Having lived in Whitianga and worked on the water this past summer, Jordy Bardin has realised how popular the area has become. In this feature, Jordy catches up with one of the region’s top charter operators, Tom Maxwell, to get his spin on the location and his operation…
Mercury Bay is a stunning place with so much to see and do! After fishing and diving at the Mercury Islands and even along the coastline, I can see why it’s such a popular spot. You don’t have to go far for fantastic fishing and diving grounds, with the famous Mercury and Aldermen Islands easily in reach. Tom Maxwell is a renowned charter operator based in Whitianga who raves about his backyard and has the photos to prove it. Now more than ever, we need to support NZ businesses and what better way to do this than to explore our beautiful country and experience our amazing fisheries under the guidance of such skippers? Here’s one man who you’ll never regret going out on the water with...
Jordy (JB): First off, which do you prefer: Thomas, Tom or Mad Max?
Tom (TM): I don’t mind – most people seem to call me Maxwell or Maxy for some reason, or just Tom.
JB: So Tom, Mad Max has become a well-known name within the fishing community but let’s start with a little bit about the man behind the name. Tell us how your passion for fishing was kindled.
TM: My earliest fishing memories are probably from our annual camping trips to Port Jackson, starting out as a toddler just fishing for snapper with the old man and his mates. Fishing and freediving there from a very young age, I can remember I would supply all the fishos in the campsite with kina and the baitfish I would catch off the wharf, at least on the days I couldn’t go out with Dad.
I was pretty lucky growing up. My parents had a house in Pauanui and Dad was often too busy working on the farm to take us out on his boat. So, he got me a rowboat and from the age of eight, I would catch snapper, trevally and kahawai in the harbour. Then when I was 10, it was upgraded to a 13-foot tinny with a 15hp outboard. The adventures I had on this were crazy for someone so young. From taking my mates fishing and diving, I knew every nook and cranny in the Tairua Harbour. We would also water ski and wakeboard behind it. I think every kid in Pauanui at the time learned to ski behind it, so from a very young age I was skippering vessels and showing people a good time. Of course, this was completely illegal and I did run into a lot of trouble with the Harbourmaster and Police. I have memories of my Dad arguing with them on the phone, explaining to them that I am fine and know what I am doing.
When I was around 13, I was given permission to cross the bar into the open ocean. Little did my parents know, I already had been doing this for ages. It wasn’t long after this, before I could even get a driver’s licence, that I was allowed to take my mates out on Dad’s Haines Hunter. That’s when things started getting really serious. I was more of a diver than a fisherman back then, but some awesome missions were had along the coast and out to the Aldermen Islands. Fast forward to now and I am still skippering boats and showing people a good time.
JB: Where has this passion for diving and fishing taken your career over the years?
TM: I really just enjoyed fishing for fun with mates but as I got better at it, people would always ask me if I would take them on a charter. I was almost forced into it in the end as so many people wanted to come fishing with me. It’s been an awesome career choice and it honestly doesn’t feel like you are working when you’re on a charter because you are getting paid to do what you love. But it is a lot of hard work that makes you very tired as well. It involves a lot of early mornings and late nights, and a lot of dirty work like filleting fish and cleaning boats – it’s not all glory and partying like it probably looks like from the outside. I’ve been lucky enough that the charters have taken me all around the world and NZ, even chasing marlin in some magic places like Kona, Hawaii and Vava’u, Tonga.
I haven’t had any real mentors in particular but I’ve always admired the captains that just catch a lot consistently and let the fish do the talking for them (guys like John Gregory and John Batterton). A lot of young skippers today seem to take a heap of selfies with their boat or gear and document half a movie on Facebook or Instagram before they’ve even left the dock. We just slap up a picture of customers with decent fish and let the results do the talking. The rewards of full bookings and respect from your peers will then naturally follow.
JB: Some wise words and great advice from a successful skipper there! What are some of your most memorable catches or personal bests?
TM: Way too many to mention them all. Hundreds of marlin which are all memorable; however, getting so many marlin in NZ in 2015 was particularly memorable – cracking over 20 in a season in a trailerboat was pretty unheard of back then. Some other standouts are catching five blue marlin in a day on a charter and catching the pending small fry world record blue marlin on a charter earlier this year, as well as all the tournaments we have won over the years – especially winning the last-ever Kings of the Coromandel by such a big margin with so much money and a boat at stake. With punters on board in a competition where every charter in the area was gunning to beat us, that win was really satisfying and sorted out the pecking order of the charters in town.
JB: They’re all incredible achievements Tom – the dedication and hard work really shows. What are you up to when you’re not running charters, competing or chasing marlin?
TM: Not so long ago I would’ve said getting up to no good partying and chasing skirt, but I have a young family now. All my spare time is spent with my three-year-old son Koby who’s mad keen on fishing, hunting and rugby. He’s already experienced some pretty crazy things on the boat, including being onboard for several marlin captures here and overseas. He already tries to copy Dad by putting the gloves on and grabbing the leader to wire fish.
JB: No doubt Koby will be a great outdoorsman thanks to his dad; to have that passion and knowledge passed down through the generations is a special thing. Now let’s get down to business. Tell us about your charter operation…
TM: It’s just me, the owner and operator. At the moment I am operating all year round in NZ as we can’t get overseas for the off-season. We take groups of up to four for full-day charters only. We will chase absolutely anything for punters, from snapper and kingfish right through to marlin and broadbill. We also don’t mind doing a bit of diving. We are lucky to have an abundance of crayfish and scallops in our area which always top off a trip nicely.
JB: So you usually go overseas during winter?
TM: Yes, for the past five or six years I have worked in Vava’u and Kona chartering, mainly for my clients from NZ and Aussie. This year I will be staying in NZ as my partner and I have a new baby girl, which means we will be chartering here right through. We are offering broadbill trips until late July to early August, bluefin tuna through June to July and kingfish/snapper/hapuku trips throughout the year.
JB: Why did you choose to settle and operate out of Whitianga? What does the area have to offer in terms of fishing/diving?
TM: Whitianga is just perfect for an operation like mine. With so many hotels, bars and restaurants for the customers, it’s tailor-made for tourism and only two hours from the international airport. You can fish a lot of conditions here that you can’t elsewhere as we have no bar crossing and so many islands, coves, bays and peninsulas to hide behind – you can always do something. The fishery here is amazing. It’s super consistent and you can catch any species you want in a day trip from Whitianga. We have a solid fishery across the board. Snapper, kingfish, hapuku, bass, bluenose, tuna, marlin and broadbill are all available, and there is really good diving with consistent visibility.
The Mercury Islands are my favourite place on the planet. I have done a lot of boating around NZ and the world, and you will not beat Great Mercury Island on a summer’s day. It is absolute paradise with unlimited protection in anchorages and coves, white sandy beaches and blue water with endless visibility. We are also lucky to have heaps of cool stuff to show the punters along the way like Cathedral Cove, the marine reserve, several sea caves and blowholes, and Hot Water Beach.
JB: I have to agree Tom, it is an incredible place with endless opportunities. How lucky we are in NZ to have that on our doorstep! With charter fishing comes a fair bit of pressure. How do you deal with the pressure of giving your clients the best experience every day?
TM: I usually don’t feel too much pressure on the trips as we are really lucky to have super-consistent fishing here. But when fishing is tough, I really look forward to the challenge the pressure brings, having to work hard and earn every fish. A lot of skippers curl up in a ball and go quiet when the pressure is on, but that’s when your people skills are important. If you are an introvert or don’t have fun and banter with customers, naturally it doesn’t matter how good at fishing you are, you’re never going to make it as a charter skipper. I’m really proud of my local area so I go out with the attitude that I want anyone who comes fishing with me to walk away thinking that this is the best place in the world, not only for fishing but also for the scenery and people.
JB: Aspiring skippers/deckies take note! Any best and worst days charter fishing?
TM: Best charter was probably the trip we got five blue marlin in a day or anytime we have won a tournament for customers. The worst days (which have only happened a couple of times) are when we get towed in.
JB: Do you have any views or comments on the future of the fishery?
TM: I’m pretty comfortable with the way the future of the fishery is tracking. I think it’s improving every year across the board with some exciting evolving fisheries such as bluefin tuna and daytime broadbill. I do feel a lot of misinformed stuff gets published in the media in regard to blaming a lot on commercial fishing. I think efforts should be focused on minimising the impact of recreational fishing as that is something we can control. I would like to see the amount of charter boats per region capped. I think it’s a little too easy to obtain a fishing charter license in NZ and the numbers have ballooned to unsustainable levels in some regions. Maybe a code of practice among the charter boats would be good to see too, particularly in relation to moving off areas where kingfish are being sharked. I often witness certain charter boats fishing through shark-infested waters getting fish after fish sharked instead of moving on.
JB: Some interesting and important points to think about there. Social media is a huge platform for audience/customer engagement now. Mad Max Sportfishing NZ has over 10,000 followers on its Facebook page. This has got to have its perks?
TM: Facebook has been an awesome tool for us. It means we have no advertising costs at all so we don’t have to spend money on a website or posters or pamphlets or anything like that at all. What we do is put the photos of the customers and their fish up every day and the bookings flow. I think people work out pretty quick if you know what you’re doing this way. Facebook does have its downsides though. A lot of charters steal other people’s pics or recycle old ones when they’re not catching. It’s a real problem that sucks a lot of innocent customers in.
Thank you Tom, for your time and all your honest answers and opinions – it was great getting to know more about you and your work.
I love keeping up to date with Mad Max; there are always top notch, consistent photos to look forward to. Check them out on Facebook.
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