Guest post by Joe Walker
I’m a great believer in grabbing opportunities with both hands – life is short after-all, and it’s what you do with it that counts. It’s one of the reasons why my fly fishing gear travels with me almost everywhere I go.
Of course, when you plan a trip to New Zealand, it would surely be considered utter madness to ever consider going without it! But unlike the focus for most visiting fly anglers, my eyes were firmly fixed more upon the saltwater opportunities than on the country’s world-famous rivers.
My primary aim was to tick Yellow-tailed Kingfish off my list. If it’s not a species you’re familiar with, it’s the sort of love-child off-spring of a Permit and a Yellow-fin Tuna, if that helps. If it doesn’t, then all you need to know is it’s an utterly savage predator that pulls like an express train and is quite capable of breaking rods and melting clutches!
The Kingfish (or Kingie as it’s referred to in New Zealand) is an emerald backed torpedo of a fish, sporting a bronze stripe down its lateral line from tail to snout, crossing it’s eye and giving it a bandit-like expression. The brutal powerhouse of a tail is large, forked and blazes with canary yellow, making this fish not only a true speed-king (no pun intended), but also staggeringly beautiful. It’s a summer visitor to New Zealand, found inshore, in harbours and on shallow flats for several months, and big ones can exceed a metre in length. It’s a top saltwater game-fish target for the antipodean ‘swffer’.
Yellow-tailed Kingfish – a formidable quarry!
So it’s hardly a surprise then that I’d already locked on to that particular target myself. But I also allowed my aspirations to drift into even loftier territories. You see, there are two more iconic saltwater species that feature heavily on the NZ roster.
The first is the Kahawai. You could think of this filling a niche somewhere between mackerel and bass, if you had to try and translate to UK species. It’s a shoaling predator, aggressive and though not large (a couple of kilos), it is fantastic sport and quite capable of putting an alarming bend in an 8wt rod…as well as destroying flies. Silver blue, with a bronze marbling over the back, it’s certainly a handsome species too. The name Kahawai is a Māori word, formed from Kaha (meaning ‘strong’) and Wai (meaning ‘wave’), the literal translation being ‘strong in the wave’. Bit of a clue there…
Kahawai: obliging, surprisingly powerful and huge fun!
The second fish is the Snapper. Arguably the most popular species to fish for around the New Zealand coast (by most methods) as it’s a gorgeous, tough, toothy, and by all accounts, delicious catch. It’s generally a rough ground species, inhabiting shallow reefs and mangroves. If you’ve ever fished for Black Bream and Ballan Wrasse in the UK, you’d have some idea of what to expect from the Snapper – it’s a belligerent, scrappy fish and punches well above it’s weight… which isn’t to say there aren’t some big ones out there – they top out at over 20kg! It’s incredibly pretty too – a deep-sided fish with a large, blunt head and metallic-pink/copper flanks, peppered with almost electric blue scales – a real head-turner!
Will Preece cradling a nice Hauraki Gulf Snapper.
I resolved that if I had the opportunity, I’d prioritise the Kingies for sure, but I really wanted to tick all three off the list.
And then I went a step further and thought “wouldn’t it be cool to do a “kiwi-slam” – all three species in one session!
Sometimes I’m not sure why I burden myself some of these expectations. Arguably I set myself up to fail, or at the very least undermine my own sense of achievement. But the idea was intriguing and, whilst a tall-order, was one I just couldn’t shake. Sure, I’d be over the moon with my first Kingie if that’s ‘all’ I achieved. But going home with the slam under my belt… ah, well now that would have some bragging rights attached to it!
The idea persisted, and I prepped with it in mind. I packed my 8wt Helios 3D and matching Hydros reel loaded with a Pro Saltwater Allrounder Textured floating line, with Kahawai and snapper in mind, and stepped the whole set-up up a weight for the Kingfish (using my much beloved Orvis Zero Gravity – the spiritual predecessor to the Helios and still a lovely rod to this day).
Taking fishing gear into New Zealand isn’t a simple affair as the country operates the most stringent biosecurity border anywhere in the world. Kit has to be spotlessly clean. And I mean spotless! It must be declared (or you risk confiscation and a huge fine), and you will have all of it closely inspected. It’s a bit of a time consuming ordeal, but trust me when I tell you – it’s worth it.
Let me wind the clock forward here. I fished the flats of Tauranga, a couple of hours south of Auckland, with a fantastic guide called Julian Danby, and despite challenging conditions, Julian’s skilful tuition delivered me the opportunity to cast at ‘ray riders’. Just like Permit, Kingfish on the flats will shadow stingrays, hoping to snatch up prey disturbed as the ray glides over them.
A Short-tailed Stingray with Kingfish ‘riders’
That technique, that experience, is absolutely thrilling sight-fishing; spotting the black oval of the rays on the pale sand and readying yourself to get a shot out as your guide plots an intercept. It’s utterly brilliant, and when I finally connected to the savage, raw power of a Kingfish, it was an unforgettable experience. I lost my first (big!) one after a titanic battle, arms and back screaming, saturated with lactic acid. Fortunately the second one stayed connected, even though fate did its very best to deliver me unto disaster (horrific knot in the running line!) and when I finally cradled that stunning creature I could not have been happier.
One happy chap (me, not the Kingfish)
The ‘slam’ was still in my mind. So when a local saltwater fly angler and kingfish expert Will Preece offered to take me out into the Hauraki Gulf (the body of water lying off the Auckland coast), it’s fair to say I nearly bit his arm off! Will really knows his stuff and a more generous and accommodating angler you couldn’t hope to meet. So when I tentatively mentioned the idea of the slam to him, he was all-in. The waters between the mainland and Rangitoto Island (a dormant volcano) had been fishing their proverbial heads off for Kingies and Kahawai, but the Snapper would, he warned, be the potential deal-breaker. Still, he was more than game to try.
So, having experienced my first ‘down-under’ Christmas-on-the-beach, Boxing day started without the usual post-gluttony torpor, and I found myself down at the boat ramp at Takapuna as the first rays of sun blushed the horizon. Will’s boat materialised from the shadow of Rangitoto on a sea of liquid bronze, and within minutes we were scooting across the gulf towards our primary target, a yellow channel-marker buoy, outlined starkly against the black lava-rock of the island behind it.
Sunrise over the dormant volcano of Rangitoto
Unlike the shallow flats, in open water, the approach to finding kingfish switches to floating cover and structures. Anything that might act as an island to provide shelter for baitfish is a magnet for Kingies, and this normally meant methodically exploring all the buoys one by one to see if anyone was home.
In this instance it was pretty clear we weren’t going to have to look too hard! The water was boiling with activity; at 200m away we could clearly see birds hammering the waves around the marker. At half that, we could begin to see the surface itself being occasionally cut-through by fast moving fins and bodies – pulse pounding stuff!
I was urged to the bow of Will’s splendid and perfectly designed boat (aptly called Kingfisher) with the 9wt Zero Gravity in hand. Affixed to the business end of the flyline was a short, straight-through 30lb fluorocarbon leader length and one of Will’s proven Kingie flies. The latter was a ‘Piper’ imitation. Piper are a small Garfish-like species with a strange, greatly elongated lower jaw, They’re found in many oceans and seas; in the Caribbean they’re known as Ballyhoo and they’re often a favoured bait for billfish. Here in NZ, the Kingfish love them! The fly was simple and weighted by a ball of clear resin over the eyes. The aim, Will explained, was to drop the fly directly at the down-tide side of the marker and retrieve immediately… and fast!
Fighting kingfish in open water
After a couple of short casts to find my range and get the feel of the fly’s heft, I dropped it bang on target and stripped as fast as I could. The reaction from the resident Kingies was immediate and Will yelled excitedly as they surged forward but turned away as the fly neared the boat. I repeated the exercise once more before, on the third cast, Will whooped and the line locked solid. I strip-struck and, as instructed, held the line fast as Will backed the boat away from the danger-zone by the buoy, so I could then safely play the clearly extremely angry Kingfish without fear of fouling the anchor-chain on the marker.
“Woohoo! Joe’s got his first Kingie!” cried Will, as I frantically ran about the deck following the Kingfish’s determined surges against the stiffly set clutch. Unlike the Kingfish on the Tauranga flats, which ran for the horizon dragging what seemed like miles of backing with them, here they headed straight for the bottom, yanking the rod tip down violently, often well under the surface as I fought to ensure the canny Kingie didn’t entangle my line under the hull.
My Kingie dives deep
Eventually, I got colour in the water and the beautiful emerald sheen of the Kingfish’s back came into view. Moments later Will slid the net under it and I beamed like an 8-year-old as he swung it onboard.
Kingfish – tick!
That wasn’t the end of it though – I landed a further 6 before we turned our attentions elsewhere. And that was hardly surprising. As the sun steadily rose, so great areas of open water away from the markers fizzed with activity. Birds and the odd penguin (yep… I did a double-take!) massed in huge numbers and periodically burst into activity as the water glittered with panicking baitfish and splashes erupted over huge swathes of water.
“Kahawai!” said Will as the boat surged toward the melee (in America a ‘blitz’… in New Zealand, a ‘work-up’). I dropped the Kingfish set-up and picked up the 8wt Helios 3 combo that I’d attached a size 1 Fulling Mill Chartreuse & white clouser to. Will cut the motor and we drifted into the mass of birds, clearly seeing the flashing flanks of marauding Kahawai below. The very first cast saw the fly hit hard and I may have let out an alarmed expletive as the line ripped through my fingers and the clutch razzed into life.
A good Kahawai tries to get under the boat
The ferocity of the take took me completely by surprise. I simply hadn’t expected a species of modest size to pull so violently! And it didn’t want to give up either! Again and again the Helios had to absorb the explosive surge of my unseen quarry, and even Will began to wonder if I’d actually hooked another Kingfish as he peered over the side hoping to catch sight of it. Eventually he did.
“It’s a Kahawai…. A big one!” he said, and then whistled – “Really big!”
When we netted the fish, resplendent in the morning sun, Will exclaimed it was in fact one of the biggest he’d seen caught on the fly. I felt pretty darned good about that! We both went on to land a handful more, if anything even bigger. The poor flies took an absolute hammering, and two simply succumbed to the ridiculous beating!
Kahawai – tick!
I was now surging with confidence, with two out of the magic three in the bag. But the stakes were growing and so was the apprehension. ‘Nearly’ getting a slam wasn’t enough; was I was in danger of spoiling my own, amazing day by setting the bar too high?
Will explained that we’d need to go right hard-inshore to look for Snapper. There would be no site fishing this time. If we were to stand any chance of snagging the final prize, we’d have to prospect the jagged volcanic shore at its very margins. I was passed an odd, drab looking fly, half-way between a clouser and a shrimp, heavily weighted to get it scuttling along the bottom, crustacean-style.
Will piloted ‘Kingfisher’ into a broad, sheltered bay on the side of Rangitoto, the old volcano looking oddly less imposing close-up. Using the electric trolling motor to maintain the bow’s angle to shore, we set the drift under the now blazing sun, and in silence moved smoothly along just 25m from the lethal-looking shoreline. The water wasn’t deep – no more than 2-3 metres. Will’s instruction was to get the fly as close to the margins (be they rock or mangrove) as possible, let the fly sink, then start a slow strip. It was oddly like targeting bonefish in Cuba on a rough or cloudy day.
Methodically we worked gradually along the bay, as I delivered cast after cast with no response, sweat beading on my face and anxiety tying a heavy knot in my stomach. 40 minutes slid by, with half the bay gone and the tide phase looming that would signal the end of our incursion. Then, as I stripped the fly, a tentative tug gave my concentration an electric jolt! Feeling no weight I stripped again, and had another distinct pull. Again I stripped, but this time nothing. I continued the retrieve dispiritedly and then as I lifted the rod to recast, there was a metallic pink flash behind the fly, and the briefest glimpse of a turning flank in the green water. Snapper… and I’d missed it! I groaned loudly and put my head in my hands. With only 100m left had I just blown it?
As despairing as I felt at that point, you have to be in it to win it, so out went the fly again, dropping into the nooks and crannies, with me hoping to induce a response through sheer force of will.
10 agonising minutes passed and we reached the very last section. My spirits sagged as I faced the prospect of a ‘nearly’ trip, watching the very last metres of shore slide silently past my eyes. And only then, as the large lady cleared her throat and prepared sing, did I suddenly get a solid, sharp tug on the line.
Tense minutes…what is it?
My responding strike was met with solid resistance and then the rod bucked in my hand as a scrappy fight ensued. Both Will and I dared hardly breath for the next few minutes. Behind my eyes, my imagination conjured all manner of razor-edged fates awaiting my line as it was pulled to and fro, just waiting to cut me from my possible prize… but the fish stayed on. There was a swirl on the surface, a possible micro-glimpse of fin, but still nothing to identify the fly’s assailant. I jumped up on the foredeck to get a better view and Will squinted at the surface under the sun’s actinic glare.
“What is it mate?” Asked Will urgently.
A glorious, beautiful, metallically prepossessing flank rolled on the surface declaring the answer.
“Yeeees! It’s a snapper, it’s a snapper!” I hollered!
The next 30 seconds felt like a passing epoch as I willed the fish into the net, then, in a flash of sun-glinting scales, the most gorgeous fish I’d ever seen lay on the deck on front of me. Honestly. It was beyond compare, and the flood of elation that lifted me was right up there with the best angling achievements I’ve ever had. I’d done it! Kingfish, Kahawai and Snapper all in a single session - The ‘slam down under’!
As my host slapped me on the back, congratulated me and obliged me with a quick photo, I gazed at my prize briefly before gently releasing it back into the gulf waters. New Zealand gets world-wide press for its remarkable river fishing, and rightly so. But I came away amazed that we don’t hear more about its spectacular, thriving saltwater ecosystem and the amazing fishery it supports. It really can provide sport to rival any place on the globe. It’s a long way to go… but if you ever find yourself that way, please, please don’t forget to pack your rod… you won’t regret it!