Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Recreational sea fishing

by  Carl Walrond

Dangling a line from the wharf on a tranquil evening has many rewards, quite apart from catching a fish. At the other extreme is the adrenalin-fuelled challenge of a threshing, 3-metre marlin in the open ocean. Living within easy reach of the coast, many New Zealanders love to try for a meal of fresh fish.

A rewarding pastime

In New Zealand you often see people fishing from a harbour wharf, or along an urban shore where bridges cross the waterways. If you ask why they fish, they will often say, ‘There’s more to fishing than catching fish.’ Although it is illegal to sell the catch, the satisfaction is not just in bringing home a meal, but also in the anticipation and planning, reading the weather and sea conditions, and the pleasure of being outdoors.

Whether fishing from the shore or from a boat, anglers need a rare quality – patience. They must be willing to put up with the hours when the fish are not biting, to be rewarded by the minutes when they are.


Although Māori traditionally caught fish for survival, fishing and gathering shellfish were also social activities. Coastal tribes excelled at fishing. When James Cook and his crew visited the Marlborough Sounds in 1773, they were easily out-fished by Māori: ‘We were by no means such expert fishers as them, nor were any of our methods of fishing equal to theirs.’ 1

Fishing for introduced freshwater fish, liberated into the waterways by British settlers from the 1860s, required a licence. But sea fishing remained an important pastime, free for all. Much of the population lived near the coast, so on Saturdays and Sundays men and boys would drop a line from the wharf, or drag a net behind a dinghy. Even commercial fishermen might spend their free days at sea. In the 1960s, at Easter, some Kaikōura fishermen would row off for a weekend with a keg of beer, and lines, nets and pots for catching butterfish, moki, blue cod or crayfish.

Who goes fishing?

A 2001 survey of leisure activities placed fishing (both sea and freshwater) fifth after walking, gardening, swimming and exercising. It is more popular among Māori than Europeans and Polynesians, and more men than women participate.

Experiences vary widely – from solitary surfcasting on a deserted beach, to cruising in a luxury yacht on the busy Hauraki Gulf. City dwellers drive to a nearby wharf or coastline, or launch their boat from a ramp for a day’s outing. Children catch spotties off the jetty, while serious sportsmen compete in contests such as the Snapper Classic at Ninety Mile Beach, where the winner can pick up $50,000.

Books and other information

New Zealand’s literature on sea angling does not compare with that on trout fishing: perhaps those drawn to sea fishing are a less contemplative bunch. Most ‘saltwater’ publications are guides on how and where to fish – useful for those entering the sport. There are also monthly magazines such as New Zealand Fishing News, established in 1978, with information on fishing trends and catches.

Popular television shows include Graeme Sinclair’s Gone fishin’ and The fishing show. Increasingly, anglers are using websites, which have marine forecasts and tide information.

    • J. C. Beaglehole, ed., The journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of discovery. Vol 2. Cambridge: Hakluyt Society, 1961, p. 169. › Back

Big-game fishing

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.

Zane Grey

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.

Knuckle dusters

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.

Big-game fishing: methods, clubs and conservation

The big-game angler usually takes a launch to go in search of the action. As the fish are top predators, they are usually found where schooling fish congregate.

Lures and bait

A popular technique is to troll – pull a lure that mimics the prey of big fish. Live and dead bait are also used for billfish and tuna.

A common technique for catching sharks is to throw berley (scraps of bait and fish oil) into the water, to create a trail of feed that will attract smaller fish. A fish with a hook attached to it, amongst the berley, can also be a successful bait.

Reeling in the catch

Once a fish is hooked, the angler is strapped into a chair, which is bolted to the boat. The butt of the rod is put into a holder, in order to lever the rod. If the fish runs, the reel lets out line, and a drag system means that the fish expends a lot of energy. Still, battles between the angler and a big fish can take many hours, and the line can always snap, or the hook pull out at any moment.


The Bay of Islands Kingfish Club formed in 1910. As different species were caught, its name was changed in 1924 to the Bay of Islands Swordfish and Mako Shark Club. Today, as the Bay of Islands Swordfish Club, it is the second oldest existing game fishing club in the world, after California’s Tuna Club of Avalon (1898).

A few other clubs sprang up in northern New Zealand in the 1930s and 1940s. A national body, the New Zealand Big Game Fishing Council, formed in 1957. Growth was slow, but boomed in the 1970s. By 2005 there were 61 affiliated clubs representing some 33,000 members.

Club members gather to discuss tackle, hot spots and weather and ocean conditions. Most groups are clustered around Northland and the Bay of Plenty. They also organise tournaments, which often attract overseas anglers.

Records and rules

Those seeking world weight records must comply with strict regulations about tackle and how fish are landed. These are set down by the International Game Fish Association.

There are also strict New Zealand Big Game Fishing Association rules, and local club rules. In 2005 New Zealand anglers held three world records: striped marlin (494 kg), southern bluefin tuna (348 kg) and bigeye thresher shark (802 kg). New Zealand record weights for different species are also documented.


During the 1970s and 1980s anglers became concerned about dwindling catches of game fish, and longline fishing trawlers were blamed. By the late 1980s and 1990s, lobbying led to restrictions on where and when commercial fishing boats could take certain game fish. This included a 1993 prohibition on landing and selling marlin (blue, black, and striped) in all New Zealand waters.

However, in the 2000s tuna boats were still catching swordfish, reportedly as by-catch. Sportsmen strongly oppose the practice, claiming that since the late 1990s the growth in the commercial swordfish catch has reduced their opportunities.

In the past, catches were nearly always killed, and the obligatory photos taken of the successful angler and trophy at the wharf. The recreational community has become more aware of conservation, and most fish are now handled carefully, then tagged and released. Clubs have a target of at least 50% release, which is often exceeded. Tags allow information to be updated on recaptured fish.

Other recreational fishing

Fish for food

New Zealanders have long supplemented their diet with fish from the coast or estuary. At night by the light of a hurricane lamp, they use a spear to catch flounder from mudflats, and nets are set in shallow harbours for species such as mullet.

Many people fish from small boats for ‘desirable species’ that provide good eating, such as blue and red cod, snapper and kahawai. Recreational anglers are generally happy if they catch anything that provides good-quality fillets. Even so, many clubs keep a record of their heaviest catches.

Easy pickings

T. E. Donne spent over 35 years fishing in New Zealand. Here is one of his anecdotes:

When residing at the Bluff I was ‘batching’ with three other young men. We never worried about getting something in advance for breakfast, as all one had to do was to jump out of bed and, in pyjamas, walk to the sea front, fifty yards away, wade into shallow water on the sands and spear as many large flounders as required. 1

In the past, the main focus for tourist launches was big-game fishing. But by the 2000s, charter boats were offering recreational fishing for tasty species such as blue cod and trumpeter.

Shore and boat fishing

Shore fishermen fish from rocks, wharves and beaches. Those on the beach are often called surfcasters, as they use long rods to cast their baited hooks and lead sinkers into the waves. In some areas people will improvise, using kites to carry their baited lines offshore.

Boat fishing is popular at spots where fish congregate – near reefs, or current convergences. Methods include baited hooks lowered to the sea floor, jigging (bouncing a lure up and down) and trolling (pulling a lure behind the boat).

Access to sites

Before the 1960s many enthusiasts reached isolated bays first by bicycle and then on foot. Trail bikes, four-wheel motorbikes and four-wheel-drive vehicles have made access easier, and even helicopters are used to reach headlands on Great Barrier Island and the Coromandel Peninsula.

On many rocky coasts, steps are cut into cliffs, and ropes lead down to wave-cut platforms where people fish at low tide. This can be very dangerous, and the unwary are often carried out to sea by a big wave. Cases of ‘missing presumed drowned’ are all too common – especially among young Asian men fishing from rocky Auckland shores.

Saltwater fly-fishing

Fly-fishing is traditionally a freshwater method, but in the 1980s and 1990s people tried it in the sea, casting the fly from a boat. This has proved most effective once a school of fish is found. It is mostly used for kahawai and trevally, although many species, including marlin, have been caught this way.

Fisheries management

Up until the 1970s catching coastal fish was relatively easy if you were willing to put in the effort. But as stocks became overfished both commercially and for sport, catches of many species declined. Recreational and commercial interests are in direct competition for some species, and political involvement of the recreational sector gained momentum during the 1980s.

Recreational fishing is not subject to the Quota Management System, which applies to commercial fisheries. Instead, the Ministry of Fisheries estimates the recreational catch for certain popular species before setting the total weight of fish to be caught commercially each year.

The politics of kahawai and snapper quota-setting are especially contentious. The New Zealand Recreational Fishing Council, representing clubs around the country, lobbies central government – for instance to reduce the commercial allowable catch for kahawai (known as ‘the people’s fish’). The recreational catch can be a substantial proportion of the total catch. For instance, for kahawai in 2004/2005 it was estimated at 3,415 tonnes, out of a total of 7,612.

  1. T. E. Donne, Rod fishing in New Zealand waters. London: Seeley Service, 1927, p. 106. › Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Recreational sea fishing', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 12 o Hune 2006