Stewart Island: Casting a line in southern seas

By Estelle Sarney

The fishing is as good as its gets, Estelle Sarney finds as she reels in the cod on a trip to Stewart Island.

Light rays filter through the clouds at dusk along Mason Bay, Stewart Island. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today
Light rays filter through the clouds at dusk along Mason Bay, Stewart Island. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today

A word to the wise, if you go fishing with Squizzy and Rex, don't leave your station.

You're likely to get a good-natured serve from Rex, who is flat out taking the latest blue cod you've caught off your line and rebaiting your hooks. Skipper Squizzy, planted at the rear, will roll his eyes and take another drag on his cigarette as he continues speedily filleting your pile of fish, ready for you to take home.

No, you're given a spot along the side of the Loloma and there you stay, partly to prevent you tangling and tripping over the coils of rope from your handline, mainly because you should be too busy pulling up cod to go anywhere.

And doing so fast enough to beat the mollymawks, which will try to grab the fish off your hook in the time it takes to pull it up on deck. These magnificent, greedy birds swooped after our boat and surrounded us on the water as we moved from spot to spot, joined for a while by a single member of the grand cousins, the albatross.

They compete for fish not just with humans, but with the families of great white sharks cruising the third largest breeding ground in the world. We didn't see any, but Squizzy and Rex, Stewart Islanders since birth, assured us the sharks were there, somewhere beneath our feet.

Hand-line cod fishing off Stewart Island was the most fun and bountiful fishing trip I'd been on but it's not glamorous. The six of us on board that day were dressed in long white aprons and white gumboots, handed a line with two hooks separated by a sinker, baited with cod (they're cannibal fish), and given a quick lesson in how to drop the line, wait for the tell-tale tug of a fish, jerk up the rope to secure the hook in its mouth, then pull up the line as fast we could.

We did so over and over for two hours. It's an equalising style of fishing - 13-year-old Laura had the best haul by a slim margin. Squizzy handed Rex a $5 note.

"My money was on the young one," grinned Rex.

Having been told off for leaving my station, I asked permission to put my line down and move so I could take some photos. Rex laughed long and hard at me. It's been a while since he'd been cast in the role of grumpy taskmaster. This southern humour takes a while to get the hang of.

The Loloma, a 40ft timber cavell built in 1962 in Wanganui, worked all over New Zealand as a commercial fishing boat and is now "in retirement", as Squizzy says, taking tourist charters out of Stewart Island's town of Oban.

It is one of several vessels doing this, as locals combine tourist operations with their traditional ways of earning a living - fishing, crayfishing and paua-diving.

That the locals spend so much time in a sea that barely warms above 13C in summer, and drops to 4C in winter, gives a hint of the toughness of Stewart Islanders.

The island has only about 420 permanent residents, living along 27km of road on about two per cent of its land in and around Oban. The rest of the island is national park, and its 350km of walking tracks still traverse only a portion of it.

A love of nature and adherence to conservation values are central to how Stewart Islanders live their lives. People keep free-range ducks, guinea fowl and chickens for meat, but rabbits, goats and pigs are not allowed on the island, and dogs and cats are discouraged. Everyone plays a part in minimising the number of rats, possums, deer and feral cats.

Ulva Island in Paterson Inlet, next to Oban's Halfmoon Bay, is pest free and a bird sanctuary, but the main island is now so supportive of native birds that the Stewart Island brown kiwi is prolific by national standards, and grows so big that it feeds not only at night but also emerges during the day for top-up snacks. It's not unusual for trampers to come across kiwi picking bugs off the side of a track.

We saw kiwi on a beach at night, picking sandhoppers from piles of kelp. Bravo Tours takes groups by boat from Oban to an arm of the island at twilight, then guides you through bush and on to Ocean Beach, where the tour leader will shine dull torchlight across the sand to find kiwi for you to watch. Some younger birds scuttle into the bush when spotted, but most don't mind being quietly observed.

Back in Oban, the South Sea Hotel is a warm and welcoming place for a drink and a hearty meal. We were there over Easter, toward the end of the tourist season, and when the Bluff oyster catch was at its peak. You could have raw oysters, battered oysters, oyster chowder, oyster fritters - all were delicious. Next time I go to Stewart Island, I'm going in crayfish season.

You can stay at the hotel or at a surprisingly diverse range of accommodation available on the island, considering its small population. There are backpacker and more upmarket lodges, baches and houses for rent, bed and breakfasts and a couple of motels.

We stayed at the Bay Motel in Oban; generous in size and in the nature of our host Robin.

He gave us a tour of the village in his van on the way to the motel, and was a fund of information and assistance during our stay.

From the motel, we could wander down to the village and visit the museum, which gives a great summary of the island's history in a small space, see a film at the Bunk House Theatre, shop at the Glowing Skies Studio, and have brunch at the Kiwi French Crepery.

Another great spot for coffee or a meal is Bird on a Pear on the top floor of the ferry terminal, the best spot in town to look over the harbour and watch boats coming and going.

If you can, fly to Stewart Island and catch the ferry back. We crammed into a compact Islander plane, the ubiquitous workhorse which the pilot called "a Bongo van of the sky".

Being able to see out both sides from a low altitude gives you stunning views of the Southland coastline and of some of the island's golden bays and dense bush before you land on a strip high up between the hills.

The ferry trip home is like nothing we soft Aucklanders are used to. The solid brute of a catamaran is comfortable enough, but there are few airs or graces and as soon as we left the harbour we could understand why.

The captain planted his foot and surged through three-metres breaking swells at 22 knots, nonchalantly swigging tea while the boat performed like a ride at the Easter Show. Spray hurled over the back deck, and the crew's discreet collection of sick bags become more frequent as the trip progressed. I just managed to retain my lunch by focusing on Bluff, growing mercifully closer with each wave we rode.

I asked one crew member if this was a particularly rough trip but she said no, "this is pretty average". They breed them tough down south.

As I staggered off the ferry with my chiller bag full of cod, it made me glad we'd had a calm day for our fishing trip with Squizzy and Rex. Goodness knows what kind of ribbing they'd give some northerner for feeding the fish, mollymawks and Great Whites anything other than what Rex put on your hook.

CONTACTS

Getting there:

Plane from Invercargill: stewartislandflights.com

Ferry from Bluff: stewartislandexperience.co.nz

Things to do:

Loloma Fishing Charters, ph (03) 219 1141.

Bravo kiwi spotting cruises, ph (03) 219 1144.

Rakiura Museum: Ayr St

Bunkhouse Theatre: 10 Main Rd.

Pick your walk, from 10 minutes to 10 days, at the DOC office and stewartisland.co.nz

Rent a bike, scooter or car from Real Journeys at the Red Shed on the waterfront.

Where to stay:
Bay Motel: baymotel.co.nz, ph (03) 219 1119

Where to eat:

South Sea Hotel: On the waterfront, ph (03) 219 1059.

Bird on a Pear cafe: Top floor of the ferry terminal, ph (03) 219 1019.

Kiwi French Crepery: 6 Main Rd.

Further information: See stewartisland.co.nz and southlandnz.com.

- Herald on Sunday

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