Story: Te hopu tuna – eeling

Eels were a vital food for Māori, who caught them using weirs built on rivers, or with traps, nets, spears and bait. Large numbers of eels were captured on their yearly migrations to the sea, and live eels were kept in cages or ponds as a ready food supply.

Story by Basil Keane
Main image: ‘Catching the legendary eel at Tangahoe’

Story summary

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Eels were an important food for Māori.


The Māori word tuna means eels and some other fish that look like eels. It includes:

  • longfin eels
  • shortfin eels
  • ngōiro (conger eels)
  • tuere (hagfish)
  • para (frostfish)
  • piharau (lampreys).

Eels in tradition

In one tradition, a giant eel called Tuna frightened the demigod Māui’s wives. To punish Tuna, Māui cut him in half. One half turned into the conger eel, which lives in the sea. The other half fell in a river and became a freshwater eel.

Pā tuna – eel weirs

Māori built weirs to catch eels. These were fences in a river or stream, lined with brush or ferns so the water could get through but eels could not. Eels swam along the fence, which led into a net and then a trap.

In the 19th century, Europeans removed eel weirs so they could sail large boats on the rivers.

Hīnaki – eel pots

Hīnaki (eel pots) were woven from plant stems. They were put in rivers or streams, with bait inside – worms, insects or even birds. Inside a hīnaki’s opening there was a circle of pointed sticks or a special net, so eels could get in but not get out again.

Hunting with torches

People often caught eels at night, using a torch with a spear or net. Torches were made by burning kauri gum, leaves or wood. Today battery-powered torches are used.

Other methods

People felt around in the water and grabbed eels, or hit them with a stick. Or they ‘bobbed’ for eels – using a bait of worms, grubs or spiders, in a bag or tangled in flax.

Eel migrations

Every year eels swim out to sea to breed. Māori often caught many of them at this time, using traps, or digging ditches that the eels swam into.

Cooking and preserving

People wrapped eels in leaves and roasted them, or cooked them in small baskets. They also preserved eels by drying, or by partly cooking them over a fire.

Keeping live eels

Live eels were sometimes kept in cages in streams, and fed potatoes and other food. People also put live eels into ponds or lagoons, where they were easy to catch.

How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Te hopu tuna – eeling', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 24 September 2007