Fish bite in winter, too
Pick your days and sea conditions and fishing in Tasman Bay can be remarkably pleasant.
With the shortest day now behind us and cabin fever in full bloom, it was long past time to get the kids out into the bay and into some fish.
Brother Scott and I had been watching the weather and sea conditions and Sunday was looking good.
Getting the kids motivated and gear ready was a bit of a mission, but we were on our way at the crack of 10.30am. Heading north of Nelson, we soon had the two boats in the water, and, laden with nine of us, we headed out into the briny. It was magic with the wind in our face and the sun on our backs as we powered across flat seas en route to fishing nirvana.
Soon there were rods everywhere, dangling over the side, and before long we started to catch a few fish. Jake caught the first gurnard, and Rosie's friend, Edie Stevenson, caught the second, but the fishing was a little slow, just like the Maori fishing calendar had predicted.
So we moved north to catch up with Scotty, nephews Lochy and Ryan, and their school chum, Matthew Edgar of Richmond.
We all caught a few fish, including unwelcome spiky dogs and spotties, but the gurnard were being a little elusive so we thought we'd target a few blue cod over foul ground instead.
The kids were having a great time, hoovering up food and drink, laughing and joking, and as the afternoon wore on we caught enough blue cod for a few family meals during the week ahead.
Soon it was time to go, the kids were starting to get tired and scratchy, Izaak was feeling seasick, and there were fish to fillet. Pulling ashore, Scott and I worked on the fish while the kids played in the dunes and on the beach. It had been a great afternoon out and, as Scott had told me, getting the kids interested in the outdoors was "all about doing a little bit, often".
It's a shame that many people hang up their rods and rifles over winter but the truth is that the best time to go fishing and shooting is when you can. Many people wrap themselves up and huddle by the fire over the coldest months but there are always outdoor opportunities whatever the weather or season.
When it comes to saltwater fishing, Tasman Bay is a year-round fishery, and if you pick your days and sea conditions it can be remarkably pleasant, especially once morning frosts have subsided and the sun has come out. We tend to do shorter days over winter, for safety, but also to get the boat out of the water before darkness descends.
Two of the best local fish to target over winter are red gurnard and blue cod. Many of the summer fish of the bay, such as snapper and kingfish, head out into deeper waters, but sometimes it is nice to keep fishing simple and target "carrots" (gurnard) and cod over winter and which, in my humble opinion, are probably better eating anyway.
Red gurnard (Chelidonichthys kumu) is one of my favourite inshore fish to catch. Not only are they great eating, either baked, smoked, or pan fried, but they are fish of great beauty.
With orange and red flanks and bright blue "butterfly" side fins that contain the colours of the rainbow, the gurnard is one of New Zealand's most beautiful and striking saltwater fish. They may not be glamour fish like kingfish or albacore but they are easy to catch and present in good numbers around most of New Zealand's coastline.
With a maximum size of about 55 centimetres to 60cm, they still pull hard on lightweight sporting tackle with a characteristic throbbing tug when hooked.
Preferring sand and mud bottoms, the gurnard is an ambush feeder, crawling around the sea floor using its delicate feelers to search for prey. Favourite food sources are shrimp, small baitfish, marine worms, crabs, and baby flounder.
With a square shovel-shaped mouth, the gurnard is an aggressive fish with a big mouth that can devour surprisingly large prey. Gurnard are not a fussy fish and they can be caught on bait, flies, jigs, flasher rigs, and softbaits. The trick to catching gurnard is to fish in habitats they prefer and keep your lure or bait near the bottom.
Gurnard are suckers for bright coloured flashy artificial lures like jigs or jitterbugs and are the kings of bling. You can anchor up and berley for gurnard, but I much prefer to drift fish to cover more water and to try new locations.
Surprisingly, the best days are often when the sea is a little rough, maybe it stirs up the bottom and gets the gurnard all fired up. On days like this fishing at anchor isn't very pleasant so drift fishing can be the way to go.
Over the years I've had to fish in some pretty windy conditions at times and I now always carry two drogues or sea anchors in my boat that I can deploy in different configurations and angles to suit almost any fishing conditions. The sea anchors slow up the drift, keeping your lures or bait in the bingo zone for longer and at a fish-friendly speed.
A landing net is also handy for getting gurnard aboard the boat when using the light softbait type rods we prefer to use, loaded with 5kg-9kg non-stretch braided line, which assists hook-ups. Light rods are easily broken, especially in the tip section, in a phenomenon known as "point loading".
In the tight confines of a small boat, a long handled landing net will catch you more fish and increase the longevity of your valued graphite fishing rods, too.
Once in the boat, gurnard regularly make a distinctive grunting noise and remember to be careful handling live fish as they have plenty of sharp spines on their heads and gill plates to spike the unwary.
Blue Cod (Parapercis colias) is another beautiful fish, with Angelina Jolie lips and thick aqua-blue flanks. Endemic to New Zealand, they range out to depths of over 100m, and are a slow-growing fish that eat most fish, shellfish and crustaceans. Blue cod are a fish of foul ground, so target the rough stuff on your depth sounder and you won't go too far wrong. Prevalent around most rocky coastlines of the South Island south of Cook Strait, areas like Southland have much more generous daily limits of usually larger fish. Here in Tasman Bay, three cod per person, with a minimum size of 30cm, is plenty for anyone, especially when you add them to a daily bag of other fish species which can total up to a maximum of 20 fish per person per day in the Challenger Fishery area.
I'm not a great fan of huge fish kills (partly because I'm the guy who usually has to fillet them!) and have always preferred to take what we need and can eat fresh, rather than killing everything that swims and filling a freezer. Having always been a catch and release trout fisherman, I've always believed that it's best to consider limiting your catch rather than catching your limit.
Blue cod are an exquisite fish to eat with clean, firm, white fillets. Cod heads are pretty good smoked or baked - in fact most people throw the best part of the fish away.
Fortunately, cod are easily caught, by bait, jig, and softbait. One thing we've found over the years is that the biggest cod are always caught using artificial lures or jigs. This is very handy as it means you don't have to catch plagues of smaller fish to land your three legal cod each.
Using artificial lures also works well on gurnard and ensures that you don't catch the dreaded spiky dogs that infest inshore waters over winter.
The beauty of fishing with artificial lures is that unwanted cod (or gurnard) are easily released unharmed. They don't take the hook so deeply in their mouth, and are normally lip hooked. By using a pair of long-nosed stainless steel pliers it is a simple matter to flip the cod off the hook and back safely into the sea without even having to touch the fish.
Often we target other fish while at sea and take our blue cod as a by-catch these day.
It is surprising how often when fishing over sand for gurnard or snapper that you will drift over a small piece of foul ground and pick up a couple of nice bonus cod that no-one would have ever guessed were there. Fish are where you find them so don't be afraid to experiment and to try new places - it makes fishing more fun and will ultimately make you a better fisherman.
Have fun out there this winter and be prepared to catch fish.