Canterbury Low-land Lakes

Night Time Lurking – Fishing Lake Ellesmere and its Tributaries

Night Time Lurking – Fishing Lake Ellesmere and its Tributaries; Harts, Irwell, Halswell, Selwyn and the LII 

Night Time Lurking words and pictures courtesy of Timothy Nicol

I’ve been fishing Lake Ellesmere and its tributaries since the mid-’90s and it’s always been full of life. Some years are better than others but overall whitebait and smelt are plentiful. This has to come down to the opening of the lake, especially the timing and duration of the “cutting” at Taumutu, more on that later. The tributaries of Lake Ellesmere are famous for their big brown trout both resident fish and new arrivals fresh from the sea. The later bright silver sea-run browns run up into the lake when the cutting is opened to lower the lake level. Trout congregate around the river mouths and move into the lower reaches of the tributaries chasing smelt, whitebait and silveries under the cover of darkness. Hence fishing after dark has long been popular with anglers fishing the area. Anglers arrive in the early evening and then continue fishing, or night time lurking, long after the sun goes down.

I have a good friend whose family used to own Coe’s ford when it was a dry sheep station and back then the trout population was at its peak. Almost every fish was double-digit, and they were everywhere! Times have changed, the lake doesn’t open as much as it used to, and there are the usual modern-day stresses of dairy farming and lack of floods that cause the lake (and rivers) to become stagnant, not that the eels care about this.

This year 2021 there has been a huge flood or two. The Selwyn burst its banks and flowed down its “natural flood plain” (narrowly missing the huts!). This flood caused the Selwyn River to come right up to the top of the stopbanks near the upper and lower huts, very impressive, and scary for the residents I would imagine. This caused the lake level to rise, significantly I believe! 

Seriously big Selwyn River brown trout.

The lake was then opened to the sea causing the raging torrent of stagnant and algae bloomed water to flow out to sea. The start of the flow (for hours or days following) is very VERY fast, nothing could swim upstream against such a torrent into the lake, however, it soon gets wider, clearer and the flow slows down.

These conditions are perfect for waiting, whitebait, smelt, eels and sea-run trout. If you get the timing just right you can see these fish come up with enormous speed. Sometimes dozens at a time. I’ve only seen this once years ago and it only lasted a few minutes but in those few minutes, I would have counted 20 or more trout and hundreds of eels. As I recall the bait didn’t run at the same time trout and eels did (could be wrong?). It’s a sight to see. You can see the stats on the lake opening here: 

Selwyn boat ramp, silver sea-run brown trout.

Then these trout have the time of their lives; chasing whitebait and silveries (smelt) all over the place! Gorging and growing very quickly. It’s their new home! 

All the trout, eels, whitebait and silveries make their way to the fresh cold flowing water of the various tributaries where they feast! 

Hope’s Silvery trout fly and above it a common smelt that it imitates.

Night Fishing

It seems the trout come alive at night, probably because the silveries aren’t as scared as in the middle of the day. Usually, dark nights are the best, but sometimes full moons are good too! 

Sometimes on a very dark night, you can hear massive splashes and you know it’s double-digit trout. Very exciting. 

Hart’s Creek, we saw countless midnight lurkers but could only fool this little chap that night. There are some trees that have fallen over Hart’s creek and the fish that live in/under those trees are some of the biggest wild brown trout I’ve ever seen. Without a lie, they look bigger than most salmon. Very clever and cunning, however!

These trout live in the lake and rivers. If they have only been in the lake for a short period, they are bright silver, but over a season or two, they tend to colour up with some awesome colours. 

Here are some pics of recent years of various rivers; Harts, Irwell, Halswell, Selwyn and the L2. Some of the places you might recognise. I think the biggest in this lot was over 10lb’s. 

 I reckon this coming season is going to be good for night time lurking with the number of silveries in the lake currently. More pics are to be added to this story.

Selwyn River fresh sea-run brown. It hit a fast-moving Rapala from memory.

This post was last modified on 27/08/2021 7:35 pm

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  • Hi Michael, thank you for your kind comments. I have done a lot of night fishing for sea-run trout. Mostly in the Waimakariri River near the bridges. We would arrive in the late afternoon and fish until well after dark. It was very enjoyable during the warm evenings. Mostly, we fished the Canterbury fly rod, which is a sort of cross between flyfishing and spin-fishing. Amazingly, trout can locate and hit a fly, or fast-swimming silvery, in milky water at night. Undercover of darkness the big browns would come right into shallow knee-deep water swirling and slashing at these little fish. When caught, the trout were packed full of silveries, which they disgorged on the stones.

    There is a wide range of exciting fishing to be had in New Zealand, much of it surprisingly accessible. I'm sure this COVID business will soon become a distant memory, and you will get back here.

  • Great article. As a fly fisherman who has long enjoyed night fishing I am besides myself being unable to travel to NZ at the moment. ( Australian). Night fly fishing is a pleasure. Crashing crunching takes and thrashing fighting fish out in the darkness. Heart stopping stuff. And really good for casting techniques. My best session ever was at Twizel (of course)catching rainbows over 20lb's on lumos in the pitch black. Will I ever get back...?
    And I really like your articles on Kahawai. I use a 6wt..with lots of backing...usually off a boat. The amount of abuse they cop. We live in a place called Apollo Bay SW Victoria and Kahawai are the common catch off the beach.
    Great articles you publish... Thank You.

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