The hīnaki (eel pot) was a basket-like pot that was set in open water with bait, or used at pā tuna (weirs). Intricately woven, the best-made hīnaki were works of art.
Ordinary hīnaki (called hīnaki tukutuku) had one entrance. When they were set without a weir, the entrance faced downstream. The eels would smell the bait, and swim upstream to find it. The hīnaki was anchored with stones and tied to a stake, a tree, or a pole driven into the stream bed.
Types of hīnaki
A large type of hīnaki, called hīnaki tarino, was used in the Waikato River and its tributaries.
The hīnaki waharua had an entrance at each end – waharua means ‘two mouths’. They were set in deep rivers or in lagoons. Temporary waharua were sometimes made of flax leaves and used in the Manawatū River.
Neither of these were used with eel weirs.
Stopping eels escaping
The entrance to the hīnaki – called the akura – had a circle of sticks inside. These pointed inwards, touching in the centre, so the eel could push through to enter, but could not get back out. Other hīnaki stopped the eel escaping with a small bag-like net inside the akura.
No way out
In one story, the demigod Māui improved the design of the hīnaki. When his brothers tried to catch eels, the eels went into the hīnaki, ate the bait, then turned around and went back out. Māui invented the akura – a funnel of sticks that join at an apex. The eel can get in, but if it tries to get out it faces a cluster of pointed sticks.
Hīnaki were used with bait – often worms, or even birds. Bait was put in a small pot called a pū toke, which looked like a miniature hīnaki, or a small flax bag called a tōrehe. At other times it was tied inside the hīnaki. The Ngāti Porou people would thread earthworms on a string and tie them to a piece of flax flower stalk, which floated inside the trap.
Hīnaki at eel weirs were used without bait.
Hīnaki were often made from stems of mangemange (Lygodium articulatum), which only grows in the north. Mangemange is strong and flexible, and if hīnaki were being carried far, they could be soaked in water, pressed flat, stacked and lashed to poles. When they were untied, they sprang back to their original shape.
Around Ōtaki, north of Wellington, hīnaki were made from the aerial roots of kiekie and the stems of aka-tororaro, a climbing plant. Supplejack was also used, but it was a poor substitute. Temporary hīnaki were sometimes made from flax.