Game Fishing New Zealand

Three Kings Marlin, Yellowfin Tuna, Middlesex and King Bank

Three Kings Islands Marlin Fishing, Northland, NZ

By Andrew Padlie

It had just come into winter and a memory of the past season still floats in the mind. That year I was lucky enough to venture north for the fishing trip of a lifetime. So far north, in fact, 50-60 miles off the top of New Zealand. The place I’m talking about is the Three Kings Islands. Now there isn’t a place in New Zealand where the fish life is so abundant and the variety of fish just amazing, not to mention the best marlin fishing in New Zealand.

The Three Kings is the place you go if you have spent the last twenty years and life savings trying to catch your first marlin. The odds are very much in your favour, with more than half a dozen shots at marlin per day.

Manawatāwhi / Great Island is the largest in the Three Kings group. A total of 13 uninhabited islands make up the group located about 55 kilometers (34 miles) northwest of Cape Reinga.

The trip I did as the second skipper was onboard Rod Shearman’s Pasador. Everyone on board caught a marlin each, including myself. It sounds unbelievable doesn’t it, but the marlin just seem to love the place, and once you have been there you will too. If you could live on the islands I would say every charter boat in New Zealand would take up base there. I could continue telling you all about the wonders of the Three Kings, but it is better to see it for yourself.

The one thing that really impressed me (actually it was the most enjoyable part of the trip) was participating in John McElney’s first marlin catch. Also joining us on this trip was Nick Shearman, Heath Fairweather and Colin Baldwin, who also played a big part in John’s first marlin, and who are a great bunch of guys to fish with.

The Three Kings Islands are shown in the box at the top left of the map. They are about 55 kilometers (34 miles) northwest of Cape Reinga isolated far out to sea where the South Pacific Ocean and Tasman Sea merge. You can read about the flora, fauna, and history of the Three Kings here on the New Zealand Geographic website and learn what an isolated and inhospitable place it is.

John has been game fishing for nearly twenty years and has always just missed out on catching anything, usually ending up watching all his mates catch their first marlin. You can imagine how frustrating that can be, can’t you! Well, poor John, he has an expert’s degree in lure watching and all the verbal training a person could need, except no practical training, apart from opening and consuming large amounts of amber liquid which often has him hallucinating and causing the rest of the crew to be a bit jumpy, looking for imaginary fish. I don’t think there are many people out there who haven’t participated in the amber ritual.

Besides this, John was to the rest of us on board, a “Virgin”.  Actually, I think “Virgin” was getting rather annoyed at all the stick we were poking at him, but hey, it was so much fun. The rest of us let him off the hook when we got to the Kings for being such a good sport. It was decided it was time for Virgin to lose his virginity and that the first fish hooked would be Virgin’s fish.

Heath Fairweather holds up John’s second yellowfin of the day. Three Kings Fishing Adventure.

The next morning was a late start and not according to plan. Mr Do Da had a bit of influence on us that morning and breakfast was starting to look not so good. I just managed it and was starting to feel better already. The weather wasn’t too kind when the boat finally headed out of the bay and soon one of the crew was leaning over the side. Apparently too much Do Da! The sore heads soon disappeared when the first strike occurred. One of the Shimano Tiagra 80s started to unload line and by the size of the hole left in the water, things were starting to look good.

The other four rods we had out all loaded up and started screaming. Tuna, tuna everywhere! Yellowfin tuna were crashing into each other and eating baitfish. Unfortunately, the tuna slowly started dropping off as hooks pulled free, which was a bit of a relief. With five guys running around the cockpit with 37kg chair rods, it wasn’t exactly easy to work.

Eventually, things sorted themselves out and two fish were left hooked up, with Virgin and my buddy Heath (Crank) Fairweather working hard on their fish. Heath worked his fish to the boat in quick time and I traced a nice yellowfin. Nick soon sank the gaff in a chunky 25kg fish. Virgin plugged away and five minutes later soon had the twin of the first fish at the boat, which was traced and gaffed.

John McElney hooked into his first marlin with Nick Shearman looking on.

Both fish were then photographed and placed in the wet bin on the back of Pasador. Everyone was now on a high, and we were not even a quarter of the way to the Middlesex bank. We had only been trolling for about 20 minutes and already had two nice yellowfin in the boat. Nick and I were a little disappointed, as only a few weeks prior to our trip Bruce Martin on Predator had a quadruple strike on bigeye tuna, landing three which were all over 100kg. We both looked at each other when the strike occurred and both of us had visions of Big Eye. Awesome dreamers are we, or what!

With the lures back out, the boat was then put back on course to the Middlesex Bank. Now for those of you who are not familiar with the Middlesex, I will tell you a little about it. The bank rises from around 1,000 metres of water to the top of the bank, which is around 100 metres. It rises up like a cliff face when watching the depth sounder, and the top of the Middlesex covers a large area. Because of this steep rise, water gets pushed up by the currents and creates pressure waves which can be amazing at times. These currents carry food which seems to hold the marlin there and keep them coming back each year.

Holding John’s marlin ready to let go.

After about a two-hour trip from the Three Kings, we reached the Middlesex. It actually seemed a lot longer, as the boats on the bank were already hooking fish.

Marlin were visible in the swells, and I had to stop jumping up and down as Rod was getting a bit worried about me going through the deck. I was pumped with adrenalin and excitement at just being there. I soon settled down, thanks to a slap on the face bringing me back to reality.

However, I was soon jumping around again as a marlin just cruised in nice and casually, then nailed the lure on the shotgun outrigger. ”Marlin” was all that could be heard, but it didn’t come from me. Nick was quick to beat me to it. The 37kg rod was only doubled over for a couple of seconds before the hook came unstuck and the marlin was gone. Poor John. You could see his heart pounding out of control and his knees knocking from our first encounter on the Middlesex, and this was only fifteen minutes after arriving. Awesome!

Pacific Saury or Sanma – Cololabis saira.

John didn’t have to wait long as five minutes later another marlin came into the lure pattern and nailed the lure on the starboard side. Again like the first fish, it came unstuck after about a 100-metre run. What was wrong? The hooks had been sharpened and drag settings were set correctly. Must be John’s bad luck, as by now he was like jelly rolling around the cockpit having spasms and mumbling something along the lines of “I’m never going to do this, oh God, help me please.”

John is very happy with his achievement.

What made it worse was watching a school of saury erupting from the water and seeing marlin chasing them. Next thing two marlin exploded on the two corner lures and once again it was all on. “Not again” was my reply when both fish came unstuck. “What the hell are we doing wrong. Urrgh**?**? damn it!” Damn it alright, as the bank stopped firing and the fish just disappeared.

It wasn’t until four hours later that the outrigger slammed down and the line snapped out of the clip. Ye ha, the Tiagra was emptying line nicely, and John harnessed up and got stuck in. The trace was in my reach in next to no time and the gaff was slipped into another fine 25kg yellowfin. John was on cloud nine. We realised that the first tuna was John’s first yellowfin and the biggest fish he had ever caught, and now he had caught two in one day, so his luck wasn’t that bad, was it?

The day was getting on and the time had come to head back to the Kings for the night. John had missed out on a marlin during the day and was ready to have a round of Do Das with us when the port outrigger almost touched the water. I saw the fish, a nice marlin, and yes it was hooked well.

The stripey was going ballistic, thrashing the water into a foamy mess with its bill. John got into the chair and leaned into the fish, just in time to see the marlin leap out of the water and crash back down, spray going everywhere. The rest of us pulled the gear in and tidied the cockpit up.

The marlin put on a toff show for John, using its body to make things hard for him. This didn’t stop John as he just kept plugging away. He actually did really well on his first fish and soon had the trace in reach after half an hour. I took a good wrap on the trace and started my lift when the fish just rocketed out of the water, with me hanging onto the trace. It then re-entered the water and came out again with its bill waving right towards me. I had to move fast to save getting spiked and was then pulled to the other side of the cockpit. I got stretched out really badly and had to dump the trace.

I then decided to retire and handed the tracing duties to Colin who traced the fish again. Even he had a hard time pulling the fish closer. Nick tagged the fish and grabbed the bill to lead the fish and remove the hooks. We took the usual photos, and sent John out on the boarding platform where he gave the marlin a pat, then sent it on its way.

John was straight into the fridge and the amber liquid started to flow in a big way. He had now become official bar boy, and he had finally lost his virginity. The whole crew were happy for him. I think John is still telling everyone about his best day’s fishing. And guess what? The next day saw another late start. We had actually run out of rum the night before and were considering going home. The rest of the trip was awesome. We ended up tagging five marlin and caught three yellowfin tuna.

I just can’t wait till next season. The marlin will once again be everywhere at the Three Kings.

Waking up in the morning at the Three Kings is nothing more than spectacular. The whole experience of just being there and the thought of how isolated this area of New Zealand is, just seems to affect everyone who visits the area. It’s just such a wild and beautiful place to explore.

The main reason most people go to the Three Kings is to sample the amazing fishing which is to be had there. The diving can be very rewarding, with large amounts of paua and crayfish waiting to be caught, not to mention the awesome sights to be viewed underwater.

I thought I would explain a normal day at the Three Kings to you, so you have an idea of what goes on up there. I still believe that the best way to find out is to go yourself and experience the magic of the Three Kings. The third day of our trip would best explain it. Onboard Pasador we were still all fired up from the previous day when John McElney caught his first marlin and yellowfin tuna. We had no idea what was in store for us but knew it was not going to be disappointing.

When diving at the Kings, the tide is all-important. The currents can be very dangerous and divers can be pulled out to sea very quickly and become difficult to spot when they surface. The best time for a dive is on the slack of the tide when chances of being swept out are greatly reduced, and it makes swimming underwater a lot easier on the diver. Colin got himself geared up for a dive while I geared up a rod with a jig on it to see what was down on the bottom.

With Colin over the side, we moved out to deeper water and I dropped the jig over the side and hooked a fish as soon as it hit the bottom. It wasn’t a big fish so it came to the surface easily, and I was amazed to see a blue cod on the end of the jig. We don’t get a lot of blue cod in the North Island, so I was surprised indeed. The little fella was returned to the wet and the jig dropped down to the bottom again. Once again the jig was taken. This fish lacked the fighting power of a larger fish and soon a sandbagger’s wrasse surfaced. This was the first I had caught on a jig.

Over the next ten minutes, every time I pulled up a fish it turned out to be a different species. I caught over ten different species of fish, so it goes to show that anything will grab an artificial lure at one time in its life. I put the rod away and kept an eye on Colin. Everything was going alright until I saw a blackfin in the water. Bad thoughts came into my mind but fortunately didn’t last long as a seal popped its head out of the water, whew! The heart slowed back down to its normal beat and I was happy to see Colin surface and climb back on board, especially with four crayfish in his bag. We weren’t going to let him back on board if he returned empty-handed, so he was very lucky.

John Fairweather fights his marlin standing-up on 37kg tackle.

Rod soon had us pulling away from the islands in search of marlin and Colin hit the shower. Heath and I were out in the cockpit playing with the crayfish when Rod gave us the okay to put the lures out. Rod’s son, Nick, also gave us a hand to set the gear while John sat on the flybridge, still grinning from ear to ear over his achievements the previous day.

Each person had picked the lure he wanted to put out, and so the pattern was set according to everyone’s preference.

We usually do not let a lot of people choose the lure they want, as Rod and I usually know what is working and there is no use trolling something that is not performing. However, on this trip, most of us had an idea of what would work.

Incidentally, every lure we put out had fish upon it. Whether that was a sign of how aggressive the marlin are there, or just how awesome we were at picking the performing lures, we will never know, even though the crew would like to think just how awesome they were.

Once the last lure was set Rod yelled out to me to do the bloody dishes. After a little argument, I ended up washing the dishes and mumbling about the idiot who didn’t rinse his plate which was now dirtying my water (it was most probably the skipper!) The next thing I heard was Heath yelling something from the cockpit, so with a plate in one hand and a scrubbing brush in the other, I walked out to tell him to shut up just in time to see one of the big Shimano Tiagras starting to unload line and even drowning Heath out with its scream.

Hell, a marlin, and only ten minutes after the lures had been set. Didn’t he know I was doing the dishes? How inconsiderate! Somehow the plate and scrubbing brush didn’t end up going over the side but went back into the sink instead. There was a mad rush to bring in the rest of the gear and store it out of the way.

All this time Rod was urgently asking whose turn it was in the chair. Looking at the clock to determine the time I realised it was Colin’s turn, but where was he? In the shower! A quick knock on the shower door and an update on the situation had Colin running over the top of me towards the cockpit (and yes he did have clothes on). Once the controlled panic had settled down I went back to the dishes while Colin, with a smile from ear to ear, worked the marlin to the back of the boat.

I finished the dishes and grabbed the camera for some action shots, which unfortunately didn’t happen, the marlin didn’t even jump. The fish was at the back of the boat in no time and the trace was taken, but something wasn’t quite right. The fish didn’t have the usual stripes across the back that a striped marlin has.

This marlin was just electric blue from the tip of the bill to the end of its tail. I soon saw why when the marlin was pulled to the surface. It was a little black marlin. Awesome, the first black marlin for the boat. Even though it was only around the 65 kg mark it was Colin’s first black marlin as well. The little fella was tagged but obviously didn’t like the idea of that and responded by charging the boat and ramming its bill into the side and losing the tip. It’s still stuck in the hull, along with other bills from past encounters. The black marlin proved to be a bit of a hassle to unhook with its short bill and had been hooked on the back hook of a double hook rig, but Nick managed it and soon had the little fella on his way.

On the way out to the Middlesex Bank, Colin decided he would boil up the crayfish. He thought it would be the best time to do it as there was not a lot of action happening, however, he didn’t have time to do the cooking too well and ended up almost overdoing the bug. The reason being that we hooked into the second marlin for the day.

The Middlesex Bank had only just started to rise from the depths and Heath was hauling in a nice striped marlin. He had decided to fight the fish standing up on 37 kg tackle, which Rod was not too keen on. But this was what Heath wanted to do and he did it in style.

I think this boy has been watching too many of the Marsha Bierman videos stashed in his wardrobe. Despite all the friendly abuse, we gave him, Heath had the fish to the boat in a very short time where it was traced and tagged. I grabbed the bill of the fish and removed the hooks while the rest of the crew took photos, then Heath grabbed the bill and swam the fish for a few minutes before letting it go. It’s always good to let the angler hold the fish before letting it go. It’s like a final farewell from the angler, and he realises the weight and power of these magnificent creatures of the sea.

The author holding the bill of his marlin just prior to release.

Heath was now on a high. He had just caught and released a marlin on 37 kg stand-up tackle. It was around 125kg and was a very healthy striped marlin, which should be still swimming around the Pacific Ocean right at this moment. This is always a great feeling, knowing that a fish is still out there and that someone else can enjoy catching it as well someday.

Trolling up and down the Middlesex that day was very interesting. The action seemed to come in bursts, with every boat hooking up at around the same time around the bank. It was as if someone was turning on a switch and everything would just go wild, then just as quickly it would go dead. It was like this all day. Even if you weren’t catching fish yourself, it was always interesting to watch other boats fighting marlin.

Nick had just about had enough of not catching anything and put out one of his favourite lures, a big C and H Stubby lure. This lure is green/yellow/orange in colour and is one big lure. The spray it throws out of the water is amazing. It just makes so much commotion that the fish crawl all over it. The only problem is the lure is so big that the stripies have such a hard time trying to swallow the thing. It’s just amazing watching them try and in the end, they get so aggressive that they will grab anything in the lure pattern and tend to hook up. This lure has now become very valuable to Nick. We usually run it about 15-20 feet behind the boat on either corner and at times see some spectacular strikes occur.

Nick had only set the lure when a dorsal and bill started to wave behind it. Rod couldn’t believe it, he had just been joking with Nick about it and how it wouldn’t work, and there it was, a little stripey trying its hardest to impale itself on the hooks of the big C and H. It must have whacked the lure twenty and more times with its bill before switching to another lure and hooked itself on its first attack.

Upon looking at the clock I realised it was my turn. Alright! I ran to the rod while the others cleared the gear. I watched as metres of line poured off the reel, with the marlin proceeding to put on a display. Typical, I thought. As soon as I’m not behind the camera the bloody things decide to put on a show. Oh well, I was on the rod, so why was I complaining.

This stripey wasn’t a big fish and I soon had a nice 90kg stripey at the boat within a few minutes. It did a couple of nice jumps close to the boat before the trace was taken, and it was tagged. I leaned over the side and grabbed the bill to swim the fish and to help revive it, and was reminded of why I love this style of fishing. These fish are the kings of their domain, and there is nothing in the sea they should be afraid of. As soon as we felt the fish had revived I let him go.

This is one great feeling, seeing the marlin swim down into the depths, probably thinking about its next meal and reminding itself not to eat those funny-looking fish again.

After settling down after my obvious excitement, we once again put the lures out. I then realised that Nick was the only one who had not caught a marlin on this trip. A discussion with him soon told me why. He was holding back and waiting till last. He had this theory that he would catch the biggest fish of the trip if he wasn’t greedy at the start. Fair enough I thought and left him to his theory, which I felt was a wee bit crazy and risky.

An hour went by and things were looking rather bad for Nick, but he just kept telling those of us without faith to wait and see. Well, we waited another half an hour before we saw a fish explode onto the back lure and just race away with its new prize. When clearing the rest of the lures I glanced back and saw Nick slowly coming down the stairs from the flybridge, unconcerned about the marlin stripping metres of line from the big Shimano Tiagra. Now I thought he was really out of his mind. Any normal person would be charging down the stairs trying his best to get to the rod. No, Nick reached the rod just as the fish started leaping in the distance. I think I actually heard him say that it looked “big enough”.

With Nick finally, in the chair, the marlin went to town, leaping all over the ocean. That was when we realised the fish was another black marlin. Heath had called it for a black, but the rest of us were unsure as the fish was some distance from us. He was right though. Nick worked the fish hard and had it to the boat in no time. This was the one thing I was worried about, as black marlin have a very bad habit of jumping once the trace has been taken. They have been responsible for a few deaths around the world of deckhands and anglers. Deckhands have been pulled overboard and even been stabbed by the marlin’s bill as it leaps forward towards the boat.

Luckily for us, the fish just came to the boat quietly and I was able to grab the bill and unhook the fish. The black was a beautiful fish of about 160 kg, which was given a pretty yellow tag for its trouble and then sent on its way. It will no doubt tell its mates about those funny-looking fish.

Nick’s face had changed from a robotic-looking machine to a little giddy kid’s. Not only was this his first black marlin, but also the biggest marlin to date and the first he had tagged and released. He was ecstatic about it and also reminded us of his fantastic theory. Good one Nick, you deserved it, and I eat my words!

Taking the hooks out of Colin Baldwin’s 65kg Black Marlin.

The day was getting on and it was time to head back to the Three Kings. What a day! We had just experienced four marlin which we tagged and released for the day.

The best thing was the two black marlin we caught. It is not often you catch a black, but to get two on one day is just amazing. That day turned out to be awesome for everyone there at the Middlesex. Out of eight boats fishing the bank, thirty marlin were caught, including two blue marlin of over 200kg. All this in a two-mile radius! In my books that is just incredible fishing, and I cannot think of anything that would compare with it. Well maybe I could, but I cannot write about it here.

That evening we all got stuck into the crayfish and had to have a rum for each fish we caught. The guys couldn’t keep quiet about it. All night we relived stories of fish and angling skills, which we had all been witness to. It was getting all too much for me so I retired to the cockpit to do a spot of fishing for the evening. I set up a line for tarakihi and dropped it to the bottom. Immediately it hit the bottom the bites were instant, and I soon had a nice tarakihi flapping on the deck. Three more came up before the bite went off, but at least we had four nice tarakihi for dinner to go with the crayfish entree we had just enjoyed.

Nick and Heath came out to join me in a spot of fishing, and Nick showed his skills at bottom fishing by pulling up numerous porcupine fish just to amuse us.

We couldn’t help but laugh watching Nick unhook those spine-covered fish. Apart from the porcupine fish, all we caught were stingrays and school sharks, with the odd barracouta, of all things.

As you can gather, the Three Kings is just abundant with fish life and birdlife, if you like looking at birds (the ones with feathers) or catching fish until your arms drop off. It’s all there and there is nothing better than being that far from civilization where no one can disturb you with last-minute business. It is all stress-free until you hook that first marlin. Maybe you too can experience a day as we had at the Three Kings!

This post was last modified on 13/03/2024 9:06 pm

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