Each year, adult eels head out to sea to spawn. Māori often caught them in large numbers as they migrated.
Wairarapa eel run
In Wairarapa, migrating eels pass through Lake Wairarapa into tidal Lake Ōnoke, then head past a gravel spit and out to sea.
Tame Saunders, a Wairarapa elder, described in 1965 how the different types of eels came down in the same order: first the hao (king eels, about 30 centimetres long), then the riko (greenish-backed eels, about a metre long), then the paranui (dark, with thick skins), and finally the kōkopu tuna (up to 1.8 metres long and weighing just under 30 kilograms).
Nets and hīnaki
Around the time of the eel run, the mouth of Lake Ōnoke would close, blocking the eels’ access to the sea. They were caught by setting a large number of nets and hīnaki in the lake, with a single channel between them. The eels would swim down the channel, reach the spit, turn back and be caught. The traps were set just before sunset, and removed in the early hours of the morning.
Tame Saunders described catching eels at Lake Wairarapa using a technique called kōumu:
Another method of catching these tunas is to dig a large pit in the sand, about 10 yards from the end of the lake. A ditch is then dug from the lake to the pit, and as soon as the water starts to run into it, the eels swim into the pit. When the pit is full of eels the far end of the ditch is closed up, and the eels are left high and dry. 1
A number of karakia (charms) were associated with eeling – including one for the first eels caught in a season. This is a simple karakia to encourage eels into a hīnaki:
Tēnā te puna kei Hawaiki,
Te pū kei Hawaiki,
Te puna kei Rangiriri.
The source is at Hawaiki,
The origin is at Hawaiki,
The source at Rangiriri. 2
Opening the lakes
Before European settlement, Lakes Wairarapa and Ōnoke often flooded when Lake Ōnoke’s mouth was closed. European settlers, particularly farmers, wanted to keep the mouth permanently open to reduce flooding. Māori opposed this out of concern that it would decrease the take of eels. In 1896 the lakes were gifted to the Crown by Wairarapa Māori. Lake Ōnoke was eventually kept open to the sea.
South Island eel migrations
Eels were caught at Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) by the kōumu method. Long channels about a metre wide were dug through the gravel between the lake and the sea. Water flowed in, and the eels followed. Then the entrance to the channel was blocked with stones, or with net traps called kōhau.
At Wairewa (Lake Forsyth), eels cross the shingle bar at Birdlings Flat in autumn. They are caught and stored for eating later – a traditional harvest that continues today.