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Fishing the Kaipara

By Paul WalkerNZ Fishing World
Fishing the Kaipara

The 2013-2014 season in the Gulf was a patchy one following on from Christmas. The Kaipara however had some solid fish inhabiting the harbour that weren't afraid to bite.

Fishing seasons are forever changing and for those of us who fish, they are forever playing with our emotions. At the beginning of spring, with the start of the new season, we assume it will be as good as the last and hope it will be even better. But when a bad season arrives we have to roll with the punches and quickly work out what’s different and instantly revise our fishing approach to achieve success.

On the Hauraki Gulf, this current season was no different. We had a good run up to the spawn at Christmas and most forms of snapper fishing were pretty good. Schools were a bit spread out, similar to the previous season, but with a bit of diligent spotting they could be found and a good feed at least could be had.

Then, in stepped the game of two halves – after the new year, the gulf pretty much just died and apart from the odd exception, the good fish were very hard to find. The places they should have been at this time held only very limited numbers of good snapper who were reluctant to bite most of the time, and the rest of the inner gulf filled up with tiny snapper-bait stealing piranhas, the fishos’ plague – they were everywhere. 

The outer gulf around the Barriers and the Mokes, from say Horn Rock north, fished well enough but few could get out that far in the continuous windy conditions we were also experiencing at this time. So apart from an abundance of small kingies, some were saying this was the worst post-Christmas snapper season they could remember for a long, long time. Boat fishermen were not happy, as most rock fishos were doing better than they were, and that’s unheard of in summer. The gloom set in.

Famine in the gulf

Throughout this famine in the eastern gulf, the one place that was going great guns in the snapper department was the Kaipara Harbour. We had reports filtering through about good snapper fishing over there, but as the place usually fills up with sharks in the summer we didn’t take much notice – however,  it seems this year the big snapper came in and most of the sharks stayed out.

I should have listened more carefully and taken more notice sooner, as I love this harbour, generally only fishing it in the winter for gurnard. But if that’s where the snapper were then that’s where we needed to be, so a plan was formed and a hurried trip organised in my mate Barry Tompson’s new boat: a 4.8 m deep vee McLay Fortress. This big open dinghy has a very large casting platform in the bow for lure fishing – I just love this feature – and is powered by a 60 hp four stroke tillered Mercury. And yes, it can fly.

The plan was to pick a mid morning low, so with an early morning launch at Shelly Beach we could GPS mark all the creek mouths on the way to the heads as gurnard spots for later in winter. We’d then arrive at the graveyard area at slack water and lure fish for big snapper on the mussel beds up there. After that, as the incoming tide built, we would fish our way back down the harbour, reaching the Shelly Beach boat ramp at high tide to make for an easy boat retrieve. That was the plan; here’s how it went.

The Trip

We arrived at the ramp at 9.30 am – after stopping at Helensville for the obligatory hot pies at the bakery – and our third crew member was there waiting for us. Matt Hewetson is the commercial manager for the Fishing World magazine and having spent a lot of his fishing life on the Kaipara Harbour, he knows the graveyard area well.

It was about now that the fishing gods and Mother Nature stepped in to stuff up our day. The 10-knot westerly predicted was blowing a good twenty, and the word from a few mates and locals was the harbour had died in the last 10 days; fishing was now very poor. Bugger, just our luck. Still, we were here and set to go, so a revised plan was hastily formulated and we were off. The problem with Shelly Beach at half tide is you have to back out a long way over a flat hard pan, and Barry’s brand new Isuzu 4x4 had water up to the axles before we could get the boat off. She was going to be in for a good hard wash when we got home. As for the boat, we had never fished three in it before so it would be interesting to see how that went. By the time we cleared the Shelly Beach cliffs it was clear that we were never going to make the graveyard in this wind, so decided to fish our way up the harbour until we hopefully struck snapper somewhere – but with the fishing predictions we had been given, I think any fish would have done as there are plenty of other species in that harbour.

We first tried a little past the big concrete bunker, Matt and I on soft plastics with Barry on bait, drifting across the channel from the western side with the wind and the outgoing tide. Using a dark green and grey softy, I hooked up on a reasonable fish but then dropped it a little way into the fight. Damn. Matt was the next to hook up using a orange and hot yellow eight-inch tail, and landed a nice snapper of about 6 lb and that was it at this spot. Several more drifts produced nothing else, so we moved on to the eastern side to the channel drop off and bait fished at anchor, as one of the locals was doing the same. Unfortunately this spot only gave us lots and lots of very small snapper. Time to move further up the harbour.

Where would the lucky spot be?

Our next spot was the green marker pole on the edge of the Omokoiti Flats. This area had apparently produced good snapper on the Saturday and as this was only Tuesday, we figured they may still be around. On his first cast Matt nailed a really nice fat gurnard, followed by a typical big Kaipara kahawai on that same orange and yellow tail. We thought we might be into it, but here too that’s all that came aboard.

“OK, where to now, boys?” – a bit of head scratching was going on, as it was now low tide and lunchtime. I wanted to GPS mark a small creek in some quiet water not far from where we were for winter gurnard fishing later in the year; havingdone that we dropped anchor and had a war conference over lunch as what to do next.

There was quite a deep inner channel a little further up the harbour, so we decided to attack that. Sadly, apart from two small sharks and again some small snapper, our results were the same and as we watched a small Kaipara cruise boat go by, I related a story of fishing with two other mates: we had also caught small sharks in the same area and after one mate telling the other that that was all he was capable of catching, the first mate then jammed this baby shark’s mouth onto the second mate’s bum which hung there like a remora. He nearly jumped over the side in fright and we nearly fell over the side with laughter. Well, that’s what mates are for, aren’t they?

The one thing that was going well was the boat. It handled the three of us with no trouble; plenty of room for us to fish and cast. It ate up the choppy conditions, even if Barry on the tiller did get a bit wet in the cross wind. The big 60 hp four stroke had no trouble pushing the three of us, all our gear and a heap of extra fuel – those deep vees sure love the rough stuff. We just had to put it over some fish.

So with the tide now two hours on the incoming and with two big sand barges bearing down on us – and you have to watch out for those big machines, they can move at a hell of a clip with the wind and tide behind them – I made a call to go back to thegreen marker pole, but this time on the eastern side of the channel. We anchored on the drop off in about 16 m of water. It was about now the fishing gods finally took pity on us and in two big wind gusts, without us realising it the anchor pulled and we drifted up on to the flats. Here, in 2.5 m of water, were the snapper – and heaps of them. Not big, just good pannies. But they fought like hell in that shallow water. We had a ball, used up every bit of bait we had and in a harbour that is usually plagued with kahawai we couldn’t buy one to use as extra bait, so when all the bait was gone we tried soft baits again. But they didn’t want to know – obviously they were switched onto bait and that’s what they wanted. We had run out, so game over; we had to leave them biting.

We got back to the ramp just on four o’clock. With a lot more water at the ramp the boat pick-up was a lot easier. We had sixteen snapper in the bin and one big gurnard –  the kahawai was used for bait. And we were smiling. But if it hadn’t have been for that anchor pulling, maybe it would have a different story, because I wouldn’t have picked those snapper to be hiding up in that shallow water in the middle of a bright sunny day. It just goes to show: never give up, because with fishing, nothing is carved in stone and anything can and does happen. It all came right for us at the end of the day – more good luck than good management – but I’ll take it however it comes. We each got a feed to take home and that’s what we went for.

The Kaipara, got to love that place.

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