Striped Marlin season is officially open in New Zealand and it’s shaping up to be a good year for 2020, fingers crossed. The last couple of years have been pretty dismal for stripeys, as the waters off the North Island has been too warm for the fickle species. Local game boats began targeting their efforts on blue marlin, which tend to hunt out in deeper waters and can tolerate the heat better. Record number of blues were caught in 2018-2019, most likely because they were the targeted species over their being an actual increase in their numbers. Unfortunately, a large proportion of these fish were weighed. While we do occasionally harvest a fish to fill our freezer, more often than not, we practice tag and release.
It’s early January, and our eager ears were getting reports of a few striped marlin being caught up north, so we decided it was time for us to give it another go. We hadn’t had a marlin in our gear since April, when we were fished the fables Whanganella Banks. This long dry spell had certainly put a thirst upon us. We had only a short 48 hour window, commonly known as a weekend, having been shackled to the societal constraints of working for a living.
Garry had invited Warren, his long-time Panel Prop employee, to join us in our foray for fish. Warren enjoys his snapper fishing and we had promised him a trip after he volunteer a Saturday to help hoist engines into November Rain during her last refit. Two years have now passed since that day, and we were negligently late in fulfilling that promise. But the weather was forcast to be mint, and another mate of ours, Murray, was already in Whangaroa, after finishing up a 3 day stint aboard another mate’s trailer boat. The four of us would keep good company for the weekend. Murray is currently between jobs, lucky sod, and has plenty of time for fishing.
It had only been a week from our last trip, over Christmas break, which had been somewhat of a let down on the fishing around Whangaroa. The weather had been beautiful, but we never raised a single marlin in three days of dragging lures. Snapper fishing was marginal at the Cavalli Islands, with only one day worth talking about. To be fair, we have become very spoilt by the phenomenal fishing of the Whanganella Banks and the bountiful pleasures of the Tom Bowling Bay, right around the corner from Cape Reinga.
We really wanted to target the bigger snapper, as well as try for a marlin, so a decision was made to troll our way up to North Cape during the day, snapper fish the beautifulTom Bowling in the evening, and then troll our way home to Whangaroa on Sunday. A 4 1/2 hour drive each way from Auckland to Whangaroa and back was also factored into the equation.
Garry and I had made good time up from Auckland and were aboard November Rain by 7:30 p.m Friday night. Murray was waiting for us, relaxing on the back deck, and enjoying the stability of a wide catamaran launch, after sharing close quarters on a trailer boat with a mate for 3 days. He was enjoying the luxury of a bunk to himself, no longer working about amorous cuddling from a dream-confused bunk mate.
We kicked back with Murray, sharing old stories, while we waited for Warren to arrive from Auckland, a supposed half hour behind us.. Unfortunately, Warren, a professional driver, got lost and after several phone-a-friend sessions, finally wandered down the dock around 10pm. His excuse, an allergy to modern technology, including google maps.
Plans were to cast off at first light, catch a few Kohura in the harbour for live bait, then head north, dragging our best lures behind us. Bait fishing was slow for us, although the trailer boats all around us seemed to be pulling them up left and right. The half-dozen Kohura went into the live bait well to await their fate. Occasionally, we return to Whangaroa Harbour with a few leftovers, swimming lazily around the tank. If this is the case, the baits are released back into the harbour, to share their tales of their holiday aboard November Rain with their mates. Hopefully the word gets out and we’ll get some repeat guests next time.
For the first couple of hours, we ran two Skippy lures, along with three Marlin lures behind the boat. For the uninitiated, Skippies are Skip Jack tuna, also known as Bonito. They are particularly stinky, slimy fish, terrible to eat, with dark red, bloody meat. But they make wonderful snapper bait, with it’s oily meat that spreads a slick sheen across the ocean’s surface, and thick tough skin that sticks well to the hooks. The down side is that the oils of this stinky fish can penetrate the skin, and impart a certain eau-de-skippy on your intestinal gases. When I first met Garry, he used to bait my hooks for me, to spare me this shame. But now, after almost 5 years together, I bait my own hooks and we have silent contests under the covers to see who’s wearing the most cologne.
Marlin look at Skippies like Garry looks at Sultana Pasties, so they make excellent live bait. Skippies are considered hot-blooded fish as they consume a lots of oxygen, swimming fast through the water to pass oxygen over their gills. Tuna tubes on boat are designed to mimic this, pumping high volumes of seawater across the gills, allowing the bait to breath, and thus keeping them alive, until you are ready to chuck them out, attached to a hook as live bait. Live baiting is akin to the Africa tradition of tying a goat to a tree, waiting for the lion to attack.
We had no plans on live baiting this weekend, and the skippies were a little on the large size anyway, much more than a mouthful for a hungry marlin. But we put the tuna tubes into good use, using them as designated kill chambers. We had developed an efficient system for harvesting the skippies but keeping the mess down. When the reel went off, once Garry slowed the boat, Warren or Murray would crank in the fish on the 24 or 37 kg reel, leaving the rod in the holder. I would grab the leader and swing the fish into one of the pods, grab the tail, holding the fish upside down to stimulate the tonic reflex, while the boys would help remove the hook. The fish was then shoved head first into the dry tuna tube, which contained the bloody mess, as the fish rattled off its’ death throes. Once the rattling was done, the fish was transferred to a bucket and eventually the freezer. Skippies were plentiful and we harvested a lucky number of 13 of them that morning, more than enough for a decent snapper fishing session. We pulled in the two small skippy lures and replaced them with the larger game lures.
Warren was up first on the marlin watch rotation. He had never seen a marlin in the wild, let alone catch one before, and we were hoping we could pop his cherry. We gave him a quick lesson on how to use the gear, bucket and harness. After a couple of hours of monotonous trolling, I heard the long corner reel scream off. I ran out of the cabin, screaming for Garry to slow the boat and began clearing all the other gear from the water. At first, he thought it might have been a yellowfin, as he hadn’t seen the fish take the lure. Moment’s later, as I was helping Warren with his belt, we saw the fish leap out of the water, indicating that it was indeed hooked. And it was a Stripey!
Warren played the fish as if he had this done this all his life. The stripey was at the boat within 25 minutes, expertly wired by Murray. Gaz popped in a new fangled plastic tipped tag into the fish’s shoulder, we took a few photos and sent him back on his merry way. Fish was estimated at 80 kgs.
We raised another one after a couple of hours, but it didn’t hook up. Around 3 pm, as we neared North Cape, we raised another stripey, our third for the day. This one was larger, about 110 kg ,and Murray took his turn in the rotation. I wired the fish, the first one I’ve wired, since my hand was broken in April due to a wiring accident, where the leader had cinched around my hand, crushing it and breaking my pinkie finger. This time, I took the necessary precautions and doubled up on my glove protection. All went well and I was able to hold the fish and get him up to the boat side for his Instagram shots and obligatory shoulder tag. We were stoked to get two fish in one day!
It was time for a snapper fish in my favorite spot, Tom Bowling Bay. The tide was right, we had a few hours to catch out dinner. In fact, the fishing is often so good at north cape, we had actually not brought any food with us for dinner, certain that we would catch enough for a feed. The first spot Garry anchored off had a tremendous amount of current, so much so that a gold brick as lead wouldn’t be enough to get down the 25 meters to the bottom. We hit the trifecta of unwanted species; one moray eel, a granddaddy Hapuka and a rat kingy (undersided kingfish) within the first half hour, yet not a single snapper. Fearing a meal of canned spaghetti, we picked up anchor and moved closer to the shore.
The second site was much better, with half the current and half the depth. We were anchored and straddled right on an inshore current line, and on one side of the line, the water was murky with heaps of jellies. The other side was crystal clear, and jelly free. We fished both sides of the line, and caught our limits of very nice sized snapper, a small bronze shark and a couple of kingies, one being quite impressive. The kingfish went back in the water, along with the largest snapper. The water was so calm and so clear, we could watch the small MauMaus nibbling at our baits and the kingfish as they chased up the snapper while we reeled them up to the surface.
Our troll back south to Whangaroa the next day was unproductive, but the seas were flat calm and the weather was warm and we enjoyed ourselves. The highlight was watching all the massive Mola sunfish, sunning themselves on the water’s surface, feasting on the massive amount of jellies. Gaz pulled over to the side of the road to let Murray scoop up a silvery fish flopping around. It turned out to be a Frost fish, it’s tail chopped off by a shark, but still barely alive. We considered filleting it as we’ve heard they were excellent eating, but in the end, there wasn’t enough meat to make the effort. It went back in the drink to feed the sea critters on the ocean floor. At least we had put an end to its’ suffering. Nature is cruel, and we are an integral part of it. To think that humans are above the laws of nature is absurd.