Catching large salmon in the Waitaki River appears to be a thing of the past. But giants used to be there for the taking, as Oamaru Mail reporter Daniel Birchfield found out when he met Barry Wilson and Neville Hanson to talk about fishing in days gone by.
Neville Hanson did not know it at the time, but one rainy day in February 1978 would secure him a place in Waitaki fishing folklore.
The now 90-year-old landed what is considered to be the largest quinnat salmon caught on the Waitaki, weighing in at a whopping 46lb (20.8kg).
Fishing historian Barry Wilson, who has Mr Hanson’s mounted fish on display at Oamaru Sports and Outdoors, said it was a feat that needed to be shared with the public, given its significance.
“It’s a significant fish that should be preserved for the future. It’s the top in the Waitaki, if not the country as well, and it’s important to recognise.”
Mr Hanson, who was fishing with good friend John Reid, clearly remembers the day he caught the giant salmon, near the Waitaki River mouth.
“My memories are still vivid,” Mr Hanson said.
“The main thing was we had a great run of salmon. We were there for three or four hours and it was raining like hell. I cast out and he was coming to the surface as it landed and, sure enough, he went for it.”
He described his attempt to land the fish, which “took about 90 yards of line”, as a “bit of a battle” that lasted about 20 minutes.
To record an accurate weight, it was weighed on railway scales. Afterwards, there was much fanfare.
“It was pretty well advertised at the time. It was a record for around here. There’s never been any suggestion a heavier fish has been caught.”
That season, he caught only four fish, all weighing over 20lb (9kg).
To celebrate his monster catch, he enjoyed a few drinks.
“There’s no doubt about that.”
Today, 20lb (9kg) and 30lb (13.5kg) salmon are rare and 40lb (18kg) salmon are basically a myth. A large salmon was about 16lb (7.3kg) today, Mr Wilson said.
He said there were plenty of reasons why fish were getting smaller.
Those included the “modification of the Waitaki River”.
“It’s quite significant that, when the Waitaki River was dammed in the 1930s, the fish were not getting through to Tekapo, Mt Cook and the Ahuriri. They were forced to spawn in the Hakataramea River, which has obviously limited the availability in other areas.
“The numbers returning haven’t increased. Whether it’s food or predators or overseas fishing boats, there’s not one thing you can put your finger on.”
Krill, a vital food source for salmon, was disappearing, which was also a major contributor to falling salmon numbers.
Annual reports from the Waitaki branch of the Waitaki-Waimate Acclimatisation Society, provided by Mr Wilson, give some insight into fish stocks in the Waitaki and other rivers about a century ago.
“The motor car having made the Ahuriri more accessible, several parties have this season visited that river and are all high in its praises, stating that all the fish are fairly big and give excellent sport, and in flavour surpass fish from any other river or stream in the district,” a report for the year ended March 31, 1914, said.
The 1915 yearly report said the number of quinnat salmon caught in the Waitaki River was a “notable feature” of that year’s fishing season, while in 1916, salmon were said to be “firmly established in the Waitaki River and its tributaries”.
By the end of the 1917 season, they were abundant.
“It is generally thought that the lowness of the river, and its being clear for such a considerable time, was the cause of so many being seen and taken.
“At the fishing camp on the North side of the river a record was kept by Mr D. Griffen, the caretaker, and up to the time when the Marine Department advertised that the taking of Quinnat was illegal and that offenders would be prosecuted, there had been taken slightly over 200 fish, weighing roughly a ton and a quarter. In addition to this, very good sport was had above the bridge, as many, if not more, being obtained there as below it.”
The year ending March 31, 1923 was also a great one.
“The interest of Waitaki anglers quickened considerably when the Quinnat Salmon commenced to run, and large numbers of the fish were taken. The largest individual Quinnat caught by Mr Gibson weighed 38lbs, was 3ft 6in long and had a girth of 2ft 4in.”
It was unlikely fish of that size would be seen in the future, Mr Wilson said.