Looking out towards the tuatara sanctuary of Karewa Island and the mighty Mayor Island beyond, steam to the south rises from the 20 kilometres of pines, flanked by the Kaimai backdrop. You must get there early to get the best of a mission like this – to enjoy the sunrise, experience the feeling of solitude and prepare for bites as the snapper come to life and the horizon fills with colour. But incredibly, all this is less than 10 minutes from the bustling Tauranga entrance. It’s November spring snapper fishing… Matakana style.
I suggest you remove all of the red meat from the bloodline and have a crack at making either a kokoda or ceviche. If you’re not usually into raw fish you may just surprise yourself - it’s unbelievable!
Words & Photos Roly Bagshaw
The weeks of whitebait runs piling up on the coast have left most fish along the island brimming with fat and in peak fighting condition. On a good day you’ll see the kahawai crashing the surface punctuated by the gannet, gull and tern aerial assaults. Together they give a clue as to the underwater mayhem. This action can kick off in any depth but usually happens inside of 15m - with fish commonly inside of 6m as the surfcasters will testify (well, the honest ones, anyway!).
Years ago, whenever we were leaving the Tauranga entrance it was always a hot debate: “Should we turn left or should we turn right?” These days if it’s November the trusty vessel Kandu will almost instinctively self-steer the big left hand sweeper over the Matakana bar and settle in for a short trip westward.
Using the sounder on the way down there, at first glance the topography and benthic make up of the Matakana inshore area looks pretty benign, with the only notable features being a gently undulating sandy bottom, seemingly devoid of the rocks and weed that you would think necessary to encourage life. Experience has shown us differently, with the sands producing a wealth of food as we see every spring. The seasonal whitebait run and paddle crab population alone offer up a biomass of prime snapper food on a scale that is hard to comprehend. Combine this with the other small crustaceans and worms that seemingly live in the softer substrates, plus the baitfish such as herring and mackerel that move through and it’s all of a sudden not a bad place to fish for snapper.
The Matakana grounds are expansive and though some general areas do appear to hold fish better in spring, to my knowledge there is no Super Secret Spot X. The beauty about the area is that no matter what level of experience you have, by following a few basic rules you should be able to bring in a few fish from most trips. It’s worth the effort, too, as these fish are in the best condition. It seems all species have been gorging in the still cool waters, turning the extra calories into fat. You can see it on the fillets, on your knife and best of all you can taste it. This is one of the few times of year I’ll take a kahawai or two and really take time to bleed the fish well and thoroughly ice it down. I suggest you remove all of the red meat from the bloodline and have a crack at making either a kokoda or ceviche. If you’re not usually into raw fish you may just surprise yourself - it’s unbelievable!
What has changed though is how we catch the fish, and with more innovation coming yet again from Japan it looks like these new techniques are far from exhausted.
The biggest difference we have experienced over the last five years is the way in which we target fish off Matakana Island. It used to be “anchor up and berley”, and that was that. But things have changed...
The ‘meat and three veg’ method of harvesting is pretty much the same as what it was twenty years ago - albeit the gear is certainly a lot nicer, and affordable too.
For Matakana we usually found the best bait fishing was when we had the benefit of more tidal movement. Usually we’ll see more current around the period of the full or the new moon or when we get winds that push the currents through the Bay of Plenty. Either way we’ll find fish sign over the sand, anchor up and berley hard.
Much of the ground west of Karewa Island inside of 22m can hold a good variety of fish with kingies, gurnard, trevally and snapper pretty common from November on.
Don’t limit yourself to ledger rigs either - as you’ll find, especially when there’s current, the bigger fish will be caught out behind the boat. Beyond 30m, north of Karewa Island and tending eastward you can happen across plenty of small pockets of foul that can further diversify your catch with tarakihi, john dory and blue cod all likely suspects.
Has been the single biggest influence on how New Zealand fishermen target inshore fish, and it’s fair to say it looks like the technique is here to stay. Matakana (and Papamoa) have become synonymous with great soft baiting. The fact that the ground is free from snags, is easily accessible and holds good volumes of predatory fish make it perfect.
We use two techniques, the cast forward and the dragging technique. Fish along Matakana are highly receptive to soft baits and there have been plenty of days when there has been no colour preference. But like any fishing you always develop your favourites. My pick bait for casting forward is the 5” Jerk Shad in Camo, New Penny and Lime Tiger. Another favourite bait for both the gurnard and trevally is the 4” Smoke Grub. Gurnard can be pretty common on the softies; the key to getting them is to leave longer pauses in between twitches.
If you want to match the smelt/whitebait hatch, try using a 3” smelt but on a #1/0 jig head. Kahawai just can’t resist this bait, and snapper will grab it too - unless they get beaten to it, which is usually the case!!
In depths beyond 15m you will get your snapper bites usually within 3m of the bottom, so make sure if there is current or a faster boat drift that you have sufficient weight to stay in this zone. Depending on your depth you’ll use anything from a ¼ oz in 6m to a ⅝ oz in 25m. When the bite is hard try using a bait that has a bit of glow or chartreuse colour in it; there have been plenty of days where this has changed our fortunes. Finally, stay in touch with your bait - the slightest knock can mean a missed opportunity. More importantly don’t retrieve your bait, as the fish will still be there. Rather, drop it back - and don’t lift your rod too high when working it and preparing for that big snapper to have another crack!
When fishing in less than 8m it is common for snapper to be just under the surface, so stay in touch with your bait on the descent, as this is where most people will miss strike opportunities. A poignant word of warning regarding safety is appropriate about here. Every year a boat or two (usually belonging to surfies) end up on the beach. Swells can do strange things along the Matakana coast due to the many bars and gutters that frequent its length. It’s certainly not the place to be fishing in a larger swell. If you do, stay deeper and make sure you navigate the Matakana bar carefully, as this will break up to 2 miles offshore in a big swell.
Saving a successful drift line is a great idea, but understand the fish do move around in this area so use it simply as a starting point for next time and don’t hesitate to shift if it’s not firing. But before you do shift the boat, check the tide time ... the bite will often slow right up on the tide. Give it 20 minutes, grab a bite to eat and slap some sunscreen on!
Jigging is the future!!! While it’s been well-embraced in the Hauraki Gulf the varying disciplines of jigging for snapper as yet haven’t gained traction in the BOP. Inchiku, madai, slow pitch and micro jigging are awesome techniques that will be perfectly suited to the Matakana fishery, although I expect we will see a few challenges laid down as to which are the best techniques in the future. Certainly we’ll be giving the micro jigging a good crack this season.
More to come on this, I’m sure, in the near future!