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Stories from the school of hard knocks

By Bruce "Captain Swish" DuncanNZ Fishing World
Stories from the school of hard knocks

Fishing is a game of two halves; half skill, half sheer dumb luck. But the more mistakes you make the more you grow – here’s a few lessons from one old skipper

One of the sheer joys of fishing is the sunset, especially if your day on the water is coming to an end. You’ve got a bin full of fresh fish, a hand clasped around your favourite tipple, and the boat rocking you gently as you review the day with you crewmates.

Recently, as the sun settled down, me and some old friends got talking about things we have learned over the years from the school of hard knocks. Each of us salty old dogs has spent over fifty years on the water, fishing for everything from snapper to marlin as well as working commercial boats. We’ve clocked up many thousands of ocean miles delivering and racing yachts around the world. Now is the time to pass on a few tips and tricks, as in today’s fast-growing fishing community more people than ever are boating without having any background.

Captian swish with Auckland kingfish

Green as well as cabbage-looking

When I was young and dumb I had a small tinnie, and being in such a hurry to leave the boat ramp I left my brain in the car and the bung out of the boat. All’s good with the world when at speed, until you drop the anchor and suddenly you wonder why your feet are wet and the bilge pump is dead. Never before or since have I pulled an anchor up so fast. 

It always amazes me how quick your survival senses kick in. Like flash I managed to hold her steady and heading slowly into the waves it lifted the bow so the water ran to the stern. Not only did my quick thinking prevent a capsize, I managed to slowly increase speed until all the water drained out the bung hole and I could now hold the boat on the plane without any water coming in. Now’s the time to get your mate to screw in the bung, or head to the nearest beach.

Common sense says no matter what size your boat is, you should check the bilge at least once a year. Think about how many times you have cut back nylon or braid lines in a season, with scraps ending up on the cockpit floor along with small fish scales and other trash – all of which end up in the bilge when the boat is washed down. Every year I lift the floor and get the sharp pointy end of the vacuum cleaner into every nook and cranny to make sure that bilge keeps pumping.

Now is a good time to remove and sand the inside of the battery terminals, then tighten them up so they can’t vibrate loose. This allows charging to be effective.

Small things

captain swish bait

It’s the little things that make a difference, like preparing your bait the day before. Most people either grab it out of the freezer in the morning or buy it on the way to the ramp, thawing it in the sun or a bucket of water. This damages the bait, causing it to fall off the hook into the water.

Get your bait out of the freezer the night before (1 to 1.5 kilos per angler)  and wrap half of it tightly in a section of newspaper and leave to defrost on the kitchen table. In the morning you will find chilled yet firm and ready to rig bait. Leave the other half in the fridge overnight so it has thawed slightly. Wrap it in newspaper in the morning, then put in the chilly bin and by the time you have used the thawed bait it will be ready. 

When fishing in strong current or deep water it is a waste of time trying to berley until the current slows, and then it is often too late to be effective. Instead, chop up unused bait at the end of a day’s fishing, and put it in a container to freeze. When next out I put it in the wobbly pot along with a tube of berley. Dropping the wobbly pot down until just off the bottom is the most effective way to get a good berley trail and ground bait to the right depth when fishing in strong current. As the current pushes through the wobbly pot it thaws the frozen ground bait so chunks will come loose and drift back into the berley trail - the scent of which is drawing the fish to the boat. The chunks of ground bait increases the competitiveness and aggressiveness of the fish, allowing a higher hook-up rate for you.

A word of caution

The legal size of scallops is 100cm across the shell. I’m convinced they know this, and stop growing at 98cm, as there’s a number of beds I’ve been to where they’re all just under the legal size. This is where it’s easy for less cautious fishers to land in hot water.

captain swish scallop

You also need to be gentle with your legal catch. Being very brittle on the outer extremities of the top shell they can easily be chipped by the time you get back to the shore. Having carefully counted and measured your catch, don’t just drop them into a fish bin or live bait tank as they will get damaged. If your ‘just on legal’ scallops become chipped they will be considered “under size” and you could face a fine or worse. 

In deep water

Get over the side this summer and take a look at what’s under the boat. Knowing the underwater structure will give you greater insight and help increase your knowledge of where and how to target snapper in winter.  

When in unfamiliar waters, I pull out my snorkel. It is probably the one thing that has opened my eyes to where to target fish in the shallow water. Simply by looking at the type of rock structure and kelp will enable you to see the amount of shelter and food type for the resident fish. When pushed apart, big leafy kelp exposes any kina, snails and limpets, but also take time to just lay quietly on the surface and observe the surroundings. Often schools of piper will appear hugging the rocks, while Jack mackerel will be darting closer to
the bottom. 

Many times I have seen schools of bait fish suddenly scatter when a kingfish comes into view. Never one to pass up an opportunity, if I see this spot has good potential, I swim back about a 100 meters down current from where the boat is anchored and collect a few kina. Casting an un-weighted bait back to float down naturally will soon tell you if the area has a resident snapper population, once the current picks up chop the kina in half, tossing a half over every ten to fifteen minutes to keep the fish on the bite. The noise and commotion of snapper feasting on the kina will quickly bring more fish in from far and wide. 

Pick your spot

Knowing where to anchor is as important as the bait you use. No matter how good the sign showing on my sounder, I always steam around and have a close look at the whole area to establish the size and shape of it, check the wind and tide direction and work out where the best place is to drop the anchor.

When the wind is fresh, the boat surges around all over the place making very hard to keep into touch with your bait. You can minimise the problem by dropping more chain than needed and use the wind and engine to pull back until the anchor is well set, before slowly nudging the boat ahead to take up on the chain until it is as short you can risk it. The down side is you get a very jerky motion in the cockpit plus you also run the risk of suddenly dragging. When anchored close to shore I take a transit mark once the boat has settled, like a tree or rock outcrop. By keeping an eye on it, when I see it moving towards the front of the boat I know the anchor has pulled and it’s time to get out of there. Best pre-warn your crew that any drag means the motor will get started and they have to get the berley pot and gear aboard ASAP.

Class dismissed

So what’s the number one lesson to take away from the school hard knocks? Sometimes you have to make your own luck. 

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