A Shore Thing Find the food, find the fish
You hear it said often enough: “Find the food and you’ll find the fish,” but it’s true. So how does a surfcaster or rock-fisher turn this knowledge into fishing success? Read on and Andy Macleod will reveal all…
We had a fantastic summer down here in the capital. I think we’ve experienced calmer summers, but it’s hard to remember one that was so consistently warm and pleasant. This really helped to bump up water temperatures and keep our warm-water visitors hanging around (notably snapper). The first-ever recorded broadbill swordfish was taken from Cook Strait this year, and even as I write (in early May) the water remains warm, with snapper and kingfish still making up catches, and appears likely to stay that way for weeks to come.
I made the most of the balmy summer weather and did a fair bit of diving around the outer harbour and the entrance. In these areas the water temperature has hovered around 18-19°C and huge numbers of baitfish have moved in – juvenile kahawai, yellowtail mackerel, anchovies and yelloweyed mullet in particular. When I say huge numbers, I mean huge – literally thousands and thousands – so it comes as no surprise that they have been followed by larger kahawai and kingfish. On the days when wind has been absent and the water crystal-clear, dolphins have also ventured into the harbour to merrily smash-up the baitfish schools.
This phenomenon has been interesting to closely observe, because those who fish Wellington Harbour throughout the year know only too well that the fishing slows down considerably when the water cools (it gets down as low as 11°C in a cold winter). Baitfish disappear into deeper water, fish metabolisms slow down, and enticing bites (from the shore at least) becomes an exercise
in patience. This pattern contrasts starkly with warm-water fishing, where lure fishing and bottom fishing regularly produce kahawai (snapper are also caught on the bottom) and live baits account for the odd kingfish.
During my childhood in Dunedin I witnessed similar seasonal patterns in Otago Harbour. In late summer and early autumn there would often be spectacular scenes in the outer harbour when large quantities of krill were pushed in on the tide. With this krill came southern flat-bodied sprats, mackerel, yelloweyed mullet, barracouta and quinnat salmon. Again, by finding the food one could cash in on the top-to-bottom food chain processes going on, easily catching the mullet and barracouta on silver-slice spinners.
But finding the food is not just about finding baitfish. Many of our favourite shore-caught species are bottom grubbers, feeding mainly on shellfish and paddle crabs. On the western coast of the lower North Island the more shellfish you can locate the more likely you are to cash in on the seasonal snapper population. As one moves north of the Kapiti Coast and the population pressures of the Wellington urban area, the beaches become richer in shellfish (tuatua especially) and the chances of catching snapper increase markedly.
But shellfish are not spread uniformly along the beaches, instead tending to occur in patches. Consequently, the best way to locate them is by looking for washed-up shells along the highwater mark. Then, having found the shells, cast out in front of them – there’s every chance you’ll be casting baits in amongst the fish. (Interestingly, it doesn’t seem necessary to ‘match the hatch’; just
presenting an attractive bait in amongst natural shellfish beds is often enough to earn a bite.)
Birds working above baitfish are the classic giveaway of fish presence too, but there are other – sometimes left-field – ways of locating fish.
For example, the deep gravel beaches of the Wairarapa provide prolific surfcasting for red cod in the cooler months. At such times it’s not unusual to see fat fur seals lying on the beach, which slip in now and again for an easy feed. The red cod themselves are usually gorging on the paddle crabs that seem to move inshore in huge numbers to breed over the cold months.
Further north in favoured rock-fishing locations such as Northland, Coromandel and East Cape, the best fishing is wherever baitfish congregate in numbers, which is often in eddies inside the main headlands. The massive blue maomao schools of East Cape go a long way towards explaining the healthy numbers of marauding kingfish in the area, even if they seem to prefer the taste of kahawai.
Rocks that still hold good numbers of paua, kina and crayfish – generally in more far-flung locations or where conditions are seldom favourable for diving – tend to hold more fish, particularly those dark-red, kelpie snapper that rock-fishers dream about.
It can be very easy to simply build up a catalogue of land-based fishing spots that work for you and not think about why they fish better than other places, or why particular species are present and not others. Once you turn your mind to it, you’ll often find that the answers lie in the food that’s present. (Water temperature is the other key variable.)
Learning these things can take your understanding of how and why these spots work to another level. To illustrate my point, I fish a couple of spots in the Wellington region that look pretty similar from the beach, but produce completely different species. One has a very soft, mud bottom that supports a healthy population of small paddle crabs and juvenile flatfish, and can fish very well for gurnard, moki and spotty sharks. The other drops off quickly into two metres of water and then flattens out for a kilometre or two offshore with a complex system of reefs. In season, yelloweyed mullet come into the shallow, sheltered water in good numbers, followed by seven-gill sharks, which pick them off alongside the plentiful reef species like banded wrasse and spotties. It’s great to know this of course, but since these places take some getting to, it’s even better to know the time of year the food turns up, including whether or not a cold spring might delay its arrival by a week or two.
On the flipside of the coin, the often parlous state of our inshore fishery’s more readily accessible areas tends to reflect a lack of potential food. Take a dive anywhere close to human habitation – again Wellington Harbour is a good example – and the dearth of sea-life can be quite shocking. The crayfish are long gone, but so are the paua – and even mussels and other less-sought-after species can be completely absent. It’s not surprising that these areas don’t hold fish for much of the year. I’m sure Wellington Harbour would be a better year-round fishery if the shellfish stocks were higher. It’s a shame, of course, but if you want to catch more fish, it stands to reason you’ll need to find areas further afield, where the inshore food chain is in better shape.