Bruce Duncan - Hauraki Gulf Snapper Guru

Bruce Duncan - Hauraki Gulf Snapper Guru

 An Aucklander born and bred, Bruce grew up fishing near his family home at St. Heliers, the waters close to which rarely failed to provide fresh food for the Duncan family.

Bruce’s first memories of ‘fishing’ was chasing a snapper around a rock pool at Opononi in the Far North, a regular Duncan family holiday haunt. Bruce says his late mother Jean was the keenest of them all, using a hand-line off the wharves and rocks.

The family’s first boat was a 12-foot plywood pram dinghy powered by a two-and-half horsepower Seagull outboard. “It was limited in range – we fished from west Bastion Reef down to Browns Island on a good day, but it was all we needed to put a feed on the table,” Bruce recalls.

He says they used the small blocks of Sanford’s frozen trevally and squid bait, supplemented by their faithful bait net. Fishing close to home and providing his own bait are two aspects of fishing that have stuck with Bruce throughout his angling life. Wherever the family went, the bait net was an essential part of their kit.

“Even if we had a family picnic on St. Heliers Beach, we could not resist dragging the bait net, and it was surprising what could be caught. There would be the obvious piper and sprats [yellow- eyed mullet], but also the occasional trevally and rat kingfish.” Bruce says fishing from a small boat taught him plenty: “Having your bum close to the water, you got a better understanding and feel for the tides and wind.”

A year or so back Bruce made a pilgrimage back to the old family haunt – the rocks at St. Heliers. He caught several nice snapper, enough for dinner, despite there being swimmers nearby. ‘Catching enough for feed’ has always been one of Bruce’s angling guidelines. When asked for a pic of himself with a ‘big snapper’, Bruce’s honest reply was, “I don’t have any, as I always put the big fish back”.

“It is not just about the big fish,” Bruce says. He remembers well the day he caught his first 30-pounder.

“It was in the Rangi’ [Rangitoto] Channel just after Cyclone Bola had blown through. There was still a big swell running, stirring up the bottom, and we were stray-lining with a keeper-hook rig when I had the big hit. After a decent scrap, I pulled in this huge golden snapper. Its teeth were as sharp as. This was no kelpie. It was cut free and allowed to swim away.”

Bruce says this and other good catches made after a decent blow support his theory that “snapper are pussies – they seek shelter around the islands in the face of bad weather”.  ?

Not just fishing attracted a young Bruce Duncan to the water. Sailing was another passion. As a teenager, he sailed P Class yachts, and this led to him crewing on bigger and faster craft, followed by blue water adventures. He did his first Suva race in 1993 as a 17-year-old. Bruce celebrated his 21st birthday as he passed the Three Kings Islands heading to Noumea. He was soon skippering ocean-going yachts on delivery as well as cruising and racing trips.

“I developed an aversion to cold New Zealand winters,” Bruce quipped. “We used any excuse not to come home.”

He said fishing from a 25-tonne yacht had its ‘interesting’ moments, including some spectacular bust-offs.

“Try slowing down a big boat with a full head of steam up when a decent tuna jumps on the lure.”

He eventually got the wanderlust out of his system and returned home to marry and build a home. 

“I got back into my fishing. The family had a bach at Whananaki and a fair bit of time was spent there.”

The runabout he fished from had to be sold when it came time to build the family home, and was replaced by a modest plywood dinghy – “back to my roots, you might say”.

While hammering away on the house, Bruce’s thoughts were never far from the sea, and between jobs he would put the dinghy on the roof of the car and head to Kohimarama Beach where he would have a quick fish before getting back on the tools.

With a role at Hutchwilco spanning 20 years, Bruce again turned his sights on boat ownership, and after a series of trailer-boat craft, he purchased his first launch, a 26ft Stirling.

“A slower, displacement boat, we did some miles in her from the Bay of Islands in the north to the islands of the Bay of Plenty in the south.”

Bruce says the Stirling was a particularly economical vessel and he jokes that on a Great Barrier weekend away “the crew often consumed more litres of rum and Coke than the engine did diesel!”

Some 23-years-ago Bruce purchased a Reflections 980 Sportfisher, appropriately named Miss B Haven, which he keeps at the Outboard Boating Club’s facilities off Tamaki Drive. Bruce has had a long association with the OBC, including a stint as Commodore.

Bruce has racked up over 4500 engine hours in Miss B Haven, which is powered by a 250hp Cummins diesel through a vee-drive.

“It has never missed a beat and is a super-reliable motor.”

The fibreglass Reflections hull was originally designed by Jim Young to take on patrol-boating duties for the Malaysian and Chilean governments and is “good for 40-knots...”.

On the rare occasions Bruce has been caught out in bad weather, he says the boat’s sea-keeping abilities have always kept him and his crew safe, including one memorable return trip from Great Barrier in 50 knots of northeasterly.

It was in Miss B Haven that Bruce built up an extensive knowledge of the Hauraki Gulf’s snapper fishery in particular. His knowledge of the fishery and boating in general is something he has always been prepared to share. Anyone who has attended any of his regular seminars will appreciate that Bruce offers sage advice around all matters marine, but especially where to fish. 

"They are not my spots - they're for everyone to enjoy." 

This is no more evident than in the book he produced in conjunction with his good mate Mike Rose. 

Fishing the Hauraki Gulf has sold over 16000 copies and is in its fifth reprint. It contains over 200 fishing locations around the Hauraki Gulf, accompanied by aerial photographs that illustrate how a spot should be fished.

Bruce says successful fishing is all about being in tune with your surrounds, considering the effect of wind and tide, and the seasons. To that end Fishing the Hauraki Gulf divides each spot into winter and summer advice. 

Other knowledge has been shared via the Spot X Fishing Knowledge series of books, still available in bookstores and tackle shops. Bruce has written countless articles on the Hauraki Gulf, which is not bad going given he suffers from dyslexia.

“I couldn’t string two words around the right way until Mike encouraged me to write. I explained my dilemma and he developed a process that enabled me to get my thoughts down on paper in a way that made some sort of sense. Some good editing helped!

“He applied the same basic logic to teaching me how to use a camera – ‘just put it on auto and start clicking!’”

Today Bruce shares his knowledge in another way – private guiding. He does work for Sky City, guiding guests who want to sample some fishing, as well as guiding private clients.

“People can watch as much video and read as many magaznidneasy installation well as the best pos articles as they like, but there is nothing quite like having someone standing at your shoulder explaining what is going on.”

He says you will find snapper in the unlikeliest of places at times. He has caught snapper in a crowded anchorage by throwing a floating bait out the back when he wakes up in the morning: “You might be surprised at what you catch.”

Bait fishing, and in particular stray-lining down a berley trail, is Bruce’s favourite way of targeting snapper: “Like me, it’s an oldie but a goody’ method of catching dinner.”

He also likes to fish two rods (“I’m like an alcoholic; I can’t give it up!”) and tries to only use fresh bait – the bait net is always on board. When fresh is not available, pilchards are his favourite frozen bait.

He remembers one trip where he took 'the bait' out of the freezer the night before to thaw, and upon hitting his favourite spot was surprised to see the pilchards had 'morphed' into a frozen chicken!

Not to be beaten, he cut some skin off the chicken and used it to catch a baitfish, which in turn produced a snapper to be enjoyed that evening - along with the chicken!

While Bruce is a big advocate of stray-lining, especially where berley is involved, he is not ‘anti’ soft-baits and lure fishing for snapper. “I think it’s great, it gives people options. It is all about fishing and being on the water."

Amen to that!

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

February 2017 - Grant Dixon
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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