Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Stealthy Reds

Kayak Snapper

Neophyte ’yakker ROSS WARAKER discovers just how effective kayak fishing can be when he tangles with a hefty NZ reddie.

ON a recent business trip to New Zealand, I had the opportunity to have a couple of days off in and around the scenic coastal town of Coromandel, on the North Island. I had no plans of going for a fish on this trip, so had taken no fishing gear whatsoever.

Coromandel is famous for large mussel farms. The associated structure also makes for some excellent snapper country. Even if I couldn’t go fishing, I sure could talk about it, and various conversations invariably led to local guide Rob Fort, who was consistently talked up as the man in the region. The big difference over other charters was that Rob fishes exclusively from kayaks.

My experience with kayaks was limited to last year’s barra tournament on Peter Faust Dam where, amongst all the custom tournament boats, was a lone kayaker. I have to admit we all thought this bloke was more than a touch mad as we wished him luck, like some eccentric adventurer who was going to have a bit of a fish. Well, that perception got readjusted pretty quickly as old mate ended up on the first night’s leader board with a 116cm barra.

My interest was piqued. I self-assessed my comprehensive fitness regime of occasionally walking to the corner shop as appropriate for this physical challenge, so I booked in for a 7am charter with Rob the next day.

As I arrived at the beach, the hire car dash indicated a nine degree morning. The low, heavy fog backed this up.  

My first impression, after the cold air slapped my face, was how well Rob’s kayak was set-up, with a Humminbird colour sounder, VHF radio and EPIRB.  

First up, Rob checked my fishing background. This consists mainly of wild barramundi fishing in freshwater and tidal systems from both boat and shore and some tournament fishing in impoundments. All exclusively with soft baits and hard-bodied lures.


Given this previous experience fishing with soft baits, Rob provided an upgraded graphite rod for me to use. He uses spin gear with 10lb braid with 20lb mono leader, tied off to a 3/8 ounce jig head. Rob uses Slam soft baits exclusively on his charters. In addition to being sponsored by them, he is also heavily involved in developing and testing these NZ designed and made softies. As I looked over the rig, I noticed that there was some damage to a section of the mainline braid and we made a note to fix this when we arrived at the reef.

After a thorough briefing, we had a leisurely 3km paddle to the first spot. Lucky I’d done all that training by walking to the shop …  The water was like glass, and 19 degrees on the surface. While we paddled we had ample opportunity to swap some stories, but Rob kept building the tension with confident reassurance about today’s conditions and of recent catches. We had a couple of hours lead up to the high tide. The snapper prefer a bit of tidal movement, so Rob indicated that our timing was really good and it was likely that it would go a bit quiet around the turn of the tide.  

As we paddled through the mussel farms, I asked Rob why we weren’t stopping for a cast, as the structure of ropes and buoys looked ideal. But he was over big snapper dragging him through this structure, hosing him on the mussel shells.

I love confident talk of impending catches, but with more than the odd past disappointment under my belt, I was trying not to get too excited. In reality, with every paddle stroke the excitement was building. Rob was adamant that kayaks will out-fish boats every time. He explained his simple philosophy as to why. It was all based around the “stealth” factor of ’yaks, a combination of the smaller “footprint” in the water and the silent approach. It sounded credible, but I honestly didn’t think it would make a significant difference.

As we approached a spot, we used the sounder to find structure and signs of bait or fish. Then Rob would assess the wind and tide conditions to set us up for a drift over the targeted reef. We’d then deploy an over-sized drift chute (sea anchor) to assist this. The chute was on a pulley system so we could position it at the front or rear of the kayak, depending on the direction of the drift we were trying to set up.

Immediately after casting, Rob encourages you to get the rod tip flat (parallel to the water) as you let the soft bait drop to the desired depth. We were fishing in about 10m of water and the drop rate was about 1m per second. So we’d allow 10 seconds of drop before engaging the bail arm, remaining ready for any sign of an eager fish who might take the soft bait on the way down.

Rob’s recommended retrieve was to lift the rod straight up, progressively, to three positions, pausing at 30, 60 and 90 degrees, then winding back down to horizontal and taking up the slack. In the event a bite was detected, Rob suggested three distinct strikes, to ensure the hook sets in the snapper’s hard mouth.   

This might sound quite straight forward, however this new context of sitting with your bum inches off the water in a full dry suit and buoyancy vest, I found it felt quite restrictive and unnatural. I was also feeling like a dead-set gumby, getting used to casting a spin rig again. All the while aware that even the slightest shift of weight in the wrong direction would guarantee a capsize.

My first cast made the front of the kayak. A top look in front of a guide you’ve just spent half an hour convincing that you can fish like a champion.  Second cast, add about two metres. More top notch-skills! Ah well, an improvement on the last cast, I guess. It was still like muffing a shot on the tee in front of Tiger Woods.

My third cast looked like something like a first grader might be proud of. Maybe 20m, but, hey, at least it’s out there. Getting ready to engage the bail arm and commence retrieve, I felt a tap telegraph through the rod and gave a strike as Rob had instructed. I couldn’t feel any weight and continued to retrieve momentarily, thinking I had missed the fish.

That was when the rod loaded up and my kayak fishing baptism of fire began. It was surreal; the rod doubled over, line peeling off as the reel screamed in protest. This cast didn’t deserve a fish!

Rob let out a yell of excitement and started barking a mix of reminders and orders like a footy coach and then, with a big grin, told me to “just enjoy the fish”.  

I had no concept of what was going on. Why was my kayak being towed? Had I hooked some pelagic monster, a shark perhaps? This thing was fighting like a bull at a rodeo, intent on bucking its rider. Rob set me straight: “You’ve hooked a trophy snapper mate, hang on and enjoy it!”

Then the horror realisation hit. We hadn’t fixed the damaged braid! If this was indeed a trophy fish, the line might not hold up. The cardinal sin – attention to detail! I wasn’t game to mention this to Rob right now.

As the battle continued, I saw the first flash of colour and I guess the fish saw a flash of me, because it took off back under my kayak toward the reef from whence it came, at speed. “Whatever you do, keep the line from touching the hull, mate,” Rob coached from beside me.

So, I’ve got a fish playing up like an old Victa on steroids, with compromised line, all the while doing a balancing act to avoid being unceremoniously dumped in the ocean. I could hear my mates’ laughter echoing through my head at yet another amazing angling catastrophe.

There were signs that the battle was turning but this brute wasn’t done yet. It made yet another big run under the bow of the kayak, rod fully loaded.  

The fish finally tired and came up to the surface. Rob let out another yell. “You can relax now – we’ve got it,” he crowed.

Rob grabbed the fish with his Bogas and landed the fish, a magnificent 14.8 pound (6.7kg) Coromandel snapper.

After a couple of quick shots, I held the fish by the tail, and with a swift kick, it headed back to the reef to fight another day.

For the first time, it was safe to mention the damaged line. It was like the confessional on a Sunday as we both admitted we were worried while the fish was on, with neither of us game to speak a word of it, like some fisherman’s taboo.  We’d gotten out of jail free for once.

We flicked for another 20 minutes or so, with no sign of any more fish. So we headed off to the next reef, a couple of kilometres further along the coast.

There were some fish showing on the sounder, but they proved difficult to entice. The power boaties were starting to zoom around, and Rob stated the fishing was going to slow a bit.

He monitored the chatter on the VHF radio – the charter boats were getting nothing but sharks.  

We moved further along the coast, wary now of the increasing number of boats fishing around us. Rob is well known for his success, and many people have no hesitation moving in uninvited to share the action. The trouble with this is, we lose our stealth advantage. He has a simple solution – “don’t let ’em see the bend in your rod.” Right Rob, like there isn’t enough going on here!

We got on to another hot bite of smaller snapper. Every time we hooked these smaller fish the call went out to conceal the bend in the rod. Somehow we managed to pull this off, laughing like kids. Between us we boated five smaller snapper without attracting any interest from the other boats dotted around us. As things quietened off, it was time to head back.

We broke up the paddle back to stop for a postcard look at penguins practising their fishing, the mussel farms and a couple more casts.

In all we paddled and drifted 19km.

While I hadn’t fished all that well, any doubts in my mind about the effectiveness about soft-baiting from a kayak were well and truly quelled. No other charters had landed any snapper! So next time I’m out in a flash boat, I’ll be keeping an eye on the dark horses  – aka the kayak stealth brigade – with a newfound and healthy respect.

Editor’s note: For more info on ’yak fishing in NZ, check out www.kayakadventures.co.nz.


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