Gamefishing on the Wanganella Banks


Occasionally you get given the opportunity to undertake the trip of the lifetime. This was certainly the case for Shay Ward when he was first invited on an adventure to the Wanganella Banks…

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When you get offered trips to places like this, there isn’t any other answer I could think of other than a resounding YES! 

I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to fill a spot on the ex-Western Australian prawn fishing boat Lady Lola, now converted into a private recreational boat based in Russell and owned by Ross Mead. 

Lady Lola, an ex-prawn boat, proved to be a great platform to fish the Wanganella Banks.

Lady Lola, an ex-prawn boat, proved to be a great platform to fish the Wanganella Banks.

Seventy-two feet of 8mm plate steel and weighing in at a cool 100 tonne, the Lady Lola isn’t quite the ideal game fishing boat, but the thing she does boast is long range offshore capabilities that will get you there and home again safely – exactly what you need for offshore fishing trips into international waters. 

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That first trip we got 22 striped marlin in two days, which of course created a hunger for more in years to come. 

Fast forward to 2019. The third trip was being planned and earlier than any other year.

We had helped with modifications to the boat which included a duckboard/cage, transom door, bow thruster and the usual maintenance of antifouling, painting and a good clean up. She was ready for the weather and work schedules to clear! 

On the morning of March 6, Jeremy Walker, Wayne Korkie, Paul Ensor, Phil Clear and I left Russell for the two-day, 300 nautical mile plus journey nor’west of North Cape, in what would turn out to be a trip nothing short of spectacular.

When I thought of the Wanganella Banks before going there, I just expected marlin to be everywhere around the small underwater structure – I couldn’t have been more wrong.  

That small structure is more like a mountain range underwater. We travelled 60-70 miles north to south hunting fish over it (possibly more), and 10 or so miles east to west. The place is huge but there aren’t fish just everywhere, as we were about to find out. 

As you can expect, the excitement levels were going off the chart. Lures were in before sunrise as we approached the bank. The sun hit the horizon and exposed birds, dolphins and whales, but that was it – no marlin. It took till 9am to catch our first! 

The life was there, but it just wasn’t happening. 

8-4-4 would be our stat for the first day. A damn good day in anyone’s book but not what we had come for. 

Waking up to a calm sea the next day, we had the lures in at 6am and headed to where the life was the evening before, hoping the fish had come on the bite. It wasn’t to be. The birds, dolphins and baitfish had all but disappeared. The morning finished with one respectable mahimahi of around 8kgs, a couple of raised fish and five dampened spirits sitting on the deck waiting for some action. 

After another stack of award- winning bacon (courtesy of Kihikihi’s Meat Factory) for lunch, the plan was hatched to head north along the edge of the bank until we found something worthy of fishing. 

It was a long five or six hours before anything was seen, but after two days, four marlin, one mahimahi and what felt like just a crazy couple of days fishing our home waters out off Kawhia, the marlin gods provided us with a spectacular four day, eye-opening bender of marlin mayhem.

Another stripy for the Lady Lola crew about to get some plastic jewellery.

Another stripy for the Lady Lola crew about to get some plastic jewellery.

 The cloud of birds was thick on the horizon, stretching for a couple of miles, with more flocks of birds covering a 10-mile radius. The marlin were creating a feeding frenzy of epic proportions, which gave us our first taste of what life was going to be like for the next few days. This action lead to a very unorganized five-way hook up (of which we landed three) and our first triple for the trip, and we hadn’t even hit the birds yet! 

The new duckboad helped with releasing the fish so we could maximize time with lures in the water. Previous trips had us nearly washed out the side door hanging on to the fish, which certainly delayed our fishing time and was dangerous! 

But now, we were literally releasing them two at a time off Lola’s new bum – we were becoming a well-oiled team. 

Thirteen marlin in two hours to end our second day was the best preparation for what was to come. We were in for a real experience that even the most seasoned game fisherman would get weak at the knees over. 

Day three, lures in at 6:30am and instantly, right on cue, “yip, fish in the gear.” No time for toast or coffee or to wipe the sleep from our eyes. It was all on, all day. 

We started running four sets of gear, two x 60kg sets and two x 37kg. With four-way hook ups we had one man free to leader, de-hook and release the fish but, to be fair, when we hooked four fish, generally two would fall off. We still finished with a modest five doubles for the day and they certainly weren’t our last. 

Fishing 60 and 37kg tackle is hard on the anglers and the gear, especially on the hooks!

Fishing 60 and 37kg tackle is hard on the anglers and the gear, especially on the hooks!

Five anglers catching 27 marlin in one day, all over 120kgs, isn’t something I thought I’d ever be a part of, but here I was, doing it – an achievement on its own! But backing that up, right on dark, the last fish that day was what I’m gonna call my stripy of a lifetime. It measured just under 3m in length and had a girth of just under 1.5m. It was a beast of a fish, estimated at over 200kgs and opened up a 10/0 Owner Jobu Hook on 37kg gear! 

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I can’t be biased and say one hook or lure was the best. All the hooks we used bent at some point and all the lures caught fish, but particularly the smaller lures. Sixty kilo line is particularly hard on the gear, the body and especially the hook. How the hooks bent came down to where the fish was hooked and what way it came in on the leader. The belly flap from the mahimahi was stitched up by Wayne as a “just in case” sword bait. That was chucked into the spread, trolled with a circle hook and caught three fish! They just ate everything!

The 60kg gear brought a lot of fish to the boat within five minutes. Fresh, angry and wanting revenge, they got stuck into us. We all got a hiding on the leader: bill-rashed arms, leader burns, fish jumping and landing on our feet. Jeremy had a hole in his thigh to take home, and four pairs of gloves were ripped to shreds.

Adrenaline pumping and grins from ear to ear, there were some well-deserved celebratory drinks that night! A day that will never be forgotten, but little did we know it was all about to happen again. 

Lines in day four and we picked up where we left off. Doubles, triples and quad hook ups instantly. Keeping the boat moving the entire time, the poor bugger on the first rod hooked up was always greeted with an empty reel, but if that fish fell off you can guarantee there was another rod with a fish on a bit closer to home! Keeping the boat moving maximized the number of fish that could be hooked. 

Double, triple and quadruple hook-ups created mayhem on the deck.

Double, triple and quadruple hook-ups created mayhem on the deck.

Sometimes it took less than an hour to do the full round of anglers and then I’d be in the chair again! During that hour, I’d leader a fish, grab a bill, take some pictures and then be back in the harness! 

When one of us would get a break from this cycle, the extra time was generally spent up top watching the action unfold. Here was where we got an idea of what was going on below the lures. 

The speed and power of these fish is amazing – they look like fluorescent blue lightning bolts when they hit the lures. Watching 60kg line disappear under 20kgs of drag is an impressive sight. The fish get lifted out of the water on strike, land, dig in and empty the reel, making it untouchable from heat.

Another 22 marlin were caught that day taking the tally to 64 in four days. I went there hoping to get 50 in the whole trip and we still had two days to go!

Day five dawned and the bodies were starting to feel the burn, but we are all very ready to do battle again. With the company of the birds and mammals, the action was soon to come. It wasn’t quite as ferocious as the past two days but a steady, consistent bite was enough to knock up another 20 fish that day, bumping our tally to an unbelievable 86 in five days.

The vibe and buzz on the boat was electric. Even after 86 fish there was hooting and hollering at every hook up. It was all a little too much for Jeremy and Wayne who suited up and jumped into the water, swimming amongst a meatball and an estimated 20+ marlin circling it! I will admit I’m still jealous as hell but the images they came back with will forever hang on my wall.

The last day – confident, cocky, and with plenty of laughter, we decided that once we got 100 fish we were going to rig the belly flap from the pork roast, use shoes and potatoes as lures, and put hooks in empty cans. But the marlin had other plans and rewarded us with a slow morning of four.

All had gone very quiet: no birds, one aerobatic mako, but overall a very lifeless ocean.By lunchtime the call was made to move south, a hard decision considering what we had just caught in the area. 

Five hours later, with eyes sore from scanning the horizon, we finally saw some action in the distance, but upon arrival it seemed the action was everything else except marlin. Around 7pm, in the blink of an eye, all hell broke loose. There were marlin everywhere, breaking 60kg line, seizing drags, and giving us aerial displays. When they jumped they spewed bait (redfish) all through the air creating more work ups. It was a chaotic hour and a half but eight marlin was all we could manage in that time. Dropping a double as darkness fell gave the Wanganella Bank the last laugh but we certainly took the memories home. 

We managed another 12 that final day to take us to a total of 98 marlin in six days – quite the feat for a bunch of mates on a prawn trawler.

Over that time we had seven fish die, but all were processed on the boat instantly, placed into deep freeze bags and then into the freezer. Once home, they were soaked in a brine for 12 hours and hot smoked for five hours. The final product was the best marlin I have ever eaten due to the fat content in the meat. It leaves a smooth buttery texture in your mouth and is a reminder of how well fed those fish are up there.

This 8kg mahimahi made for a tasty treat.

This 8kg mahimahi made for a tasty treat.

To the crew, thank you. I couldn’t have asked for better people to share such an amazing experience with. You guys truly made it great, regardless of the fishing!

I have crewed for many skippers over the years both commercially and recreationally, but Ross, our skipper, at 74 years young, is like no other. He got yelled at constantly: stop, forward, back, birds there - go that way, no go the other way, there’s a meatball, go go go! Never have I heard a skipper get yelled so many instructions without throwing abuse back at his crew!

He is a guy with a heart of gold that just wants to catch marlin with his mates. We cannot thank you enough for putting up with us for 11 days!

   This article is reproduced with permission of   
New Zealand Fishing News

July 2019 - Shay Ward 
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

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