There is nothing Sam Mossman enjoys more than catching new fish species. Here he shares the details of chasing some less-targeted, but worthwhile, species.
A member of the trumpeter family, blue moki are a fish I had encountered in my early days growing up fishing in Hawkes Bay, but only ever seen caught in set nets. A handsome fish, strong-fighting and good eating, they are highly regarded by anglers and feed on crabs and other crustaceans, small kina, worms, shellfish and the like. Even in later years I had only fished for them once with rod and reel (with Wellington maestro Pete Lamb). That trip had involved using a ledger rig with specialist 3/0 hooks, baited with fresh crayfish tail tied on with cotton and fished off a remote Wellington beach at midnight. It was a bit like joining a secret society and resulted in the capture of a moki of about a kilo for me. I gained the impression that blue moki fishing involved a great deal of finesse.
It was some years before I had another opportunity to target the species – this time at the Chatham Islands. We drove out onto the main shipping wharf at Waitangi (since replaced). This is the Chatham’s main settlement, and the wharf was a focal point of activity. It was midday, the sun was bright and hot, and the water was crystal clear. With my previous experience in mind, I started out trying to use a subtle rig – a 3/0 KL circle hook loaded with paua gut, on a length of 40lb Tough Trace. My rod was a long, light spin stick loaded with 10kg braid.
Never bring a knife to a gunfight. I soon found out that subtlety was not, in fact, the strong point of the denizens of the wharf, and realised I was badly under-equipped to extract big blue moki from around the kelp-shrouded piles. After the first wipe-out, I upped the ante to 60lb leader and 6/0 KL hooks, draped with bigger hunks of paua gut. I didn’t have a heavier rod, so my new game plan was simple: give it everything and try to haul the fish out from under the piles. My buddies, Mike Clay, Chris Smith, Tony Hawke and I all got busted up a few times, but to an extent the kelp helped us by cushioning our lines from sharp barnacles when the fish buried us back under the wharf. We managed to put four big moki, from about four to seven kilos, in the chilly-bin and put others back. Then, not wanting to give these trusting fish too much of a caning, we wound in our lines and went to the pub.
Mike Clay with a lovely Chathams moki caught during the middle of a bright calm day.
Slender Tuna have a wide distribution through the Southern Ocean and have been reported from all parts of our coasts, both east and west, north of Auckland, Wellington, the sub Antarctic Auckland Islands, and the Chatham Islands. The odd one is caught in the Bay of Plenty in spring, but it seems that the only semi-reliable ‘run’ is up the east coast of the South Island starting off Dunedin in the latter part of March-April and working North. Sightings have been made off Christchurch in May, and they appear off the Kaikoura Coast in June-July, coming in close enough to the South Island’s east coast to be easily reached by the owners of average trailer boats.
Carl Angus, a fishing mate from Dunedin, introduced me to the species. Researching them was a little frustrating, as apart from the standard identification literature, little is known about them. Maximum size listed is less than 10kg, but fish larger than this have been caught here by recreational anglers. Temperature tolerances were listed as 19-24 degrees C – much higher than the 13-16-degree water that they seem to like off the South Island’s east coast.
Slender tuna are listed as feeding mainly on krill, squid and small fish. Certainly, there were plenty of blood-red krill about (even the seabird droppings around the port were pink) when I arrived in Dunedin one Easter to chase slender tuna with Carl and his partner Jackie. Plagues of barracouta made it impossible to use general fishing methods like trolling or blind spinning that are normally effective on smaller tuna species like albacore and skipjack. Spin-casting to sighted surface feeding fish was about the only way to separate the biters from the fighters. Even then, hooked tuna were often lost when the line was bitten through at knots, swivels, or just where it entered the water, by the ‘couta.
It was challenging fishing. A school of slenders crashed the surface from time to time but were only staying on top for three to four seconds and moving very rapidly. We had to anticipate the school movements and make fast, flat, accurate casts to the leading edge of the school to get a strike. It was up to the skipper to position the boat so that the anglers on the bow could get a shot when the fish popped up. We got very good at reading the body language of the little white terns that marked the tuna school.
Slender tuna are hot performers. I was fishing eight kilo line on a powerful spin rod, and the tuna really heated up the drag washers. It took around 15 minutes to beat these seven-and eight-kilo fish. They have very soft mouths; alongside the two I caught, I pulled the hooks of my 60g jig out of another four tuna that day.
Although the numbers of slenders involved in this migratory movement do not appear to be large, these fish are apparently low priced and targeted commercial fishing for them is unlikely. The eating qualities of the slenders are the subject of conflicting information, ranging from ‘disgusting’ to ‘quite good’.
One thing is sure – slender tuna are a challenging and exciting light-tackle sportfish.
A blast from the past: a young Sam Mossman with a slender tuna from off Dunedin.
As mentioned, I grew up fishing in Hawkes Bay, which is more or less the ‘Mason-Dixon line’ where hapuku start being called ‘groper’, and blue cod and tarakihi begin to hold their own against snapper in numbers. Although their reported range includes Hawkes Bay, one species I never encountered until I started fishing north of East Cape, was the blue maomao. The first I caught were during an early visit to Northland. Berley brought schools of maomao swarming around the dinghy. Although of modest size, they impressed with their relative strength and pulling power on light spin tackle. They produced firm, chunky fillets and their bright iridescent-blue colours made me feel a little like I was fishing in the tropics.
These fish are plankton and krill feeders, regularly encountered in surface schools. Blue maomao are easily caught on tiny unweighted, baited hooks stray-lined down a berley trail on extra-light tackle. They are no mugs, however, and you need to avoid drag on the free-floating baits for regular results. I have also caught them on small shrimp patterns when saltwater fly-fishing.
I developed a softspot for blue maomao, so when I first saw the resident schools at White Island I was impressed. They are an XOS strain, weighing up to about 3kg and great sport on one, two or three-kilo tackle. Sometimes, for an extra challenge, I will fish for them using a small spool of two-kilo mono (no rod or reel) as a hand line. That really sharpens up your line handling skills!
Powerful for their size, blue maomao are great fun on light tackle, in this case, one-kilo.
Elephant fish are a member of the strange-looking order of cartilaginous fishes called Chimaeriforms. Related to sharks and rays, they are more common around the South Island, particularly the Canterbury coast, and straggle north to about the line of East Cape in depths from 200m to right in on the surf line. They come inshore to spawn in spring, leaving large egg cases on shallow sedimentary bottoms.
Wellington Harbour is a known haunt of elephant fish, so a visit to the capital seemed like a good opportunity to have a crack at this fabled beast.
Big, affable Eddie Hawkins, a local elephant expert, picked me up pre-dawn and we launched at Seaview Marina. Anchoring on one of Eddie’s favourite elephant spots, we deployed one of his home-made berley bombs and set out a mix of 2, 4 and 6kg monofilament rigs. Sometimes the extra stretch of mono can be an advantage with shy biters in shallow water. Small strip-baits of squid were added to little 2/0 circle hooks and fished off ledger rigs with long branch-loops just above the sinkers.
“Ellies have small mouths and cruise along the bottom feeding on shellfish and crabs. You want small hooks, and the long branch-loops give them a chance to suck in the baits,” said Ed. Despite a reasonable forecast, heavy black clouds formed in the harbour entrance and a white-capped squall raced in. But despite the manky conditions, Eddie’s berley was doing the business. A skate was followed by a long string of kahawai, barracouta, red cod, undersized blue cod and finally a fine example of a spiny dog! Pretty much the grand-slam of Wellington vermin but no elephant fish.
I had one more morning before leaving the capital, so we arranged for a final few hours of fishing in a last-gasp attempt to bag an elephant. At first light we were skimming over a glassy harbour before settling on the spot we had fished on the first morning. It was a magnificent day that invited a whole new perspective on the capital’s harbour. There was virtually no tide-run though, and the berley trail would be very limited in distributing tempting scents to any fish in the area.
But within five minutes of setting the baits I saw the two-kilo rig give a little twitch and pulled it from the rod-holder. The calm conditions and ultra-light rod allowed me to sense the slight movement and extra weight of something playing with the bait. I added a little more drag, gently wound down and rolled the little circle hook home.
Admittedly there is not a lot of authority in two-kilo tackle, but the fish felt better-sized and pulled 20m or so of line on its first run. After a while I managed to gently pump it back to the boat, where we had a brush with the berley pot line – fortunately rubbing on the 10kg leader rather than the hair-thin strand of main line. The fish ran off again and I worked it back once more, finally seeing a silver form with huge pectoral fins circle into view through the green harbour waters.
“It’s an ellie!” said Eddie, excitedly. The fish battled away from Ed’s much-patched net a couple of times, before finally slipping inside. There was plenty of backslapping and hand shaking; you might have thought we had caught a marlin rather than a three-kilo elephant fish.
In the flesh, the elephant fish lives up to its reputation for strangeness. Besides the odd fleshy trunk, used for detecting food in the sand and mud, they have a wicked dorsal spine with a serrated tip. It can be raised or lowered at will and can give a nasty wound. Their shiny silver bodies sport attractive olive-bronze markings and are relatively slender across the back. I expected them to have rough skin like a shark, but instead they have slime like a standard bony fish. Their large fins are translucent (almost see-through) and joined close to the head, suggesting, in a way, the large flappy ears of an African elephant. The anal fin is very close and semi-attached to the tail. Altogether, a very weird animal.
After photos, we returned the fish. A short time later, the two-kilo rig buckled over again, and I battled a second elephant to the net, this one closer to four kilos in size. It, too, went back over the side after posing for a few pics.
We were back on shore by mid-morning, job done. I had the elephant off my back.
Eddie Hawkins with one odd-looking elephant fish.