Catching Sea Run Trout

Sea-run brown trout might be the same species as their freshwater brothers and sisters, but their size and speed makes fishing for them an entirely different experience. Greg Morton talks us through some South Island hot spots for targeting sea-run browns.

South Islanders, particularly those living in coastal communities, know the benefits of having sea-run brown trout on their doorstep over the warmer months of the year. These mobile, migratory fish spend half of their lives in estuaries and at river mouths, then from autumn and through winter they travel upstream to spawn and recover. In spring they return again to the sea to terrorise whitebait, smelt, bully and crabs. They are the same species as territorial river trout but because of their coastal diet they grow faster and bigger and look different. Some anglers mistake them as salmon.

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Anglers try to anticipate when and where they will turn up as it can appear to be hit and miss at times. Here today, gone tomorrow. The most likely location is at the river mouth of a large east coast or west coast river from November to February, particularly if that river is known for consistent populations of spawning smelt, bully and whitebait. Their rich diet means sea-run trout taste great and tend to have orange flesh. The fish near the river mouth are very pale in colour, camouflaged grey/light brown to merge in with the gravel bottom and are tough fighters.

Estuaries can be great places to pick up a sea-run trout. The writer hooked up to this sea-run brown trout in the Waitaki estuary.

Estuaries can be great places to pick up a sea-run trout. The writer hooked up to this sea-run brown trout in the Waitaki estuary.

Finding spawning sea-run trout is more difficult as they are spread out more over a river system and they don’t all spawn at the same time. They are also very secretive and when working their way upstream hide out in deep pools, under trees and within weed beds.

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All legal fishing methods will catch sea-run trout but the best anglers think like a sea-run trout and match the hatch so to speak. Their terminal gear imitates a small baitfish (lure flies, soft-plastics, yellow Tassies), they fish close to the bottom, they fish at change of light or in the dark and target rapids just above the tidal push. Sea-run trout are ambush predators that pounce on a hair trigger when bait is present, but rest like logs when there are no fish about. It can be bedlam for fifteen minutes then dead quiet when the prey disappears. I remember looking down into the Waitaki River from a high cliff once and seeing a school of sea-run trout lying doggo on the bottom waiting for prey to turn up. At the Waitaki River, sea-run trout were often prey themselves to the sea lions.

My main sea-run fishing spots when I lived in Christchurch were the Rangitata and Waitaki Rivers and the tributaries flowing into Lake Ellesmere. In the case of the rivers mentioned, the trout were exactly where you would expect them to be – near the river mouth, in tidal push rapids or in the estuary. It was great fun when the action was on but I would have to admit that if there were no baitfish present, it was dead. How did you know there were no bait and no trout around? Simple really. There were no screeching birds in the air, no bow waves near the shore, no violent surface slurps and no evidence of feeding action or jumping in the rapids. In my experience, I seldom caught sea-run trout during the middle of the day. They liked to do their wet work under the cover of darkness. It was not uncommon for surf salmon anglers to snaffle some big sea-run trout with their heavy ticers right on first light for fifteen minutes or so. As the day brightened, the trout action stopped instantly.

Being a spin fishing angler, I stuck to a fairly simple routine. I cast a 13gm Johnston Super Kobra in yellow or white/green into ripples and glides. A slow retrieve did well for me but never as well as the lure anglers who fished the rapids with a long rod, lure reel, heavy mono line and weight and yellow streamer. These guys were targeting salmon primarily but sea-run trout were the main catch. I saw a lot of them chasing some big fish downstream as they used the current to head seaward. Over the years when chasing trout, I landed two salmon and several kahawai on the spinner as well.

A classic sea-run brown trout that fell to the writer's spinner.

A classic sea-run brown trout that fell to the writer's spinner.

Chasing sea-runners in the tributaries entering Lake Ellesmere made for some special memories as the target fish were big. At that time, only a big headwater brown might be larger. Not so now. Twenty years back a friend took me under his wing and showed me how he caught trophy sea-run trout from the L2 and Selwyn Rivers near Christchurch. I was a good student and started putting the skills learnt into practice; sort of similar to how newbies learn how to egg roll on the canals and quickly start catching lunkers.

In my case, we had to fish at night. We used lip hooked live bully, a tiny piece of split shot and a twitchy retrieve. Smelt and bully entered the rivers mentioned at night and behind them came schools of sea-runners who had been hanging out in the lake. They got into the lake when it was open to the sea. Over a decade I caught some truly big fish, many over 4.5kg and one over 7kg. Sadly, when the smelt and bully populations collapsed there so did the trout numbers and the thought of night fishing amongst the eels and water rats without any trout action made such trips occasional at best.

A trophy Selwyn River brown trout.

A trophy Selwyn River brown trout.

Occasionally when fishing upriver on other big rivers, I have landed browns that were probably spawning sea-run trout. The Pomahaka is one that springs to mind. The giveaway to me that an up-river fish might be a sea-run is the distinctive x spots they have and the bigger size. The biggest threat facing sea-run trout today is estuary deterioration.

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October 2021 - Greg Morton
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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