Story: Te hopu tuna – eeling
Page 4 – Torches, nets and spears
Catching eels by torch light
Eels feed mainly at night, so people hunted them in the dark, using a torch flare (rama) and a spear or hand-net. This method was called rama tuna.
Māpara, the hard heartwood of the kahikatea, was made into torches. Kauri gum, found in the far north, burns easily, so it was used with dried flax leaves for torches. In the South Island they were made from bundles of dry, finely split mānuka or supplejack.
Over time, people developed new types of torches. In a short story, Māori writer Patricia Grace describes rama tuna in the 20th century:
Before the night came, they worked all of them, to make their torches for the river. Long sticks of manuka, long and straight. Tins tied at the tops of the sticks, and in the tins rag soaked in oil. 1
By the late 20th century, battery-powered torches were used.
The kōrapa was a net used by the Ngāti Porou tribe. It was a hoop net on a straight handle, used to scoop up eels at night. When the eel was caught, the handle was lifted and the eel slid into an attached net bag.
Like all fishing, eeling was controlled by the maramataka (lunar calendar). One maramataka shows the first six and last seven nights of the moon as best for catching eels by torch light. Moonlit nights were poor for eeling.
Matarau or eel spears were commonly used. The shaft was around a metre long, and it often had seven points, including the sharpened shaft. A single-pointed spear was known as a taotahi, or pātia in the South Island. The spear’s points were usually made from hardwood, especially māpara, or sometimes whalebone.
Today, eel spears are usually made from a spearhead bought in a shop and lashed to a wooden handle.