Thursday, July 7, 2022

Season starts on a high

The first two marlin of the new gamefishing season were both caught mid-morning, one in the Far North and the other off East Cape. On December 28, Steve Angus tagged and released a striped marlin estimated at 90kg while fishing on the boat “Kotare” at Cape Karikari at the top of Doubtless Bay. The next day Jamie Lee from Whangamata pulled in a 108kg fish off Waihau Bay. Both were hooked just after 10am. It was January 2 before more billfish were hooked and again it was an unusual double with two blues caught just a few kilometres apart off Northland. Danny Douglas from the Bay of Islands landed a 291kg blue aboard the boat “Bosca” while trolling off Cape Brett and Simon Noakes of Whangarei caught a 228kg fish from “Four Winds” off Whangamumu.

By the second week of January the catch rate was still slow, with just a handful of billfish recorded by clubs from Hohora down to Waihau Bay. All of the stripeys were on the small side at 90kg and under, bar a 140kg fish taken by Tany Paget from Mangonui near Stephenson's Island.

The easterly blow that came over the festive period pushed warm tropical water in close to land but then the swirling of the remnants of Cyclone Evan pushed it offshore again. The fish caught early on were all hooked in water around 20.5degC and all were taken on towed lures.

As the summer moves on and the water heats up the larger striped marlin will arrive off the North Island's East Coast in numbers and their feeding should increase in intensity and aggression. But unless weather patterns change significantly it looks like another slow season for West Coast gamefishers. The sea surface temperature  (SST) charts showed the cobalt of the 21degC-plus water well offshore in mid-January.

There is an old saying that gamefishing is "90% boredom and 10% pandemonium".

Mix it up

When it's boring, try something different. Various charter skippers and experienced amateurs will recount stories of long days at sea with nothing happening bar the fuel bill soaring upwards, until they tried something different or unusual. Some stories I've heard that have induced action after hours of nothing are:

  • Mixing up the towing path by zig-zagging or regularly altering course;
  • Altering speed, down to three knots or up to seven or eight knots;* Letting the lures out well behind the wake waves, slowing the boat so they sink, then speeding up so they rise to the surface into the wake again, and repeating that exercise;
  • Replacing the lures and towing a dead skipjack tuna, mullet, kahawai, large koheru or slimy mackerel; 
  • Stopping to chunk old frozen baits to create a slime trail and scattering in a bag of scales collected from many sessions of scaling and filleting snapper and general catch.

That last tip came from an old-timer from Mangonui, now deceased, who told me there was nothing better than tossing a couple of thousand glistening mirrors into the seas to send out a message that would be picked up for miles.

"It's like a load of flashing neon signs advertising food," he said. “It indicates to all fish that there's a big work-up on."

He used to drift dead baits 10-50m below the boat while sending over blood and guts and bags of sparkling scales. If there were billfish nearby they would always beat the sharks there, he reckoned.

Lots of sharks were taken on lures in the late December/early January period; makos, threshers, bronze whalers and blues mostly. The vast majority of anglers now seem happier to release these rather than bring them in as a matter of course, a change in attitude that is pleasing to see for anyone concerned about the wider marine environment.

The last fatal shark attack in this country was in 1976 off Te Kaha on the East Cape, and that was a spear-fisherman who had his catch tied around his waist.

The snapper catch so far this summer has been exceptional in both size and numbers. I spent the festive season and early New Year in the Far North, where torpedo long-liners were enjoying a bonanza off both coasts, taking gurnard to 2kg, kahawai to 3kg and snapper up to 12kg from both 90 Mile and Tokerau Beaches. The reds from 30-50cm were just behind the surf line on both coasts and should remain there until March, and the bigger fish are in 30-40m offshore, about 1.5km off both coasts. Fresh mullet, scaled then cut to small triangular strips with the hook pushed through the top end of the strip just one time from the top, with the barb poking out through the flesh side, have been most effective for them.

In February, snapper will be spread down both coasts to the upper side on the top of the West and to Wairarapa on the East. The fish that migrate that far are the larger ones that withstand colder waters. They are hungry and their preferred bait is shellfish, of almost any variety. Thread these on the hook two to three times and use bait elastic, keeping it tight as you thread it around the bait, using as little bait cotton as possible.

Mussels are great and cheap – squirt a bit of bait scent into the flesh before tying them on. Use a trace of 20lb fluorocarbon about two metres long, let it sink to the bottom and leave it, but hang on! The bigger fish are often taken on longer traces, up to 3m, which is difficult to handle at the rod but definitely makes a difference.

River runs

In Canterbury, anglers have enjoyed the best salmon fishing for several seasons and this run of very good conditioned fish is expected to continue into late March at least. The best recorded effort has been an 11kg catch taken from the Rangitata River but there have been many just under that removed from that river, the Rakaia and Waimakariri. These fish are three to four years of age with salmon living from just four to five years.

On the West Coast of the South Island anglers are expecting the first run of sea salmon released three and a half years ago, the benefit of years of stocking local rivers. Back in the 1980s there was big investment in the ocean farming of sea-run salmon off Hokitika and Greymouth and as a side benefit recreational anglers caught fish up to 13.6kg, the old 30lb mark.

But the industry spluttered and failed. The last time there were good runs of big fish was in 2007, when many above 10kg were landed, as they were off the South's East Coast that season. In both cases it appears that a big bloom of krill has been the reason, supplying the sea-run chinook or quinnat salmon with ample amounts of food. The salmon spawning runs don't usually come until February on the West Coast, later than those on the East. But fish were starting to migrate up-river in January this year and the Coasters are hoping their fish that run in February/March will be in similar condition to those already landed on the East.

"We've already seen the benefits of the stocking in the lakes and we're hoping to see evidence from the rivers this year too," Fish and Game’s manager for West Coast Dean Kelly said.

That organisation aimed to celebrate its150th anniversary late in 2011 by releasing 150,000 fish into local waterways between 2009 and 2011. In fact they managed 213,000, a mix of salmon, brown and rainbow trout. The area is subject to regular major floods, which can decimate both salmon and trout populations both by killing small fish and destroying habitat. So the fish are often released in lakes including Kaniere, Parenga, Haupiri, Ianthe and Mapourika.

All received 11,500 juvenile salmon in December last year, with 5000 juvenile rainbow trout also put into Lake Kaniere. Kaniere doesn’t run to the sea so those fish are resident, at least until the lake spills over sending run-off into the tributaries of the Hokitika River. Some of the salmon put into the other lakes, which do run to the ocean, will choose not to go to sea and will also remain resident. But most will migrate, some from the age of six months and onwards until the last go at age three when their biological clock is ticking. The ones that migrate first will grow quickest and become the largest fish.

This area is unique in New Zealand and unusual globally in that you can catch sea-run salmon in lakes as well as rivers. The salmon being pulled from Kaniere in January were in the 1-2kg range and the easy fishing and guaranteed catch from the lake edge means it’s very popular with the young and also older anglers. More challenging fishing is available on any of the rivers and most of the larger fish are taken at the river mouths. Rapala lures seem to be the flavour of the moment for those seeking trophies.

Meanwhile flooding seems to have decimated the population of brown and rainbow trout in the Grey River and tributaries. Drift-dives have shown that the juvenile numbers are very low. Fortunately there are good numbers of adult fish that will breed to replenish stocks but that's not going to happen overnight.

The plus side is that the heavy flooding removed lots of didymo. Higher than average rainfall through spring and into late December means the levels of the mid-to-lower South Island lakes have been above average and so the fishing has been good and should remain so for the summer. The extended shallows provide breeding ground for increased numbers of smelt, cockabullies, koura and other trout food. It also increases the insect hatch so trout that sit in the cooler, deeper water during the day will cruise the shallows early morning and at dusk to feed aggressively. Though the biggest fish may only be interested in a well-presented dry fly, even little kids can catch trout that are well over legal size by either trolling from a boat or spin-fishing from shore. The range of Toby or Tasmanian Devil lures are ideal.

In the rivers, fish moving upstream on the plains will lie behind rocks and ledges that cause swell waves, waiting to feed. They are camouflaged from the prey that comes washing downstream at them by the turbulence of the water. Drifting a spinning lure back to these obstructions in the flow can be very productive right throughout the day and you don't have to be an expert caster to fish these hot-spots.

In the back country the fish will hold in slower water in deeper, cooler pools, generally right on the bottom where it's coldest. You need to be right on the bottom to attract them, either with spinning lures in the 10-20g range or if using flies and nymphs they need to be on sinking line.

Off limits

The Marlborough Sounds blue cod season opened on December 30 and runs to August 31, closing again during the spawning season. Take is restricted to two fish 30-35cm in length. The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) believes there’s evidence the blue cod population is recovering but it still has a way to go. Enforcement will be heavy and word is the fisheries officers will not be issuing warnings to those caught cheating, but issuing $250 and $500 instant fines for all including first offenders.

Stretches of the Tekapo Canal will be closed to fishing while Genesis Energy undertakes repair, maintenance and strengthening work on canal walls, culverts and bridges from January through to the end of July. The water from Lake Tekapo will be diverted to the Tekapo River once the lake reaches its maximum holding capacity, which is expected to be around mid-February, barring torrential rainfall. So while the canal is off limits, there will be good fishing opportunity around the lake as the higher water level provides the fish access to food including worms and insects in the shallows.

Off home after this

A yacht hits a reef and the sole survivor is marooned on a Pacific atoll for many years before he is finally spotted by a merchant ship and rescued. As he’s gathering the meagre remains of his belongings, one of the rescue crew said, "I see you have built four huts but you are the only person on the island. What are they for?"

"Well", said the sailor, "this one is my residence, the second is my church and that third is my micro-brewery where I have a still to make pina colada and coconut beer."

"What about the fourth hut?" the rescuer asked.

"Alcohol is banned there. That's the church I used to belong to before I started drinking."

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