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No. 51 (June 1965)
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The Eels of Lake Wairarapa

The writer describes the method of eel-trapping that he knew in his youth. With a modified technique, eel-trapping is still carried out at Okorewa, though recent dredging may make it impossible in the future.

I have been asked on several occasions to write an article on the tuna (eel) trapping at Okorewa. Until now I have refrained from doing so, but since I have set myself the task of recording the history of the southern Wairarapa, I feel that such a record would be incomplete without a description of this wonderful tuna migration which takes place every year at Okorewa. This locality, where the Ruamahanga River empties itself into Palliser Bay, is better known to the Pakeha as Lake Ferry.

This article is mainly intended for our younger Maori generation, many of whom I am sorry to say are not conversant with the remarkable habits of these palatable fish.

According to tradition, the explorer Kupe came to the Palliser Bay area in the year 925 A.D. and lived there with his followers for close on two decades. This suggests that the tuna migration of Wairarapa Moana may have occurred even as early as this. History relates that it was known to the Rangitane tribe, which came here in the great migration of 1350 A.D. and which settled in the Palliser Bay area some years later. Ngati Kahungunu, who were next inhabitants of the district and are still in occupation of their kingdom, have always known of it.

One of the first Pakehas to see the eels of Wairarapa Moana must have been the Rev. William Colenso, the missionary-botanist explorer. He mentions a visit in 1845 to Okorewa, a fishing village at the mouth of Lake Onoke (this is another name given to the area at the mouth of the Ruamahanga River).

Basket Made From Vines

The eel basket (hinaki) is made from a vine (aka) which grows along the ground in bushy gullies, sometimes reaching up to 30 feet in length. After the aka is gathered, it is put into boiling water. When this is done the thin bark is easily scraped off with a mussel (kuku) shell and the aka is then hung out in the sun to dry.

Akas which are about the thickness of a lead pencil are used for the frame and ribs of the hinaki, and finer akas are used to cover the outside. The hinaki are made in different sizes, some of them being huge affairs over three feet high and six to seven feet long.

Making the Net

A net (tawiri) has to be made for each hinaki. These are made of long pieces of flax about an inch in width. These strips are dipped into boiling water and are then scraped to soften them.

The meshes of the tawiri are about an inch and a half in width. A ring of meshes about three feet in diameter is made, and ever-widening rings of meshes are added to this. The completed tawiri is about six or seven feet in length and about five feet in diameter at the wide end. Then a piece of supplejack is laced on to the wide end of the tawiri, and the small end is fastened on to the mouth of the hinaki. The other end of the hinaki is laced over with flax.

Several long poles, about 30 of them alto-

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gether, have to be sharpened and made ready. These will be used to peg down the hinakis.

Lake Mouth Closes at Right Moment

Throughout the ages, the mouth of Wairarapa Moana has paid homage to its eel migration by obligingly closing its mouth at the end of February or the beginning of March. Legend records that Rakai Uru, the taniwha who is the caretaker of the lake, is responsible for this seasonal closing. Rakai Uru takes the form of a large totara log. When the migration is about to take place he makes a journey out to sea, and the mouth of the lake closes behind him. Legend also mentions that the taniwha Rakai Uru pays a visit to Lake Ellismere in the South Island.

After Wairarapa Moana has been closed for about a week, the eels begin to migrate downstream. There are four species of eels (tuna). They are the hao (also known to the local Maoris as the King eels), the riko, the paranui and the kokopu tuna.

Always in the Same Order

To my way of thinking, one of the most wonderful things about this migration is that they never go down to the mouth out of their turn. The first to make the journey are the haos; next come the rikos, then the paranuis, and last of all the kokopu tuna.

The eel traps are set about a chain and a half from the water's end (see diagram). The water here should be a little over a chain in width, and should take about eight baskets altogether. Five of these are on the side where the beach is, and three are on the landward side. This leaves an open channel somewhat under half a chain in width.

As stated previously, the tawiri (net) is fastened around the mouth of the hinaki (basket). Six poles are driven into the water to hold open the mouth of the tawiri. These face into the water, and care must be taken to see that there are no gaps between them, so that eels cannot avoid going into the baskets. Each hinaki is fastened by a rope to a pole behind it. The whole concern is then tightened up with the rope, and this movement opens up the tawiri.

They Come Down in Thousands

When the run of eels begins, they come down in thousands—one wonders where they all come from. They pass through the channel as thick as the channel can hold them. When they reach the sand bar at the entrance of the lake they fan out on both sides, for they cannot go back the way they have come. In this manner the eels are pushed into the tawiri, and they end up trapped inside the hinaki.

The baskets are set just before sunset, and are taken out in the early hours of the morning. When the big hinakis are full of eels they hold about five sacksful; ropes are placed beneath them and brought back over the top, and the hinakis are then rolled ashore by hauling on the top end of the rope. A good catch should fill between forty and sixty large sacks.

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. This method should produce four or five sacks of eels every time the pit is opened. It is especially effective when a good

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strong west or north-west wind is blowing.

As previously mentioned, the first species to venture down to the bar are the haos. These are silver-bellied eels, generally about a foot or a little more in length. They are known locally as the king tuna, and are the most palatable of all. When grilled, this fellow is indeed a meal fit for a king.

Grilled and Dried in the Sun

The hao is hung out for a while to dry, and is then grilled and strung together with flax in bunches of ten. After this it is dried in the sun.

Next come the rikos, greenish-backed tunas about three or four feet in length. They are split open and the backbone is removed. (This backbone is very good eating—when eating it, one is reminded of playing a mouth organ). Riko are dipped into a large pot of boiling salt water for a few minutes, then strung with flax in pairs and sun-dried.

Next to drift down to the bar are the paranuis. These tunas are dark in colour and have thick skins. They are not as long as the riko. They are preserved in the same way, and are the best keepers of the three varieties mentioned.

The last to migrate are the kokopu tuna. This is the big variety of the tuna family, being sometimes over six feet in length and over 60 pounds in weight. It is split, salted and smoked; when split open it measures over two feet in width. This fish is very good smoked.

When a southerly sea is washing over the sand bar, good sport is to be had hooking these huge monsters as they meet the salt water that is coming over the sand bar. They struggle hard to get into the sea and thus to continue their journey to their spawning ground somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Dr Falla, Director of the Dominion Museum, told me that this is their destination. He also said that these huge tuna are the females, and that the hao are the male of the species.

Mr Tame Victor Saunders, a member of Ngai Tahu, has lived for most of his life in the Pirinoa district, in the Southern Wairarapa. He is aged 75. Since returning from service in World War 1 he has been mostly confined to a wheelchair with a permanent war disability, but despite this he has taken an active part in many community activities: on two occasions secretary of local school jubilees, he is secretary of the Pirinoa Maori Committee, and also National Party secretary for the Southern Maori Electorate.