Salmon Fishing - Time and Tide

ADRIAN BELL - FEBRUARY 2009
Last updated 14:30 30/03/2009
Graeme fishes good salmon water adjacent to a swift flow.
The sight of another angler landing a salmon is very motivating.
This 15.5-pound (7kg) salmon was caught in the adjacent surf, despite the discoloured river.
Salmon greyhounding in the wash. At this time it's particularly important to maintain pressure from the direction the fish is moving.

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Time and tide wait for no man, particularly a salmon fisherman.

Of all the types of onshore angling available to New Zealanders, few are as exacting as salmon fishing, particularly surf salmon fishing. In recent years, surf fishing has been a hit-and-miss affair, as salmon runs have been poor. However, last year the Rangitata yielded some good runs for the stalwarts prepared to put the time into these wonderful fish.

I’d set two alarms at 3.50am in order to be at my brother’s place by 5am. As it turned out, I turned off the bedside clock alarm before it woke my wife, but in the lounge I was astonished to hear my Nokia’s alarm say, in a Coronation Street voice, “It’s time to get oop”.

The destination was the Rangitata surf, north side. But it didn’t take Malcolm long to realise he’d made a bad call. For two reasons: firstly, the main flow was sweeping north, so we’d have had to cast across all that current before we could fish properly. And with drag on the line, it was debatable if we could fish properly at all. But the more compelling reason was the number of rods bending over on the south side. When Malcolm heard from an early riser that the salmon being landed right then was the eleventh fish of the morning, he made plans to re-locate to the south side.

I was preparing to fish on the spit where the south side action had taken place when a bloke beside me caught the last salmon of the morning bite — number seventeen.  No more fish were touched for four hours afterwards. There was a lesson here – one that entailed ‘getting oop’ even earlier.

Then, an hour and a half before high tide, the fishing improved a little, with four fish caught within an hour or so. After that, it went quiet again.

The influence of the tide is obvious. When it coincides with early morning and a relatively clear and flat sea (with a swell less than a metre), surf fishermen have to favour their chances. However, there have to be salmon out there, otherwise anglers are wasting their time. This is when it is good to know people who are in a position to monitor the numbers of salmon being caught. For a Christchurch angler, the south side of the Rangitata mouth is a fair hike. After all, it’s almost as far as Timaru. And by the time reports of good fishing make their way through the cell-phone networks, it can be too late. However, the day, or next low tide, following a salmon run has to be worth a shot.

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A few mornings after our unsuccessful trip, my brother managed to break his duck by landing a 15.5 pounder (7kg), one of seven to be taken that morning.

For someone new to surf salmon fishing, it probably seems incomprehensible that the river featured in the photograph of this fish is so dirty. However, Malcolm wasn’t fishing water that dirty in the surf.

Anyone who’s fished the head of a pool with a powerful inflow will be aware of the circular back-currents that skirt such inflows. The same effect is evident when a large river empties through a narrow gut into the sea. The trick is to determine which side of the main current the predominant circular backwash is operating. If this occurs on the south side, salt water from the south of the flow will be drawn into the whirlpool formed. The stronger the current, the greater this effect will be. Running salmon congregate in such water. If a light southerly is blowing, this water will often be clear, even if the river is dirty. However, if a fresh easterly is blowing, the seawater is likely to be more coloured.

If the river is clear enough, but the surf too rough or dirty, gut fishing comes into play. I managed to pick up a couple of fish in the Rangitata gut one day when the surf was unsuitable. However, I still had the challenge of bringing one of them through the waves, always a challenge for surf anglers.

Gut and surf angling for Chinook salmon is a technique unique to New Zealand. The major salmon rivers of the United States typically enter the sea via large tidal estuaries, and much of the fishing for fresh-run salmon is done by boat in the vicinity of those estuaries.

Even the up-river fishing has a distinctly New Zealand flavour. Earlier in the season, Graeme took me to a pool where a mate had caught his first salmon of the season. The picture shows Graeme fishing the upper section of this pool. Even though we’d arrived early in the morning, and the river was at a favourable height and an ideal milky-blue colour, the most essential ingredient was missing: a pod of running salmon.

During a later trip to this water Graeme managed to snaffle a 16 pounder (7.2kg), while his son lost a fish on his second cast. On each occasion the strike took place right at their feet.

Good salmon water often occurs alongside a swift flow. If it is deep and relatively slow, it doesn’t need to be all that wide. However, the entry point at the tail should be deep enough to allow salmon easy access to the tail of the holding water.

The method used is very similar to fishing the gut: a Zed spinner is cast upstream, bounced along the bottom, then retrieved on the swing.

I begrudge spending time on salmon water if the fish are scarce. After all, there’s so much trout fishing available from January to March. However, a breathless recount of great fishing by others — or the sight of other anglers landing these magnificent fish — is enough to get me out there, where I can be observed robotically flinging a piece of metal into water where I hope there will be a salmon dumb enough to grab it. And when that happens, I will leave, thinking that all the effort has been worthwhile.

Adrian Bell - February 2009 - Fishing News

- Fishing News

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