I’ll be forever grateful to the Taranaki coastline, as it gifted me my first-ever snapper.
As a recent arrival to the North Island, this southern lad had seen dozens of gleaming snapper in the pages of fishing magazines, but never caught one himself. I remember it as if it was yesterday. It was April and I was making the first of what has become regular Easter trips to New Plymouth visiting my wife’s family. I arrived without any gear, but with brilliant weather and calm seas, nothing was going to keep me from fishing, so I purchased a cheap surfcasting combo and other bare basics, and planned an early start the next morning. The weather held and I fished a small river mouth south of Oakura, where I conjured up a just-legal snapper in no time and without much sophistication or skill.
A couple of aspects of that catch were misleading though. First, although the fishing is excellent there, a skillful approach is usually required to succeed in Taranaki, and second, the snapper are generally big.
As it turned out, I copped so much grief from my wife’s family for bringing home the small snapper that I wish I’d returned it to the sea! One of the culprits, Hamish Campbell, farms in South Taranaki and has kept me up to date with some of the better catches in this area over recent years. So plentiful are 20-pound (9.1kg) snapper in the inshore areas there, that 30 pounds (13.6kg) has become the new benchmark for really big fish.
Family ties have given me plenty of opportunities to fish in Taranaki, and whilst I don’t claim to know any of the area particularly well (a few trips a year doesn’t allow for this), I have fished all of the main spots from Hawera in the south to Mokau in the north. It’s a challenging coastline to fish, which is why my first snapper experience was misleading. You shouldn’t expect to turn up half-cocked and catch fish – particularly with a cheap, floppy casting rod like I did.
Many of the beaches are shallow and require a lot of wading, and the west coast location means that there is generally a decent ground swell rolling in off the Tasman – that’s why Taranaki is also a renowned surfing region!
Some of the fishing spots are spectacular – cliff-top spots and magnificent black iron sand beaches – whilst others don’t look like much, but produce the goods.
I remember one trip with an expert local fisherman, who drove me directly off the state highway, across a paddock full of wrecked cars and down to a shallow, scrappy looking beach full of boulders. This, he informed me, was a beach of giant snapper and surfcasting legends. We didn’t catch much, but I don’t think he was kidding!
My key point is, despite the prevalence of snapper – and big ones at that – Taranaki is an unforgiving environment for surfcasters. To succeed it helps to bring the full package to the table – a positive attitude, good planning, advanced skills and perseverance.
The following are some of the key factors to success here (my ‘Taranaki fundamentals’), followed by my thoughts on the three main fishing environments encountered by surfcasters in Taranaki: surf beach fishing; boulder beach fishing; and cliff-top fishing.
The first thing that strikes me about the Taranaki coastline is that it presents a difficult fringe for surfcasters to fish. Most of the coastline is made up of shallow beaches where there is generally a good swell pumping, or scrappy, rocky coastline that quickly snags up sinkers and hooks. Coming ill-prepared for these scenarios is a recipe for frustration, so here are some important things to think about.
Taranaki is famous for its surf, and renowned surfing beaches like those at Oakura and Opunake also offer excellent surfcasting.
My Taranaki fundamentals are most relevant to these beaches, where the key to surfcasting success is to land your bait and sinker in deep fish-holding water and keep it there. Even moderate swells ‘stand up’ on these shallow beaches, making it difficult to keep a tight line.
I’ve written before about fishing shallow beaches, and all the usual rules apply: long rods, long casting rigs, and the need for wading. One tip is that Taranaki surf beaches have very big tidal ranges and are very steep just in front of the dunes. This presents opportunities for easy high-tide fishing, with deep water close at hand that can easily be cast into – even without getting your feet wet! Snapper of all sizes will turn up on these beaches during the course of the year, but autumn is a good time to pick up big bags of pan-sized specimens.
What I call ‘boulder beach fishing’ is a feature of the Taranaki surfcasting scene. Some of those scrappy bits of rock-strewn coastline I described above can be excellent places to catch really big snapper. Taranaki’s serious surfcasting fraternity invests a lot of time fishing these areas, either directly amongst submerged rocks or on comparatively clean bottoms between rocky headlands.
In these areas there is always a risk of getting snagged up, so the favoured local technique is to fish with the hook at the end of the line and a ball sinker fixed about 30cm above the hook. This goes against the conventional wisdom of streamlining rigs for casting by tying the sinker at the end of the line – but the logic is not about long casting. Rather, the logic is that the sinker will lodge in a snag but lift free when a surfcaster is pulling hard from one end and a big snapper from the other.
Durable baits such as paua, octopus and kahawai fillets are favoured in this environment, because the idea is to keep bait in the water for as long as possible, rather than constantly rotating them as you would in a more forgiving environment. Some of the best boulder beach fishing is in the south of the province, in the stretch between New Plymouth and Hawera.
Much of the Taranaki coastline is characterised by fairly flat land set 20 to 30m above sea level, with dramatic coastal cliffs in between. In some places the cliffs plunge directly into deep water and in others they are separated from the water by broad surf beaches.
Opportunities for surfcasters and rock fishermen to fish really deep, productive, fish-holding water are offered where the cliffs plunge directly into the sea, and again snapper are the target.
Cliff fishing is especially popular in the north of the province in the stretch from Waitara to Mokau. Safety should be foremost in your mind when fishing the cliffs. I recommend wearing an inflatable lifejacket (PFD), taking a long rope as further insurance, and never fishing alone.
In terms of actual fishing, a short, stiff rod will help to wind fish up the face more easily, but a longer rod enables you to fish further back from the cliff edge – think about what is safest for you and your chosen spot.
Bringing the fish up is the most dangerous time, because you’ll need to approach the edge – fish over about 2kg are difficult to wind up with your rod and reel, and you’ll need to consider bringing the fish up by hand, rope-gaff or basket. Be very careful.
To summarise, the surfcasting opportunities in Taranaki are endless, and you have a very real chance of catching a trophy-sized snapper if you strike the right conditions and approach the fishing with intelligence and a positive attitude.
Exposure to westerly weather and big seas limit the fishing opportunities along the whole coast, but the southern and northern bights (separated by Cape Egmont) do experience different conditions, particularly if the wind is from the north or south, so read the forecasts carefully before choosing where to fish. Autumn is the best season for surfcasting, with more settled weather and plenty of big snapper inshore, so this is a good time to visit.
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