The big-game fish are marlin, swordfish, tuna, sharks and kingfish. These impressive specimens put up a strong fight, and many make excellent eating. Anglers generally use a launch to pursue their trophies.
In Northland’s Bay of Islands there is a thriving tourist industry based around the sport. Many local people also belong to clubs, which give them access to otherwise unaffordable gear and boats.
Māori were the first New Zealanders to pursue big fish, catching species such as swordfish with hand lines from canoes.
It took some time for Europeans to adopt the sport. An early Bay of Islands launch owner remembered that in his boyhood in the late 1800s they used to catch sharks for the teeth, and frequently saw marlin, but at the time fishermen did not know what they were.
In the early 1900s a few small boats were going after kingfish in the Bay of Islands, but their equipment was basic. The first marlin caught by rod and reel was taken in the area in 1915 – a 101-kilogram striped specimen.
In the 1920s New Zealand’s big-game fishing scene was given a major boost by the visiting American writer Zane Grey, who published accounts of his exploits chasing large marlin and sharks in the Bay of Islands. The best-selling Tales of the angler’s Eldorado, New Zealand appeared in 1926.
Grey helped modernise equipment, introducing whippier rods and geared reels with a brake. He also promoted new techniques such as trolling (pulling a lure behind a boat). Before this, people had made do with gear adopted from English salmon fishing, and brakeless wooden reels.
Early wooden reels did not have a brake. When a fish was hooked and ran, the spool would spin, the handle painfully rapping the knuckles. The only way to brake it was to press a leather strap against the rim until friction slowed it, or it began to smoke.
Sites and species
Most big-game fishing occurs off the east coast of northern New Zealand, especially in the Bay of Islands. During summer the water warms and large pelagic fish such as swordfish, marlin (blue, black and striped) and tuna (yellowfin and bigeye) swim down from tropical waters. Various shark species are also taken, along with mahi mahi (also known as dolphinfish) and wahoo, commonly caught in the tropical Pacific.
In some years the west coast of the North Island is more productive, possibly because of variations in ocean conditions. Bluefin tuna are even caught off the Fiordland coast in the South Island. However, in the cool waters east of the South Island the only likely catch are sharks and the occasional slender tuna.