Fishing the Ninety Mile Beach Five Day Surfcasting Contest by DJ Moresby

Photograph: Surfcasters waiting for the sandbar behind these breakers to come up with the falling tide. Photo: DJ Moresby.

This testing surfcasting Competition requires skill, knowledge and fitness to be successful!

by Denis Moresby

Ninety Mile Beach is a legal public road and road rules apply. Contestants on their way to the daily prize-giving.
Ninety Mile Beach is a legal public road and road rules apply. Contestants on their way to the daily prize-giving.

In the cold dark depths of winter the warm glow from my annual Northland trip is still with me. Primary objective of this trip is participation in the $200,000.00 Lion Red Snapper Classic Surfcasting Competition on Ninety Mile Beach. Maybe the glow is something to do with the Lion Red Sponsors who drive up and down the beach giving out free product as you fish, or the hot ladies up there! More about them later. Or the warmth the Brljevich farnily, who run both the Park Motor Camp hotel complex and the competition extend to all their visitors.

The winters are never as cold on any year I’ve fished the 90. Contestants come from all over New Zealand and throughout the world to fish in this competition. As per normal this year’s one thousand tickets were sold out early with many late entries turned away.

Waiting for the sandbar behind these breakers to come up with the falling tide.
Waiting for the sandbar behind these breakers to come up with the falling tide. Photo: DJ Moresby.

There are three 15 km sections (approx.) of surf beach to fish over 5 days. A lot of water to check over before the contest. I’d budgeted 4 days to do this this year. Unfortunately Murphy’s Law struck and the bolts holding the front diff on my 4WD Lada Niva sheared off just past Huntly on my way north. A legacy of wear and tear done saving someones new car stuck in an incoming tide on my last visit to Northland. With many thanks to Auckland’s West City Lada for their all out effort I arrived exhausted in the small dark hours of 17th of February six hours before “start fishing,” on the first “fishing” day of the contest.

Photo of many standing in waist deep water about to cast his line on Ninety Mile Beach, Northland, New Zealand.
Standing on a sandbar well offshore and about to cast into “snapper water.
There were good fish taken along this stretch on the third day of the competition. Photograph: DJ Moresby.

I’d missed the night before contest briefing, boat and outboard giveaways. More important my chance to test fish the Ninety. First stop up north was Kaimaumai Beach on the Rangaunu Harbour to cook breakfast. The recipe used is as follows and was given to me by a top local 90 Mile Beach Surfcasting Club member and it included: the “exact” spot to stand on Kaimaunai Beach. Bait fresh mullet, sinker 6 oz, rig a sliding 2 bait ledger, hooks 4/0 KL Black Magic, timing lowtide at daylight. For placement, cast 80 metres out into the main harbour channel, then put your rod in a rod stand and heat your fry pan.

A contestant with a trevally caught on tuatua bait. Motupia lsland is in the background.
A contestant with a trevally caught on tuatua bait. Motupia lsland is in the background.

The school snapper prevalent here hook themselves pulling against the weight of the sinker. The 0.8 kg snapper that came straight in tasted fine as fillets rolled in cornflower, gently fried in olive oil. If you hand hold your rod the whole recipe changes and you cook in butter!

Next stop was the Park Motor Camp at Waipapakauri to set up tent and a bed. At the end of that day’s competition fishing on the Ninety a bed ready made to collapse into would be top priority! Next, the registration process at Competition Headquarters right next to the park, photographed, given a plastic ID card, some sponsors products. Then onto and up the Ninety Mile Beach.

The fishing on Day One starts in the south next to the Park. It felt strange to be starting late with folks already fishing. However it was an opportunity to see a snapper caught and possibly get myself in on the spot. Snapper are in schools but each school tends to occupy the tiniest area of beach.

Today we had car killing “sweeper” waves so I was aiming for a spot well up the beach in the 4WD where 2WD contestants would thin out. Without a pre-contest look at the beach I had a GPS mark to aim for where I’d seen snapper taken last year.

Other good indicators where confirmed as I arrived. Accessible deep water that looked right. There was a four man team of distance casters on the spot. Full wet suits, specialist rods and reels, extra high rod-stands, all of them chest deep in surf with rods “hand held.” These guys were certain to have done a before contest fish and people like them are a top grade fish indicator! Best of all a socially acceptable gap in the fishermen right on my GPS mark.

The Lion Red sponsors drive up and down the beach giving away the "product" to contestants. Photograph: DJ Moresby.
The Lion Red sponsors drive up and down the beach giving away the “product” to contestants. Photograph: DJ Moresby.

Five hours of solid fishing produced no snapper within sight of me. One of the chaps near me got a 4 kg trevally on tuatua (shellfish) bait and lost 20 minutes fishing time as a result. The four man “team” and myself all stuck to cut grey mullet and skinned octopus tentacle baits. This helps avoid non target fish.

At that nights Prize giving it became clear only a handful of snapper had been taken. The biggest was caught by Barry Tippett and weighed in at 4.81 kg. His prize was $3,000 cash. Points to note, Barry is one of those top five percent of “hard fishing” fishermen who is no stranger to winning prizes for snapper caught on the Ninety. Also, he got the fish early in the morning – a common theme.

Wild horses are a common sight on Ninety Mile Beach.
Wild horses are a common sight on Ninety Mile Beach.

Day 2.

Day two is fished on section two of the Ninety. Right up the top northern end of the beach. Its normally very productive. One year I saw every fisherman within my sight hook a snapper here on their first cast of the day.

It’s a long drive up and I left early to get a good spot. Again big sweeper car killing waves to dodge. Lost a bit of time pulling out a van that bogged in loose, but safer dry, sand higher up the beach.

As per yesterday I followed the GPS to a “spot” in this case proven over two previous competitions. Sand formations that attract fish do move so I qualified this spot by the following: Tuatua shellfish were extremely thick on the beach and I talked to the one other fisherman at the spot already. He was a Ninety Mile Beach Club member, and had fished this spot pre- contest landing 6 snapper, up to 4 kg, casting from a sand bar accessible at low water 150 metres off the beach. He, like myself,
was using mullet bait.

One of the many freshwater streams that cross Ninety Mile Beach on their way to the sea.
One of the many freshwater streams that cross Ninety Mile Beach on their way to the sea. Photograp: DJ Moreby.

Before start time gaps in the line of fishermen near me filled in with full wet-suit type fishermen. They were using tuatua baits. Getting to that sandbar 150 metres out in neck deep water proved impossible in the big seas. The game plan changed to going chest deep 60 metres out and casting right over the sand bar into the deep stuff beyond. The 90 Miler eventual got a school snapper from the exercise about one and half kilograms. He deserved the fish swallowing a lot more two metre plus waves than I did!

The tuatua users fishing alongside us landed half a dozen trevally around 3 kg. The chest deep Water I was standing in all day was alive with schools of big grey mullet. Down a bit from us folks were casting baits into the mullet and catching sharks.

At the prize-giving we are told of over 100 snapper tagged for the day with the biggest weighing 6.7 kg going to Sang Ho Park who won $3,000.00 cash plus eventually another $50,000.00 cash for the largest snapper of the week. Plus a day prize for a 5th largest snapper on the same bit of beach next day!

A lot of surfcasters fish this competition and never catch a snapper. If you are new to the competition and you tag a school snapper you will be very happy about that!
A lot of surfcasters fish this competition and never catch a snapper. If you are new to the competition and you tag a school snapper you will be very happy about that!

More than a few people asked how did a man from South Korea who speaks “funny” English out fish New Zealand’s best? The answer, he went to a top New Zealand fishing guide who specializes in surfcasting for snapper. Fished his butt off for several years with this guide including two previous goes at winning the Ninety.

This year he was again fishing with the guide, Robert Parker of Scenic Fishing Safaris, Orewa, Auckland. They have fished together so much they are now just two very good friends, not a guide and a client. When the big one hit they were standing together well offshore in chest-deep water casting over several sets of breakers to reach (just) the edge of a deep channel.

With a requirement for “distance” they fished light 4 kg line, small bits of pilchard bait, 5 oz breakout sinkers and short traces. I’ve fished next to Robert in a previous 90 miler. When he says “distance cast” he means 160 metres with a bait and sinker. I had a chat with him after this year’s contest and Robert said he felt the secret to snapper on the 90 was the way he put his two small hooks in the one bit of pilchard. He then went into the “hey” Denis don’t tell anyone how we position our hooks in the pilchard so I won’t – for now! But “hey” Robert I did photograph and then log your fishing spot in the GPS and that’s what I figure not to tell!

Wednesday 18th did not finish with the prize-giving. It was down on the beach again for a dry land Casting Competition organized by John Elliot, on behalf of Daiwa rods and reels. Contestants were restricted to short, 11 foot Daiwa Inter-line Rods. A choice of either a Daiwa 7HT millionaire (free spool) reel or an S-6000 fixed spool. I know the old Daiwa SS-9000 which has been replaced by the S-6000 can give 200 plus metre casts so I was dead keen for a look. We would be restricted to light 3 oz sinkers, heavy 8 kg line and heavy shock leaders all in the interest of crowd safety. No big distances would be possible with the light weight heavy line combination but the prizes of several thousand dollars worth of the latest gear and no entry fee to the Snapper Classic Contestants had me lining up for a cast.

Few surfcasters on the Ninety use free spools reels. Its to do with the nature of the beach. If you walk a hundred metres out through waste deep water through breaking surf to get a shot at casting into snapper water you will get both water and sand in the reel. Freespools don’t work well full of sand and water. It was no surprise to see most use the S-6000.

Those casting ahead of me were in the 120 to 140 metre range. I figured a short rod could give an advantage to the 7 HT reel but the weight dropped on the 130 metre mark. Well short! Winning cast went to Merv Krutz of New Plymouth with a cast of 142 mnetres. If we were allowed a few warm up casts someone would have gone 160 metres. A great feel to these Daiwa Interline rods. I would have dearly liked to try a 13 footer and a 5 oz sinker with the S-6000 reel!

Day 3.

Thursday. Up the top again and another try at getting out over the same sandbar. It was a mistake, and proved too dangerous in the big sweeping waves. I should have tried elsewhere. The two kahawai I took were the only fish of any type taken as far as the eye could see. I packed it in early and went “looking.” I found one spot by a creek where 6 snapper had been taken in the morning. A number of these fresh water streams flow across Ninety Mile Beach and all are popular targeted areas.

If you get caught on the beach when the tide is coming in you can end up with a car like this one!
If you get caught on the beach when the tide is coming in you can end up with a car like this one!

I’m not shy about stopping every 500 metres to ask how a bit of beach is fishing, the majority of contestants are happy to exchange their information on fish caught by the 20 or so contestants near them for a quick briefing of the wider picture picked up from my stop start drive along the beach.

Todays picture was not good. Maybe one in 5 people with a trevally, mostly XOX size, with an odd shark, stingray, or kahawai here and there. But there were a marked absence of snapper. This proved the case at the prize giving where $3,000 cash for the biggest fish of the day went to Ross Keogh for a small school snapper of 2.39 kg.

It was most satisfying for me to see several people I’d spoken to that day, (locations and full details now logged in the GPS) up on the stand collecting snapper prizes. Rather than fish to full time in dead conditions an early start for home enabled a good re-look at the previous year’s hottest spot on section 3.

The middle part of the beach we would fish for the last two days. It still looked HOT. Another hot spot was noted as a backup. In fact several; if you counted several scantily clad and one topless lady near the beach exit ramp at Waipapakauri!

This brings me on to a few comments about the social side of the Ninety. This is a very physically demanding competition which attracts few women as competitors. However lots of wives and girlfriends do come with their partners. Prize giving crowds each night are thirty percent women and children. The whole of Northland gears itself up to a party atmosphere to entertain the influx of visitors. Single men are not forgotten, a “Dream Girls Female Revue” (Strippers) were ” on” ata local venue for tonight!

Prize giving time at any good fishing competition is a mix of results and entertainment. Competition compere Ross Brljevich is a master at getting the right mix of stories, sordid jokes, practical jokes, and fishing results to keep the crowd awake. A couple of times in each competition year he likes to produce something out of left field to bowl the crowd. A good example from past years was a young visiting fisherman being called up on to the stage for a spot prize. Common spot prizes are Lion Red product, film, cameras, and hats. This turned out to be a local woman’s under-pants donated by her for this specific man!

The story of how and why was told in full technicolour on stage. The crowd laughed till they near died. The fisherman was a
good sport about it, returns each year and often wins a snapper prize. This year’s crowd stopper was Ross talking of his family, a soon to arrive grandchild, and impending marriage. He got the father of the bride to be up on stage to introduce him to “us.” Made the whole audience feel like blood kin. The crowd was in his hands through the whole contest there after as his “extended family.”

Day 4.

Friday. 8 am start fishing time. I’d have to wait 40 minutes for the tide to drop till I would attempt getting on to my chosen sand-bar. I cast into the gutter (channel) between me and the sand-bar not expecting anything I put the rod in a rod
stand and ate breakfast. Unfortunately a large Kahawai hooked itself and dragged my 10 lb superbraid mainline over the sand-bar. It came in frayed and I suspect that was why a loop of it wrapped around a rod guide and snapped on my first cast off the sandbar at 9.20 a.m. It had taken me 40 minutes in neck deep water to fight my way 150 metres off shore to make that cast. I was ready to bite a shark if I saw one on the way in!

It was 10 a.m. before I’d fought my way back out, a no risk medium power cast of 120 metres just behind the breakers; “just”
in the deep green stuff. Ten minutes of holding position waste-deep on the sand-bar and a snapper touched the mullet bait.
Fireline super braid is like having a TV camera focused on your hooks. I let him thin the bait a bit, swollow it, turn away, and only then did I set the hook and reel him in. Only a school snapper but with the fish being so few this year anything had a chance of a day prize.

Its a long walk back in when you jump off your sand-bar into neck deep water towing a fish you don’t want falling off the hook. Fish have to be held alive at the water’s edge on your line till a competition marshal measures and tags it. The guys in the vehicle patrolling my bit of beach told of only three other snapper taken so far today, all schoolies!

There were four other fishermen on my sand-bar when I got back out but the bite had stopped. The muffed first cast probably cost a fish. When you’re in the salt, waste deep, well off shore, a deep channel behind you, two metre swells breaking in front of you its safer in groups. I’ve fished the Ninety for 6 consecutive years, people “fishing hard” get washed out to sea every year. A surf rescue boat patrol gets “most” of them back alive!

I shot down the beach and tried another spot before going to the prize giving. Exact fish tagged figures are not given daily. Rumour at the prize-giving was about 35 schoolies tagged. Mine was easily beaten. Biggest snapper today to Talele Esan 2.2 kg $3,000.00. I ate mine for tea. Recipe: 14 kg clear mono shock leader, 4 kg superbraid mainline, 140 gm (5 oz) breakout sinker, a bait release clip, sinker trace of 14 kg x 50cm (mono) a heavy 25 kg clear mono x 25 cm hook trace for less tangles (running not fixed). Two 3/0 KS Black Magichooks set in one cut grey mullet strip bait, one luminous bead by hooks. Trace length includes hooks, sinkel, and swivels.

Day 5.

Saturday. Its a different feeling in the air today, firstly I’m well adjusted to the conditions now with body and gear fine tuned. Which says heaps about the need to get a few days on the beach before the contest!

It was back to the same spot. Last year 60 snapper came off 40 metres of sand bar here on days 4 and 5. It still “looked” right to me. A number of serious full wet suit “hard fishing” types fished the spot with me day 5. The sea was up with big sweeper waves. Standing on the sand bar in waste deep water was possible only just. I fished hard there all day and did not see any species of fish caught.

At the final prize-giving. David Duder took out the day 5 biggest snapper for an individual prize of $3000.00 cash with a 1.63 kg snapper. It was clear from the microscopic sizes of the other prize-winning fish that a lot of fishermen had been unable to get out through the big seas to reach the fish today. David and three mates also blitzed the field in the week long teams events with a total of 25 snapper between them for the 5 days. Those 25 fish would have been a significant percentage of the total number of snapper caught. The bulk of all snapper being taken by only 50 or so experienced “hard fishing” competitors.

The $200,000.00 Lion Red Snapper Classic Surfcasting Competition on Ninety Mile Beach has about half its prizes given away on ticket numbers. Some folks might say a raffle is just a raffle. In a contest like this its a lot more. About ninety five percent of the competitors will drive to the prize giving relatively “tested” by the fishing conditions each day.

In full knowledge they won’t get a snapper prize. After five straight days of that it could get a little depressing. No one gets depressed here though as each and every contestant is saying, “we can still win a truck!”

The last prize given away on the last day at the last minute is a brand new 4WD double cab Toyota Hilux ute. That gives everyone a happy anticipatory feeling that carries us all over any slow fishing days. The success of this formula can be seen at the end of any of these competitions by doing what I do after each one. That is walk through the crowd asking those I know will
you be back? I can’t remember ever having someone say no! Some will inevitably fall by the wayside for various reasons but the contest itself remains a sellout! Book early if you want to fish here in February each year.

Part of the huge crowd assembled each night for the daily prize-giving.
Part of the huge crowd assembled each night for the daily prize-giving.

This year’s winner of the Hilux was local man Andrew Ihaka of Te Kao, the contest is about half visitor, half local, so with Sang Ho Park taking the main $53,000.00 fish prize for the visitors, and Andrew cleaning up for the locals it was a happy post competition crowd who celebrated at the “Park”.

Some of the contestants went straight back up the Ninety after the prize giving for a surfcast off the “Bluff” which is a rock sticking out on the top end of the beach and strictly out of bounds during the competition. They told me next morning of a fish per cast hot fishing session. Mostly big 4 kg plus trevally with a few snapper up to 3 kg as a bonus. It would be a big mistake for anyone to judge fishing on the Ninety from a day time competition surfcasting off the sand in unsuitable weather.

Myself? Next morning I went further north to Parengarenga to test the hook up rate of various hooks and surfcasting rigs on an endless supply of bite per cast school snapper in the just under sized to 1 kg range. Not an easy job to do when you have schools of friendly inquisitive 8 kg to 10 kg kingfish to distract you swimming at your feet. But that is another story!

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