Don’t let El Nino winds stop you – with the right gear and a bit of patience, the West Coast delivers big time.
Weather aside, Auckland's West Coast has unlimited fishing opportunities. While weather conditions should always dictate whether it's safe to head out for a fishing expedition, the west coast takes it to a whole new level. The current strong El Nino weather patterns have been creating blustery westerly winds, minimising our opportunities to get out there. Factor in work and family commitments and you can be left with precious few opportunities. For example, this time last year I managed six trips out through the Manukau Harbour entrance between October and the New Year. This time round it has been a measly two only two trips out to some of the best fishing the country has to offer.
Jamie with a typical snapper from our trip in December. While bigger fish are nice to catch, fish this size are prime eating quality and easy to fillet. They can also be very abundant. So can big fish but not every day.
Respect the bar
Fortunately for me, I really enjoy harbour fishing and bad conditions for the coast often mean great conditions in the harbour, at least in my neck of the woods. Unfortunately, it all gets a little too much for some people and they venture out in less than ideal conditions in the quest for those big hungry snapper.
A recent trip went badly for three boaties in November when they spent close to three hours soaking in the cold water. Luckily they had lodged a trip report and were wearing lifejackets. Their near-new boat was tumbled over and over in the surf leaving virtually nothing worth salvaging. They were all injured but made it home alive. I have spoken with a few involved in the rescue and it was a sobering story. Please don't take risks if you are planning a trip out on the west coast ñ you will get opportunities when the weather is perfect, they just won't happen very often.
Arron and his 16kg kingfish
While most people choose to access the coast via the Manukau bar, there are other options. The Waikato River bar is short, sharp and has little room for error but provides quick access to some great fishing. There's also the Kaipara Harbour entrance, or you can beach launch. Either way, you need to have some local knowledge and experience before exploring any of these methods. A trip out with an experienced skipper is a great way to learn and Coastguard offer bar crossing courses, which could very well save your life. I've known people to just 'give it a go' and come back safe and sound but trust me, it's not the way to do it.
Why head west?
So, what does the west have to offer? The variety of fish is probably the prime motivator for me and the quality of those fish, especially snapper, is a real driver for most west coast fishermen. While weather conditions help to create a self-managed fishery, the area can still come under intense fishing pressure. On our last trip out just prior to Christmas there were countless recreational boats lodging trip reports and three big trawlers within a kilometre of us. In contrast to the commercial presence, in such a vast ocean we could only see three or four recreational boats. Still, the fish were plentiful but I do worry about the future of snapper and tuna off the coast.
Jamie Rumbold on his first trip across the Manukau Bar. He was pretty pleased with himself getting a personal best gurnard and a personal best snapper.
Our mission was to catch snapper, hopefully with a bycatch of fat gurnard, and to finish off the day with some tuna fishing. The crew on board Zambesi were out the previous day and had a good snapper haul at 42m so that was the depth we were hoping to fish. At 40m we found gannets, close enough! A couple of mates that had followed us out through the bar on the skipper's first fishing trip out west chose to bottom fish while we motored around the fringes of the work up towing tuna lures. After a couple of circuits we had nothing to show and the crew on the other boat confirmed the predators were kahawai and not one of our target species. They did mention a kingfish had followed a kahawai in so I stored that info in the memory bank.
It makes sense to bottom fish around a work up and we did just that. It wasn't long before snapper found our baits and the bin was looking healthy. I had decided to fish whole squid on the top hook of my ledger rig in the hope that a kingfish would show some interest and they certainly did, with a big run that I initially called for a shark. In the process though, the spool on my Shimano Thunnus 8000 was being emptied out at an alarming rate, so we had to up anchor to prevent a spooling. After a good tussle a very fat kingfish was at the boat, but we had drifted well away from where we were catching snapper and we struggled to get onto them again with only an occasional red coming on board amongst a myriad of kahawai.
Kingfish this size will take every opportunity to wrap your line around what ever they can. The west coast has little structure but if you're anchored you want to haul that pick in fast! Good strong 8/0 recurve hooks will give you the choice to release a healthy fish.
The squid baits worked their magic again, this time Arron took the rod and it was a kingfish that weighed a respectable 16kg. While we didnít have to lift the anchor for this one, it still gave Arron a good workout. Kingfish werenít on our target list that day but they are not an unexpected visitor. Although weíve caught them out west before, as a non-commercial species, they do appear to be showing up more frequently in the last few years. Mostly they have been smaller specimens so itís good to see a few larger models in the mix.
With time to kill we thought about hunting for albacore but after 30 minutes of no action we decided a full chilly bin was enough for our three households and headed back in.
Albacore and skipjack tuna show up in the summer months and can often be found from 25m onwards. We tow lures on robust snapper gear, game rods or bungies and have found that red/white or black/purple work best. I like to use MacSkippy brand lures rigged on a 3m 120lb trace with a strong 6/0 hook attached, towed at 6 to 8 knots. You can fish the lures as close in or as far out the back as you like. Once you've had a few hook-ups you will probably notice a pattern forming, helping you to decide on lure placement.
Hiku and his crew aboard Zambesi came home early with a full chilly bin after only a couple of hours fishing.
The key to finding skipjack and albacore is to look for surface action or feeding gannets, much the same as I suggested for kingfish. There are other telltale signs too, such as current lines or a congregation of birds sitting on the water; even feathers floating on the surface are evidence you have just missed a workup. There are usually still fish around so work the area. Itís not unusual to simply happen upon tuna, even without the signs.
Just be aware that when you are trolling for tuna, it's likely mako and blue sharks won't be far away so have a plan for dealing with them if they make it to the boat. The best course of action is to simply cut the leader as close to the fish as you safely can. Just keep it in your mind that marlin can and do take tuna lures so it is safest to use good sturdy gear, you never know what might happen!
Darren, my brother in law from Australia, had never caught a fish on a lure before. Kahawai are the perfect target and are plentiful over the coast. There's no need to use baits with these fish.
The west coast has plenty to offer but do your homework first and don't take chances with the weather. Be prepared to deal with sharks, barracouta and seemingly endless kahawai. While not every trip will provide big snapper or kingfish, there's certainly a wide variety of fish on offer.
- Look for sign on the bottom – anchor up, be patient and the fish will come to you
- Midwater fish sign is likely to be kahawai or mackeral
- Use 7/0 hooks as a minimum – they will still catch gurnard
- Use at least a 60lb trace
- Good strong gear will help avoid tangles in deep water
To target tuna
- Any form of surface activity is worth trolling some lures past
- Target current lines and temperature breaks
- A 15kg set is great but game gear will handle those unexpected big fish
- Rig up with at least 6/0 game hooks and a 60 to 120lb trace
- Keep an eye on the rod tip to ensure the line isn’t tip wrapped
- Make sure the ratchet on the reel is engaged
- Ideally enrol in a Coast Guard bar crossing course
- Do a crossing with an experienced skipper on board before you tackle it yourself
- Understand the effects the tide state can have on bar conditions
- Coast Guard recommend a 5.5m boat with 90 hp capable of 30 knots as a minimum requirement
- Lodge a trip report with Coast Guard for every bar crossing
- Hold on tight and make sure you stay alert at all times
So many species
While we’ve usually caught kingfish as a bycatch, they can be targeted, particularly around work ups. A surface berley with a few fish chunks thrown in helps to draw them around the boat and keep them close. This tactic will also ring the dinner bell for kahawai and sharks, particularly makos and blues, but that’s just a part of west coast fishing. A friend targets kings on his PWC using stick baits and jigs. Without structure to hold them, the key out west seems to be surface action showing up as either baitfish scattering around on the surface or actively feeding gannets and that is what he looks for. Surface lures such as stickbaits or poppers are one of the most exciting ways to target these hard-fighting fish.
Mathew Collins, using mullet as bait, gets his hands on a beautiful striped marlin. Photo courtesy of Nils McGee.
Snapper and gurnard may not be as exciting to catch, but they are the mainstay for most recreational fishermen and that is very true out west. During spring, large schools of snapper start to build up in deeper water and 60m is generally regarded as the go-to depth. As the water warms, snapper move in closer and in February you can expect to catch them at most depths, from in as close as 8m on very calm days right out to the 60m mark and beyond. As a bonus, where you catch snapper you also generally find gurnard. You’re also likely to get a significant bycatch of kahawai and, at times, sharks – both of which can wreak havoc on unattended gear. When those creatures show up, good sturdy fishing tackle helps to keep things under control.