The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 5 (August 1, 1934)
In Strange Waters — The Run of the Quinnat Salmon
Every mid-summer there arrives at the mouths of several Canterbury rivers a swarming host, a “silver horde,” the annual “run” of quinnat salmon. Formidable, indeed, must they appear to the all-the-year-round denizens of the coastal and inland waters of the Rakaia, the Waimakariri, and the Hurunui, and such other rivers as they choose for a spawning ground.
Rank on rank, legion after legion, endlessly the great silver and green battalions pour in from the open sea, till the confined limits of the estuaries swarm with them. There for some time they remain, getting accustomed to the change from salt to fresh water.
The angler, waiting hour after hour for a bite, may not suspect the numerous swift forms which glide silently to and fro in the depths beneath him, for the quinnat, once having left the sea, feed little, if at all. That an odd one or two of the passing multitude is hooked is due, according to most authorities, to the mere whim or caprice of an occasional fish, snapping at the bright spoon en passant.
It is not my intention to write of the ways of the big fish during the period they remain about the river-mouth, but to follow them on their remarkable journey from the sea to their destination at the spawning grounds far back in the snow-capped mountains which overshadow the great Rakaia Gorge, sixty miles or more from the coast. The change from the deep dark waters of the Pacific to the shallow boulderstrewn stream of the Rakaia River mu t be a strange experience for the quinnat. Yet ever inland press the ocean invaders, mile after mile, league after league, through broad stretches of ripple and deeper channels of blue.
At the well-known Rakaia Gorge bridge the advance legions of the quinnat enter the country of the mountains. From the bridge, the huge bulk of Mt. Hutt towers its thousands of feet skywards. Looking upstream, one sees an apparently unending vista of great mountains, through which the Rakaia winds its way. Yet it is to a point twenty miles further up this landlocked stream, up amid the region of the eternal snows, that all the hurrying host of sea-fish are bound.
There, where the waters of the great river have dwindled to a few shallow rivulets, the quinnat arrive at their journey's end.
Into the boulder-streams and into every little creek that runs in from the tussock plains of the wide riverbed, the grim, strong swimmers pass, gliding gracefully through water barely deep enough to cover them, and ever and anon with a mighty splashing, thumping over stretches of “ripple” where you might walk across almost without wetting your feet.
To see a big fifty pound salnion thresh its way across thirty yards of shingle, through water six inches deep, is a sight worth going some distance to see. With half his body clear of the water, a curving jet rising from the pointed head, and the powerful tail flailing up a smother of water and gravel in his wake, this game fighter of the sea, urged on by that mysterious instinct which is beyond our human powers of comprehension, passes on to the same spawning ground from which he himself, as a tiny smolt, years ago drifted down to the great ocean.
For some weeks the salmon remain in the shallow waters. While camped in the Gorge, I have seen them by night lying three and four abreast in the creeks, like destroyers moored side by side. Every now and again the stillness of the Gorge darkness is broken by a sudden loud flapping and splashing as a monster fish or half a dozen together, smash through a ripple to a favoured ground further upstream. What proportion of the “run” survive the fatigue and stress of the journey, to return to the sea, is doubtful. Certain it is that every year great numbers leave their bones far up in the back country.
When the salmon first arrive at the spawning ground they are usually in good condition, despite the long journey through the swift and turbulent Rakaia. But a few weeks in the shallow streams leaves its mark, and a terrible one it is, on the graceful green and grey squadrons.
Large whitish patches appear on the side of the fish, the skin becomes slimy, the belly chafed and discoloured by friction on the shingle. Tragic indeed is the last stage in the life-cycle of the lordly quinnat. The once shapely stream-lined head assumes a horrible pike-like appearance, with rows of sharp teeth protruding from the wolfish jaws. Gone is the comely plumpness of a month ago, and the mottled, disfigured razor-back swims sluggishly to and fro. Often the great double sin of the tail is almost entirely gone, literally rubbed away in rooting and tearing into the sharp fine shingle beds, preparing for the laying of the ova and covering it up afterwards.
Soon every shallow ripple, every little sandy beach in the stream has its quota of dead and dying salmon, grotesque caricatures of the swift and graceful host which a few short months ago mustered at the far-off rivermouth.
But the main purpose of their life has been accomplished. These pitiful wrecks, whose still or feebly struggling forms cumber the shallows, have nobly carried out the task assigned to them by Nature, and the seed which shall perpetuate their species lies safe from ocean foes beneath the gritty shingle which shall be their cradle and in later years their grave, far inland in the shadows of the great mountains.