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Freshwater fishing

by  Carl Walrond

Trout and salmon were introduced by settlers from Britain, who wanted fishing in New Zealand’s waterways to be available to all. Today, most rivers and lakes are home to sports fish populations, and anglers spend many happy hours waiting for a bite.

An imported tradition

Most freshwater fishing in New Zealand targets trout. Salmon are also fished, to a much lesser degree.

Freshwater fishing for recreation was introduced by settlers from Britain, who imported the fishing methods and culture.

From Britain to New Zealand

In Britain in the 19th century, many of the best trout and salmon streams were privately owned. Only the upper classes had access to the rivers where sports fish could be readily caught. The lower classes fished where they could – mainly in ponds and canals, for species such as rudd, tench and perch. These fish have larger scales, so are called coarse fish.

Settlers wanted New Zealand to be a land where anyone could angle for sports fish. But they thought the rivers were devoid of fish, as most native species were small and hid away. Only one freshwater species – the grayling, now extinct – provided good sport. Immigrants imported trout and salmon species and liberated them.

Fish species

Brown trout (Salmo trutta) from England, Scotland, Germany and Italy, introduced from the late 1860s, were the most successful of the introduced fish species. In the 2000s, they were found throughout the country, south of the Coromandel Peninsula. Brown trout are the basis of most freshwater fishing in New Zealand.

Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), brought from California from the late 1870s, are less widespread, but form important fisheries in the lakes and rivers of the central North Island and southern South Island. Chinook or Quinnat salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), introduced from North America from 1901, have only become established in rivers of the eastern South Island.

Attempts were made to introduce many other salmonid species, such as Atlantic salmon, with little success. Some coarse fish species, such as perch, were also liberated – but brown and rainbow trout were soon the sought-after species.

A popular sport

Angling became very popular. Visits by famous people like American writer Zane Grey and the Duchess of York (later the Queen Mother), both of whom fished the Tongariro River in the 1920s and 1930s, raised the profile of New Zealand’s fisheries overseas.

Rod and gun

Early newspapers ran regular angling columns, such as ‘Bank notes’ in the Otago Witness and ‘Rod and gun’ in the Evening Post. The latter was penned by ‘Minnow’, who cheerfully reported that ‘Messrs. Craig and Hall had a good day in the Ohau, near Levin, last week, both getting the limit. One of Mr. Hall’s fish weighed 4 ½ lb. Minnow recalls with pleasure a good day’s sport in the Ohau some years ago with the native grayling, or upokororo of the Maoris, which rose freely to a Red-tip Governor.’ 1


In the early 2000s most anglers were still male – only a small percentage of licence sales were to females. Fish & Game New Zealand ran a programme called Becoming an Outdoor Woman to encourage more women to hunt and fish.

While mostly male, trout anglers were not a homogenous group, and their methods, attitudes, opinions and preferences were diverse. Anglers often change their intentions, their fishing methods and gear depending upon the setting and the species sought. For example, a lone angler may fish for and then release brown trout on a fly rod in a back-country river. The next day he or she may fish for salmon to eat at a Canterbury river mouth with hundreds of other anglers.

There is an often quoted line that 90% of the fish are caught by 10% of the anglers – while this may not be the exact ratio, surveys show that most fish are caught by a small percentage of anglers.

Close to 40,000 adult whole-season fishing licences were issued over the 2006/7 fishing season. Many other types, such as day and week licences, were also sold.

  1. Evening Post, 7 November 1908, p. 14. › Back

Spin fishing

Spin fishing involves using a spinning rod (1.5–1.8 metres long) and reel, and is also called threadlining. A spinning reel has a spool onto which the monofilament line is wound by turning the handle. At the end of the line is a metal lure or spinner with a hook, which wobbles in the water or spins as the angler reels in the line. The weight of the lure pulls out the line when the rod is cast.

It is not known what attracts fish to these metal lures – they may just lash out in anger, or mistake them for injured fish.

Trolling is a form of spin fishing from a boat, which moves slowly forward, dragging the lure behind it.

Camouflaged car

In the 1970s a strange sight could occasionally be seen on the north bank of the Waitaki River. A local angler used to drive his Morris Minor down a track, park right on the river’s edge and cover the car in brown seed sacks. Sitting in the front seat, he then cast his line out and waited for the trout to bite.

Salmon fishing

The east-coast rivers of the South Island, such as the Rakaia and Rangitātā, have been the most successful for establishing salmon runs. Salmon were released into the Waitaki River in the early 1900s. Fish returned to spawn in the river and its tributaries, and some strayed to other rivers as far north as the Waiau and as far south as the Clutha.

The size of salmon runs is highly variable from year to year. This is thought to be due to variations in the food supply at sea. Building dams and taking water for irrigation have reduced the size of runs on many of these rivers.

Most salmon fishing is done with spin fishing gear, usually with a stronger line and heavier spinner than for trout – especially in Canterbury river mouths or the nearby surf.

Bait fishing

Bait fishing also involves using a spinning rod and reel. A worm is put on a hook along with a lead weight, and cast into the river. The angler then sits on the riverbank waiting for trout to bite.

Instead of a lead weight, anglers may use a bubble (a small plastic ball that takes in water through two holes). This provides weight, so when the bubble is cast the reel unwinds. Fishing with bubbles, hooks and worms can be very effective, especially in small streams in spring.

Coarse fishing

Coarse fish such as koi carp are caught with a baited hook attached to a float. Fishing regulations vary across New Zealand’s fish and game regions – some have set aside specific areas for coarse fishing, while others allow it anywhere. In Nelson–Marlborough, it is illegal. The coarse fishing scene has only really emerged since the 1980s.

Fly fishing

Fly fishing involves different gear from spin fishing.


Flies are imitations of insects and other life forms that trout eat. They are made of thread, fur, feathers and other materials, tied onto hooks. Some are designed to imitate small fish, or nymphs (the larval stage of the mayfly) and other aquatic life forms. These sink beneath the surface so are known as wet flies.

Dry flies float on the surface – many look like beetles or the adult stages of mayflies. When trout rise, they take food off the surface of the water, forming distinctive circular ripples – and can often be caught using a dry fly.


Fly-fishing rods are typically longer than spinning rods – about 9 feet (2.75 metres).

In the 1800s fly rods were made of sections of greenheart wood, which could bend without breaking. Next came split cane rods – lengths of split bamboo glued together. From the Second World War to the 1970s, most rods were fibreglass. In the 2000s, most fly rods were made of carbon fibre.

Changing luck

One angler wrote of the joys and trials of fishing for trout in Southland: ‘Mataura trout as a general rule are not unduly fussy feeders. A blank evening can be discouraging, specially when the trout are rising thickly, but take heart, next day the sun will burn again; the stream will flow and the mayflies hatch. Next day your luck will alter.’ 1

Reels and lines

The reel is an open spool onto which the fly line is wound. The line is much thicker than that used for spin fishing, and the weight of the line carries the fly out to the fish when the rod is cast.

Fly lines are made so they float or sink at different rates. Sinking lines are mainly used to fish in lakes – the line’s weight sinks it to the level where the fish feed, and then the angler begins to retrieve the fly. Sinking lines are also used in rivers. For decades, the main way of fishing the Tongariro River was to cast a sinking line down and across the current, but from the 1980s it became more common to cast a floating line upstream. Floating lines are often used to fish rivers and streams.

The fly-fishing process

Trout face upstream waiting for the current to carry drifting food to them, so most anglers walk upstream, approaching the fish from behind. Polaroid sunglasses help cut glare on the water surface as fishers attempt to spot fish in the river. They then cast flies slightly upstream of the fish. The current carries the fly downstream, and if the trout takes the fly the angler raises the rod with one hand while pulling the fly line with the other hand – this hooks the fish.

Trout put up a good fight, but most are landed within minutes. Brown trout tend to swim doggedly, boring down to the bottom. Rainbow trout are more likely to take off on fast runs with the reel screaming as it rapidly unwinds. They also sometimes jump out of the water. The angler lets the fish run and reels it in when it tires. Anglers often release trout after catching them – especially on back-country rivers, where over 90% are let go.

Fly patterns and names

Many early fly patterns were imported from Britain. Some were changed to suit local conditions. Distinct New Zealand patterns emerged, with their own colourful names – for example the large wet flies used in the Rotorua and Taupō area, including the Matuku (originally tied with bittern feathers), Mrs Simpson, and Craig’s Nighttime (tied with pūkeko feathers). Home-grown South Island patterns included Canterbury lures – large feathered lures such as Hopes Silvery, imitating the smelt found in Canterbury estuaries.

Until the 1970s most small wet flies and dry flies used in New Zealand were standard British patterns with some customisation. With more American anglers visiting from the 1970s, patterns such as Humpy, Adams and other North American flies became more common.

In the early 2000s traditional patterns were not so important. Many anglers tied their own flies, imitating the insects that trout actually ate.

  1. Quoted in Brian Turner, ed., The guide to trout fishing in Otago. Dunedin: Otago Fish and Game Council, 1994, p. 79. › Back

Management and culture


In the 2000s, Fish & Game New Zealand was responsible for administering sports fishing. All people fishing for sports fish require a fishing licence, available at many sports shops. Fish & Game regulated fishing through open and closed seasons, bag limits, restrictions on fishing methods, and other rules and regulations.

In practice, fishing is a solitary activity, and enforcing regulations is not really practical. Anglers tend to have their own ethics which govern their behaviour, and compliance with rules is often self-regulating.

Some regional fish and game councils, such as Otago, try and offer a range of angling experiences by restricting methods on some waters (for example having some rivers where only fly fishing is allowed). Other regions, such as Wellington, have a more open approach, allowing anglers to use any legal fishing method anywhere they like during the fishing season.

Fishing seasons vary throughout the country, and even on waterways within the same fish and game region. Most waters are open from spring (1 October) to autumn (30 April).

Fishing and tourism

The quality of fishing in New Zealand attracts many tourists. Some rivers such as the Mataura (for brown trout) and the Tongariro (rainbow trout) are world-famous in angling circles. A 1991 study estimated the value of freshwater sports fishing at $145–231 million per year.

Angling literature

There is a large body of New Zealand angling literature. In the late 1800s and early 1900s visiting English gentlemen wrote up their experiences of the huge trout to be had, and settlers soon did the same. In the 2000s there were many guidebooks giving advice on where to fish in various regions, and instructional books about methods and tackle. Many anglers feel compelled to document their successes and failures, riverbank amusements and experiences of a lifetime chasing trout. Books like Greg Kelly’s The flies in my hat (1967) and Tony Orman’s Trout with nymph (1974) have become New Zealand fishing classics.

Anglers’ attitudes

Historically some anglers have had a purist, snobbish attitude to different types of fishing. Fly fishing is at the top of the pile, and fishing with a dry fly is the ultimate experience – fishing wet flies is regarded as lesser. Worse still are threadliners, known as ‘chuck-it-and-chancers’. Lowest of the low are those who fish with bait such as worms.

Over time, these attitudes have become less prevalent. But some fly fishers look down on threadliners and bait fishers as ‘pot-hunters’ for killing their catches. However, many young anglers progress from fishing with worms for bait, to spin fishing, and then as teenagers to fly fishing.

Resisting the metric system

Kilograms have never really taken off with trout anglers – they find it easier to picture a 1-pound trout than a half-kilogram trout. The magic number for trout anglers is 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) – a fish of this size is considered a trophy and perhaps the catch of an angling lifetime. Trophy fish are sometimes stuffed, mounted and proudly displayed.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Freshwater fishing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 24 November 2008