We are lucky in so many respects, to have such great fisheries in our very small country. Getting to them while balancing work and family duties, well there’s a challenge, but frankly, the pandemic has changed my way of thinking. Get free of the shackles of work pressure. Leave the everyday behind. I find that good mate Jas is the perfect foil, his mind constantly ticks over plans and schemes, species and locations and he’s like a cat on a hot tin roof waiting for the next expedition.
North it was. Grab the boat and hit the road. Go exploring. The harbour is mangrove lined in its western stretches, with a maze of channels providing freeways for fish both prey and predator. We liked our chances. We’d go the week before the holiday period. We had good tides and the forecast was ok too. These big harbours can be miserable when big southerly weather systems come over. With nowhere to hide it can be joyless. We arrived in summer conditions, checked in to our accommodation and got ready for a recon. It was late afternoon, beautifully warm and we quickly launched. We cruised around checking various channels and sand banks and all in all it felt fishy. That evening we ate our burgers checked tackle and headed for an early sleep. Dawn on the water, nothing beats it. Harbour channels were negotiated in the dawn light. We had an approximate idea of where we wanted to be. With electric motor deployed the search began. Jas, rigged with a piper fly stood in the bow with his 9 weight Sage Salt HD. I laid out line at my feet in the back of the boat. A 2/0 olive over white clouser minnow decorated the leader. If snapper showed, I’d shoot while Jas was carrying the elephant gun for kings. Slowly we wound our way through mangrove edges and channels. From time to time we spied snapper but always they’d spook out. In skinny water they’re amongst the spookiest of fish. A slight depression in the mangroves. Suddenly piper sprayed, I turned as a pack of kings charged in and with a flick of the rod dropped the fly in their path. Without hesitation a fish inhaled the clouser and I set the hook. The channel was 100+ metres away across the flat and the fish knew it and was there in seconds. Here I’ll put in a plug for Abel; their Super series (this being the 7/8 N) is my favourite, with smooth powerful drags and with backing crackling off the spool under pressure there was no room for a lumpy drag. Again the fish surged off and the drag hummed. We followed and got on top of the fish and there I was able to really pump the rod and lift him from the bottom of the channel. Played out and netted he measured 102cm, quite a respectable fish and certainly a season highlight.
We continued our cruise, spotting snapper crimson red against the sand but always they were a step ahead of us, slinking off before we could present a fly. Need to up my game here. The day was punctuated with sightings of fish, birds and we put in hours to learn and unpick some of the puzzle of sand, mangrove, sea grass and tide. Evening came and we motored home, pulled the boat and reflected on what had been a great day of prospecting. Beer, refuel, dinner, tackle readied. Post fishing shakedown. Morning tactics.
Up and at em. We had half a day. Tide wouldn’t peak until late morning, so we were forced to follow its relentless progress, until the mangroves flooded and noises of feeding began to emerge. First target, a snapper swimming out from an outcrop of mangroves, a blood red blotch against the bluey grey background. The presentation seemed good but was not to his liking as he skulked away. Rinse and repeat. We snuck onwards, the calm water giving us the opportunity to motor on super silently with no hull slap. We were positioned between a growth of mangroves and the main mangrove line when the first kings came through the corridor in no more than 18” of water, a pair on the hunt. They were adjacent before I could make the cast and my movement gave the game away. Shortly a pack of 4 zoomed through, clearly hunting in a group, again no chance to present. The wind cropped up so we motored to the other side of the harbour in search of shelter and a spotting window. Tucked under the nearby tree shrouded foothills we found what we’d looked for and resumed the search. With time drawing by and with a set time to pull the pin we continued. And then from out of the mangroves 2 small kings appeared. Jas made his shot true and bedlam broke out as the fished screamed back into the mangroves which shook madly. Applying full side strain he pulled the fish from its haven before it ran again, this time succumbing to the drag before reaching its lair. Netted out, the little posed for a quick shot.
Christmas. Time of giving. With a backlog of domestic chores lined up post Boxing Day trips would be few and far between. I wasn’t too upset, as the medium term forecast was for cold southerlies blowing up to 30kts for what looked like days on end – not your typical NZ summer forecast. And so, raised gardens were built, fences painted, rubbish disposed off, trees planted… sweat was sweated and blisters formed. At least the brownie point bank was filling. I’d had to put my New Years Eve plan on hold given that I’m not exactly a gifted handyman and all my jobs seemed to take 3 times longer than estimated so found myself behind the 8 ball. But still I had enough time for a trip to my local rocks for a cast into the mighty Waitemata. There I found a bait fisherman in residence with a burley trail going strongly. We chatted while I made a few exploratory casts, not expecting to move anything. When a king flashed through the burley trail I asked if I could cast for it and got the green light. When the line came up tight I barely had time to strip strike before line flew and the reel brrrrrrrd. I was packing the Sage Salt HD #9 with Abel Super 9 which holds a veritable ton of backing which the fish helped itself to. Thankfully in one of those fishing breaks of luck that never seem to come my way, the fish seemed hell bent on running towards Rangitoto than adjacent to the shore. I began to pump the rod. For every metre I gained, the fish seemed to take 2; I wasn’t winning this one. Then finally, his will broke and I began to recover line and his runs became more like determined short sprints of a few metres at a time. Backing recovered, line coming in, the fish was now tired. But fishing from the rocks brings its own challenges and round about now if I were on my own I’d be pretty stuffed… how to and this critter… old mate the bait fisho tailed the fish and took some shots. A few beats of his tail and the fish was gone. Old year ushered out in style.
The following morning I was adrift on a large flat. The weather was perfect, the flat glassed out, any waking fish would be visible for hundreds of metres. At the other end I could see Adam on his Nucanoe. We each moved to different areas. I moved west to east while Adam puttered across – and it was over an hour later having slowly traversed the flat that we ran into each other with a wave. The flat was dead. Nada, not a thing except for a couple of sizable eagle rays. For a flat that up until last summer held good numbers of fish to be this dead now… maybe those gill netters had finally cleaned it out. Later in the Tamaki Straight I saw terns diving while mutton ducks took up station on the surface, and in between splashy forms gave away the kahawai that were slashing anchovies from below. Amazingly, the boats that were out either could not see or ignored the workups that were becoming more extensive. Shutting down the motor to gauge the drift gave me a clue as to where to position. I quickly rigged the #8 and tied on a crease fly which was picked off literally first cast. In 20+ m of water Kahawai are the ultimate fighter, first diving then breaching the surface, peeling line at will. Serious fun and hardy enough for catch and release. After a few fish I felt ready to continue exploring so moved on, eventually moving to a popular flat where a shore-based angler (Mark) occupied a spot on the spit where water flowed. I marked time for a while before pressing on.
Day 2 of the year… I picked Jas up at 04.30 and we headed south. Tauranga harbour is the home of the ray rider – kingfish that follow short tailed rays, picking off critters that the ray disturbs in its travels. Critically, short tails travel strictly on the bottom and are never found mid water unlike eagle rays which throw big wakes. Being jet black, they’re relatively easy to spot on the flats. Our day was punctuated with brief glimpses of a ray rider, seeing other anglers out and about and avoiding water skiers who were out and about in plague proportions. As the hours passed we worked fishy water always searching, always looking. As we set to move to a new flat the motor depowered, firing on only one cylinder. Change of plan. We took a bearing back closer to the ramp and fished our way along the harbour edge before entering a gorgeous estuary that simply sang ‘kingi! But not today… at home I discovered that the mechanic who recently serviced the motor had not pushed the ignition lead onto the sparkplug, causing the failure. At least the fix was cheap.
4 days later and I’m on the road again. An hour later than the other day, but that’s ok, and this time solo. At the ramp the boat slid in. GPS/sounder fired up. Motor kicked into life. All is quiet on the harbour as I motor through the channels. There’s no wind to speak of and the forecast is for high temperatures. I’ve got lots of water onboard. Doused with sunscreen. On with buff and hat. Thank god modern fishing clothes are made of lightweight UV repellent fabrics, I’m going to need all the protection I can get today. Early on as the tide floods, I cross a channel and there see a small shorttail lying on the bottom. Above, a wee kingfish hovers but he’s well spooked and not amenable to the fly. I intend to cover a lot of water today. Its 6 hours to the top of the tide, so conceivably I could fish all day long if I could outlast the sun. Now I’m ready. The #8 X, Abel Super 7/8N, rio Bonefish and a home spun 8kg Momoi leader with crease fly attached. The line is laid out in the bottom of the boat. I’m ready. Rod in hand, fly at the ready. I can fire a quick cast if needed. The moon is hovering in the daytime sky, not a scenario I generally like but time’s not mine, I have to use what I have. I’m on the lookout. And that’s how it stays for ~7 hours during which time I’ve hunted several flats and traversed an estuary. I’ve need several (lifesaving) swims and reapplied sun lotion. Spotting conditions are mint. Staying focused is easy when you’re doing something you love. The moon has set. I’m almost at the mouth of the estuary when I see a short tail. He’s not large. I need to power against the current to get in front of him. I’ll only get one shot here and then I see it, the distinctive wavey light green outline, it’s a king. The creasie lands 6’ in front of the ray and the fish charges when I tweak the fly, a full engulfment that throws spray. Quick strip, solid hookset and way the fish screams. Its not a large specimen but that fish gives me hell of 15 minutes, again and again charging, turning on its side, rubbing the fly along the bottom… and then it wanted to hide under the boat, time and again avoiding the net. Finally vanquished and netted, photographed and released.
Worth it. Worth the burnt soles. Worth the relentless pressing sun. At the ready again. Line coiled and set. Rod and fly in hand. I’m thinking about another swim when a breeze stirs the surface. And there he is, a free swimmer and I haven’t time to reposition. I fire and the fly lands awkwardly with a curve in the one, the worst possible scenario when fishing a crease fly – you need direct tension against which to ‘bloop’ the fly. Nonetheless I rip the line and get a half hearted splash from the fly – but its enough, the king rises like a brown and takes the fly. I strip the hook into his gob and its on. We’re on the channel edge so he’s straight down and along. 100 m further out is a marker pole and the fish knows exactly where it is and sets off at great pace. I’m left applying side strain and stop him, but not before there’s a fair bit of backing off the reel. Pump. That X is a great rod. Gather line. Fish is on the surface, then gone again with a few tail flicks. But he’s tiring and soon begins to circle and is scooped up for a shot. Release. 2 from 2 shots, but 8 hours in. Its time for me to head back and now there are white caps on the harbour. I