New Zealand Sea Fishes

Hapuka or Groper – How to Catch Hapuka in Deep Water

How to Catch Hapuka by Andrew Padlie

Bass – Polyprion americanus – weighing 39 kg caught by Colin Dreaver. Photograph Andrew Padlie.

Andrew Padlie takes a look at the deepwater reefs off Tauranga that are home to an abundance of hapuka, bass, bluenose, gemfish, and other species.

This fish Polyprion oxygeneios is known as hapuka in the North Island and groper in the South Island.

Hapuka! Just the mention of the word has lips smacking and arms aching in anticipation. These unique species of the deep would have to be one of the most delicious of all fish to eat, and also at times, one of the most difiicult to catch.

When it comes to targeting hapuka, areas such as White Island, Ranfurly Banks, Mayor Island and Cook Strait tend to enter everyone’s minds. It’s from these areas that some very big fish have been caught. All these areas I have mentioned have had numerous 100 pounds plus fish taken from them. If you manage to catch one this big, you will appreciate why we fish for them. To winch a big hapuka from the depths of the ocean requires a lot of sweat and plenty of stamina. I enjoy dropping the odd line down for hapuka as it saves money on a gym membership. It also sorts the wimps out from the toughs.

Out of Tauranga, we have an abundance of deepwater reefs that hold hapuka, bass, bluenose, and gemfish, plus a variety of other species that tum up by surprise. These four species are the main deepwater fish that you will encounter and the best thing is that they are all great eating, no matter what they look like. Tauranga Sport Fishing Club.

Fishing methods we use are very simple when it comes to chasing hapuka. Here are a few tips on how we do it.

Tackle for Hapuka

Colin Cowan looks very happy with his 28 kg bass.

The first method is to have the right gear for the job. What you will need is a rod and reel capable of handling a big fish. The reel has to hold at least 500 metres of 24kg or heavier line. The rod has to be able to fish the desired line weight and still have a lot of pulling power. I recommend a short stand-up rod, as these tend to make it easier for you once you hook that big one.

When it comes to line type, everyone seems to be getting into the new braided lines. These are excellent but expensive, and dacron and nylon also work just as well when it comes to reaching the bottom.

Groper Rigs

Next, you need a trace with hooks and some sort of weight on the end to reach the bottom. The way we rig our trace is very simple. We tie a two hook dropper rig similar to a tarakihi dropper, but with a little heavier artillery Trace material is usually around 120 and 200-pound mono and we use tuna circle hooks in sizes 16/0 or 14/0. It is important that you thread the loop through the front of the hook and not tie back. When threaded through the front of the hook’s gape, it should hang towards the backbone of the main trace. This way allows the hook to roll into the fish’s mouth properly.

Size of the weight will be determined by the depth of water and weather conditions at the time. Common sizes are around 24 to 55 ounces. At times we use Cyalume sticks connected to the middle of the trace between the two hooks. This just adds a little bit of visibility to the rig so the fish can see the baits.

Huge groper/hapuka – Polyprion oxygeneioscaught at the Three Kings Islands by Brian Franks of Divers World Christchurch. The Three Kings Islands are 55 kilometres northwest of Cape Reinga.

Bait for Hapuka

The bait you use can be whatever you want. Usually, the best bait is the good friend of all tackle store owners, the barracouta. The skin and flesh are very tough and that takes a bit for the smaller rubbish fish to remove from the hook. Squid is another good bait and we have found it works really well on bluenose. Again it is another really tough bait. My favourite is the jack mackerel, but do not just throw it on the hook though, as it is to be prepared in a special way. I sound as if I am a head chef giving orders on how to cook!

The method I use is to fillet the mackerel from the tail up to the head on both sides and then cut the backbone and tail out of the bait. This leaves you with a head and two flaps of flesh that will release all the natural oils from the mackerel. I believe this is called a butterfly rig, and the big bass just loves it.
We do not use skipjack tuna (bonito) as it tends to fall apart and is removed from the hook very easily due to its soft texture.

A handy hint to remember is to change your bait after each drift, as the flavour of the bait seeps out very quickly and the fish have trouble picking up a scent. This advice applies to almost every fishing style.

Location of Hapuka

To find the desired spot a depth sounder is a necessity. We first look for the high spot on the reef to see if there are any fish on the top. We then work our way deeper until we come across some likely looking sign on the sounder.
What this sign looks like takes time to determine, and seeing as you might not have the same fish finder as us, you will probably get different readings. If your sounder is telling you there is fish there, then give it a go. You then position your boat ahead of the school. Where this depends on the wind and current.

Drop your lines and by the time your lines reach the bottom you should be passing over the school of fish. Because we drift over the reef, the bottom is constantly changing. One minute it could be mud, the next rock, so be prepared to lose some gear.

Hapuka Fishing Method

The Tuna Circle Hook is self-hooking so there is no need to strike. These are popular for deepsea groper/hapuka fishing. Note the correct side of the hook eye showing where the heavy monofilament line must exit from.

When using braided line or dacron, again keep in contact with the bottom. The great thing about these lines is that you can feel the weight bouncing along the bottom and even better, all the bites as well.

One thing I will stress, if you are using tuna circle hooks, do not strike at the bites. Doing this will only pull the hooks right out of the fish’s mouth. I know it is hard, but just let them suck on the bait and the tuna circle hook will just do the rest for you. You will soon know when one becomes hooked. At times it feels as if the rod is going to be ripped from your grasp. Also, be prepared for a good tug of war.


The tide has a strong influence on hapuka. During the run of the tide, fish tend to stay on the edges of the reef to avoid the strong currents that occur. We believe the best time to catch hapuka is on the slack of the tide. This is when the fish are on the top and off the bottom looking for food and they tend to concentrate together more. Another advantage is that the boat tends to drift a lot slower, and this allows your baits to stay in the strike zone a lot longer. Just to contradict me, we have caught a lot of fish when the tide is running, but usually only one or two at a time.

Moon Phases

Moon phase plays a big part in all aspects of fishing. Many say that full moon is the best time, others will tell you a week before or after. Well, the only way to work out the best phase is to keep trying at different times of the month. Also, keep records of all trips and record moon phases, times, tides and any other thing that may help increase your catch rate in the future. In the end, you will spend less time mucking around and more time catching fish. Personally, we have caught hapuka in all phases of the moon, but believe certain times are better for greater results.

Other Species Found When Targeting Hapuka

Don’t always expect to pull up a hapuka from the depths each time. They are not the only fish in the deep, in fact, there are hundreds of different species of fish down there, big and small. Some of the by-catches may include sharks, small reef fish, frostfish, rays, bream, ling and kingfish. The list goes on and I could name hundreds of different species. Don’t be disappointed, as most are very good eating.


The key to all fishing apart from having fun is to always experiment with different methods. Even if the old style is working well, it still pays to try something different from time to time. You never know, some ideas you have might just be the key to a better catch rate, for example, using light sticks on the trace. It makes it easier for the fish to see the baits down in the dark depths, and also acts as an attracting device. Always talk to others to find out where and what is being caught at that particular time. If they tell you, it can save a lot of time and money.

Most of all enjoy yourselves out on the water, otherwise, it’s not fun when you are not enjoying it. Great philosophy on my part, I will try not to do it too often. I am off now to have some breadcrumbed bluenose, yummy. Good luck with your hapuka fishing and I hope I have helped you catch a little more fish for the pot.

When fishing deep-water for hapuka there is always the possibility of catching other species like this ling taken off Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty.

This post was last modified on 29/10/2020 12:57 am

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