Nothing is more enjoyable than an early morning or warm summer evening spent quietly exploring harbour backwaters and channels, casting to wary fish in shallow water.
As the sea warms, our larger harbours and estuaries experience an influx of different fish species. Of most interest to residents and holidaymakers in northern and central New Zealand are snapper and kingfish, along with kahawai.
Snapper (and other species) enter harbours to exploit their plentiful food resources, moving into shallow water and up into the mangrove creeks with the tide. You might be surprised at how many fish utilise these areas and how big some of them are. But they tend to be easily spooked in this environment, so catching them is a fun challenge.
Flounder is another popular summer species. I recall many enjoyable summer holiday evenings spent spearing flounder in Tauranga Harbour, but even the Manukau and upper Waitemata Harbour have flounder fishing that’s easily accessible to city dwellers.
As kids we used handheld torches and sharpened tent poles for our impromptu holiday spear-fishing, but today proper waterproof flounder lights and real spears are readily available from most fishing tackle stores.
If you’re keen, flounder can also be taken on hook and line using small crabs, beach worms and even earthworms as bait. Use light line and small hooks and fish mangrove channels or mud/sand flats in very shallow water on an incoming tide. The fish move up into a few centimetres of water, ambushing prey along the leading edge where the rising tide meets dry land. Flyfishing works well too.
SNAPPER ON LURES AND BAIT
Harbour snapper can be targeted with lures or bait. I used to fish for them exclusively with bait, from a small dinghy, or latterly a kayak, usually at anchor with lightly weighted baits drifted down a berley trail. These days I’m more likely to cast soft plastics or wave a fly rod from a drifting boat.
If I’m fishing soft plastics in shallow water, I’ll use light (¼-ounce or less) jig heads, but when I’m fishing deeper channels or anywhere the tidal stream is strong, I’ll use heavier jig heads to get down.
In deeper sections of the Waitemata (and doubtless in many other harbours as well) slow jigs and micro-jigs also work well. Sliders/kaburas are my go-to lure, especially with inexperienced anglers or children on board.
Just bouncing them along the bottom behind the drifting boat is often enough to get a bite – slow lifts and an ultra-slow retrieve work even better – while tipping the hooks with a couple of squid tentacles is a sure-fire trick when bites are slow.
Don’t be put off by shallow water. I regularly take decent-sized snapper from upper harbour flats in not much more than a metre of water. Stealth is important, along with long casts, but the fish are there if you can be bothered seeking them out.
UP THE CREEK
Some northern harbours have spectacular fishing in amongst the mangroves. Parengarenga and Rangaunu in the Far North stand out for me, but even small bodies of water, like Houhora Harbour, can fish well on a rising tide at dusk.
I’ve also experienced good fishing in the upper reaches of Whangarei Harbour, the Kaipara Harbour, Kerikeri Inlet and to a lesser degree the Waitemata. There are many other possibilities.
I like to look for holes where two or more mangrove channels intersect, or any deeper area that mangrove-covered shallows drain into. Some of the best fishing is during the first two hours after high tide as the mangrove flats start to dry out. Don’t stay too long though, or you might find yourself stranded for the night.
KINGFISH, KAHAWAI AND BLACK SNAPPER
It’s not just about snapper and flounder. Anywhere bait fish are plentiful, kingfish and kahawai will be present too, at least some of the time. Kingfish love slimy and jack mackerel, piper (garfish) and pilchards, one or more of which are found in most of our harbours at one time or another. They also prey on grey mullet, a west coast staple, kahawai, which are common in most harbours and estuaries in summer, and to a lesser extent yellow-eyed mullet.
The presence of kingfish is determined by the tide. In smaller harbours kingfish may make an appearance only for an hour or two at the top of the tide, while in large harbours like the Kaipara, they take up residence for months at a time.
A common but seldom fished estuary species is parore, sometime called ‘black snapper’. Parore can be present in huge numbers. They are not difficult to catch, put up a scrappy fight for their size and, while not highly rated as a food fish by most Kiwis, they can be good eating. For best results, remove the gut, scrub the gut cavity and chill the catch immediately after capture.
Parore are mostly vegetarian, though they can be taken on small baits of shellfish, crab and shrimp. By using baits of green ‘weed’ – actually algae that grows in brackish pools and on intertidal rocks where there’s fresh water seepage – you can avoid the attentions of other, unwanted species. The best bait has quite long, vivid-green strands. It’s easy enough to gather, but there’s a bit of a knack to fixing it on a hook. Use bunches of the longest strands and consign shorter or lower quality ‘weed’ to berley.
I usually fish weed baits under a quill float on ultra-light tackle. Places to target parore include wharves and jetties, rock walls, mangrove channels, marinas and reefs. They graze algae off hard structures, kelp, mangrove roots and seagrass beds.
I have also taken parore on garden worms and soft plastics. There’s a spot I fish above a yacht club in the Bay of Islands where parore feed on kitchen waste. Those fish are very partial to baits of frozen peas and carrots.
FISH THE TIDES
All harbour and estuary fisheries are influenced by the tides. Tidal flow, water depth and clarity, along with food supply, impact on fishing success and influence where fish position themselves. A rising tide allows fish to spread out over foodrich mudflats and sandy shallows, while a falling tide tends to concentrate them in deeper channels and holes where they are more easily found.
Smaller harbours and estuaries may only be worth fishing for a couple of hours over the top of the tide, and then only in low light, while larger, deeper bodies of water may fish well through both tides, though you might have to relocate several times during a tidal cycle to find fish. Identifying specific areas that concentrate predators – shellfish beds, low reef and rubble or sea grass beds which provide habitats for bait fish and invertebrates – will bring consistent fishing success.
THE CATCH Do you have a product or story you would like John to follow up?
Contact him at: email@example.com