Lows and Highs of a Contest Angler

Mark Kitteridge experienced the very best and the very worst of contest fishing during a recent competition. He shares the story of the trip…

There are always risks when committing to fishing contests. These various potential pitfalls include: having to leave amazing fishing opportunities because the species concerned won’t win any prizes; discovering that unforeseen circumstances will prevent the execution of the ‘no fail’ Plan A, forcing anglers to adopt a much shakier Plan B (which happens surprisingly frequently); and, thanks to the competitively-natured among us, sometimes going further and harder than we would normally feel comfortable doing, just to win a prize. Indeed, some of us will risk life, limb, tackle, and boat, often just to possibly win a rod and reel or a bottle of rum! 

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Unfortunately, I found myself providing a perfect example of this when fishing the two-day Lure Masters fishing contest earlier this year.

One of my regular fishing buddies, Josh Darby, owns an FC 535 boat. This boat might be relatively small, but it has a big heart, handling most sea conditions surprisingly well. It’s also great to fish from (thanks to the centre-console design), and the fuel bill afterwards is pleasantly affordable. I love how we often end up in relatively remote locations alongside boats twice the size – weather conditions permitting of course! 

Josh and I love this contest as it’s based on catch-and-release fishing and we’re super competitive, so despite weeks of strong onshore winds beforehand, we had no qualms about committing to it. 

As the contest neared, good news: we could see from the long-range forecast that one of those rare perfect days would fall on the second day of the contest (Mokohinau Islands here we come!). More soberingly though, the first day had 14-18 knots of northeast winds and a metre of swell predicted, decreasing slightly as the day went on. Hmmmm. Marginal conditions for a modest-sized tinny, especially one wanting to fish further afield.  

So we decided to delay the contest day’s start, allowing us to cross the Jellicoe Passage around the change of tide, which is traditionally a time when the current would be less and the swells better behaved. We also changed the initial destination to Great Barrier Island, as its huge western coastline would be protected from the wind.

Just before leaving, we called our mutual friend Paul Senior as we’d heard he might not have a crew and might like to join us. Instead, he said we were “crazy going in those conditions” and he’d prefer to relax in his spa pool with a beer, then fish the next day in comfort. That was worrying. While I might not always agree with Paul (that’s fishing!), I really respect his abilities as a captain. This guy has seen a lot of water under many boats and knows what the situation will likely be.

So, with fishing and camping gear somehow packed into the 535, we were off. 

We knew it would be gnarly, especially at the Omaha Harbour entrance, where the swells tend to lift in the shallows. And it was. Not just a metre of swell either; some looked almost double that, so we made the call if we weren’t happier in 15 minutes we would turn back.

There’s no denying it was uncomfortable, the boat lifting and often falling hard as each wave swept under the hull, but nor was it dangerous. And it got a bit better once we got out into the open water. Another plus was that Josh’s mate Daniel Davidson from Marine Deals was ahead of us in a slightly bigger vessel, potentially offering a smoother passage if we could catch up and get in close behind.

So we just had to put our Big Boy pants on and get it done. That meant going harder and faster than Josh would have liked. The jarring hits came hard and fast too. The FC 535 is seaworthy and usually soft riding, but it has it’s limits. I mentioned to Josh it was lucky I only had a few fillings, so more couldn’t fall out.

Then came the first casualty. “Oh no!” said Josh, “One of the rods has fallen out!”

Sure enough, a rod dangled overhead, fortuitously held by a tangle of braid to another outfit. Less fortunately though, it was broken in half. 

“Bugger, bugger, BUGGER!” He said. “But I guess that’s why we bring a couple of extra outfits, right?!”

“Yep, but maybe we should bring the gear down so it’s less likely to get damaged…?” I volunteered.

“Nah, she’ll be right,” Josh assured me.

Now, I’m often wrong – my wife will happily back me up on this – but in this case I should have stuck to my guns. Like Paul Senior, I have the benefit of a considerable amount of time on the water over Josh, who’s around 30 years my junior. I have witnessed many, many instances of fishing outfits being lost and others getting damaged unseen while stored in rocket launchers in rough seas. This boat also has a ‘history’, with other rods being damaged in the past in similar conditions. However, we’d put this down to our lures coming loose to become small, heavy missiles of tethered destruction. Consequently, we’d left the rods unrigged this time. 

So we carried on, aware that Josh’s mate had widened the gap in the meantime, forcing us to keep up the bone-jarring pace.

Fifteen minutes later, I took a chance to hang out the side in between wave soakings and sneak a peek at our stored rods. 

“STOP JOSH! STOP! Two of our rods are bloody snapped!”

After easing back the throttle, accompanied by prolific swearing from both of us, we assessed the situation. It was even worse than we’d thought: I’d missed another broken soft-bait rod on the other side. We now had one surviving soft-bait rod between the two of us!

I was in a state of shock. I buy the best gear available, love using it, and feel super confident it will land what I hook. Now both my favourite soft-baiting outfits were shattered; what was I going to use over the remaining two days of competition? 

We continued on with considerably dampened spirits, but on the plus side we caught up with Josh’s mate. The slightly smoother seas behind his boat meant a bit less battering for the remainder of the journey.

With Great Barrier Island reached, we waved goodbye and set about seeing how we might salvage the mission. I decided one of my Megawave rods was still long enough to cast soft-baits.

The fishing was on fire!

The fishing was on fire!

Sure enough, it could and, even better, the fishing was on fire!

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In no time we were hooting with joy and relief while fighting one decent snapper after another. Thank goodness.

Then, disaster: my badly damaged rod snapped again while setting the hook, rendering it useless. I was devastated: super-hot Great Barrier fishing was going begging now, and perhaps even better fishing up at the Mokohinau Islands the following day was looking very grim. 

“Why not use my ‘Micro Jig’ rod?” Josh suggested. This was not a bad call. While the Ocean Angler rod might only be 1.82 metres (6’) long, a far cry from the 8’-8’6” lengths I prefer, on the plus side I’d seen Josh’s good buddy Eli Sharplin hook and land a number of reasonable snapper using it as a soft-bait outfit, so it was possible.

Even so, much of the confidence and joy had deserted me as I made my first cast into the island’s shallows. And even more left when I missed the first good bite, but on the next I wound quickly in response, the line tightened and the rod bowed firmly when lifted in response. Hook up!

“Oh, yeah!” 

Despite the late 2pm arrival and horrific start, a truly memorable session followed, with around 110-120 legal-sized snapper coming to the boat, including a couple of decent specimens around the 60cm mark. All were released in great shape, with just a handful of the biggest being measured for the contest. Amazingly, that little Micro Jig rod accounted for around 60-65 of them! 

A late knock-off saw us disembarking at Smokehouse Bay in the dark and setting up our 1.5 man tent in the bush (don’t camp with Josh, his air mattress takes up three-quarters of the space!). Next, a quick feed and a couple of cold ones before heading off to sleep, accompanied by the cries of happy but drunken boaties… and the annoying shriek of hungry mosquitos, hard ground (I hadn’t chosen my yoga mat well), Josh’s rhythmic snoring, no space to even turn over, and a decent case of stubborn heartburn. I didn’t sleep a wink.

The next morning, feeling somewhat dishevelled, I discovered my favourite Shimano Ocea Plugger topwater rod’s tip had been snapped too, making it five broken rods for the trip!

It was hard to stay positive, but I did my best as we headed to the Mokes in gently rippling sea conditions. To cut the story short, we had only modest fishing at this amazing place, so Josh made the call to head back to Little Barrier for the final three hours. I was reluctant, but Josh argued that many of the best snapper from the day before had been caught there.

It was a good call. On his second cast after arriving Josh hooked up, calling it for a good fish as line sizzled from his reel. “We need to get after this one, mate!”

I jumped onto the wheel and headed after it, which was lucky as the big red headed straight into the weed, the braid line juddering alarmingly for several worrying seconds. Then it came free, and after zig-zagging through the shallows with us in hot pursuit for a few minutes, it was up on the surface for me to net. 

Despite a horrific start, Josh came through with the goods!

Despite a horrific start, Josh came through with the goods!

Okay, so at 73.5cm in length and 8kg in weight, it wasn’t the contest winner – nowhere near it – but at least the catch provided some vindication for our decision to keep on trying, despite the odds being against us. It’s also an example of why I love fishing so much. 

That said, this story would have been so much better if I’d caught the winning fish on Josh’s little OA Micro Jig rod. Maybe next year! 

July 2022 - Mark Kitteridge
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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