When walking on the beach you might expect to see a seal basking in the sun or some rubbish, but not hundreds of live fish jumping out of the water on to land.

That's just what Ursula Hutchinson saw when she was on a walk with her father and her daughter on the Karikari Peninsula in Northland.

"Never in my life have I seen anything like it."

She caught the action on her smartphone on Tuesday which showed the fish, about the length of her size 8 shoe, flopping on the sand.

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After her discovery she and other onlookers got to work returning the fish to the water.

But even as they put the fish back into the ocean, more seemed to jump back out, she said.

The "bizarre" event lasted for about 15 minutes - after that the fish remained in the water.

The fish attracted the attention of kahawai that swam so close to the beach one person managed to pull one out of the water by its tail.

Most of the flopping fish were saved while the ones that died were used as bait, Hutchinson said - her father stayed behind and spent an hour fishing with a handline.

"He caught 10 to 12 kahawai with the handline."