Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 51, 1919
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Art. XXVI.—The Edible Fish, &c., of Taupo-nui-a-Tia.

[Read before the Wellington Philosophical Society, 18th December, 1918; received by Editor, 31st December, 1918; issued separately, 16th July, 1919.]

For the purposes of this paper we use the name Taupo-nui-a-Tia as describing Lake Taupo and its watershed. It includes the lake and all the streams running into it, the Poutu Stream, Roto-a-Ira and the streams running into it. The area is a very large one. It extends from the watershed between the Rangitikei and Whangaehu Rivers, which flow towards the west coast of the North Island, and the sources of the Waikato River, which flow into the Taupo Lake, on to some distance beyond the northern end of the lake, a distance from north to south of over sixty miles. From east to west it extends from the summits of the Kaimanawa Ranges to Hauhungaroa and Hurakia Ranges, a distance of about fifty miles. Its area would be reckoned at about 2,000 square miles.

Throughout the whole of this large area the eel, that great source of valuable food to Maoris in other more favoured districts, was practically unknown. There are stories of large eels having been caught in Roto-a-Ira in days gone by, but none for many years past. Some women are supposed to have seen an eel in the Toka-anu Stream quite recently, but it was not caught. Eels are caught in the small streams running in to the Whanganui River which have their source on the slopes of Tongariro. They are plentiful on the side towards Whanganui, but there are none on the side towards Roto-a-Ira. The eels known to have been caught in Roto-a-Ira would be a few enterprising explorers from the Whanganui streams. I have been told of eels having been caught in other rivers and carried alive to Taupo and liberated with the idea of stocking the lake. It is said that some members of the Armed Constabulary caught some eels in a tributary of the Mohaka and liberated them in Roto-ngaio, a small lake that empties itself into Taupo. Of course, all such attempts ended in failure.

The fish, &c., caught in various ways and used as food are known under five general names. Some of these may have slight local variations, but the general names are common to the whole of New Zealand. The largest and most important is the kokopu (Galaxias fasciatus). The others are: inanga (Galaxias attenuatus), kakahi (Diplodon lutulentus), koura (Paraneprops planifrons), and koaro.


The kokopu was caught in several ways, the most important of these being by means of a pouraka. This was a kind of basket net formed by first bending a piece of wood to make a hoop about 1 ft. in diameter. A net of fine mesh was then worked on to the hoop until a bag of at least 18 in. was made for the bottom portion of the trap. The top was made in a similar manner. The net was of flax (Phormium tenax). The entrance of the pouraka was at the top. The bottom portion was made so that it could be gathered in and tied fast. It could be untied for the purpose of emptying the net. On the inside of the net some koura were carefully fastened as bait. As the pouraka was for use in deep water, a flax line of three-ply plait was made 30 fathoms long. A piece of wood (totara) was

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used in a most ingenious way to serve the double purpose of reel and float. This float was about 2 ft. long, the mid-section roughly an oval, the major diameter being 6 in. and the minor 3 in. For about one-third of its length at each end a portion was cut away, leaving two long horns. A section of a Nottingham fishing-reel would exactly show the shape in miniature. Its local name is poito. Two stone sinkers were fastened to the inside of the pouraka, the bait carefully tied in place, the line would on the poito, and then the fisherman went off in his canoe to the selected spot to try his luck. The time selected for placing the nets was at evening. The fisherman was guided to the best places by marks on shore, and at each place known to the fisherman a pouraka would be let down until all would be set. The poito would serve as a float, a hitch round one of the horns making it stand upright in the water. In the morning the nets were visited and lifted to see what had been caught. The poito was first placed on the canoe and then the rope carefully pulled up. If the pouraka was full the fisherman would know by the agitation of the water in it as soon as it came in sight. It was lifted on board, the bottom of the net untied, and the kokopu emptied into the bottom of the canoe. Fresh bait was then attached and the pouraka lowered again at the same spot. All the pouraka were visited in succession; if any of them were found empty they were taken on to some other spot. The kokopu caught in this way were about the length of a man's hand, and they were very fat. The time of fishing was from November to March.

Another method of catching kokopu was by means of a tau. In February or March, when the new fern (Pteris esculenta) was fully grown, men cut large bundles of it and left them to dry. While the fern was drying they prepared a long and strong rope, plaiting it of flax. The length of the rope would be from 40 to 50 fathoms. A number of shorter lengths of light three-ply plaited flax ropes were prepared. When all the material was ready it was taken to a suitable spot. A strong stake was driven in on the edge of the shore and the thick rope firmly attached. The lighter ropes were fastened at suitable intervals along the whole length of the main rope to within a short distance of the end farthest out from the shore. To this end a heavy stone was attached to serve as an anchor.

Large bundles of the prepared fern were firmly tied to the free ends of the lighter ropes, and when all was ready the bundles of fern were lowered into the water. A poito was fastened to the large rope near the junction of the first short line. Sometimes as many as thirty bundles of fern would be fastened to the main line.

The bundles would be lifted during the daytime, and very great care was taken to pull the bundles up one at a time in such a way that no sudden jar was given to them. The bundles were either shaken into the canoe, or a net called a karapa was passed under the bundle to catch the kokopu as they fell from the fern. This method of catching kokopu was practised from the month of April to the end of September.

There was a method of taking a large variety of kokopu, known as kokopu-para, in the rivers by the use of a bob. This is the common instrument in use for catching eels in other places. A number of worms were threaded on some dressed flax and tied in a bunch to the end of a short, thin rod. The fish would bite the worms and be suddenly jerked into a canoe, or, if the fishing was from the shore, upon the dry land.

Kokopu when eaten fresh were, without any preparation, steamed in a Maori oven and eaten as a relish with fern-root, kumara, or, in more

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modern times, with potatoes. They were sometimes dried in the sun by first threading them on fine strips of flax and hanging them up in the wind and sun to dry. When sufficiently dry they were placed in the storehouses for future use.

The following story tells how a place famous for its kokopu was discovered in Taupo Moana over three hundred years ago. A man named Kopeke was living at Tu-tete, on the eastern side of Taupo and north of the Hine-maiai River. One morning in early summer he noticed a number of shags going away out on the lake seeking food for their young. They went away out beyond any shallow known to the Maoris, and Kopeke knew there must be some spot out there where it was not too deep for the shags to get fish. One calm morning Kopeke and his men went out to see if they could find the spot where the shags had been fishing. They came at last to a shallow spot which they called Popoia-nga-oheohe. It is otherwise known as “The roof of the house of Horo-matangi.” A net was tried, and in a very short time they got a very large haul of kokopu. The right to fish on that reef was retained by Kopeke and his descendants right up to the present time. The right is given in the proverb, “The fish in calm water are for everybody; the fish in the current are for Kopeke.”

After heavy winds kokopu were cast up on the beaches in large numbers and gathered and used for food. The larger varieties were afflicted by a small parasite in the shape of a thread-worm about 1½ in. long.


Inanga were caught in two different ways. One way was by means of a hinaki. Hinaki for this purpose were not very large, nor were they made so strong as the hinaki-tuna. The general shape was the same, but the material used was a strong species of rush that grows among manuka (Leptospermum) in dry situations.

When using a hinaki a suitable place was chosen on the edge of a stream. Experience and judgment were shown in selecting a suitable spot on the river-bank, for unless a good spot was chosen no fish would be caught. A trap was made at the place selected by driving in a few pieces of manuka or other suitable stakes at a slight angle out into the stream. Any light material was interlaced between the stakes to form a barrier that the fish could not pass. At the narrow place the hinaki was securely fastened with the mouth in the narrow gap. The young fish ascending the river would crowd into the place prepared for them and pass on into the hinaki; their further progress was blocked, and there was no return. The wily fisherman would examine his trap at frequent intervals and enjoy the fruits of his cunning. This method of catching inanga was practised from the beginning of September to the end of January. The young of the kokopu would be caught with the inanga and would be reckoned under the general term inanga.

In Dominion Museum Bulletin No. 2, page 56, there is a plate showing “a small fish-trap (set), Tongariro River.” On page 67 we are informed that the trap is for eels and small fish. For “eels and small fish” read “inanga.”

The other method of catching inanga was by means of a net. This net was known as a kupenga, and it was used in almost the same way as the seine or large drag-net of European use. The length of the inanga net varied from 50 to 100 yards, and its depth from 6 ft. to 8 ft. The diagram given on page 72 of the Bulletin quoted above gives a fair idea of an inanga

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net. It was made of very thin strips of flax worked into a small mesh; this, the central part of the net itself, was called a kaka. The rope along the top was called kaharunga, the bottom rope kahararo, the floats poito, and the sinkers karihi. My informant was unable to give me the name of the manuka spreaders. Page 65 of the Bulletin illustrates a bunch of floats. There were two methods of using the net—one from a canoe tied by the middle thwart to a pole firmly fixed in a shallow spot, the other from the shore. When used from a canoe, another canoe started out from the bow of the anchored canoe with from 200 to 500 yards of rope. When this was all out the net was put overboard, roughly at right angles to the line, and when all the net was out the canoe returned to the stern of the anchored canoe with another long length of line. The net was then pulled steadily in towards the anchored canoe. The same process was used from the shore, but in the case of the canoe the lines were coiled up in the bow and stern, leaving the centre free for the inanga to be emptied out of the net. Some of the shallow spots on the eastern side of the lake where the anchored-canoe method was used were the places named Te Rimu, Nga-Parenga-rua, Te Hohonu, Karanga-wairua, Te Tii, Te Purakau, and others.

There is an ancient story that seems to illustrate the method of fishing from the shore. The date of the story is at least 250 years ago. On one occasion Uru-taraia was using a net in the lake for the purpose of catching inanga. Tutetawha went on board the canoe that was carrying the net and paddled to the place where it was to be used. The net was cast into the water some distance from the shore and then dragged ashore, bringing the fish in front of it. As the ends of the net were brought close to the shore, so the inanga came too, and the stretchers stirred up the fish to the top of the water. Uru-taraia jumped into the water to press down the bottom line of the net, at the same time peering into the water. Tutetawha picked up some stones and threw them into the water to drive the fish back into the net. One of them fell just where Uru-taraia'a eyes were fixed. The splashing of the water wet the whole of his face. He uttered a curse which led to bloodshed at no distant date.

In addition to the places named above, there were many other places where inanga were caught, the ownership of such places and the right to catch fish in them being carefully conserved. The time of fishing was from September to March. The fish so caught were eaten as a relish with pounded fern-root or kumara, and in modern times with potatoes. They were also dried in the sun and stored for future use.

A net such as described has not been used in Taupo for many years. The writer has seen a length of scrim used as a substitute.


On page 73 of the Bulletin already mentioned there is a good illustration of a rou koura of the kind used in the olden days at Taupo. The frame of the mouth was made of manuka, the straight piece at the bottom being of much heavier timber than the curved portion. The net portion was made of fine strips of undressed flax. An old Maori recently drew the outline of one of these obsolete nets, and from his sketch, which was full size, traced on the road, we could see that the bottom rod was from 6 ft. to 8 ft. long. The length of the net was from 8 ft. to 9 ft., tapering from the mouth towards the back to about 3 ft. from the end. This last 3 ft. was straight, and about 1 ft. in diameter. The sinkers were attached exactly as shown in the illustration referred to.

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When the net was used it was taken out a long distance from the shore and lowered overboard, care being taken that it was the right way up. It was then hauled ashore. Very large catches were sometimes made in this way. Koura were also caught by means of bunches of fern, as described under the heading of “Kokopu.” The writer has seen as many koura as kokopu shaken out of the bunch of fern into the bilge of a canoe.

Of late years it has been a common practice for Maori women to grope for koura among the weeds in the lake and rivers, and also under rocks and stones along the edge of the lake.

There is a photograph reproduced on page 55 of the Bulletin already quoted, and it is called, “Nets for koura, Lake Taupo.” It is an exact illustration of a pouraka with line and reel attached ready for use. We cannot say that koura were not caught in them, but their chief use was for catching kokopu, as described above.


Kakahi is the Maori name of a fresh-water shell-fish which is fairly common over the greater part of New Zealand. It is common in Taupo Lake and Roto-a-Ira, and in the streams running into the lakes. Its average length is 2¼ in. In the clear water of Lake Taupo it can be seen pursuing its course over the clear sandy bottom, and leaving its characteristic furrow on the sand. It was never very plentiful, nor was it sought after so eagerly as kokopu, inanga, and koura. Where it was possible to reach it in shallow water by hand it was simply picked up and placed in a kit. In deeper water the method of obtaining it was called rou kakahi. In Museum Bulletin No. 1, pages 62 and 63, are three illustrations of these dredges. Fig. La was the type in use at Taupo. The ordinary method of using the implement was carried out by two men. One man, with the dredge attached to a long pole, would put off from shore in a canoe as far as he could touch bottom, while the other man stood on shore with the bow-line of the canoe. The man in the canoe would lightly press the teeth of the dredge into the sand or mud, and the one on shore would haul the canoe ashore. Where the water was shallow for a long distance out the implement was used with the net attached, as shown in the illustration referred to. For a short distance the dredge was used without the net. The flesh was taken out of the shells and dried in the sun after being strung on strips of flax. It then assumed the appearance of small, hard, dark objects, only suited to the digestion of a Maori or a moa.


Koaro is the Maori name of a small fish obtained under peculiar conditions from Roto-a-Ira and the streams running into the lake. It seems to have been ignored by ichthyologists, for as far as we are aware it has not been classified. It has been known to Europeans from the accounts of the earliest visitors. Bidwill says, “The natives said that there were no fish in the lake except what I saw, and which were not more than an inch long. The natives had vast quantities of these dried in baskets, which they cook by making them into a kind of soup, but which did not smell sufficiently nice to tempt me to taste.”*

The Rev. R. Taylor in his Maori Dictionary mentions the koaro as a small fish, about 3 in. long, found in Roto-a-Ira.

There is an ancient lullaby composed by Te Ao-tarewa which speaks of Nga-toro-i-rangi sowing the seed of the koaro. There is an old Taupo

[Footnote] * Rambles in New Zealand, p. 54.

[Footnote] † Polynesian Journal, vol. 14, p. 135.

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proverb which reads, “E noho kai ika, kia haere kai rau” (Fish-eaters remain, net-eaters are going). It refers to an incident during some fighting which took place just to the south of Roto-a-Ira about two hundred years ago.

The information given in the last edition of Williams's Maori Dictionary is no further advanced than Bidwill's—viz., “Koaro, a small fresh-water fish like inannga.”

The fish are caught in hinaki with a special arrangement, called a poha, attached to the mouth of the hinaki. The hinaki was made of rushes and the poha of flax. Museum Bulletin No. 2, page 58, has illustrations of two hinaki with poha attached. The second and fourth are those used for koaro. There are three streams running into Roto-a-Ira which take their rise from springs gushing up out of the earth—the Mapouriki and Ngapuna from Tongariro, and the Waione from Kakaramea. These three were the best for koaro. The hinaki were pegged down, some with their mouths up-stream quite close to the source, and others alongside of them with their mouths down-stream. The fish caught as they came out of the springs from the underground source were light-coloured, and spotted on the back; those caught ascending the stream were dark. The best month of the year for taking the fish was March. When caught they were spread out on stones in the sun to dry, and then stored in kits for future use.

These brief notes are written in the past tense, for the old methods of catching fish are practically extinct. It is only some of the old men who can explain the use of their old implements.

The introduction of trout to the Taupo Lake and streams put an end to the native fish and methods of catching them. A koura 5 in. long from the tip of the claws to the tail was taken recently from the stomach of a trout.