Hunting & Gathering in Nelson Tasman

Hunting in the Nelson Tasman region

The Nelson Tasman region is home to some of the best hunting and fishing in Aotearoa, and it is also an easy drive to places like the West Coast, North Canterbury, the Marlborough Sounds and Kaikoura where the wildlife can be even more abundant.

Before you get any further into this article though, I feel compelled to warn you it could be potentially shocking if you are opposed to the killing of wild critter

I met my wife, Johnna, in the late 90s while we were both living overseas. After meeting in Shanghai and then living in some of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world, she had only ever known the metrosexual version of me. Only a few months after our return to live in Riwaka 14 years ago, Johnna was more than mildly shocked at my obsession with collecting, hunting and gathering what she called “freeshit.” Having grown up rurally, I had been hunting, fishing and gathering for as long as I could remember, so now I had the opportunity to do those things, I felt like I was making up for lost time. If anything, this obsession has grown in the time we’ve been back in New Zealand.

Whenever I’m looking at the hills I find myself accessing clearings and other features for their potential as locations where wild game could be hanging out and I can’t help myself but look for trout whenever I’m driving beside a river. I find the process of hunting and gathering food and then preparing the final product for my family and friends enormously satisfying. For a start, I really enjoy the time in the wilderness, on the river or out at sea, and successfully hunting or catching the target species is more of a bonus than the determining factor of a successful expedition. But there is also a massive adrenaline rush when I do spot whatever I am targeting, particularly when hunting for deer in the hills. At the other end of the whole process, there is nothing better than being able to prepare a meal from the spoils. I also like talking about my hunting and fishing adventures although I need to rely on Johnna to give me a stern look when I have some unfortunate person cornered. This will be when I’m going into too much detail, and I seem to have failed to the person I have been talking to has lost interest and is actually starting to lose consciousness as I’m scrolling through my phone endlessly showing them photos of dead stuff. 

Nelson Tasman is blessed with some of the best trout-fishing rivers in the country, and possibly the world. The Motueka, Riuwaka, Rye and Pelorus are the only rivers I have fished and I’ve also tried my hand on both lake Rotoiti and Rotoroa in the Nelson LakesNational Park but the only thing that got eaten during those lake expeditions was me, by sandflies. The Batton, Buller, Matakitaki and Maruia are some of the other world-renowned rivers where you’ll find a mix of rainbow and brown trout.

While I do enjoy fishing in our rivers for trout, it’s more about the time on the river than bagging a fish for me. Orit could simply be that my trout fishing is so spectacularly unsuccessful that I’m lying to myself. My average catch in recent years is 1.5 trout per fishing season which means the cost of my fishing licence is a donation to NZ Fish& Game more than anything else. I fish with a spinning rod rather than a fly rod which makes me something of a trout-fishing neanderthal, but I have never put the effort into learning how to set up and cast properly with my fly rod. After a few attempts on the river, the only thing I caught was the hat I was wearing and the willow trees behind me. This last occurrence caused a mate to quip that I was decorating trees even though it wasn’t even Christmas time.

Fishing for rainbow trout

"While I do enjoy fishing in our rivers for trout, it’s more about the time on the river than bagging a fish for me."

The Marlborough Sounds, the Kaikoura Coast and the north western coast of Golden Bay, which runs roughly from Cape Farewell down to Kahurangi Lighthouse Pointare arguably the best diving spots in Te Tauihu/Top of thesouth. I am not a diver, but pāuā and crayfish are two of my favourite foods so for a brief period a few years back I decided free diving would be a good way to collect that type of seafood. This turned out to be yet another activity I am unsuited for. Every time I am underwater I feel panicky and that I was moments away from dying. For a good while I would go diving with people who are excellent freedivers. I would flap around trying to collect pāuā, finally maybe one pāuā in the same time everybody else was getting their quota. Then I would end up back on shore, exhausted and as pale a ghost mumbling excuses about how my mask or snorkel wasn’t working. As I often do when things get difficult, I decided I just needed some better gear. I was going into Nelson so thought I would get a new mask and snorkel. As I was driving towards a dive shop it suddenly dawned on me that I actually hated freediving and I wondered why I kept trying to do it. I didn’t make it to the dive shop. Instead, I decided I’m much better off as a boat boy.

It is no accident that two of the largest fishing companies in the country, Talley’s and Sealord, are based in this region. The fishing in Tasman Bay, across in the Marlborough Sounds, in Golden Bay and down the West Coast are not only commercially viable but are also ideal for recreational fishing. The most prevalent species, at least when I go fishing, are snapper, blue cod, kahawai, gurnard and kingfish. I do enjoy being out on the ocean fishing, but I’m not one of those people who will spend the entire day bobbing around in the sea until I finally have a respectable haul of fish. For a while I tried to fish from a kayak when we were camping at places like Tōtaranui and Tukurua. After a couple of misadventures, however, when an onshore wind came up and threatened to blow me to Australia I received a lifetime ban from Johnna, who, on one memorable occasion, dispatched a boat to come and rescue me. To add further insult to the emotional injury, I was wearing a Marahau Sea Kayaks’ shirt with GUIDE on the back. So, these days I stick to a motorised boat, usually a dinghy. I have a good mate, Grant, who shares my ‘shock and awe’ fishing philosophy so we head out in a 12-foot dinghy. We cruise out into Tasman Bay until we feel like we’ve gone far enough, usually after about 10 minutes, and then we start fishing. We don’t use berley or even bother throwing the anchor out. We fish for as long as it takes us to each drink exactly three Heineken stubbies and then we go home, and almost every time we have managed to catch enough fish for a feed. I have also done a fair amount of fishing with mates who are really dedicated to their craft, studying the tides and fishing calendars, berleying the hell out of it, cruising around studying their sounders until they find good fish-sign, etc. etc. And I’ve enjoyed those trips but I’m more likely to fish for a couple of hours and then find a good spot in the bow for a snooze.

Catherine Cove, d’Urville Island

If you’re visiting the area you might be surprised at the large volume of 4WD vehicles you will see with aluminiumdog boxes on their trays. These will almost always be for the transportation of a team of pig dogs and the ubiquity of these boxes shows just as popular pig hunting is in the Nelson – Tasman region. There are a lot of wild pigs in the forests and hills and even in the national parks and they make a hell of a mess of the ground when they are rutting for food just below the topsoil. Wild pork also tastes great, and charging through the bush chasing pigs is great fun, hence the popularity of this pastime. I don’t have a pig dog personally, and indeed, when I have encountered wild pigs while trail running with my Border Collie, she will hide behind me seeking my protection from the pigs. In doing so, Maggie is making it abundantly clear she is not interested in chasing pigs, bailing them up or is in any way prepared to engage in a fight to the death just so I can eat some roasted pork.

There are also a lot of wild red and fallow deer in the hills around the Nelson – Tasman district and hunting these things is something I do whenever I get a chance. Now, if you are not from New Zealand but you are from a country that does have deer, you might be surprised to hear that we don’t have a hunting season and the deer are considered a pest because of the damage they do to our native bush. When overseas I have seen deer in heavily populated areas of countries like the US and Ireland where they wander around with diplomatic immunity, and that has always come as a shock to somebody used to skittery, cunning deer who will bolt as soon as they catch the tiniest scent of a human.

To start hunting again when we first returned to live in New Zealand, the first hurdle I needed to overcome was having Johnna agree to having any firearms in our house. Having not grown up with any guns in her family home, the very thought of having even one rifle in her own home was not something she was going to get used to in a hurry. In an attempt to assuage her fears I took one of Dad’s rifles home and showed her that without a bolt and with no bullets the greatest danger that rifle presented to any person would be if they dropped it on their own foot. I explained that the rifle would be locked away, and in a separate part of the house the bolt for the gun and the bullets would also be locked away. So, the only way one of our three children could get access to a firearm would be for them to cut the lock to the gun safe, then locate and install the correct bolt and ammo for the rifle, a task that is not as simple as it sounds. Fast forward to now and Johnna does not bat an eye-lid when she walks into our kitchen to see me cleaning rifles after my latest foray into the wilderness. She is, however, still somewhat shocked at the state of my person if I’ve come home from a successful hunting or fishing mission without having had the opportunity to clean myself up first. Processing an animal in the field is a gory, mucky, bloody business and my least most favourite part of the whole deal.

Catherine Cove, d’Urville Island

"Hunters are a funny bunch when it comes to sharing information about where they have successfully located animals..."

Most of the deer hunting I have done is on private land,although I have also hunted on public land. Hunters are a funny bunch when it comes to sharing informationabout where they have successfully located animals,almost always choosing to keep this information close totheir chest. The reason for this is they want to go back tothe same spot and if they tell fellow hunters, then everyman and his dog will be there and will potentially clear thearea of the target species. This, I have found, is in starkcontrast to trampers and other outdoor types who loveto share information on the best places to go and specif-ic information about routes and conditions. If you ask ahunter where they shot a deer, they’re more likely going tomumble something ambiguous about the hills over, um, ah,that way a bit to the, ah, south, or was it north?

When I first started getting serious about hunting deer, about ten years ago, I went through a very steep learning curve. Most of my early forays were more a case of walking around in the wilderness while heavily armed, rather than hunting per se. It seemed like the only time I’d spot a deer it would only be a quick glimpse of its whitefluffy bottom as it disappeared into the bush. When I did get access to some private land that had so many deer the farmer was keen to have as many culled as possible, it became abundantly clear that if I was ever going to be successful, I needed to learn a whole lot of things and spend a lot more time on a shooting range honing my skills. On the massive backcountry sheep and beef station where I was hunting there certainly were a lot of deer, mainly fallow. The problem was, when I could spot them in the small clearings they would be a long way away, and even if I could get closer they would still be around 300-400 yards away. After throwing a whole bunch of lead around on one particular trip but only succeeding in hitting one deer, it was abundantly clear I needed to understand a lot more about my gear and ballistics in general. I did some research about drop-charts, MOA (Minute Of Angle), ballistic turrets, and all sorts of other nerdy ballistics stuff that I really should have known already.

Anyway, I bought a new rifle, a 6.5 Creedmoor, which shot better (flatter) out to longer distances, researched and purchased a much better scope and then perhaps most importantly, spent a lot of time practising on the range and making sure my new kit was sighted-in accurately. Before too long I was comfortable and confident shooting out to +400 yards. On one of our next trips to the same ranch that was still dripping with deer, my mate and I shot 11 of them. I was now much better at concentrating on having the wind in my favour, i.e.doing my best to have the wind blowing into my face so the deer I am stalking don’t spook when they literally smell me coming. I also had to learn how to locate the animals I had shot which, more often than not, would end up falling into dense bush across a gully from where I’ve taken the shot, how to process the animal in the field (that’s the mucky bit that ends up with me covered in gore) and how to carry the caucus out. Fallow deer are smaller than red deer so carrying a fallow up a steep hill through bush is usually difficult but achievable with much grunting, sweating and gnashing of teeth. Carrying a red deer, particularly a mature stag, is not always possible in which case I can only remove and retrieve the fillet and back steaks and the hind legs.

For the past several years we haven’t had to buy much red meat at all from a shop as we have an abundance of wild game. The quality of this meat beats anything I have ever purchased in a store and as I said earlier, I love preparing it for my friends and family. It makes me feel resourceful, self-sufficient and thankful that I am fit and active enough to be able to do it. I take pretty much every animal I shoot and retrieve to Westbank Meats, a business owned and operated by the Kelly family. Mark, Hannah and Kath process the animals into steak, roasts and incredible small goods such as salami, burger patties, mince, all manner of different sausages and bier sticks. We’re a family of cooks too, so I like to think we make the very most of these fantastic core ingredients. I’ve recently started making my own biltong and jerky, which I reckon is the perfect healthy snack. But my family’s all-time favourite is freshly caught fish, particularly snapper, simply cut into small pieces and served sushi style with soy sauce and wasabi.

Blog & photography by Brendan Alborn
Owner Operator

Brendan has a long association with the Abel Tasman, visiting it for the first time when his parents moved to Marahau in 1997. After spending much of his life overseas, Brendan and his family moved to the area at the end of 2010. When Brendan is not spending his time in the outdoors he seems to spend much of his time creating even flimsier justifications for spending more time in the outdoors.

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