Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 50, 1918
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The eel enters very largely into Maori mythology,* into which I do not intend to enter, but the earliest reference I have come across regarding pa-tuma (eel-weirs) in local history was in Rua-matatoa's time (seventeen generations ago), when a man's leg was carried down the Whanganui River till it was caught in a pa-tuna at Hiku-rangi (now Karatia) and afterwards eaten, the result being a civil war.

In the early volumes of the Transactions there will be found some discussion as to whether eels migrate annually to the sea or otherwise, it being pointed out by some writers that they do so, and by others that they are numerous in lagoons that have absolutely no connection with the ocean. It seems, however, to be an accepted theory that eels migrate. According to the natives, and they are keen observers of nature—or, rather, they were—there are many varieties of eels, distinguished by different

[Footnote] * Elsdon Best, Food Products of Tuhoeland, Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. 35, pp. 45–111 (see p. 65), 1903.

[Footnote] † See T. W. Downes, Old Whanganui, p. 51, 1915.

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names, but unfortunately, owing to these names varying in different localities, it is impossible to classify them at all thoroughly by Maori nomenclature. One point seems, however, to be established by them to my mind, and that is that some of the species or varieties migrate and others do not.

The eels that travel to the ocean annually are classed under the general name tuna-heke (see fig. 1), and the migration itself is known as whaturoa. It is for these that the pa-tuna are built, and the natives know to within a few days when the eels can be taken. They are never caught with bait,

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Fig. 1.—Outline of head of tuna-heke (tuna-ngahuru).

and seldom seen except when they are travelling down the river. The word heke implies to migrate or descend. These eels are subdivided into two or three (possibly more) varieties.

The eels that are caught with bait and that remain in one place throughout the year are called tuna-toke (see fig. 2)—that is, the eel that takes the worm as bait. This eel also embraces several varieties. It is often taken

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Fig. 2.—Outline of head of tuna-toke (tuna-puharakeke).

with a baited hinaki, but even in streams where it abounds it is an exception to capture one in a pa-tuna. Occasionally they are washed down the race, but very seldom. Among over eight hundred tuna-heke that I saw taken from the Moumahaki pa-tuna last season there was only one tuna-toke of the variety called puharakeke, although the stream was literally full of them.

It seems to me that this name tuna-toke has long been known to the Maori. Upwards of twenty generations ago there lived a certain Whanganui ancestor (so says legend) who adzed out a famous canoe under the water. He used to dive down to his work every day and remain under water till the evening, when the eels, swimming about his legs, gave warning that it was time to cease work. Owing to the exceptional feat performed by this man he was called Tama-tuna, otherwise “The son of an eel.” This man's eldest daughter was named Tuna-toke, and sometimes Hine-toke—“Daughter of the worm.”

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According to local natives, the first of the tuna-heke to go down the rivers is tuna-ngahuru, an eel with a thick but soft greeny-brown skin seemingly sprinkled with fine gold-dust. A special feature is the large eye, which can be moved independently, with an outer ring of blue, an iris of gold, and a black pupil. The word ngahuru sometimes means “ten,” sometimes “fruitful” or “abundant,” also “harvest-time” and “autumn”; and this name may be given because of the quantities in which this eel is sometimes taken. There is a small pa-tuna built in the Moumahaki, about a chain up from where it joins the Waitotara River (see Plate XXIII). This stream is fed by a small lake-system, called Manga-whio, far up the valley, and it is from this source that the eels apparently journey. It was finished on the 1st April of this year (1917), and was just in time to catch the annual heke, or migration. About a dozen eels were taken the first night, and this number gradually rose to forty by the 12th, when the first fresh took place. As soon as the water rose about 1 ft. the number immediately increased till it reached over eight hundred for a twenty-four-hours catch. This lasted for only two or three days, when the numbers gradually diminished, and by the 20th the migration of tuna-ngahuru was over.

The natives say that it is almost useless to set a hinaki on a moonlight night, and also during the daytime; but when the water is at all muddy or discoloured the eels come down in hundreds during the season, day and night alike, except that at night-time they are much more numerous and swim nearer the surface of the water, as proved by the fact that in the daytime the bottom net takes the most fish, and during the night the top one; for whenever the water is deep enough one net is set above another at the mouth of an eel-weir, as will be explained later. When the eels are making this mad dash for the ocean the baskets are examined every hour or so, and, judging by varying success, it seems to me that the migration begins shortly after twilight sets in, is at its height from about 10 p.m. till 2 a.m., and then gradually dwindles down towards dawn as the eels seek hiding-places for another day. With the gathering darkness of the next night they once again take up their swift glide down-stream, and so on till the ocean is reached.

With tuna-ngahuru another eel is taken, called tuna-hau (Whanganui) or tuna-hao (Waitotara), which can easily be distinguished by its silvery belly. Other names for these silver-bellied or allied eels are puhi and pango. I must confess that I can detect but little difference between the two eels tuna-ngahuru and tuna-hau. I selected one of each from a large catch on the 12th April: ngahuru was very dark-skinned, almost black, and hau light-coloured and silvery; yet on the following morning when both were dead they were scarcely distinguishable, both having returned to the colours as first described. The natives are aware of this peculiarity. One person explained it to me by likening tuna-hau to a photographic proof that I had given him a few days previous—light and bright at the time, but quite black a few hours afterwards. Both these eels are very difficult to skin; indeed, the skin cannot be removed without tearing away a portion of the flesh, which is somewhat pink.

Another of the tuna-heke, or migrating eels, is the tuna-riri (Whangaehu) or tuna-rere (Whanganui), sometimes called putaiore—a blue-black eel with large pectoral fins, rather small mouth and teeth, flat head, tail rather broader than the usual type, and blue eyes resembling those of a sea-fish. The skin is very hard, and absolutely refuses to be removed. This eel is very lively when caught, and is said to be able to jump out of a canoe,

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hence its name riri—wild, angry. It is esteemed the finest of all the eel family, the flesh somewhat resembling wild pork in flavour. The natives, of course, do not attempt any skinning or cleaning, as doth the uneducated European, but they say that if the fish is dipped in boiling water the slime is at once removed. Those I saw taken at the Kauwae-roa Rapid, Whanga-nui River, on the 19th April, 1916, were all about the same size, 2 ft. 9 in. long and 8 in. in circumference. I have noticed this peculiarity in connection with other tuna-heke that I have seen caught, and it seems to me to be conclusive evidence that only the fully developed (and probably female) eels are seeking a spawning-bed in the ocean; the small and immature fish remain in the fresh water.

Although the tuna-riri is usually taken going down the river when the water is discoloured by rain, yet some natives say that occasionally it climbs the rapid, so the pa-tuna is constructed to intercept the fish whether it travels up or down. Under ordinary water-level a heavy log, called huahua, is placed in the weir, running parallel to the current, and held in position by cross-stakes driven each side of it. This creates a backwater running up the swiftest rapid, and as the eel swims up this channel he takes advantage of the assistance so given to climb the rapid. As soon as he reaches the top he follows round a smoothly dressed post placed right at the head of the weir, leading to the inside, and he is immediately caught by the strong current and thrown back into the net leading to the hinaki, or eel-pot, at the foot of the weir. Patonga, my Waitotara informant, stated that tuna-riri will not preserve by sun-drying, as does the ordinary tuna-toke, but this is questioned by the Whanganui people. The catch lasts only two or three days, and while it is being dealt with the eels are transferred to large baskets, called puwai and puhara, made for this purpose, and also spare hinaki, and then put back into the water to be sorted out at a more convenient time. When all available baskets are full the surplus fish are put into holes, called parua, dug in the clay, and covered with fern, where-they will keep alive for a day or two.

The favourite way of cooking the smaller eels is to grill them. They are taken out of the baskets and killed by a cut behind the head which severs the bone. Without further treatment they are strung close together by a thin stick being passed through the heads, and then placed on a grid over a fire of embers—usually, in these degenerate days, on some fencing-wire or wire netting. This method of cooking is called rara, and the eels so treated are certainly very good if one could only get over the idea of grilled entrails and slime (paratea). As a matter of fact, the entrails of all the tuna-heke variety are very small, most of the inside of the fish being filled with what appears to be fat or undeveloped roe. This part to the Maori mind and taste constitutes a special delicacy.

Those I have examined have shown no traces of food, consequently I am inclined to think that these eels, like the salmon, travel on empty stomachs.

Other eels caught in the pa-tuna are tuna-paranui, a black eel; ruahine, very large but short (one of this variety weighing 38 Ib. was caught last year on the upper Whanganui); arawaru, not so thick but longer than ruahine; mona-nui, a small variety; tuna-keke, somewhat larger; tuna-kuia, the largest of all, and filled with roe, or probably fat, only seen and caught for two or three days each year. Of the above the only eel that I have had an opportunity of seeing was ruahine. On the 2nd May, 1917, the large eels commenced to go down the Moumahaki, and fourteen of these immense fish were taken on that date. The smallest probably weighed

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12 lb., and the largest was, according to native measurement, 6 ft. 1 in. in length and 20 in. in circumference. I went down to the Ngutu-wera settlement immediately I heard of the capture, but found the large eel had been taken to Waitotara. It was found dead in the poha (leading-net), where it had been jammed by sticks and debris. The rest of the catch was emptied out for my inspection, but as far as I could judge by match-light, although they were called ruahine, they were very similar to tuna-ngahuru except in the matter of size.

Although the natives here affirm that tuna-ngahuru and tuna-riri are different varieties, I am not at all sure that this is so. I have seen both eels, but not in the same year, and, as far as I remember, they showed the differences as described; but different localities and conditions may have caused the slight variation that is to be found. However, to the natives they go under different names, and they readily detect the difference.

According to Te Whatahoro, a well-informed native of the East Coast tribes who has contributed largely to our store of Maori information through the Polynesian Society, the names of the tuna-heke and the order in which they go down the East Coast rivers are as follows:—

“The first and smallest to be taken on the East Coast pa-tuna is tutuna, called tuna-riki by the Waikato people. It goes down the rivers during November, December, January, and February. It is the smallest of all the eels.

“The next is tuna-hau, also a small eel, about 18 in. long and 1 in. through. It is dark-skinned, with a fine head and large eye. It is of exceptionally fine flavour, and is usually cooked by the rara method. It is one of the best varieties to dry, and will keep in good condition all the year. It is prepared for this process of preserving by the finger being inserted down the throat and the entrails dragged out through the mouth, great care being taken not to injure the skin, as that would allow the flies to enter. Soaking brings the fish back to the standard of fresh fish. This eel is considered and reserved as a special food for chiefs and visitors.

“Next comes the mata-moe (sleeping-eye), about 2 ft. 6 in. long and the thickness of one's wrist. It is taken from sandy or stony rivers, and is very fat and good. It occasionally takes bait (mounu), but is one of the fine-head and migrating varieties. There is a sort of film over the eyes of this eel, giving it a blind appearance; hence its name. It is taken from November to May, but is not common.

“Next comes tuna-reko. This eel has a silver belly and is of a light-grey colour. It also is somewhat scarce, and goes down during February and March.

“After tuna-reko comes kokopu-tuna and ruahine, which go down together. They are both large (about 5 ft. long), but ruahine has a fine head and is soft and fat, while kokopu-tuna is coarse and has a head resembling the bull-dog type of the tuna-toke varieties. It has to be handled carefully, as it will endeavour to bite, and when it does so the episode will long be remembered. I once saw an old man named Horomona who had been bitten on the shoulder as a child, when bathing in the Parapara-kino River, South Island, by this eel. It must have been an ugly flesh-wound, for even in old age there was a long deep scar. I disbelieved the story at the time, but have since then heard of others who could speak from experience in regard to an eel-bite. I myself was bitten as a youth when trying to extract the hook by which a large eel had been caught, but it was, I think, tuna-puharakeke that got hold of me on that occasion.

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Kokopu-tuna is not really a tuna-heke, for it is seldom taken in the hinaki. It is usually speared lying in shelter of raupo (bulrush) or rubbish. Ruahine goes down between the months of February and June.

“The kopakopako is a swamp-eel about 2 ft. 6 in. long and 2 in. in diameter, having spiny fins and being very bony right from the back of the neck to the tail. It is very poor food, and is dried and stored only in case of famine.

“Another eel, called tuwerewere, has similar spines, and is also very poor food. It is the last of the eels to go down-stream.”

Two other eels mentioned but not described by Te Whatahoro were hau-mate (small) and karaerae (about 24 in.).

As before mentioned, none of the tuna-heke take bait, such as worms, weka (wood-hen), & c., the natives affirming that they live on water and foam (kohuka). The great heke, or migration, seems to take place during March, April, and May, but the natives have no record of the large eels returning. The young fry go up the rivers in the spring in countless numbers. I have taken them in a whitebait-net in October, but am told by the natives that they continue travelling up-stream till well on into the summer.

Of the tuna-toke, or “worm-eating” varieties, often called tarehe, usually taken with a hinaki baited with native worms, pigeon, or wood-hen, the principal eel caught is called tuna-pa in the Whanganui district. It is said to be the favourite variety of tuna-toke, and is always roasted by the rara method, being considered a delicacy when so treated. The baskets are placed in a favourite locality in the late afternoon and raised the following morning. Often the hinaki contains 1 cwt. or even more for one setting. The most I ever saw taken with baited hinaki was at Kaiwhaiki, Whanganui River, in 1907, when something over 3 cwt. was netted from two large hinaki in a single night.

Tuna-iakaaka is another eel taken with tuna-pa. It is of a light-green colour. It is considered inferior to tuna-pa, and requires a considerable amount of boiling. It is never grilled.

Tuna-puharakeke, the large yellowish-brown-skinned eel with which most of us are more or less familiar, is also taken in the hinaki, but usually by the bob (tari) made of the large native worm strung on dressed flax (muka). At a small creek called Manga-weka that runs into the Moumahaki near Ngutu-wera I have seen the Waitotara natives drive this eel to a narrow part, of the creek where a trap had been prepared. When an eel is disturbed it seems to invariably travel down-stream. The natives therefore go into the water and make all the commotion they can, working downstream, while one man stands with a deep basket, called reherehe, at the narrowest part and lifts the eels as they enter, one or two at a time, and quickly transfers them to a sack. While I was watching the fishing at this stream about a quarter of a potato-sack of large eels was taken in two hours by three men. When fishing for this eel with a hook the natives use lamprey (piharau) as bait if at all procurable, as the puharakeke is very greedy for this food and will take it when it refuses everything else.

Tuna-puharakeke has a large head, small eyes with a black pupil, ring of bright gold, and an outside ring of dull gold. The lower jaw protrudes somewhat, giving the bull-dog appearance, and the teeth are sharp and set very thickly, running back like a wedge on the roof of the mouth. The under part of the head is whitish. This eel often grows to an immense size. Some years ago I saw two extremely large ones taken out of a hinaki near Upoko-ngaro. Their weights were respectively 46 lb. and 32 lb.

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The natives were very much excited when they were caught. The large eels of this variety are usually dried for winter use, although they can be caught throughout the year. In sun-drying, the heads are taken off; they are skinned and split open, the bone being taken out, and they are then dried for several days on stages, when they will keep for several months. This eel is usually boiled or steamed with potatoes in an umu or steam-oven.

Another yellowish eel is tuna-kaingara, which is said to be poor and lean. It has a large head, is readily caught with the bob, and does not go to the sea with the April floods.

In the upper reaches of the Whanganui River there is a tributary known as the Ohura, which, owing to its situation and formation, is a most suitable place to capture the young eel-fry as they go up-stream. This little eel, varying in size from 2 in. to 6 in. in length, is called tuna-riki, and the Maori up till a generation ago used to journey down from Taumarunui and up from Pipiriki to procure this delicacy. The fishing commenced in the early summer, long after the tuna-heke migration was over, and lasted for two and sometimes three months. The manner of taking tuna-riki was as follows; At the mouth of the Ohura there is a small waterfall, 4 ft. or 5 ft. high, at the foot of which is a very deep pool. The little fish congregate here in countless numbers, probably waiting for a flood to enable them to mount the obstacle and continue their course up-stream. Loose bundles or balls were made by the native women, who rolled fern, rushes, and manuka together until the mass reached about the size of a football. These were then tied up with flax to hold them in shape, and let down into the hole at the foot of the fall overnight, being held to the shore by flax lines. It is said that these little fish are very curious and attracted by anything new, and so crawl into the balls in great numbers. I have an idea that they may be attracted by the fern-pollen, but I may be wrong in this. These bundles are called koere, and the Maoris say that two small balls are much more attractive to the fish than one large one. When the koere are lifted in the morning they are shaken over a kit, and the eels drop out. Captain Mair* has a note on this little eel, in which he says that between 2 cwt. and 3 cwt. were taken in a single night by hanging funnel-shaped bags on the Ohura Falls, up which these little eels were making their way in thousands. I have not seen the natives fishing in the manner described by Mair, but saw upwards of half a sack taken by the koere method about twenty years ago.

At the Waitangi Falls, Bay of Islands, which are some 20 ft. in height, composed of basaltic rock, the water falling vertically into a deep pool subject to tidal flow, Mr. Percy Smith informed me that he had seen thousands of young eels, from 2 in. to 6 in. long, wriggling up the rough rocky surface, where a thin film of water descended. The Maoris came to the falls in their canoes and scraped the young eels into baskets for food.

There is an eel well known by repute to all the river natives of this district. It is called tuna-tuhoro, and is described as a black eel about 3ft. long, with a very large head and small tail. Now and again it is hooked, and occasionally it is found in the hinaki with other eels. It is a fish of ill omen. When the natives were building a pa-tuna on the Au-tapu Rapid, Whanganui River, four years ago, and had ten timbers driven into

[Footnote] * Notes on Fishes in Wanganui River, Trans. N.Z. Inst, vol. 12, p. 316, 1880.

[Footnote] † Sir Ray Lankester notes, in From an Easy Chair, that in England young eels are sometimes seen “wriggling in numbers up the face of a damp rook or wall ten or fifteen feet high.”

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the stony bed, they saw a tuhoro swim past. They immediately gave up their work and started again on Te Aute-mutu Rapid, lower down the river. All the natives dread catching this fish, for should a Maori be sick or any near relative be ill at the time when a tuna-tuhoro is caught death always follows. There is no alternative: the patient simply must die. Of course, this eel is never eaten. The effect is quite bad enough if it is simply seen or caught. It seems to be scarce, for Patonga, the old Wai-totara native from whom I obtained most of these notes, had never seen one, though, of course, he knew of their dread power. I have been more fortunate. During the summer of 1916 a fisherman dragging a net in the lower Whanganui meshed a small one, about 18 in. in length. The natives who were assisting immediately raised such a commotion that the man took notice of it, and eventually brought it to the Whanganui Museum. I was secretary of that institution at the time, but had not thought of writing on eels, so took but little notice of it. It was, however, without slime, and seemed capable of inflating the throat, thus causing the head to appear larger than its natural size. This specimen was placed in spirits, so that it can be examined if thought a new variety. It is said that it is a very fast swimmer.

Mr. Percy Smith tells me that this eel is known to the Kaipara natives as tuoro, and that it is looked upon in that place as being somewhat mythical and harmful to man. It is said to be found in the lakes on the North Head, and was described by the natives as being very large, almost as big as a man's body, with a great lump on its tail. It was supposed to come ashore and chase men, who could only escape by passing over ground where the fern had been burnt. So much for Maori beliefs !

I was in the Upper Ohura district a short time ago, and when there heard some bushmen speaking of an eel with hair or bristles on its back that is to be found in some of the creeks near the Ohura Township. I was unable to see any natives at that time, but shortly afterwards met an old Maori at Taumarunui who recognized my description as tuna-piki, or the feathered tuna, Further, as I had heard that Mr. W. K. Williams, of Ohura, had seen the eel, I wrote to him and obtained the following reply:—

“Some years ago, when passing a Maori pa, I saw quite a number of eels hung on poles in front of a Maori whare, and upon examination I noticed these eels had a sort of bristle upon their backs, starting about 4 in. behind the ears and terminating at the tail. Their ears were about ¾ in. long, shaped exactly like a pig's. The ears were slightly forward and up, and gave the eel a most peculiar appearance. The ears varied in size from 18 in. up to 5 ft. Their colour was dark—almost black—at fin, along back, and getting a little lighter towards the belly. The belly was of a cream or pale yellow. … I understand they are caught with both hinaki and line at the headwaters of the Ohura, in a stream called Waikaka. The Maoris stated they were plentiful.”

The mud eel is called by the Maoris tuna-kohau, and the salt-water or conger eel tuna-koiero, koiro, and ngoiro.

In some districts an eel called kaueri (?) is largely taken by spearing, but the Whanganui River does not lend itself to this mode of fishing. I remember as a boy seeing native women spearing in the Turakina River, and I also remember finding a bundle of spears in a hollow cabbage-tree near a large swamp at Turanga-waikanae, below the Bulls racecourse, some forty years ago. The spears were made of several hardwood points lashed to a handle, and were called matarau. Although this mode of taking fish has fallen into disuse in the Whanganui lagoons, I am told it is still common

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in the Manga-whero. The usual procedure was to probe among the water-weeds and roots along the banks of a creek, lake, or swamp, and when an eel was struck this was easily ascertained by the vibrating feel. The hand and arm were next put down in the water, so that the eel was held to the prongs while it was being lifted.

About the year 1880, when visiting the Kai-kokopu Lake, a large lagoon in the Lower Rangitikei district reserved to the natives for eel-fishing, I saw some natives of the Ngati-Apa Tribe empty some small eels from a hinaki into a fire they lit at the edge of the lake, from which the scorched fish were allowed to crawl back into the water. On inquiring the reason I was told it was an old custom, called tunutunu-ki-te-ahi (roasting at the fire), and was supposed to make the eels that escaped large and fat.

In many low swampy districts near the sea there are extensive sand-flats, and it was formerly a common practice for the natives to make a cut or drain from the lagoons or swamps near by to well out on the sand-flats. After heavy rain causing the swamp waters to rise a few inches the eels endeavoured to get out along the cuts, and were soon left struggling on the sand. I have seen upwards of 1 cwt. of fish so gathered (one New Year's Day) on the large sand-flat north of the Rangitikei River mouth. In the Whanganui deed of purchase similar eel-cuts from the Kaitoke, Wiritoa, and other local lakes are mentioned as native reserves.

Yet another method is occasionally adopted in taking the tuna, and was practised on the Okorewa, down which tons of eels annually migrate from the Wairarapa Lake. If a man has no hinaki, or if the pa-tuna are constructed too close for him to get another in, a shallow drain is dug from the river across the sand, terminating in a large hole. He watches the eels swim past till he considers he has enough in the hole, blocking with a stick any that seek to return. Then the drain, and later the hole, is filled with sand, quickly smothering the imprisoned fish. Such a place is called awa-one-huna.

The following is a list of the west-coast (North Island) eels given by an old bedridden Waitotara man named Patonga:—

  • Tuna-pa.

  • Tuna-riri (sometimes called tuna-putaiore).

  • Tuna-taiaka. Described as an eel with a fine head and hard skin, that will not boil tender.

  • Tuna-kaingara.

  • Tuna-ngahuru.

  • Tuna-hau.

  • Tuna-opuha.

  • Tuna-ruahine.

  • Tuna-kopure.

  • Tuna-paranui.

  • Tuna-keke.

  • Tuna-kahau.

  • Tuna-tangaroa.

  • Tuna-tuhoro.

  • Tuna-puharakeke.

  • Tuna-kaueri.

  • Tuna-arawaru.

  • Tuna-riki.

  • Tuna-monanui,

  • Tuna-kuia.

  • Tuna-iakaaka.

As a rule, the prefixed generic term tuna is not employed. In regard to the opuha and iakaaka it is possible that a missing h should be inserted.

The following are the names of eels as supplied to Mr. Percy Smith by Aporo te Kumeroa, the late well-known chief of Wairarapa, and are all said to be found in the Wairarapa Lake or the rivers flowing into it:—

  • Matamoe (also called hikumutu).

  • Hao (also called puhi). This eel has blue eyes, and is the best eating of all.

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  • Riko. The largest of all. Te Kumeroa said he had seen them 6 ft. long.

  • Kokopu-tuna. Very large. There are two kinds: paratawai, a short one, and putake-harakeke, reddish in colour.

  • Haumate. Like the hao, but with short ears. Karaerae.

  • Kopakopako. Silver-eel. The Ngai-Tahu people call this pakeha, a name they used long before the advent of the Europeans.

  • Tarehe (called also tirehe and mairehe). A silver-eel; is short, and not the best eating.

  • Kongehe. Can be caught with the hand. Soft and flaccid.

  • Tatarakau. Same thickness head to tail; black like riko.