by DJ Moresby
Tauranga Harbour, on New Zealand ‘s Central North Island East Coast has a large well-used charter boat fleet: Winter fishing trips targeting Hapuka are one of the well-advertised options for recreational fishermen and women. Mayor Island, directly offshore from this thriving port with its extensive deepwater reef system is a popular area for this type of fishing. The trip out to Mayor takes several hours each way so the trips are commonly 24 hours long to ensure plenty of “real” fishing time.
Over winter a few years back I’d booked on four such trips only to have each one cancelled due to unfavourable weather. This is one of the perils of booking too far in advance in winter. Some of my self-employed friends and I lost several working days for each cancelled trip!
The morning of Thursday, September the 18th was wet and windy but forecast to fine up. The 19th would be a good day for anyone fortunate enough to have booked their party on a Hapuka trip for that day. I had not! Fortunately, in this world, there are a few clued up charter boat operators who realize there must be at any one time hundreds of people with their hapuka fishing gear packed up ready to go from a cancelled trip. Hugh and Raewyn Ensor of Blue Ocean Charters Ltd, included!
I’d not booked on any of their three boats yet they managed to find me via a fishing mate on the only work optional day for the month. Not just me but 6 others too; enough people to form an economically viable 24-hour Hapuka fishing party. I did a full days work in half a day and arrived at the Mt Maungangi Wharf, south side of Tauranga Harbour one hour early, for a charter departing 6 pm. The boat Ohorere was to be skippered by Hugh Ensor in person. To get a hold of me, 200 km away, he had to be either very smart or very very lucky. Adds up to the same thing, we were sure to get heaps of fish!
The schedule was motor out to Mayor Island and anchor up, catch some bait, squid, mackerel, plus a snapper if we were lucky. Have a sleep, and then up at dawn for a 10 minute run directly on to a deep water foul ground reef system behind Mayor Island. Catch some “large” hapuka and be back in port in time for the boat to pick up the next fishing party.
One of the blessings of departing from this location is the massive Mt Maunganui Police station overlooks the Wharf car park. Its a good bet your vehicle will still be there after the trip! Having learned something from previous 24-hour charters from other locations all my gear was ready and organized. I had a cut lunch for the ‘morrow.
These boats typically provide breakfast. Hot drinks when you want them. Bought and ate a feed while waiting for the boat. Had a 30-minute social chat to get to know the rest of the fishing party then hit the sack for the trip out. It was a “bring your own sleeping bag” thing. There are heaps of bunks on the Ohorere. There is always time to chat and sink a beer while you catch your bait in the shelter of whatever Island you spend the night by on any typical Bay of Plenty charter operation. Asleep on the trip out means you’re that much more on the ball for the fishing action.
When we got to Mayor Island the wind was a shade strong and blowing from the wrong direction. The skipper was unable to park us on his normal baitfish spot. In fact, one of our party got somewhat seasick and we ended up anchoring for safety and shelter first, with the fishing second.
Still, there were a few slimy mackerel about. Hugh turned two spotlights at the back of the boat on the water to attract bait and five of us got stuck into it. There were only 8 people on the boat counting the skipper. The standard way to catch your bait is a small string of bait flies tied to a sinker or a lure. We had all bought two rods and reels each – a light snapper rod for this bait catching and heavy gear for tomorrow.
The few mackerel visible in the lights did not seem interested in the flies. Ian Smith and I switched to a light line with small baited single hooks instead. We then began landing some, not a great number though.
David Wallace, a Tauranga local, had it all worked out. He put a 40 gm blue and white lure under his string of bait flies. That lure must have accounted for half our combined total of 35 mackerel landed.
Jason, David’s mate, landed alone squid on his lure fly set up so I got a proper squid lure out but no takers. I was tempted to put a live bait out but we were in very shallow water, could see the bottom and could see several large stingrays which I did not fancy catching.
We packed the bait fishing in about 11 pm. On some 24 hour charters, I’ve seen people bait fish all night. It was clear though this party had a few clues and understood the benefits of a few hours kip before the serious fishing started.
I was up at dawn with the idea of tossing out a stray line for a snapper, so was Ian Smith with the same Idea. Before we could do it the skipper was up and we were motoring out for our first Hapuka drift. Had a quick bite to eat, baited my line with two whole mackerel then we were there. Fishing in 200 to 270 metres you don’t anchor the boat. The skipper finds the fish and calculates wind speed and current. He then turns the boat side-on and all those fishing that drift line up on one side of the boat in such a way that their lines go out away from the boat at right angles to the boat and parallel to each other’s lines. With one of our small party still seasick and most of the deck space unused all of us could fish every drift.
Typical gear used included: 500 plus metres of 24 kg mono main line, 0.8 kg sinkers. A gimble belt, and a harness to clip on to your reel. All fished 2 or 3 large tuna circle hooks on short droppers tied into a heavy trace, 100 kg to 200 kg mono. The heavy trace is principally to stop sharks, gemfish, and barracouta biting ones hooks off! Most had illumined beads or tubing next to the hooks. The 0.8 kg sinker is tied to this 200 kg hook dropper via a short length of 15 kg mono so if your sinker snags there is still hope of recovering hooks and fish. Rods and reels all heavy duty stuff. My Penn Senator 9/0 reel mounted on a matching Penn Custom roller tipped 1.66 meters long 12/24 kg rod was typical. Two of the others had the exact same rod and reel set. I have tried this sort of fishing with lighter gear previously and it was not something I’d repeat!
I positioned myself in the middle of the boat where I could look in on the boat sounder. When Hugh gave us the nod for the first drop we were in 270 metres with lots of fish sign hard on the bottom. The wind though easing up was pushing the boat along. It seemed like forever till any of us touched bottom. With possibly 380 metres of the line running out at an angle, it is a bit tricky to feel the bottom. A bit like feeling a single grain of sand on your finger. This is were the new braided super lines have a distinct advantage as you can feel your sink touching the bottom quite easily even in quite deep water!
This area was quite new to me, and I don’t do a lot of this sort of fishing. Surfcasting is more my “thing”. I had been instructed to winch my line up two metres as soon as I touched the bottom or risk an immediate snag. As the boat drifts over the fish the bottom changes so you must bounce your sinker off the bottom every few minutes to ensure you are near the bottom as mostly that is where the fish are.
When you hook up you reel in as fast as you can so the fish does not dive for cover and snag you. So much for theory! Figure I must have snagged early in the drift, lost the sinker and failed to feel it as the two 0.5 kg baits I had still felt heavy. There were a few whoops and hollers up and down the boat as several rods buckled over with fish halfway through the first drift with David, on the bow, Ray on the stern, and Arnold right next to me all beginning the long hard process of winching their fish up.
It was not until the end of the drift 10 to 15 minutes later that the fish came up; a mix of small bass and bluenose in the vicinity of 8 kg to 12 kg. These are a similar type of fish to hapuka (groper in the South Island) but not actually the real thing. The fish were quickly tagged, so we could sort out who caught what latter and put on ice. I noted then and on the next couple of drifts, the fish were predominantly taking squid baits. We motored back up the reef and again drifted over the fish. It seemed to be on a slightly different part of this large reef system for each drift.
Four drifts later and I was still fishless and had lost three sinkers and one complete set of terminal tackle. Two of the others Ian and Rob were having similar problems while everyone else had at least one hapuka (groper), bass, or bluenose. Even the skipper had a bluenose, from a brief fish on our forth drift. Arnold, standing right next to me, had three good fish! The problem seemed to be feeling the bottom and then quickly getting your line just above it clear of the snags. I wasn’t getting it right. With 3 to 4 hundred metres of nylon mono line out, there is a lot of stretch and it’s not easy to learn to do correctly.
I had a good close look at the others as they bottom bounced their sinkers on the fourth drop and it seemed that by watching the line very closely I’d see a tiny bit of slack line as the sinker touched bottom before the drifting boat pulled the line tight.
For the fifth drop, I cut two squid baits exact copies of what Hugh Ensor had used on the previous drift. I figured he was the man with the most experience. Long large strip baits from a squid body with no tentacles. These were big 250 gm baits. I released my line at the exact moment as Arnold next to me so when he touched bottom I’d have another indicator.
The wind had eased up considerably and for this drift. We started the drift in 200 metres and with less line out it was easier to feel the bottom. It all came together and I now had that “touch” of the more experienced members of our party. I was confidently bouncing my sinker off the bottom, winching it up a metre or so, dropping it down again to keep it in the fish zone which kept changing as the boat drifted.
I was confident my technique, bait, terminal tackle were all spot on. It felt a lot better. Sure enough halfway through the drift, I hooked up. I could feel a fish pulling though with all that stretchy mono out you don’t feel much of the fight, a bit like winching in a sack of potatoes. Sounds like hard work but with the heavy fishing tackle used its not so bad. With 30 metres to go my line took off straight out from the boat and for a moment, I thought I’d wasted all that effort on a shark. Rob, standing on the other side of me to Arnold had just then landed a 2-metre shark. But no it was just the swim bladders on my fish blowing up with the change of water pressure. I had two bass of approximately 14 kg and 6 kg that “popped” up on the surface to be gaffed, one on each hook, cool!
Next drift same set up except I put a mackerel fillet as well as the squid on each of my two tuna circle hooks as a sweetener. Another hook up halfway through the drift and this time it was a single bluenose. A variety of other fish were now coming on board. Gemfish, which looks like an overfat barracouta and tastes really nice, sharks, barracouta, large red cod, even an octopus which was quickly turned into bait!
One unusual catch was 300 metres of someone’s lost rope which Ian Smith “fought” for 25 minutes before landing and which we all thought was the “big one”.
Next drift I hooked up right away I could feel a fish pulling and think to myself it’s about 10kg I’ll leave the line down for a bit. One struggling fish will attract another and I’ll get a double hook up. That was a big mistake. He dived for the bottom and snagged me! I was wrapping the line around the boat guard rail with the thought that boat drift would solve the problem one way or another when Arnold suggested giving the fish some slack, it might swim itself free. I did, wound up tight, still snagged so tried it again and this time it worked.
This fish was coming up now with no more mucking about. Trouble was, it now felt more like 30 kg and it clearly did not want to come to the surface. When 50 metres from the boat it started swimming in circles tangling other lines, and I knew it was not the longed for big hapuka. Up it came, we got colour, green and gold, kingfish! How big? I figure it you don’t weigh them your mates can never catch one bigger! Also, the fish then has the potential to get much bigger still after it’s been cut up for eating! If it had not been recorded of a sort in a photo it might have reached 50 kg!
One more short drift on which I did not hook up then we were off for home early. We all had Hapuka type fish except Rob and he had 3 other large eating fish. Ian Smith had finally caught a bass, 3 at once on a 3 hook dropper!
The weather had calmed up considerably as we cleaned the fish on the trip back; Ray Allen doing most of the work. We were all surprised to see four very fresh juvenile orange roughy in the gut of the kingfish! Several flocks of working birds were seen on the way back in.
We knew there were some big winter albacore tuna about, two of the party set lures but no strikes. A whale was also seen, too far away to determine what type it was but all part of the added interest and entertainment value of a trip like this.
Coming home a little early enabled me to get all my gear cleaned and the fish packed away by midnight. No work time lost the next day.
Just what does a single chap do with a large kingfish, two bass, and a bluenose? The upper half of these larger type fish are cut into “skin on” scaled steaks. Its easy to eat around big fish bones and there is no waste. It is also faster to process. Scale the fish: cut in the flesh part of the steaks with a knife and cut the backbone with a hack-saw.
The back third of the fish, which has only the backbone to contend with, becomes boneless fillets.
The heads are given to a neighbour who is always raving about eating the smoked heads of this type of fish. Enough will be kept to feed me till I next go fishing. The rest is given away to a few friends and my mostly elderly neighbours. If the community where I live is getting some enjoyment/ benefit from my sports fishing then that helps protect the sport politically. Politics is a “people numbers” type game.
While no one got any of the big 30 kg plus hapuka we came for this trip; it was still a great outing and from what was learned there will be better odds on the big one next trip.
If I’d been on the ball from the first drift! Perhaps you too are reading this have learned something that will help you when you visit this area. I will certainly try this trip again. Just maybe if I do the trip in the summer and chase after kingfish then I’ll catch that big hapuka!