Salmon Fishing in the Waitaki River – Hydro schemes in the head waters control river flow

A big salmon caught in the Waitaki River.

A big salmon caught in the Waitaki River.

Waitaki River Salmon

The Waitaki River straddles the boundary between North Otago and South Canterbury. Anglers who otherwise fish for salmon in the east coast rivers further to the north will be struck by the sheer scale of the Waitaki River when fishing it for the first time. It’s big! It’s also boisterous and swift in many places. Unlike the other rivers you cannot generally wade from bank to bank across the Waitaki; the water being too fast and deep.

Hydro schemes in the head waters mean that the river is more refined, and it’s flow can be controlled at the dams: It tends also to be clear when other rivers to the north are dirty and unfishable.

New Zealand location of waitaki River.Quinnat salmon and Atlantic salmon were introduced into New Zealand starting as early 1875. Releases were made in North and South Island . These early releases were unsuccessful.

The Governments Chief Inspector of Fisheries, Mr L.F. Ayson, decided that rather than releasing a few smolt here and there, in different rivers throughout the Dominion, he would instead concentrate his efforts on just one river. Having decided that the Waitaki offered the best chance for a successful introduction, a hatchery was constructed at Hakataramea, which is a tributary, and the first shipment of ova arrived in 1901. By 1905 the first quinnat salmon were being caught at the mouth. It is interesting to note that this development was not warmly received by all the angling fraternity, some of whom believed that the introduced salmon were ruining the trout fishing in the Waitaki system! By 1907, when importations ceased, two million ova had been hatched at Hakataramea.

Russel McGregor caught this beauty back in 1994. That year was an excellent one with many big salmon over 30 pounds landed.

Russel McGregor caught this beauty back in 1994. That year was an excellent one with many big salmon over 30 pounds landed. Chinook salmon are always difficult to catch on rod and reel – even in a very good year. There is always a certain element of luck involved. Though it has to be said that the more knowledgeable and experienced the angler the luckier he is!

Clint Stannard was just 12 years old when he caught this big 25 lb salmon in the Waitaki River.

Clint Stannard was just 12 years old when he caught this big 25 lb salmon in the Waitaki River.

Until 1941 returning salmon were caught in traps up-river and stripped. The resulting ova were hatched and the smelts used to stock other rivers, even though salmon spread north to other rivers naturally.

The aforementioned high flows in the Waitaki River , up to 500 cumecs, mean that salmon fishing here can be quite an experience. The flow at the gut is usually very fast and high campared with the Rakaia.

You can get some sense of scale from this picture taken from

You can get some sense of scale from this picture taken from the Waitaki Huts off Fisheries Road on the northern side of the Waitaki River mouth looking south. You can just make out the row of salmon anglers fishing the gut from the shingle spit on the south side of the mouth. Note there are about 6 jet boats anchored out along the edge of the main flow. A jet boat is a big advantage when it comes to salmon angling in the lower Waitaki River as the fish tend to stay out near the bottom of the main channel. In the middle distance a solitary angler has made his way across the braids to fish from the northern side.

I noted that many anglers fishing this torrent near the mouth were using heavy line, up to 50 ib (24kg) on their threadline reels is not uncommon. Particularly those fishing the south side of the mouth. Here the river fair belts past the huge assembled throng of, at times hundreds, of expectant fishermen. During the annual competition I saw many bust-offs along this stretch. One guy even hooked and lost three big fish in almost as many minutes.

An invasion of sea lettuce can sometimes strike. It causes problems for salmon anglers at the Waitaki River mouth. It gets caught on your hooks and has to be removed with every cast.

An invasion of sea lettuce can sometimes strike. When it does it causes problems for salmon anglers at the Waitaki River mouth. It gets caught on your hooks and has to be removed with every cast. Note the many jet boats.

Typical tackle at the mouth was a heavy 68g ticer above which was a heavy one ounce “D” lead. I noticed that a few anglers were using two leads in an effort to get their lure down near the bottom.

Salmon travel upstream close to the riverbed and it’s hopeless fishing this fast water unless you get your gear down. It sure is a strange form of fishing for those new to it. Ticers and Zed spinners also take a real beating from being constantly bashed along the stones, and knots have to be regularly checked for stone bruises. I saw many fish played for a short period and lost.

I have often been asked the question,

I have often been asked the question, “will I catch more salmon if I have a jet boat.” In my experience the answer is yes! When ever I have been out in a jet boat we have been on to fish every time! Note that jet boats always have the steering on the left, while runabouts are steered from the right. The lower Waitaki River is often wide and fast. A jet boat is definitely an advantage to salmon anglers fishing the Waitaki River. Salmon tend to swim up the main flow, which in the lower river, is usually well out of casting range for wading anglers.

I’m a salmon angler who prefers to fish the mouth. I just love the super charged atmosphere that often prevails during periods of fast and furious action. Fish caught along this narrow 300 met re strip of shingle cannot be “played” as such. Especially at low tide, the river is racing by at over 12 knots. When a fish is hooked, anglers quickly shout “fish-on” and start sprinting for the end of the line were the rushing torrent meets the breakers. It is the duty of all fellow salmon anglers on hearing this call, and sighting the rapidly approaching, and highly excited angler, to get the hell out of the way.

Once down into the surf it becomes a weighting game. Too much brute force applied to a 30 plus pound fish will result in a bust-off for certain. The name of the game is take it easy. Mind you, some blokes can take this softly softly approach to the extreme, making a real meal of it by playing even the small fry for over an hour. Still, I guess, better safe than sorry!

Steve Thomson from Glenavy caught this 12.59kg (28 lbs) fish to win the 1989 Waitaki River Salmon Fishing Contest. Glenavy is a small village on the north bank of the Waitaki River on State Highway 1.

Steve Thomson from Glenavy caught this 12.59kg (28 lbs) fish to win the 1989 Waitaki River Salmon Fishing Contest. Glenavy is a small village on the north bank of the Waitaki River on State Highway 1. The local hotel is well worth a visit. Hanging on the walls in the bar are many excellent pictures and mounted trophies of some of the biggest salmon ever caught in New Zealand.

The north side of the mouth is fishable on fewer days. New blokes are better to try their luck on the south side of the mouth first. Like the other salmon rivers access to the mouth, particularly from the south, requires a walk of a least a kilometer or so from the car park. This is always heavy going in loose shingle while wearing waders and carrying rod, reel, spinners, food and drink for a day. For this reason many anglers have invested in four-wheeler farm bikes with balloon tires. Quad bikes at the mouth of the Waitaki River.

The heaviest salmon caught during the 1995 annual fishing contest was taken by Michael McVie from Oamaru. It weighed 16.78kg (36.91b) just over three pounds short of winning a four-wheel-drive Nissan Pathfinder. The salmon taken since the bumper year of 1995 have become smaller for some reason. But this trend goes in cycles.

Other winners that year included: 2nd; Ron Logan from Timaru, 15.98kg (35lb); 3rd Cameron Parker from Christchurch, 15.86kg (34.81b); Leigh Banks from Christchurch, 14.96 (32.91b); 4th Peter Johnson from Rangiora, 14.9kg (32.71b); 5th Geoffrey Bright from Dunedin, 14.74kg. As you can see from these weights these are huge Quinnat salmon by New Zealand standards.

If you are a keen salmon angler thinking of visiting New Zealand I recommend you time your trip for the months of February and March. The big Waitaki Salmon Fishing Contest is held over four days around mid March, while the big annual Rakaia Salmon Contest is held at the end of February. These are both great events, well organised, and played out in a tremendous friendly atmosphere.

Typical of the small under-weight salmon that returned from the sea in the 2000 season.

These two fish are typical of the small under-weight salmon that returned from the sea in the 2000 season. Poor feeding conditions at sea are thought to be behind the low returns and slabby condition of the salmon that year.

The Waitaki is perhaps home of the jet boat. As mentioned above access to this wide braided riverbed is more difficult by foot than the other salmon rivers. A jet boat makes so much more water available for fishing. I’m told that you can catch more salmon if you own a jet boat. I’m sure this is true for the Waitaki River. At the mouth jet boats are sometimes lined across the river just above the gut eight boats deep. As one pulls out of line another quickly takes its place.

The Waitaki River isn’t everyone’s cup-of-tea! It is big water in an even bigger landscape. However for those prepared to make the effort the Waitaki produces some of the biggest salmon of all.

The Waitaki River is approximately three hours drive south from the large population center of Christchurch. As such it is not fished by day-trippers from that city as is the case with the Rakaia and Rangitata Rivers.

The most popular water is between the mouth and the state highway bridge on the south side of the river. Hence you have more chance of fishing a hole all to yourself at first light, and casting to a fish that has never seen a zed spinner before when you chase big salmon in the mighty Waitaki River!

Mr Bartlett caught these well conditioned rainbow trout while spin fishing in the middle of the day on the Waitaki River - which boarders South Canterbury and North Otago. They were taken on a good old black'n gold Toby!

Mr Bartlett caught these well conditioned rainbow trout while spin fishing in the middle of the day on the Waitaki River – which boarders South Canterbury and North Otago. They were taken on a good old black’n gold Toby!

The Waitaki River flow rate can be affected by the hydro schemes in its head waters. When the storage lakes upstream are full, the electricity generation company can release water thereby causing the river to rise down stream. This artificial raising and lowering of the river doesn’t occur in the other salmon rivers to the north. This gives the Waitaki River a somewhat different dimension. The catchment is different from the Rakaia River, and also the Waitaki Lakes act as settling ponds, meaning the Waitaki River flow can be high yet still be quite fishable for salmon.

I remember fishing the Waitaki River gut on several occasions when the massive flow somewhere between 400 and 500 cumecs was not only fishable but was also producing plenty of salmon. Anglers where fishing with up to several ounces of lead to take their spoons and small Colorado blade spinners down to the bottom. When a fish was hooked the angler would go running past with it in the hope of playing and landing his fish in the surf. So powerful was the flow of rushing water through the gut.

Salmon anglers and their catch from the mighty Waitaki River: Neville and Gay Colville, Cameron Parker, Tim Colville, Lee Gomer, Steve Robinson, Brad and Rodger Colville.

Salmon anglers and their catch from the mighty Waitaki River: Neville and Gay Colville, Cameron Parker, Tim Colville, Lee Gomer, Steve Robinson, Brad and Rodger Colville.

Another problem salmon anglers fishing the lower Waitaki River can experience is the width and depth of the river can be such that it is impossible to fish the main flow without a jet boat. The lagoon can at times be a bit like a lake with a river flowing through it. A jet boat isn’t essential for salmon fishing but in the lower Waitaki River more so than any of the other rivers a jet boat can make a huge difference to your catch rate. I remember when the competition was still going there were jet boat anglers who would catch their limit on all four days, anchored just off the main flow, near the river mouth – while those shore fishing the gut at the same time would be lucky to take a fish!

Salmon anglers fishing from jet boats on the lower Waitaki River.

Salmon anglers fishing from jet boats on the lower Waitaki River.

Rainbow trout taken on spin gear in the mid reaches of the waitaki River.

Rainbow trout taken on spin gear in the mid reaches of the Waitaki River.

The surf can really fire up sometimes too with huge numbers of salmon caught. It all depends on the shape of the mouth and the river’s flow rate.

Fishing for salmon in the Waitaki River is restricted to the 31st of March. Traditionally the Waitaki River fished best for salmon later in the season with many anglers travelling from Christchurch to fish for salmon during April. This change came about following the poor returns in the 2000 and 2001 seasons as a conservation measure. The last big Waitaki River Salmon Fishing Competition was held in 2001. It was stopped for the same reasoning. The Waitaki River is in the Central South Island Fish & Game Region.

Salmon fishing in the Rakaia River is permitted all year downstream of the Coleridge Tailrace confluence. The Rakaia River is in the North Canterbury Fish & Game Region. The discrepancy in the length of the salmon seasons between these two rivers makes no logical sense whatsoever.

A huge Waitaki River salmon caught in 1998.

A huge Waitaki River salmon caught in 1998.

Salmon anglers casting a line across the gut during the Waitaki River Salmon Fishing Contest. Close to the camera anglers are spin fishing in the main channel of the river looking out across the lagoon. In the distance where the mouth narrows others are fishing the

Salmon anglers casting a line across the gut during the Waitaki River Salmon Fishing Contest. Close to the camera anglers are spin fishing in the main channel of the river looking out across the lagoon. In the distance where the mouth narrows others are fishing the “gut.” On the seaward side of the shingle spit anglers with long rods are fishing out over the surf. Dotted along the main channels of the river to the left are dozens of anchored jet boats.
In the “big” fast water of the Waitaki River the jet boaters are usually the more successful. This is particularly so when the main channel, which can be carrying over 500 cumecs (500 cubic metres of water per second), is running straight out in the same line at the river rather than “bending” to the right and following the shingle spit. At such times the river is far too deep to wade and shore based anglers can’t get a shot on the salmon as they hug the bottom and come up the middle of the main current.
Many anglers also have a strong prefference towards the type of fishing they enjoy the most. For example some will continue to fish the surf even when it is rough and largely unfishable when they would be better off to fish in the river. When there is a long line of anglers such as shown in the picture most of the salmon caught on a given day will be taken along a short stretch, either at first light or for perhaps an hour or so at the top of the tide. While much of the rest of the day will be spent with only the odd fish caught here and there.

Motorbikes at the mouth of the Waitaki River. These machines with their balloon tires are very popular with salmon anglers who like to fish the surf. They are excellent for crossing the loose shingle typical of South Island east coast beaches and river mouths.

Motorbikes at the mouth of the Waitaki River. These machines with their balloon tires are very popular with salmon anglers who like to fish the surf. They are excellent for crossing the loose shingle typical of South Island east coast beaches and river mouths.
The walk along the shingle spit can sometimes be almost two kilometres depending on where the river has broken out of the lagoon. When the big rivers flood they typically “punch” out a new mouth more or less in line with the main river. However after an extended period of low flows a long lagoon forms. The prevailing current comes from the south and because of this the open from the lagoon into the sea “moves” steadily north.
These little motorbikes make the trip down the lagoon a quick and easy affair of perhaps ten minutes that would otherwise take over an hour to walk carrying a rod and reel together with the day’s kit. The loose stones move under foot causing the walker to make slow progress especially on a hot day!

A good sized salmon from the Waitaki River. Some years the salmon runs are smaller while in other years there are large numbers of fish.

A good sized salmon from the Waitaki River. Some years the salmon runs are smaller while in other years there are large numbers of fish.

About the Author

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Fishingmag.co.nz website editor.

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