Marlborough Sounds Summer Fishing Opportunities

This big 15-pound snapper was caught at Momorangi Bay, in the Grove Arm of Queen Charlotte Sound. Marlborough Sounds Summer Fishing Opportunities.
This big 15-pound snapper was caught at Momorangi Bay, in the Grove Arm of Queen Charlotte Sound.

Marlborough Sounds Summer Fishing Opportunities

By Peter Langlands

As summer draws near many anglers turn their minds to more distant waters. The Marlborough Sounds can be reached in a five-hour drive from Christchurch. The expansive area of sheltered water makes the Sounds an accessible fishery for Christchurch anglers. In this article, I will outline the available Marlborough Sounds Summer Fishing Opportunities. Please note that although a boat is useful for gaining access there are an enormous number of very good shore fishing spots right throughout the Sounds.

Waikawa Bay and Marina, Queen Charlotte Sound. Marlborough Sounds Summer Fishing Opportunities.
Waikawa Bay and Marina, Queen Charlotte Sound.

The numerous options available in terms of species mean that anyone can experience excellent fishing regardless of “budgetary constraints.” The sheer size and variety of coastlines of the Marlborough Sounds need to be taken into account when planning a fishing trip. In this article, I have split the Marlborough Sounds into three regions, the inner, mid-section and outer Sounds.

Each region has something different to offer the keen fisherman over the summer months.

Havelock is the gateway to Pelorus Sound. Photograph Patrik Statrik.
Havelock is the gateway to Pelorus Sound. Photograph Patrik Statrik.

Inner Sounds

For most people the first point of contact with the Marlborough Sounds is Picton. The main bay that reaches up into Picton township is heavily modified. Much of the natural mudflats have been modified for the development of marinas and land reclamation. While nearby Waikawa Bay used to be a renowned snapper fishing location, today the bay is only a shadow of its former self as marina development has taken its toll.

Further up Queen Charlotte Sound towards Anakiwa the fishing opportunities improve. In the bays, right up at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound much of the mudflat habitat remains. Snapper are attracted to these mudflat areas over the height of summer. Snapper will feed on bountiful beds of pipi, cockles and other shellfish. Snapper are also attracted to the warmer water over the mudflats for spawning.

Other key areas for snapper fishing are the shallow mudflats and associated channels near Havelock and in the upper reaches of Keneperu Sound. Shallow water areas are key locations to target snapper over the summer.

Mussel Farm float lines at Hitaua Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound. Photograph Claudine Van Massenhove.
Mussel farm float lines at Hitaua Bay, Queen Charlotte Sound. Photograph Claudine Van Massenhove.

Snapper are still reasonably bountiful in the Marlborough Sounds. Recreational catches of snapper have improved markedly over the last five years and I attribute this apparent recovery to the following reasons:

1. Snapper are only seasonally present in the inner Sounds and their movements into deeper water in the winter provide a refuge for them.

2. Controls on commercial fishing practices since the introduction of the Quota Management System’ in 1986.

3. The wary feeding habits of the snapper, especially in shallow water.

4. Recent publicity on the correct techniques for fishing for snapper i.e. stray-lining.

5. The recent boom in mussel farms in the Sounds.

My advice would be to ignore the “doom and gloom” stories that the snapper has been fished out. From my own experience, reasonable catches of snapper can still be made over the shallow mudflats and sandy bays of the inner Sounds, especially Keneperu.

It is essential to use an unweighted stray-line with a fresh whole fish bait, preferably a yellow-eyed mullet.

The shallow water areas also attract schools of yellow-eyed mullet which provide great fishing for kids over the summer.

The yellow-eyed mullet is also undoubtedly the top snapper fishing bait. Schools of garfish can be seen splashing over the water’s surface as they are pursued by kahawai over the shallows. Schools of kahawai working baitfish are usually signalled by flocks of white-fronted terns flying overhead.

Many people lay set-nets over the mudflat areas catching flounders and giant stargazers. Stargazers are remarkable fish. They use their pectoral fins to remove the sand. They then cover their bodies with sand so that only a vague outline of their body can be seen. Stargazers are then perfectly concealed in the sand and are ready to attack any prey which swims over their huge mouths. The large pectoral fins allow the stargazer to rapidly accelerate and capture small fish.

Red gurnard are reasonably plentiful throughout the Marlborough Sounds.
Red gurnard are reasonably plentiful throughout the Marlborough Sounds. Photograph Allan Burgess.

Another species found in the deeper parts of the bays, generally in waters over ten metres deep, is the gurnard. The Sounds is the best part of the South Island to target gurnard as they are reasonably plentiful. One of the best ways to fish for gurnard is to drift along the bay and jig a flasher rig.

During the height of summer and in early autumn kingfish venture into the inner Sounds. The kingfish will patrol rocky outcrops. Kingfish also ambush schools of baitfish. I am not very familiar with kingfish in the Sounds but I observed kingfish around Portage in February. Also, anglers have had success live-baiting for kingfish off Karaka Point near Waikawa Bay in summer.

Blue cod have been overfished in the inner Sounds and anglers should probably not target blue cod in the inner Sounds. The fishery is stressed and needs to recover. Nowadays many charter boat operators acknowledge that it is just not worthwhile fishing for blue cod within the Marlborough Sounds. Charter boats have to travel to the numerous islands of the outer Sounds to make reasonable catches of blue cod.

This blue cod is in the Marlborough Sounds. He’s a friendly chap. Photograph courtesy of Jenna Stone.
This blue cod is in the Marlborough Sounds. He’s a friendly chap. Photograph courtesy of Jenna Stone.

Mid Marlborough Sounds Summer Fishing Opportunities

As you move into the middle sections of the Marlborough Sounds the diversity of fish species increases. Some of the reefs off the deeper points have school-sized groper over the months of December and January.

Sea perch also prefer areas of foul ground.

Gurnard start to become more abundant in the deeper water. Kelp forests also add diversity to the coastline and are especially pronounced in Tory Channel. Large butterfish weave their way through the canopy of the kelp and can be targeted by snorkelling with a spear.

Predatory fish such as kingfish can be encountered around any of the more prominent points in outer Pelorus and Queen Charlotte Sounds. Tawero Point, Fresh Pass and the entrance of Tory Channel are well-known areas for their strong tidal currents. These areas are key feeding sites for kingfish and can be drift fished with jigs. The main factor determining the success of jigging for kingfish is speed. A reel with a 6.1 “gear ratio is required to entice the kingfish to strike.

If anyone is considering jigging for kingfish in the Sounds this summer I suggest that you talk to Malcolm Bell at the “Complete Angler.” Malcolm can guide anglers towards the appropriate tackle from direct experience.

Fishing from points on the outer coast of the Marlborough Sounds offers land-based kingfish.
Fishing from points on the outer coast of the Marlborough Sounds offers land-based kingfish.

The kingfish fishing available in the Sounds, especially in the vicinity of Fresh Pass, is fast becoming one of the main angling attractions of the Marlborough Sounds. The Canterbury Sportfishing Club has held an annual kingfish competition for the last at French Pass. This year for the first time the club held a “tag and release” competition for kingfish at French Pass.

Outer Marlborough Sounds Summer Fishing Opportunities

I know of nowhere else in New Zealand (outside Fiordland and Kaikoura) where the coastline is so dramatic and full of contrasts than the outer Marlborough Sounds. Sheer cliffs drop into reefs where kelp swirls in the white water. The reefs suddenly slope away from the kelp forests into water up to 80 metres deep within a “stone’s throw of the shore.”

Deep drop-offs found at the entrances of Tory Chanel and the outer coast of D’Urville Island are excellent fishing sites for a wide range of fish. Banded wrasse and butterfish dominate the kelp.

In slightly deeper water a host of perch species such as the red-banded and butterfly perch hover around the rocks. Areas of barren rock and patches of open sand in the deeper water are the domain of the seaperch, blue cod and tarakihi, jack mackerel schools dart about in the white water above the reefs and attract the large greenback kingfish.

A prime eating snapper from the Marlborough Sounds. Photograph Tony Orman. Marlborough Sounds Summer Fishing Opportunities.
A prime eating snapper from the Marlborough Sounds. Photograph Tony Orman.

Further offshore in water between 100 and 150 metres deep large blue cod find a sanctuary.

Groper inhabits the rock crevices found around deep pinnacles. For anglers keen to target groper a charter boat is the best option. While there is a wide range of charter boats available from the Sounds, only one operator specialises in groper fishing. In years past the Canterbury Anglers Club had several successful groper fishing trips with Dave Fishburn who skippered the “Cygnet II.”

The recent revolution in jig fishing has also hit the Marlborough Sounds. Gary Orchard is one charter operator who has specialist knowledge of the techniques of jig fishing in the Sounds, the locations and the species encountered. Jigging around outer Pelorus Sound can produce pelagic fish such as trevally, blue warehou and kingfish. Bottom jigging accounts for blue cod, snapper, John Dory and school-sized groper (especially over the summer).

Tory Channel outer Queen Charlotte Sound.
Tory Channel, outer Queen Charlotte Sound.

The Sounds offers accessible fishing regardless of your budget. Stray-lining from the shore for snapper is a cheap form of fishing and during the summer can produce outstanding fish in the shallow bays. For boaties, the turbulent and reefy waters of Tory Channel provide reasonable blue cod fishing in addition to the occasional seaperch, tarakihi, groper (up to 3 kilograms), kingfish and snapper.

For the more adventurous anglers extended charter trips jigging outer Pelorus Sound offer a wide variety of species. Further offshore the outer islands of the Marlborough Sounds, such as Stephens Island, provide some of the South Islands’ best groper fishing.

So whatever your situation there are many exciting Marlborough Sounds Summer Fishing Opportunities on offer to you this summer.


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