This Is How the Ancient Māori of New Zealand Made Fishing Lures

by Owen James Burke

Scuttlefish writer Owen James Burke is currently rambling around New Zealand in a camper van with a camera, surfboard and speargun in search of stories, waves and fish. We’re putting together a waterperson’s guide to the island nation, but meanwhile, we’ll be publishing stories and photographs, short updates along the way from the Yankee in Kiwiland. -CD


Bone (that from human was most prized, especially–naturally–that of an enemy, when at hand), paua shell (or “abalone”) and wood, all bound by woven fibers from the flax plant. The abalone shell would not only add weight to the lure, but provide a reflective flash when retrieved, bearing a striking resemblance to wounded or fleeing baitfish like herring or mullet. At the Kaikoura Museum. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Before Europeans arrived on New Zealand’s shores with metal tools and wares, the native Māori fashioned lures like this one in order to outwit Kahawai, a fish species endemic to the coastal waters of New Zealand and Eastern Australia, also known as the “Australian salmon” for their sensational acrobatics.


Kahawai caught on the fly along a South Island New Zealand rivermouth. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Kahawai is a relatively oily fish which makes it a good candidate for the smoker. It’s been said that the Māori, after hunting many land-based species like the giant Moa to extinction, would have had a much harder time surviving had it not been for the kahawai. It is often called “the people’s fish” for its abundance around shorelines, and specifically rivermouths where they’re regularly found and easily caught using today’s modern metal spoon or diamond jig lures.


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