is also excellent trout fishing from the Rakaia River Gorge upstream. Look for pools containing permanent water and large boulders.

Above: A Woolridge jet boat with outboat jet unit on a shingle island just inside the rivermouth. This island will becovered by water with the incoming tide. Note the salmon in the net that has just been landed at the head of the gut.

Above: A Woolridge jet boat with an outboard jet unit on a shingle island just inside the river mouth. This island will be covered by water with the incoming tide. Note the salmon in the net that has just been landed at the head of the gut.

 The Lower Rakaia River is Popular with Anglers

Griggs Road runs of Acton Road down to the river onn the south side about 12 km from Rakaia Township.

Griggs Road runs off Acton Road down to the river bed about 12 km from Rakaia Township. Don’t forget to shut the gate.

The lower section of the Rakaia River from the mouth to several kilometres upstream is extremely popular with trout and salmon anglers. The best salmon fishing is between December and March. The best sea-run trout fishing is between November and February. At this time of year, there are enormous numbers of silveries (smelt) in the surf and the lower river. The big sea-run brownies literally gorge themselves to overflowing on this high protein food source.

The best fishing is just as the river is clearing after a flood. Often quite a few salmon will be caught here over a day of two before they quickly move upriver. Sometimes salmon fishing at the mouth both in the surf, gut and lower river, can be red hot with dozens of fish being caught within just a few hours.

Here are some great Rakaia River salmon fishing pictures from the 2014/2015 season courtesy of Charles Smith. (If you are using a desktop or laptop click the first picture and then use the left and right arrows on your keyboard to scroll through the gallery).  

Here is a gallery of photographs taken during the Rakaia River Salmon Fishing Contest held from 27 February to 1 March 2015. 

Rakaia River Salmon Fishing Photographs

Have you or your mate caught a salmon in the Rakaia River? Please send your salmon pictures from the Rakaia River to allan @ fishingmag.co.nz (without gaps), together with a short caption, so we can share them on this page. It is much appreciated.

4×4 Access

There is good 4×4 vehicle access of rutted tracks running off Acton Road on the south side of the lower river. The best spots are Dobbins Ford, Griggs Road and Maginisses. These tracks are quite long and not suitable for cars. Don’t forget to close all the gates behind you. Even when you do reach the river from these side tracks there is often quite a distance to travel to fishable water. Many salmon anglers own 4×4 trucks and drive these through shallow side streams on their way to deeper water fishing spots.

Below Video: Rakaia Raiders Salmon Fishing Video by Charles Smith

Fishing the surf at the mouth of the Rakaia River.

Fishing the surf at the mouth of the Rakaia River.

The shingle spit on the south side of the Rakaia River mouth is a popular spot during the annual Rakaia River Salmon Fishing Competition.

The shingle spit on the south side of the Rakaia River mouth is a popular spot during the annual Rakaia River Salmon Fishing Competition.

This very fresh bright silver quinnat salmon was caught by Simon Arthur at the Rakaia River mouth just two hours after the recent salmon fishing competition ended. It weighed in at an impressive 7.2 kg. Congratulations Simon!

This very fresh bright silver quinnat salmon was caught by Simon Arthur at the Rakaia River mouth just two hours after the recent salmon fishing competition ended. It weighed in at an impressive 7.2 kg. Congratulations Simon!

Salmon anglers fishing on the north side of the Rakaia River mouth.

Salmon anglers fishing on the north side of the Rakaia River mouth.

Rakaia River mouth salmon/surf fishing.

Rakaia River mouth salmon/surf fishing.

Salmon anglers and their quads bikes at the mouth of the Rakaia River.

Salmon anglers and their quads bikes at the mouth of the Rakaia River.

Rakaia River mouth salmon/surf fishing.

A line of salmon anglers hunts the “big one” at the Rakaia River mouth. At the time, this picture was taken a shingle island had formed on the south side. Access to and from it became cut off as the tide came in. At some point, anglers would have to retreat before the channel became too deep to wade across. Not an easy decision to make when the salmon are running hot.
When conditions are right this special breed of anglers chases salmon in the surf with long, purpose-built carbon fibre rods, weight-forward ticers, and low-mount free-spool reels. Good casting skills and top rated tackle are required to hook big tough fish at long range – sometimes as much as 200 metres from the beach! This is the most exciting, heart pounding, salmon fishing there is!
Note the angler in the white hat (sixth from the right of the picture) has a fish on! Photo: Allan Burgess. Click on picture to enlarge.

Rakaia River salmon fresh from the surf.

A big salmon fresh from the surf at the mouth of the Rakaia River, Canterbury, New Zealand.

Malcolm Bell owner of The Complete Angler fishing tackle store in Christchurch caught these four salmon back in 1988 when the bag limit was still four fish. Few anglers could match Malcolm when it comes to catching salmon; or distance casting. I'm quite certain The Complete Angler store has the most extensive range of salmon fishing tackle available in New Zealand.

Malcolm Bell owner of The Complete Angler fishing tackle store in Christchurch caught these four salmon back in 1988 when the bag limit was still four fish. Few anglers could match Malcolm when it comes to catching salmon; or distance casting. I’m quite certain The Complete Angler store has the most extensive range of salmon fishing tackle available in New Zealand.

The lower Rakaia River has easier access from the south side off Acton Road. Golf Course 5.5 km from Rakaia township.

The lower Rakaia River has easier access from the south side of Acton Road. Golf Course 5.5 km from Rakaia township. Maginisses is 8.8 km down Acton Road from Rakaia. Griggs Road is 11 km from Rakaia. Dobbins 16 km down Acton Road from Rakaia. Deer Fence Track is the roughest of these access points definitely 4×4 only located at the bend in the road just before South Rakaia Huts. Maps: 1:50,000. Each grid square represents 1 km. Maps Sourced from NZTopo50-BY22. Crown Copyright Reserved.

Rakaia River Mouth topographic map showing fishing access.

Rakaia River Mouth topographic map showing fishing access.There is excellent spin fishing for trout and quinnat salmon in the lower reaches of the river. Use of the Canterbury Lure Rod is also popular. Rakaia River mouth access is difficult on foot with a long walk over loose shingle required to get to the actual river mouth proper.
Sometimes there can be two openings in the shingle spit which blocks the Rakaia Lagoon from the sea. At such times, access to the island then formed in the middle of the spit is only possible by jet boat. When the river floods it often punches a new hole through the shingle spit. The subsequent falling river level combined with wave action can close off these exits through the shingle spit. The river mouth is therefore in a constant state of change. Many anglers use quad bikes to travel back and forth from the hut settlements at either end of the shingle spit. The mouth proper opens in different places along the lagoon.
There is also excellent surfcasting all along the steeply shelving shingle beaches in this area.

Rakaia River Salmon Fishing Contest 2016

Fish caught throughout competition Salmon 30, Trout 24.
Heaviest Salmon 8.40kg caught by Paul Middleton from Methven
Heaviest Trout 3.76kg caught by Ross McDonald from Ashburton
Junior Heaviest fish caught weighed 1.14kg caught by Ashlyn Read

Below: Here is a very good video filmed at the mouth of the Rakaia River during the Annual Rakaia River Salmon Fishing Contest held over three days at the end of February and beginning of March 2015. Video made by and courtesy of Kevin Belcher. This video and the one below it are excellent. They really capture the excitement of salmon fishing in the mighty Rakaia River. I recommend you watch them – Allan Burgess

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Fishingmag.co.nz website editor.

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