Everybody's gone fishing

A fisher claims his patch of the Otago coast. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
A fisher claims his patch of the Otago coast. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
On an island nation such as ours, coastal fishing is akin to a rite of passage, be it at a city wharf, off the rocks or casting beyond the breakers. However, with recreation comes responsibility. Shane Gilchrist reports.

In my house, there is a photo that doesn't tell a thousand words. Instead, it speaks just a few: fishing prowess proven.

Vying for attention with the Cheshire Cat grin is a 15kg-plus kingfish which, could it speak, might have suggested its demise had nothing to do with skill, but rather was a combination of a charter boat's state-of-the-art sonar system, a skipper's local knowledge of the Bay of Islands and fishing tackle that could have handled hauling up the South Island.

Andy Macleod also has a picture of himself with a kingfish. At 25kg, it is nearly twice the size of my specimen. Macleod reeled it in somewhere along the North Island's East Cape. Oh, by the way, he caught it off some rocks.

Blue cod tend to stay close to a home base. Photo by Chris Hepburn.
Blue cod tend to stay close to a home base. Photo by Chris Hepburn.
"That one was pretty good," the fishing fanatic recalls from Wellington, where he has lived for the past several years since leaving Dunedin, his hometown and former base for many an aquatic excursion.

"But kingfish grow a lot bigger than that, too. I think someone has caught a 40kg one off rocks."

Mr Macleod might be attempting to deflect attention from his own efforts, but his words have the unintended effect of diminishing that Bay of Islands experience; pride, like kingfish, rests in pieces.

Any further pretence of angling ability is ground into paste by the end of the opening chapter of Mr Macleod's forthcoming book, Fishing the Remote Coast: land-based fishing experiences in New Zealand, in which he details his quest to catch a wide variety of fish, from the humble gurnard to snapper to the yellowtail kingfish, a species highly regarded for its fighting tendencies.

Mr Macleod, who has competed in national surfcasting and sport-fishing championships and is the Wellington surfcasting champion, was raised in a family of mad-keen fishers in Dunedin.

"I grew up with a fishing rod in my hand. My dad would take me fishing for salmon and trout as a kid and it sowed the seed. When I got a bit older, I was somehow drawn to surfcasting. It was a bit of a mystery to me.

"I guess I was amazed at how many different sorts of fish there were. I certainly caught a lot more fish from the beaches around North Otago than I ever did fishing lakes and rivers."

In Fishing the Remote Coast, Mr Macleod reveals his depth of knowledge of the many varieties of fish in our waters. He details how he prepares for an expedition and covers much of the New Zealand coastline, from Northland to Otago Peninsula.

"A big part of it for me is catching trophy fish and to give yourself a chance you have to go to places that are relatively untouched. You end up driving for hours and hours to get from Wellington to the Far North or jumping on a plane to get to the Chatham Islands."

Significantly, however, Mr Macleod doesn't give exact details of his successful spots. Had he done so, any subsequent book might be titled Fishing the Not-Quite-So-Remote Coast.

"I haven't been too specific about where I've been. The idea is that people do a little bit of homework themselves; I think that makes it a bit more rewarding.

"I just thought it'd be a good idea to sit down and start writing. Over the course of a week, I managed to put down about 70% of the book. I think I've been really lucky to experience what I have."

Lucky him. Unlucky fish.

As inhabitants of an island nation, many New Zealanders' experience of fishing is akin to a rite of passage, be it at a city wharf, off the rocks or casting beyond the breakers. However, with recreation comes responsibility, says Mr Macleod, adding he likes the idea of introducing a licence for saltwater anglers.

"I think recreational fishing is the most popular pastime in New Zealand. It is also quite a popular pastime with a lot of new immigrants to New Zealand.

"It'd be an opportunity for New Zealand to collect some money that could be put towards monitoring. I think it is acknowledged that we are pretty under-resourced to keep an eye on illegal fishing, so if we can tighten that, it'd be a step forward.

"If you had to go out and buy a licence and that was accompanied by a bit of education on your rights and responsibilities, it might lead to people acting more appropriately. It is something we have to be really mindful of. Don't take more than you need. We need to respect fishery limits."

The problem, according to chef, author, and television show host Al Brown, is some people regard a daily bag limit as a target.

"The recreational take off the east coast of the South Island is 30. If four fishermen go out for a weekend and get their limit... We need a shift in the way we think. The good news is some people are. We've always pointed the finger at the commercial fishermen, but the in-shore fishery is where New Zealanders fish and we need to be transparent."

Mr Brown laments the bravado in fishing, the quest for the biggest and/or the most.

"Fishing competitions don't help. They always go for the biggest fish. Why not choose the fish that's the perfect eater at 2.3kg and put back the big breeders."

Author of the 2009 book Go Fish, described by American celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain as "destined to be a standard reference text", Mr Brown's intention with that publication was not only to provide readers with seafood recipes; rather Go Fish combines his passion for cooking with his passion for fishing.

"I'm not pooh-poohing fishing," Brown says as he rushes between assignments in the North Island. "I've certainly grown up in that environment where we just thought the fish would always be there. But if you look back 50 years ago and compare it to now and then fast-forward 50 years, it's a pretty bleak situation.

"I think a decision has to be made before you go fishing - say at the boat ramp or on the rocks - as to what you are going to take. You don't have to stop fishing; you just release the fish.

"We need to understand what our requirements are. If there are just two people for dinner, then you only need one fish."

Mr Brown believes the tendency to catch to the limit is driven by an obsession with certain species of fish.

"We live in a country where there are these wonderful eating fish. We've been brainwashed; we love blue cod or snapper or groper. But we have to understand lots of fish taste wonderful.

"That's what Go Fish was about. Even if you are a tarakihi buyer, next time you go to the fish shop ask for a different piece of fish. You'd be totally surprised."

Ted Young, who has spent decades representing recreational fishing interests both at provincial and national level, is "very protective" of New Zealand's fisheries and what anglers are entitled to within those waters.

A key focus has been his endeavours to protect the bag limit.

"I fought for that limit [30 per person per day] for years," he says.

"I think that some people perhaps believe they do have to catch their limit. But I also think most people wouldn't stay out all day and endanger themselves or their gear just to catch their bag."

He believes Otago's fisheries, in general, are in good health.

"I speak for boat fishermen and we are very fortunate in that we have an excellent blue cod fishery and an excellent groper fishery; we are never short of a feed there.

"The red cod fishery has definitely changed. We don't get the numbers of red cod that we used to. Also, there are not the same numbers of kahawai, I think, because of the perseine netting used further north. Those kill-all, catch-everything nets have meant the kahawai fishery has not recovered."

Fish off Otago's coastline have a friend in the weather, Mr Young points out.

"I'm a very experienced fisherman and have access to a good boat and good gear but probably only fish five times a year. But if you go north, you can probably fish 200 days a year. Down here, I'd say you'd be lucky to fish 50 days a year. Fish here are well-protected by the weather."

Technology, however, works against fish.

Depth-sounders, GPS devices, even radar that enables boaties to fix the position of other, perhaps more successful parties, means waters are less murky than they might seem.

"People have fish-finding devices and they always go back to the same places and are inclined to fish that area out. But if you spread your effort, it has less effect on a fishery," Mr Young says.

Chris Hepburn, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago's marine science department, emphasises blue cod is a species that is very "localised".

"They might live on one rock so the potential of fishing out an area is strong. They won't move very much, so if you take out the population from one area, it is unlikely they will recover."

Swapping his scientist's coat for a fisherman's cap, Dr Hepburn says the "big three" fish in Otago waters are trumpeter, blue cod and groper. However, despite the exhortations of Mr Macleod, it's not that easy to haul one up from the shore.

"They used to fish for groper off Cape Saunders and I have heard of someone catching one off the rocks there recently," Dr Hepburn says. "We still get large schools of groper but they are not found close to the shore anymore. When you're fishing from the shore, there are not a lot of big blue cod to be caught.

"The baselines have changed over generations: if you were here 200 years ago, the fish you could catch in the harbour would have been incredible. Our perspective of what a fishery is like changes. What we might now regard as a good day's fishing might have been seen as terrible 50 years ago."

• Andy Macleod's Fishing the Remote Coast: land-based fishing experiences in New Zealand (Bateman, $29.95) is published this month.


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