It was the last day of 2016 and the plan was to land a big fish off the rocks with my brother Barry L. Smith. Barry has a knack for fishing, last time he held a rod (we fished together) was abut 8 years ago also in NZ, and he landed fish in otherwise unfruitful conditions every time. Perhaps this was the reason why he had high ambition and higher expectations.
I’ve taken less experienced and lay-people fishing many times. Be it clients, friends, family, it is always challenging, psychologically and physically. What am I going about, you ask?, after all it’s just fishing. No, it is not. You see, everyone wants to land a big fish, they want a photo with it, they want to eat it and they want an experience and story to tell. No matter how cool you are or how often you took people out, the pressure is always there, it starts earlier than the first cast. Days, sometimes weeks before you go out.
What are we going to target?, which spot?, what are the sea and weather conditions?, how are they going to change?, is a member of the party scared of heights?, are they going to moan when you ask them to get up at 0500 in the morning and hike for an hour into a spot?, are they going to utter “It looks like there aren’t any fish here”?, are they sure-footed on rocks and uneven, steep terrain?, will they consult me with lots of suggestions and advice?, what is my Plan B and C?
You see, every one? wants to land big fish, they want a photo with it, they want to eat it and they want an experience and story to tell. It is not uncommon to grant me the honour of doing everything involved before, most during and everything after catching fish, but don’t hesitate to take lots of the glory, and gloat about their great catch and performance to others, making everything but fight against the fish sound like a peace of cake.
There are those days when you take VIPs fishing, like your best mate (the chilichef), and you do not land anything acceptable. This sort of shame you cannot wash off, especially when you had more than one chance, it remains with me, even if I wasn’t reminded of it. 🙂
Back To The Story
Barry’s smart-phone knew a lot about our local weather conditions and the particular area we had planned to go, and he mentioned a thing or two of achieving a trifecta. Catch a kahawai, a good snapper and a kingfish.
We got up at 04:45, the gear was packed already (a dozen of pre-tied rigs, lighter line with one circle hook for the kahawai, snapper rigs and a couple kingi rigs), three rod/reel combos. After a short drive, we started the 1 hour hike at about 05:45, Barry carrying the big pack with fishing gear. This is a particularly challenging hike, you start way up and have to follow the ridge of a peninsular (lots of ups and downs) down to the water, and then manoeuvre over big boulders to a small and very steep ledge. It’s muddy and slippery in the winter and in the summer, you sweat like a mule.
It boasts deep water, very strong and tidal current, this is the head-land of a big bay. What I never look forward to are the boaties who shoot past way too close and cray pots that are often set in the only good rockfishing spot accessible by foot. Look, this is also a story of how involved rockfishing can be, and how, sometimes, you can end up either catching nothing or just one great fish. Nothing in between.
The tides were not in our favour on that day, but it was the 31st of Dec, and I decided to go for “time before tide“. Get in there early, disregard the tides, hope for the good early morning fish – you can land a good one on the first cast – and get out before it gets hot.
The First Three Hours
The burley was in the water, the tide would come in for the next three hours. This spot also has the advantage of not receiving direct sun light? until 3-4 hours after dawn. 2.5 hours after casting the first bait, the shade advantage started to disappear, and none of us had even received a bite. No fish was seen, felt, hooked or even assumed. Not a kahawai, not a piper, not a sweep, not a blue maomao. In such conditions, someone will land a hiwihiwi sooner or later and I (or we) laugh, cheer up a bit as the “lucky” angler struggles to unhook it, often receiving a small cut or nasty poke from its spikes in dorsal, pectoral, pelvic and anal fins. What do you know, not even a hiwihiwi. It was starting to get warm. The plan wasn’t working. I put the second burley in at high tide, nothing for the next 30 minutes. Scenery is all right though.
A Fish Has Been Hooked
Barry hooks up, the line zigs to the left, zags to the right, Barry’s on a fish, must be a kahawai, I’m nervous. He’s cool, doing everything correctly, keeping the pressure on and following instructions (we have to land this fish!). He lands a 35-40 cm kahawai, hooked cleanly in the mouth. “Shall we put this one out Barry?”, I’m so nervous, thinking that this could be our only catch. “Of course we put him out”, without delay. Within a handful of seconds, the kahawai was rigged under a balloon and back in the water. Barry puts the fighting belt on. Within a few more seconds, the kahawai gets stuck in the weeds right at our feet. “This is it, the worst thing that could have happened, I’ll lose this fish to the weeds, we’ll go home without any food”, my exact thoughts.
After watching this scene in agony for 5 minutes, and no sign of other kahawai, I decide to commit and pull hard on the line, the last resort. What do you know?, the kahawai is free, still hooked and swims straight out for 10 meters and stops. Barry’s in a great mood: “I’ll catch a couple more brother.” The kahawai has just assumed a great spot to circle in, we’re talking a minute or two after freeing it from the weeds, this is when I notice the balloon make a sharp “turn”, then submerge a tad bit, come back up. A bit of line is pulled out, nothing dramatic, the reel is in free-spool, no line is being pulled off, could just be the kahawai. “Hmmm, I take the live-bait rod out of the holder anyway”, it’s been in it for less than a minute, literally seconds: “Barry, get your bait in quickly, put your rod away and be ready to be handed this rod. Do it now.” Maybe there was a bit of drama after all.
The line goes to the left, the balloon is pulled under again and pops, there is no slack line, a tad bit of pressure, I put the drag to full fighting mode on the TLD25, strike, feel a heavy, but non-dynamic weight and pass the rod to Barry. Something’s on, nothing dramatic though. The rod bends, Barry re-shuffles his centre of mass; there’s a fish on. Whatever was at the end of the line pulls for the first time, Barry is leaning backwards like in the “Matrix”, no words are exchanged. When it’s time to wind line in, he struggles to turn the handle of the reel. Something’s wrong. The handle doesn’t seem to move at all. “Aaaaaah, what’s happening?”
I take the rod back, after all, we’re rockfishing and you need to stop a fish from running and act quickly. I can’t turn the handle either, it’s not Barry, something’s not right with the reel. Maybe, who knows, the fish pulls hard, I’m doing the Matrix now, my butt is almost on ground level, my right foot securing my stance against a rock. I’m leaning in. With this amount of drag, you can easily be pulled into the brink if you lose balance. You need to be prepared for the abruptness, strength and pull, otherwise it is bye bye.
They Call This Land Based Game Fishing
Whatever was at the end of the line, was circa 20 meters out, going left, right, and then down, pulling against this massive drag. At this stage, I’m not thinking, I’m reacting, the last thing I expect is that we will see the fish or land it. A dinghey comes past but is far enough away not to disrupt us in any way, the skipper stops to observe and I’m pretty sure they didn’t just stop to see what was going on, but also to be there to assist. Cheers.
There are different ways to play/fight a hooked fish, my way (learnt it from my mate Paul) is to stop the fish from taking any line, as soon as possible. The fish goes for a 5th or 6th run, I have managed by now to turn the handle only a couple of times (why are they so short on overhead reels?). I realise, there is nothing wrong with the reel, the drag-setting is just too high, and with the fish constantly pulling, even though line is not coming off the reel, the handle just can’t be turned due to some internal mechanism. When the fish calms down a bit, I manage to turn the handle a couple times quickly and gain a tad bit of line. These few minutes are so intense, I don’t even consider handing the rod back to Barry as it could be ripped out of our hands during the hand-over. I’m just holding on.
About 4 minutes later, the fish feels like being 10-15 m out and only a couple meters deep. There is colour, metallic, a bit of yellow and green, the typical reflections of a kingfish. “Get the gaff Barry, take the cork off, get down to the water line, don’t do anything yet, be prepared to gaff the fish when I say so.” The fish is “green”, it is very steep at the close to the water line, nothing to hold on to, gaffing a fish is already difficult enough when you do it the first time and have a proper gaff, we are not going to risk anything today. I gain more line and bring the fish closer.
It Is Hi-uge
Barry’s ready, the fish goes for another very strong pull. It goes deep, takes a left, the line will break on the sharp rocks to my left if it gains another 5m, I walk backwards. In retrospect, we are about 5 minutes into this hookup. I gain more line, the fish is momentarily on its side, we see it’s full size, it sees us, changes direction and points the nose down, preparing for another run for its life. I can’t stay here and move to a lower rock to the left, Barry’s right behind me. I have more time to observe the fish, it is hooked in the gills, blood gushes out every time it “breathes”. “We can land this fish”, I think for the first time, “we just have to keep doing what we are doing, this fish is losing its energy and capacity to fight and think exponentially”. I mention that we’ve got the advantage now and just have to play it cool. I just lean back and stop the fish every time it pulls. At this stage, I should have decreased the drag, in case the line had taken damage or a knot was slowly coming undone. Mistake.
The fish is huge and in gaffing distance. I am frankly surprised to have this huge kingi in gaffing distance, the line didn’t break, I’ve been spooled at this spot by snapper, and snapper have never grown to this size, it is not an easy spot to land a big, angry fish. I realise that we can land this fish, but we have to swap. “Barry, you’re going to take the rod now, put the gaff down.” The two anglers on the dinghey are watching, Barry’s holding onto the rod, everything is silent as I get down to take the shot. “Wait, wait, don’t gaff it in the belly”, we can land this fish, “you just have to do everything right”. As I set the gaff under water, where the kingi will be in the next 2 seconds, it decides to dart down and away again. Barry’s on point though! I look back at him, no worries, we can land this fish.
After a couple more runs, I prepare the gaff shot, strong pull up, right through the gill plate. I feel the fish’s weight. The boaties are shouting, “YUUUHU, YEAH, MAN, SHIT YEAH, WOW”. We can still lose this fish, no time to respond and celebrate yet. “Barry, walk uphill, we have to get away from this ledge. Walk uphill until we reach the flat area where our bags are.”, we rush to this safe position, like 10 meters above sea-level.
Verbal celebration: “Yeehah, kabooom, we did it!”. Massive kingi, biggest I have ever seen in almost a decade, it’s on the rocks, 11:00 o’clock, I drive a knife into its head immediately. As it starts to look away from me, as its last bit of energy is taken by force, the urge of stroking the fish’s head is strong. I owe an honest touch to this fish, something non-violent and respectful as it dies before me, because of me. A fish of a life-time, so much could have gone wrong. I want to finish the job off and bleed the fish with my good pocket knife (had it for 15 years, it’s been used a lot), I flick it open confidently with one hand, it slips away (my hand being slimy from that stroke). We watch the knife spin and fall onto a rock, bounce onto another and then domino its way down and through a very narrow crevasse into the water. Gone. The sea took my knife. Okay.
Physical celebration, we shake hands, we hug, we “check-in”, we do it another time. Big smiles, big breaths, big moment, life long memory.
It’s Not About Big Fish
This is what fishing is about my friends, and I’m not talking about landing a big fish. For the first three and a bit hours I had experienced the worst fishing for a long time. There was nothing going on, then hope came through a single kahawai, then hope disappeared as it got tangled in the weeds, and then just moments after being free, it gets taken by a kingfish that had very likely been there for a while this morning. The take was unexpected, had I noticed it 5 seconds later, that fish would have been lost likely lost. Had I reacted 5 seconds earlier that fish would have likely been hooked in the mouth, and believe me a fish this size pulls much harder when it is not hurt and much faster and much longer. They are not called kingfish for no reason.
135 cm long in total and 37.6 lbs without guts and head. I decided to cut and break the head off, the fish was just too long for the 60 l hiking backpack. I’ll estimate the overall weight it to circa 50 lbs. I carried the fish the first 200 m, over the big boulders and up the very steep bit. Barry carried it for the rest of the 1 hour hike.
The Gist Of It
Species: Haku (Kingfish), 50 lbs main on Shimano TLD 25 reel, Shimano Aqua Tip 5.6″ 24 kg, 80 lbs leader (due to not having heavier line), 7/0 live-bait hook, kahawai about 35-40 cm live-baited under an orange balloon, 3 m leader (too long), hooked about 45 minutes after high tide.