A 73-year-old man who fell off the back of his commercial fishing boat in Whangaroa Harbour is believed to have spent six hours in the water before he was rescued.

The man was flown by Northland Rescue Helicopter to Whangārei Hospital unconscious and in a critical condition this morning. By 11.30am he had improved but was in a serious condition with family at his bedside.

Mangonui Police Constable Brett Walford said the fisherman fell off the back of his boat which had been moored at Waihi Bay, near Totara North for three days.

He was unable to get himself back on to the boat and could only yell for help while he floated in the cold water, rain and wind.

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Walford said a local eventually heard the man's cries for help early this morning. He went out in his dinghy but couldn't get the man into his boat or back on the commercial vessel.

So he took a life ring from the larger boat, put it around the fisherman and towed him 100m back to shore.

The rescue helicopter crew were alerted and winched the man to safety about 7.50am today.

"While the sea was calm it was pouring with rain," Walford said.

A Coastguard Whangaroa Rescue vessel was also called out to help search about 7am and checked with other vessels in the area to see if anyone else was missing off the fishing vessel. They were stood down once the man had been rescued.