Contributor Jed Radaly has spent a lot of time targeting wreckfish, the collective term for the more commonly known bass and hapuku. Here he shares what he has learned and hopes readers will get as big a buzz as he has enjoyed over the years.
I love fishing for wreckfish. Whenever the topic comes up, it brings back memories of long hauls offshore, glassy-calm horizons, extra-large sinkers, and the smell of bait. Then there’s the anticipation as your rig drops into the deep, the lead seemingly taking forever to hit the bottom – and you never know what’s down there, ready to grab your bait!
In the late 1990s I had my first great experience of targeting wreckfish aboard the well-known Far North charter boat, Wildcat. It turned out the boys had found a new deep-water reef a long way offshore, and our plan was to fish it. So, with the game season approaching, a crew was put together for an early troll for marlin and to check the new grounds out.
Nearing the spot around mid-morning, the lures were swapped for double circle-hook ledger rigs and 32oz sinkers. Watching the whole squid and large strip baits being prepared had my blood pumping!
After a few minutes spent making figure eights and sweeping manoeuvres around the rock, skipper Andy had us ready to go. Four guys stood up to the rails, and then it was bombs away.
Just moments after the dropper rigs hit the bottom we were in – a four-way hook up – we’d hit the honey hole. It was carnage, with fish-bins filled and gear and anglers broken. So, not surprisingly, hapuku was my new favourite catch!
As we grow older, we tend to increasingly look back and say, “Those were the days.” However, we have also come to realise that slow growing, territorial fish such as wreckfish can easily be fished out by the commercial sector as well as recreational anglers with a meat hunter’s attitude. Consequently, there are a lot of empty reefs and rocks now, and only a handful of locations where hapuku/ bass can be caught in shallow water through most of the year. In other parts of the country they only come into shallower waters on a seasonal migration to spawn or feed. So if ever there were fish to apply the mantra ‘limit your catch, don’t catch your limit’, it is the deep water denizens of hapuku, bass and bluenose.
This also means that to become a consistent hapuku fisherman, you need to constantly find new ground and rotate the older spots. While it can be hard not to go back when you know big line-pulling fish are there, the spot won’t disappear and the big fish won’t move – unless they are removed.
Continually improving technology is what these fish should fear most, with the latest fish-finders and GPS mapping systems constantly revealing new ground and opportunities. This hightech gear allows anglers to virtually target individual fish, have a reasonable idea how big they are, and get their drift across the fishing marks spot on.
When targeting these deep-water species, I set my fish-finder on 1/1 to slow the scroll speed down, as this helps to pick up good marks as the boat drops off the plane, making it easier to assess the rock’s size and how many fish are on it. It also pays to set the fish-finder on the lowest kHz setting (this will be 50 or 38kHz for most decent quality recreational sounders) and to mark the edges of the structure so you have a good idea of its size and can tell when you’ve gone off the sides.
The sound waves from the boat’s transducer are transmitted in a cone shape to the sea floor, the size of which varies according to the depth. So in 200m you might be sounding a 250m circle around the boat; in 100m it could be 125m, depending on the frequency (the lower the frequency, the smaller the circle, but lower frequencies give better marks at depth).
When planning the drift, it’s especially important to take note of aspects such as wind and current, as they affect the way the boat moves over the area. Every boat drifts differently too, and it’s up to the skipper to figure this out.
The simplest way to achieve this is by doing a ‘dummy’ drift. After marking the target fish, make sure the GPS ‘track’ facility is turned on, then set the boat up for a drift while getting the gear and baits ready.
The resulting drift line marked on-screen provides the drift line in relation to the rock and fish, so the boat can be repositioned accordingly. Remember to provide a little extra lead distance too, as it takes a while for the weighted baits to get down. Also keep in mind that bluenose often mark well up from the bottom.
I therefore wait for the fish to show up on screen before dropping the gear down as fast as possible, or mark the spot and come around over the spot again. My belief (and don’t quote me on this, because I haven’t double-checked with any fish-finding professionals) is that when the fish start to appear on the sounder screen, they are entering the outer edge of the 250m circle. Then, as the fish marks move across the screen, they are getting closer to the boat. So when the fish are in the middle of the screen, they should be directly under the boat – and that is when you want your rig to ‘hit the dirt’. Hopefully they’ll be right in the thick of the fish.
Similarly, when the fish or rock moves away from the middle of the screen, you’re drifting off the rock.
If you’re lucky enough to have a ‘Skyhook’ facility onboard, where the motors work independently of each other in conjunction with the GPS system to hold the boat exactly over any fish marks, all of the above advice about drift is irrelevant! With Skyhook, just find the patch of fish and drop your rigs right on top of them (electric motors fitted to smaller trailer boats can achieve the same thing).
A similar result is achieved by an experienced skipper using the motors to hold the boat over the mark – although anglers need to remain aware of where their lines are in relation to the spinning props.
Like the real estate game, there are three rules for deep drifting: relocation, relocation and relocation. Keep your terminal tackle in touch with the bottom by regularly letting out line. Once the line angle gets beyond 45 degrees or so, wind up and drop down again. Staying down there for as long as possible relies on having the right gear, especially the sinker and mainline… The right stuff! Rule number one: don’t go under-gunned. If you regularly fish for hapuku, you’ll eventually find one that stretches your gear to the max, and when that happens you’ll want tackle capable of dealing with it. Should you break this big fish off, worse than losing it is the fact you’re probably handing that fish a death sentence, thanks to the heavy sinker it must cart around afterwards.
I therefore suggest a minimum line weight of 37kg (80lb) braid or mono on a similarly powerful rod and reel, armed with 400lb leader, 16/0 circle hooks and a ‘break-away’ 32oz sinker attached by 37kg mono at the other end. The rig’s hooks can be placed onto knotted dropper loops tied in the trace, or secured via crane swivels crimped onto the trace backbone. The latter tends not to be as strong, but allows the baits and fish to rotate around the mainline, reducing tangles and presenting the baits better. I use them because I’m as rough as guts and don’t like tying rigs every trip. I have had the same rigs for up to a year now, and have only had to re-crimp the 400lb branch line when changing hooks.
Using a break-away sinker is a good idea for two reasons. First, if the sinker gets fouled on the bottom, the lighter break-away line will snap and at least allow you to get the rest of your rig back. Secondly, and for me the most important reason, if that XOS lunker manages to break your mainline, the sinker should break off afterwards, increasing the chances of survival for these big fish. As I said earlier, it’s easy to overfish the hapuku resource, so every fish is valuable and deserves respect.
Using strong, reliable gear with well-prepared and maintained rigs provides the best chance of landing those occasional trophy ‘puka. Proof for me came while fishing in just 120 metres of water 12 months ago, when a truly monstrous bass was hooked. In that relatively shallow depth the fish are less effected by barotrauma and fight all the way to the surface, so it was quite a struggle.
This huge fish turned out to weigh 72kg, and had three more circle hooks in its mouth – three other anglers had tried and failed to boat the monster before.
On that day we had three drops, caught three good fish, then moved on. Since pulling that big one off the rock, I have not fished the rock again, in the hope it will have similar-sized fish for the next time I, or someone else, fishes it. I cannot emphasise enough the need to ‘farm’ these spots, as conservation is key with these wonderful and very tasty fish.