Dunedin Harbour Salmon – Luck, luck and more luck!

By Jim Curline

Salmon and Sprat Fishing Story

I had given up salmon fishing in Dunedin harbour as the salmon had thinned out a bit, and you had to put in the time to get one at all. Yesterday had been quite cold with a stiff northerly wind blowing up the harbour, making fishing conditions very unpleasant.

One good thing about it, you could sit in the car in comfort listening to the wireless, and let the sprat do all the work. It had been a poor season on the rivers due to the rain in the backcountry. I missed out on my fishing trips to the Rakaia and Rangitata rivers because of dirty water. Now to top it off, the mighty Waitaki flooded its banks, so there went another week’s fishing.

Back to the Dunedin harbour, not after salmon but salmon bait, sprats. Most salmon anglers carry a sprat rod and jig in their cars in case a shoal of sprats are around. You have to catch them for next season’s bait when they are there or miss out altogether. Before Christmas, there are a lot of small ones around, about 2 inches long, but they are rather small and most fishermen don’t bother with them. Sometimes there is a run of the good size sprats (4 to 6 inches long) in Dunedin harbour just after Christmas, but they don’t stay on the hook for long. The main run, if it arrives, is about from February on, but this year they were late – in March. The majority of anglers like to have about 200 in their deep-freezers for a season’s fishing (from November to April) but depending on what happens at sea and the salmon themselves, they can appear one week and not be around the next. You have to make hay while the sun shines, sort of thing.

For a day’s fishing, 6 sprats would cover it. One will last about an hour’s casting sitting under the water, but when the barracouta is around you can lose a lot of sprats and hooks. Also, you have to contend with the small salmon, mostly males, which are pulled up quickly and the lines cut with a knife just above their mouths. Untouched, they fall back in and appear to be alright as they swim away pretty fast.

On a windy Monday afternoon, I got about 150 sprats, but my sprat jig got in a bit of a tangle, so I washed it under the tap when I got home (if this is not done, the small hooks will soon rust) and straightened it out as best I could. Looking at the line on my Mitchell reel I thought I had better replace that as well. It must be about 4 years old. On went 100m of 6lb nylon. Although the breaking strain of the sprat jig was only 3 1/2 lb, doing what I did, I think, saved the day.

What a beautiful day! It was a pleasure to fish in a light shirt and shorts. There wasn’t much doing when I arrived at the wharf. About 20 fishermen were spread out along its edge. I started off at the far end and got a couple of sprats. The tide was half out, about 20 feet deep. I couldn’t see anything. Sometimes you can see them flashing in the water, so I thought l would try deep. The small lead weight on the end of the 7 hook sprat jig kept it straight and down, so casting out I let it go right to the bottom, which was sand and jigged it back by raising the rod tip quickly up and down and winding slowly in. That was where they were swimming alright, and I began to get up to seven at a time.

Of course, that attracted other fishermen around me in no time, and we all started hauling them in. This went on till I had about a hundred in my basket and then like they always do, went right off. The others drifted away in search of them while I went and put my bucket under the front of my car.

Dunedin Harbour Sprats

There was still the odd one being caught, so I walked to a gap between two fishermen, intending to fish when someone started to catch a few. I cast out 20yds anyway and let it sink right to the bottom, then started my jigging retrieve. It had only moved 2 or 3 feet when the line tightened up. They weren’t sprats but something bigger. Not a barracouta, I hoped, as there had been three hooked and lost on the salmon gear in the last half an hour. If so, it was goodbye to a $6.50 jig. The next minute all hell broke loose as the fish tore off line, and in a flash broke the surface in a shower of spray. A salmon, and a good one!

After getting over the shock I decided I might as well enjoy the fight while it lasted, which I thought wouldn’t be too long. He went deep and started moving back towards the wharf. Moving down opposite the fish I put on as much pressure as I dared, which wasn’t much, to stop it getting under the wharf where the wooden piles and small fish would make short work of my line.

Just one touch on any of this and it was goodbye fish! It stopped about 10 feet out, turned and went towards what we call the oil wharf, 180yds away. There, still sitting on the wharf, with its hooks hanging down out over the water was someone’s jig, with the line caught on it. Luckily the owner saw what was happening and untangled it just in time, as the salmon went upstream, tearing along with me in hot pursuit. When a salmon is hooked, everyone around him reels in to give him a fair go.

Looking along the wharf there was only one more car and a fisherman reeling in his salmon gear. Meanwhile, the fish decided to run straight out deep. From the start I put the clutch on lightly and controlled the going out pressure with my fingers on the rim of the reel, only tightening up to regain line. He finally stopped 100yds out, with just a few turns left on the reel. It struck me then, that perhaps I might have a chance of landing the fish after all. There were a few things now in my favour. The line was new and I had stopped its biggest run – the rod I was using could not have been better for the job. I had made the two-piece 8ft glass rod for theadline (eggbeater) fishing for trout, where it was useless as it was too soft, but ideal for jigging, being very sensitive. Dunedin wharves salmon fishing rig and drop net.

After 5 minutes I started gaining a little control over the fish, working it back to 20yds from me. To my left 50yds away lay the oil wharf, jutting 100yds out into the harbour, but the best thing was that no boats were tied up anywhere. If the fish headed for there and couldn’t be stopped, he was gone. Why did I think that?

He must have read my mind. Staying deep and 20yds out he started for the far wharf, with me trotting along behind, keeping as much pressure on as I dared. Luckily for me, the last fisherman I passed reeled in his gear before grabbing his drop net and offering to help me land it. His net was a beaut stainless steel, 1 metre around. After 3Oyds of pressure, it made another run of some 50yds out into the basin again. Stopping it, I managed to bring it back and up near the surface. Cape Saunders Rock Fishing near Dunedin.

Now comes the tricky part where a lot of salmon are lost. It had been on for about 20 minutes and starting to tire. The man with the net (I didn’t get his name) went ahead of me and put his net down, but had a hell of a job trying to see the position of the fish. It wasn’t near the surface so he couldn’t see my line as it was too thin. When a salmon is landed, the netter stands right beside the lucky angler, lowers his net under the surface where the salmon is led over the net, lifts, and there it is! This way of netting could not be done, as with 6 hooks above him and a small sinker hanging a foot below his mouth, there was too much to catch on the rope. Keeping the line on a 45-degree angle would help, with the netter coming up behind the tail. The netter could see the fish which was now close to him, and he brought the net up and in behind it, but the salmon could sense the net positioned behind and swam slowly away before it could be lifted.

Lifting the net, the netter pushed through the onlookers who had quickly gathered for a look and put the net down again 20yds back the other way where the salmon was heading. We could see that the fish was quickly tiring, so by applying enough pressure to keep it on top, it was at last in the net. Somewhere on the pull up to the wharf, the 3 1/2 lb line had busted, but the fish was soon despatched with a priest and examined.

It was a female weighing 20lb 3oz and had 3 sprats in her stomach. It had taken the bottom fly of the jig and was hooked in the top of the mouth. Why a salmon should prefer a small fly, half an inch long such as that, is something we will never know. I have taken 2 fish, an 11 pounder and a 14 pounder on my fly rod in the basin, but they were caught on flies I tied with red krill, which we know salmon feed on. Small hook sabiki rigs like these are used to jig for sprats in Dunedin Harbour. You can of course tie up your own.

We still have a lot to learn about salmon. As soon as they enter freshwater they stop feeding, or so they tell us. My fishing mate, Ritchie Nash and I had just had a few days fishing for brown trout on the Mataura River in April, where we had great sport putting back over 100 trout up to 6lb in weight, mostly on size 16′ merger. Otago Fish and Game – Fishing Locations and Access.

Going up to meet him before our return home, he bowled me over by producing a bright 4 1/2 lb salmon which he had taken on a size 16 nymph. It had a small handful of nymphs in its stomach and was rising. It was a salmon alright, right down to a black mouth, and this was eighty kilometres from the sea. After congratulations all around I started lugging the salmon back to the car. One young man said, well done. Well done indeed! But for the anonymous netter and a hell of a lot of luck, I wouldn’t have had a chance.

PS: Two days later at the same spot I hooked another salmon in Dunedin Harbour on my now 6 hook sprat jig. This one tore off to my right through two other jigs around a wharf pile, all within 3 seconds flat. All I got back was one broken hook. Oh well, you can’t win them all!

Salmon fishing in Dunedin harbour has been a bit of a struggle over the last few years possibly due to warmer sea temperatures. But hopefully, things will improve soon! One thing is certain though you won’t catch one unless your line is in the water!

More Dunedin, Otago Harbour salmon fishing.

This post was last modified on 08/10/2021 6:02 pm

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