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Hāpuku Hunt - The one that didn't get away!

Hāpuku Hunt - The one that didn't get away!

The weather finally came right for Josh Darby and he headed north for some big-fish action.

This was the predicament I found myself in recently. After a week of very average weather, I began to wonder if I would actually get the chance to wet a line. Fortunately, storms don’t last forever, so with a large high moving over the top of the North Island promising good weather for the better part of a week, I decided to seize the moment and head for the fishing mecca known as the Karikari Peninsula. It’s a spectacular place to visit, with inshore areas either side of the peninsula producing sublime snapper, kingfish, and XOS trevally fishing, while great game and bottom fishing can be available slightly further afield. I was hopeful my fishing fortunes were heading for a positive change.
With my cousin and long-time fishing buddy Eli back in the country, I sent out a quick text message: “Five days fishing the Karikari Peninsula. You in?” I didn’t have to wait long for a resounding “YES!”

Jumping on Air B&B I searched desperately for accommodation and my heart began to sink – it was early January and everything was booked. However, as luck would have it, a place became available for four nights due to a late cancellation so the very next day we were packed and on our way.

Arriving in Doubtless Bay we were greeted by our wonderful hosts Mark, aka ‘The Minstrel,’ and Chrissy.  The Ministrel turned out to be a keen drone fisherman and Chrissy a home cooking queen. Things were looking up!

I’ve found over the years that an old adage ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ is often true in relation to fishing success. I now plan and prepare extensively for my trips. This planning spans from gear preparation to identifying ideal weather conditions, bite times, scanning local intel, and anything else that will give me an edge on the hunt for a feed. While there is certainly an aspect of luck involved in fishing success, those who prepare well tend to be the ‘luckiest’ people I know!

This preparation would pay off on our very first morning, where a combination of local intel, an excellent bite time, change of light and of course the Far North fishery combined, with the result being a sublime soft-bait snapper session.

What followed that day, and for the next four days was some incredibly hot fishing, with plenty of snapper up to 8kg caught just 10 minutes from our launching spot. On one morning we hooked fish upwards of 2kg every single cast for approximately 30 minutes!

With a feed secured, we would then head out further in search of a kingfish, or an encounter with some larger specimens in an area I had successfully fished on my only other visit to the Karikari Peninsula. We knew we must be in the right place when Rob Parker, a Houhora charter operator known for putting his clients on to XOS snapper, drifted past close to us.

Rob had already boated two snapper in excess of the magic 20lb mark when, shortly after exchanging pleasantries, Eli’s reel began to scream. With the unmistakeable blistering runs and heavy head nods of a large snapper, we soon found ourselves searching the crystal-clear water in anticipation of a large red and white shape appearing from the depths. We were not disappointed, and after a quick photo, Eli released this excellent specimen to swim freely once more.






After three days of incredible snapper fishing and some enjoyable encounters with modest kingfish, we decided it was time for a change.

“Shall we try a ‘puka fish?” I asked Eli that evening while filleting the day’s catch. The previous year, I had had my first real introduction to bottom fishing, targeting species such as hapuku, bass, and bluenose while fishing up at the Three Kings Islands.

Before that, I had been largely ambivalent when it came to bottom fishing, put off by the heavy gear, bottom snags, and mundane winding associated with targeting these fish. However, the Kings offered a very different experience. With relatively little fishing pressure due to a combination of the islands’ isolated location and the treacherous weather conditions that may be encountered in reaching them, bottom fish such as hapuku and bass can be found in good numbers in relatively shallow water. On a day out on the Middlesex Bank we caught numerous bass and hapuku up to 37kg in only 90-110 metres of water.

With the incredible memories of battling these goliaths echoing in my mind, I had all the motivation I needed to change things up and give something relatively new a go.

Preparation would be key and first we would need to ensure we had the right gear. We headed up to the local fishing retailer ‘Reel Rods’ to purchase a couple of hapuku rigs. These rigs consisted of trace line with two large circle hooks attached in a ledger fashion, as well as lumo-tubing, a small glow-stick and a break-away trace to which a sinker could be fastened.

Next, we would need to identify an area where we might find these fish. This was achieved via a combination of Navionics and some local intel highlighting an area of scattered foul in approximately 100 metres of water. We weren’t likely to catch giants there, but with the limitations of our 4.3-metre boat and limited capacity jigging reels, the opportunity to knock over a few hapuku pups would have to suffice.

The next morning, we launched from Rangiputa and headed to an area where kahawai schools had been feeding on the surface the day before. Catching a couple to use as fresh bait, we could now point the bow to our marked destination.

Feelings of excitement and anticipation grew soon after we arrived at these new fishing grounds. Marking both bottom foul and bait schools, our drift line was established before driving back up in front of the prospective marks we wanted to drop our new rigs on.

That was when we realised we were missing a key component: we had left the ‘puka sinkers in the car! Having no other sinkers on board, we were forced to improvise, attaching 300-gram jigs in place of our sinkers. We soon had two rigs and four fresh strips of kahawai plummeting into the depths.

It wasn’t long before my rod loaded up. Unfortunately, this load up was not followed by the ‘freight train’ type runs I had become accustomed to while fishing up at the Three Kings. The only thing I had loaded up on was the bottom, and after 15 minutes of trying every technique we could think of to break off my rig (while not also losing a large proportion of my braid), we both began to lament our decision to give up exceptional snapper fishing for this hapuka hunt!

In a last-ditch attempt to free ourselves from our unwanted anchor, I began to wrap the braid around an aluminium bar located near the boat’s stern in attempt to exert enough pressure to break the line close to the bottom. However, the drift began to pull on the line, tightening a half-hitch. I realised the braid was about to snap at this knot, and not at the bottom, and I yelled at Eli to throw the boat in reverse. He responded just in time, creating enough slack to allow me to unpick the knot.

Now truly frustrated, I began to wind in the slack line produced from our rapid reverse. As the line came tight once more, and the familiar load of a snag flexed the rod, I noticed the tip of the rod suddenly nod. “That was strange…” I thought to myself.

It was then that line started disappearing from my reel at a rapid rate of knots.

Still believing I was hooked to the bottom, and wondering why he had put the boat into gear, I turned to Eli.

“Mate, stick it in reverse, I’m going to lose all my line,” to which he replied, “I’m already in reverse!”

Line began to pull off my reel at an even greater rate – no easy feat given I had set the drag as tight as it would go in our earlier attempt to break the line. It finally dawned on us both that we weren’t on the bottom anymore, we were on a fish!



There was little I could do as line whipped off the reel under 25kg-plus of drag pressure. However, as soon as a momentary pause occurred, I reeled and pumped the rod as though my life depended upon it.

I regained a few metres of line before yet another astonishingly powerful run left me wondering what size fish could be dealing out this type of abuse! After a few minutes of this back and forth tussle, I finally started to gain the upper hand. Whatever it was, it was now off the bottom, and isolated from the danger of a bottom break-away.

With the rod tip loaded under a significant weight, neither myself nor Eli dared to believe what we both hoped was true. Had we just hooked a monster hapuku in 100 metres of water after being snagged on the bottom for the best part of 20 minutes?

I steadily regained line while a combination of unrelenting northern sunshine and the ongoing battle caused my eyes to sting as salty sweat dripped from my brow.

“Maybe it’s a big shark?” I suggested, not wanting to give credit to the growing belief we might have just hit the ‘puka jackpot. However, as the line started to angle out, a tell-tale sign of a fish that has inflated, the hapuku belief grew.

After a few more winds, a large shape began to appear with bubbles breaking the surface above it, about 30m off our port side. Eli’s response to this sight was disbelieving laughter, and as this monster breached the surface like a submarine, I could only muster but one phrase: “NO WAY, NOOOOOO WAY!”

We both stood there in disbelief while a hapuku much larger than any we had hooked at the Three Kings floated on the surface a short distance from the boat. Preparation and luck, it is a sweet combination!


This article is reproduced with the permission of
New Zealand Fishing News

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1. Don’t be afraid to experiment – try targeting new fishing areas and different species of fish. You might get a real kick out of these new experiences.

2. ‘Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.’ Give yourself the best opportunity of catching by identifying, in advance, potential areas to fish. Look for underwater structure on charts, check predicted wind strength and direction and look to coincide your arrival at your destination with bite times and or the change of light.

3. If you are planning on fishing a new area, be sure to drop in to the local fishing store and ask for advice and the right gear. Gathering intel will help you find the fish, while having the right gear will assist in catching them.

4. If you are fishing over several days ensure you can look after your catch. Invest in a vacuum-packer, ensure you have plenty of salt ice, and see if you can get access to a freezer.

5. When fishing a new area, familiarise yourself with possible dangers. It’s easy to get caught out with shifting sandbars, uncharted structure, high tide marks and even parking spots.


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