Geoff Thomas
Geoff Thomas on fishing

Geoff Thomas: Harbour handled with care

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Multiple hook-ups on snapper are common on The Graveyard. Photo / Paul Thomas
Multiple hook-ups on snapper are common on The Graveyard. Photo / Paul Thomas

There is a lot of history on the Kaipara Harbour. You can feel it as you motor down the river from Parakai and head out into the wide open waters. At one stage, more shipping plied these waters than serviced the other side where Auckland City now sits overlooking the harbour bridge. The sailing ships carried the wealth of the times - slabs of kauri timber and the golden gum which would be transformed into varnish for elegant furniture.

That was 200 years ago. The shipping and the trade are long gone, a distant memory lost in the shifting sands. For that is where many of the ships ended their lives, as did some of the souls they carried.

Today, the only visitors to the treacherous waters inside the harbour entrance are those seeking fish, mainly snapper. This is water which teaches respect.

It has earned it and the familiar name The Graveyard echoes with the ghosts of the wrecked sailing ships that lie broken beneath the sands. Occasionally, shattered spars and bronze fittings are uncovered by the currents and the beaches offer rich pickings for those combing the sand.

Dunes stretch to the sky on the northern side and the tip of Muriwai Beach marks the southern side of the channel through which the tide roars every six hours. Everything here is on a grand scale.

The western horizon is a broken line of white water where the currents and ocean rollers do battle over a sandy bar that stretches for miles; the waves thrown up by the turmoil give an ominous warning to boaties to stay away. Currents race out at 9km/h and plans to harvest this energy to produce electricity concern those who fish these waters. Large sections of The Graveyard where giant underwater turbines will be located will be closed to fishing.

Fishing tackle matches the water being fished, which may be only 20m deep but calls for sinkers up to 32 ounces to reach the bottom at the height of the tidal flow.

Many of the sinkers are home-made by pouring molten lead into a mould. They have a hole at the top and the whole system is designed to reduce the loss of tackle when the "Kaipara specials" strike; meaning the sharks turn up.

The harbour is rich in fish life and the prevalence of school sharks on the snapper grounds is testament to the huge population during the summer months. There are also great whites and they can be a problem for commercial long-liners, picking hooked fish off the line one after the other rather like somebody chewing along a corn cob.

The sinker has a metal ring or a plastic fence tie looped through the hole and this is then attached to a clip swivel on the line. This swivel slides above the swivel connecting the main line to the trace. So the sinker sits above the trace, which is anywhere from 2m to 10m long and 20-30kg breaking strain. This way, when a shark is hooked, all that is lost is some trace and a couple of hooks, as the shark's teeth either slice through the trace or the fisherman cuts the hooks off when the shark is at the side of the boat.

The standard practice with a two-hook rig is to have both hooks secured in one bait, usually a strip or a small fish. The Kaipara fishermen bait their hooks differently. With a second sliding hook above the hook tied to the end of the trace, they add two small pieces of bait - one on each hook so if one bait is lost there is still another. Bites are rarely felt in the strong currents and a hooked fish just feels like extra weight.

The other method of rigging the business end of the trace, which often scores two fish on each drop, is to have a hook at the end of the long trace with the second hook attached to a short dropper about half a metre above it. Recurved hooks are preferred as the fish will hook themselves.

Heavy sinkers need strong tackle and locals use powerful boat rods fitted with large-capacity star-drag reels loaded with braid line.

Snapper move into the harbour in the spring and fishing peaks in February, March and April. Then, as temperatures cool, the snapper move out and gurnard arrive, so there is good fishing to be found all year.

And, with gurnard fishing, you do not have to travel down to The Graveyard to find top action, you can catch them over the flats on a rising tide just about anywhere - even off the wharf at Shelly Beach.

Then there are the kahawai, which are often found in schools splashing on the surface, and kingfish can be targeted with live baits. Surfcasters drive down the beach from Dargaville to reach the sand dunes at Poutu on the northern side.

This is a harbour made for pottering around on. You can pull a net for mullet or flounder, or take a light and stalk the edge at night with a spear looking for a feed of flatfish. It is the sort of place a person could spend a lot of time exploring.

- Herald on Sunday

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