Fishing the Bay of Plenty
December 19, 2019
The Bay of Plenty is an angler's and seafood lover's paradise. Here you will find big game fishing, pipi and mussels, flounder in the estuaries, whitebait at the river mouths and large schools of kahawai chasing them as well as snapper easily caught from the beach.
Further out there are gurnard on the flats and tarakihi, trevally, trumpeter and red snapper on the reefs and pinnacles thrown up by volcanic activity.
Kingfish are everywhere and reach great size, to 40kg. At 100m and more there are bluenose, hapuka, gemfish and bass. Crayfish inhabit all rocky structure.
Mt Maunganui at the Tauranga Harbour entrance. The northwest rock is hard in a sou'west wind but is a good place to try for kahawai and snapper on a day with not much wind. There are many spots around the lump of rock if swell, wind and tide allow. Use small ball sinkers fixed above the trace to avoid snags.
Moturiki (Leisure) Island off Mt Maunganui Beach still produces fish despite the easy access right in town. Like many of the other rock fishing spots in the Bay, it is best on a rising tide early in the morning and evening.
Un-weighted baits such as whole pilchards on a two-hook rig are good but make sure you use at least 60lb trace to defeat the rocky cut-offs.
There are good spots right along Bowentown, Papamoa and Pukehina down to Maketu. There are many beach access points. A 4WD quad bike is ideal in terms of searching the beach for the fish-producing gutters. Best bait is freshly caught.
Pilchards won't last long on a line but work well when the fish are hard on the bite, so it's worth including some in a mixed bag of attractants. The fishing is good year-round. But 'only tourists fish in the middle of the day', according to locals in the know.
The Tarawera, Rangitaiki and Kaituna Rivers all deliver food to kahawai, snapper and trevally and attract the whitebait that, when they run, send kahawai into an annual feeding frenzy.
You can land a limit inside an hour on a reasonably good day, quicker some days. Fishing the edges of the rip at the extent of the fresh run-out will bring regular pan-sized snapper. Night fishing to the north or south of the mouths produces the big ones.
The Volkner Rocks are a kingy-hunters paradise. The waters around White Island also produce many and sometimes mega-kingfish. Out of the sulphur zone the water on the inshore side can be gin-clear, which makes for great adrenaline rushes as big fish hit cast-and-retrieve lures popped across the surface.
The Rurima Rocks are a widespread area of foul ground that is typical, as is the well-known North Rock. There are no real secrets in terms of spots. The snapper and other species will usually be gathering on the down-current side. Ledger rigs with chunks of bait are the go and double-headers are commonplace. Fresh mullet is best bait. Berley is not necessary.
Big fish like this bluenose are caught frequently in deep water in the Bay of Plenty.
Inshore and Land-based
The Bay ranges over a wide variety of terrain; from long sandy beaches and flat sandy bottom to rocky seabeds that host kelp forests, then the steep drop-offs and cliff caves of the continental shelf. This means there are a range of fishing options - off beaches, rocky headlands that are great for land-based anglers as well as kayaks.
Inshore methods including straylining around the islands, then the 24kg gear for the big bottom-feeders and 37kg gear for the blue and striped marlin, tuna and sharks.
Further off the beaches, the seafloor drops gradually away to around 40m and here the snapper will often gather in both winter and summer but more so when the waters are warm. They will take the standard ledger rig and the Black Magic range of 'snapper snatchers', bleeding pilchards and so on are perfect. Bait these with a cube of pilchard, squid or fresh mullet.
Or use soft baits, which also bring regular limit bags. Berley is not usually necessary, it's more finding the fish and looking for bite times according to wind, tide and current.
Surfcasting is popular here - because it works. The long stretches of beach are classic Kiwi fishing country. There is Bowentown which runs from Waihi down to the Tauranga Harbour, Papamoa from Tauranga south, then Pukehina down to Maketu near Whakatane.
Conditions are much the same on all. Surf creates holes and gutters that attract fish as the tides come in. There are few specific spots to pin-point as the whole coastline is good. The best method is to check the beach at low tide and identify likely areas.
The surf dumps close to the beach along most of this coastline and the dredging effect as waves retreat cuts long gutters. That is where snapper go looking for shellfish and they, trevally and kahawai seek small baitfish.
Standard rig is to use a 'sputnik' sinker with a trace of one to one and a half metres above it, with a single hook and cut pilchards or, even better, fresh baitfish caught from the local wharves and estuaries.
Sabiki jigs will catch jack mackerel and tiny hooks baited with dough will get piper. Mullet is best. These are abundant in the estuaries and are easily netted or are a cheap buy. Scrape the scales off, cut it in strips about 5cm long and make sure the hook is pushed through the skin side and protrudes from the flesh.
Both are excellent snapper baits, the jacks filleted and two hooks inserted - one at the head end of the fish which should be at the tail of the rig and pushed through from the skin side to be exposed through the flesh and the other nearer the tail-end of the fish, secured with a half-hitch on the tail flap - and the piper rigged whole with two or three hooks.
At the river mouths, whitebait congregate to make their way to spawning areas in the lowland swampy and brackish water. In season, you can net them.
For many weeks before and after the season, you can spin for the kahawai that swarm at them in the rippled water where river meets sea. Almost anything works; when I was a kid there were no saltwater lures so we tossed strips of red rag threaded onto a hook with a small ball sinker at the swivel. As finances improved we went to Toby trout lures. Today, some anglers spend plenty on flashy numbers but it's still the same - if they're biting, anything works.
Then there are the offshore islands. To the north the largest is Motiti, with small outcrops Motuputa, Motukaha, Motuhaku and Motunau close by.
Further south are Moutohora (Whale) Island and then Rurima, Moutoki, Tokatu, Motunau and Motuhaku. The volcanically active White Island is well offshore and small boats need a prolonged spell of good weather to make the trip viable but it's worth it. All these islands offer underwater structure that holds fish year-round.
Most of the seafloor in this area remains around 40m deep and that just happens to be a depth that seems to suit snapper, as it is one that works in the Hauraki Gulf and off the west coast too.
Straylining is productive at all the islands, in depths of 5-15m or shallower in the wash. Soft baiting is also a good method in the white water wash.
Berley works well here and maomao will likely be the first catch. Chunk up any old re-frozen bait you have in small pieces and throw this and its juices around in an arc at the back of the boat.
These possies produce snapper to 8kg as well as trevally, kahawai and a multitude of reef fish, most of them throw-backs but with the odd sizeable scorpion fish (granddaddy hapuka), leatherjacket or moki.
Further out, beyond the volcanic peaks that poke up from the seabed out to four nautical miles, New Zealand drops away into deep water, down to 600m and more. But there are still peaks jutting up and in the deeper water these are home to big kingfish, bluenose, hapuka, gemfish and bass as well as trumpeter (one of my favourite eating fish), blue cod, tarakihi and others.
The bluenose, hapuka and tarakihi come on the bite as the weather gets colder. Braid is best to cope with the depth, allowing more 'feel' for the bite. Again, the standard two-hook ledger rig is the go but in this case use small hooks for the tarakihi and trumpeter and 8/0 for the bigger targets.
Monofilament traces should be 200lb breaking strain or more to cope with the volcanic edges of the rock and the teeth of the critters down there. On Rick Pollock's Pursuit I've seen anglers lose what must have been giant fish and others fight them for an hour then lose them. Big is the operative word in this region.
If you're into kingfish, the Bay is as good as it gets. They are large and plentiful. Many world and New Zealand records have been set here.
Forty-plus kilogram fish are caught occasionally, 30kg fish regularly and 20kg all the time - one after the other until your arms get sore. The seas around White Island boil with them and the nearby Volkner Rocks, part of which was recently zoned as a marine reserve, offer possibly the best kingy fishing in the world. They take baits but metal jigs and stick baits are lethal.
There is only one thing that will interrupt a constant stream of kingies coming on board - sharks. At times bronze whalers congregate in numbers. Makos are there all year, most prevalent in summer.
Large schools of tuna migrate offshore. Even in mid-winter the long-line catch of albacore continues, fish up to 20kg, but that is well out to sea. Over summer they and skipjack tuna move much closer to the coast and with them they bring predators.
There are two reasons why the game fishing in the Bay is as good as it is.
One is the food source; the baitfish and kahawai schools that are abundant.
The second is the location of what commercial long-line fishermen know as the "Hot Patch" off East Cape, where cold waters from the south meet warm currents coming down the east coast. Where the two collide there is an upwelling from the deep that brings plankton to the surface and this in turn attracts baitfish, which attract yellowfin, bigeye and southern blue tuna as well as striped and blue marlin.
The coast from Cape Runaway to Waihou Bay is the area where most blues are caught in New Zealand waters. It's also where the long-liners hope for one of those perfect condition sashimi fish that are flown to the Tokyo markets where they fetch tens of thousands of dollars.
I've fished the Bay for more than 30 years and rarely had a disappointing day and have never come home empty-handed. Some days have been spectacular, with repeat trophy-sized snapper and kingfish until only half-fish and sometimes just heads are pulled on board. It is then that you wonder what size the beast was that bit off such a big catch.
If offshore, just study the contour map and select spots of rapid rise and fall; if inshore look for wash and think about whether or not there is food in it to attract hungry fish.