Did I want to go fishing, Nate Smith asked from the wheelhouse of his boat Gravity.
He was catching only enough blue cod to fill a small order and the at-times turbulent Foveaux Strait was flat, he added reassuringly.
That brief exchange revealed plenty about Smith and his business, Gravity Fishing.
First, it was viable for Smith to head out to sea to catch 20kg of blue cod and secondly, he knew those fish would be in a fridge at Huka Lodge, a resort near Taupo, by noon the following day and third, it revealed Smith’s infectious optimism and a zest for life.
He is the third generation of his family to fish the more than 200 nautical mile Southland coastline. His Ngai Tahu heritage can be traced back to the earliest settlers on Stewart Island and islands in Foveaux Strait.
Crewing for Smith that day was lifelong friend, fellow Ngai Tahu descendant and Bluff-based cray fisherman Storm Wardrop who confessed he was also on spying mission to see how his mate’s recently modified boat operates.
Smith’s transformation from a fisherman supplying as much blue cod as he could catch to processors to directly supplying 130 nationwide restaurants and retailers came after the realisation the southern blue cod fishery was being over-fished.
Both Smith and Wardrop recall as young boys dropping lines off the Bluff wharf to catch a meal of blue cod.
Blue cod are taken off the hooks.
Smith fishes one of the roughest areas of water on the planet, known as the Roaring 40s.
It runs from Slope Point on the southeast corner of the South Island, surrounds Stewart Island and goes up to Awarua Point, at the northern edge of Fiordland where it meets Westland.
Smith says his workplace includes some of the most beautiful coastline in the world.
Neither Smith nor Wardrop fish for oysters but each year Wardrop heads to the Titi Islands off the south coast of Stewart Island for a month chasing the delicacy, muttonbirds.
“You start turning a bit feral after a month,” he says.
It is a trip he has been making since the age of four and he now takes his own children, teaching them the traditional harvesting methods.
Muttonbirds or sooty shearwaters are harvested as chicks or fledglings from mid-March.
They live in burrows and Wardrop says he targets them when they emerge to allow the wind to remove their down.
“We let them come to us.”
As his Ngai Tahu ancestors did, Wardrop kills the fledglings by biting them on their heads.
“You tell an ordinary kid on the street to go and do that and they’d look at you sideways but when you are brought up to do that it’s the norm.”
Traditionally mutonbirds are sold in a salted state but Wardrop prefers lessons learned from his Ngai Tahu ancestry to prepare the 2000 birds he caught this year, a process called tahu.
It involves excreting substances from the stomach cavity which is mixed with fat and a copper full of hot water into which the birds are submerged.
“The difference in taste is like pickled pork compared to roast pork.”