It was 1972. The longlining commercial fisherman out of Bowentown in the Bay of Plenty had already drained two jugs in the bar of the Waihi Beach hotel and was at half-tide on the third. He was past the point of showing restraint when answering my bevy of questions. Like any fishermen, if you got the opportunity to milk a commercial fisherman of his knowledge - and particularly his fishing spots - you hung in like a dog fighting for a bone.
Words & Photos Colin Berteleson
“Yup, my mate on the trawler got his net stuck on a rock way out off Bowentown. Said it was roughly in line between Bowentown Heads and the north end of Mayor. ‘Bout 5 miles out. He had to cut the ropes and leave the net.”
This was gold! The only reef I knew of anywhere near that area was Steeles, and that was further west and only about 3 miles offshore. A small reef in an open area of ocean was like an oasis in the desert – a fish magnet.
If you were fishing back in that era you’d probably be familiar with the first recreational model of a depth sounder - the Marlin flashing light. Armed with this marvel of electronics I trawled the designated area of this newly revealed reef structure for hours, but was never rewarded.
And then in 1979 word filtered through from the local dive enthusiasts that a trawler skipper had contracted a diver to go down and try and free his expensive net from a rock out off Bowentown. Secrecy followed but clearly some loose gossip enabled the whereabouts and nature of ‘the rock’ to reach the ears of a group of Cousteaus hell-bent on plunder. Yes, the rock turned out to be a shipwreck ... which the exploration dives revealed to be rich in bronze fittings, portholes, copper and perhaps other items of value for resale.
As it turned out, the wreck in question was the 461 ton steel steamship SS Taupo. In February 1879 she tried to enter the Tauranga Harbour but her master stuffed up and ran her aground just inside the entrance, on Stoney Point Reef. Filled with water she defied the elements for two years before being patched and refloated, and taken in tow to Auckland for repairs, but alas - between Karewa and Mayor Island her patched hull sprang a leak and she was left to sink. Her exact location was unknown for nearly a hundred years.
Over a short period of time in about 1980 several looters blasted the wreck apart with explosives, salvaged what they could of value and departed the scene. An attempt was later made to prosecute them, even though the blasting took place just before the Historic Places Act (which protected historic shipwrecks) came into force in 1981; however it could not be proven at the time that the wreck was indeed the historic Taupo.
By now some vague landmarks for the wreck reached my ears and, armed with a handheld Sony GPS I’d purchased in Japan (in 1991, for $1500!), I went exploring again. It took the best part of a day but my grid search turned up trumps: I nailed a set of GPS marks in around 34 metres of water, and started fishing. All manner of reef fish succumbed but the predominant catch was tarakihi. Being 14nm from Tauranga the spot wasn’t really enticing as I already had several tarakihi spots less than half that distance from home. Besides, with the deliberate error fed into the GPS system by the USA military during that era, you could be up to 100 metres off the spot and have to do a grid search to rediscover it each time.
Fast forward to 2014 and nearly every Tom, Dick, and Harry who fishes out of Bowentown knows the marks for this wreck. Divers tell me it must be quite a popular fishing spot as it’s one of the best places in the Bay to get anchors and chain! Over any reef boaties should of course use grapnels that bend and break away when snagged - deploying Danforths and Ploughs to hook into the steel carcass of an old ship is like betting good money on a three-legged greyhound.
It was time for a revisit to this north-western corner of the Bay of Plenty so in September, which was not even remotely the best fishing period of the year, we set off from Tauranga just before dawn, bound for Steeles Reef – a passage of about 15nm. In 1974 it didn’t seem like a chore to leap out of bed at some ungodly hour and wait at the Bowentown harbour entrance for sufficient light to negotiate the bar. You dearly hoped, though, that the prominent peaks of the Kaimais weren’t shrouded in cloud, as they were used as landmarks to locate the reef.
I found then that if you merely anchored on the top and used baited ledger rigs, snapper virtually leapt into the boat – but only until the sun broke the horizon. Hunting through old family photos I was embarrassed to find one of 60 Steeles Reef snapper, including the two biggies pictured, laid out on the back lawn. My, how things have changed! I can’t recall having felt greedy at the time though; taking home as many fish as you could catch was simply the norm back then. There were always plenty of mouths to feed.
Unfortunately the sun was almost shining when we arrived, courtesy of the gentleman’s hours fished these days, and if there was a pre-dawn bite time, we only enjoyed the tail end of it. Apart from the one in the photo, the half-a-dozen snapper caught struggled to stay much over the 30cm legal limit. A voice from the 1970’s echoed in my head: “Should’ve been here an hour ago, mate!”
A move was made to the north-west fringe of the reef and my favourite boating accessary, a remote underwater camera, was lowered to the bottom to investigate whether tarakihi were about. They must be the vainest fish in the ocean, as invariably they flounce about in front of the camera like wannabe Hollywood stars. Today though, not a one came into view which was disappointing, as I had caught many in that area in the heyday years. Hopefully for locals it was just a bad-hair-day for tarakihi and they didn’t want to be seen by the paparazzi.
A short spurt to the east and we soon hovered over the scattered debris of the Taupo wreck. To appreciate this historic site I highly recommend visiting Shane Wasik’s website at http://www.shanewasik.com/#/sstaupo-project/4566112867. The information here reveals the results of a survey done with the help of the Mt Maunganui Underwater Club, and shows graphic details of fish numbers and the wreckage.
I’ve fished here about half-a-dozen times in the past, with mixed results. The tarakihi always seem to be there over the winter and spring months though, as indeed the remote camera confirmed this day. Often large numbers of rat kingfish also hog the site, but not this time.
With great satisfaction we proceeded to bin 10 smallish tarakihi on small-hook McFlasher rigs baited with squid before, in typical tarakihi fashion, they contracted lockjaw and went off the bite.
I suspect most fishers out of Bowentown scamper much further up the coast to the Petley and Hikorangi Reefs for their fix of tarakihi fishing, and the open seabed outside the bar for snapper. On my wish list though would be an evening’s strayline session over Steeles Reef with a generous berley trail to tickle the place up. Alas however, unless you’re returning to Tauranga, any fishing into the night entails the dangerous return to Bowentown through an often-treacherous bar.
To divers wishing to visit the wreck – take absolute care; 30-plus metres is a relatively deep dive for amateurs and best undertaken within the confines of a responsible dive club. Besides, visibility in the area is not always that great.
Steeles Reef (37 24.939S 176 00.546 E). 15nm from Mt Maunganui, 3nm from Bowentown. Rises to a depth of around 8 – 10 metres.
Taupo Wreck (37 24.882S 176 03.323E) 14nm from Mount and 5nm from Bowentown.