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Travel Articles: Kings and Reds in NZ

Kings and Reds in NZ

Kings and Reds in NZ, by Stefan Hansson

It was well after midnight and the plane left at 7am the next morning, but watching Black Caviar go round in the UK with all the associated piscatorial innuendo was deemed by the group to be a harbinger of the trip to come. And it was, if she is as fast as the wind. New Zealand can throw up some interesting weather, that is a given, but 45knots flat out for the entire trip mixed in around sleeting rain was not what we were after. Thanks Cav.

Not to be deterred, we flew the ditch, picked up our car in Auckland and headed South and then East out to the Coromandel Peninsula. The unbelievable beauty of the steep sided Coromandel mountain ranges do offer some protection from the prevailing conditions, though the cool winter air doesn't hesitate to sink down the front of them and then continue on down the back of your neck. New Zealand though, unlike most of Australia, is insulated well enough to handle this. We arrived after a 2 hour drive from Auckland, finishing with the last few miles through the breathtaking Kirikiri Saddle, at our first nights accommodation in Tiarua into the crisp chill of a winters dusk.

Tiarua is a split township, with the town itself on the Northern side of the Tiarua river and sister city Pauanui situated on a long sand spit on the South Eastern side of the river. With the river, harbour and open surf beaches all at your finger tips, the town is an anglers playground, so its no surprise that everybody in the town you talk to seems to be immersed in some sort of piscatorial dreamtime. It's so pervasive that we hardly blinked when the old lady at the local supermarket started offering tips on where best to find 20kg Kings (off the local wharf apparently), and then showed us the pictures of the 15 kilo Red she had picked up the week before. The pub was no different, and by the end of that first night we were armed with a plethora of top spots to try our luck at the next day.

Our first full day was arranged in order to allow for us to get a handle on our surroundings, do a bit of sightseeing, taste a few local delights and of course wet a line somewhere. There are just so many things to do and see in this part of the world, even when the weather doesn't play along. First off was a short drive through the Coromandel Forest Park, to the town of Whitianga. Renowned as a world class fishing town at the doorstep of the Mercury islands, and well protected from the prevailing westerlies, it was the perfect place for a quick flick. Kahawai, small snapper and the odd Parore were picked up easily on some mixed small plastics at the local wharf, before it was off for some more sightseeing.
Just south of Whitianga amongst the white limestone cliffs of the east Coromandel are Cathedral Cove and the hot waves of Hot Water beach. Hot water beach is one of the wonders of this part of New Zealand, where the head of a 7-9 million year old lava flow boils the water table beneath the subtle shore break of the beach, but it wasn't quite warm enough for any of us to indulge in its pleasures on this trip.

The weather closed in during the afternoon, so we headed back to the safety of the Punters Bar in Tiarua for one of their famous foot long steak sandwiches. They come highly recommended.
The worst feeling when you are travelling around the world fishing is the lingering doubt that the weather will close in for your entire trip. The longer it goes, the worse it gets. Our third day was a washout. That feeling grew.

By the fourth day things hadn't improved. We had a charter booked to leave the wharf at 6.30am, but the phone call from our guide at 5 left us under no illusions about what the conditions out beyond the Alderman Islands would be like. So those massive Kingfish we had come for were off the menu. This was our last opportunity to get a day out with our charter as they were booked up for the rest of the week, and though we had a hire boat for the next two days, the weather forecast looked very average, and no one was prepared to throw in the towel on today. Our guide offered another option, stay in close where we were better protected from the howling wind and we might find some smaller but still solid Kings in shallow water. There was then also the option of a few hours soft plasticing for Old Man Red if things didn't work out.

The steep terrain of the Coromandel Peninsula comes right down to the waters edge, and actually offers some excellent protection. It was at least enough for us to head north, past the limestone caves and arches of such wonderfully named places as Sailors Grave, to the southern most end of the Mercury Island group. On the lookout for gannets, which would signify a school of live bait, we meandered through the islands toward Cooks Beach.

It didn't take long to find the fish, and it was out with some bait jigs to fill the tank. That wasn't as easy as it looked. There was a massive and tightly packed school of Jack Mackerel beneath us, and hooking up a few on the bait jig was just a licence for predators. We were going about one for one, that is one baitfish landed for every massive run and a lost fish, so you can imagine it wasn't long before we had some bigger rods out.

And it wasn't long before we had our first hook up. A smallish fish by NZ standards, just over a metre long with plenty of width in the belly, but it was a happy start given that a couple of hours beforehand it didn't look like we would get one. Then things started to really heat up. For the next three hours we battled the elements successfully, and by the time the bite slowed a little we had each landed four or five Kingfish with the biggest around 18kg. 

It was now after lunch time and the wind had become even less bearable. It was almost impossible to stay on the bait school we were blowing around so much, so the call was made to try our hand at some soft baits.

The bathymetry of NZ underscores why there are so many fish. There is just so much fishable ground. Craggy crevices, volcanic boulders, and kelp everywhere makes for ideal Snapper territory. For us, the south end of ‘The Mercs' held just the right mix, and it was nicely protected from that ever present wind. My favoured soft plastic of the day is also the standard for Reds fishing. Gulp Nuclear Chicken. This time it was the 5 inch variety.

Our first few fish for the afternoon were the least expected, but by far the tastiest. John Dory may just be the most succulent fish in the sea, and we were stoked to pick up a couple in our first few casts. Covering ground and slowly moving south, we worked our plastics around headlands, off the back of bommies and over deeper patches of kelp, for a few plate sized Reds, and we soon found ourselves fishing off the back of ‘Hotties' at Hot Water Beach. This is quite a shallow water fishery, with the rocky reef often just 5 or 6 metres under the boat, but is renowned for some excellent fishing. As often happens when an area is talked up however, we found it less than productive, and had worked the whole length of bay before we hooked up.

The fishing had been so meditative, and the fish took the bait so close to the surface, that it was a bit of a shock to feel the rod buckle over and see the reel start screaming. When our guide started rubbing his hands together and the chatter began thick and fast, the signs were there that this could be a good fish, and the slow powerful beat of its tail and nods of its head did nothing to change my mind. Five minutes in to the fight and the world was jelly. My heart was pounding, my mind filled with thoughts of what would happen if the 15lb leader started rubbing against the kelp, or worse, those rocks. Every run, every headshake, just ratcheted up the stress. Was the drag setting perfect? How good were those knots? How well was the fish hooked?

There's not much better in sportfishing than tustling with a 20 pound snapper on light braid and light leader in the shallows. The noise of the reel, feeling every nod of the fish, that squirming in the bottom of your stomach that the fish might take you into the reef or his teeth might rub through the leader.

Finally there was colour. The beautiful chrome red of a majestic old NZ ‘Kelpy' was in sight. It was the fish of the trip at just under 20lb. These big old Reds are quite slow growing, and fish this size are likely to be over 20 years old, so after getting the obligatory photos and handling it with great care, it was an awesome feeling to watch it swim away to breed another day.

Though we didn't know it then, the worsening weather meant it was to be the last fish of the trip. But we were all happy, and were soon back at the wharf in Tiarua, cold, chuffed, and ready for a beer.

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Pending World Record Black Bass

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