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A New Year's Eve spearfishing mission around the Mercury Islands in the Coromandel exceeds all expectations.
I have had plenty of amazing days in the water spearfishing, but this was definitely one of the most special days I've had. Me and 3 mates boarded the vessel in the early hours on an absolutely perfect day weather-wise, heading out of Whitianga with the beautiful Mercury Islands as our destination. The morning was to be designated to diving and spearfishing, then heading wide in the afternoon to troll lures for Marlin. We exited the harbour and headed out to some rocky outcrops in shallower water where I had previously speared and had good success. The idea was to warm up the lungs, hopefully nailing a few fish before heading out to a rock I had researched and read about online, which would be teeming with life. It was a place I had dreamt about diving for years. We jump in at the first spot to be greeted with surprisingly murky, cold and quite lifeless conditions. There was no current pushing, which is generally not ideal when spearfishing as you want a good amount of current to push food and nutrients up against structures, which in turn brings in smaller fish followed by large predators such as the famous Yellowtail Kingfish. Kingfish aka Yellowtail or ‘Kingis’ are located worldwide, but in New Zealand grow the biggest of anywhere due to our nutrient-rich waters and a few other factors. This makes them a favourite fish to hunt. Not only do they offer a huge amount of beautiful meat, but they’re also one of the hardest fighting fish you’ll come across, which makes for an exciting battle and experience.
After a few dives and not a lot happening, aside from securing one Kahawai, we decided to head wide to the rock I had been dreaming about which would hopefully be holding cleaner water and more fish life. The tide was about halfway in now so the current would be pushing hard and we were excited to jump in at the next spot, which was a small reef just barely breaking the surface, surrounded by deep water on all sides to about 90 metres or more. As we headed wide, the water became cleaner and cleaner, finally turning a deep blue, almost purple colour as we neared the spot. After years of wanting to dive here and with the amazingly clear water ahead, it was hard to contain the excitement. This would be a welcome change as the spring months leading up to summer turn the waters on the North Island very green due to the algae bloom and waters kicking into life after a cold winter.
I'm gearing up, fins and mask on, speargun in hand waiting to jump overboard at the first chance I get. We approach the rock and we can see it just breaking the surface in the deep blue open water. I get the OK and peel over the side. It’s incredible, clean and warm. My dive buddy joins me and we fin towards the rock. We approach the rock from down current and as soon as we near, I can see a huge school of Kahawai and Trevally just milling quietly behind the rock face. I don’t muck around diving down and am quite overwhelmed at the scene. As the fish start to spook, I rush a shot and miss a nice big Trevally. One thing to remember is that when diving in such clean water as in the tropics, your perception of distance can be quite distorted and people often take longer shots than they think they are taking, which I believe happened in this case. All was not lost though, as the fish were still hanging around and I noticed the Kahawai had numerous chunks missing from their bodies suggesting there were larger predators lurking nearby, most likely Kingfish, which love to snack on Kahawai.
I reload my speargun and creep along the face of the rock holding onto the big kelp stalks and keeping the sun on my back as I try to spot a Snapper resting in one of the gutters. It wasn't long before I spotted a nice sized snapper just sitting there almost mid-water looking half asleep. I ready my speargun and slowly pull myself down the rock face getting into shooting range. As I approach the Snapper it sees me and slowly but cautiously turns to swim away. I pull my head and body as low as I can into the kelp to disguise myself. The Snapper makes the wrong decision to turn once again for a second look. As the fish turns broadside, I extend my arm out slowly and let fire. I land a good holding shot on the fish and fin for the surface to catch my breath as the fish goes ballistic and heads down. After regaining my breath and the fish doing its run, I pull it to the surface, iki the Snapper and clip off to my speargun, getting ready to reload for the next fish. We hunt the area for about an hour, spearing a few Kahawai while waiting for the current to pick up, which would start to bring the smaller fish to the surface and let the action begin. Finally, we could feel the current building rapidly and, almost instantly, the fairly quiet scene turned into a whole other beast, with the surface coming alive with huge schools of Kahawai, Trevally, Koheru, and numerous other species all feeding on vast masses of krill and plankton which had entered the scene. It was a sight like I had never seen before, literally thousands of fish just engulfing the area in big balls, so thick at times you could not see through the mass of fish. It was absolutely incredible to witness and below all of this were huge schools of Pink Mao Mao, a stunning vibrant pink-coloured fish with beautiful eating white flesh.
With all the action going on, which looked like something from a David Attenborough documentary, there were surprisingly still no Kingfish to be seen so I started to spear a few Trevally and Mao Mao to get some meat in the cooler in case we didn't get to battle any of the green-backed beasts. Trevally is one of my favourite fish to eat, well known for its superb eating quality when made into sashimi. We kept at it, searching for the Kingis which would surely show themselves below. Kingfish are excellent predators, built for speed, power and have clever colouration to hide them from their prey. They have a white/silver underside for when above them to mimic the sky/bright light and have a dark green back for when hunting below the fish to blend in with the darker, generally greener water at depth. This means, often in dirtier water, sinking down to the thermocline layer where the clean water meets the dirtier water is key. Getting down to the same level as they are is less intimidating and they will come in closer for a look. They must have been lurking deeper so I decided to take a nice big breath up on the surface preparing for a deeper dive to see if I could lure in one of these beasts.
I take one last deep breath, spit out the snorkel, carry out a nice duck dive, and with a few long kicks, I sink down through the huge schools of Trevally. As I sink down even further to around 15m, I enter into a large school of Pink Mao Mao. I scan the area looking for any sign of Kingfish, and with nothing showing and my body telling me it’s almost time to surface for air I decided to line up a nice big Mao Mao to shoot. I stretch out and almost as I pull the trigger I get a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye and look to see a large Kingfish coming in to check me out. I hover there still, and the Kingfish comes right up to me before turning away. As the fish turned, I lined it up and whacked it with what I thought would be a kill shot going right through the fish’s head.
The fish stalled, before shaking its head violently. I loosen the reel on my speargun and fin hard for the surface as I was now well past the 15m and was running out of oxygen. I made it to the surface, immediately getting in some deep recovery breaths before putting my head back underwater to see what was going on. I could see the fish deep down trying to swim down towards the nearby reef, as they do, in an effort to break off my shooting line and free itself. I grab the line and start to winch the fish to the surface while kicking away from the reef. I know I have a good solid holding shot with the shaft going right through the fish so pull hard knowing that there could be big sharks below, which this spot is also well known for. The fish was hurt badly and after about 5 minutes I got it to the surface and wrestled the fish into a good bear hug and ended the fight with a quick knife to the brain. I hear some cheers from the boys on the boat and we are all stoked to get a Kingi on board for the day. We drag the fish onboard and it’s a respectable fish around the 17/18kg mark.
My mate, who was still in the water, came flying back to the boat shortly after looking very distressed and after discussing his encounter and researching online we are almost positive he had seen a good-sized Great White Shark, which had circles him and was acting in a very aggressive manner. Not surprisingly, we decided to move on seeing as we already had a bin full of beautiful eating fish. We head even further wide for the afternoon trolling lures for Marlin with no success. With no luck on the Marlin, we cruise towards home and just as we are bringing in the gear, we get smacked with a double hook up and, with a decent fight, end up with two more Kingfish. We call it a day and decide with all the fish we now have we will go get it smoked up at the local smokehouse and go have a beer. It was New Year’s after all. The fish was all beautifully smoked by Bruce at Blink’s Smokehouse in Whitianga and ready for pick-up the next day.
I can happily say it was some of the best eating smoked fish I have ever had. All around, it was an incredible day under and above water, with fish scenes I will never forget. Spearfishing is an incredible sport, always full of surprises and unique encounters. We really are lucky here in New Zealand with such a healthy underwater environment providing endless spearfishing adventures and possibilities.