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Lessons of the longline - What to do, and what not to do when kontiki fishing

December 19, 2019
Lessons of the longline - What to do, and what not to do when kontiki fishing

Kontiki fishing is gaining more and more popularity in New Zealand every year. Thomas Black attempts to see what all the fuss is about. As the newest member of the NZFW Team and by far the least experienced fisherman, I thought I’d struck gold when I heard my first assignment was to go kontiki fishing.

I’ve seen the ad on TV, how hard could it be?

What is kontiki fishing?

Contrary to what I previously thought, kontiki fishing is not a new concept. Kiwis have been sending out land-based long-lines on make-do crafts for decades. Early models included such kiwi ingenuity greats as the ‘storage pallet with plywood sail’ and the ‘inflated tractor tyre’.

Kite-based kontikis became popular in the 1980s but, like earlier designs, weather conditions still played a large role in their success.

The electric motorised kontikis that we see today gain their lineage from backyard shed DIY projects and a lot of trial and error. Today’s vessels can travel offshore over two kilometres and be used in pretty much all weather conditions.

The Predator in all its majesty

The kontiki market is large, with various models offering slight differences in design. I must say however that the kontiki I’ve been given to use is by far the sharpest looking of them all.

The shark-inspired design gives many advantages in terms of water resistance, positioning and of course aesthetics.

The Predator comes in three models the 30lb, the 44lb and the 54lb thruster; the latter of which I will be using.  I am also lucky enough to have the electric winch model.
With all these gadgets I was surely set for an easy day’s fishing.

Take one

To help on this expedition I solicited the assistance of my best mate, Vince. While Vince is an experienced fisherman, it was his first time fishing with a kontiki.

We should have known our mission was doomed from the start when we spent well over an hour struggling to turn the machine on. It is at this point that more intelligent creatures would have headed online to seek proper instruction on how to use the kontiki. We did not.

The writer taking the Predator out on it's maiden voyage

It was well into the evening by the time we figured out how the ignition switch worked. Being late we decided to put the kontiki out for a short 15 minutes with just a couple of hooks to see how it goes.

This ended when we could no longer see the kontiki’s flashing red light in front of us. After a long stare into the quickly darkening horizon it was still nowhere to be seen.

If we’d only turned our heads 90 degrees to the left, we would have seen it had turned back and beached itself about 200 metres up the beach. A quick swim to untangle the line from the rocks and it was time to head home.

Beaten, but not defeated, we decided to give it another crack the next day. Instead of researching the proper way to use the kontiki, we decided our location must have been wrong and added our good friend Vili to our team of clueless fishermen.

Take two

We set out early this time, driving up to Army Bay in Whangaparoa. Using a mixture of pilchard and squid we baited our hooks before setting the plastic red beast on its way.

Vili teaching Vince correct baiting technique

Our hopes were once again crushed as the Predator now about 150 metres out, veered right and then began coming back towards us. Many unusable words were spoken.  

The next two and a half hours entailed much of the same heartbreak. Everything from line tangles to bait eating dogs sent our kontiki mission further into disaster.

I can only imagine what the locals must have thought looking out their windows and seeing a ghost-toned Irishman and a Tongan chasing a plastic red shark through the shallows of the bay. This time we were defeated.

Vince applying a whole pilly during our fated second kontiki attempt.

A great man once said…

He wasn’t talking about fishing but Albert Einstein may as well have been when he defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

With that in mind I decided to enlist the help of a kontiki fishing expert to save me from myself.

My hero came in the shape of Ian Gatshell of Ruakaka.

Ian (right) spinning a yarn with another local kontiki fisherman. Ruakaka has a tight-knit kontiki community.

Ian and his lovely wife Elma have been kontiki fishing for a little over a year and have nothing but good things to say about the style of fishing.

Ian, now retired, is a lifelong fisherman and was a long-time boat owner until he begrudgingly sold it a few years ago.
“It just became too much hassle. The planning, the maintenance, the transportation; it got too much for me”, he said.

Ian admitted he’s actually caught some of his biggest catches with his Predator.

In his own words, “Having a kontiki is just so much easier, all the fish and none of the other b*llsh*t that comes with owning a boat.”

After a coffee and a few of Elma’s delicious cinnamon muffins, we were out the back cutting the bait. Today we’re using squid, but Ian recommends mullet and kahawai as baits that work best for him.

Most kontikis come with custom-made traces that clip straight to the line. Just like longline fishing there is a 25-hook maximum.

Ian has kontiki fishing down to an art. First of all he lives only a stone throw from the beautiful and bountiful Bream Bay. And secondly, he has customised almost all aspects of his technique and set up. I am well and truly realising that kontiki fishing is far more complex than sending the line out for an hour or so before winching it back with a line full of fish.

To streamline things further, Ian has customised his four-wheeler for a primary purpose of kontiki fishing. This includes a bolted-on swivel for the winch on the rear of the bike, a customised holder for transporting the kontiki itself, and a battery carrier attached to the front of the bike.

Ian tells me there is quite a tight-knit kontiki community in Ruakaka, and he isn’t exaggerating.  Before we even begin setting up another local visits us on his own customised kontiki quad. Unfortunately, he bears bad news. He’s just pulled his line in without any baits being touched.

Time to start fishing

Ian parks the quad roughly 15 meters from the water’s edge; it’s an incoming tide but we should be fine.

If you are planning on leaving your kontiki out for a long period of time (over an hour), it’s important to allow for tidal movement when choosing a spot to launch from. You don’t want to come back from a leisurely stroll to find your winch underwater.

The Predator takes three 12-volt batteries, which slide into the belly of the shark. With the line attached via a carabineer, it’s time to set the kontiki out.

Ian clipping on the hooks as the line goes out

The Predator uses an Autonav GPS system. Ian explains how it works - “Just hold down the switch until it flashes, set the timer, then turn it on”. It seems so obvious when someone else demonstrates.

A quick tip to ensure the Predator heads out straight is to turn it sideways. If the rudder moves to compensate then the GPS is set correctly. If only I’d known that before first taking the kontiki out, things could have been different.

With kontiki fishing one certainty is that you will get wet. I found that in order to set the kontiki out I had to wade to at least thigh depth. Always check for any sandbars or rocks before sending the kontiki on its way.

Ian always sets the winch break to about halfway when first setting the kontiki out. This is to lessen the chances of the line overrunning as well as giving you more time to get back to attach the traces.

When clipping on the traces keep the line and the hooks in front of you to limit the chances of catching yourself on a hook. Ian emphasises this especially when fishing alone - “If you get a hook in your hand with no one to turn the break on you’ll be the one heading out as fish bait”.

The standard setup has 25 hooks and traces but there is room on the line for at least triple that. Ian recommends a hook about every second notch. It is a skill requiring nimble fingers so it might be best to build up to this pace.

A waiting game

With the traces attached the hard work is done. You can let the line brake off, sit back and enjoy the surroundings.

This was my first time to Ruakaka and it is a beautiful place. With Marsden Point to our left, the Hen and Chicken and Poor Knight Islands straight out ahead, I can’t think of a better place to launch a kontiki from.

We set the timer for 20 minutes by which time the kontiki is just a speck, visible only via binoculars. It is amazing how far and fast the little 54lb thrust Mercury motor can take it.

Be prepared to get wet

With about an hour to kill before pulling it back in, it is the perfect time to pick up some extra tips from Ian -

  1. When fishing in new or unfamiliar areas always check maps or seek local knowledge before launching. You never know what reefs or sandbars might be in your way.
  2. A good pair of binoculars is essential. Always scan the area before setting the kontiki out. Keep a particular eye out for boats, cray-pots and other kontikis.
  3. Always keep a knife or set of pliers with you as a safety measure. If you get a hook in your hand whilst the line is going out you will be in trouble.
  4. Always be courteous of other beach users. Keep well clear of swimmers, surf casters and other konitki fisherman.
  5. Write your name and number on the outside of the kontiki. Not only is this the law, it may also help should the line break and you lose your kontiki.

Christmas time

The hour is up and Elma has joined us for the winching in ceremony. Earlier on Ian explained the feeling of pulling in the line as similar to unwrapping presents on Christmas day.

Someone a lot luckier than the author

The winch requires a small locking pin before it can be turned on. With this in place we now switch on the hauling mode. The line comes in quick so guide it onto the spool evenly.

Sensing my eager anticipation for the upcoming catch Ian tries to lower my expectations by telling me nobody’s caught anything in the bay for the last week and a half.

Removing the traces is definitely a two-man job so Elma takes over control of the winch as we remove the traces.
“If the fish are there, you’ll catch them”, Ian says. I guess they weren’t there today.

Last word

My day out kontiki fishing with Ian and Elma in Ruakaka really showed me that using a kontiki to fish is no different to any other method of fishing. It involves planning, expertise and luck, after all it's not called kontiki catching. (I’m new so I can use that joke).

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