With Jackson Shields
Jackson started spearfishing at the age of five and speared his first Kingfish the same year. He began competitive spearfishing at 7 years old winning many age grade titles at the NZ Spearfishing Nationals before progressing through to open grade where he has finished in the top three many times. He represented New Zealand in international competitions for the past seven years. But he says: “What I most enjoy is going out spearfishing in my home waters in the Hauraki Gulf spearing fish for dinner.”
Autumn is prime time on the spearfishing calendar. The water reaches optimum temperatures and fish become more abundant in the shallows. In fact March and April are my favourite months of the year providing great diving and a variety of species.
So on a crisp April day I found myself heading out to Little Barrier Island which has unique underwater structures and diverse fish life. Little Barrier offers the full range of spearfishing hunting grounds: pinnacles for targeting pelagic species like kingfish; shallow rocky outcrops for snapper and butterfish; and then there are clean defined weed-edges. A weed-edge is the meeting point between the kelp and the sand, effectively a reef edge. These vary from three metres to over 30 metres around Little Barrier with all depths being productive depending on current and time of year.
Once at our destination we were met with average conditions with visibility of five to eight metres. I opted to swim along the coast and get the boat to pick me up. I set up my float boat with a short float line and drop weight attached since I was using a reel gun. A float boat is a useful tool, especially during the warmer months and bigger swims, as it is now common to have Bronze Whalers steal your fish. The float boat also allows me to be easily seen in high boat traffic.
I know of a gutter here in the shallows where good snapper often reside. But I was breaking every rule of snapper snooping; swimming into the sun, and with the current, making it difficult to see and placing myself in plain view of on-coming fish. And coming into the gutter I overestimated my ability and found myself peering into the shadows as it was too difficult to distinguish any fish on the bottom. It turned out there was a nice snapper right in front of my face but it made an easy retreat.
After two more failed attempts on smaller fish I changed tactics. I worked my way into a bay which gave a better angle with the sun. I have never dived in this bay before as it appears to catch no current and has a one-dimensional bottom. As I moved into it drummer engulfed me, a good sign, as they will reside in amongst boulders. Behind the drummers in the distance I spotted a decent size fish lift off the sand. It had the distinctive movement of a Boarfish. Closing the gap I anticipated her direction and as she took off I let fire with my 110cm Carbon speargun. A good mid-body shot did the job; their tough skin makes it difficult to tear off.
An hour of swimming had paid off. And it had brought the attention of a school of snapper. I sifted through them as they ducked for cover behind a rock on the sand. Fortunately the sun was now at my back and made for an easy approach.
While bleeding and gutting a fish to improve eating quality, another snapper began feeding on the guts.
A quiet duck dive followed by a snapshot doubled my snapper tally in the float boat.
Just as I reloaded my gun another snapper darted below, bigger than the first two, and excited by all the commotion and not that worried by my presence. With snapper it’s important to make a slow approach with minimal kicking.
In the open, as this was, they can often be very difficult to approach before they spook. But anticipating their movements can sometimes provide a small window for a shot. Luckily I was shooting well (for a change) and managed a long shot down through the back. Soon afterwards the boat picked me up and I was happy with my few snapper and the Boarfish.
The next destination was a weed edge on a protruding peninsula that catches plenty of current, and an area where we target Boarfish, John Dory and Tarakihi. As well it’s not uncommon to have big kingfish make an appearance.
In the water it was important to work up current and find the bait schools that often correlate with structures on the bottom. Where you find the small fish there will be big fish; it’s a simple recipe.
There is also the common misconception that the deeper you go and the longer you hold your breath the more fish you will get. This is not the case; opportunities can be found right in the shallows.
It wasn’t long til a big school of Sweep and Demoiselles rose in the water column. Since it was not clear enough to see the bottom I made a dive to inspect, and once there, scanned the weed clumps.
As I lifted off I saw the familiar sight of a fluttering John Dory racing for cover. Though losing sight of it I followed along its track until a structure came in sight.
Another dive to the bottom in about 20 metres and sure enough old mate John Dory was doing his best impression of a piece of kelp.
When spotted they often make an easy target. A simple shot had her join me on a trip to the surface.
On the very next dive I managed another John Dory, which left the final piece of the puzzle, to go after a Tarakihi, one of my favourite eating fish. I knew of a rock further along the weed-edge where they typically hang out. The kelp in this area is a little different with good shelter for the marine life, and navigating the bottom is important to locate the same spot again. Soon enough though I hit the spot, and a curious Tarakihi glided in amongst the dopey Porae, an easy fish to spear once you have found it.
It’s always great to go home with a variety of species for a broad range of meal options and flavours.