Northland Spearfishing Epic

  • Ollie Craig

I was absolutely pumped with excitement. The car was packed, and my inflatable was hooked on the towbar. I was ready to explore some new coastline!

After a long drive from Auckland, I finally arrived at the very top of the country, but I quickly found out that a Rahui had been extended following a recent boating tragedy. I was pretty gutted, but I respected the decision and turned around. I couldn’t help but think: maybe it was all for a reason… maybe I was going to be chomped by a great white, or something? I didn’t waste time wondering, and decided to head back down the coast a short way for Plan B.

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I found a nice campsite and set up the tent for the night, then got myself ready to wake at first light and hit the water. When I got up it was a mint day, not a breath of wind and almost no swell – a great day for diving. There were only a few other boats around – you’ve got to love mid-week fishing and diving!

I usually like to plan my dives around the tides, depending on what species I am hunting, but had little choice this morning as it was an early full tide. I decided to hit the closest reef that I could find poking out of the water, so that I could dive the last hour or so of the incoming tide. I anchored up, dived in, and was greeted with a bit more swell than predicted. But there was good current, reasonable visibility, and the main element: fish everywhere!

Straight away I was swarmed by a good school of kahawai, but I pushed past them as I was almost guaranteed to see more throughout the day. I was aiming to find a nice snapper parked up in the shallows, so I breathed up and made my first dive down. Almost instantly I got schooled by hundreds of fish, including koheru, blue mao mao, and silver drummer (to name just a few). On my second descent, I noticed a big john dory glowing in the morning light. He came gliding through mid-water on his side, hunting prey. I didn’t waste any time, extended my arm and pulled the trigger, locking in my first fish for the day, and a beautiful species at that – one of my favourite eating fish!

From there, the day just kept getting better and better. More john dory kept appearing from nowhere and everywhere, and I managed to get a shaft through a couple more fat ones. That little reef kept producing until the tide turned and almost instantly the fish life dispersed – it became a dead zone. It’s amazing how tides can affect fishing spots, and how important they are to understand particular locations and species.

I pulled up the anchor in the IRB and put the hammer down, speeding to my next spot at another group of islands up the coast. I had never dived in this area before, so I just cruised around a few of them until I found a piece of coastline that felt ‘just right’. With the tide already turned, I was not expecting much. But I was still keen to go for a swim along new ground and just enjoy being in the water after being stuck on land for about six weeks.

I jumped in, and within five minutes I was swarmed by an enormous school of young yellowtail kingfish, around the 70cm mark. There were hundreds of them! I floated there on the surface, just taking in the scene, until I started to notice small snapper appearing in the mix, followed by bigger and bigger snapper. Then, I noticed some HUGE snapper lurking in a big gutter. I took a deep breath and made a quick duck dive, then worked my way down to the bottom to hold onto some kelp at the edge of the gutter. It was a crazy scene, like nothing I’ve encountered in all my years of spearfishing here in New Zealand. Good-sized snapper were buzzing past me, darting in and out. Several of the fish were clearly over the 10lb mark, which made the whole scene incredibly unusual and rare, as snapper of this size are generally much wiser and warier. If you are a rod fisherman and have never freedived for snapper, you might not be aware that they are by far one of the most difficult species for spearos to target here in New Zealand.

Ollie was stoked with his biggest speared snapper.

Suddenly, to my right I saw a huge snapper come storming into the commotion through the middle of the school of kingfish. I extended my speargun and the fish swam straight towards me, then turned broadside for the perfect shot. I squeezed the trigger, but nothing happened and the fish swam past. I couldn’t believe it. I had forgotten to reload my speargun after the last fish I’d shot for ground bait – rookie mistake! I scrambled to the surface and took a few recovery breaths, then I was straight back down. I’d spooked the big snapper away (which I estimated to be easily 20lb) and made my way back to the ledge. I lay there patiently until I saw a nice tail glimmering down deep in the gutter. I pushed off the ledge and glided down towards the fish. It swam towards me and then turned broadside; this time I had a loaded speargun and landed a nice snapper close to 15lb.

I regrouped on the surface and decided to swim along a little further before I headed back to the boat – the diving was hot and I didn’t want to waste my chances.

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I swam about 200m and then got swarmed again by the huge school of kingfish! Just like before, I tried my luck and swam straight down with my face pointed towards the reef. I tried to relax for a few moments before raising my head to see more big snapper cruising around just out of range. I couldn’t believe it! I tried to calm down, so as not to burn through my oxygen, and waited patiently for my chance. Just as I was nearing the end of my breath hold, a huge snapper came swimming up my left side towards me. I was just about to extend my arm to take a shot when another thumper came flying across from the right side of me and passed right in front of me! I didn’t even need to move my speargun, as the fish swam directly in front of the muzzle. I let the spear fly straight through its head. It was another huge snapper, weighing 19lb. Two beautiful snapper on board! Later that evening, after analysing the GoPro footage, I realised the bigger fish on my left must have been well over 20lb, perhaps even 25+…

I was just about back at the boat when I swam straight over the top of the fish berley that I had set earlier (a cut up parore – a snapper favourite). I saw a few small snapper milling around the parore so I decided to dive down and try get some footage of them feeding. Then I noticed a big snapper tail beneath the tall kelp stalks. As the fish emerged, it turned broadside and I was presented with an awesome shot, so I took it! I couldn’t believe my luck! I had three awesome snapper on board – my best day ever spearfishing snapper!

A nice snapper swimming in front of Ollie's speargun just before it was speared.

It was only mid-morning, so I couldn’t resist heading further out and exploring the area. Plus, I had a craving for some fresh sashimi in the form of kingfish, trevally, or my favourite: koheru.

I arrived at a small island where the surface was alive with baitfish and clean water – irresistible. I drove my IRB right into one of the workups, cut the motor and peeled off the side. The water was thick with fully-grown koheru, the best raw fish in NZ (in my opinion), and a favourite food of kingfish. I speared one without hesitation and got it straight into the cooler bag on ice.

A few minutes went by, and then I spotted a lone kingfish that decided to show itself before disappearing into the depths below. Where there is one, there is surely more! So, I made my descent, sinking down into the depths, past the thermocline and into greenish-coloured water. I waited there for some time. Then, sure enough, there was one kingfish, two kingfish, and then a school of about 20 nice big ones all around the 15kg mark. They came rolling through and started circling me! I took my time, picking out the biggest, fattest fish, and then put a shaft right through its head.

Glassy conditions and large snapper - does it get any better?

As usual with kingfish, unless you hit them through the spine or brain, this is just the beginning of a tough fight. My shot was well-calculated but must have missed the brain by just a few millimetres. The fish screamed off into the depths and the reel on my speargun started peeling line as I kicked for the surface. Once I had a fresh breath, I immediately started hauling in line as it’s vital not to let these fish get to the reef where they can become stuck in kelp. I knew it was a secure holding shot, so I kept good pressure on the fish, pulling him in 10m at a time, then he’d gain 10m back again. This back and forth continued until the fish tired and I brought him to the surface. I dragged the fish over the side of the IRB and then climbed over myself. I felt absolutely content. I had my john dory, snapper, sashimi, and some amazing memories of my best day ever spearfishing in NZ!

July 2022 - Ollie Craig
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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