Waiheke Island Snapper – and more

Josh finds saltwater action with a difference, just out of Auckland.

I have been lucky enough to fish all over the globe for a myriad of fish species on fly. If I recount moments I’ll never forget, they might start with my first permit in Exmouth, Australia; catching a 1.36 metre taimen in Mongolia, or even chasing giant trevally in the remote atolls of the Seychelles. Despite these successes with ‘bucket list’ species in glamorous locations, I still get excited at the thought of chasing any new species on fly, or visiting any new location.

Some flyfishers are numbers conscious. They need to be hooked into something every two minutes to classify the day as a success. Others are only interested in size. If it’s not a trophy, they are merely passing time until that rare capture finally graces their presence. While I certainly love catching fish, on the whole, I’m after a great experience. Something new, maybe a little obscure, and of course I don’t mind the added chance of a decent fish or two!

Matt Von Sturmer, a saltwater flyfishing guide based in New Zealand’s North Island, had been talking with me on and off over twelve months about joining him one winter to experience his home water fishing. He runs a guiding business, ‘Salt Fly Fish’, with kingfish being the main attraction. Large kingfish roam the coastline and move onto the flats over the warmer months. But he was particularly interested to show me his winter shallow water snapper fishery.

“I’m not even sure if you’d like it,” Matt explained over the phone, “But snapper can be great fun on light gear.” He almost sounded apologetic, as if I wouldn’t care about catching fish that aren’t monsters. “We might even see the odd kingfish getting about,” Matt continued, perhaps trying to build on his offer. But he already had me with the first bit.

“I’m in,” I replied. “Never chased snapper on fly, let’s do it.” We set the dates for a weekend trip in late June.

Waiheke Island

Before long I was on the 3 hour flight to Auckland; followed by a bus to Auckland Wharf, a short ferry ride to Waiheke Island and one more bus to my accommodation. I noted that the proximity of the island to Auckland was certainly a handy thing for any traveller passing through.

The bus driver on Waiheke Island was kind enough to drop me straight at my accommodation. With short winter days, it was dark by then, and the sound of crashing waves out in the night somewhere heightened my sense of expectation for the morning.

The dawn light peered through the shutters of my sea-side accommodation, and the sound of the surf set the tone for the day. The morning was brisk, but not as cold as I anticipated for New Zealand in winter. I wandered down to the beach and found the café Matt recommended, right on the water.

Matt and transport.

I ordered breakfast, and soon after, Matt arrived and parked out the front with his boat in tow. Of course by now, I was itching to get out there. I finished breakfast quickly, we made our way to the Waiheke wharf and launched the boat.

Surprise Kingies

We headed to some likely rock islands and it wasn’t long before kahawai (identical to Australian salmon) appeared and we landed a few small ones. Then Matt casually offered, “There’s a marker a few hundred metres that way which might have a kingfish or two hanging around it”.

I assumed he was pulling my leg – I certainly wasn’t expecting kingfish in midwinter, to the point that I hadn’t even packed an appropriate rod. Nevertheless, we rigged the 8 weight with a baitfish pattern and slowly made our way towards the marker.

“You’re kidding me, look at the size of those!” I yelled out as we spotted a pair of metre-plus kingfish circling the yellow marker. I almost feared casting at the fish, knowing I was under-gunned. And to make matters worse, Matt assured me there was a shallow, sharp reef nearby.

A kingfisher on shellfish-encrusted rock at low tide: great snapper food, but bad for kingfish break-offs!

“Well, here goes,” I muttered to myself. Matt placed the boat in range and I made the cast. Without hesitation, one of the large kingfish came straight over and ate the fly. Knowing the chain from the marker was directly below and the reef was nearby, I chose to go soft on the fish, and it nearly worked. Nearly. I managed to get the fish clear of the marker chain, and soon had plenty of the line back on the reel.

“You might want to go harder now Josh,” Matt calmly suggested, “He’s heading towards the reef.”

The moment I did that, the kingfish decided to do exactly what they are notorious for: full power, straight into the reef… and gone. Oddly enough, I was almost as excited as if I had landed it. What an intense and unexpected experience so early in the trip!

Kahawai Madness

Soon after, the clouds that had been hanging around burnt off and the water glassed out. It was turning into a glamour day. Beautiful island landscapes marked one side of the boat and the faint silhouette of Auckland city could be seen on the other side. There was barely a breathe of wind.

Matt was keen to get me my first snapper on fly, so we set off towards one of his shallow water locations. It appeared the snapper hadn’t really got going and we’d only landed a couple of small ones when, closer to the shore of Waiheke Island, we noticed constant splashes from what was obviously a school of feeding fish.

Kahawai working the baitfish.

Making our way towards the action, it was soon obvious they were kahawai, crashing into schools of baitfish. “Let’s just catch a few,” I suggested to Matt; knowing it was distracting us from our main snapper quest, but also thinking it was crazy to pass up such a chance.

The action was so good, we nearly forgot to stop. Double hook-ups, one after the other, aren’t easy to pass up! Small poppers or baitfish Candy patterns – it didn’t seem to matter. We even sight cast to individual fish as they cruised the shallow edges inshore of us.

It was somewhere in the midst of the kahawai madness that Matt, almost by accident, hooked up on a decent snapper. We were reminded it might be time to get back to plan A!

Snapper in the Shallows

Matt’s approach to shallow water snapper is quite simple. We used 6 to 8 weight rods with floating lines, a 12 foot leader and a weighted fly on the end. Simple patterns such as Clousers are fine, however Matt prefers a few of his own shrimp-like patterns. Rubber legs and a bit of weight to get the fly down; the snapper really didn’t seem to be that picky.

And contrary to popular belief, there was no chumming (berleying) required. We would find areas of shallow reef towards the shore and even cast directly onto the sandy beach from the boat and start the very slow retrieve from there. It was almost like indicator fishing for trout, without the indicator: retrieving the line slowly to keep in contact, and every now and then applying a faster retrieve to attempt to gain interest.

The technique sounds simple and it was – and it certainly worked! We started to catch snapper after snapper. I was surprised how hard some of them hit, often tearing the line out of my hands in a moment of surprise.

Matt and I made our way slowly along the edge of the island, fishing shallow water rocky outcrops and casting along small beach areas in between. I even managed to sight cast to a few fish over the sand, which was certainly not what I expected with snapper fishing.

Matt hooked up to a good snapper on evening.

The fish were not huge, but a heap of fun, and certainly a great tussle for their size. I do recall that time flew by and suddenly, it was nearly dark. We packed up and started to motor home. Even then, another area we passed looked so good, it demanded a quick cast. I put down the rod to grab a few photos of Matt fishing in the fading light, and soon enough he hooked into and landed the best snapper of the day.

Bad Weather

Another North Island saltwater fly guide, Lucas Allen, had organised to meet up with us on the second day. Overnight, the weather had changed dramatically. The morning skies were dark and the wind blew relentlessly as we picked Lucas up in the boat.

“It’s okay guys, I have a plan,” Matt said cheerfully. We made our way around to the back of the island and sheltered water. The conditions were such a contrast to the previous day, and we were all curious to see the effect on the fishing.

Day two turned on less inviting weather…

Trial and error on a few banks turned up a handful of smaller fish, but overall, it seemed the snapper might have shut down with the change in conditions. We tried more spots, and then, just as we were thinking it mightn’t work out, we struck snapper gold.

In no time, the fishing was running hot – and so was the Aussie versus Kiwi banter. Wet weather jackets with a warm layer underneath, was certainly different attire to day one, but surprisingly, the deteriorating weather didn’t put the fish off. With a dozen or so good snapper landed, we moved on to another location. At one point, Matt joined in and it was mayhem, with three flylines whizzing around as each angler vied for a piece of the action.

Ordinary weather never seems as bad when you’re catching fish!

It was only when the wind finally got the better of us that we made our way back to base. It had been a completely different experience to the day before, but just as satisfying.

Wine & Good Food

While I’m generally not one to keep my catch, snapper are on the short list of fish I enjoy eating. We brought back a few for the table and Matt’s wife, Carmen, cooked up an amazing batch of fresh snapper tacos. Delicious! Waiheke Island is also a renowned wine region, and a local chardonnay to accompany the snapper was the perfect way to finish my weekend.

Waiheke Island is an easy day or weekend trip from Auckland. Even though its proximity to this busy city might suggest otherwise, I was amazed how relaxing the island vibe was. And that was my experience in late June, the thick of winter. It had me thinking, if it’s this good now, I can’t wait to return in summer.