Fishing in the Catlins

Surrounded by remote rainforest and rolling hill country, anglers seeking solitude and scenery should find the streams of the Catlins satisfying. With consistently high annual rainfall and plenty of valley systems, anglers following the Southern Scenic Route between Owaka and Tokanui will find numerous waterways to explore. All of the significant streams and rivers hold good populations of resident brown trout between 1-2 kg and in their lower reaches sea-run brown trout which can reach 3-4kg.

Most streams originate in rainforest or tussock swamplands (giving the water a tea stained coloration) and flow through forest and farmland before entering a tidal zone and then the Pacific Ocean. Anglers should adjust their fishing methods depending on whether they are fishing in the estuary/lower, or upper reaches of a river.


Anglers are able to enjoy southern hospitality and good access to most rivers in Otago and Southland. Please don’t take this access for granted and following these guidelines. Parks vehicles away from tracks and gateways, leave gates as you find them, stay within river margins, don’t disturb stock and if in doubt ask for permission.

Lower River and Estuary Fishing

Whitebaiting in the Mataura River - photo by Maree Beker.The main trout food sources in tidal and lower river areas are bait fish such as whitebait, smelt and bullies and also crabs. Whitebait enter river mouths in spring and smelt can be found in tidal areas over spring and summer. This is when silver and white colored lures that imitate these baitfish work well. The best time to fish the tidal areas is generally early in the morning or late evening or on an incoming tide when trout hunt baitfish. Latter in the season anglers often use black and gold, and banana colored lures which imitate bullies and crabs that live in tidal areas year round.

Spin fishing is very popular and probably the easiest way to fish the deep water areas. There are a large variety of spin lures that can be successful including Articulated Eels Tobys, Rapalas, Tasmanian Devils, Wedges and Zed Spinners. A small copper Zed Spinner fished close to the bottom is a great crab imitation. Often the key with spin fishing is to keep changing your lure until you find something that works.

Bait fishing with worms and porana grubs can be particularly deadly and this is an excellent method of introducing young children to fishing especially when combined with a family picnic. Simply attach your bait to a hook (most anglers put the bait below the sinker but if you put it above the sinker it can be more noticeable to fish) and hurl it into a likely looking hole. Some experienced local anglers fish with smelt and bullies which can be irresistible to large trout, especially at night or change of light.

Fly anglers should try baitfish imitations such as Parsons Glory, Jack Sprat, Yellow Dorothy and Grey Ghost lures. While most lure anglers traditionally fish down and across with a wet line, spotting trout with Polaroid glasses and fishing directly to them with a dry line can be very exciting.

Upper River Fishing

The larger rivers fish well right throughout the season, while the smaller streams tend to fish best early or late in the season.
The main trout food sources are snails, caddis and mayfly nymphs, bullies and other baitfish. In summer trout often turn their attention to terrestrial insects such as cicadas, blowflies and bees.

Spin anglers should try Veltic and Mepps spinners, Rapalas, Tobies and Articulated Trout lures in small sizes on fairly light line (around 3kg). Natural dark colors such as brown and copper are often the most successful. Spin fishing after a fresh (as the river drops and clears after rain) can be particularly deadly.

Most fly fishing is done with Hares Ear and Pheasant Tail nymphs (with and without bead-heads) fished upstream with an indicator. If you see trout rising try a small dryfly such as Adams, Twighlight Beauty or Dads Favorite. If these are unsuccessful, switch to an emerger pattern such as the CDC. On calm summer evenings use small caddis dryflys and during the day try terrestrial imitations such as beetle and blowflys. Often overlooked but effective are small wet flies fished down and across in the traditional manner. Try a Mrs Simpson lure if all else fails.

Puerua Stream

This small stream contains a few fish of a reasonable size in the upper reaches but most of the fishing is done in the tidal area.

Owaka River

This medium sized tea stained stream contains a resident population of brown trout and some sea-runs in the lower reaches. Fly anglers can experience some mayfly hatches in the middle reaches on calm days. Worm and spin fishing is popular in the lower section. The Owaka River flows into the Catlins Lake.

Catlins Lake

Good numbers of large and medium sized sea-run and estuarine brown trout reside in the Catlins Lake. Containing lots of baitfish and crabs the trout are normally in good condition and excellent eating. Often the best fishing areas are close to structure such as reefs and logs and near deep holes and drop offs. During the spring and summer months evening and night fishing is quite popular and can be very productive. After dark, lure fishing with black patterns such as Black Woolly Buggers (which present a defined shape against the night sky) and strong line can produce some large trout. It pays to scout your spot in the day light to identify any snags and remember the lake is tidal so don’t get caught out.

Catlins River

The upper Catlins flows through hill country pastures before it enters the Catlins Forest and then runs through grass flats before spilling into the large tidal Catlins Lake. Access to the upper river can be challenging because of the gorse and other vegetation. Good numbers of small and medium sized brown trout are distributed throughout the middle and upper reaches, with the odd large trout present. This river can experience good mayfly hatches, often on overcast and drizzly days or under forest cover. In the forested middle reaches fly casting can be difficult because of over hanging vegetation. This is where light spinning rods with small lures such as Veltic spinners, and bubbles and flies can be easier to use because no back cast is required.

MacLennan River

This small incised tannin stained stream contains a few small and medium sized brown trout and flows into the Tahakopa River just above the estuary. Often fishing is challenging because of dense bank side vegetation.

Tahakopa River

The upper reaches can produce some good fly fishing on spring and summer days for those anglers keen enough to navigate the bank side vegetation which can be quite thick in places. In the upper reaches the best access method can be to walk up the middle of the stream bed so anglers should take care and wear a good pair of waders or be prepared to wade wet. The estuarine area can hold some fairly large sea-run trout at times especially when there are whitebait in the river. Bait fishing in the lower reaches sometimes produces trout and flounder.


This attractive small river flows through patches of bush and farmland before entering a costal harbour. It contains a good head of small and medium sized brown trout with the occasional large fish.

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