Nothing quite beats the rush of dropping your slow-jig into the water when gannets are screeching and raining in all around you. In such situations, you know your offering – if it escapes the interest of a kahawai or a kingfish close to the surface – will almost certainly be intercepted by a pack of ravenous snapper before it even hits the bottom!
People assume that, as a fishing charter captain, I have a platter of awesome spots I can simply plot a course to on any given day and find this kind of action. In reality, this is far from the case – if you want to consistently catch snapper on slow-jigs in the Hauraki Gulf, you need to treat every day as a new fish-finding challenge.
Of course, having a rough idea of where you will be heading is important. For most fishers, potential locations are dictated somewhat by the weather, the launching spot – and importantly – your allocated fuel expenditure! In the Hauraki Gulf there are seasonal patterns that our work-up action and slow-jig fishing tend to follow, and many of us have the luxury of decent-sized boats that can quickly search the gulf.
Spring: Spring is the season synonymous with Hauraki Gulf work-up fishing.
Early in the season, the top of the Firth of Thames, a few miles north of the Noises and D’Urville Rocks, and either side of the cable zone between Kawau and Tiritiri Matangi, are good areas to explore. Into October and November, the action generally intensifies around these areas, but sometimes the action moves further out into the central gulf, south of Anchorite Rock.
The work-up activity in spring is often a sight to behold, with kahawai, kingfish, dolphins and whales rounding up hapless schools of pilchards and driving them to the surface, where they are bombarded by gannets from above. The snapper are never far behind, feeding hard to put on condition in preparation for spawning.
Summer: December can provide good fishing for large snapper in the outer parts of the gulf – south of Little Barrier, east of Takatu Point, towards the top end of Coromandel, and around the Pigeons Rocks area by Great Barrier.
As we move into late December and early January, the water warms right up and the snapper are most interested in procreation.The fishing can be tough then, with short bites interspersed between spawning activity. Snapper are serial spawners, so if the conditions are favourable they will have several shots at it.
Last summer the fishing was slow until late February. Good areas to concentrate on during late summer include the inner harbour or around the outer reaches of the gulf towards the top of Coromandel, or the Patience Bank area northwest of Channel Island.
Autumn: Autumn is my favourite time of the year and a season that can produce some really good kabura fishing. Often, we focus on snapper sign marked on the sounder and make long drifts rather than chasing work-ups, although autumn is when the big anchovy schools enter the gulf. Shearwaters and gannets on the surface give these anchovy schools away, which are also hounded by skipjack tuna around this time of year.
Good fishing in autumn regularly concentrates around the deeper areas of the gulf, such as the 50m squiggles north of Anchorite Rock and off Fantail Bay in Coromandel.
Winter: Traditionally the fishing is consistent but not remarkable in winter – with the wonderful exception of the winter we’ve just had! Huge schools of pilchards appeared very early this year, and hungry snapper were there for the taking east of Kawau Island in early winter and, later on, at the top of the Firth around Gannet Rock and over towards the Happy Jacks.
In my experience winter is also the best time of year to find large gannet work-ups in shallow water, often leading to hard-and-fast slow-jig fishing for nice snapper in water as shallow as 15m. I’ve seen this in areas such as western Coromandel, northern and eastern Waiheke, the Noises and the East Coast Bays.
Although the seasons can give you a general idea of what areas might be working well, as stated previously, I like to treat each day as it comes. The two key tips involve making the most of recent intelligence and following the signs.
In my opinion, the very best way to find action is by knowing what was happening the day before you’re heading out. Recent intel can be gleaned from www.fishing.net.nz’s saltwater reports, dropping in to your local fishing shop, keeping up with the numerous Facebook groups, or talking to those mates least likely to lead you down the garden path! It almost goes without saying, but the more up-to-date the report the better.
In terms of oceanic signs, the best to follow, of course, are our friends the gannets. Gannets will find the work-ups for you – that’s what they do day-in day-out and their survival depends on it.
The Hauraki Gulf is encompassed by four gannet colonies: the Broken Islands on the inside of Great Barrier Island; Gannet Rock at the NE end of Waiheke Island; Gannet Island by the Happy Jacks in Coromandel; and Motuora Island in Whangaparaoa Bay.
The Motuora Island colony is particularly interesting because it was established through the installation of a ‘fake colony’ of gannet decoys, backed up by an acoustic system playing gannet calls, by the Department of Conservation in 2010.
It pays to start your day close to one of the colonies so you can see which direction the birds are heading. Generally, you will find a majority of birds heading in a similar direction and they will lead you to action sooner or later.
In my opinion, the more eyes searching for gannets the merrier, so let your crew know to keep their eyes peeled. Fellow Hauraki Express skipper George Bourke is a master and can spot gannets diving from anywhere – if you find a mate like this, look after him well and keep him well hydrated so he comes back on your boat next time!
In a similar vein, I find a pair of binoculars is very useful for finding distant work-ups; those incorporating a stabilising feature are an advantage even on relatively calm days.
If the birds are high in the air and circling, it means they have found some baitfish, whereas if they are flying low to the water in a straight line, they are heading towards some action or on their way back home. However, you do encounter days when they can’t make up their minds, and it feels like a case of the blind leading the blind!
Shearwaters are another handy bird to look for out in the Hauraki Gulf – they tend to sit over areas of baitfish and are often associated with kahawai.
Dolphins work in tandem with gannets and are a welcome sight. Similarly, Brydes whales, of which around 50 seasonally reside in the Hauraki Gulf, are a telltale sign you’re in the right area. These whales feed on the baitfish, too, and are given away by their obvious spouts on the horizon.
Upon finding a good area, keep in mind you don’t need to be amongst the action to have awesome fishing; often excellent snapper fishing can be found down-current of action that has recently fizzled out. Generally, the more concentrated the collection of gannets sitting on the water, the more recently they have fed.
In all cases though, no matter how good the fishing encountered, it pays to try and keep one eye on the birds, as they can get up and fly out of sight towards better action very quickly.
If you can’t find any surface action or birds feeding, use your sounder. Slow-jigs catch fish when deployed in areas showing good baitfish sign and/or good snapper marks on the bottom. Some days the snapper hold in very specific areas, and I’ve repeated the same drift numerous times – catching good fish for half a mile or so, then nothing – until the boat is repositioned and the drift repeated.
If you can’t locate any bird or sounder action, long drifts in 30-55m of water in the Hauraki Gulf’s open sand/mud areas will often yield surprisingly good fishing.
One recent trip was a case in point: after covering many miles in poor visibility, few gannets could be found, so I commenced a drift at the top of the Firth of Thames – and we had our bin full of snapper 45 minutes later. Blind luck? Almost certainly!
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