The ancestors of Maori would have arrived at these shores steeped in rich fishing traditions and practice, and would have adapted this fishing culture to local conditions, species, and materials.
Matau (fish hooks) made by Maori are simple, ingenious, and beautifully constructed. The huge variety of hooks represent the many kinds of fish caught here as well as the many techniques used.
Pa kahawai are numerous. These are a result of Eastern Pacific-style trolling lures being made here in local materials. The numbers of these that survive also reflect the importance and availability of the fish species they caught –voracious surface feeders such as kahawai and barracouta.
These trolling lures and hooks are made from wood, shell, and bone – the fish being attracted to the flashes of movement and colour of the iridescent paua shell that lined the shank. The shank could be made out of whalebone or wood, and after Pakeha (Europeans) arrived, iron. As an added luring device, feathers were sometimes attached.
These lures were trolled behind waka (canoes) in estuaries or close to coastlines using lines of finely plaited muka (flax fibre).
Large wooden fish hooks for bigger prey such as hapuku (groper) are made from strong wood such as tauhinu tree roots, which was further hardened by fire.
The central nature of fishing is perhaps reflected in the story of the creation of Aotearoa. In these stories, Te Wai Pounamu (the place of greenstone, the South Island) is often represented as a waka (canoe) with the Maori hero Maui fishing up Te Ika a Maui (the fish of Maui, the North Island), using a hook made from the jawbone of his ancestress Murirangawhenua.
Maui was so delighted with his catch that he tossed his fish hook far up into the sky. There it caught and hung, outlined with bright stars. The constellation referred to in the Western world as Scorpio is known to Maori as the Fishhook of Maui.
Fishing was regulated by the maramataka (Maori lunar calendar), which gave the best days for fishing.
The maramataka guaranteed that seasonal fishing, on which most iwi (tribes) depended, was sustainable. This knowledge was based on close observation of inherent rhythms in the natural world, along with an understanding of local conditions. The predictable nature of the sea, moon, and tides was essential to successful expeditions, as was a close awareness of the seasonal nature of fish movements, which determined the species that might be caught and how.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2006)