Spearfishing in the far north of New Zealand...
The long seven-hour car journey took me to a location I have been wanting to camp and dive ever since my spearfishing journey first began. The excitement never gets old, travelling to a new destination, especially one that is renowned for its epic fishing. After managing just a few hours of sleep, I was in the car at 4am, off on another adventure, loaded up with camping gear for a few days and the trusty kayak strapped on the roof.
I had read many forums and online discussions about this place; I knew I was in for some awesome diving and much-needed solo time immersed in a beautiful remote spot. I was about an hour or so away from the destination when I had the sudden realisation that I had forgotten something crucial: my weight belt. Lucky for social media, as a quick online post meant I had a borrowed weight belt to use for my trip!
I finally made it to the destination and was blown away by the beauty of the place: a superbly setup DOC campsite situated only a few minutes’ walk from the beach and surrounded by lush hills, vibrant animal life, and only a few other people dotted around the place. After the delay with the weight belt, I got geared up quickly as the sun was setting fast (being so close to the winter solstice) and I wanted to get some diving in and have a cook-up before the notorious sand flies and mosquitos kicked into gear. Also, in the back of my mind was a horrific video of a great white shark attack in Egypt that I had watched the day before. The spot is known for regular white sightings; I didn’t want to be swimming out there by myself too close to dusk.
I geared up and paddled out through a beautiful stream, before dragging the kayak over the sand and into the open ocean. Over the years I had spent several hours researching, waiting for my chance to have a crack at this location, so I knew exactly where I was paddling to. The tide was ripping out and it was a struggle trying to get across to the reef to where I wanted to jump in, but the surface was alive with vast areas of what looked to be large, mature kahawai busting up on the surface. After some time and a lot of sweating in my wetsuit, I connected my speargun to the kayak and jumped in.
I was greeted with excellent conditions – clean, blue water of about 12m+ visibility. The water column was teeming with fish. Hundreds, if not thousands of kahawai, koheru, drummer, porae, trevally, blue maomao, and more. The tide was absolutely hauling, and I had to constantly get back on my kayak and paddle up-current so as not to get sucked out into the open ocean beyond.
With so much fish life and current, I knew it wasn’t going to be long before some hungry kingfish turned up and sure enough, moments later, in came a school of about eight fish with sizes ranging from 12kg all the way up to a horse of a fish, estimated at around 30kg. I took my time, unsure whether to take a kingfish this early in the trip. I continued with my drift dives while I mulled it over. Eventually, I decided to take one and lined up a mid-sized fish of around 15kg. I slowly extended my speargun and send the shaft flying. The shot hit the fish low – as I was testing out a brand new speargun my aim was slightly off, hitting the fish in the jaw. Not ideal, but upon seeing a big trail of blood coming from the gills, I knew that so long as the spear held, the fish would soon bleed out and die. After a few minutes, I was able to bring the fish up and I had a beautiful kingfish for dinner!
I was absolutely exhausted after the long day of driving, kayaking, and the intense bout of spearfishing. With the sun setting lower and lots of blood in the water, I decided it was a good time to paddle back to camp.
After a quick set up of my tent, I was about to prepare the night’s meal when a young French tourist came over to inspect my catch. He had seen me head out earlier and was very impressed with the kingfish, so I cut off a big slab for him and he was very thankful, telling me he planned to take it back to the holiday park and share it with his fellow seasonal workers.
I then proceeded to feast on fresh, raw kingfish, thinly sliced then marinated in a blend of lemon juice, olive oil, sesame oil, fresh herbs, diced onions, and avocado. It made for a delicious, fresh, and light meal – all washed down with a nice cold beer, of course. At this point I was feeling very content, starting to get warm and watching the sun set below the horizon. A very relaxing experience in such a peaceful, picturesque location.
I spent the night in the tent listening to possums rummaging around my campsite and then I was up again at sunrise ready to explore some more. With my cooler bag already filled with kingfish, I decided to hit some shallow reefs to target other species and continue to scout new ground. The ocean was alive again, with large schools of juvenile trevally dancing around. It was an incredible scene: I was hovering over the seafloor immersed in massive schools of shimmering fish in the morning light. It didn’t take me long to spook my first snapper – a nice one, cruising along the reef edge. I moved further on and then, to my amazement, I spotted a species that has been on my list for years and that I’d never encountered. I second-guessed myself at first, then finally I decided that my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me… it was a tarakihi! Not just one, there were four to five fish milling around on the sandy sea floor with their classic black stripe behind their head. Usually, tarakihi is a species that resides in deeper water and is not so common in the north, so it was a pleasant surprise to see the fish, and in only 12m of water! I took a breath and duck-dived down, sinking slowly to the sandy bottom where the placid, inquisitive fish came in close, too close. I quickly took my shot, stone-killing it and landing my first-ever tarakihi.
Having eaten this fish before caught from the line, I already knew how tasty they are, so I speared another one to add to the bag. Then, I had barely swam another 50m before I saw the unmistakable shape of a john dory hiding below next to a rock. One fish I rarely say no to, because they are so bloody tasty. He was speared and on the kayak in no time. My day was off to an epic start!
I really wanted to hunt for some big crays and packhorse lobster, which are more prevalent in this area than further south. I paddled along the rugged coastline backdrop with sheer jagged cliffs until I found a likely-looking spot. It was very choppy conditions, and with it being my first time here, solo, and not experienced with the local currents, I decided to work a small stretch of coast and take it easy.
On a dive down to inspect a likely-looking cave and crack, I found an old beaten-up craypot and right next to it, a scorpion fish (grandaddy h?puku), hiding on the bottom with its superb camouflage. They are also known colloquially as the ‘poor man’s crayfish’ for the interesting flavour and texture of their flesh. It’s a great eating fish and another species that I don’t see very often further south, so I speared that too and had a nice mixed bag of reef species early in the day.
As the tide changed, the water started to get murkier, and I had to trust my gut feeling about the area feeling ‘sharky’ – I headed back along the coast to where the water was cleaner.
With plenty of fish already in the bag to take home, I wasn’t eager to take anything else unless it was another ‘rare’ species for me. Well, it didn’t take long. On the next breath-hold, I encountered a large blue moki, which I think are great eating and an easy target for the spear. I soon had another fish in the cooler pod.
I headed back to shore, after another successful day of diving along new coastline and with some beautiful-eating fish! I made it back to camp by midday, very pleased with myself for securing a beautiful mixed bag of reef species. I was also hungry, so I decided to have a cook-up on the pristine beach.
I scaled and filleted one of the tarakihi, before frying it simply in butter and salt (how I cook most of my seafood, so I can actually taste it!). With the addition of some salads and sauces, I made a delicious fish wrap and demolished the meal in no time at all. It’s hard to beat a fresh seafood meal straight after a big dive. Freediving uses an immense amount of energy, and it’s easy to feel very depleted after a day’s diving, let alone two, so I continued with the seafood feast and fried the john dory whole.
As I sat there on the beach, full of freshly speared seafood, with the sun setting bright and orange again, I felt totally present, relaxed, and grateful: for two days immersed in nature, and for how lucky we are here in New Zealand to have easy access to such a world-class fishery.
Get that camping gear out of the garage, get in your car and get into it; life’s short and we all need to make the most of what we have!
August 2023 - Ollie Craig
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
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