Summer time in the shallows
04 March 2016
Summer. It’s that marvellous time of year when you don’t need much more than your jandals, a humble dinghy and a set of oars to catch a feed amongst the shallow coastal reefs and harbours of our northernmost island. Summertime fishing in the shallows is the easiest and best value for money fishing you’re likely to find. For most of us above the water the long glorious days of summer (post silly-season), signal BBQs, beach-dwelling and broken New Year's resolutions. But for fish, the warm water signals metabolic overdrive and a burning desire to feed up for the coming winter.
This is especially true for the North Island's snapper population. From around mid-January to mid-April their attention turns from reproduction to full-feeding mode. This, in turn, sees the shellfish-laden harbour shallows come alive with hungry snapper looking for an easy-feed.
Strong tidal flows, rain run-off and muddy harbour banks often create murky waters close to shore, which provides the snapper, kahawai and even the inquisitive kingfish with enough of a sense of security to venture into the shallows.
Tasty pan-sized snapper can be caught in only a couple of metres of water, kingfish can be lured away from inner harbour marker buoys and kahawai venture right into the estuaries, all within in easy reach of the recreational angler ñ if you put yourself in the right place at the right time.
Finding your spot
If your'e trying out a new area, the marine chart is a great place to start. In fact, my most productive shallow water spot-x was discovered while studying a chart over a cold beer the night before. Between sips I spotted a slightly deeper gutter within a large sand/mud bank running in the same direction to the tidal flows. Despite only being a couple of metres deeper than the surrounding area (and 2 - 4m deep at dead-low) it was enough of a hide-out to provide shelter from the strong tidal currents for the snapper to feed easily in. It also happened to be right beside a reef providing plenty of food sources in close proximity. On paper, it certainly seemed to have a lot going for it, but there was, of course, only one way to find out.
The next morning, myself and a couple of mates arrived at high tide and got the berley trail going. Once the tide started running out the snapper started coming into the chilly bin. 16 in total ranging from 30cm to around 50cm. The best bite was through the middle of the tide and as soon as the current died off, so did the bite. Over many summers I fished this spot the same way and rarely came home without a feed. Furthermore, if the wind and a 3m+ tide could be lined up with the change of light then success was almost a given.
The upper Waitemata Harbour is full of spots like the one mentioned above and the same theory applies to most of the North Island coastal harbours. Simply, wait for the spawning season to be over, find the food source, line up the wind and tides, deploy the berley and baits and then sit back and wait.
When it all comes together it's a glorious feeling to be sitting in a 5m runabout with a couple of mates, pulling snapper up to 50cm out of a couple of metres of water, while watching those less fortunate crawl past, stuck in traffic on Auckland's Harbour Bridge.
Fishing your spot
As alluded to above, the tried and true method to fish shallow harbours and reefs is anchor up and use the current to your advantage to direct a berley trail into the target zone; be it a shellfish-laden sand bank, hole or reef. The current will disperse your berley for you, attracting fish from a wide area.
For comfort and angling enjoyment, ideally you want the wind and the current to be heading in the same direction so your lines are heading directly behind the boat.
Adopting the stealth approach on arrival is vital to avoid spooking the prey, and take care to deploy the anchor and chain in a gentle fashion. Itís also a good idea to switch off the sounder once anchored as your fish targets will be behind the boat anyway. Enjoy the peace and quiet and try to keep the noise levels on board to a minimum.
As berley is the main ingredient, take at least one, but preferably two or more berley bombs, as you can always re-freeze any leftovers for next time.
A nice side-effect of berleying up is that you'll often attract bait fish too, which can be turned into just that ñ fresh bait. Where there's bait fish there's often John dory, kahawai and kingfish lurking so having a couple of sabikis handy can really enhance the menu.
Once the berley's flowing the idea is to have your bait drift down the berley trail as naturally as possible. This requires just the right amount of lead, so have a selection of ball sinkers handy to change the size up or down depending on the current flow. Around slack-water you can sometimes ditch the sinker altogether.
With straylining, a streamlined natural-looking bait works best, so whole pilchards or squid are the go. Piper are another great option (if locally available) but are a lot more expensive, unless you can catch your own.
Hook size is also important as there can often be a lot of juvenile snapper around which will benefit greatly from not being caught before their time.
I favour a two hook stray-line rig with either a 6/0 or 7/0 main J-hook and a sliding 6/0 or 5/0 J-hook keeper (for catering to different sized baits). Combine that with 1 - 2m of mono or fluorocarbon leader between 20 - 60 pounds, a good quality swivel and tie it all together nicely with a few uni knots and you should be ready for business.
Long live summer
During the summer months you certainly don't need to venture far from shore to catch a feed, nor do you need a flash boat to enjoy success. It's also a great opportunity to get the kids into the action without having to travel far from home.
In fact, writing this makes me miss my old 5m runabout and the cheap and easy fishing it provided over many memorable summers. Any time you can take a couple of mates out fishing for $20 each (bait, ice and fuel) and come home relaxed with a feed, has to be considered successful.
A little secret I learned to increase the odds when fishing with bait and berley is to also have a soft-bait rod on-board. Try casting a curly tailed soft-bait out the back of the berley trail. Simply loosen the drag and leave it in the rod holder until a fish grabs it. In the generally murky inner harbour water the brightly coloured Gulp 3” Minnow Grub in chartreuse does the job nicely. Depending on the current a 3/8 or 1/2 ounce jig-head is a good place to start with the trick being to have just enough weight so the soft bait swims just off the bottom. Often this insurance policy accounts for the bigger, more shy fish lurking in the shadows out the back.
Choosing your weapon
There are two-main set-ups that are ideal for stray-lining the shallows:
Overhead reel: An overhead reel allows you to put the reel in free-spool and gently feed out your bait with the current, while thumbing the spool to avoid the dreaded over-run a.k.a. bird’s nest. If your bait is picked up then you can let the fish run to quaff the bait before engaging the drag and setting the hook.
Tip: Lift the rod to move your bait if it’s not getting any attention. If it feels like your hooks are too light, then it’s a good idea to wind in, check your bait and start again.
Bait-runner: The versatile bait-runner allows your bait to be either feed out slowly with the current or simply cast out the back with the bait-runner mode engaged. With the latter, simply leave it in the rod holder until it starts to sing, before winding to engage the drag and setting the hook.
How long to let the fish run before striking is the million dollar question and varies depending on the day and how big your bait is, but counting to five is a good general guideline. If the fish are feeding hard then you may need to strike earlier, or leave it a bit longer if they’re tentative. Let experience guide you and if something’s not working consider changing tactics.
Tip: If you have both set-ups at your disposal then cast the bait-runner as far out the back as possible and use the overhead set-up to fish the berley trail directly behind the boat. In the event of a double hook-up you can always pass your mate the rod with the smallest fish.