David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Greatest NZ stories: The giant one that didn't get away

David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.
Michelle and Lance Goodhew are an effective team on the water: He's the skipper and she's the angler. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Michelle and Lance Goodhew are an effective team on the water: He's the skipper and she's the angler. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Midwife says catching a record-breaking bronze whaler shark is like having a baby - 'the adrenalin kicks in after a while and you learn to pace yourself'

Day 13: Whakatane

Before Michelle Goodhew started catching babies, she was catching fish.

It's a midwife's lot to be ready. Day or night, you never know exactly when you're going to be needed.

Fishing is like that. You never know when you have to put your back into it.

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Back in 1999, Michelle was catching more fish than babies. Midwifery came after the record-breaking 224.6kg bronze whaler shark she caught that year. At the time, she and husband Lance had a small charter boat which they'd run out of Whakatane.

Business has been good since then and there are now two boats, both bigger than the 7.3m Grae Lynn they took out that late January day.

"It was a beautiful day," says Michelle, 41. "Lovely and calm."

They pulled up about 30km offshore, over the top of the 1200m-deep White Island trench.

"That's when the tuna were awesome out of White Island, meatballing all the time."

With Michelle, there's a bit of fishing lingo. She's been catching fish so long it trips off her tongue and disappears without translation. If you lose the thread, the meaning flits away.

She explains. "A meatball is a big ball of bait in the water. The bait in this instance was anchovies. They gather together for protection because they are being challenged by the bigger fish.

"Sharks, marlin, tuna, will pack the baitfish into a big ball. That ball often comes to the surface because they are trying to escape."

As they try and get away, the big fish come into feed. Out from shore, far enough it was barely visible in the distance, they watched.

"It was amazing watching big sharks rolling in these big balls of bait, opening up their mouths and filling up. Marlin and tuna would take turns crashing into the meatball, keeping it packed in."

On this day, she says, "some of the meatballs were as big as houses".

The plan was to catch skipjack tuna to use as bait for the charter business, then throw in a line for their own fun.

"The tuna had been really difficult to catch."

Difficult, but not staying away. The meatballed anchovies were desperate to live, and as the boat edged through the water "the fish would see the hull and cling to it". The tuna would follow.

Normally, the 24kg line has a heavy trace at the business end, leading down to the hook. The thicker piece of nylon or metal line protects against the sharp teeth of the fish they were targeting, before connecting to the line on the fishing reel.

But that day, the tuna were avoiding the live fish being used as bait. They would disappear after circling the bait, catching a glimpse of the thicker line or the hook slipped through the skin of the struggling fish.

"We had to get really cunning with our line," she says, which is why they took off the trace. Doing so left a thinner, less suspicious line threading through the water.

But it was also a weaker line at 24kg, which would make it more vulnerable.

"And we had to keep going down in hook sizes. The water is just so clear and blue at that time of year. The tuna would swim up to the live bait, see the hook and swim around it."

By the time the shark hit, they were down to a 5/0 size barb - the sort of hook a modest snapper angler would use.

"Something took off with it. It went like a bulldozer ... or a freight train more like it."

Anglers fighting big fish - game fish - use techniques to help bear the huge weight of their prey. There are those who use game fishing chairs, which are bolted to the deck of the boat. They support the angler, and rock back to help with the long process of winding back in the hundreds of metres of line which are stripped from the reel.

Others fight standing up, using gimbal belts which strap around the waist. They have a pocket in which the rod sits, grounding it in the angler who uses it to support the weight for the rocking back motion used to pull the line, metre by metre, back on to the reel.

Michelle had neither of those. She's not a tall woman and the gimbal belt wouldn't sit right. "I sat on the engine block and I had a towel between my legs."

The rod bowed over and the line stretched taut as the weight came on. The puzzle of the fish at the end was a mystery which took hours to solve. "It hadn't bitten through the trace so how could it be a shark?"

The answer to the puzzle was hours away. "Originally I thought it was a yellowfin. A big yellowfin. Or maybe it was a big eye [tuna]. Or maybe a marlin that never surfaced."

The battle was draining but, locked in the fight, there was no chance for a break. "The first half an hour is probably your hardest, before you settle into the fight. It's really then pacing yourself. After an hour or so your adrenaline and endorphins are there - it's really then pacing yourself on the rod and reel."

Energy which drained couldn't be replaced. Lance, she remembers, stood in front of her eating crayfish while she fought the shark. Lance, who we see later, laughs: "She didn't need it. She was fishing."

He stayed at her shoulder. "Lance always said there has to be line coming in or going off the reel. You don't stalemate. That only rests the fish."

Michelle Goodhew's shark record still stands today. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Michelle Goodhew's shark record still stands today. Photo / Mark Mitchell

They've done this before, the two of them. Michelle worked as a deckhand on Lance's charter business, before it sprawled to two boats which keep him away 10 months of the year.

The couple met years ago in Auckland. Lance is from Benneydale, 35 minutes south of Te Kuiti, and Michelle from Blockhouse Bay. He was a mechanic in a wrecking yard and with Michelle had an interest in cars. He had a 350 Chevy Holden HQ.

They've been in Whakatane for 21 years, where they traded cars for boats, torque for tackle. She's fished since she was 2. Since then there's been kingfish, marlin, tuna and anything else worth chasing in the water. There was a 174kg blue marlin off Lottin Pt, East Cape, played and landed standing. The wind was blowing at 30 knots that day and there were plenty who were so sick they couldn't stand, never mind fight a fish.

When she worked as a deckhand, there were plenty of sexist comments from clients. "They soon shut up when I was the one who tied their traces for them, gaffed their fish or pulled their [ha]puka up because they were too tired." So Lance knows his role - skipper and husband, but Michelle is the angler.

Sometimes, they would chase the shark, motoring Grae Lynn along the line as the fish stripped line from the reel.

"Time goes so fast. It was like having a baby," she says, having had three herself and delivered dozens. "The adrenalin kicks in after a while and you learn to pace yourself. I was getting pretty fatigued before the end. But I'm not one to give up - in anything.

"I ended up with third degree sunburn from sitting on the engine block for four and a half hours," she says.

"That last hour, we had to play it up from the bottom."

She'd been fighting the shark for 210 minutes when the long haul home came. As it came up, the shark drowned and became dead weight. "I'd hooked it up on the tail," Michelle realised as it surfaced, the mystery of the shark's identity finally revealed. Hauled in backwards, water filled its gills and killed it. The tail-hooking also answered the question of why the shark had never chewed its way free.

It sat there, dead and massive off the stern.

"It's me and Lance and we have a 224kg bronze whaler shark. What do you do with it?"

Lance pulled the head close in and swung the gaff, holding the shark there. Then he got a rope around the tail.

Michelle got off the engine block and off the rod and moved to help but there was no way they were going to lift the shark on-board.

Towing it wasn't an option - they'd never get Grae Lynn up to plane at 30 knots. It'd be an overnight chug home at two knots.

"We had to try and get as much of the fish out of the water as we could but there was only me and him on board."

Using the anchor winch, they managed to haul the shark's head to the transom and on to the running board which steps along the back of the boat. Then it was rope and more rope to keep it on.

"It was like knitting all over the cabin."

And then they returned. "I didn't actually relax until it was on the weigh station."

Up it went, the scales tipped it at 224.6kg, a New Zealand record catch.

It's a record which holds today.

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