West Coast Spearfishing – Blue water and schools of sharks

To put this dive into context, we were facing some bad swell and wind on the east coast and I was helping Julian (Spearo Camp NZ) guide an American client Ted who came over for the sole purpose of shooting a good NZ yellowtail kingfish. We had Ted for 4 days and had no option but to do everything in our power to give Ted the best chance at a good fish!

Julian picked Ted up from Auckland airport the day before I joined them. We watched the forecast and saw a window opening up on the west coast and had to make the call between Hokianga or the reefs and structure out from Raglan. Raglan looked the most promising so I drove down that night to meet Julian and Ted at our accommodation 2 minutes from the boat ramp. I arrived at 10pm to a cabin full of crickets and a muggy 24 degrees C. Ted was a hell of a nice guy and despite the jet lag was ready to get out there and give it a crack. The first option being Gannet Island which is a small island that rises out of 70m and lies far enough off shore that it is generally surrounded in inky blue water. I had knowledge of some interesting underwater features and reefs that extend outward from the island as I had done a bit of recon around the island half a decade ago. Every time I dived the island it was common to have kingfish schooling with upward of 100 fish and varied sizes with nice models in the schools.

Gannet Island, NZ

The alarm went off too early and we knocked back coffee, carbs and launched the boat in the dark. We made it out to the island and the weather was stunning, calm enough to see patches of albacore and skipjack tuna working the surface around the island. We anchored on an arm of reef and jumped into the 20m vis to get an idea of what was happening in the water and what the current was doing. After a couple of drops and some swimming around it was looking dead with a slow current from the North. We moved up to the northern side of the island to the current ledges and did a couple of drops with a similar result, one uninterested school emerged from the depths with a leading fish at around 25kg but slowly descended back down deep quickly again. Scattered and uninterested fish is a very typical sign with minimal water movement. Jules picked up a snapper for dinner near some scuba divers who were parked up on the drop and we decided to hunt down a reef I had dived years back that rises from 70m to 12m. We eventually found the reef and it was promising, sweep schools and general fish life. When I got in I saw a small school of kings lurking on the drop and Ted managed to peg a table fish around 12kg.

Teds first NZ kingfish

We continued to dive in the hopes that more would arrive but all we had was 4 sharks move in after teds fish was landed. It was clear the area was not producing so we made the call to take advantage of the calm water and look for work ups and troll albacore lures on the way. Once we hooked up on an albacore we would reel it into approx 10m below the boat to see if we could attract any bigger game fish on the struggling tuna. We put Ted in the water with the big gun and I was trying to shoot albys off of the struggling ones. After missing a couple I got a shaft into one fish to watch it tear off after about a 30 second fight.

Albacore about to get off

At one point we did see a marlin cutting through the chop about 50 meters in front of the boat but it didn’t decide to visit any of our struggling tuna. Another spearo was out in the same area that day and did have a marlin come in on a struggling skipjack but it did not present a shot.

Julian with a skipjack

After landing half a dozen albacore for dinner we decided to cut our losses and head in. Ted made us albacore fish tacos and we made a plan to steam north in the morning to check out a reef called ‘The 21’.

Filleting albacore at our accomodation – Raglan NZ
Ted, Luke and Julian getting into the albacore

Woken by an early alarm we gladly accepted Julian’s morning coffees and hit the boat ramp. The day was overcast with patches of heavy rain and wind ranging from variable to 15 knots and settling again. We crossed the bar and headed north for approximately 45 minutes before anchoring on the reef and jumping into our pre soaked dive gear. We quickly swam to the up current ledge with the flasher to see what spearfishing the reef had in store for Ted. We were quickly greeted by a massive school of rat kingfish all around the 30 – 40cm mark and a couple of hundred fish in each school.

Rat school following Luke up

There was snapper schooling on the face just back from the up current ledge so I descended down the flasher line and used the thick kingfish school as a veil to shoot a nice eating fish at around a couple of kg.

Luke landing snapper

Ted was so blown away by the size of the rat school that he put his gun on the boat and swapped for his camera for some stills. As he descended with his camera a couple of nicer kingfish around the 30lb mark made a pass and Ted got a nice up close photograph. At the same time half a dozen bronze whaler sharks made their way along the reef and disappeared again. The diving was so scenic and there was so much fish life that we decided to work the reef for several hours to see if it would eventually produce. The current never picked up so the fish life didn’t change much, however the number of sharks continued to grow. I would descent onto the reef to get footage of 3 sharks out in front, to see another 7 come over from the opposite direction while ascending again. Now a lot of guys know I prefer not to shoot kingfish around bronze whalers because of a handful of intimidating circumstances, particularly in dirty water. However I went right ahead and broke my rule to take a table fish for tea. The sharks didn’t show much interest but a whole lot more made an appearance by the time I got the fish to the boat. We had approximately 30-40 sharks at one point on the surface schooling behind the boat. The school was mostly made up of smaller fish around 1 to 1.5m and there was a couple of big ones on the reef that came and went. The larger sharks appeared to have nothing much to do with the smaller schooling sharks.

Bronze Whaler Shark with school of snapper
Bronze whaler sharks moving quickly
Over 20 Bronze Whalers and this was half of the school

After taking some photos and video we decided to head back out toward gannet island for another look to see if the reefs were going to produce for Ted. We sounded over the reef arm to find very little fish action and decided to locate the fish before diving. Julian found a nice rock at about 22 meters about the length of a couple of basketball courts, with a large school of sweep in midwater. Ted and myself jumped over and I began to work the flasher as we approached the school. One grumpy bronzie made itself known instantly, darting straight past the flasher with pecs pointed downward, it charged right up to the surface 10 yards from me then dived out of sight very quickly – the behaviour of an animal that would make landing fish difficult. I spotted a school of snapper down near the base of the flasher with one nice fish amongst them and as Ted only had interest in Kingfish the snapper were not only free game – but the commotion also helps to bring kingfish in.  As I eyed up the snapper two sharks moved up toward me from below the sweep and a small school of nice kingfish showed itself with one fish really standing out – I am guessing in the upper 20kg to 30kg area. During the descent I remember thinking that there’s no way I’m getting this snapper, the fish began to move away and then instantly turned around and began to swim toward my extended spear. The fish made its way right up to within 200mm of my speartip head on and I had to poke at it to turn the fish for a nice broadside shot. I can only assume the fish was blinded by the sunlight and just assumed that I was another shark in the total open blue water. I slammed a spear through the fish and put pressure on it while ascending. A bronze whaler darted toward the snapper and then charged straight up toward me before turning. Ted made a dive as I surfaced as the kingfish were now schooling below the fighting snapper, I remember seeing sharks all around him when he made his shot and the one on his right hand side must’ve been no more than 1 meter from him, darting in toward him then out and back in again – Teds only focus was nailing the good kingy he had his sights on. Our lines tangled for a moment amongst the chaos and the sharks were making things difficult, I swam over and fed my gun around his line a couple of times to free the fighting snapper off his line. I landed the snapper and iki’d it and it was a beautiful condition fish at around 6-7 kilos. I called for the boat and got the fish up to Julian. Teds fish fought hard for a few minutes and was fighting deep on top of the reef, the shot was good but that doesn’t matter to the sharks. The line eventually went slack and we knew exactly what had happened – bad luck but to be expected in this type of scenario.

Luke Potts with west coast Snapper

We made a couple more drifts and had no luck coaxing the fish up again – plus the shark behaviour was not ideal so we moved on. We scouted a few more reefs on our way back in and decided to call it for the day and start again in the morning.

Julian Hansford – skipper
Ted with Raglan behind
Luke Potts, Julian Hansford – filleting snapper

Morning three, back out again. Clean water had pushed into the reefs we had been scouting the day before and it was looking promising. We jumped in and did drops all over a huge section of epic reef, but no water movement and a small school of lazy 8kg fish. We made the call to swap coasts, cut our losses and see what the east coast had to offer to have the peace of mind of trying everything. We packed our gear and drove back from Raglan to Tairua to do everything we could to find the kings on Teds last day.

Up early again, coffee, launched in Whangamata and straight out to Pigeon Shoal, we had warm water around 22 degrees and the same deal, hardly any current. Ted plugged a nice eating kingy and I rolled one over with the polespear for some footage.

Riffe Polespear vs Yellowtail Kingfish
Luke with pole speared kingfish

We moved North to the Aldies to check all of the pins that were good candidates there, no water movement again, deep dispersed kingfish. We proceeded to do 190km searching including Lens Reef, Sugar Loaf, Tuhua, Mayor Island with the same result, the moon had not been pulling enough water so we didn’t have the current no matter what coast we went on! However it’s safe to say that Ted had an awesome time, he saw the effort that was put in to get him to the fish, but Murphy’s law prevailed as it does when it comes to any type of hunting.

The irony being that Ted photographed the biggest fish he encountered!

If you would like more information on the Charter / Guiding services please email info@aquaticrehabspearfishing.co.nz

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