An array of Polynesian fishing equipment was adapted for conditions in New Zealand: the kupenga (net), aho (line), matau (hook), matira (fishing rod), pātia (spear), tāruke (pot), hīnaki (trap) and pā (weir).
The construction of nets was a tapu activity – certain rituals and restrictions had to be followed. Most nets were made of green flax, and they ranged in size from individual tītoko ika (hand nets) to very large kaharoa (seine nets). The base was weighed down with māhē (stone sinkers), and gourds or light woods were sometimes used as pōito (floats).
The largest net documented was made in 1886 by Te Pōkiha Taranui (also known as Major Fox) and 400 others of Ngāti Pikiao, at Maketū in the Bay of Plenty. About 1.6 kilometres long, it was used only once to procure tens of thousands of fish for a major tribal gathering. Handling such nets required community effort.
Lines, hooks and spears
Lines and hooks were very popular for catching hāpuku and kahawai. The lines were very strong, and made of dressed flax fibre that was twisted into cord.
Hooks varied in size and shape and were made from wood, bone, stone or shell. Sometimes a gorge was used. This was a sharp piece of bone on a line, which caught in a fish’s throat when pulled. To attract kahawai, iridescent pāua shell was used on lures.
Pātiki (flounder) were sometimes caught with barbed spears similar to those used for hunting birds.
Tāruke (pots) filled with bait were used to catch crayfish. The pots were made from young mānuka stems, which were bent around a frame of supplejack vine and mānuka, and then tied with flax and vines.
Traditional fishing grounds
All fishing grounds, banks and rocks were specially named. Some were several kilometres out to sea – the historian Rēweti Kōhere of the Ngāti Porou tribe wrote that his ancestors’ favourite ground was Hapurapoi, about 12 kilometres north of East Cape. Fishermen used prominent landmarks to identify these spots, taking their bearings by aligning one mountain or peninsula with another:
From the sea, look at the white cliffs on shore. A vein of quartz can be seen sparkling in the rocks. Now look towards your port side, the island of Murimotu appears to move and join the mainland. No sea-space is seen between. That is your spot. 1
Most fishing grounds were jealously guarded by tribes, who passed them down through the generations. To define family and hapū (sub-tribe) rights, they sometimes used rows of stakes, particularly in lakes, estuaries and other shoal waters.
When to fish
Experts knew all the signs for successful fishing, and used a calendar that listed favourable days. This is still in use today. Often, fishing would be directed by chiefs occupying prominent land points, identifying which grounds were to be fished.
These experts knew the movements and seasons of the various fish species. Tāmati Poata of the Ngāti Porou tribe recorded that on the East Coast during March, April and May the seasonable fish is tāmure (snapper). In June and July it is the warehou and moki. In August, September and October it is tarakihi, pōrae (trumpeter fish), rāwaru or taipua (rock cod), kehe (marble fish) and kumukumu (gurnard).
South Island fishermen would troll for barracouta, catch small sharks in large nets, big sharks with large baited hooks, and conger eels at sea with a bob made of dressed flax around a bait called a whakapuku. Crayfish were caught in open-mouthed net bags called poraka, and whitebait in a koko – a close-weave net.