Fishing Spirits Bay

Ardent saltwater fly fisher Craig Worthington’s return to Spirits Bay/Kapowairua was long-awaited and badly needed. It had been ten years since his last visit. In the intervening years, a skin cancer had wreaked havoc on his face, Covid had transformed the world, and, he had also been dealing with the great and lasting trauma of turning 60!

You could say I was more than ready to return to the hallowed shores of this beautiful bay ingrained into my soul as a young adult. I spent much time up there in my youth – chasing big kingfish on live baits off the rocks, camping like a troll in the adjacent DOC camping ground, and feeding the local mosquito population large portions of my blood.

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In those days, the Far North was totally fascinating. I feel privileged to have experienced it in those early years. To hear Te Reo in everyday use in the local towns, to watch the local kids bombing off the Te Hapua wharf, the sharks, mullet, john dory, kingfish and kahawai swimming along the rocks and in the harbour channels, and the ever-present accompaniment of all those semi-wild horses. It was a great place to be.

It is still a great place. But things changed as time moved on. On my last visit ten years ago, international tourists were everywhere. Although Covid stopped that for a while, no doubt all those tourists will soon be back.

We saw plenty of evidence for this on our quick two-day tour: the weather was freezing for October, the sky was grey and bleak, but there was a steady flow of tourists turning up. And the ever-familiar European backpackers were back – making camp and settling in for the long haul. You could tell that, by summer, the Far North would be very busy again.

This doesn’t necessarily detract from the fishing. The seas around the top of the north are wild and unpredictable, and few international tourists are there to wet a line. Fishing there is dictated by what the weather allows you to do, not what you want to do. Much of this coast can have extended periods of low fishing activity, simply thanks to the swell being up or the wind howling. It is not uncommon to drive up there and find the sea a total wipe-out.

And it can be a perilous place as a result. This is especially so for Spirits Bay and any of the region’s rock fishing spots. Despite being north-facing, the whole area is exposed to the influence of big west coast swells. These swells travel a long way to get there and wrap right around Cape Reinga when they do. This can result in a ‘set’ based swell pattern where long, dull periods are interspersed with extended sequences of giant waves. This sudden increase in wave height can catch people out. Fishermen have died on these rocks, and plenty more have had close calls. You must always keep your eyes on the water when fishing in this region.

The swells can be killers at Spirits Bay. Even small swells can produce unexpected waves that can knock you off your feet. Never take your eyes off the ocean in the Far North.

The swells can be killers at Spirits Bay. Even small swells can produce unexpected waves that can knock you off your feet. Never take your eyes off the ocean in the Far North.

The main impetus for my return to Spirits Bay was to hunt for the ever-elusive Kermadec kahawai. These fish are a separate species of kahawai (Arripis xylabion) that live in our far northern oceanic waters. They are predominately found at Lord Howe Island, Norfolk Island and the Kermadecs. They occasionally appear in New Zealand coastal waters and the principal location they show up is on this north-facing coastline between Cape Reinga and North Cape.

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They can be big fish, growing much larger than the common everyday ‘mainland’ variety of kahawai (Arripis trutta). Some of the very largest specimens have been known to exceed ten kilos. And they have big, forked tails that match their impressive size. Unfortunately, though, they are nearly always rare.

I was lucky enough to catch one medium-sized example many years ago. It was well before the era of modern phones and digital cameras. I caught the fish just on dark, and it weighed somewhere around three and a half kilos. I remember marvelling at its different form and then slipping it back into the water. I didn’t appreciate what I had caught and have no photographic evidence of its capture. It remains little more than an interesting memory.

There were two other Kermadec kahawai caught on that trip by other anglers. One weighed seven and a half kilograms, the other nine kilograms! But they were not my fish, and the smaller fish I had caught had not been caught on fly tackle. Once I had become a fixated saltwater fly fisher, a dream started to fester – “wouldn’t it be great to go back and do it all again with a fly rod?”. It had to be a great excuse to go fishing.

With a forecast for a dropping swell and an offshore south-to-southeast breeze, we took the opportunity to hit the road. It was a good drive. Only one set of roadworks slowed us down, and the roads were mostly quiet and in good condition.

The first stop was Parengarenga Harbour, where a couple of big fat seals cruised the harbour channel and chased parore up onto the rocks – that was something new. On my last visit, there had been a series of turtles swimming by. This time there were fur seals. We figured our fat furry friends would wreck our fishing prospects, so we moved on.

Taking in the scenic beauty of Spirits Bay/Kapowairua.

Taking in the scenic beauty of Spirits Bay/Kapowairua.

Spirits Bay loomed into view with its distinctive maunga still very much in place. Not a lot had changed. It was still the place I remembered. A few pohutukawas had grown slightly larger, and the surrounding landscape was a bright vivid green from all the winter rain we’d had, but those were the only differences. We wasted little time going fishing – camp construction could wait until later.

The swell was a little feisty, and I warned my friend (and trip photographer) Mark Hoffman of the dangers therein. I told him the swells would build unexpectedly when the tide turned and started to come back in. This proved very prophetic and limited our fishing to the last few hours of the run-out tide.

Our fishing strategy was simply to berley and fish flies down the berley trail. This is a great way to catch the maximum amount of kahawai possible and would, I figured, give us the best possible chance of connecting with a Kermadec kahawai.

The whole berley plus fly combo is so effective on kahawai that I wonder why we didn’t use it all those years ago when searching for kingfish live baits. There were many land-based fishing sessions at Spirits Bay in the old days when we struggled to catch any kahawai at all, and the ones we did catch would almost be too big for live baits. The kahawai were always hard to catch when there were kingfish around. We fished with spinners and stray-lined small cube baits down the berley trail, but the kahawai used to frustrate us immensely as they blasted on through. We never tried a fly.

A well-fished fly in this situation could have delivered to us the medium-sized live baits we so desperately needed and would have given us potential live baits hooked firmly in the mouth. Somehow, we never managed to figure that out.

And so it was on this trip. The flies hooked up to good kahawai almost immediately, and I watched with excitement as the first monster specimen took to the air, until it fell off.

The next three kahawai fell off as well. I was not sure what I was doing wrong. With each loss, I was left wondering if I had just lost a Kermadec kahawai.

Then fish started to stay connected. But they were smaller fish and just your everyday garden variety of New Zealand kahawai. The sea was alive with them, and we caught plenty. I had hoped to see kingfish and trevally in the berley as well, but we saw none.

Unfortunately, all of the kahawai turned out to be the common 'New Zealand' variety of kahawai and not the prized and ever-elusive Kermadec kahawai.

Unfortunately, all of the kahawai turned out to be the common 'New Zealand' variety of kahawai and not the prized and ever-elusive Kermadec kahawai.

I did have a two-kilo snapper come charging in, all lit up and totally excited. It smashed the fly like it was its last meal.

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This was entirely unexpected. Spirits Bay is not known as a great snapper fishing location. I am pretty sure that this is the only snapper I have ever caught there. I have had some surfcasting friends catch a few, but they’re by no means common – Spirits is very much a kahawai and kingfish location. It also has occasional appearances of good-sized trevally and sometimes far too many school sharks.

However, if you like snapper there are far better places to fish. Spirits is very much a pelagic fish location. There are often work-ups between the rocks and the reef, and marlin and yellowfin tuna have been seen feeding out there. Skipjack tuna have been caught off the rocks.

Sharks are also common along these Far North ledges, with plenty of sightings of white pointers in the area. Anybody who spearfishes there takes their chances with a wild ocean food chain. Let’s just say I like to stay dry at Spirits Bay!

Our Spirits Bay whistle-stop tour turned into a kahawai fishing session in a wild and dramatic landscape. I was thrilled to be there but would have been even happier if one of the common kahawai had turned out to be of the rare and elusive Kermadec type. Unfortunately, it was not to be. We survived the unexpected October chill and trundled back down the dusty road. Spirits was still the same, and I had been more than happy to return. A re-visit in autumn could possibly turn up one of those elusive and enigmatic Kermadec kahawai beasts. Possibly...

December 2022 - Craig Worthington
New Zealand Fishing News Magazine.
Copyright: NZ Fishing Media Ltd.
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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