Clarke Gayford talks to Kim Knight about throwing himself into television’s deep end.

The woman was naked from the waist up, her mouth stained red. Clarke Gayford sat opposite, chewing, smiling, waiting for the euphoria.

"Your face flushes hot," he says. "You feel completely bung out of it. And the producer's getting me to try and fire these lines to camera and this woman is sitting opposite me and she's laughing her head off too."

He sits there on the woven mat somewhere in the Solomon Islands, chewing areca nut wrapped in betel leaf and slaked with lime, and he's thinking: "My God. This is what I'm doing for a job. Long may it continue!"

Eighteen months ago, Gayford chucked in a steady pay cheque at George FM, pooled his savings with producer Mike Bhana, and set off to make a television show.


Blue skies, blue seas, and very big fish. Travel the Pacific, bag the local catch, talk ocean ecology and promote island tourism. Peter Pan with a spear gun and a political conscience.

"I know people waiting for that day when they will be 65 and successful," says Gayford.

"They go to work before the light comes up, they're not happy in their jobs, they've over-leveraged into a mortgage they can't afford, but oh my God, how successful are they! And you go, 'well, how successful are you?' Because on Wednesday it was a nice day and I went fishing."

Gayford, 39, has one of those CV's that abbreviates to "Broadcast Personality". Best known as one of the original presenters of free-to-air music channel C4, he's hosted the More FM drive shift and the George FM breakfast slot, fronted television travel show Getaway, filled in on Seven Sharp and is an occasional guest on Radio New Zealand's The Panel.

Before all of that he was a kid from a farm outside Gisborne. Grapes, apples, kiwifruit and avocados. Keas, Cubs and Scouts. No television in summer (his parents rented one in winter) and holidays with boats at the bach in Mahia.

He's the eldest of three. Middle sister Pene, 37, says he "was one of those kids". He found the lost purse that had the $100 reward. His Bonus Bond numbers came up. He was, she says, "a lucky kid ... a law unto himself - in the nicest possible way".

Mostly though, he is remembered for this fishing. "He was fanatical about it. Just obsessed."

Pene describes the Christmas Day he convinced her to join him in the dinghy. They stayed out so long the batteries in her new Walkman went flat; she cried, and Clarke kept fishing. They missed Christmas dinner.

It's that element of risk ... they say a bad day's fishing is still better than a good day's working, that it's almost like therapy, and spearfishing is the next extension of that. When you are, literally, not the top of the food chain anymore.

This new show, she says, "is a completely perfect fit. It's like he's had this dream since he was 6 and now this is it".

Fish of the Day will screen here from July 27 on Choice TV. It's also been signed for international release - Canada and Europe, and the big one, National Geographic Asia with its 120 million strong audience across 20 countries.

Gayford's earliest childhood memory is from when he was 3. His dad was pushing him on a surfboard, into a wave. He grew up tying his own lures, making his own sinkers, pouring over books and committing the Maori and Latin names for fish to memory. He set net for flounder, and got up at 6am to check the cray pots. It was the Kiwi childhood idyll. Until it wasn't.

In his senior secondary years, he was sent to Palmerston North Boys' High. "I was enjoying surfing quite a bit in Gisborne. My parents were just looking for another opportunity ... "

Palmerston North was old school in the worst sense of the word. Rugby. Compulsory boxing for boarders. A strange awkwardness around girls.

"It was very much Lord of the Flies. I can totally relate to kids these days around online bullying, in the sense that they can't get away from it. At boarding school, it was literally 24-7. Some horrible things could happen in the middle of the night, or early morning if they so chose. Jeez. I haven't opened the door on this in a long time ... "

Gayford was the outsider. He hadn't done the hard yards as a third form "maggot". When his class decided to shave their heads, for example, he resisted. The principal eventually called a halt to the practice and Gayford thought he'd dodged that bullet.

"But no ... a gang of them came one night, and I ended up getting knocked out in the process. They held me down and shaved my eyebrows off. My mum walked past me at the bus stop in Gisborne because she didn't recognise me.

"I came out of it with a really strong resolve to be better than them. That was my driving force and motivation, for years."

Years later, he says, he did come face-to-face with "one of the main protagonists". It was disappointing. Deflating. The enemy had, simply, become boring. And Gayford? That "driving force and motivation" is, perhaps, more evident in hindsight.

At Otago University, "I was hopeless. It was the bad old days, when you could withdraw all your student loan. I got a passport and snuck off to Indonesia surfing for a month. My parents didn't find out until two years later. That was a hell of a night around the dinner table."

He eventually graduated from the New Zealand Broadcasting School with a thesis that was a pilot show for a comedy documentary around student life in Dunedin. Local station Channel 9 bought the concept (with its infamous morning-after-the-night-before "walk of shame" segments) and Cow TV became Gayford's first, official, broadcasting gig. Fishing went on the backburner; Auckland beckoned.

"I had almost an entirely different world going on up here ... I'd always heard the rumours of good fishing, but I was too busy being a guy in my young 20s, horsing around on TV."

Everything changed when a former girlfriend suggested Gayford take over the old family boat.

"Suddenly I discovered that Auckland had the most magnificent snapper fishery of anywhere in the world."

In summer, he says, you can catch dinner under the harbour bridge. The Hauraki Gulf is a permanent home to 40 whales. The abundance of life out there, he says, is remarkable - and these days, he sees that life at very close range.

"I'd always snorkelled, but I filmed this documentary series called Extraordinary Kiwis. I had to go and find 10 interesting New Zealanders and have a go at their jobs for a week. One of them was Jess Whiddett, a dive instructor with several spearfishing records.

"She was this young girl disappearing off deeper than me, so I pushed myself and discovered I could get down 10 metres. We had a big school of kingfish come through and I shot a 15kg kingfish and I was, 'this is me, this is what I want to do'."

As a spearfisher, you're at the mercy of everything else under the water. "And that is the joy. It's that element of risk ... they say a bad day's fishing is still better than a good day's working, that it's almost like therapy, and spearfishing is the next extension of that. When you are, literally, not the top of the food chain anymore."

The first time he saw a shark, "I flew for the rocks and sat up high". Now, "I know how certain types of sharks will react to certain types of fish. I know once I've got the fish under my arms, a bronze whaler will keep its distance, but a mako might come and have a go. But they're not after me. They're after the fish you've just speared.

"It's eerie and it's spooky and it's out of your comfort zone. But spearfishing has just exploded in the last few years."

He grins. "I think it's mostly because young men want that picture on their Tinder profile!"

Gayford is off the market. His girlfriend is Labour MP Jacinda Ardern. How did they meet?

"Because I had a constituency issue." Seriously? "I can feel myself getting embarrassed even saying it."

The party boy has a serious side. Incensed at the potential erosion of privacy via the controversial Government Communications Security Bureau Amendment Bill, Gayford wrote to National MP Nikki Kaye. She didn't respond. "I thought, well, Jacinda's sitting on the other side, so I wrote this letter and said 'how can I help?'"

They had coffee. He was shocked to discover she liked Concord Dawn ("a fantastically awesome heavy New Zealand drum and bass outfit"). They had more coffees. Eventually, it became a relationship.

"We don't really talk about it publicly. She's definitely been the best thing that's ever happened to me. I didn't know what it meant to work hard until I started seeing what she does on a daily basis.

"She was doing a radio interview at 5.40 this morning and she'd had three meetings by the time I'd scraped myself together and had my eggs. I think when I was younger, I had some wild aspirations of some sort of career in politics, and then I was confronted with the reality of what she does, and the personal sacrifices she has to make, and I just thought no way, that's not for me."

And yet, consider this, from earlier in our interview: "What a lot of New Zealanders don't know is that when the Fisheries Act was set up it was really clear - Section 21 of the Act says fish are our sovereign resource. We all, as New Zealanders, have an equal share in it. The first cab off the rank is customary rights, then they allow for mortality, then recreational, then, if there's any fish left over, that is the commercial take.

"But the commercial industry, through full-time lobbyists ... they've tweaked it to their advantage. The fact that as a commercial fisherman, you can take a snapper at 25 centimetres, whereas all recreational takes are set at 30cm - that's just like turning up to a nightclub and going to the front of the queue every time."

Clarke Gayford and Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Clarke Gayford and Jacinda Ardern. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

Here he is again, on Act MP David Seymour:

"When you're fishing and diving, you see plastic everywhere. It is killing our oceans, fish are ingesting it, it will kill us. It is a serious issue and it garnered a whole heap of signatures ... and David Seymour got up and cited a disproved report that said that reusable shopping bags led to illness and disease. He had the cheek to stand up in Parliament ... and I thought, 'you slimy little ...'"

Does he have to check himself because of his relationship? "I don't know! Do I? We kind of align on most things. Through Jacinda, I've actually become less tribal, more understanding of an alternate view. Maybe I'm just maturing?"

Grown-up Gayford has a house and a mortgage now. It's the second deposit he's saved. He spent the first on a boat he named Helena, for Helena McAlpine, his friend and fellow broadcaster who died of cancer last year, aged 37.

"We'd been through that first round of cancer and treatment with her. She was living with me, and being a complete ratbag and pain in the arse. We were probably more like a brother and sister than good friends, we could have horrendous fights. And then she had the second diagnosis, which was terminal, and came as a real shock.

"I sat there and went, 'what the f*** am I doing? What do I want? What do I really want out of life? So I just went out and spent it all on a boat."

Something like that, he says, "lasers your focus a little bit. Man, it could all end tomorrow."

Gayford says that boat allowed him to become a very good spearfisher. Which has allowed him to make the TV series that is his dream job. For the past year, he says, he's been standing at shop counters wondering if his Eftpos card would be declined. "But if it does all fall over, I've just spent the last year fishing and diving in some of the coolest places in the world."