For a few years now we have heard almost unbelievable stories of extreme game fishing off of the legendary Whanganella Banks, situated about 1/2 way between New Zealand’s North Cape and Australia’s eastern seaboard. The seabed rises from 2000 meters to just under 50 meters at the shallowest point, and striped marlin are found in huge numbers, feeding on the bait in the area. Reports from anglers such as TV’s Matt Watson and videos from charter boat Ultimate Lady and others featured pack-attacks of striped marlin with the chance multiple hook ups. It is one of the few places in the world where it is possible to tag and releasing double-digit numbers of marlin in a single day. Garry’s Facebook feed from Luke Davis of YeeHaa Tackle aboard the M/V Destiny only further cemented our dreams of one day trolling in these hallowed grounds.
Three years ago, we had planned to stop for a wander over the Bank on our way home to New Zealand, after our winter game fishing in Vanuatu. Unfortunately, after we lost our all of our electronics 500 miles from home, we had to pull the pin. Without a sounder, it would have been impossible to locate the underwater mounts and ridges that help concentrate the bait into a marlin smorgasbord. The following year, while undergoing the same crossing, a tropical storm encouraged us to make a beeline home and give the Banks a miss. And last year, well, we were stuck in the boat shed in New Zealand, undergoing a major refit of our 56’ Sport-fishing Catamaran November Rain.
There are many challenges of fishing the Whanganella Banks; you need a seaworthy offshore launch that can carry enough fuel for the 1000 mile round trip from Auckland, plus another couple hundy miles for fishing; you have to get the right weather for a week; and perhaps most difficult of all, find an experienced crew that is willing to drop everything for a week at a moment’s notice. We managed to do just that, after several dozen phone calls, rounding up old mates Barry & Yvette and new friend, Sean. All three were experienced game-fisher people, but none had spent time offshore, save for trips to the remote King Banks. Sean was our designated muscle, at 26 years young, and seemed to prefer wiring fish over angling them. Barry was our provisions master, having a vested interested in maintaining our calorie and carb count. Yvette was a mad-keen fisherwoman who was thrilled for the new adventure, but seemed disappointed to discover that we would not anchoring every night.
After a safety briefing and orientation to their watch station duties, each crew member was assigned a 2 1/2 hour overnight watch. Newcomers to November Rain, Sean and Yvette shared the 10 pm to 1 am shift.
To reach the banks, we traveled 36 hours north of Cape Reinga, cruising at a leisurely 9 knots on the brand new twin Yanmar 370 HP Diesels. Lures were trolled behind us on the off-chance we ran over a blue marlin out in the deep water. The sole hit that first night was from a small mako that didn’t put up much a fight.
The first night’s watch was uneventful, save for a sighting (within 100 meters of us) of an unidentified commercial vessel without an AIS signal. Fortunately, I had a good visual on their lights early on, as our radar detector had also failed to pick up the target. (We later adjusted the gain.) It really brought home the point of having competent night watchmen.
When Sean’s watch ended at 1 am, he discovered what appeared to be a bucket of black oil strewn all over the back deck. A mysterious sea creature, most likely a colossus or giant squid was startled enough as we passed by, to spray ink all over the deck, cockpit and port side of the boat, staining the paint work. The stain was a good 5 meters long and a meter wide. There are scarier creatures than sharks out in the deep.
We arrived at the bank around 3 am, shut off the motors and drifted around until dawn, before starting to troll. The weather was perfect, glassy conditions. Earlier in the week, Garry had been in contact with Hayden Wright, the captain of the boat GPS. They were also heading to the Whanganellas, and we agreed to buddy-boat with them. One of the crew of GPS was Wynn Going, who at 88 years old, was still fishing actively and was someone who Garry admired immensely. They generously shared with us their super-secret GPS marks, along with what type of bird activity we should be looking out for. Apparently, you look for a group of mutton ducks sitting in a tight circle, their heads tucked underwater, watching the bait ball below them. That is just what we found, when we found the fish.
Barry and Sean were our designated wiremen, with Yvette and myself tagged as the primary anglers. We trolled 4 lines at all times, various plastic lures, with single hook stiff rigs on 37 kg rods , running a rubber mud flap dredge in the middle, close to the boat. It didn’t take long, we were hooked up by 7 am. The stripey leapt and bounced around, giving us an exciting acrobatic display and assured us that it was indeed hooked up. The crew cleared the gear, and I strapped into my stand-up harness and clipped on the rod. It had been a 18 months since my last marlin on standup gear and I screaming like a baby for the chair 1/2 hour into the fight. Even though the leader was in sight, my thighs couldn’t take one more minute of torture. In the fiasco that followed from switching out of standup bucket into the chair gimbal. I let the drag back a little bit too much, and in a split second, a nasty backlash/bird’s nest blew up on the reel. It was panic stations as Barry took the weight of the fish on the line with a gloved hand, while Sean made quick work clearing the tangle on my reel. This is where having an experienced crew really pays off. Yes, it would be a disqualified IGFA fish, that is if we were fishing a contest.
Sean leadered the fish to the side of the boat shortly after. From there on out, it was strongly suggested by Captain Garry that the ladies use the fighting chair. There were going to be too many opportunities for fish and we just wouldn’t have the stamina for standup gear all day.
The action was crazy to say the least. We would find the bait by scouting the mutton ducks with their heads in the water. As soon as Garry did the drive-by the bait, the marlin would find us, coming into the spread into packs of 2, 3 or even 4 at a time. (At one point, Garry counted 8 stripeys in the spread from the tuna tower.) As soon as Gaz saw the dorsal fins chasing the lures, he would yell down from the flybridge or the tower for each of us to man a rod. If a fish was behind the lure, we would drop the drags back, hand on the reel and do the “crank and wind” technique, letting out a couple of meter of line, then, winding it back in to its original position, teasing the fish to take the lure. If a fish grabbed the lure, we would count to five as the line screamed off (with our hand on the reel to prevent a backlash), waiting for the fish to turn away to the side, before pushing the drag back to strike position and hopefully, setting the hook in the corner of the jaw.
The first day we had over 32 fish strike, played 10, and landed 7, an all-time boat record for us. Barry and I got on a double, and he made his way to the bow to wait his turn, while we chased down mine. Once mine was released, Barry brought his in at the stern. Yvette ended up with two fish for the day, and Sean brought in two as well. We didn’t bother to tag any fish, as we were outside of NZ waters and none would count towards our club numbers. In some ways, we were a bit disappointed that we hadn’t hit the fabled double-digit numbers, but it still amazing fishing with lots of excitement.
Garry had added the tuna tower to November Rain during our recent refit, and he was climbing up and down the ladder most of the day, enjoying his new toy and getting the addition benefit of step aerobics. The view from the tower allowed him to spot bait balls from afar, and the height gave a clear view into the glassy water to spot the marlin as they made their way into the spread.
Garry and the other boat, GPS enjoyed a day of radio banter, and we were really grateful for their experience and advice with the fishing in the area. For one thing, the stripeys were found in much deeper water that we would have expected, around the 300 meter mark. The men theorized that the bait that the marlin were eating were smaller than what we see in NZ, and perhaps the smaller redfish were swept of the bank into the deep by the currents. The stripeys followed the bait off the bank. If we found a bait ball with marlin, Garry would radio the other boat and vice-versa, to let the other know where the action was firing.
The night was spent adrift on the bank, and we rose at dawn to begin the craziness again. The second day was a bit windier, about 8 knots and we had 23 strikes, but only hooked 4 fish, 2 each for Yvette and myself. The action was definitely slowing down. The wind got up to 15 knots that evening and we deployed the parachute anchor for the night. It was not a pleasant night, and no one slept well due to the competing swell and waves.
Day 3 was a bit of a disappointment, with only 3 strikes. The only fish we got to the boat was a nice blue, about 150 kgs after about 20 minutes of play. Over the past three days, we had 58 strikes, and only caught 12 fish, a dismal hook up rate of 20%. We are definitely looking at our hook set up for the next time around as the way the fish feed on the Whanganella Banks is very different to the way they feed on the coast.
We motored back to Cape Reinga, now testing our engines up to 17 knots, shortening the return trip enough to make time for quick pass on the Burt Bank. While we saw one free jumper, we had no action other than picking up 3 Skip Jacks. Garry earned heaps of brownie points with me by allowing us a snapper fish in Spirt’s Bay at North Cape. The snapper and the blue cod were in the flying pan within 1/2 hour of being caught. It doesn’t get any better than that.
We will be giving the Whanganellas another go, weather permitting as we head towards Vanuatu in the next couple of weeks. In the mean time, Garry is busy re-rigging our gear to a super-secret setup that I am not allowed to share. It will probably be that secret that even the fish won’t know what it is.