Thin Water Snapper and the Meaning of Life – Clova Bay

The rocky point visible from the bathroom window. Our cottage is in the background. (Painting by Johnny W Groome). Thin Water Snapper.
The rocky point visible from the bathroom window. Our cottage is in the background. (Painting by Johnny W Groome).

Thin Water Snapper Fishing – Snapper from the Shore

by Johnny Groome

Have you ever asked yourself that age-old question “What is the meaning of life?” Well, it’s simple really. Keep yourself warm and find yourself enough to eat in order to be able to collect as many of the best memories you can. Always bear in mind one simple rule – be fair to others. Here is the story of fishing for Thin Water Snapper.

Without memory, you have no joy, no sorrow – nothing. Memory is, therefore, the very essence of life, the single most important thing you possess, the most important thing you need to get right.

Our lives should be dedicated to perfecting our memories. Something, which cannot be done in hindsight, however, for no-one, can change the past so these memories have to be guided and manipulated before they eventuate. We all know this phenomenon as planning! Planning is the true gateway to the very meaning of life.

Being vastly irresponsible by taking on an almost life and death attitude towards angling, my plans have a very pronounced penchant for things associated in or around water – both fresh and salt. Right from a very early age this has been the case and has been a major driving force in my life. Hopefully, this will continue to be so for a long time to come.

My first real attempt to catch a snapper was on my second visit to Clova Bay, nestled within the complexities of the outer Marlborough Sounds.

My first visit was such a farce it’s not worth mentioning, but the second time around I was very successful, both in terms of fish caught and joy experienced – even given the somewhat painful introduction.

“Could this fishing caper really be that important to me?” Standing with blood dripping from my left hand, the increasing pain and worry of bleeding to death mattered not, for at my feet lay a 14 lb snapper – my first ever! A moment worth as much and certainly just as important as any other I’ve found myself in before, despite the imminent hospitalisation, or nearly so!

How did this come about? Bear with me as I backtrack a little.

A menacing cold southerly had prevailed for the first day of my three and a half year stay – and for many leading up to it. Whitecaps flashed on an uninspired, green, grey sea. Deep clouds raced across the cool November sky teasing any intrepid over keen fisho with the indecisive possibility of a cold shower or two. The bay looked uncommonly uninviting.

With the only other suggestion being television or the tortured pile of a thousand times read sea fishing mags walk around the extensive pipi beach at the foot of the bay to the rocky point visible from the bathroom window. Snapper comes into quite shallow water, hence the name “thin water snapper.” 

Besides I had two types of baitfish (a 15cm kahawai and large spotty) caught earlier on which needed utilising.

Ten minutes later, huddled inside a thick, woollen Swandri on the leeward side of the rocky point, I tackled up.

My weapon for the day consisted of a lightweight trout-spinning rod and reel strung with 200 metres of 8 lb mono. The terminal tackle was nothing more than a number 2 flyfishing hook attached directly to the delicate mainline. No trace – nothing! I have to laugh when I think back to when I was a complete novice.

On went the miniature kahawai tail first and I carefully slung it out. Because of the light line and lack of any leader, this had to be done very delicately and resulted in a poor cast of only twenty or so metres.

I wedged the rod butt between two rocks and wound the drag right back. Lacking in confidence and not expecting much action my attention was drawn to what was going on, under and around every moveable rock in the vicinity. Boy did I have a ball discovering some new and exciting creatures around that rocky point!

Because I was having such fun it took what seemed about ten minutes for half an hour to speed by (funny how that happens) when I noticed my small eggbeater was giving line! With rod in hand, I opened the bail and let the line flow from the spool, which it did at a tremendous rate.

I thought it was probably a kahawai and was feeling most excited. Catching a kahawai would be terrific but the clue to my complete lack of experience I still had an open mind.

Not wanting to strike, miss the fish and spoil the moment I let it go for quite some time. When I eventually did set the hook and was rewarded with what felt like a very heavy, powerful fish I lost maybe half my line in the first run!

A 14 lb snapper - my first ever!
A 14 lb snapper – my first ever!

Carefully pumping it back in between numerous powerful bursts of speed, it eventually began to tire and then surfaced where I saw it for the first time. Or at least part of it – a large swallow-like forked tail. I had indeed hooked the elusive snapper!

I cannot express my excitement when, after forty minutes of reluctant give and brutal take, I landed my first sweet-lip snapper.

Then came the gory moment described earlier on. In the rush to my bag for a set of scales and during the simple task of groping for them in my pack I opened up several sickening deep wounds on my palm as I naively lent upon an innocent-looking boulder. Upon inspecting the surface of the offending rock I could see it was festooned with the razor-sharp edges of dozens of oysters! I was very quick to learn two command lessons that evening.

Firstly, fishing for snapper over extensive, shallow pipi beds with 8 1b line can be unbelievably exciting. Secondly, mind those bloody oysters!

Some lessons are learnt quickly and easily while others take time and patience but I assure you, “quickly” and “easily” were two signal descriptions of the fast learning curve I underwent concerning the common pacific oyster!

My original bait had fallen off the line into the shallows during the fishes last-ditch efforts to escape, so I reattached it and flung it back out. This time I waited with enlivened enthusiasm. The nature among the rocks could take a back seat for the rest of this day.

Ten or so minutes elapsed without drama. Just the occasional watery flick from the baitfish schooling on the leeward side of the carapace encrusted rocks I was perched on and the attention-grabbing implosions of a lone gannet working nearby as it dived for school fish further out.

Then came a gentle pulling on the line. At first so gentle as to be almost unreal – a figment of my racing imagination maybe? Then quickening into a steady run as another snapper (I assumed) picked up the bait and after accepting it made off at an accelerating pace.

Tightening the drag, the soft rod loaded up as I put as much weight on to the light line as I dared. The ensuing run lasted about 30 yards before the hook lost its purchase and a most sickening slack came into the line.

Disappointed, I reeled in and with excited fingers rigged on my last bait and prepared to toss it out. Trying to cast a large mature female spotty on 8 lb line with no leader takes a huge amount of co-ordination and when done right can be likened to hurling a dog by its tail, with no guarantee

for the usually required distance needed! With a large splash, my dog entered the sea a disappointing 10 metres from where I teetered, recovering my balance upon the oyster encrusted launching pad!

Concentrating heavily on the caricature of the line hanging from the rod tip I was suddenly aware it had become taut. Before I knew it, line again started to peel off and disappear into the choppy surface of the bay. This felt like a really big fish! It slowly peeled off metre after precious metre of line against as much drag as I dared. It just kept going and going, not tremendously fast, just going and going. It wasn’t until I could see the bottom of the spool that it finally stopped.

With almost 200 metres of the line stretched out across the bay serious control wasn’t on my side. By sitting back and enjoying the touch and go nature of the battle, patience started to turn things in my favour and slowly the spool started to fill up again.

A 22 pounder taken from a shallow reef. Photo: Margaret Harvey. Thin Water Snapper.
A 22 pounder taken from a shallow reef – a thin water snapper. Photo: Margaret Harvey.

Forty minutes into the sojourn I was already convinced this was a much bigger fish than the last. This was confirmed when a huge snapper showed on the surface 15 yards out. Turning on the surface it produced a mighty eruption as the thin line again angled down dangerously close to the jagged shoreline reef.

Conscious of the need to keep my patience I audibly told myself not to rush or do anything wrong as I wound the drag back one click.

The snapper, now clearly visible, was right under my nose. Gliding from left to right it seemed huge. Surely I had now won the battle. I remained patient. The thought of losing the fish now through a silly mistake would be too painful to take.

Just as I was deciding where to land the beast it turned for the first time in close and with a shake of its giant head spat the bait and hook out! Incredible…! I couldn’t believe it as I stood there with a lifeless rod in total disbelief and watched my prize slowly glide away and disappear.

After a 200 metre, 45-minute battle royal the hook finally decided it wasn’t actually set after all.

Wandering back home around the beach, totally gutted at losing the big one, I suddenly realised I hadn’t really lost it at all. Physically, certainly. But in reality, it was never mine to lose in the first place, except in my mind and memory. The real end result was the fact that swimming free out there in the big wide ocean, doing its own thing, that snapper will forever be in my mind and memory and that’s where it will remain forever – never to escape.

The one that got away is simply the one that kept its freedom and although for some primal reason I really wanted to catch it, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The memory will last a lifetime and when all is said and done, just maybe, that’s all I was after in the first place. Learning how to successfully catch “thin water snapper” regularly has to start somewhere! 

Waimaru Campsite – Clova Bay, Pelorus Sound, Marlborough – Department of Conservation

Thin water, thin line, big snapper! This one weighed 16 lb. Thin Water Snapper.
Thin water, thin line, big snapper! This one weighed 16 lb.

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