Articles & Reviews
The islands, bays and coves of the eastern Bay of Islands are known by the old Maori name of Ipipiri.
They are divided from the western Bay of Islands by the deeper water that runs through the middle and covers the 'centre foul'. Each area is quite distinct from the other.
The western and nor'western side carries all of the greener 'harbour' water along it, while the Ipipiri side is often washed with blue water and has sparkling clear seas.
Scattered throughout the eastern islands are numerous sandy anchorages and calm beaches. The majority face southwest, so are protected from easterly swells and winds. Because of this they are delightful places to visit during summer and autumn. The protected nature of the shore means the rocks are gentle and easy to walk around, and the fringing kelp forest tends to be small and insignificant. Out from the kelp there is often clean white sand and a few clean rocks. Visibility is good and the fish are easy to see.
As fishing destinations, you can be immediately forgiven for not giving them even a second glance. These are quiet backwaters of the prettiest kind and not spots that immediately leap out at you as looking like good fishing spots. It took a number of 'picnic' visits with family and friends before I woke up to the fishing potential that lay in these quiet coves.
What I found were snapper. Not huge examples, but snapper nonetheless, and enough of keeper size to make anyone sit up and take notice. These were discovered by snorkelling close to shore in ridiculously shallow water. This is what really stimulated my interest. If these fish had been vague shapes seen at the edge of my vision in the deeper water, then I would have thought nothing more of it, but no, these snapper were hard against the shore, often in a metre of water on the edge of the thin kelp garden.
Naturally the snapper would spook frantically when confronted with yours truly in a wetsuit, but there would always be more to find. This was not a one-off fluke. I found them time and again, in exactly the same place (hard against the shore, not out over the sand) and in locations where they could very easily be caught on a line. What was more, I found them from January right through to the autumn months of April and May.
Obviously this was a bona fide shallow water habitat for snapper, all around the edges of some of the prettiest bays you could find anywhere, and all along benign rock edges that, apart from a few oysters, were easy places to fish.
Another big plus was that these snapper were always there on sunny, warm days. I'm not a great fan of fishing in storms, no matter how good the fishing is supposed to be. The thought of strolling along these protected island foreshores flicking my fly rod out and catching keeper snapper in crystal-clear water in the middle of a blue-sky day really appealed. It is surprising, therefore, that it took me so long to do it.
The fateful day arrived when the kids were more than happy flopping around in the water chasing parore in the seagrass beds, the boat was safely at anchor off the beach, and nobody was too fussed about going anywhere. So I grabbed my nine-weight fly-rod and went for a wander.
The first few casts produced nothing right in a spot I had seen a nice 40cm snapper last time. Not discouraged I moved on. Fishing a fly on an open coast without berley is no different to any other lure-fishing technique: you have to take the fly to the fish. Two or three quick casts into every likely hole is all that's required before moving on. Nearly all fish take on the first or second cast.
This was the case today. I spooked a nice snapper right at my feet as I walked along the rocks, then did a big cast well beyond that spot to a sunken rock that I could just see below the surface. The fly-line ripped tight as the fly sunk. Shallow water snapper certainly hit hard.
The way they erupt out of cover to slam the fly always reminds me of the numerous Australian fishing articles I have read over the years about Aussie mangrove jacks and black bream in amongst the snags. This is very similar fishing, and possibly even more enjoyable, with the added bonus of not losing too many fish.
That fish was just over the 27cm legal mark. I held it hard as it charged around the rocks and weed, just stripping line and not giving any at all. There were a few oysters in this environment, so I intended to play rough with these little battlers. Snapper are great fighters, but with fish this size it's all about the whopping great hit and powerful runs that follow, usually lasting just a few seconds. They come pretty easily after that.
That fish went back in quickly (being careful to release it away from the patch of water I wanted to cast into next), and another cast was made into exactly the same area the last fish had come from. If a fish has been dragged quickly from a spot and released elsewhere, there is often another snapper moving in to find out what the commotion is about. As long as the fish aren't spooked, they can be yours for the taking.
The next cast was good, but no fish hit on the first drop of the fly. I applied my 'secret' retrieve: three fast strips, then let the fly sink back down again. A fish nailed the fly shortly after the last of my three fast strips.
This fish pulled the rod down strongly and just about had me contemplating letting go of the firm double wrap I had on the fly-line. Soon though, it was under control and digging along in the cleaner channel at my feet.
This fish was about 33cm and in beautiful condition. A smaller fish followed, then another of about 35cm from a few metres further along the rocks.
Around six keepers came to the fly in a short thirty minutes of pure fly-rodding. No berley was used and the sun was directly overhead and as bright as could be.
It was fishing that was extremely enjoyable; fly-fishing at its finest for hard-fighting small snapper in sparkling clear water. It isn't quite bonefishing, but pretty darn close. Certainly, I couldn't help thinking at the time, "Who needs the tropics?"
Most of the islands in the eastern Bay of Islands are accessible by the public. The shoreline on the sheltered sides of the islands is generally easy to walk around, especially at low tide. There are plenty of spots where it is easy to disembark from a boat, drag a small boat up a beach, or anchor a larger boat just off the sand.
Kayak access is not too difficult, with shore-to-island distances varying from one to three kilometres. Closest access is to Urupukapuka Island from Rawhiti.
There are water taxis and ferries servicing the islands. Ask at the Paihia Wharf about these.
Camping is available at Urupukapuka Island, as are a selection of reasonably-priced cabins.
No fishing permit or licence is required and, at the moment, there are no marine reserves.
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