Adrian Bell is lured away from productive salmon fishing by an exciting new opportunity to chase kingfish accompanying cruising stingrays with salt-fly tackle.
March is salmon month in the Waimakariri, so why would a resident of Kaiapoi forsake the chance to add to his tally for the sake of some saltwater fly fishery that had just been discovered in Golden Bay?
The answer lies in the selling ability of my younger brother, who, a week earlier, had sampled the delights of targeting the kingfish that free ride the flats with stingrays.
Fly-fishing for these royal freeloaders had so motivated Malcolm that he decided to take his wife Karen and two of his children to the Bay with him: Nina to record the event on video, and Richard to take still photos and Go Pro footage underwater. As for me, I would combine a trip to see our Nelson family with the Golden Bay expedition, leaving Vivienne with the whanau at Dovedale before taking The Complete Angler’s floor manager, Ben Booth, across the marble mountain to Collingwood.
With my personal birthday odometer about to register a significant multiple of ten the following month, the trip would be a boundary breaker, despite the fitness gained in my quest for salmon.
After a pleasant night at Dovedale, Ben and I headed to Macca’s Motueka for brekky, where we made brief contact with Malcolm’s party before heading for Collingwood. Once established in our motel, we followed Malcolm to the Farewell Spit access at around 11am. With low tide at 12.25pm, there would be a long trek seaward to access the knee- to chest-deep water, where we could reasonably expect to find kingfish shadowing stingrays. As Malcolm was field-testing Loop gear, he lent me the outfit he’d used on his previous trip. The rod was a Hardy Zephrus SWS 9wt, and the reel a Hardy Fortuna X2 lined with a Rio Outbound Short Intermediate Coldwater line tied to 300 metres of eighty-pound braid backing. Nothing like starting out with the best!
Armed with Styrofoam poppers, we waded out to the ray-spotting zone, then moved east, parallel with the spit. Clear water and a low percentage of cloud cover meant that visibility was good, but the sea that was building in response to a freshening sou’west wind was about to dictate a change of technique. Ben was soon whooping with delight as a king tried to monster his popper; I saw the commotion on the surface. No passive TV viewing here: this was reality!
However, when a critical wave height is reached, poppers can become difficult to manage. Recognising this, Ben changed to a bait fly, and caught the first kingfish of the trip. Malcolm persisted with the Styrofoam lure though, despite failing to convert strikes into fish landed. Eventually this persistence paid off, with the eighth fish to attack his popper being hooked and landed. Point made, he too changed to a baitfish-type fly.
My fly had been tied specifically for kahawai, and was attached to the 20-pound saltwater-tapered tippet that Malcolm had used successfully on his exploratory trip, his strongest king pulling out 180 metres of string.
We tried to stay far enough apart to cover the water, but close enough to communicate the presence of a ray to another party member when necessary. After spotting a nearby ray, I saw the top half of a bright yellow tail sticking above the surface: a singular sight for a freshwater fisherman unused to wading the briny. I cast as the task force headed west, but failed to hook up. Ben, having also seen the ray, declared that there were “no kingies there”, but cast when I told him about the yellow tail, and was rewarded with his second fish of the afternoon.
As well as scanning the water ahead, it was useful to search the glow of the windswept water I’d passed on my left. Here I found a ray moving east, so after it passed I dumped my fly beside it. Then, upon grabbing the line to strip, there was an almighty tug and the line went slack. Arrgh! Welcome to the fishery, Adrian!
There’d been no time to think, no time to release the line. My first king on fly was history and that was that. A slight corkscrew suggested that my modified clinch knot hadn’t been tied with clinical precision, so another fly was attached – carefully this time – and the operation re-joined.
Perhaps this is a good time to mention how we were clad. The key word is ‘light’. I was wearing a thin Scierra 100% Polyester shirt and matching shorts. I’d been warned against wearing cotton because of the risk of chafing – not that I would escape that. Another risk was that I might stand on a ray. I hoped to circumvent that by wearing my old felt-soled wading boots, along with neoprene socks and putties, while Ben and Malcolm were wearing Land & Sea Adrenalin Rock Spike Fishing Boots – much easier to don and remove than my footwear, but probably not as spine-proof.
By now some North Island readers may be wondering how it’s possible to spend hours of saturation wet-wading a South Island venue in March. The answer lies in the warmth generated by the geography of Farewell Spit, the southern extremity of which corresponds to the latitude of Levin – and because the relatively shalllow water is quick to warm up.
Meanwhile Malcolm and Ben continued to hook and land kings after protracted battles. Despite the warmth of the water, averaging 20 degrees or more, the wind chill was having an effect, providing motivation to wade deep.
Noticing my lack of success, Ben and Malcolm decided to guide me, Ben advising me to get well within casting distance of a ray before dropping the fly in front and letting it sit there briefly before retrieving.
When I followed the strategy in front of one large ray, my fly was hit by a rat king that punched well above its weight before being landed and released – it was great to be on the board.
Ben had released five kings by the time he’d left the water to begin the long walk back to the car. Considering the speed at which the 20-year-old had been aqua-jogging after rays, it’s not
surprising that his leg muscles needed a break.
Meanwhile, Malcolm and I waded back against the surges, keeping an eye out for rays. Despite the pain in my hip joints from the cruel and unusual exercise, I was determined to add to my tally, and Malcolm was equally determined to help, ensuring that I got upwind of a ray before casting.
Eventually I placed the fly in front of one large flapper, stripped, had a whack – and the fly broke away. Now I was really grumpy, so Malcolm attempted to mollify me with chocolate and assertions that his leader had been okay when he’d last used it.
Then two rays turned up with an entourage of kings. Malcolm cast to the one on the right and hooked up, while I cast to the one on the left, getting two hits but no hook-ups. After Malcolm had landed his sixth fish of the day, we strode on until encountering a modest-sized ray moving with the wind. Great: an easy cast...
Easy perhaps, but not precise in practice. However, accurate enough, because I was soon having a difference of opinion with a larger king. Once that had been landed and released, I was satisfied – and Malcolm was relieved. Now it was our turn to trudge the neverending beach towards our transport, with me supporting the legs of my shorts in a vain attempt to prevent further painful chafing.
What a fabulous day’s fishing. Sight-fishing, but to rays rather than to our quarry – which begs the question: why the association between the two fish? Are the kings rationing their energy by free-riding the slipstream and using the ray as a Trojan horse from which to attack unsuspecting prey? Or something else – like treating the ray as a moving FAD, perhaps?
Later on Malcolm had a look at my fly and the hook it had been tied onto – a circle-type hook. With the point on the same plane as the eye but offset, it was no wonder I had missed takes. And how fortuitous that the hook had penetrated my second fish. With a suitably strong leader and better fly, who knows what my tally might have been for the day? Never mind, important lessons had been learned. Next day, armed with a thirty-pound tippet and a fly with a more open gape, I would have more to learn.
The 18 kilometres or so we’d walked – most of it in the sea – was to exact its toll in the form of cramp when I was sitting in the Collingwood pub waiting for a meal of blue cod, and later when trying to relax in bed, but it was a small price to pay for my introduction to a stunning fishery.
Next month: part two of Adrian’s exciting salt-fly foray targeting Golden Bay’s ray-riding kings!
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