The far north of New Zealand offers great fishing all year round, but in the winter months it really comes alive. Jane Spicer and her partner, Frank, spent a week in the area to experience these hallowed grounds…
Most people pack their rods and tackle away in winter, opting to spend cold days tucked up in front of the fire. But we chose to brave the early morning chill to chase the resident moochers that remain among the rich habitat and endless stretch of reef and rocks hugging New Zealand’s coastline, even after the schools of smaller fish have headed out deep in search of warmer water.
Our trip was set and the plan clear: we would spend the next five nights in the Far North of New Zealand chasing snapper. We would fish day and night, enjoying the bright, sunny skies, warm weather and glassy mirror-like seas the ‘winter-less north’ has to offer.
Unfortunately, mother nature had other plans. As we packed our ute full of rods, tackle, nets and every other piece of fishing equipment you could imagine (because, as my partner Frank says, “you just never know,”) we felt the first drop of the predicted rainfall on our shoulders. Not concerned and very optimistic, we convinced ourselves it would pass. With clear skies in mind, we got in the ute and left Tairua. By the time we got to Auckland the rain was so heavy we could barely see the car in front us and to top it off the radio had just announced a tornado was tearing through a small bay in the direction we were headed. It was time to pull over and treat ourselves to a coffee and choc chip cookie and wait for the rain and now hail to settle. As reports came flooding in of wild weather lashing the Far North, I couldn’t help but question the trip ahead. With a partner that will stop at nothing to get his line wet, I began to discuss the extreme weather forecast, but being the enthusiastic fisherman he is, he was quick to reassure me that with swell, tornados and rain, comes the snapper. So, with my mind no more at ease, we continued our journey up north.
By late afternoon we arrived safely at the Karikari Peninsula, a remote area known for its white sand beaches, crystal clear bays and unbelievable land-based fishing. With the day coming to a close, we knew we had no time to waste in finding a spot to fish in the morning. With the extreme weather in full force, our options were minimal. We quickly jumped on Google Maps to scout out the area and drove to a spot we thought might have potential. We parked at the top of the hill, but between the horizontal rain and tornado-like winds (and the fear of being airlifted from the top of the hill), I chose to wait safely in the car as Frank braved the weather to investigate further. With the weather looking like a scene from ‘Twister’ I was doubtful we were going to be able to find a sheltered spot to fish, but Frank soon came running back to the car, soaking wet with a smile from ear to ear and the news that the spot was “fishable”. We both breathed a sigh of relief.
As the day drew to a close, we raced down to the local bait and tackle store to load up on berley and get some local knowledge of the area. To this day I’ve never met a fisherman who doesn’t jump at any opportunity to talk fishing so we picked the brain of the owner who couldn’t have been more friendly and forthcoming with information. Unfortunately, we were told that the spot we planned to fish in the morning was great for kingfish, not snapper. With our newfound information in hand we decided, instead of throwing in the towel, to purchase twice as much berley and hit it twice as hard in the hope of enticing some snapper.
The next morning we woke to the sound of heavy rain. Undeterred, we got into our wet weather gear, loaded the ute and headed to our spot. Shortly after we arrived, we strapped our heavy packs full of bait, berley, tackle and everything in between firmly around our waists and set off down the rocks. The walk under and around the rocks was one of the less treacherous walks we have done, and we were at our location in no time. As Frank got the berley in the water, I started to rig up my rod. With straylining being our favoured approach when it comes to land-based fishing, I attached my Black Magic 60lb Tough Trace and 6/0 DX hook to my braid and Frank did the same with his Black Magic 60lb fluorocarbon trace and 7/0 KL hook. Despite the rain, we were relatively sheltered from the wind, so no weight was needed. The swell was small enough that we were in no danger but big enough to create some favourable wash up close to the rocks. With the berley hissing, some cut up bait in the water to add to the temptation and the first sign of light starting to peek over the horizon, we tied our baits on and launched them out the back.
As our baits began to sink, Frank’s bait runner began to tick, tick, tick. He let it run, giving the fish time to swallow the bait then clicked it over, and just like that the hook was set and his reel was screaming. With the pressure on and his rod kept high, he prevented the fish from turning its head and making it to a nearby rocky outcrop. After a short yet adrenaline-fuelled fight, he landed a nice 6.5kg snapper, but the action didn’t stop there. I cast a piece of fresh kahawai out into the deep gut with my bait presented in such a way that no fish could resist. I gave it time to sink slowly and, before I knew it, braid started peeling off my reel. I managed to keep my line tight and the pressure on, landing myself a 4.3kg snap. We continued to fish all day, catching over 20 fish ranging from 2.5kg-6.5kg. Fortunately, we managed to hook all of our fish in the corner of the mouth, making for a quick, undamaged release. As nightfall drew closer and the wind picked up, we decided it was time to get into some dry clothes and call it a day.
Storms equal snapper. Frank with a nice one, hooked in the corner of the jaw.
Over the course of the next few days, we jumped from rock to rock as we scoured the coast, going as far as Cape Reinga in search of sheltered spots and the infamous winter moochers. We were committed to making the most of our trip and, despite the less than ideal conditions, we fished as much as we could.
As the rain started to settle and the swell died down, we decided to head up to Spirits Bay, one of New Zealand’s most iconic land-based fishing spots and a location hot on our list. Before we made the journey, we got talking to a few local fishermen who told us of the short walk up the hill and down the track to the rocks. We were excited at the possibilities that lay in this bay and couldn’t wait until morning. Before heading back to our campsite for the night, we headed to the bait and tackle store to once again load up on berley and bait. We had so much berley in hand we could have dragged in fish from Australia. We arrived home and spent the next few hours tying rigs and loading up our packs for the morning mission. After our alarms went off in the wee hours of the morning, we got dressed, braved the cold and drove up the coast to Spirits Bay.
Once we arrived, we set off around the bay until we reached the hills. As I looked up at the not-so-short walk up a very steep hill, I could suddenly feel the weight of my 20kg pack on my shoulders. We spent the next two hours climbing up, down and around the hills in search for this infamous track down to the rocks. After what may go down in history as my toughest walk yet, we finally found the track. We took off our packs and had a much-needed rest. We were tired but buzzing with excitement and keen to get down to the rocks. After a quick breather, we set off to investigate the steep descent. We considered every option in getting down but decided it was too dangerous. The storms had made the track fragile and slippery. We were disappointed, but valued our safety over anything else – the risk was far too great this time. Instead, we headed back down the hill to devise another game plan. After assessing the tide, we agreed that we would come back in the morning and walk around the rocks at low tide and fish the incoming, leaving enough time to head back towards the beach before the tide came in too much. It was going to be our last day in the Far North, and we wanted to make it count. We set off back to our campground for some snacks and a sulk after our morning’s defeat.
Before we knew it, the morning was upon us. There was a slight drizzle of rain and next to no wind. The conditions were perfect. With the ute still packed from the day before, we quickly threw on the last set of semi-dry clothes we had and headed up to Spirits Bay. Unlike the previous day, we made the pleasant walk around the rocks and found a nice gut to fish. With all of our rods already rigged up and ready to go, we loaded the berley securely into our bucket and tied it to a nearby rock. As the bucket rolled around in the wash, it wasn’t long until the kahawai started to show up. Our bait of choice today was pilchard, but there was certainly no shortage of kahawai around if that failed to entice a bite. Spirits were high as we cast our lines out. We both stood there, patiently waiting for our reels to start screaming. Nothing. We looked at each other confused as to why we didn’t have a 30lb snapper in the bag but were not ready to give up yet, so we continued fishing, changing our rigs and bait from time to time and making sure we had plenty of berley in the water. We walked all around the rocks casting out into different directions making sure we were covering as much ground as possible. As frustrating as it was, like most anglers, we knew this is what fishing is all about.
As the sun started to rise, the kahawai decided it was breakfast time and started hitting our baits. We caught kahawai after kahawai over the next hour or so. As our berley continued to cloud up the clear waters of Spirits Bay, we were soon greeted by a bronze whaler. He swam up and down the water’s edge and then suddenly disappeared. I baited my hook with half a pilchard and belted it out the back. I was getting some enquiries as my bait slowly started to sink, but given the slow morning and the huge amount of baitfish around, I didn’t get too excited. As I slowly lifted the tip of my rod to make sure I wasn’t caught up in the weeds, something grabbed my bait and made a run for it.
My adrenaline was pumping as I clicked over the baitrunner. I was sure I had hooked that shark, but I continued to fight it like a trophy fish. As I got a few winds on in between its huge runs, I could feel the weight of the fish. I knew it was going to either be a shark or a good-sized snapper. I managed to keep the pressure on and prevent it from getting caught in the weeds or behind a rock. As it inched closer and closer to the surface, Frank caught the first glimpse of the snapper lying exhausted on its side. I was ecstatic and terrified at the same time. I didn’t want to lose this fish. He was BIG! With our net out of reach, Frank dragged him up the rocks with the swell. We were both in shock. With the biggest smile on my face, I carefully removed the hook from the corner of his mouth and got the scales out – 8.43kg, my new PB snapper off the rocks. I stood proudly for a few photos before quickly releasing him. With high fives and fist pumps, we decided to leave the Far North on a high and head back into shore while we still could.
A heap of berley fired up the snapper.
Despite the less than ideal weather conditions, this trip to the Far North has to go down as my favourite to date. The beautiful coast, untouched hidden spots and a wizard of a fishing partner made this trip unforgettable. But my love for fishing didn’t start here. Four years ago, my partner, a land-based fishing veteran, took me down the rocks for a fish. As sceptical as I was about climbing down a cliff face, I trusted the journey and went along. We fished all morning with Frank having to bait my hooks and cast out my line. I had no idea what I was up to, but I was determined to learn. Well, after that day, it was safe to say I was hooked. I’ve spent the next four years fishing at every opportunity and competing in fishing competitions all over New Zealand.
Land-based fishing is not for the faint-hearted. I’ve spent years mastering the art of abseiling down cliffs and running across rocks with heavy packs and lots of gear. Fortunately, my mother-in-law is also a weapon around the rocks and a local fishing legend full of priceless information. At 60 years old, she still fishes harder than anyone I know and is a huge inspiration for me, and I’m sure a lot of other women out there who want to give fishing a go.
With that said, it’s safe to say I am now a confident angler with plenty of knowledge and experience, and I hope by getting out there and doing it, other ladies who are thinking about taking up fishing are also inspired to give it a go.
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