Deepwater fishing for hapuku, bass and bluenose. Pete Lamb Special
September 25, 2020
Big, fat fish that are awesome to eat! Deepwater species make up a staple target for fishermen all over New Zealand, particularly in the colder months when snapper and game fish take a winter break. The catch is often made up of fish that are large in size, where sometimes just one fish can fill the freezer and provide food for a month. It can be very rewarding, exciting, and certainly provides a solid work session if you are not using electric reels. It also means that these giants of the deep will be making a one-way trip, there is no returning fish that are pulled up from that depth, as they are ‘blown’ from the massive change in water pressure and usually float to the surface for the last 50 metres once you have them up that far. Here’s where sensible catch management is required for the respect of the fishery and the protection of your own spot X’s for next time. ‘Deep’ water, means anything over 100 metres, and commonly down to 350 metres or even more. This means specialist tackle and techniques are required. Pete Lamb operates long term Wellington store Pete Lamb Fishing, and has been operating charters that prospect the deep for many years. Here’s a really comprehensive article on deep water fishing with specific focus on some of the Wellington region areas, but all the other information is relevant to fishing these species all around the coastlines of New Zealand.
Two revolutions in tackle and technology have really reinvented deep water fishing, making previously unreachable spots identifiable, and accessible to even small boat anglers.
Braid Lines: The low or non-stretch braided and fusion lines, and the GPS (Global Positioning System), particularly the chart plotter are the game changers I’m talking about.
Braided line has virtually no stretch, unlike monofilament, allowing you to actually feel the fish bite as if you are down only twenty metres. Every vibration is transferred right back to the reel, even a small scarpie can be felt in 300mtrs of water.
When you do get a good bass, bluenose or puka hit, they will double the rod over and start thumping, or even stripping line off the spool, in direct connection with you upstairs.
The fine diameter of this line also enables a huge capacity to be packed onto a smaller more manageable reel too.
GPS: Satellite positioning offers a couple of major advantages.
Firstly, it can find your spot right down to the exact square metre. This means you can pre-program and return to good fishing spots, without having to line up landmarks just to be in the rough area, or mark likely ground as you are trolling or prospecting for fish sign.
Secondly, it can identify and track your drift after wind and tide manipulate your boat to their will, allowing you to set up the next drift in a position that will put you in the right place or allow you to cover ground in a methodical pattern.
When you get on your mark, a good idea is to stop the boat and see which way you are drifting first. Then reposition the boat and drop your lines out, only once you are confident you’ll drift across the right spot. Remember your lines will take a while to get down, so set yourself up a good distance from the bullseye otherwise your bait can overshoot before it gets down in the ‘zone’.
Tackling deep water fishing, the first thing you should do is obtain depth and bathymetric charts for the area you plan to fish. From these you can guess where the fish are likely to live and plot some good-looking fishing locations.
If you are serious, you’ll need a suitable depth sounder to get down to and give accurate readings to approximately 350 metres in depth. Colour sounders certainly give a much better picture than the single colour CD models. One kilowatt of grunt from the transducer is considered good for a sounder in the deep-water game.
The GPS chart plotter is a great tool for getting onto the spot, marking fish, seeing which way you are drifting and programming in new spots that look good and where you catch fish. These days you can hard wire one for around $600 or for around $35 you can download the NAVIONICS (AUS + NZ) boating APP onto your smartphone or tablet. This not only gives you the depth charts but a bathymetric or sonar overlay which gives you plenty more detail on the bottom. The free version gives you a good idea whats it’s about, but the paid version gives you all the special maps and other spots people have ‘gifted’ to the general public which is well worth the investment.
These images are of Nicolson’s Trench with the ‘depth chart’ (on the left) and then the ‘sonar overlay’ (on the right). You can see the variations of the seabed and where the big dropoffs, banks, plateaus and ‘squiggly bits’ are indicating good terrain where the fish are likely to hang out. The dark patches where the lines pack together indicate steep terrain which often translates into good prospective fishing spots.
TERRAIN WHERE FISH ARE FOUND
Look immediately for rock or reef structures. This is where food (small fish and plankton) is more likely abundant. With the bathymetric and depth charts take note of any interesting shallow patches, hills and the like that might catch a bit of back current and hold food for your target fish. The fish generally like the top of a gentle rise, seamounts and edges of canyons.
Always keep a lookout on your sounder while travelling at lower speeds, for fish sign and interesting looking rock structures and mark them to either fish or return to another time.
Dirty water normally means hard fishing. Consistent catches more frequently happen in clean blue water. If the water is a bit dull, it’s still worth a go as Bass and ling don’t mind the dirty water so much.
Bass, bluenose and puka don't mind temps down to 9 or 10 degrees, as there’s no sunlight down there to warm the water.
DEEP WATER SPECIES
A superb eating fish classified under the same commercial fish quota as groper. They generally grow larger than groper and are often found in deeper water. We never seem to catch them in depths of water under 200 metres with 250 to 325 metres being a good depth.
Every year there is usually at least one fish caught over 50kgs in Wellington. A good one is generally 20kg plus.
Further north they are caught up to 100kgs plus. Bass can be distinguished from groper by their deeper stomach, shorter lower jaw and a larger eye. The best months seem to change from year to year but late summer through the winter and early summer can certainly be good.
They are slow growing fish taking 5-10years to reach maturity and a large adult being 50yrs plus (50kg) In Wellington a few bass get caught at Fisherman’s Rock and behind the 78mtr rise, but most get caught at Nicholson's Trench or in the Wairarapa (East coast).
Places in the outer Bay of Plenty, the Ranfurly Bank, the 3 Kings and the Far North all produce bug fish at various times of the year.
The further you get away from civilization the better the fishing (which is of course true for many species). Sometimes you have to put in the mahi to get the rewards.
A solid fish, similar but slenderer than the bass. They are happy to live in shallower water but are often in the same area as bass. Before over fishing they were once common in 20 – 30 metres, where as an apex predator they fight like hell without the water pressure working against them.
At certain times of the year nowadays, the big ones will be found as shallow as 75 metres but generally live from 125 metres down to 250 metres. An average fish is around 10 to 15kgs, a biggie is 30kg plus and the odd 50kg plus fish gets taken around the country each year. The smaller fish are generally preferred for eating and are affectionately known as ‘pups’.
In Wellington they normally fish best in October and disappear around July/August preferring deeper colder water to spawn out on the sand or mud. Further north they are known to spawn in late summer and the main season can be a bit shorter.
This changes in locations all around the country. Some fish are residents, other travel great distances and are believed to come back to the same spots year after year. The species is known to be in decline and is easily overfished.
We have noticed spots fished out have come back on with smaller fish 5 – 10 years later. They grow approx 1kg per year in the wild and have grown up to 1kg a month in captivity. Some of the wild fish could grow twice to five times as quickly depending on food source and availability.
They are aggressive feeders eating small fish, squid, red cod, sea perch, rat tails, lanternfish, and tarakihi (from what we have noticed).
A mature fish is normally around 8-12kg.
From what I've observed the bluenose is the more aggressive fighting fish of the `big three'. You can catch them in the same area as bass and hapuku but sometimes shallower ground of around 110 to 200 metres can produce good numbers of fish. Sometimes big schools of fish congregate in 250 – 350 meters in the Bay of Plenty and Far North. They can feed well up off the bottom as well. Average size at Nicholson’s Trench is about 5kg to 7kg, but a good one can be 20kgs.
The best I have heard of is 33kgs from the Wellington area, however, fish get caught up to 40kg in the Bay of Plenty. Unlike groper and bass, they are available all year round and seem to be on the move and spread out in an area rather than resident in one particular spot.
November to late January can be the best time in Wellington but things are constantly changing as we discover new spots. They grow about 1-2kg per year with a mature fish being 4-6kg.
From my experience they appear to spawn late summer-ish but this is yet to be proven. Ideally ou need to fish an area which has a big 200 – 600mtrs plus drop off. Presumably this is what attracts their food supply. They like eating deep water fish like lanternfish and squid. Wellington fishers catch them at Nicolsons’ Trench, Cook’s Strait canyon, the Palliser canyon, Cape Palliser and up the east coast (Tora and the Paihou canyon are hot spots). I haven’t heard of anyone catching them on our west coast or out from the Sounds as there are no big drop-offs to 600mtrs plus out there.
The ling is a much-maligned fish because they don't fight terribly well, and they don't taste quite as good as hapuku, however they are still good eating and in my opinion, deserve more credit than some of the more experienced anglers give them. Try keeping them on ice or in a slurry as long as you can before filleting. They are a great stir- fry fish with soy sauce, fried in butter! The average size varies at different times of the year. For a big ling say 20 or 30kg plus, I would be fishing in 300 to 400 metres water depth.
If you are catching ling you are probably in too deeper water to catch groper but may hook the odd big bass.
HOKI and GEMFISH
These fish are often well up off the bottom, and at certain times of the year are in huge numbers at the Trench and other canyons around Wellington and the Wairarapa.
They are good eating if you look after the fish (keep them on ice). They are also very good bait. Gemfish are in good numbers out on the west coast as well and are often much bigger than the fish at the Trench. Hoki are excellent panfried fish and Gemfish are amazing when smoked. Watch out for their teeth, very sharp, hard on gear and can inflict damage to your fingers if you are not careful.
There is a very healthy shark fishery in the deep water. We have had many encounters with blues and makos. A few with porbeagles and threshers and many with tope, particularly when you are fishing in less than 150 metres.
They can provide great entertainment for sportfishing enthusiasts and the smaller ones are able to be processed for food without too much danger of losing limbs as long as you put them to sleep fairly quickly! Mostly they are an unwanted feature of the day though, and if they appear in any numbers the only way to get rid of them is to move.
Some of the more interesting species we have caught in the deep water around Wellington are frostfish, rat-tail, orange perch, seal shark, ghost shark and rays bream. XOS tarakihi and blue cod (2 to 3kg) are often on the top of a reef in about 100 to 150 metre depths. King terakihi are also a welcome addition to the catch and are more common further up the North Island.
It is worthwhile sending down some smaller hooks to experiment with other species from time to time. Rays bream are sometimes in huge numbers in the top 20-40 mtrs of the water column and take just about any bait and lure. They are tarakihi size and are a good scrap and nice eating.
Fresh is best, and there are many solid options, but to be safe, good quality squid and pilchards catch everything.
Best baits for Bass? In my book strips of hoki or mackerel. Pilchards always work well too.
Best baits for puka? Almost everything works well if they are on the chew - squid, pilchards, strips of barracouta, kahawai or mackerel. Whole or fillets of sea perch can be a goodie, and hapuka often have whole perch, rat-tails, mackerel and squid inside their stomachs.
Best baits for bluenose? Squid is certainly tops, pilchards too.
Cut baits into torpedo shapes and simply hook once through one end. This stops them from twisting and spinning their way to the bottom. For the extra chance of a hookup add a pilchard or two by hooking them through the eye socket hook. Sometimes small baits work well, other times big baits catch big fish.
Add fluorescent tube, beads, and sticks. This seems to increase your catch rate, but it is certainly not imperative to catch fish. It is widely believed that using Cyalume sticks attached to the top of your swivel or sinker work well for deepwater species. These are plastic sticks that, once cracked, have a single use lighting up with a bright green light for several hours.
For puka the blue sticks have been working well for us. Some fishers reckon the green sticks left going for 8 hours or so work better than bright ones.
Fresh squid, octopus and hoki are three baits which have natural fluoro. It would be interesting experimenting with the bait additive glow-bait to see how it works in the deep water.
Utilising the latest in Japanese technology there are a range of jigs like the Diamond Eye and Catch Giant Squidwings from 400 to 750gm weights have been a proven performer, especially in depths up to 150mtrs. These jigs have several advantages over bait, in that they sink faster, and you don’t have to wonder if your bait has been stripped when it’s a long haul back up to check. The Giant Squidwings also works well with a strip of bait on the bottom hook.
Long knife jigs particularly the orange/brown/lumo colour can be good on both bass and puka. Depending on depth, 300 to 500gm are all effective, but it it quite hard work mechanical jigging lures of that weight in the deep for any length of time.
As with the slow jigs, putting a strip of squid on the hook seems to increase our chance of catching fish. Just put the jig down to the bottom and wind slowly upwards about 50mtrs then put it down again and repeat. Doing and erratic jig motion can also be good.
Using the large scented or lumo softbaits in their biggest 8-inch size have been a good fished either on an extra-large jig head or just like a bait on a standard puka dropper rig.
In deep water, 200 metre-plus, don’t bother anchoring. You can minimise the effect of current by timing your drops an hour or two either side of the tides also. Often as soon as the current picks up it’s not practical to fish, so plan this into your day.
The best way to keep on the same spot if possible, is to get the skipper to back into the wind slowly. This will keep you on the same spot for longer and keep your lines from streaming out the back of the boat. Doing this also reduces the weight sinker you need.
PLEASE NOTE: This practice can dangerous in small boats as you are backing into swell and one over the stern can fill your boat with water in an instant, so be careful.
Many outboard engine suppliers are now fitting boats, particularly twin-engine ones, with an electronic system that uses GPS and digital control to hold your boat in a set spot, or even set up a specified drift. All this can be done without relying on a driver as it’s automated, so allows everyone on the boat to fish if there’s only two or three on board.
Generally, dropping any more than three lines at a time is not recommended, as the depth and current inevitably results in crossovers and tangles, and two fishing at a time is ideal on a smaller boat.
When you do hook a fish put a mark on the GPS so you can get back onto the ̃ fishpatch'. Look for fish sign on the sounder. If the sign is up off the bottom it is likely to be bluenose, hoki or possibly baitfish.
Avoiding tangles: If you have more than a couple of people fishing, get everyone to drop their lines at the same time. Make sure everyone has similar weight sinkers on. Just fish one side of the boat and along the stern.
If you see your line going towards someone else’s cross over or under until it looks right - this is important when you are winding up with or without a fish on.
Hooking up fish:
When someone hooks up there will commonly be more fish around, so if your mate hooks up, click your reel into free spool for a while. Often this will result in a hookup.
Be in touch with the bottom - keep letting a bit more line out. If you hook a small fish like a sea perch leave it down there rather than winding up, you have other hooks on your rig and the perch sometimes get eaten by bigger fish.
Hooking the bottom: If you get snagged, back the drag off then click the reel into freespool for a while. Again this can often result in a hookup and the fish may free your snag..
Try not to use the rod and reel drag to free a snag as it may end up breaking something. Point the rod at the snag and apply medium to heavy drag and put your hand (with a glove or rag) onto the spool and lock down. Watch out you don’t cut your finger on the line coming off the spool.
From commercial experience, I can recommend the following reels for deepwater fishing. Daiwa 600H, Penn Senator 900 and Penn Fatham 45 lever drag, Tica 20 or 30 lever drag, Shimano TLD 30 and 50, and Okuma Solitera lever drag.
Many anglers are going with a big electric like the Daiwa Tanacom 1000 or Shimano Forcemaster 9000 which takes a lot of the hard work out of deepwater fishing. Opinions are certainly divided as the whether this is anything more than winching in food, but this method is popular with many anglers nonetheless.
They can be used as power assists (like an electric bike) or you can just use a bent butt rod and leave it in the rod holder, and manoeuvre the boat or assist other anglers while still fishing your electric.
These reels are good for exploring deeper trenches where a lot of dropping and moving are required, and are excellent at dragging up scarpies and sinkers from the deep which no complaints.
When using braid on rods try keeping away from metal guides and rollers. They easily develop grooves from the sharp braid and subsequently damage your line.
Shorter five to six-foot rods like Shimano Backbone or Status, Daiwa Saltist or Procyon, Kilwell and Uglystick 24/37kg rods are all good rods with a good ‘feel’ and decent leverage.
Many anglers are using bent butt rods now as you can ‘fish the rod holder’ and keep the line away from the boat or prop. These also work well in a rod gimbal if you are working a big fish.
Generally, 80lb braid is recommended for deepwater fishing, and you will want a reel to hold around 500 metres capacity. If you have an accident with the propeller or a shark, then you can lose your braid and have enough left on the reel to keep fishing.
Enthusiasts spool up with 750 – 1000mtrs of 80lb. Cortland Blackspot is good middle of the road braid, but many manufacturers will produce something decent. Having the braid metred in colours (every ten metres usually) can be helpful with knowing when the bottom is coming, or how much line you have let out in freespool once down there.
Gimbal and harness
‘Strapping yourself in’ with a gimbal and harness is recommended, as it makes it much easier to wind up fish, or sinkers, reducing stress on your back or shoulders. It also makes the rod butt a more groin- friendlier beast and locks the rod in it’s correct orientation preventing it twisting in your hands. Make sure you are wearing this from the outset, as trying to strap one on or adjusting it during the fight is a real pain.
The standard deepwater rig is a beefy two hook ledger rig, with 30 to 40 ounce sinker on the bottom, attached with a snap swivel or slightly lighter nylon than used for your mainline. This is so if you get snagged you only lose your sinker. The trace line is usually 300 to 400lb with droppers coming off crimped swivel sleeves or dropper loops (or snoods). The droppers are normally 150 to 200lb. My preferred hooks are 15/O tuna circles or 12 – 14/O ezibaiters. When the fishing is tough try 10 – 12/o hooks with 130lb trace. This will often result is better fishing.
One of the best ways to get into deepwater fishing is to head out on a charter, or with someone who knows what they are doing.
Whether you are on a charter or any boat where you are a guest, zapping someone else’s spot on your GPS is considered very poor form. Always ask by all means. I am happy to give some marks to our clients but don’t take kindly to people trying to 'steal' our hard-earned spots by coming on a charter with a GPS and recording our spots.
Try not to start your drift too close to another boat. Wait for the boat to drift a bit then go a few 100 metres up current from them, then you should not have any chance of tangling you lines with them. If someone is anchored up keep a reasonable distance away from them. If you try and anchor too close and your pick does not hold you can foul up their rope and lines. Shooting drop lines (long lines) on a recognised fish patch will stop everyone else fishing. It is normally first in first served when arriving at a fishing possie. When a spot has long line buoys on it you can bet it is going to be very tricky to pull a fish out without getting caught on the drop line. If that happens, you lose your gear.
Going out far from shore always carries extra risk when anything goes wrong, or the weather turns unexpectedly.
Watch out for rough water after the turn of tide, particularly at places like cape Palliser, Karori, Fishermans, Ohau and out past Niclonson’s Trench. Listen out for weather changes on VHF (channel 14 and 16) and be prepared for disaster, such as engine failure, with the usual safety equipment: EPIRB, VHF radio (channel 14 or 16), flares, lifejackets (wear them while in transit), cellphone (in a waterproof bag). Having two x 220 metre coils of 4mm rope may help you anchor up in water depth you wouldn’t normally anchor in (if your engine fails).
Carrying a sea anchor is a good idea for safety, as well as fishing (put it on the bow to keep the head of the boat into the sea).
VHF radio – a real must for offshore boating. Have your VHF radio left on scan to pick up any wind warnings or weather reports from ships.
In Wellington, Beacon Hill (harbour radio) are on channel 14 and 62. Wellington maritime radio are on channel 16 (the emergency frequency). If you are in trouble which is life threatening, issue a mayday on channel 16.
If you are in trouble, but it’s not life-threatening, issue a pan-pan on ch16. Do log a trip report with people on board, where leaving from, when your eta is and where you're going for the trip.
It can be a hard call when you’re keen, but If you have any doubts about the weather, don’t go out. For the best experience, wait for a 5-10 knot variable forecast before venturing out deepwater fishing. Anything from 15 knots upwards and it starts to get rough, with swell and drift speed making life very difficult, especially in smaller boats.
Experienced big-boat fishermen will fish in 20 knots plus but it’s always at the discretion of the skipper and how experienced the crew is as well. When going out wide use the coastal forecast rather than the recreational marine one.
Always allow for another potential 10 knots on top of forecast. Always keep a lookout for wind chop or fronts coming across the water when you are out there. They are easy to see if you are reasonably vigilant.
Wind against tide makes conditions a lot worse very quickly, so be aware which way the tide runs and how rough it’s going to get after the tide change.
For example, tides at the Trench (south coast) run east to west on an outgoing tide, and on the west coast (such as at Fisherman’s Rock) the outgoing will run south.
Homework and preparation can be key if you are planning around daylight hours, tide changes and weather. It also pays to have a plan B if all goes pear shaped, so keep your inshore gear on board in case you have to change plans and target other species on the day.
WELLINGTON TOP SPOTS
Wellington's west coast:
It’s pretty much just hapuku out west with the odd bass, ling, frostfish and gemfish thrown in for good luck. Here are the common spots which produce good fishing from time to time.
Fisherman’s Rock (including wider area north and south to 250 metres)
Located eight miles off the back of Mana Island, this is one of the better puka spots on the west coast of Wellington.
There are plenty of spots there in 160 – 240mtrs to catch good numbers and large puka. The run from March – July is very good and some real monsters sometimes over 50kg get caught most years at this time.
1) Fisherman’s Rock (including areas north and south to 250 metres)
2) Out wide of Hunters Bank (130-150metres).
3) The Mana Bank west norwestwest of mana(100 – 180 metres).
4) Ohau Point (189 metres ), Makara (100 – 180 metres).
5) The ‘Patch’ south of Mana (200 metres).
6) The 78mtre rise (190 metres).
7) The Three Sisters (200 – 220 metres).
Wellington's south coast
8) Nicholson's Trench
The Trench is a canyon about three miles out from Sinclair Head running down to Turakerei Head and into Palliser Bay. It is approximately 1.5 miles wide. The good fish (groper, bass and bluenose) are usually hanging out in 150 to 250 metres of water (and sometimes down to 300+ meters). There are a few different recognised fish patches in the trench. These are very localised and to get into numbers of fish you just about have to hit the nail bang on the head.
The top patches are about the size of half a rugby field. Different areas fish well when the current forces the food and plankton up against the side of the canyon. If the current pushes all the food away from the spot, results aren't as good. Therefore, you need to be drifting up into shallower water.
Tides at the Trench are important to consider. The outgoing tide runs east to west and when it starts running is the best fishing time for bluenose, hoki, gemfish and often puka and bass. Turn of the tide is also good and usually when you should be planning to fish.
9) Karori: There are some excellent puka grounds from Sinclair Head heading west to the Cook Strait cable zone in 100mtrs down to 250mtrs.
The sea conditions can get very nasty particularly with wind against tide so fishing this area can be dangerous, BE CAREFUL!
11) The back of Five Mile Reef:
Along the 100-metre mark in these areas there are some good puka spots but also produce big tarakihi, bluecod, kingfish and the odd trumpeter.
12) Palliser Bay:
There are a few nice spots along the edge of the Palliser canyon and around The Cape. Sometimes the weather will be really nice here when it’s bad in Wellington and sometimes the opposite. Windy point is a well-known hotspot for puka on the 200mtr mark.
13) Wellingtons east coast:
The groper can be abundant in quite shallow water during the summer months. They will often be mixed in with trumpeter, tarakihi and blue cod. This area has the deepest water close to shore with oceanic currents. It is the best place for fishing but arguably has the worst weather. There some awesome deepwater fishing possies all the way along the Wairarapa coastline particularly off Cape Palliser. Some of the commercially fished spots are in depths 300 to 500 metres.
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