Blokes & Their Boats - August 2012

Stephen Crockatt and Highlander III

Last updated 11:40 07/08/2012
Stephen Crockatt and Highlander III, a 7.5-metre Hartley ply launch based in the Bay of Islands.
Stephen with his black marlin, caught solo after hooking up just metres off The Dog, Piercy Island.

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A 6oz perch taken in Perth Harbour, Scotland, at the age of 11, is Stephen Crockatt's first fishy memory.

Martin Smith, his fishing buddy at the time, has gone on to become an official fly maker for the Scottish international fly-fishing team.

A more memorable moment would probably be his first salmon at age twelve. Steve was fishing a known salmon pool, casting his Toby [salmon spoon] across the pool and working it back.

"My line went tight and I felt the unmistakable bite of a salmon in a river, where your line goes tight and then the shake-shake.

"Oh my god, it's pulling line," I hollered. My knees started to shake! I played the fish out, and it being my first game fish, I lost the salmon at the rocks. I fell to my knees almost in tears."

However, all was not lost. A bit of perseverance, a bit of luck, and a few minutes later Steve had his first - a 12lb sea-run salmon on the riverbank.

Home was the village of Guildtown on the River Tay, where Steve later trained as a professional salmon guide - a 'ghillie' as they are called. (Check out the role of the ghillie in the film 'Salmon Fishing in Yemen' - the ridiculous yet absolutely charming account of a loony Arab who wanted to release salmon in a desert river in North Africa.)

However, while salmon fishing fed his passion for the outdoors and sea, it was David Attenborough's nature documentaries that ultimately lured him to our gentle shores.

Steve's first boat in NZ, named Highlander, was a 3.66m (12ft) glass-over-ply dinghy with a 6hp Johnson engine. She enabled him to explore the inner Bay of Islands, making it to the Brampton Reef and Black Rocks on a flat day.

Highlander II was a 14-16ft Condor Craft. On flat days Steve could get to Cape Brett and Ninepin Rock. He won the Small Boats 2010 competition snapper section with Highlander III.

With a toilet and room to sleep three, Highlander III is a 7.5-metre Hartley ply launch powered by an economical Nissan LD20 truck engine. Originally out of Picton, it was brought across to the North Island by ferry. Mates John Wilson and Steve drove down to Wellington and towed it back to Paihia. The boat was called Seajoy in the South Island, but Steve renamed it Highlander III.

According to Steve, the boat was tired looking when they picked it up, so he spent a lot of time and money stripping it back and repainting it. Irish mate John Wilson has also done a lot of electrical work, including the addition of interior lights, a stereo, a Garmin 551 chart-plotter, power points and new navigation lights. John also added another bilge pump in the bow, as they noticed the boat sat down in the nose on its mooring.

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Steve fitted a large live-bait tank and pump too, along with two sturdy rod holders on the stern. Next, he cut out the bench seat on the starboard side to make room for his mega Eskie, which is now the other seat and refrigeration unit.

Another mate, Phil Jakeman, fitted a new set of shelves in the cabin, which was used for dried food storage and a shelf for maps and flares etc. Finally, to remind him of home, Steve recovered all the swabs with a blue tartan material.

Other memorable moments, aside from the first salmon mentioned earlier, was when Jim Riley - working at the Paihia Club at the time - introduced Steve to his first 20lb snapper.

And, in his own words: "There was the time when I was camping by the Cowichan River in British Columbia, Canada. I wanted to fish a bridge pool about 4km from my camp at dusk for trout. I got two nice rainbow trout on the dry fly just on dark. When I started walking back up the track with the two trout on my back, my torch died on me, and I ended up off the track and up to my waist in bushes in the pitch dark.

"My knees trembled a little at this point when I saw myself as a bear statistic in the local paper. It was a very scary situation to be lost in the Canadian wilderness - especially for a guy who never grew up with such animals as bears.

"After an initial panic though, I thought, 'Oh $%&@ the bears!' My nerves steadied and I fumbled my way through the bushes. I knew the river was to my left somewhere, and after 15 minutes I found it. I then decided the safest way was to walk back up the river.

"After wading up a lot of it, I eventually got back to camp and lit the biggest fire I could, before pissing all the way round my camp perimeter, believing that if anything had followed me, that would be enough to keep it away."

All that, however, pales by comparison with the experience that follows.

Stephen loaded the boat on a Sunday afternoon with a game-fish session in mind first thing next morning.

Parking up for the night in Paradise Bay, behind Red Head, Steve's plan was to wake up early, have a go for a kingie at Bird Rock, then steam out to the 120m line and troll a live bait for a striped marlin. He slept in.

Still, after breakfast, he put some little lures out to catch some live baits. Finally a lone kahawai nailed a lure.

He set the fish out the back and started a slow troll, staying along the 70-metre line and heading towards Cape Brett. As he approached the Dog, his lone kahawai erupted out of the water. Steve could see there was a very large brown shape behind his boat. Then his big rod yanked over and the old Penn reel started screaming off. He put the drag up to sunset, but it made no difference to the fish and the reel didn't slow down. Eventually the fish broke the surface, and it was then that he saw the beak and knew it was what he had been dreaming of for years.

Steve clicked on his gimbal belt, slipped on his life jacket, then grabbed his VHF and slung it around his neck.

At first he had the boat in reverse and was trying to steer by manually turning the rudder, but just couldn't turn the stern around.

Deciding on a new plan of attack, Steve cut the engine and walked around the boat to the front. He opened the hatch and climbed down into the forecabin, still hanging onto the rod with his spool now down to about half. The fish then broke the surface again and shook its head violently before going back under. This would be the last he would see of the marlin for the next few hours. A brief but fruitless attempt was made to secure assistance with a call for help on his VHF.

For the next three hours it was a slow, hard game, getting only half winds at a time and never seeing another boat. Around the 3.5-hour mark, Stephen was finally managing to get full winds. At this point, the fish did a swim by, almost as if he was curious to see what he was dragging behind him.

Steve climbed back out of the forecabin and was standing up on the bow as it took off again. It ran about 100 yards then tried to sound. He kept the pressure on, and fortunately it started to come up once more.

He tried the VHF again in an effort to summon assistance but, once again, it was in vain, as there was no reply.

"At this time I was starting to feel a bit of fear, as I was drifting further out to the horizon. I wasn't sure what I was going to do next, as all I had was a 'kingie club', a boat hook and the worrying fact that there didn't seem to be anyone else around me.

"The fish came close again, to the point where I could see his full grandeur as he passed me by. He came back towards me and then decided to go under the boat. This caused me to panic, as I could feel the line rubbing under the boat. So I pushed the rod under the water and came round the boat to clear him. The fish obviously decided this was a good tactic, as he did it twice more, and both times I was forced to do the same routine: push the rod under the water and walk round the boat again to clear him. This was not an easy feat to do on my own - going around hanging onto both the big rod and the roof rail.

"Then the fish did the same thing once more, and in sheer frustration I started shouting, swearing and banging my feet on the floor in an effort to scare it out from under me. It would have looked quite amusing to a bystander: a man ranting and raving in Scottish at the ocean.

"I had to act now, as I was sure to eventually lose at the 'under the boat' game he was playing with me. So I cranked hard and saw the swivel come out the water next to the boat. I reached for the trace, then stuck the rod in the holder and started pulling him alongside. I could see the beak, and then a big eye looked up at me. I grabbed for my kingie club and started swinging at water, fish and boat. The club seemed to just bounce back off him, so I grabbed my boat hook and speared him through the head about seven times.

Next, I tied the trace off to one of my posts at the back of the boat, ran a rope through his jaw, and hitched it to the back. I then collapsed in the boat with a great sense of fulfillment."

Almost another story in itself, man alone, there was no way Steve was ever going to get the fish on board. Eventually he was forced to jump over the side to secure a hitch to the tail. Always worried by the prospect of a shark attack, the trip back to sheltered waters at 1.5 knots wasn't complete until well after dark. And even then, it wasn't until the next morning that he was able to secure the help required to get the marlin on board.

Finally, the weigh-station recorded the fish as a black marlin.

Once again, in Steve's words: "The official weight was registered at 173.4kg, and my friend Paul Scrivener took the photo on my mobile. There I was, the ghillie, a long way away from the salmon rivers I grew up on, standing at the Bay of Islands at the Swordfish Club weigh-station with the biggest fish I'd ever hooked. I had heard and read so many stories of what was out there in the beautiful Pacific Ocean, and now I had experienced my very own Ernest Hemingway 'Old man and the Sea' experience".

- Fishing News

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