Motunau Beach offers good diving and boat fishing – Crossing the Bar

A super catch of crays, moki, and trumpeter caught fishing at Motunau on the North Canterbury Coast.
A super catch of crays, moki, and trumpeter caught fishing at Motunau on the North Canterbury Coast.

Motunau Beach – A Guide to Fishing & Angler Etiquette At Motunau

Fishing boat crossing the bar.
Motunau fishing boat crossing the bar.

By Patrick Morris

Plan your trip around the tides The bar at Motunau is navigable for the average trailer boat for about 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 hours either side of high tide.

Most fishermen go out over the high tide for a few good hours fishing but when high tide is too early in the morning some take the option of leaving on the outgoing tide and returning 8 hours later on the incoming tide. Either way, you need to have enough of the wet stuff underneath your keel to make for an enjoyable trip.

Prepare your boat before you get to the ramp

With all boat ramps, you should get ready in the staging area adjacent to the ramp. There is nothing worse at a busy slipway than having to wait while other unprepared people ahead of you fart around. Occupying the centre of the two-lane slipway or diagonal launching won’t win you many friends either. While you are doing final preparations you can take a few moments to watch the passage of other vessels down the river and note the course that they are taking. For people new to Motunau, I highly recommend going there at low tide one day to see the exact path of the channel and at which point along the breakwater the shallowest section occurs.

Negotiating the bar

I once heard a story that the most dangerous bar in Motunau was the one at the Greta Valley Pub; more than a few people would care to dispute this. There are two ways to go down the river and over the bar, either comfortably planing or slowly with your motor trimmed well up. The choice depends on the size of your boat, the exact stage of the tide and your level of confidence.

If you choose to go out on the plane, you need to have the hammer down before you pass the old wharf on the far side of the river. With the boat planing, you have far more control and are in the danger area for a shorter period of time however if the water is not deep enough you and your crew may end up plastered on the windscreen with serious prop and motor damage. Consider having people (divers) ready to jump over the back of the boat to hold the bow into the waves if things should go wrong and you lose power near the end of the breakwater. The water is about three to four feet deep here; I know this from personal experience after the fuel line on the boat on which I was travelling parted company at the connection to the motor. Getting wet is a far better option to getting hit side-on by a wave and rolling.

Once clear of the surf zone, turn around, look back up the river and take notice of the relative alignment of the channel marker(s) with respect to objects on the shore. It will make the return trip much easier if you know when you are on the right course.

Finding your fishing spot

A wide variety of good fish can be caught on the various reefs around Motunau including Blue Cod, Moki, Trumpeter, Groper, Kingfish, Butterfish, Salmon, John Dory, Sharks and the odd Crayfish. If you are not sure where to start, try fishing close (but not too close) to another group of boats or use your depth finder to locate a good section of foul ground indicated by the many floats.

Do not tie up to a cray float; it is likely that you sill drag it across the bottom until it gets snagged on a reef and cannot be retrieved resulting in the loss of an expensive cray pot complete with crayfish which will severely agitate the crayfisherman. Another good tip is to have a float permanently tied to the top of your anchor warp. Not only does it afford you protection from some wally tossing over the anchor and losing the whole lot because the rope wasn’t attached to the boat, but if you have divers

that need to be picked up in a hurry, the boatman does not have to waste time retrieving the anchor; he can dump the whole lot overboard and when finished you can come back to exactly the same red hot fishing spot.

Getting down to business

The use of large hooks (6/ O and bigger) is recommended to reduce the catch of undersized fish and recurve hooks such as the Kahle style will tend to catch fish in the corner of the mouth making for easy release. If you must use treble hooks on your jigs, try flattening out the barbs. Fish that you intend to keep should be killed and stored out of the sun, preferably chilled. Please respect the voluntary limit of 20 blue cod per person, especially those who fish Motunau regularly.

Diving for crayfish

The crays around Motunau are extremely plentiful; if you can’t catch your limit bag on less than a single tank of air, you are probably diving in the wrong place. The females are in berry from late March through to early November and as the population is mainly female (more than 90% in my favourite spot), most are off-limits although you can find the occasional barren female. Because of the population imbalance, during the summer months, I have no qualms about taking female crayfish in preference to males.

To lessen disturbance of the population and save yourself some frustration, look for crayfish with their tails out flat; they are usually the males. Females have their tails tucked under protecting their eggs. During October and November, when the crayfish are shedding their eggs, take extra time to carefully inspect under the pleopods (flaps) of the female crayfish. Some may have a few traces of eggs left that could get you into trouble with the Fisheries’ Rangers.

The trip back

Plan to leave plenty of time to allow for things like difficulty raising the anchor or rising sea conditions making the return trip slower. Whether you fish north or south, the approach to the bar is dependant on the direction of the sea and too complicated to describe here but either way, you should plan to come in on the back of a wave. Close to high tide the breakwater is fairly well hidden and offers little protection from the waves, further from high tide the breakwater is more prominent and gives more protection but there is less water in the river.

Before you commit yourself to the crossing, double-check that you have identified the marker(s) correctly. Also, be on the lookout for retuning commercial fishermen who take a lot of time to build up to speed and cannot back off until well up the river. If you see them lining the bar up, let them go first. With a regular parade of trailer boats restricting access to the river on a falling tide, there have been occasions when frustrated commercial fishermen have come roaring up the river almost running over the other vessels rather than risk letting the water get any shallower. A 10 m jet boat needs an awful lot more than six inches of water.

On arrival

You can expect to have your catch inspected by the Fisheries Officers, who not only enforce the Fisheries regulations to protect Motunau from the pillagers but also collect valuable catch data. This data amassed over the years is vital to assessing the state of the fishery. A side benefit is that they were
able to prove to the local commercial fishermen that the recreational crayfish take was a lot lower than they expected. Before you leave, remember to put your ramp donation in the dayglow pink receptacle on the seaward side of the ramp. There are fewer commercial fishermen than there were a few years ago and dredging the bar and maintaining the ramp is not getting any cheaper. The money that you are not volunteering today may prevent you from going fishing tomorrow.

Time and tide

You can accurately estimate the between tide depth by using the rule of twelfths; the tide will go out by one-twelfth in the first hour after the high tide, two twelfths in the second hour and three twelfths in the third. Applying this rule to the full moon tide on September 8 gives a tide height of 2.3 m at high tide, 2.1 m one hour before and after, 1.7 m two hours before and after, and 1.1 m at half tide. This means that if you plan to arrive back at the bar two hours after high tide, the water will be four inches shallower for every ten minutes you are late.

Crayfish anyone!
Crayfish anyone!

The little settlement of Motunau Beach nestles at the northern tip of Pegasus Bay. That’s about one-third of the way up the coast between Christchurch and Kaikoura. The drive from the city takes little over an hour. This is one of the reasons for the high turnout of boaties and anglers on most weekends.

Motunau is a top destination for Canterbury divers. They are attracted to this stretch of rugged rocky coastline by the abundance of crayfish and good bottom fishing

Monunau River mouth at low tide.
You know the Motunau River must be shallow when these guys can walk along the middle of the channel at low tide.

Bushett Shoal

It is another 35km further up the coast to Port Gibson (no launching ramps) and a similar distance again up the coast northeast to Bushett Shoal and Bushett Rocks. To fish at Bushett Shoal boaties must use the launching ramps either at Kaikoura or Motunau. Bushett Shoal is about halfway between these two places.

This sunken reef system attracts many keen boat fishermen in search of trumpeter and blue cod. Both species being found there, in extra-large sizes. This excellent fishing area consists of rocky sea-mounts that sea-mounts that rise from 40 metres plus to just a few metres from the surface.

Motunau Beach shown on New Zealand map.It takes about an hour’s travel by boat to get to Bushett Shoal travelling north from Motunau. Bushett Shoal is difficult to get to but well worth the effort for those who make the trip. Aside from big blue cod and trumpeter caught there, anglers also catch groper, ling, tarakihi and sometimes moki.

This angler fishing off Motunau Beach has caught no less than four fish on one drop of his flasher rig. The catch consists of three good sized blue cod and one of those pesty barracouta!
This angler fishing off Motunau Beach has caught no less than four fish on one drop of his flasher rig. The catch consists of three good sized blue cod and one pesty barracouta!

Motunau offers Canterbury boat anglers the best chance of catching the much sort after blue cod within reasonable reach of the city of Christchurch. For this reason, the area takes a bit of a hammering by recreational fishers.

On weekends when weather and tide are favourable dozen of trailer boats head out of this small fishing village after fish dinners. The Motunau Beach Rate­payers Assn., Canterbury Sport Fishing Club, Canterbury recreational Fishers Assn, Basher Charters, The North Canterbury Dive Club, and Sea Aqua Dive Club, have banded together to ask that anglers reduce their blue cod catch to reduce stress on the fishery.

Kingfish are sometimes caught off Motunau over summer. It is also a good place to head out in search of albacore tuna. Boat anglers have successfully targeted this species from here particularly when the sea temperature is just right.

The Motunau River bar is prone to silting and must be dredged periodically. Most anglers try to head out and return on the half tide. Many a prop has been altered from its original shape whilst making the crossing. For this reason, the cray boats operating from here use large inboard jet units to cross the shallow bar – or to at least extend the window for a save crossing.

Broadbill has been seen off this coast in the past, and there are certainly big mako and blue sharks out there.

This view of the entrance to the Motunau River has been taken from the hill above it looking northwards. You can see in this picture just how precarious a boat passage it is. Every so often it has to be dredged to keep it open.
This view of the entrance to the Motunau River has been taken from the hill above it looking northwards. You can see in this picture just how precarious a boat passage it is. Every so often it has to be dredged to keep it open.
The magnificient vessel Navigator uses twin inboard jet units to navigate the shallow Motunau Bar. Here she has just returned with a crew of keen anglers.
The magnificent vessel Navigator uses twin inboard jet units to navigate the shallow Motunau Bar. Here she has just returned with a crew of keen anglers.
Dorado Fishing Charters out of Motunau. The catch is a good size blue shark.
Dorado Fishing Charters out of Motunau. The catch is a good size blue shark.
John Bruce or Rangiora boated these two salmon off Motunau, North Canterbury. Salmon weights 14.6lb and 15.2lb.
John Bruce or Rangiora boated these two salmon off Motunau, North Canterbury. Salmon weights 14.6 lb and 15.2 lb. A meritorious catch in any anglers book. Well done!

Pegasus Canyon

Groper caught in deep water over the Pegasus Canyon approx. 27 miles east of Motunau Beach.
Groper caught in deep water over the Pegasus Canyon approx. 27 miles east of Motunau Beach.

This is more or less where you get to if you head straight offshore from the North Canterbury coast and keep on going for 25 to 30 miles. Out here are to be found groper, trumpeter, ling, blue cod, sea perch and sharks, as well as other species. Bottom bouncing in water over 100 metres deep requires specialist tackle to handle the heavy sinkers and potentially big fish being targeted.

The great thing about fishing these distant grounds is that you never know what you might catch. Nowadays almost all recreational fishing done of these deeper offshore grounds is done with low stretch super lines such as Spectra. Monofilament is now almost a thing of the past for deep water fishing. With Spectra you can feel bits even at 100 metres whereas with mono the huge amount of stretch at this depth means that you are effectively fishing blind.

You certainly don’t have to go all the way to the Pegasus Canyon to catch good-sized blue cod, trumpeter, and sea perch. But it does help if you have GPS marks for the better inshore reefs It pays to carry plenty of terminal tackle when fishing off Motunau as sometimes you can get stuck into schools of barracouta. These things can sometimes be a huge nuisance here much as they are further north off Kaikoura.

Warning for Divers

An “Orange Sausage” inflatable signal device is actually a purpose-made plastic bag. It can save a diver's life. If you ever see one of these held up in the water take action immediately. Either provide assistance or contact the police without delay.
An “Orange Sausage” inflatable signal device is actually a purpose-made plastic bag. It can save a diver’s life. If you ever see one of these held up in the water take action immediately. Either provide assistance or contact the police without delay.

A word of warning for those considering diving for crayfish with scuba gear off Motunau. Every year divers get into trouble here. The tides are deceptively strong and even very experienced divers can get into serious trouble very quickly. I hate to say it but divers seem to lose their lives off Motunau on a regular basis.

Visibility isn’t that good. The water generally has a greenish tint to it. When the surface chops up – which it does most days – it is difficult for a surfacing diver to see the boat. It is equally difficult for the boat crew to spot surfacing divers. The fast-moving current, wind and tidal stream can separate divers and boat very quickly with disastrous consequences.

My eldest son is a very competent driving instructor but I don’t want him diving off Motunau! At the very least all divers should carry an “Orange Sausage” inflatable signal device. These things make you easier for searchers to spot, cost only a couple of dollars, and have been the difference between life and death for divers lost off Motunau.

This view of the entrance to the Motunau River has been taken from the hill above it looking northwards. You can see in this picture just how precarious a boat passage it is. Every so often it has to be dredged to keep it open.
This view of the entrance to the Motunau River has been taken from the hill above it looking east. You can see in this picture just how precarious a boat passage it is. Every so often it has to be dredged to keep it open.
Two blue cod and a sea perch caught during a fishing contest held at Motunau, North Canterbury. These two species make up a typical bottom fishing catch from around the South Island. Both are very good eating and have firm white flesh.
Two blue cod and a sea perch caught during a fishing contest held at Motunau, North Canterbury. These two species make up a typical bottom fishing catch from around the South Island. Both are very good eating and have firm white flesh.
Crayfish from Motunau Beach. The rocky shoreline between Motunau and Kaikoura is a top cray fishing ground. This smallish specimen was landed during a recent fishing contest held at Motunau, North Canterbury.
Crayfish from Motunau Beach. The rocky shoreline between Motunau and Kaikoura is a top cray fishing ground. This smallish specimen was landed during a recent fishing contest held at Motunau, North Canterbury.
Motunau Island view
The flat-topped Motunau Island stands guard just offshore. Note the line of breakers show just how shallow the entrance is even at high tide.
Another view of the entrance to the Motunau River.
View of the entrance to the Motunau River.

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