Marine Predators You May See While Fishing

Sam Mossman details some of the 'other anglers' you may encounter on a fishing trip...

Despite the depredations of humans and natural disasters, many of the oceans, rivers and lakes of this watery planet are still rich providers of nourishment for a wide range of species. Let’s face it, above the lower trophic level – species that feed on phytoplankton and other plants – nearly all marine animals make their living by preying on other marine animals. But not every predator that makes a living from the water is a fish. The spectacle provided by our fellow anglers, be they mammals, birds or reptiles, will often provide lasting memories that will stay with you long after the remembrance of what you caught that day has faded away. Here are just a few of mine, one each from saltwater, the air, and the land.

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From the sea

Probably no marine creature suits the term ‘charismatic megafauna’ better than the orca, or ‘killer whales’ as they were previously known. Not true whales, they are the largest members of the dolphin family. And they are large – adult males are seven to eight metres long and weigh up to 5.5 tonnes, while females are smaller, around six metres in length and up to 3.6 tonnes in weight. Big males are particularly impressive, sporting a massive dorsal fin around two metres in height.

There are estimated to be fewer than 200 orcas living in New Zealand waters. New Zealand’s foremost orca researcher, Ingrid Visser, photo-identified 167 individuals over eight years. From DNA evidence, it is thought there are probably three resident populations in New Zealand: one off the North Island, one off the South Island, and a third group that spends its time in both regions. There have also been several sightings of orca pods that were slate-grey coloured, which is typical of Antarctic orca (as opposed to the jet-black and white typical of NZ orca), so it is possible we get tourist orca visiting from other regions.

Orca have never been recorded as having attacked humans, which is comforting as I have encountered many pods in places as far apart as Fiordland and the Three Kings Islands, in boats as small as a 4.3m tinny. The prey of NZ orca consists of four main groups: rays, sharks (including makos), finfish (kahawai and bluenose are favourites) and cetaceans (dolphins and whales).

A speciality of New Zealand orca is that they eat a lot of rays and are often sighted hunting in shallow inshore waters, including harbours and estuaries. I regularly encounter them in my home waters in the northern Hauraki Gulf, and sometimes they favour me by cruising over to check me out. But my best encounter to date was well offshore at the ‘Garden Patch’ around 35nm off Houhora in Northland. We were fishing for bluenose and dropped some cut baits down in 350m and soon both rigs were loaded up as the anglers slowly worked their catches to the surface.

This activity soon attracted the interest of a group of five orca, which homed in on the boat. They waited until the hard work had been done and the fish were near the surface, then zoomed in and deftly removed our catch. Very talented they were (like the Artful Dodger picking a pocket or two), avoiding the line and carefully grabbing the back end of the fish, biting and pulling until the bluenose separated, leaving just the head on the hook. Clearly, they knew which end the pointy metal things were in and which was the best bit to eat.

Initially, it was exciting and interesting – Animal Planet stuff – and I don’t mind paying a certain amount of tax. Still, after our catches were intercepted three times in a row, it began to get a bit annoying. Our bluenose dinner was at risk, while the adult orca seemed to be using us as teaching aids, sitting back and letting their calf practice on us. If they had been really smart, they would have let us have the odd fish, just to encourage us to keep fishing for them.

In the end, we had to move down to the other end of the bank, away from the main bluenose aggregation. The fishing was a lot harder there, but at least the orca had elected to stay back where the main action was. Eventually, we managed to get four smaller bluenose aboard, with a bonus couple of gemfish and an alfonsino.

From the air

Gannets would be a fair candidate for my pick of the most spectacular aerial predator, but I wrote a feature on them just a few issues ago. Albatross and frigate

birds also rate, but one of my favourites is the bald eagle, native to North America, and the national bird of the United States. Particularly impressive to a Kiwi boy more used to diminutive harrier hawks and native falcons.

Up until about 500 years ago, New Zealand was home to Haast’s eagle, the largest bird of prey that has ever existed. It weighed up to 17.8 kg and had a wingspan of up to three metres. With feet and claws as big as a modern-day tiger’s, they were extremely powerful and preyed on the largest of our also extinct moa. Moa bones are regularly found with talon damage that bears witness to this. Centuries-old cave drawings of huge eagle-like birds and finds of Haast’s eagle bone tools in midden strongly suggest it was known to Māori, too. Haast’s eagle was large enough to attack human children, which is mentioned in Māori oral tradition.

By comparison, a big female bald eagle may have a wingspan of 2.3 metres and is actually a sea eagle that also commonly occurs inland along rivers and large lakes. Their colour is dark brown, with a white head and tail. It is not bald but derives its name from the conspicuous appearance of its white-feathered head. The beak, eyes, and feet are yellow.

I encountered these majestic birds when fishing in Alaska and Canada. Bald eagles pluck fish out of the water with their talons, and sometimes they follow seabirds as a means of locating fish. Bald eagles also rob the smaller ospreys of their fish. Besides live fish, bald eagles also prey on other birds, small mammals, snakes, turtles, and crabs, and they readily eat carrion.

Although once down to 450 pairs in the US, the banning of DDT (this pesticide accumulated in the birds’ tissues and interfered with the formation of the shells of their eggs) and listing as a protected species has seen them make a strong comeback, with 6,300 pairs counted in 2000.

The bald eagle can fly up to 64kph, can dive at speeds over 160kph, and can actually swim! They use an overhand movement of the wings that is very much like a butterfly stroke.

Where we fished in the shallow coastal seas of Canada, bald eagles were common, perched in lookout trees over the water, waiting for any chance to swoop on a fish swimming near the surface. It was easy to attract them near the boat for photographic purposes by throwing out a dead fish. These eagles’ payload was amazing, and I saw them grab and lift off the water a black rockfish that must have weighed nearly two kilos. Once, we saw a ‘work-up’ as salmon chased a school of herring to the surface – and the wheeling, swooping birds above were all majestic bald eagles!

The eagles' payload was amazing. Sam saw them grab and lift a black rockfish of nearly 2kgs.

The eagles' payload was amazing. Sam saw them grab and lift a black rockfish of nearly 2kgs.

From the land

During a fishing expedition to Alaska a few years ago, my buddy Rick and I did a fly-in trip to a high-country salmon hotspot in the Alaska Range called Big River Lake.

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After touchdown, the pilot ran the pontoons of the amphibious plane up onto a strange floating weed island in the middle of the lake where our guides had stashed seven-metre aluminium boats. Boarding them, we headed to where Wolverine Creek tumbled into the glacial lake and the clear water was jam-packed with red (sockeye) salmon, the most highly-rated eating species with vivid red flesh and very high oil content.

This day we were keen to take some fish back to eat, and they don’t get any better than fresh-run sockeye. We weren’t the only ones who thought so. Soon after we started fishing, we were joined by what the locals call ‘Alaska’s best anglers’ – two groups of brown bears, each a sow with two cubs. Genetically, a brown bear is the same species as a grizzly, the name difference being a range/habitat thing.

Make no mistake, bears are dangerous animals, especially females with young.

There have been 13 bear attacks in North America in the 2020s (until mid-2022) and the number of maulings and deaths has been increasing in recent years as bear numbers expand and more people are taking to the outdoors.

Reported bear maulings run at about six per year in Alaska, with one or two fatalities. While fishing the Kenai River the previous day, guide Greg Brush had told us of finding a guy on his porch holding his innards in, his scalp half ripped off, after being attacked by a bear in the middle of town. While buying supplies at the Soldotna supermarket Rick and I were amazed to find you could buy .50-caliber magnum handguns over the counter – just what you need if attacked by a bear while on the way to the shops for a bottle of milk!

By and large, however, with the right precautions, bears are not a drama. The ones we met at the mouth of Wolverine Creek were well used to sharing the fish with human anglers and ignored us completely while the mums showed the young ones how to grab and crunch up the nutritious sockeye. It was comforting, however, to have a few metres of water between the boats and the bears!

The bears at the mouth of Wolverine Creek were well used to sharing the fish with human anglers.

The bears at the mouth of Wolverine Creek were well used to sharing the fish with human anglers.

December 2022 - Sam Mossman
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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