Planning a Salmon Fishing Trip
The best salmon fishing in terms of fish numbers and fish size takes place on the South Island ‘s east coast between the Waiau River in North Canterbury, and the Waitaki River, which marks the border between the provinces of Canterbury and Otago. These two rivers are approximately 300 km apart travelling in a straight line. The distance between them is much further by road. There is also good salmon fishing outside these boundaries notably Otago Harbour, and the West Coast of the South Island. However, these areas have patchy salmon returns.
So we’ll stick to the big east coast braided rivers between the Waiau River and the Waitaki River. These are the Hurunui, Waimakariri, Rakaia, and Rangitata. We can probably discount the Waiau River from consideration because access to the mouth is only possible by jet boat.
These main rivers are not always consistent from year to year. Salmon return can also be variable between the rivers from year to year. For example, a couple of years back very good numbers of salmon were taken at the mouth of the Rangitata River early season – before Christmas. In other years the Rangitata hasn’t been so good. Yet other years it can be the other way around.
The smaller Hurunui River has a different catchment and can sometimes be clear and fishable while the main rivers to the south are running high and discoloured. When in spat the big rivers can be quite unfishable for salmon for a week or more. At such times when the rivers are in flood, there can sometimes be good fishing in the surf on the south side of the river mouths. This applies, particularly to the Rakaia and Rangitata. The main current flow along the coast is from south to north.
Several times I have caught salmon from the surf on the south side of the Rangitata River mouth when the river itself has been high, discoloured, and unfishable. Sometimes a pocket of clear water can be close in on the south side. This is not an exact science of course. At times anglers can be quite unlucky travelling some distance and camping at the mouth of say; the Rakaia or Rangitata Rivers, only to find them dirty throughout their stay.
If you are on holiday at the Rakaia River mouth and the river comes down in a big flood running at over 4,000 cumecs you are best to consider heading to the Waimakariri or Hurunui Rivers, if reports indicate they are fishable. It pays to check river levels before loading your rod in the car. Heavy rain following north-west conditions in the Southern Alps doesn’t usually persist for more than a few days. The worst of a flooded river drops after a day or two. The problem for salmon anglers is that it takes perhaps another week for the rivers to clear sufficiently for a salmon to be able to see your zed spinner. Amazingly salmon still run the rivers even when they are in full flood. I have seen salmon porpoising their way up the Waimakariri River even when it has been the consistency of pea gravy. Your chances of catching salmon in such conditions are of course nil.
I would suggest that if you are determined to catch a salmon, and don’t live locally, that you factor in a sufficient number of extra days in case you are unlucky with the weather. If possible allow at least a two or three-week stay in Canterbury for your salmon fishing trip.
Unless you really know what you are doing in terms of locating good fishable salmon water upstream, your best bet is to camp at one of the main river mouths where there are small communities of salmon anglers living in batches (huts or cabins). These guys fish the lower river every day and will generally be happy to share their knowledge of recent catches and the best fishing methods to employ. River mouths are a good place to start out in salmon fishing. Even if you don’t catch a salmon yourself straight away, seeing other anglers landing fish in close proximity will boost your spirits and confidence.
When fishing at the Rakaia, Rangitata and Waitaki River mouths you will find it much less of a strain on your legs if you can get your hands on a quad bike; and trailer to carry to and from each river. Tidal lagoons form at the mouths of these rivers as their flows drop. Wave action piles stones high on the beach blocking off the river except for a narrow and often fast flowing, mouth. The trouble is that this mouth proper can be anywhere from a couple of hundred metres, to over five kilometres down the stony beach. This is a daunting prospect on foot with a day’s food, drink, spare clothing, camera and fishing gear. Not to mention the return journey dragging (hopefully) a couple of heavy salmon! Twenty years ago you would see all manner of weird and wonderful beach buggies being used by anglers to travel back and forth. Nowadays almost every serious salmon angler fishing the mouth has a quad bike.
The best river mouth to fish for salmon if relying solely on your two legs for transportation is the north side of the Waimakariri Rivermouth. Earthworks and stop banks confine the lower river. The beach is sandy and you only have a couple of hundred metres to walk if staying at the excellent Pines Beach camping ground. February and March are the best months to fish the Waimakariri River.
Change Over Time
Over the last, 100 years or so since salmon were successfully introduced into the rivers of the South Island many changes have been seen in terms of where the salmon are caught, fish numbers and angling pressure. A big factor has been the draw-off of water for irrigation and town water supplies. Older anglers will remember that the Ashburton, Orari and Opihi rivers once provided salmon anglers with a very good sport. These rivers were also significant trout fisheries. Today abstraction has reduced their flows to a trickle!
Perhaps the most notable change of all has taken place in the Selwyn River which feeds into Lake Ellesmere just south of Banks Peninsula. Thirty years ago the Selwyn was arguably the most productive brown trout fishery in New Zealand. With the lower river seemly carrying endless numbers of double figure fish. Fertilizer run-off and other factors have today reduced this once magnificent trout fishery to a shadow of its former glory.
The mighty Rakaia River is the best of the salmon rivers in terms of fish numbers. While the Waitaki River seems to consistently produce the heaviest fish year after year. If I had to make a pick on where to go for a salmon fishing holiday I would stay for a few weeks at the mouth of the Rakaia River on the south side with February being the best month.
The Waimakariri can have good salmon fishing in the lower river during March in particular. However, the Waimakariri River can get quite low at times over summer which tends to hold the fish back from coming in. There are usually some very good days at the Waimakariri River mouth during March. Take a look at these big salmon taken there on the south side. Here are some pictures of salmon taken on a good day at the Waimakariri River mouth (north side) in mid-March.
Angling pressure has also been a factor with anglers today better equipped with jet boats, farm-bikes and 4wd vehicles. Twenty or so years ago few anglers fished for salmon above the gorges while today this has become common. The bag limit 20 years ago in many rivers was four salmon and ten trout. Many anglers regularly caught their limits in those days too.
Today the limit is two salmon per angler. Salmon are always a difficult fish to catch on rod and reel. Salmon numbers vary from year to year. They are big powerful fish that are a tremendous challenge to hook and land. The excitement and satisfaction that comes with successfully duelling with the king of freshwater fishes is strongly addictive. It keeps you coming back for more! If you are yet to land your first salmon I promise you it will be worth all the effort when you finally manage to get one on the bank. Any day you can bring home a big fresh run salmon that you caught yourself on rod and line is a red letter day; no matter how many you have caught in the past!
Video: Here is a great video of a big salmon, weighing close to 30lbs, being landed on the south side of the Waimakariri River mouth.