While my mate Darren has been sussing out his new backyard in the Far North, he has come across signs of snapper feeding in shallow estuaries, lagoons and mangroves. He has even speared a couple of 1.5kg fish at night in knee-deep water while hunting flounder from his small rubber ducky.
Previously Darren lived on the Kaipara, which helped him learn where and what to look for in his new home. On the back of what he’d learned, Darren and I made a plan to have a shot at the fish cruising up in the shallow estuaries and lagoons he’d been floundering in.
The weather isn’t too much of a problem when you're in a little estuary. Closed in by bush and cliffs, our inlet was very peaceful, and like most anchorage, calm, quiet and sheltered. The only noises you hear are birds, the lapping of the water on the moored boats and the odd murmur of the guys working on the oyster barge. These are the sorts of places some snapper call home.
Most time the fish that feed in such shallow and quiet waters don’t move too far and just ride the tides, feeding on all sorts of shellfish, shrimp, crabs, eels, baby flounder and the bait fish that live in the mangroves. Mangroves hold many species of fish that snapper love to dine on.
When I arrived, the decision was made to fish the evening from the banks and maybe move to the rubber duck if the fish weren’t biting. Darren likes to flounder in this area, so he is very familiar with it and he knows where the banks rise and drop away into a shallow three-metre deep channel. The place also holds cockles, mussels and oyster beds.
Even though the water is crystal-clear and only two or three metres deep, the area feels very fishy. This is real Kiwi fishing at its best and anyone can do it, whether using soft baits or dropping a big berley bomb and drifting baits back from a small boat.
A bush track took us to one of Darren's special spots up a shallow estuary with mangroves either side of the oyster bank that you launch off.
The ‘spot’ was just a one-minute row out to the little bay where a few yachts were moored.
Most people would never fish a place like this and even a couple of locals in their small boats went by looking at us like we might have been lost. Regardless of what others thought, I trusted Darren’s experience – this paid off, with all the right signs for fish around us.
We could see the bottom the whole way on the row out and I was chomping at the bit to wet a line. Darren dropped me off on a small set of rocks beside the entrance where the water flowed in and out from the sheltered lagoon before rowing back out to set the mullet net. This was a chance for me to throw a few softies around.
It seemed a little crazy, fishing a little three-inch softie in a place you would expect only to hold eels, mullet, flounder and bait fish. Most fishos would never consider fishing an area like this for snapper, but with no boat noise and a smorgasbord of food, it provided the perfect conditions for hungry snapper.
My first cast went across the entrance of the lagoon, which is only about 20m wide, and I let the incoming tide drag the lure down current, so it looked like a baitfish following the tide.
As the line tightened, I swam it back up-current to me, giving it a couple of quick twitches before something smashed it and smashed it hard! I couldn’t believe I’d hooked up on my first cast!
When my rod buckled over, I let out a hoot to let Darren know I was hooked up. Darren was only 50 metres from me and upon realising I had hooked up, quickly dropped the net to get back and flick out a softie himself.
On the bank it was clear the fish, about 40cm long, was in prime condition, probably from all the great food he’d been dining on. I took a quick pic and watched him swim away in the clear water. I couldn’t believe it, but Darren was right again - “what did I tell ya!?”
The rising tide pushed us off the rock spot, which was disappointing as I wanted to stay and throw more softies across the entrance. Instead, I jumped back into the ducky, and we made our way across to the other side to a small bank on the shoreline, just down from where I had fished the entrance. We tried for another hour or so, just flicking softies, but there were no big takers, just a few small snaps that were still a lot of fun on our light gear.
With not a lot happening and night falling, Darren said it was time to jump back into the boat so we could set a berley bomb in the channel. He had done this before with another mate and had been dealt to a couple times by big fish.
As we were soon to learn, this is one of the best ways to fish these places. Fish naturally swim up and down the channels and by sitting in the current with the berley going, you’re able to cast to the fish. Once the berley starts to work, fish will sit 15-20m behind the boat in the trail just waiting for your baits. The berley keeps them there and all you have to do is lob your un-weighted bait back to them and wait for the hit.
Since it was near the top of the tide, we berleyed up hard and waited for the tide to turn. The sun had gone to bed and the rising full moon had awakened the kiwi and morepork, both of which started calling. Here we were sitting in a three-metre rubber duck up a creek in three metres of water with some of the most breathtaking sights and sounds that one can only dream about - all the while catching fish!
As the sun set, the fish really came on the bite, and as Darren had said to me repeatedly in the past couple of months, “You won’t believe me until you come up and have a go yourself!" It was pure magic, and it made me feel like an awe-struck young fisho again.
We reverted back to floating baits and whole pilchard, and we got hammered by very nice fish considering where we were.
We decided to call it a night around 10:00pm after an insane evening of shallow water fishing. Back at Darren's, we talked about the fun we had just had and made the call to hit it again in the morning, but this time we would take his FC500 through the passage off the main inlet.
I couldn't wait for the sun to come up but wondered if the fish would stay around with the shadow and noise of the bigger boat.
We launched just on light, but as we headed around the corner, we decided not to drive through the gap to our spot but to drift down the little channel throwing soft baits instead. We got a few nice hits and were very surprised when Darren hooked up to a ray on his soft bait. We were unsure if it actually took the bait or was foul hooked. Either way, it was a first for him.
We dropped the pick so we could drift our baits back into the main body of the lagoon. The silky-smooth water was so eerie, and with no wind around, it was soundless – you could just about hear a pin drop! Again, the setting was spectacular, the water a mirror and once the birds woke, we were gifted with their usual morning chorus.
We dropped the berley overboard quietly and once it started working it was like we had never left. Just like the night before, the fish instantly came on the bite - it was almost like they had been waiting for us.
It was about 7:30 am by the time we actually got to our spot and the daylight didn’t seem to worry them at all, even in three metres of water. Bait after bait got hit while the current pushed our berley into the bay.
We lobbed back little cubes of pilchard, which were quickly gobbled up. Once again, our light gear provided enjoyable fishing, and I couldn't get enough of it! We didn't want to take too much from the area and we let numerous fish go. After getting some nice 40-50cm fish and enjoying another magic session, we quietly moved off with big smiles and high fives. It had been epic both times – in the small duck and big boat – but for me, there is something extra-special when you row out in a small boat and catch nice fish in a place like this.
Fish, being shy, usually leave the shallows as soon as the sun is up, but this is something of a myth. It depends where you are. Pea and I used to do the same off the East Coast Bays on Auckland's North Shore with the same outcome. In some places snapper stay a little later; in some places, I reckon they don't move too far or even leave at all, like the place that Darren and I fished.
To experience an epic adventure like Darren and I had you need to be in a place that is rarely fished and isn’t subject to boat noise. These conditions and an abundant food supply is why the fish are there, and such sites can be found all over the North Island. If the setting is right, you will always find fish.
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