My fishing partner (aka competitor) would be my old boy, Pete ‘PJ' Jones. PJ is a freshly minted pensioner, but that hasn't slowed him down. He still races motorbikes, works as a lawyer and gets out fishing regularly from his home base in the Bay of Islands. He’s accounted for more than his fair share of big snapper, primarily on soft-baits. We won’t get into numbers of 20lb-plus snapper, as this is a grey area (pun intended), although I've seen him nab a few. I’d have my work cut out for me!
I’d organised dates and accommodation weeks in advance, always a risk with winter weather, but the stars aligned and the forecast was agreeable as we headed up to our base in the sleepy town of Houhora. I didn’t realise during my trip admin that the dates lined up with a full moon – an occurrence that I find affects the bite time in my usual Hauraki Gulf haunts. However, PJ was full of confidence – he works with the tides and weather conditions rather than straying into fishing astrology territory.
We hit the water on our first day at around 9am, with a leisurely half-day of scoping planned, given we were both in new fishing terrain. Cruising out past the entrance was a great feeling, and we didn't head far up the coast before rigging up some soft baits and firing them away.
Although it looked reasonably fishy, we had a very slow start. As the sun rose in the sky, we noticed that the sand went right up to the cliffs beneath the surface along this stretch of shoreline, with little in the way of underwater structure. The water was ginclear (you could see the bottom at 15m), so we motored further north and scoped for the tell-tale dark patches of sub-tidal reefs. We lined up our drifts over these reefs and began picking up some modest snapper.
The wind was offshore but really pushed over the low-lying land from the Tasman Sea, so we sought respite behind an island and brewed up a coffee. I’d noticed the solunar calendar had the bite time from 12 – 1pm on this day and was secretly hoping it would fire up when we got back into it.
Whether it was it mere coincidence, or the fact we had moved to a different spot, it was now all on for young and old! We had followed a reef from deeper water right up to a white sand beach and began our drift in only three metres of water. My first cast was slammed by a solid snapper, as were the next three in a row. Now we were getting into our mojo, and the quick drift was working in our favour as we covered ground quickly and kept bumping into fish.
The snapper were now ravenous, hitting the baits seconds after they touched down and even chasing soft baits right up to the side of a boat!
It was interesting to see how our different styles of soft-baiting were playing out. PJ exclusively uses baitcasters, whereas I’m a spin merchant. My style involves long casts and fishing the lure quickly, then dropping back down once halfway in for another dig. I catch most of my fish on the drop or the first twitch after touching down.
On the other hand, PJ is more patient, making shorter casts and working the lure more slowly, fishing the lure by slowly dragging and twitching behind the boat. The baitcaster gives him more control and feel on the drop, allowing him to detect the sometimes-tentative bites of big snapper. His technique covers less ground but allows more time for fish to find his lure, as opposed to my technique, which is more a case of my lure finding the fish.
On this particular afternoon I was catching more fish, especially in the shallows, but he was catching bigger specimens and coming into his own in the 15m-plus depths. We ended our amazing two-hour session with about 30 snapper between 2 and 6.5kg, all released healthy back to their shallow habitat.
Day two was set to be our ‘big day’ and after an early start, we found ourselves hooning over the top of yesterdays hotspot to new grounds. It was another slow morning as we fished the coast up to arengarenga Harbour, although PJ nabbed a nice 8.2kg (18lb) snapper along the way. We set-up a drift right in the harbour entrance over a drop-off, the offshore wind and low swell making the sea conditions very benign. We hoped for the hump-headed trevally this area is famous for, but instead, I hooked a kingfish that took a liking to a quickly retrieved Gulp! Crazy Legs baitfish imitation.
The fish stormed off and almost had my Daiwa stripped to its backing before I could say, “PJ, get on the wheel!” With PJ on the helm (after a leisurely and sabotaging retrieve), we chased the fish down and regained some line before I felt the dreaded rub of bottom structure. Ping and it was all over.
Not overly disappointed, as the odds were always stacked in that fish’s favour, we headed further north to some likely looking headlands and reefy areas, but not before having a lunch and coffee stop on the way.
As a bite time believer, it came as no surprise that the snapper were hard on the chew again in the early afternoon as soon as we started a promising-looking drift. I was keen to target a big model, so tied on a 7-inch Z Man. After accounting for a couple of average specimens, I mixed it up and implemented a slow, steady retrieve on the next cast – something the long, wobbly Z Mans seem well-suited to.
I felt a few bumps and, channelling my inner kabura angler, patiently maintained the slow pace. The line suddenly went slack and began heading towards the boat. I reeled furiously and directly under the boat the rod buckled over big time! Line started hissing off and I extended my arm to guide the rod around the outboard as the fish peeled away.
PJ was again called into action on the wheel, and he expertly backed up on the fish, which could now be identified as a snapper by its slow, chunky tail beats. A bit of back and forth ensued, with both the fish and the rocky bottom visible for most of the scrap.
A big red noggin eventually broke the surface next to the boat, and we knew it was a nice one, the only problem was we had forgotten the net. Luckily, the beast lay there calmly and allowed me to cradle it into the boat while PJ grabbed the camera. After a quick snap, the exhausted fish was put back in the drink, flipped upright and helped on its way.
Any PB snapper is a great feeling, but to do it in shallow water with amazing scenery and my old man’s help sure was special. The picture also came out beautifully – officially ‘Gullivered’!
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