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How to catch hapuka

24 May 2019
How to catch hapuka

There are few fish that taste as good and yield so much flaky fillet as the Hapuka (That's groper anywhere outside New Zealand) They are a challenge to target but can provide great reward and certainly a serious workout if you don’t have the inclination to use electric reels. One of the best things about Hapuka fishing, is that you can guarantee it is worth a go anywhere in New Zealand, at any time of year.

Our cover photo features a magnificent specimen caught by angler Lloyd O'Brian on board 'Days Out Fishing Charters' in the Bay of Islands.  Matt Dobson, contributor to much of the information in this article and featured in the video, is also a charter operator (Black Pearl Charters - Wellington).  If you want to learn first hand how to catch hapuka going out on a charter is a good place to start.

Hapuka can be found from the Three Kings to Stewart island, they are a relatively abundant species, the trick is finding them.
Once upon a time you would expect to catch Hapuka in depths of only 30 metres, and they can still be hooked on occasion in this territory.
More commonly, Hapuka frequent cold water from 100 to 300 metres plus.  This means you will need to be a significant distance offshore compared to the usual snapper and kingfish mission, so in many cases your best day will be one where the weather map is dominated by a big H.

GEARING UP

The situation dictates the gear needed for what is affectionately known as ‘deep-dropping’ for Hapuka, bass, and bluenose.  The latter two species commonly caught when targeting ‘puka’ and are equally welcome.  A few other species you might stumble across include ling, tope, gemfish and the odd conger eel.

Plunging a large set of baits to depths where you won’t be anchored requires a dedicated setup.

LINES

Braid lines around 80lb breaking strain are a must for three key reasons

They have no stretch so you can see and feel every bite, and transfer hook setting power directly at such a great distance.
The fine diameter is far less susceptible to current dragging the line away and off the bottom, so less line belly means more direct connection with the fish.
Less line diameter also means more line capacity can be accommodated by a reasonable sized reel, without having to go to a game rig.

The Daiwa Tanacom is a popular electric reel at a reasonable cost

REELS

Although not  considered very ‘sporting’, electric reels have become widely accepted as an easy way to deal with the challenges of the deep.  When you consider the time and effort required to lug a huge bait and sinker combo (it can take tough 10 minutes and that’s without a fish on) you’ll soon appreciate the ability to prospect and regularly check your baits that you only get with the ‘winch’.  Although they certainly have their place, the purist will believe that place is under the hood of a Tesla.

Both Daiwa and Shimano produce electric reels at a couple of price points, usually between $900 and $1,900 based on specification level.

If you’re not using electrics, any decent game reel or heavy-duty, large jig reel that will hold up to 300 metres of 80lb braid can do the job just fine.

Although it looks shallow, we're at 'The Brothers' in 100 metres here.  

RODS

Rods need to be an appropriate to the reel you are using naturally.  Light game rods, and heavier jig rods will all get the job done.  Usually they will be shorter than 6 feet and have plenty of grunt in the butt section to lift a fish that may weigh in excess of 40kgs.

A useful choice is a rod with a bent butt section as this allows the rod to be left in a rod holder out the back of the boat maintaining a good angle to drop the line straight down, clear of the stern and nicely 45 degrees to the rod.

You will also want a rod bucket/gimbal belt on hand to leverage the weight.

A more elaborate commercial puka rig tied on ideal 10/0 circles

TERMINAL TACKLE

The most practical rig for Hapuka is a double dropper rig, although with electric reels four hook rigs are commonly used.  Up to 20 is legal in some areas but that is more like vertical long lining.

Rigs are easily made, but good quality commercial rigs are cost effective and work well, usually featuring a luminous tube along the dropper.

These traces are tied on 200lb – 300lb monofilament or fluorocarbon with three-way crane swivels and crimps in place of knots.

Hooks are a no brainer.  At the depth you are fishing circle hooks as they simply hook themselves as the rod sits in a holder.

Another commercial rig available from Sword Pro

Hook size varies from 7/0 and upwards to 14/0.  Depending on your bait a good size to start with is 9/0 or 10/0.  Many people over-size the hook for Hapuka, and bigger is not necessarily better.  Hapuka also have very bony, hard mouths so keep the points in good shape.

Sinkers choice is important, and be prepared to go heavy.  Sinkers from 500 grams to 1.5kg are often necessary to battle currents experienced out wide.  Sinkers are bounced along the bottom and occasionally will snag.  Some anglers like to tie sinkers on a breakaway line, but others subscribe to connecting directly to the trace in order to be able to drag them out of foul, with the most chance of retaining the whole rig.   Big sinkers are costly and you will lose the odd one.

If you snag up, take the rod out of the holder, point it directly down the line and lock up the drag.

Back the boat up past where you got snagged and hang on tight, most often the line will pull free and you get to keep fishing.

A nice hapuka floats to the surface

BAITS

Puka love a big bait.  They are an apex predator, not overly quick, and have a big mass to feed so a big wafting bait gets inhaled easily.

It’s important whatever bait you are using, to keep the hook point free, so make sure you rig baits simply hooked once through the end of the bait.

Baits that work well include whole squid, whole pilchards (or a squid – pilchard combo).  Squid is resilient to ‘pickers’, and the last thing you want to worry about is hauling up a line to check baits.

Popular pilchard and squid combo hooked only once at the head

To this end, big lures and jigs are also very effective.  Lures such as Catch fishing’s specifically designed, 500gram ‘Giant Squidwings’, or other big broader jigs in the 300 – 800gram range work well, at times out-fishing bait.  

The beauty with using lures being the security of knowing you are always fishing, and there is not a bare hook bouncing around down there.

There are other times when a particular flavoured bait outfishes all else.  Often fresh is best, and big slabs of freshly caught oily fish such as kahawai, trevally, barracouta or gemfish are the go-to.

The 500gram Catch Giant Squidwings lure has accounted for nice bluenose such as this one, plus many hapuka, and bass.

FINDING FISH

The number one challenge is finding fish, and when you do, you’re likely to catch them.

Fish congregate, and where there is one you will usually find more, often time and time again over various trips, so make sure you mark your groper spots on the sounder whenever you hook up.

There are usually well known grounds, trenches, holes and pinnacles in your area that hold Hapuka.  Try asking at your local tackle store or do some research online.  The best win, however, is finding your own marks and having them for yourself.

It’s a big seafloor out there, and puka will usually congregate around some sort of feature such as a shelf or pinnacle.

Try using the navionics app, or follow contour lines with your sounder on to identify fish sign tight to the bottom.  A good sounder makes a massive difference at this depth.  Even at trolling speed or in slow transit, watch you sounder for any sign of contour change.

NOW WE’RE FISHING

Once you have identified you are over a good area, you’ve spotted some sign, stop for a minute and track your boat drift.  Once you have a trail on the sounder track back across and over it before you deploy lines.

Ideally don’t fish more than two rigs as you risk tangles, and deploy them staggered, ie let one down halfway first, then the other.

Once on the bottom, you’ll see the rod tip bobbing along as the sinker tracks the seafloor.  This is where the driver comes in.  In order to keep your line where you want it, straight up and down, reverse the boat and manoeuvre as required to achieve this.  If you are not directly on the bottom you’re off the ball.

Catch your fresh bait early

Groper takes are not savage as the depth and weight of gear really dulls everything down.  You will see the rod tip bend over suddenly and that’s the time to ease on some pressure and start winding to identify whether you have hooked up.  With circle hooks you don’t strike as this just pulls the hooks out, just ease on the weight and the hook design will do the rest.

Contrary to many beliefs, puka are a strong fighting fish.  About halfway up the water column, however, a puka will generally give up the fight, not because they are weak, but because the pressure change has blown their air bladder.  Often a big cloud of bubbles will erupt around the same time as a monster fish pops belly up on the surface.

Matt Dobson from Black Pearl Charters with a nice fish.  If you want expert advice and a great trip, Matt is a good guy to help you

At this point there is no returning a Hapuka, regardless of size it is headed for the plate.

With so much flesh on one fish, once you have one or two, it’s nice to conserve the stocks and head off for a change of target species.

Due to the cold water temperature that groper inhabit, and the sheer size of the fish, the flesh is delicate and when cooked breaks into large flakes, making it ideal for steaks, fillets, smoking, and just about any other way you can think of cooking fish.

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