Lesly (Haggis from Scotland) with his limit bag from the Rangitata River. 22 and 26 lbs. Photo: Darryl French.

Rangitata River Salmon, Trout, and Surfcasting

with Allan Burgess

The “Rangi” as it is affectionately known, is a top salmon fishing river. It flows south-eastwards through what is generally dry sheep country. There is some cropping, and more recently an expansion in dairying.

Despite the wrangles over its water the “Rangi” still offers some of the most consistent salmon fishing to be found in the south Island – especially in the surf.

One of the notable features in many of the paddocks as we speed by on the way to the Rangitata River mouth is the huge irrigation pipes stretching in many cases for hundreds of metres across the vast paddocks. Each large diameter pipe is held aloft and moved along by a wheeled undercarriage to supply life-giving water to parched stony soil.

I spotted an enormous field of corn similarly irrigated that must have been several kilometres long. Testimony to the productivity of this land if only you can get some water on it!

Leigh Tobeck with a very fat 7.5 pound sea-run brown trout taken in the Rangitata River. What a well-fed fish! Photograph by Darryl French.

The Rangitata is fed by three main tributaries. These being the Havelock, Clyde and Lawrence Rivers that drain the mountains of the Southern Alps on the eastern side of the main divide. The Rangi flows for 121 kilometres. Which is 11 km further than the mighty Waitaki River to the south but the catchment area of the Rangitata is only a fraction of the size hence there is less water.

On its way to the coast, the river passes through the Rangitata Gorge. At the mouth of the gorge there is a diversion channel “poaching” water away for irrigation, and at the far end of the channel, for electricity generation at the small Highbank power station on the Rakaia River near Methven. Far upstream in the Rangitata Valley are the isolated sheep and cattle stations of Mesopotamia and Erewhon.

The Rangitata River is often crossed by hurried travellers along State Highway 1 who never have the time to explore the river down to the mouth 17km downstream or perhaps camp at Peel Forest 28km upriver! Only those anglers in the “know” make the Rangitata River their destination.

There are little communities of baches (huts) on both sides of the river mouth. But as is the case with the Hurunui, Rakaia and Waitaki Rivers, the best access, and fishing, is from the south side of the river mouth. Like the other rivers mentioned, there is a long narrow shingle spit running up the beach from the south almost enclosing the lagoon. Presently the outlet to the sea is 2.5km from South Rangitata Huts but a big fresh through the river can quickly open a new outlet. The spit at the present is so long in fact that the outlet is actually past the North Rangitata Huts settlement.

The great hole beneath the rapids on the Rangitata River. Photo courtesy of Len Isitt.

Most of the locals and visiting anglers alike travel up and down the spit on motorised farm bikes with large balloon tyres. This saves the legs and makes for a speedy trip down to the outlet just for a “quick look” a viable option. For those anglers less fortunate, or more concerned with staying fit, the walk along the stones takes some 25 minutes each way. It always pays to carry at least a daypack when making this walk. The weather can change quickly from very hot, too cold, and back to hot again. Therefore you need to take a long a cool drink, something to eat, and a warm coat should it turn cold.

Another view of the great salmon hole beneath the rapids on the Rangitata River. Photo courtesy of Len Isitt.

At present, the main flow of the river sweeps close to the spit making for at least a good kilometre of salmon holding water.

On a trip not long ago I noticed that nearly all the locals were fishing within a 100-metre line about halfway down the spit. There were only a few “stalwarts of the surf” bothering to travel all the way to the end to fish out over the breakers with long rods.

On this day in late January, there were three salmon caught: two halfway down in the lagoon and one from the surf. There were approximately 70 anglers fishing on and off throughout the day so I guess you could argue that there weren’t many fish caught for this many anglers. However, seeing fish being caught is always a good sign that is sure to keep everyone interested. You never know your luck on that next cast!

Salmon caught in the Rangitata River, like the other rivers that season, had been small compared with past seasons. Most salmon caught weighed around 12 pounds suggesting they are three-year-olds. Some fish are only 8 pounds, while the heaviest would be no more than 18 pounds. All had been in plump healthy condition.

According to the locals, that is: bach owners, there were only 49 salmon caught in the Rangitata in the whole of the disastrous 2001/2002 season. While the number of salmon caught this season had already hit 123 by late January 2003. Many of the salmon caught early on back in late November and early December were taken well upriver at Arundel perhaps suggesting that like the Rakaia, many salmon enter the river and head upstream without the local anglers realising they were there.

During the day a pod of dolphins frolicked a kilometre or more from shore. They may have been chasing kahawai as some of them broached clear of the water before crashing back down in a spray of white water! There is always something to see at a river mouth.

Len Isitt with a 24lb salmon below the great rapid on the Rangitata River. These were the rapids dynamited by the New Zealand army.


At least a couple of dozen anglers continued surfcasting throughout the afternoon from the shingle beach directly in front of the huts. They were catching fish too. Dogfish and red cod mostly, with at least one big sevengill shark landed, and another lost.

The lagoon and the surf are teeming with big yellow-eyed mullet. These make prime red cod baits for fishing later in the afternoon when generally the red cod seem to come on the bite.

We decided to give surfcasting a try as we had been very successful fishing here in the past. By 7.OOpm the wind had switched to the north-west. The then local Rangitata tackle store owner, and mate from Christchurch days, Peter Ritchie, otherwise known as P.J., was on hand with a few tips and pointers on catching a feed of red cod for dinner.

The first thing to remember according to P.J. is, don’t cast too far out as the cod will be feeding on morsels tossed up by wave action. The sea was pretty flat from the nor’wester which meant the cod would be almost at our feet. P.J.’s second tip was to exchange our old previously frozen yellow-eyed mullet for a couple of fat specimens he had managed to hook from the lagoon while casting for a salmon. He had these to hand on the front carrier of his farm bike.

Sure enough with P.J.’s fresh mullet, and our casting into the sweet spot only a few metres behind the breakers we soon had fat red cod coming up the beach one after the other! It just goes to show that no matter how much fishing you do there’s always something new to learn.

We could have pulled them from the sea with hand lines they were so close in. It was a case of casting out then holding the rod in our hands so as to feel the bites then strike with the rod, rather than our more typical casting for the horizon then plonking the rod in a rod holder and watching and waiting for the tip to alert us to fish.

Allan Burgess with a big Rangitata River salmon. We haven’t seen big salmon like this one caught in the Rangitata or the other big Canterbury Rivers since the mid-90s. Feeding conditions at sea, warmer sea temperatures, too much water is drawn off the Rangitata River, the increase in dairying, and the failure of the fish-screen are likely all factors. However, those great days can come again.
Early morning surf fishing for salmon at the mouth of the Rangitata River. Photo Malcolm Bell.
This quad bike near the mouth of the Rangitata River seems able to handle being almost submerged as its rider crosses a braid to reach good salmon water. Quad bikes are also useful for launching small boats.
Salmon anglers fishing the “Picket Fence” at the mouth of the Rangitata River. Salmon angling has some strange traditions. There are various unspoken rules in operation here. If you get a tangle or leave the line to land a fish the blokes next to you will allow you back into your place. Otherwise, you should go to the end of the line. Depending on river conditions sometimes the best place to fish will be the beach immediately adjacent to the river itself. At such times most of the salmon caught will be landed by the half dozen or so anglers fishing the “sweet spot” though on other days the fish will be caught all along the line. Some days most salmon will be caught only by those able to make particularly long casts out to a “hole” for example, while at other times they will be hooked very close in.

It had been a great day with the family down at the Rangitata River mouth with a couple of fish dinners to follow back home.

The Rangi has a lot to offer: big sea-run brown trout early season (October and November); salmon from early November until February-March; mullet in the lagoon; kahawai in the surf – sometimes chased to your feet by dolphins; and excellent surfcasting all year.

Fishing the gut for salmon on the Rangitata River.

There is a camping ground on the south side of the mouth which offers good “special” rates for the whole season. No trip to the “southside” should be contemplated without giving P.J. a phone call to see what’s happening! P.J. keeps a keen interest in the area, and he sure knows how to catch fish.

Darryl French with a solid Rangitata River salmon in top condition fresh from the sea.

The drive south from Christchurch only takes two hours. The road is flat and straight all the way for easy driving. Many Christchurch salmon anglers keep caravans at the Rangitata early season, travelling down by car on weekends. As the season progresses they move them north to the Rakaia River for February and March because that’s how these rivers usually fish for salmon: Rangitata early; Rakaia later on, and Waitaki later still. That season, according to P.J., things were running later than usual in the Rangi. I have re-read and updated this article for 2015. It all looks pretty good to me. A mate of mine who has a bach at the South Rangitata Huts tells me he has had some excellent days fishing for elephant fish over the years. Sometimes they come right in close allowing surfcasters to have a ball.

A good run of salmon is soon followed by a good run of salmon anglers! Photographed fishing what must be a good productive spot near the mouth of the Rangitata River.

I have fond memories of sitting on my quad bike parked on the beach at the Rangitata River mouth on warm summer evenings just watching as a few stalwarts get in those last few casts. The distant lights of Timaru twinkling in the distance after a long day spent salmon fishing. There is something wonderful about camping and salmon fishing at the Rangitata River mouth that isn’t easily explained!

Rangitata Motor Camp (South Side), 150 Rangitata Huts Road. Ablution and kitchen facilities. The camp opens early September, coinciding with fishing seasons, and is open through until Easter weekend, catering for fishers and campers. Power sites, non-power sites, month season sites. Phone Colin Wilson 03-615-5130

Transport down to the mouth of the “Rangi.” The old and the new method of getting there are shown well in this photograph. Walking over loose shingle is surprisingly exhausting especially if carrying a heavy load of fishing gear, food, drink, and warm clothing. At the mouths of the big Canterbury east coast salmon rivers, a shingle spit is formed by wave action. When the river floods following heavy rain in its catchment a new “mouth” is often punched in the spit. For this reason, the mouth proper can move back and forth by as much as five kilometres.

Rangitata River Salmon Fishing and McKinnon’s Creek Hatchery Video

McKinnon’s Creek Hatchery website. History, information, photographs and videos about the hatchery.

South Canterbury Anglers Assn website. News, photographs, membership.

Here is a great video from New Zealand Salmon Fishing Safari filmed on the Rangitata River. Jet boating and fishing in the Rangitata River lagoon and upriver – recommended.

This post was last modified on 19/04/2022 5:22 pm

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