Wharf fishing techniques

I don’t spend a lot of time fishing from wharves, my preference being to get out on the open coast and fish the surf beaches and rocks where the fish are thicker, away from the crowds.

However, every year I travel to Northland on an LBG trip and spend some time on the wharves up there. These trips are full of big days on the rocks and long walks, so a day on the wharf – which often makes a great fishing platform – offers a chance to rest the body before another big day.

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Northland’s wharves are almost all located inside sheltered harbours and offer comfortable all-weather options when bad weather rules out the open coasts. Some of the better ones are located inside the Whangarei, Hokianga, Rangaunu, Hohoura and Parengarenga Harbours – and the fishing can be first class. In fact, at times I’ve wondered why I bother slogging my guts out on the open coast when the wharf fishing can be so good!

Typically, the wharves are located on the edge of pronounced channels, and the fish move through at different stages of the tide. The wharves also act as sanctuaries for many species of baitfish such as jack mackerel, piper and small kahawai – but only as partial ones, as bigger fish such as john dory, kingfish, adult kahawai and stingrays still regularly visit. Better still, species like snapper, trevally, and sharks can also turn up, especially when encouraged by a little berley.


Generally the wharves are easily fished throughout the day, but there are a few things to look out for which relate to the tides:

  • Some of the wharves sit above very shallow water at low tide, and this can limit the number of fish in the vicinity during the bottom half of the tide – you may have to wait to fish until the water is at least half-tide or more.

  • Low tides can also create opportunities, because low water concentrates baitfish into the narrow harbour channels where they are more easily picked off by predators – this is a good time to deploy a live bait!

  • When fishing directly into harbour channels, a strongly running tide drags baits (dead baits, live baits and sinkers) and can present challenges. Respond smartly to this; for example, try setting your live bait at the downstream end of the wharf so it’s less likely to end up amongst the wharf piles.

  • Strongly running tides present the opportunity to set up a berley trail that reaches well downstream of your position and draws fish from far and wide.

Methods and gear

Every technique imaginable can be successfully used from wharves; the mix of species available on Northland wharves is diverse, and your methods should be too if you want to take full advantage of the opportunities. Consequently, at some stage in the day I will live-bait, spin, stray-line and surfcast. Soft-baiting is also an effective option that can account for John dory, kahawai, kingfish and snapper.

A long-handled net or gaff is a good investment, because when the tide drops out, many of the wharf platforms are well above the water; many a good fish has been lost at the wharf’s edge. This is particularly important for big, strong specimens of kingfish, trevally and snapper, all of which are capable of making a last dash for freedom by wrapping you around a wharf piling. With all the hard work largely done, this is gut-wrenching, and it’s happened to me more than once. A long gaff or net reduces this risk by allowing your catch to be secured quickly.

Key species

John dory: John dory are caught by land-based anglers from wharves more than anywhere else. These magnificent eating fish hang around the wharf pilings ambushing small baitfish with their extendable mouths and can be caught in numbers at times – as my mate Tony Stenhouse proves time and again.

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A good way to target JDs is by live-baiting a small piper, mackerel or spotty under a small float, or, better still, straight down on a ledger rig. Whilst light tackle will suffice for JDs (they don’t grow big or fight particularly hard), bear in mind that a much feistier kingfish may take your bait, so a minimum of 15kg mainline and 24-30kg trace is advisable. It doesn’t seem to put the JDs off, anyway.

Kingfish: The kingfish off Northland’s wharves are legendary. In some places, such as Pukenui Wharf in Hohoura Harbour, kingfish over 10kg can show up in numbers. A good session typically results in a mix of angler fortunes: those ecstatic with catching a legal kingfish and those with their tails between their legs after getting blown away around a wharf pile or channel marker!

Kingfish are strong, hard-fighting fish, so a clear strategy and a bit of luck are required to successfully land them from wharves. Every wharf is different, but my preferred tactic is not to strike hard or apply too much hurt on the kingfish early in the fight. The theory is that this sees the kingfish head out into deeper water in front of the wharf, where it can then be tired out during the longer retrieve that follows, resulting in a wearier fish being brought to the wharf. By contrast, a green kingfish close to the wharf can easily see you busted off around the piles. My strategy doesn’t always work, but it does more often than not.

Kahawai: Kahawai may not be your target species, but they deserve mention here because they are so plentiful in Northland’s harbours. They respond well to berley and can be drawn to your position in huge numbers this way, visibly swimming in front of you. This is a great thrill for novice anglers, and a few times I have offered amazed onlookers the chance to catch one! Scenarios like this also offer exciting fly-fishing and light-tackle opportunities.

Trevally: Northland’s harbours are famous for trevally full-stop, but on occasions they will visit the wharves – and not just small specimens, but big ones over 5kg, too. Berley is often needed to attract the attention of these hard-fighting fish, and once hooked they’re just as adept as kingfish at busting you off amongst the wharf piles, particularly as they are less inclined to retreat to the main channel. Making it tougher still, a fine balance is required with trevally – heavy tackle is unlikely to attract a bite and light tackle is often insufficient to subdue them. So 10-15kg tackle is probably about right, and even then it pays to be light on your feet and to tell your net man to be the same!

One of the challenges of fishing wharves is that they attract people into a tight space when compared to the beaches and rocks. This can create tensions and challenges, but a tolerant, communicative approach means the experience will more likely be a good one. At other times though, you just have to accept that it’s time to move on. I was once swimming a live bait when a group of school kids came past and started dive bombing off the wharf, bringing an early end to my day’s fishing. That said, crowds are not the problem in Northland that they are on wharves elsewhere around the country, and it is not unusual to have some wharves to yourself all day, particularly outside holiday periods.

Returning to the fishing – when I sit back and think about it, the wharf fishing in Northland is amazing. On the many trips I’ve taken to the area, my mates and I have caught some really memorable fish. Normally these are not the really big specimens available from the open coast, but we’ve taken numerous kingfish up to 20kg and trevally and snapper over 5kg. Then there are the fish we’ve failed to subdue, and memorable sights such as giant bronze whaler sharks in the berley trail.

The wharves offer opportunities for both the serious LBG fisherman and the family road trip to Cape Reinga, so it’s well worth putting a light spinning rod and a few lures in the boot!

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