Geoff Thomas – outdoorsman
Fishing Personality Geoff Thomas needs no introduction to readers of this magazine. John Eichelsheim profiles one of the country’s bestknown outdoors media personalities, who’s been bringing us fishing and hunting film, television, video and radio product
In March this year the last episode of Rheem Outdoors with Geoff went to air, closing the book on 35 years of outdoors-themed film, video and television. The final instalment marked the end of 17 consecutive series for
Outdoors with Geoff.
“It’s the last one I’ll make,” says Geoff. “I’ve done my bit; the [media] landscape has changed beyond recognition since I started out, and it’s time to leave television to the young guys.”
Geoff’s formative years were spent growing up in Pakuranga, where he fished local rocks, wharves and jetties at every opportunity – but it was Lake Tarawera that became his special place. The Thomas family had a bach on its shores, where they spent weekends and holidays, enabling Geoff to become an accomplished trout fisher.
After university Geoff began a career in journalism with the Auckland Star newspaper, worked briefly for Radio 1 and then moved his young family to Rotorua in 1970 to follow his passion. He set himself up as a trout-fishing guide, supplementing guiding work with part-time reporting for the Rotorua Daily Post and photography for the NZ Herald. By the mid-seventies Geoff was fully immersed in the tourism industry, having established Trout Safaris (NZ) Ltd, a travel agency specialising in New Zealand holidays for travelling sportsmen. His clients included famous fishing names such as Ernest (Ernie) Schwiebert and Lefty Kreh, screen celebrities Larry ‘JR’ Hagman, James ‘The Virginian’ Drury and golfer Jack Niklaus.
During the 1970s and 1980s Geoff strenuously promoted New Zealand’s fishing and hunting to overseas markets, making numerous promotional trips to the USA, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. He attended conferences, showed films, made presentations and, whenever possible, took the opportunity to fish and hunt with local guides.
Geoff was actively promoting fishing inside New Zealand as well, becoming President of the Rotorua Angler’s
Association and establishing, with others, the NZ Professional Guides Association, of which he was made inaugural president. A lasting legacy of this period are the fish-out days he started to get young kids interested in fishing. They are still held each year at Fish & Game’s Ngongotaha Hatchery and elsewhere.
Geoff also served as the first chairman of the NZ Sport Fishing Marketing Group, a body set up in 1984 to promote this country’s recreational fishing to overseas markets. Partners included Air New Zealand, the Tourist Hotel Corporation, Mount Cook Line, various trout-fishing guides associations, and the Luxury Lodges Association of New Zealand.
Also in 1984, Geoff established Pathways International with American Charles Gaines, a booking agency to send sportsmen (and women) to exclusive hunting and fishing destinations in New Zealand, Australia, South America, Canada, Europe and Africa.
Television and film
The 1980s were a busy decade for Thomas. Complementing his other activities, Geoff combined journalism and fishing in a series of film and television works. His first was a pilot in 1981 for a television series on fishing in New Zealand. On the back of it he established Safari Productions and produced 13 half-hour programmes for television, along with two one-hour episodes, calling the series Fishing Downunder. Geoff wrote, hosted and raised the finance for what turned out to be a successful first foray into fishing television.
Not long after Fishing Downunder’s release he was commissioned to produce three promotional films for the touristfishing industry in New Zealand. These were screened widely around the world, but Safari Productions broke new ground in 1986 by producing six fishing videos for general sale based on the Fishing Downunder series.
At the time, says Geoff, this was a considerable gamble: “We had to persuade ordinary Kiwis to buy a video to own rather than rent it for a few days from a video store, which was the norm back then.”
The gamble paid off, and with the video business gaining momentum, Geoff moved his family back to Auckland, where he produced Snapper Secrets in 1989.
Snapper Secrets was a runaway success, selling 26,000 copies, a record for video sales in New Zealand that’s never been matched. It created a huge market for sellthrough videos, and Safari Productions followed up with eight more titles in the Secrets series, which together achieved 150,000 sales. Then came more fishing videos, as well as 13 general-interest titles in genres as diverse as rugby and gardening. When DVD replaced video, Safari Productions shifted to making outdoors DVDS.
As the 1990s drew on, Geoff took the next logical step, writing and hosting 52 episodes of the Outdoor Journal for the Horizon-pacific network of regional television stations. The programmes screened in 1995-1996.
Then in 1999 he broke into mainstream TV, writing, producing and hosting 13 episodes of Mazda Outdoors on TV One. Mazda Outdoors quickly expanded to a 25 or 26 episode series, was moved to TV3 as Gulf Harbour Outdoors, then became Outdoors with Geoff, and ran continuously for 17 years, sometimes with naming-right sponsors and sometimes without. The last episode of the final series screened on March 2016, but re-runs and repeats are still playing on TV3 and Country TV.
Radio and print
Though the 1990s, 2000 and 2010s, Geoff continued writing about the outdoors for the NZ Herald as a weekly fishing columnist and as outdoors columnist for the Herald on Sunday. He also took on the editor’s role at NZ Fishing World from 1999, producing 69 issues before moving on. Geoff wrote books too – seven of them from 1995 – with The Complete NZ Fisherman winning a Montana Book Award in 1998. His latest book, Outdoors with Geoff is a compilation of columns from the NZ Herald available from booksellers now.
In 1998 Geoff kicked off The Fishing Breakfast on Radio Sport, which he hosted until January 2009, before launching The Fishing Show on Radiolive, fronting that every Saturday morning until December 2011. The Fishing Show still airs on Radiolive Friday evenings 7-8pm and Saturday mornings 5-6am, now hosted by The Outdoors Group.
It’s been quite a career so far, but Geoff has no desire to hang up his boots.
He might be finishing with television but ‘retirement’ is a dirty word. While Geoff’s ‘pushing 70’, he’s not short of energy or ambition and he’s still got stuff to do.
“We start our days in nappies and we end our days in nappies; it’s what we do between the nappies that counts,” he quips.
Television was only ever one of many threads in Geoff’s life, and he maintains he’s now busier than ever. Geoff has ongoing interests in Auckland property, writing commitments with the NZ Herald, an online tackle business with his son (Gttackle.co.nz), a new fishing lodge on Lake Tarawera (2012), plenty of corporate hosting work and much more.
Keen to give something back to the community, Geoff recently set up the HARK Trust, an organisation which challenges at-risk youngsters with outdoor adventure, helping them to grow as people (www.hark.org.nz). He’s big on family and very involved in the lives of his adult children.
By purchasing Rainbow’s Return Lodge (www.geoffthomas.co.nz) on the shores of Lake Tarawera, Geoff Thomas has come full circle. He loved Lake Tarawera as a child and stayed faithful to it his whole life.
“It’s my spiritual home,” say Geoff, who intends to entertain corporate sponsors and guests at the lodge for many years to come.
“The obvious change is in abundance. Fish are disappearing everywhere. The trouble is, the baseline shifts with each generation. People judge the abundance of fish on their own experience, but catches that are normal for young fishers today would have been judged poor by previous generations fishing in more abundant seas,” said Geoff. “I remember much better fishing 40 years ago. There should be millions more snapper in the Hauraki Gulf, but unacknowledged and unreported trawler waste and a new 30cm recreational size limit that actually results in more small snapper dying are throttling any recovery.”
Even our much vaunted freshwater fisheries have declined dramatically, says Geoff, who remembers when 5kg trout were hardly remarked upon in Lake Tarawera. Today such fish are notable catches.
While Geoff attributes the decline of our river and lake fisheries largely to changes in land and water use, technology advances and a growing population played their part.
In saltwater, advances in marine electronics, fishing gear and fishing knowledge have helped maintain recreational and commercial catch rates despite declining stocks. Fishers are more mobile and better able to find fish than ever before, says Geoff.
“With all the technology available to us today, if we get to the point where we struggle to catch fish, it’s probably too late. They’re effectively gone and may never come back,” warns Geoff.
Geoff reckons the biggest challenge facing recreational fishing is to mobilise the mass of ordinary Kiwi fishers to force changes in the way our fisheries are managed.
“With good management abundant stocks are possible, but we have to put the fishery first, not commercial and recreational fishing interests.”