Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Fill the freezer

The skipjack tuna is one of the greatest gifts of the world’s oceans and a major plus for fishermen. Although not generally preferred as a table fish here, it’s the second-most traded seafood globally (behind shrimp) with 2.6 million tonnes sold annually fresh, in tins, smoked or salted. New Zealand‘s commercial catch is between 7000 and 10,000 tonnes a year, less than 1% of the total taken from the waters of the western and central Pacific. Fortunately, skipjack spawn constantly in equatorial waters and grow quickly to reach 80cm in length by age four. Not many live past age five.

In summer huge schools of skippies make their way from the tropical waters of the mid-to-upper south Pacific, down the coast of Australia and across the Tasman.

They are a major source of food for the gamefish that also make this migration each year, as are albacore tuna. All travel south to gorge on the baitfish blooms of everything from krill to shrimps and squid as well as anchovies, pilchards, herrings and saury.

The late summer and early autumn offer a great opportunity to fill the freezer with sufficient skipjack to last a year's worth of bottom-fishing so you don't have to buy what the retailers label bonito. The flesh is oily, with large bloodlines running down the body so it leaks juices that form a built-in berley. Everything eats it and it is particularly effective on snapper.

These tuna fight like demons once hooked and are one of the toughest fighters, vibrating sideways, leaping and changing direction as well as diving in a bid to free themselves once hooked. They get power by pumping blood to their muscles at a furious rate, which in turns heats up their flesh. That makes it soft and messy to cut up when the fish is brought on board. It should be quickly iced down.

Once chilled, the best method is to fillet the fish then cut strips about 12cm long and a couple wide. Salt these if freezing them, laid out in layers in a plastic container with a couple of layers of plastic wrap between layers to allow selection of the number of baits needed at any given time.

I use two hooks in a bait, a 6/0 recurve at the bottom end and a 4/0 J-hook keeper further up. Ensure both are pushed through from the skin side with the barb exposed in the flesh – you will lose fish if the barb pokes out skin-side because the bite will frequently roll the barb into the skin while the target strips the flesh and moves off.

To catch your skippy or bonito for bait trolling is unbeatable. For sport saltwater fly-fishing or spin-fishing with light tackle into active surface schools is some of the best fun available on the water.

All manner of lure will attract these speedsters, which generally feed in the upper levels of the ocean if not right on the surface. On slower days it's hard to beat a simple squid imitation or the old faithful gamefishing colours of purple and black or the lime green, reds, yellows, blues and white of a fruit salad. Both rounded and hex-head shapes work but on hard days the hex-heads with their extra splash seem to be more productive. Many specialist tuna lures have double hooks so be careful handling fish at the boat while they struggle frantically for release.

Bungy cord

The pink squid is a real tuna-killer and one of the cheapest effective lures – put it together yourself for about $5.

One good by-catch this year has been plenty of mahimahi, also known as dolphin fish – a beautiful species given it's odd oversized head and sparkling yellow and blue skin. Most catches have been under 4kg and nowhere near competing for club pinfish trophies but they make a very decent meal. There have been very few yellowfin tuna caught this summer, like most years recently. The only mentionable one was a 63kg fish caught out from the Bay of Islands.

The settled weather has also meant good trout fishing. Rob Pitkethley of Eastern Fish and Game said both rivers and lakes were producing good catch rates. Boaties reported seeing plenty of smelt both working the surface in the shallows and in the deep via sounder. The lakes had taken longer than usual to reach summer temperatures because of the heavy winter rains which filled them to levels higher than usual but fish were now settling on the thermocline.

"They are picky though. If you can see them but they're not biting, change flies or jigs. Variation seems to be the trick."

Eastern Fish and Game has started the process of drift-diving the rivers throughout its region, from the Bay of Plenty to Gisborne, with staff snorkelling downstream and counting trout numbers as they go. The last survey was a decade ago. They had covered the Ruakutere and Waioeka Rivers and were in the Mohaka at the time of writing. Early on, the numbers look good.

"Anglers we've encountered have confirmed the results from the drift-dives, which show healthy populations," Pitkethley said.

The best catch seen was a 5.5kg rainbow. The river mouths continue to produce fish early morning and at and after dusk. The Waititi at Ngongotaha has been best of the lot according to fly-fishing guide Harvey "The Trout Man" Clark.

At Taupo, best catches have been big fresh-run browns taken in the Tongariro any time of the day. In the South Island the salmon were continuing to run hard. Most anglers were going home with a feed, something not seen for a few years. The fish are in very good condition. The Rakaia River in particular has been a good producer.

Off limits

Scallop season for both coasts of the North Island closes on March 31.

A ban on taking pipis from the Marsden Bank near Whangarei Heads has been extended to February 16 2015. The bank was closed in 2010 to allow the shellfish beds to recover. Recent surveys showed the population contained mostly juveniles so the initial two-year ban has been pushed out to four years.

Off home after this

Two blokes are out early morning sitting in their boat with lines over the side but there was nothing happening as far as the fish go. One asked the other "What are you thinking about?" His mate replied "I was thinking back to my childhood . . . have you ever realised any of your childhood dreams?"

The first guy thought for a moment then said "Yeah, I sure have. My mother used to brush my hair when I was young, it was curly and knotty and I always used to think to myself "I wish I didn't have any”.

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