Guide to fishing the Far North
December 19, 2019
Due to its unique environment and lack of fishing pressure, the far north is home to some monster fish. Here's a quick guide to some of the spots that have been productive for me during more than 35 years of intensive fishing along the Northland coastline.
From the late 70s when we’d eat free while on surfing trips around the Top End, to Labour Weekend when I scored two twin snapper of 5kg and filled the limit bag with seven fat 3kg fish and snagged a giant John dory. I’ve concentrated on the rock fishing, surfcasting and small boat fishing that is accessible to all.
The surf dictates things here. It is one of the rare spots on the west coast where a sou’westerly is an offshore. So swell, plus that wind, means surfers galore descend on the place and it was during my time surfing the consecutive point breaks there that I learned they also held fish galore, as well as crays, mussels and paua.
Drive around from the south end of 90 Mile Beach, across the rock ledges and the sandy beaches between, and pick your spot. The first long ledge is known by surfers as Peaks, then come the Mukerau One and Mukerau Two, and so on into a remote wilderness.
Best fishing is February to April when migrating snapper come close in - as in one-to-two-metres of water - to feed up after spawning. But it returns fish all year round. In other months you need to get up early and be prepared to miss out and return next day in order to score.
Shellfish is the best bait, mussels or tuatua tied on with bait elastic. The wash will tear pilchards off very quickly. You need tough baits but not squid. Think like a fish; these locals don’t have squid on their regular menu.
The VERY BEST bait is fresh-caught mullet and piper. A drag through the surf in the calm of the last couple of hundreds of metres of the beach with a bait net will quickly secure more than enough for bait as well as a few smokers.
Best rule with the rig is to avoid sinkers as much as possible. This is a generality for the Far North, bar the surfcasting. At times, a fresh-caught piper or an elongated strip of mullet with three J-type or ‘suicide’ hooks in the 3/0 to 4/0 range threaded through a piper or a strip of fresh mullet will attract immediate interest.
The writer with two very healthy far north snapper
90 MILE BEACH
Long home to the fishing competition that offered the highest cash prize in the country, 90 Mile can produce everything in the snapper range, from throwbacks to trophy fish. It’s a little-known fact that snapper do not migrate around the coasts, i.e. the west-born snapper remain westies and the east-born fish likewise, with no inter-breeding (kind of like human life, ain’t it?).
The idea here is to locate holes and gutters during a drive along the beach at low tide, then back up beyond range of the water and settle in to fish across the rise and first three hours of the fall. The filling tide gives fish access to the shellfish in close and to the crabs that come out of their holes to grab fish larvae and other passing food.
A paddle crab cut in half and fitted with two 5/0 hooks from the K/S range or 5/0 recurves from Black Magic’s K/L series is ideal as a bait.
You need a long trace of 8kg mono or preferably fluorocarbon here, minimum of an arm span so that you’re bait can wash around as an advertisement in the inshore wash, appearing to be swept around like a damaged prey easy to take.
You need decent sinkers to hold the mainline in the target zone because of that wash. I use the ‘Sputnik’ type with wire grabs protruding backwards from a torpedo-shaped lead head: These provide aerodynamic casting as well as the surety that the sinker will set in where you land it and that the floating trace will be well-placed.
Use the aforementioned mullet or piper as bait or a one-side fillet of jack mackerel. If the tides are right, it can be worth catching bait on the east coast wharfs where it’s easy (Totara North or Mangonui) or netting it with a bait net (Taipa estuary or the south end of Cooper’s Beach) then using the catch on the west.
It’s not a huge drive coast-to-coast and the save on buying bait plus the extra returns make it worth it.
There are just two places in the run of the beach where rocky outcrops offer some opportunity of not wading if you want a fish here. The first is The Bluff. It is an extremely dangerous place to fish when high surf is running and more than one soul has met his end here. But it is as thrilling a place as you’ll get to fish in terms of returns when it’s on.
The rocky island that juts out from a sandbar that connects it to the island at low tide plays host to huge trevally that provide anglers with adrenaline-rushing runs. Trouble is, they know that the swirling bull kelp is the place to head for to lead the line into tangles and rocks. More are lost than landed.
Essential rig is a 3m-plus surfcasting rod to aid lifting the fish clear of its cut-off target and at least 15kg line, with a short trace of 60lb mono or fluorocarbon. Shellfish is best bait, tied on with bait elastic. Both J and circle hooks will work but if you use the latter, ensure the gape of the hook is not filled with bait or you may not hook up.
The second bit of rock is Scott Point right at the end of the beach. It remains fishable in howling easterlies when the east coast and most of the west are not. Just north of it is Twilight Beach, a real NZ gem.
Black-and-white sand dunes run down to the water’s edge and the beach drops away steeply, providing perfect surfcasting conditions. It requires a long walk to get here and so the fishing is magic. As is the case with Cape Maria van Diemen. It is around 4km of hard slog to the best fishing spots but well worth it if you land one of the 20-40kg kingfish this place is known for.
The rocky outcrops at both ends of the beach are great snapper spots and you may also be treated to schooling kahawai, which means the kingfish are there too in search of a feed. Net piper in the shallow and warm water in the sheltered ends of the beach during the day then use them to attract table food in the evening and at dawn. A bait net costs bugger all and will be one of the best fishing investments you’ll make.
The same applies to Rarawa Beach just to the south, where a stream that slides out the south of the beach attracts snapper and trevally as food is provided by the out-rush of an outgoing tide of brackish water.
Gather shellfish on the beach at low tide and use them at high when the snaps come in to eat what you’re offering.
RANGAUNU HARBOUR AND SURROUNDS
Both the north and south entrances to the harbour offer excellent fishing as cruisers come in the incoming and outgoing tide. Kahawai and kingfish are abundant but you’ll also hook sharks and stingrays - depending on your preference.
As with much of Northland, fishing is best at change of light - morning and evening although here this can be adjusted by tide. A current running out in the middle of the day can be very good, but not so much a current running in.
Puheke, just south of the harbour, is a top spot for consistently producing a feed of snapper in the 40-50cm range. Dusk on a rising tide is best.
At the harbour entrance, big weights are needed either side with long traces up to 3m the go. Also, use tough and small baits. Fresh jack mackerel or piper is the go, otherwise buy some fresh mullet. At Puheke, use a two or three-hooked whole piper or pilchard with no weight on an arm’s length trace, cast from the rocks. A bait that floats briefly then sinks slowly is a killer here.
This is a bonanza for surfcasters, kite and kontiki fishermen. The snapper move in en masse as the tide comes in to feed on the shellfish beds that stretch the length of the beach. Gather them at low tide and use at the high, or just take the tuatua home to eat.
There is also a snapper bonanza for the boaties who sit just beyond the surf line, but you must be there prior to change of light or remain after it to nail the better snapper up to 3kg and occasionally more.
Rig: A long trace in the surf wash is the go but it doesn’t need to be as heavy as that you would use on the west. At the south end of this beach is one of my all-time favourite spots, around Puketu Island where the rock of the island forces the estuary run-out from an extensive lagoon to go run parallel to the beach for around 200m, coursing around a multitude of mussel-covered rocky lumps that will tear the bottom out of a fibreglass boat or rip an inflatable’s pontoon in one lift and dump from a seventh wave. Hence the competition will be from those locals fishing from battered tinnies.
Berley is good. Limit bags on snapper can be had very quickly. But this place offers more, you can target John dory on small livebaits caught by sabiki and set a larger jack mackerel or a kahawai out for big kingies.
I’ve had one that took 20 minutes to bring to the boat and another that towed us (in an inflatable) about a kilometre from the reef then back to it again to find a craggy rock edge on which to cut the 24kg line, which it did.
TAIPA to MANGONUI
Both ends of the beach are good, attracting cruising snapper and kingies in the XS size. At the north end, walk over the hill then drop down onto rocky crags at an unnamed jut-out that locals know as “kahawai point” because if you fish there you will not go home without a feed of that species.
A livie on a balloon will often score, but this technique is even more effective at the south end, just outside the estuary mouth. Sit mid-channel in a dinghy and you’re in with a chance of a kingfish up to 25kg.
I’ve seen two landed there and many more bust-offs by fish of that size and caught plenty in the 15-20kg range myself. This is also a good trevally spot, but you need to use small hooks as the bigger snapper hooked will rip their lip out. It also turns up multitudes of pannie snapper and the odd fish of 5kg.
Rig: 15kg on a long rod if you’re fishing from the shore, with a one-and-a-half metre trace of tougher line, and a two-hook rig threaded into a pilchard. Cast and retrieve, letting the pillie sink but once it hits the bottom, if it hasn’t been taken by a kahawai on the way down or a trev or snapper when it hits the bottom, wind back in jerks with three or four turns and a stop, another three or four turns and
The Mangonui wharf provides an excellent base from which to score fresh baits and while you’re getting them put one back down as a livie and score John dory which are often there in numbers. The kingie fishing from the wharf is legendary but I refer to it as ‘combat fishing.’
When the kings are running, it’s shoulder-to-shoulder and way more fish are lost due to tangles and cut-offs on the barnacle-encrusted piles than are landed.
BERGHAN POINT to WHANGAROA HARBOUR
Most of this land is in private or Maori communal ownership so it’s hard to get to, which makes it one of the best places in New Zealand to fish. Make friends, use contacts and fish this coast if you can. It produces XOS snapper by the multitude.
Again, the rocky volcanic hull-ripping rocks deter the boaties and so that, combined with the isolation, allows local ‘mooching’ snapper residents to grow to trophy size. There are numerous rock ledges that jut off the headlands. The coarse white sand and boulder beaches fish well too. Best time is dusk and dawn, as with many fishing spots.
Ultimate is a high tide at around 8-9am, so the change of light coincides with the water rise, which makes more food, e.g. shellfish and kina available to the hungry cruising schools.