A 4WD adventure down the remote coast from Dargaville to the Kaipara Harbour entrance showed how good the beach fishing can be when fishermen are prepared to get off the beaten track. But a few tricks can make all the difference when it comes to hooking snapper in the surf.
The sun was slowly pushing back the cover of darkness as our 4WD cruised off the bitumen and onto the beach at Glinks Gully. Dennis, or Den as he is also known, was behind the wheel concentrating on the beach and looking for the safe sand to travel as we headed south toward the Kaipara Heads.
The third fishing companion for the early leg of the day was Tubba, a newcomer to surfcasting with unmistakeable enthusiasm, new rod and reel in hand and already entered into this year’s 90-Mile Beach Surfcasting Classic.
A moody but fishable surf break slowly became obvious, and we scanned the coastline for the holes that could be holding fish. We were the advance fishing party with more to come.
The rest of our group were speeding up from Auckland, a crew from Top Gear magazine transported in four vehicles - a Nissan Navara, Ford Ranger, Mitsubishi Triton and Holden Rodeo. The plan was a fishing trip and 4WD beach test, the sort of adventure you sign up for at a big boys’ toys rally.
Ripiro Beach and the Kaipara environs was the perfect place to pursue this kind of adventure. Anyone who has spent time on the west coast understands the respect it commands, with powerful ocean swells, moody or even furious surf and a rugged and beautiful sandscape with its own hidden dangers.
Ripiro is the longest drivable beach in New Zealand, and the Kaipara Harbour has the longest coastline in the southern hemisphere.
The Kaipara Bar itself is one of the most feared bodies of water for ships and boats alike. Estimates of its victims fall between 43 and 110 wrecks. One of its famous fishing sites is aptly named The Graveyard - not because of the number of fish that are caught but because of the number of boats that have sunk in the area. One victim is possibly a Portugese ship, estimated to have been cruising our shore in the late 14th or 15th Century - long before Tasman or Cook first set eyes on Aotearoa.
This part of New Zealand is untamed and intimidating but also rich in natural resources. Historically, there have been numerous industries set up to harvest its riches; first was the mighty kauri trees that dominated the landscape, milled and shipped to other parts of the world. The kauri itself is a proud and ancient tree, living for centuries and even millenia. From 1839 through to 1900 trees were felled and then gum was dug from the landscape. A lot of gum was exported to England and the USA where it was used to manufacture varnish. Maori used gum also as part of their torches, hunting for eels and flounder in the night.
It was also burnt to ward caterpillars away from kumara crops and the soot from burning gum was used to colour traditional tattoos.
The bounties of this area were harvested until exhaustion, ships sailing up the Northern Wairoa River to load before leaving heavily laden with kauri logs and gum.
Next came the kumara, which is still grown and harvested today. Two thirds of our kumara comes from this area, the loamy soil a favourite home for the sweet potato to grow in.
The other resource of note native to the area is the toheroa. Three factories were canning the abundant giant clams at one stage, however they too went the way of the kauri and it is now a protected shellfish. Unfortunately there hasn’t been an open season for many years, except for a single day of gathering on a beach in the South Island. Toheroa soup was once a famous and popular dish and harvesters sometimes even resorted to hiding the shellfish in their hubcaps to avoid the inspectors as they came off the beach.
This was my first time to Dargaville and Ripiro Beach and although several locals had joked that Dargaville is prettier at night, I was soaking up the vista of beach and sky slowly being illuminated in the dawn of a promising day.
Den spotted a deep hole in close and we mentally marked the spot as a potential high tide possie. We rounded the not-so-round headland and drove along the harbour toward the old light- house. The surf diminished a little and we saw a gut in close that quickly petered out into deep water.
“Let’s give this a few casts,” Den suggested and Tubba and I were scrambling out of the truck without any more prompting.
A huge orange orb rose over the horizon and I snapped a few shots before hurriedly setting up my gear. A 14ft graphite rod, new long-cast spool reel and 15kg braid was my weapon of choice. I took my cue from Den for the type of rig to set up - a two-hook ledger rig with BOS (break out sinker) on the bottom. Tuatua bait on the top hook and mullet on the other and I was trundling toward the green sea where the gut pushed out into the harbour. The morning light was something magical, with the eastern sky glowing intense orange and yellow.
Den cast and was getting bites quite quickly. My baits were getting attacked too, but they were small fish. Tubba joined us and Den shortly after had a fat kahawai on the shore. I pulled in a smaller version of his fish then Den pulled up a double of decent snapper.
That was another first for me; witnessing a double of nice snapper off the beach. Although a committed land-based fisher-men, surfcasting is a form of fishing I have not mastered or managed to squeeze many lucky days from. It seems to me to be a sport that requires more patience and practice than trout fishing or even game fishing.
Tubba got bitten off twice before hauling in an eagle ray.
The ray was almost ashore when the line snapped. So back to the truck to tie up yet another rig. I moved over toward Den just as he hooked and landed a third snapper. It was becoming obvious Den wasn’t lucky but knew exactly what he was doing.
Examining his approach I noted several differences. His rod was exceptionally stiff, his casts were all pendulum style swings, he used a casting button to hold onto the line before
release and he was wading out further than the rest of us in his wet suit. The result was that his baits were a good 30-50 metres further out and it was obviously paying off. Although I have heard people say ‘you don’t have to cast far to catch fish’, in this case it just wasn’t true. He also was using 15kg braid and had a 50kg braid shock leader, which he tied around the casting button.
Den has fished the waters of the Kauri Coast for more than 30 years. He is as native as the local toheroa that inhabit the beach. He explained that if you are chasing snapper, darkness can yield nice specimens closer in but during daylight longer casts are usually necessary. A wetsuit is also an advantage to be able to wade out to the ocean side of a gut or second sand bar and reach the deeper water. It can be a bit disconcerting wading out to waist deep water that has larger swells pushing you back but it can yield fish when shorter casts will not. Unfortunately your gear will absorb a lot of salt water and it can be dangerous so wear a wet suit or inflatable lifejacket, or both.
LOW TIDE BEST
Trevally can be captured at low tide around the holes as the tide is coming in. Tuatua is the favoured bait for trevally and even snapper, and I noticed Den was using kahle hooks - the small point easy for the fish to engulf with the tuatua. If you are an east coast fisherman there are a few differences that should be noted. While the east coast often fishes well near the top of the tide, beach fishing on the west side can produce more on the low tide where the holes are.
Kahawai can be a top bait on the east coast for snapper while on the west coast it attracts more sharks instead of snapper. Mullet and tuatua are really the baits of choice, with skipjack also producing.
On the subject of kahawai for bait, if you are wanting to chase kingfish (in the harbour), live mullet are the choice of kings over a live kahawai.
Matt, his father Barry and I were at a creek mouth the day before and had managed to capture five fat, nervous live mullet. These were captured with the aid of a mullet net, each one carefully extracted to minimise damage to their gills.
We had learnt of kahawai , kings and hefty snapper being taken at the mouth particularly on the out-going tide. It was obvious why, as the ebbing tide attracted predators that would lie in wait to ambush the small fish returning from the mangroves to feed. Although we didn’t encounter any kingfish I would bet my Shimano 50W that a little perseverance would produce some hot kingfish sessions, and they are usually over the 20kg mark when extracted from the harbour.
We moved on from our first try and drove down the beach looking for another fishy looking spot. The 4WD gang turned up and we travelled past the old Poutu Light-house. A shelving beach with deep water appeared and we piled out.
Baits were flung out and shortly all kinds of fish started to turn up. I landed a tasty looking pannie snapper, then a kahawai. Trevally, kahawai, a ray and sharks showed interest in our rigs and everyone had a slice of the action. This was great fun, then one of the Top Gear guys hooked a hefty shark, estimated at twenty kilos. It led him down the beach where Matt eventually gaffed it to get the hook out.
The rest of the day we fished and relaxed, waiting for the tide to recede. The drive home was also eventful with several seals discovered at the high tide mark relaxing on the sand.
West coast surf casting can be a very exciting and productive experience and I would encourage anyone who wants to try a different style of fishing to give it a go.
It takes careful planning to get the weather and tides right, but the fish are there for the catching if you are ready to sharpen your casting skills and play it safe.
- Good casting is paramount; learn how to do the pendulum cast. It’s a great idea to join a local club that has members competing in casting competitions that can teach you.
- Use a casting button if using a fixed spool reel. A casting button enables the caster to hold onto the line which your finger would be unable to hold when the rod is generating big power during a cast.
- Ask and look around for a good casting rod. It needs to be stiff but not too heavy. They may be expensive but you will notice the difference in distance.
- Braid line will outcast mono, 10-15 kg is good and your ability to feel bites will increase. If losing lots of fish after hooking them, fish a lighter drag as the no stretch nature of braid will easily pulls hooks out of a fish’s mouth (ie trevally).