HomeNelson – MarlboroughNelson Marlborough: Where to fishRainbow River

Rainbow River

A major tributary of the Wairau River, the Rainbow is a wilderness river with a good head of large brown trout that will challenge the most competent anglers.

Fish type Brown trout. Salmon are also present but this river is closed to salmon fishing. Any salmon caught must be released unharmed.
Situation 2 hours from Nelson and 1 hour from Blenheim
Setting The Rainbow is a major tributary of the upper Wairau River (though the headwaters of the Wairau are also sometimes mistakenly called the Rainbow). It is a snow-fed river that flows through boisterous rapids and deep pools to met the Wairau upstream of the Rainbow Ski-field.

Access map

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View the river flow.


Its remoteness makes the Rainbow an ideal river for those anglers seeking the solitude and challenge of fishing for large trout (some trophy size) in a wilderness setting. It affords many kilometres of challenging fishing in a pristine environment surrounded by forest and high mountains. This river is boisterous and so should only be attempted by reasonably fit and competent anglers.

The section which make up the true headwaters of the Wairau, is difficult terrain to fish. The river runs over a bed of gravel and stones and often between outcrops of solid rock that can house large but impossible to reach trout. It is a challenging river and best fished by experienced anglers.

Fish numbers and size While numbers are low this is more than compensated for by the size and condition of the fish in these waters which can achieve true trophy size of over 10lb (4.5kg). Note that although there are some salmon present, the Rainbow and Upper Wairau are closed to salmon fishing.

Access is difficult and anglers either need to be prepared to walk or to seek permission to drive beyond Six-Mile Creek through Rainbow Station. Contact the Rainbow Station owners, Alison and Philip Graham ph (03) 521 1838. From December to February, the road is open to the public with a manned gate above Six Mile Creek and a charge of $20 per vehicle. The road is closed during the first week of January for cattle mustering.

Permission to drive the private Hanmer Springs Hydro road can be obtained from the Department of Conservation at St Arnauds (phone 03 521 1806) or DOC at Hanmer (on 03 4157128). Do not attempt this road unless you have a four wheel drive vehicle.

See the Upper Wairau and Rainbow River access maps.

Recommended lures

Large weighted nymphs are the order in the deep pools and very fast water. in other sections use smaller flies and adjust weight accordingly. Any Pheasant Tail variant or very hairy Hare and Copper will work well if it can be got to the level of the fish.

Dry flies:
Bushy palmered flies work well in the fast riffles and rapids. Fish will rise in the pools and quieter water and flies such as Adams, March Brown or Coachman can work well.

Wet flies:
Small wets such as Greenwell's Glory, Purple and Grouse and Twilight Beauty.

Spinners: Toby patterns or bladed patterns such as Mepps or Veltic work well especially when fished deep into pools or upstream into the faster waters.

Applicable to Rainbow River
Region Nelson Marlborough
Season Closed for salmon
1 October - 30 April for trout
Methods Artificial fly, spinner
Bag limit 2
Size limit (cm) No size limit

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