Fishing: Give us wings

By Geoff Thomas

Photo / Babiche Martens
Photo / Babiche Martens

Look for the birds! That is the message when it comes to finding fish at the moment. Those hunting big game fish during the hot months are accustomed to keeping an eye peeled for flashes of white in the distant sky and binoculars are always at hand. They know that the best eyes in the sky belong to the winged hunters. It is also why fish that swim near the surface have dark blue or green backs that merge with the water when viewed from above, and sparkling silver when seen from below.

One just has to dive under and look up to wonder at the swirling, mercurial sheen of the surface from that perspective. That is also why fish that dwell in the depths have different coloration and camouflage techniques, from lying unmoving on the sand like a ray or flounder to blending with the waving kelp like a John Dory.

But for the hapless bait fish, it is all about survival and it is only their sheer numbers that ensure the species continues. The bait may be small anchovies, fat pilchards or sleek mackerel but they all provide a meal ticket for birds, dolphins, whales and a host of fish from snapper and kahawai to John Dory and kingfish.

So the chain that starts with minute organisms nurtured by nutrients carried in the ocean's currents moves from link to link, with animal plankton feeding on the plant cells, anchovies swallowing the plankton and everything else gorging on the anchovies.

Dolphins, working in unison like undersea ballet dancers, herd the bait into balls and the only defence the masses of small fish can offer is to present a shimmering wall of silver to confuse the predators. It offers a brief respite as the dolphins are joined by sharks, tuna and other speedsters, which crash into the tightly concentrated mass of bait.

As it is driven towards the surface, the circling gannets flip over and dive like bombers, snapping wings shut as they angle into the water to spear a wriggling fish. They pop up, shake their feathers and clumsily take to the air again to repeat the performance. It is said they eventually go blind from crashing into the water so often over a lifetime. Occasionally, a whale arrives to scoop up a whole school of bait in one mouthful.

This dance of drama and death takes place every day in the Hauraki Gulf and around most of the country. It is an impressive display of the incredible richness of the ocean, and the fact that people can travel from downtown Auckland out on to the water and experience nature at work an hour from a city of more than a million souls is a reminder of just what we have in this country. It is something which has been lost from much of the world's oceans and seas, and must be protected and preserved.

But the wheeling, diving flocks of birds and splashing dolphins hold special meaning for those looking for snapper. The workups, as they are affectionately termed, act as a beacon for the sport fisher.

Different birds signal different opportunities. Marlin fishers know that a single fairy tern dancing across the surface of the deep blue currents many miles offshore often signals the presence of marlin. It is aptly named "the Jesus bird" for its propensity for "walking" on the water as it flitters across the ocean, delicately dipping its tiny beak to capture a small organism.

A concentration of white-fronted terns with the occasional heavyweight - a brown or black-backed gull - means kahawai can be found splashing in the green water. Catching them requires matching the lure to the size of the bait, which is usually very small individuals such as whitebait and a silver trout smelt fly or 2.5cm silver spinner will prove lethal. But they will ignore traditional lures, frustrating the angler who does not think to vary his approach.

When the fighter-bombers of the avian world, the gannets, join the fray it is a welcome sign for game fishers hunting tuna or marlin. This usually happens well offshore in the blue water, but when such activity occurs within a few kilometres of Waiheke or Kawau Islands - or any other part of the upper North Island coastline - it makes the snapper hunters smile.

These are the heavyweight workups, and usually comprise hundreds of wheeling and diving gannets and a smattering of "mutton ducks", the common sooty shearwater, the brown adult of the mutton bird. The workup is always on the move and it is a common complaint from anglers that as soon as they arrive at a workup, the fish "go down" or it moves away. That does not really matter, for if the snapper are there they will be spread out, usually behind the workup as they snap up injured bait fish that drift down under the melee.

Snapper can be hooked on lures like soft baits, slow jigs, metal jigs or chunks of pilchard. It is always a wise move to offer the fish what they are eating, and pilchards or anchovies will prove irresistible while other popular baits, such as squid, will be ignored. It is not that the fish are smart; they are simply focused on one type of food.

But there are not always snapper under the workups, so the experienced angler will drop baits and drift for a while. If no fish strike, he will race to the next workup, and it may take several attempts before finding the target fish. The snapper often rise up in the water column, so those holding a rod should be prepared for a strike as the bait drops.

Also, the birds will not always be wheeling and diving, for the activity is always moving and the bait fish will dive in an attempt to evade the predators and the birds will then sit around on the surface waiting for everything to come up again.

The schools of bait will show up on the screen of the fish finder and it is always worth checking the area for snapper before moving on.

- Herald on Sunday

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