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Coromandel mussel barge fishing

December 19, 2019
Coromandel mussel barge fishing

I was ten years old the last time I went fishing.

I know, hardly the credentials to write such an article, but some of my fondest memories as a child involved fishing on my granddad’s boat out past Slipper Island in Whangamata.  While I have not been an active fisherman for a long time, the spark for fishing has never left.

It has, however, always felt inaccessible to someone like me; a person with no gear, no boat, and no real experience but that all changed when someone recommended I give charter fishing a go.

One short phone call later and I’m all booked in for 7am one Sunday morning.

The drive from Auckland is a pleasant one and I arrive in the Coromandel just as the morning mist begins to clear from the surrounding ranges. Today I will be fishing with Mussel Barge Snapper Safari’s out of Coromandel township.

Meet and greet

I get there early enough to make myself known to the skipper, the self-proclaimed “most handsome skip in the Coromandel”, Mark McDonald.

Mark says, “Charters cater to a wide range of punters of all different experience levels and backgrounds, from children to pensioners, stag do’s to family trips. The majority of Mussel Barge Fishing Safari’s clients are domestic, coming over from Auckland, Waikato and Tauranga. Today there are fifteen of us heading out, which makes for pleasant company...”

You get a good sense of each person’s expectations and confidence levels from the size of the chilly bins they carry aboard. It also reminds me that I’ve left mine in the car. Too late now.

After a quick and concise safety talk we are off and heading out through the harbour. The weather is faultless, the sun is still rising and the water looks like it’s made of blue tinted glass.

Keeping it simple Today we are straylining. This means using a running rig, so when the sinker is above the hook, this allows the bait to float and look more natural to the unsuspecting snapper. A simple uni knot is used to tie on the rig. Mark prefers to use pilchard as bait. It is quite soft so it is advised to always use elastic cotton to wrap around the bait and hook. As sexy as this sounds, it also works to squeeze out more of the bait’s juices into the water.

As the name suggests, Mussel Barge Snapper Safari’s fish on and around the Coromandel mussel farms and target snapper. The best time to visit is typically November to April as this is when the water is warmest and the snapper come to the natural shelter of the mussel farms to feed. This season, however, has been particularly slow due to the water being colder than usual.

You can tell which snapper are locals and which are visitors from their teeth; local snapper will have ground down front teeth from their consistent diet of mussel shells.

An unlucky 6kg snapper, the biggest for the day.

Berley machine

Mark spots a mussel boat harvesting not far from the entrance to Manaia harbour and with a smile on his face tells us to prepare for “Manaia-lation”. A local term he assures us.

We pull up only metres from the mussel barge. The boat pumps out a constant stream of berley into the water, turning it a distinctive beige colour.

The free berley supplied by the mussel boat brings the snapper out from their hiding places and much closer to the surface than normal. This is why we are stray-lining.

Now it is time to get started.

For my first time Mark casts the bait out for me, directly hitting the berley cloud. Immediately I feel them biting. “The key is not to get to excited at the first bite” Mark states. “Gently raise the rod to give the bait a slight movement, and when you’ve got him, that’s when you pull up”.

Before I could ask the stupid question of “how do you know if you’ve got him on the line?” I feel the tug and the end of the rod bends downwards. This is why I woke up at 4am.

The key is to always put pressure on the line. This means pulling up the rod and then winding as the rod is simultaneously lowered.

As I finally get the fish to the surface my excitement dies down and I hear a few laughs from the people next to me. The snapper is well short of the 30cm minimum.

A few minutes later and I’m back in the water. This time with more luck. After a small but explosive battle I get the fish to the surface and to my delight this is a keeper. When getting fish out of the water, always use a net if you have one or lift it out by wrapping your hand around the line. This will reduce the risk of damaging your line or your rod.

The boat has a comfortable set up for different conditions, rain or shine.

Competitive edge

Another half an hour and the snapper kept biting. There is steady applause for just about every fish that comes aboard but not everyone is so lucky. Friends become competitors, husbands and wives become rivals and although no one will admit it, we all feel a bit competitive with each other.

This adds to the atmosphere and the banter - everyone is golden, skipper included. This reaches a peak as one lucky lady pulls in a solid 6kg snapper. Her husband manages to feign some excitement, but the envy is apparent.

Even the mussel boat workers decide to get in on the act, taking turns putting a line in off their boat.

The mussel boat moves on to the next field with us shadowing its moves. There seems to be a good camaraderie among ship captains in the area as Mark is constantly on the radio or texting other skips as to where the fish are biting.

As the day progresses and the sun gets higher and hotter, it burns away much of the cloud in the area. Luckily, the boat is equipped with a shade awning for people not so adjusted to the harsh solar conditions of the sea such as myself.

Basking in the moments

Soon the fish stop biting and even the mussel workers aren’t catching anything. “Time for secret spot X” the skip announces. We head further up the harbour this time.  However the only fishing happening is from shags in the area who mock us as they dive down and resurface with beaks full of small snapper. “This is real fishing” Mark states.

A tasty tea, caught Snapper Safari style.

It is nearly 11am now and almost an hour since anyone caught a fish but no one seems to mind. “The weather is spectacular, the scenery is captivating, to catch fish on top of this would just be greedy”, a punter up from Auckland tells me.

It’s 12pm and time to head back to shore - a long day but I am happy with my haul of four keepers. Easily enough for dinner tonight, maybe even tomorrow’s breakfast. Not everyone has been as lucky, there are a few empty chilly bins leaving the boat but no one is leaving without a smile and spirits are still high.

“Secret spot X is so secret even the fish don’t know where it is” someone remarks. Everyone laughs and no one is complaining.

This trip has shown me how accessible fishing can be and that lack of experience or equipment is no barrier.

Handsome Mark’s tips

Mark McDonald’s tips for anyone in my situation, who is interested in getting into fishing, but doesn’t know where to start, is simple. Book a charter, a quick internet search should provide a wide selection. Don’t spend an arm and a leg on rods and reels, keep it light.

Always talk to the skipper, and let them know what level you are at when you hop aboard. A good skipper like Mark will always be happy to help, from baiting your line to giving tips on the intricacies of stray lining, and last but not least, don’t rush in with inflated expectations. Fishing is often a waiting game, and as Mark would say “patience, persistence and patience” is key.

Mussel Barge Snapper Safaris aim to make fishing affordable and accessible. I came aboard with no knowledge and experience and left with four decent snaps and some quality memories. For more information on Mussel Barge Snapper Safari’s charters visit

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