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…

NZ Fishing News - - A Shore Thing - Photo: Bruce Basher

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.

Seven-gill sharks are a slow swim­ming species that like easy tar­gets – large schools of bait fish like yel­loweyed mul­let in warm, shel­tered wa­ters fit that bill nicely.

Gurnard feed on a wide range of foods, but small pad­dle crabs and ju­ve­nile flat­fish are among their favourites.

Snap­per are more preva­lent in rocky lo­ca­tions still sup­port­ing healthy pop­u­la­tions of kina, paua, cray­fish and the like. Re­mote, un­touched wa­ters are more likely to sup­port a healthy in­shore ecosys­tem and hence hold more of the fish sur­f­cast­ers want to ca

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