Kaipara Harbour Fishing – Snapper, Kahawai, Gurnard, Mullet and more

Ron Steen and Twist inspecting a kahawai on the Kaipara Harbour sand.
Ron Steen and Twist inspecting a kahawai on the Kaipara Harbour sand.

by Ross Jamieson

With about three thousand kilometres of coastline twisting and turning in a most convoluted manner, the Kaipara harbour has (I believe) the second-longest coastline in the world.

From the northern reaches, past Dargaville, to the southern extremity at Helensville, there is abundant fish and sea life for the recreational sportsperson.

Kaipara Harbour Seems Less Polluted

There is little (if indeed any) pollution when compared to the Waitemata or Manukau harbours, the industrial discharge being almost nil compared to the thousands of litres of discharge into the other harbours, which encourages the sporting fisher to change to this harbour with little difficulty. Sure there’s a little further to travel, however, the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages.

The author's daughters bringing in some bait from the Kaipara Harbour.
The author’s daughters bringing in some bait from the Kaipara Harbour.

If one has access to a boat, then there’s a limitless number of different spots to fish. You could fish a different spot every day and not return to the same spot more than a few times in a lifetime.

There are commercial fishing charter boats operating for those without access to a boat, and our group has had excellent trips aboard the Hinetai operated from Parakai. There’s a great skipper who teaches and listens to the group’s leader and gives the day all his effort with productive results. Likewise, he also is more than prepared to learn from the knowledge of his customers and adapt this information for his business. We have found his effort and attention more than was expected on a number of occasions. He once spent a lot of time assisting my son and wife with gear when I was very busy and couldn’t help, all without request and cheerfully done.

A Kaipara Harbour gurnard.
A Kaipara Harbour gurnard.

There are trips out to the heads where the snapper need to be seen to be believed. There’s a bit of a current there and the ”sash weights” title for the sinkers is a serious matter. It is well worth the effort in hiring these boats, even if one owns a boat privately as the experience of the locals is second to none and the safety factor needs to be learnt before tackling this harbour entrance alone. For private fishers, a five-metre boat with an auxiliary outboard would be a minimum prerequisite.

My personal passion is for surfcasting. I am in my fifteenth year fishing this way and have yet to come home empty-handed (touch wood). My family is
blessed in having an excellent relationship with a local farmer, whereby he permits access through his busy farm to our campsite. The various farmers through the years have been most prepared to share their experiences with us, and one, in particular, used to fish most times when we were there. We have found over the years that the fish in the Kaipara harbour are in better condition than the Waitemata or the Manukau harbours. They are fatter with more flesh and weight and generally have pushed up our expectation for numbers as well.

The usual catch consists of snapper, kahawai, gurnard, eagle ray, stingray, shark, trevally and occasionally some other types. We net sprats for bait, mullet, piper and flounder, occasionally catching kahawai, shark, rays and gurnard, in whichever net we have brought for the trip. Naturally, the task of clearing the net in the wee small hours falls to yours faithfully, but there’s a delight in walking out before it becomes dry and experiencing the early morning air. I usually have the company of a friend or one of my children to help carry the fish and chat. Many a conversation has been held, that would not get the time of day back home with the pressures of life. I hold dear the times we share on these escapades.

Twist, Joss and Sal on the Kaipara. We thought they looked as though someone had just told a bad joke!
Twist, Joss and Sal on the Kaipara. We thought they looked as though someone had just told a bad joke!

Camping with the family, and more recently both my teenage girls’ boy-friends, is the best way to reconfirm the family’s unit as a top priority. The cohesiveness and ‘spirit of fishing desire is to be seen to be believed. When it’s time to walk out to surfcast there’s always plenty of excitement and energy.

I have personally experienced many sights where our group has been held spellbound watching nature at its best. We watched killer whales (Orca) enter the harbour and gracefully travel down towards Shelley Bay before turning and leaving. The fishing went dead quiet throughout this time, but the sight more than made up for it and nobody in our group complained. To see these magnificent beasts slowly travel with their fins held high, occasionally dipping below the surface, makes time standstill.

We have seen dolphins or porpoises (I’m not sure which) play, whilst also cavorting down the harbour. Again the fishing dies down and again there are no complaints. These animals appear more active and I’m certain they have more ability to enjoy the depths than the killer whales. Although the Kaipara harbour is basically a shallow, there are areas where the bottom in channels can reach twenty-one metres. I’m not sure what the depth is at the heads, but I would guess it to be about thirty metres plus.

Whilst covering animal life, one must mention the birds. The largest flock of oystercatchers I’ve ever seen appears there en route on their overseas migration, and along with a resident flock of black swans and numerous other birds, makes for excellent viewing. We make it a policy to avoid the birds when they’re there, for obvious conservation reasons.

We like to walk a lot when at the Kaipara, and there’s plenty of chances to follow the coastline wherever you are. From the smallest estuary to the open sea, the coast has lots to offer, from fishing to touring in canoes and launches. There’s a new experience at every turn, and I couldn’t do justice to it in an article, as my experience takes in only about 5 per cent of the available harbour. Here’s one trip.

It was two in the morning. The net had a gurnard in it! Unheard of in these parts for a mullet net. We had wandered out to check the net and were surprised to find, amongst the usual catch of mullet, a gurnard. This was a good omen and we thought there had to be a good day’s fishing ahead of us. After clearing out a couple of small sharks we reset the net for the day’s tide and walked back to camp for a cuppa. There was a moon shining and we did not need torches to see around at the net, but amongst the trees where we camped there was a need for some light.

We had driven up to the Kaipara Harbour the evening before, and after dinner had retired on dusk to sleep in the van. Upon waking with the alarm at about two o’clock we had a cuppa and walked out to the net. The Kaipara is so good and spacious that we seemed to set the net in a different place each trip, with little change in the catch. After a quick cuppa and some early breakfast, we walked out the three kilometres to our low tide spot. Soon we had three lines in the water, all ready to catch fish.

The track through the farm is usually dry. The author stands in a paddock after heavy rain.
The track through the farm is usually dry. The author stands in a paddock after heavy rain.

After a quick cuppa and some early breakfast, we walked out the three kilometres to our low tide spot. Soon we had three lines in the water, all ready to catch fish.

The first to go was “black rod” named for obvious reasons, and I had a fine kahawai which would go well smoked. I get great satisfaction fighting these fish as they put up a hell of a fight from beginning to end.

Following that we caught mostly gurnard of a reasonable size, with “red rod” catching most of these. As the tide got to its lowest point, Mat’s rod (a salmon rod) bent over and he reeled in a good-sized snapper. That’s the sign to cast for less distance on the big rods as the snapper stay close to the channel edges at this spot and a cast of ten metres too far misses them completely.

After a while, we enjoyed the sunrise and prepared to return to the campsite. We’d fished for about three hours and had caught enough fish for the family. It was nice to have such a variety, both the net and surfcasting yielding plenty for the pot.

During the walk-in we watched the mullet playing and feeding in the shallows by the lagoon, and wished we’d had a four-wheel drive, so we could have brought the dragnet out. Many are the times we’ve caught fresh mullet here.

Above (from left): Ron Steen, Vicki (my wife), Helen, author, and Clare Jamieson. The fish was a gurnard.
Above (from left): Ron Steen, Vicki (my wife), Helen, author, and Clare Jamieson. The fish was a gurnard.

We enjoyed a rest, cleaned up and drove home to the rest of our family to show off the catch. What a thrill we had had and Mat was very excited, he’d been an excellent fishing mate and hadn’t minded getting up very early to join me at the net. Not bad for a nine-year-old boy, I thought. I know plenty of adults who ask you to let them sleep while you clear the net, but want a call to go out fishing! I am blessed with children who all get great excitement from fishing and always enquire when the trips are planned. Most of my trips occur mid-week, so they often miss them with their work commitments, or for the younger ones, school.

Kaipara Harbour Tides

I have made it a habit to keep very comprehensive details of all my fishing trips on the computer, and have regularly analysed this information for purposes of predicting daily fishing patterns. Over the last fourteen years, I have indeed found patterns that are most likely well known to a lot of fishermen, however many people ask for details on certain days on the Kaipara, and I appear to have a high prediction success rate for fishing times, species caught, when to set the net, number of fish caught, and when to avoid certain styles of fishing. The basis of my prediction scale is based on two things, mainly (1) lower water heights, and (2) new moon (as against the often used full moon). Patterns found include:


The higher the low tide height the more chances of stingrays. 28, 26, 19, 7, 4, days before the full moon are the best days in increasing order.

When stingrays are netted you will catch: Sharks 80 per cent of the time, kahawai and gurnard 100 per cent of the time, and snapper 80 per cent of the time. Little else caught on these trips.


No real pattern except: 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, days prior to full moon is good. A pattern of no rain is good. Snapper like a low tide of 0.4 or less, preferably between 0.2 and 0.1m. There’s no pattern of other fish being consistently caught with snapper. Snapper like peak feeding between 0000 and 0630 hrs.


19, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, days prior to full moon against a pattern. No shower and no rain, a good pattern. Cloud cover is a good pattern.

When kahawai are netted you will catch: Snapper 60 per cent of the time, gurnard 100 per cent of the time, sharks 50 per cent of the time. On the days when we catch a lot of kahawai, we tend to net mostly mullet.


The pattern of low tide between 0600 hrs and 0800 hrs is good. 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, days prior to the full moon against a pattern. No rain, no showers, much cloud. Often jacks take mullet and hens take bonito (see story). When gurnard are netted you will catch: Kahawai 100 per cent of the time, snapper 70 per cent of the time, sharks 50 per cent of the time.


Prefers higher low tides. 4, 5, 6, days to full moon are best. Likes wind and rain. When mullet are netted you will catch: Gurnard and kahawai 100 per cent

of the time. Mullet like a low tide of 1m or more, 1.0 to 1.2m best. Mullet like low tides between 1050 and 1310 hrs best. Mullet like peak feed between 0830 and 1000 hrs best.

Days to the full moon. 8, 9, 10, 20, 21, 22. No gurnard are caught on these days. 6, 19 and 28, are very good for flounder. Other patterns. When there’s little wind there’s no rain or showers. 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, days to the full moon, there’s often no rain or showers. Trevally only caught on days with little cloud. Sharks only caught on days with no rain.

These fishing trips to the Kaipara Harbour are often accompanied by family and friends camping with us. The customary campsite takes on a new life each time we have company. The often underrated campsite becomes vibrant and alive with other people’s excitement and their energy can be electric. Watching children enjoying playing without electronic gadgets, and finding fun where they can is wholesome. The simple rope hanging from a tree is often enough to keep even the most energetic kid happy for hours. The addition of differing tastes, including food makes for fun happenings around the camp.

We once had a group of well-heeled outdoor types who were experts in the business of outdoor pursuits, stay for a long weekend with us, and they found everything to their liking to the degree that they asked if they could copy some of our innovations for their own accommodation. We talked a lot about how our set-up works. The wife of the chairperson made the comment that they had spent a lot of money on their facilities, yet hadn’t managed to gain the benefit of the closeness a good campsite can produce. She even made the comment that they would copy our fire-pit exactly. I haven’t seen them since, but have heard their land was sold recently, the new owner uncertain if he would keep their industry support going.

From left: the author, Louis, Mat and Ron around the campfire. Kaipara Harbour fishing.
From left: the author, Louis, Mat and Ron around the campfire.

On the subject of animals and fishing on the Kaipara, it’s our experience that family pets are able to exercise well on the beaches as long as they’re dosed and controlled after dark. Obviously, the local farmers don’t deserve the negative effect of uncontrolled dogs, and everything is done to comply with their wishes.

Our dogs are welcome where we go as the local farmer knows us well and we have a good rapport. We find the daily activities of fishing drain the dogs, and they are more than happy to sleep after each fishing trip. They do enjoy a dirty habit though. The temptation to roll in every dead fish they see is too much for them, and often we cannot stop them when they find a rotting kahawai on the sand. Oddly enough, they don’t stink at night, but I think that has something to do with the dunking they have each day in the sea. We’ve seen cats (wild or otherwise) up to four kilometres out on the sand, meowing for food. I don’t know where they come from, but they haven’t followed us. It’s a surprise to be fishing that far out and hear a catcall. Possums inhabit the area we camp in, but recent years have seen a big decrease in their numbers. The rabbit population is beginning to increase rapidly and we are seeing more and more. Often observed, pheasants appear to remain constant, as is the duck population. The native freshwater whitebait is in decline in the Kaipara Harbour though, but no-one takes these for eating as they are fairly rare.

In years past we have seen some strange things occur here. We once witnessed commercial fishermen setting nets across the bay in which we camp. They set their nets and coupled them for a long distance. Then they drove small aluminium dinghies up and down the bay behind the net to drive the mullet into them. After they had cleaned the nets they left them there, taking only the mullet. At low tide, their nets were laid bare and we drove along them until we’d driven four kilometres without a single break in the nets. We wanted to cut them up and have been informed since, that we should have done just that!

Strange Things in Kaipara Harbour

A few years ago our group had been fishing for a while and it was just on lower water when we saw a couple of boats entering the harbour. They appeared to come together for a while, then part as if to pair trawl. They turned off all visible lights and we heard them working their engines hard for about twenty minutes before they calmed down and lit up the lights again. A phone call to the authorities left us wanting, as we were unable to give a “fix” on their position.

The author at the Kaipara with a small kahawai. Mosquito Bay in the background.
The author at the Kaipara with a small kahawai. Mosquito Bay in the background.

Funny things occur on the Kaipara. We once spent a great day many years ago, catching gurnard. On returning home we cleaned about forty fish between us. One of the fishermen commented whilst cleaning his fish how full they were of beautiful orange roe. I had cleaned about twenty fish by this time and hadn’t seen one with roe, and commented on it.

Thinking I must be blind he came over, picked up a gurnard of mine and cleaned it. He was surprised to find I was right, and what’s more, there was no roe in my gut-bucket either. We kept a tally and discovered he hadn’t caught a single gurnard without roe, and I hadn’t caught a single one with roe. A quick call to the then DSIR was of some help. Eventually, we discovered that he had fished with bonito for bait, and I had fished with mullet only. We both cast different distances and these factors must have had something to do with it. Since then I have taken stock, and fishing with mullet generally catches male (jack) gurnard, whilst using bonito catches generally female (hen) fish.

On another occasion, my fishing mate and I were casting into our usual spot when we saw an aluminium dinghy floating past, about four hundred metres offshore. Nothing unusual in that, as there were two men who appeared settled and happy in their fishing. The dinghy was painted dark green all over, and that was the most noticeable feature of the whole boat. We watched it drift up on a sandbar and the fishermen just pushed it off. We know they saw us as they had waved politely as they passed earlier. A few hours later it became dark and we returned to the campsite for dinner, turning on the vehicle radio as is my custom.

The lead story concerned a couple of fishermen in a dark green dinghy on the Kaipara harbour who were reported missing, as they were overdue. The next morning we heard they had been rescued, and it was reported they’d had trouble with their outboard and were found drifted up against a sandbar.

Kaipara Harbour school shark study

Ali-Kat Fishing Charters


more recommended stories