Norfolk Island is not always considered a fishing hotspot, but contributor Steve Dickinson begs to differ. On a trip there he enjoyed an angling experience like no other…
As you sit on the pier at the end of Cascade Road in the dark with the sun only peeping above the horizon, all those ghost stories you have heard during the week start to come home to roost. The crying girl smelling of cinnamon, the soldiers dragging a man to the gallows, the sound of a fiddle on the battlements, the blood seeping out of the bridge.
Norfolk Island is draped in history, drama and ghost stories, generations of mutineers and prisoners, brutality and hardship. Walking around the graveyard on Kingston Beach is both sobering and fascinating and highlights what Norfolk Island is all about – tragedy and history all wrapped up in one story.
I had heard about fishing in Norfolk (pronounced ‘nor -folk’ locally, not nor-fork) but to find any details on what is available was not easy – what images I did find were an odd collection at best. Norfolk is an 8 x 11km volcanic outcrop in the middle of nowhere. It is like a hat, as a local described it to me. There is a shelf surrounding the island that goes out to 32x80km and remains at about 40m deep till the drop off. It then plummets to 4000 metres.
Norfolk Island is one of those underdone destinations, traditionally labelled for older people who want to play bowls, but nothing could be further from the truth. Norfolk has a fantastic climate and offers plenty to do, including visiting museums, eating and drinking at vineyards and restaurants, surfing, mountain biking and, best of all, untouched fishing.
There are a few charter operators on the island. We went out with Darren Bates and Advance Fishing. As I stood on the pier at 5am surrounded by ghosts in the eerie sunrise, I suddenly got the feeling that ‘things’ were closing in, so I was relieved when Darren arrived with his boat, his daughter Nova and his mate James – and his mum!
Darren drove the boat under the massive crane and ‘mum’ operated the controls. Let me make this clear: this is a rough bit of water, a very, very big industrial crane and a four-tonne boat. Mum winched it up and plopped it down in the sea like she had done it a thousand times before, which she probably had.
We headed directly out. The wind already rising from the south had some bite to it, and the swell was bumpy and confused. After some discussion with Darren, it was clear the biggest hindrance to his charters was the unpredictable weather. Although we coped with the bumpy swell, some older clients may have found it challenging. Darren had a specific pinnacle in mind, and as we approached he slowed and put out two small lures. Within seconds of them hitting the water we had two bonito in the boat, both of which were thrown into a bin. As the boat stopped, the finder was alive with fish – not just in patches, but from top to bottom.
Anything imported to Norfolk is expensive, so there is a full-on DIY culture across the board, including fishing. Darren makes his own white and red, 300-400g jigs. With strong winds and current and at least a metre swell, we were moving quickly. The heavy jigs went direct to the bottom and you could feel them getting hit on the way down. Forty metres down, two quick lifts of the rod and bang, kingie! Kingies of any size seem to have twice the amount of fight in them than any other fish. We fought them to the surface, where they were gaffed, bled and put into the bin. All these fish were destined for the Paradise Hotel. Uniquely, local fishermen on Norfolk can sell their catch directly to the local restaurants and hotels. We drifted off the mound quickly – like I said the conditions were tricky at best – but after getting back to our mark, the screen filled with fish again immediately. The two bins were quickly filled with kingfish and, surprisingly, some good-sized red snapper. Everything we threw over the side came back with fish attached – smaller lures, smaller jigs, bigger jigs. There is an overwhelming abundance of fish around this coast. The coastline is varied, having everything from beaches and cliff faces, to coral lagoons and bombies. Add to this deep-water holes and pinnacles, plus an impressive drop off which no doubt houses untouched marlin and big game fish, and this is an extremely “fishy” coastline.
Darren Bates with a good size Norfolk Island kingie.
One thing you do see a lot of is sharks.
We often had to race to get the fish in the boat before a solid 4-5ft bronze whaler took our catch. There was an ever-present feeling that they were always around. However, no one has ever been attacked by a shark here at Norfolk Island. I presume this is because they are so well fed. With no run-off, rivers or streams from the island, the water is crystal-clear and 20m visibility is standard, so it’s easy to see the big nasties swimming around.
We tried a few other secret spots. The captain jealously put his hand over the coordinates when I shot the screen, saying, “can’t give those away.” Both bins were now well stocked with kingis, and the call was made to “grab some trumpies.”
Basically, this was a bit like groper fishing: heavy line, a rock – literally a rock with a hole drilled through it – and two large hooks. I was told that sometimes they put on as many as seven hooks and they will often all load up. The bait was frozen cod, but trumpies will eat anything. The baits were dropped over the side, and within less than a minute we had two in the boat. Officially called the Sweetlip Emperor (Lethrinus miniatus), they’re beautiful fish with pointy aggressive teeth and a dark red mouth. At that stage I had not eaten ‘trumpie’, but later that night I had it pan-fried with lemon and butter. It was excellent – very similar to snapper but with a slightly softer texture. It did not take long before we had enough trumpies for a feed and the wind was starting to get up, so the call was made to head back. Darren was on the radio: “Mum, we are heading back. Can you come and pick us up?” – it sounded like we were heading back from the pub after a big night out. Sure enough, as we approached the pier wall, there was mum in her pink cardie at the control of the enormous crane. Before we knew it, we were out of the water and settled on the trailer.
Cale shows what size the sweetlips can grow to.
A filleting table was set up on the pier, and the team then started to fillet the fish, throwing the frames in the sea. And yes, as you would imagine, a mass of sharks could be seen scavenging the frames. It was impressive – nothing went to waste.
This was just a taste of what Norfolk has to offer. Other charter operators also provide land-based game fishing as an option. Good-sized tuna have been caught from the rocks, but you definitely need a guide as the coast can be super dangerous.
Although our fishing this day was targeted at catching kingies and trumpies, there is a vast array of fish available. It was winter in Norfolk when I was there, but the water was still 21-22 degrees, making it hospitable to a broad variety of fish, in particular warmer based species like mahimahi, tuna, wahoo and grouper – and I am sure that is just the tip of the fishing iceberg.
There are a lot of places to stay on Norfolk Island (some charters also offer accommodation). The island is well serviced with rental cars and an excellent tourism board (who are super helpful). Air Chathams is now running a weekly direct flight, so it’s only a two-hour jump from Auckland – so you have no excuses not to go!
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