Right now, as I write, Cyclone Debbie is leaving its mark with heavy rain and easterly winds that basically rule out the prospect of productive shore fishing. The great shame of this is that the Surfcasting Nationals are being hosted in my local, southern North Island waters right now. Worse still, this is the second time in five years Wellington has failed to show itself off in a good light for the dozens of surfcasters from around the country who make the pilgrimage to the event. In a few days, many of them will head home, mostly to northern climes, having concluded that Wellington is simply not a great surfcasting location.
While I won’t blame them for that, it is incredibly frustrating, as they are wrong! Wellington and the lower North Island actually offer brilliant surfcasting when the weather plays ball. If only the competition had been held a week earlier – they would have seen the proof, which is where I’m heading with this article.
On the first weekend of April we had excellent surfcasting conditions, and surfcasters from Karori Light to Castlepoint cleaned up big time on quality scale fish. What we experienced was a coming together of the key building blocks to create spectacular surfcasting in this neck of the woods. Basically, the stars aligned, which rarely happens in the way I’m about to describe, and, when it does happen, it’s NEVER on a weekend!
Fortunately, I had enough brownie points stored up to take part myself and, fishing with my good mate Tony Stenhouse, experienced phenomenal surfcasting in Palliser Bay, with kahawai, snapper, moki and big spotty sharks all coming up the beach.
But I want to focus on the key elements of that Saturday afternoon and evening which produced most of the fish – not just at our location, but along the whole southern and eastern coastline of the lower North Island (over 100km), where almost anyone with a line in the water did well.
The season is important in Wellington. Late summer and early autumn generally produce the best surfcasting, possibly because the sea is at its warmest and calmest. This seasonal window sees Wellington getting the most out of its central latitude, with both northern (e.g. snapper) and southern species (e.g. moki) being comfortable and abundant. The end of daylight saving can feel like the end of productive fishing too, with the nights so much darker, but now is actually a great time to fish, thanks to the water still being warm and fish preparing for winter spawning. So don’t go into hibernation just yet!
Water quality is also fundamental to surfcasting success in Wellington. Wind and sea conditions can dirty the water very quickly here; clean water brings a noticeable improvement in catch rates and fish quality. (In other parts of the country with different sands, sediments and soils, a bit of a ‘stir up’ doesn’t seem to dirty the water or drive the fish away, but here in Wellington it definitely shoos away the desirable species.)
On the weekend concerned, after three days of settled weather, the water was exceptionally clean right around the coast. This saw baitfish come into the shallows in numbers, and quality scale species such as snapper and trevally did the same.
Moki are a favourite of lower North Island surfcasters; conventional wisdom suggests a rising tide at dusk or just after dark offer the best times to fish for them. This same wisdom tends to apply to other desirable species such as snapper and trevally.
On Saturday night, April 1, we had a 9.30pm high tide and a 7.15pm sundown. This was ideal, with the tide running and still coming up at dusk. Many really good fish, particularly moki, were caught around this time. It is worth noting that most of the beaches on the south and east coasts are of the steeply-sloping variety, a beach type where incoming tides are generally best.
On Saturday afternoon and evening a moderate northerly wind was blowing and a change was in the air after three days of high-pressure. Whilst the sea conditions were still spectacular, the barometric pressure was beginning to drop. By Sunday afternoon we had rain and strong winds.
I’m a big believer that fish bite hard when they sense a big drop in air pressure, because it signals stormy seas on the way. The bigger the drop, the harder they bite. Two days later, the remnants of Cyclone Debbie brought the pressure right down, so I reckon I’m right on this one!
Many of the fish caught on the weekend were taken during a manic bite time on Saturday afternoon. Afternoons can be a very good time for surfcasting on the Wairarapa coast’s deep beaches in particular, but the full potential is only realised in overcast conditions, which cause the fish to lose some of their daytime wariness of shallow water. There were nice, even, overcast conditions on the day in question, too, and I’m sure this did the fishing no harm at all.
The calm conditions described above have a compounding effect on the fishing because they usually create an inshore sanctuary for crustaceans, juvenile flatfish and baitfish. In turn, bigger fish move in for a feed.
Where we were fishing, big fat kahawai were close in to shore ambushing schools of juvenile yelloweyed mullet; when we caught them, the kahawai were spewing these small fish up by the dozen.
In other locations, anglers have told me the gurnard they caught were full of small paddle crabs and flounder, which presumably had been enjoying the soft beds of powdery sand that had built up inshore after several days of calm seas.
Related more to casting logistics and angler comfort were the mild temperatures and moderate offshore winds. The wind direction assisted casting, ensuring anglers were able to cover plenty of water – everywhere from right on the ‘shore break’ to well out to sea, as the fishing demanded.
The comfortable temperature also meant that anglers gave it a decent bash because it was so pleasant to be on the beach and out fishing. Who wants to go home when you are in a tee-shirt and shorts catching fish on a beautiful autumn night?
So, there you have it: an unusual coming together of critical factors creating lower North Island surfcasting success. Getting a few of them at one time is helpful, but having all of them on the same night is virtually unheard of, especially on a weekend. Simply put, it can transform beaches that are fickle and difficult to fish throughout the year into veritable aquariums of sea life. Furthermore, when these key factors are in place, the fishing tends to be good across a range of locations. This contrasts with the more usual experiences that see certain beaches firing on a given night and others being as a dead as a dodo. It really is a case of all the bays lighting up at once.
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