Night time is primetime.
[Published in Blue Water magazine Sept/Oct 2001. Written by Pete Saul, reproduced courtesty of Blue Water magazine.]
If you are serious about landing a broadbill swordfish, then there is no better place to go than New Zealand's far north. With one world record claim already this year and the discovery of new grounds that hold numerous big swords, the word is out. But be warned - this is no place for wimps. Anglers keen to tangle with the most prestigious fish in the sea must be prepared to undertake a long-distance trip to remote banks far from land, where the weather is fickle and the sea conditions can be rough. If you have what it takes, though, the rewards can be great.
In May, 2001, I was lucky enough to be aboard the first successful swordfish trip by Captain John Gregory on his new charter vessel "Primetime", the first New Zealand charter boat purpose-built to pursue swordfish in this rugged environment.
John first visited the offshore banks and seamounts of New Zealand's far north-west as a commercial fisherman, while searching for new orange roughy grounds in the late 1980's. He returned there in later years in pursuit of hoki and gemfish. However, it wasn't the target species there that caught his imagination in a big way, but the by-catch of broadbill swordfish which were taken in the trawl nets. Many of these fish were big ones, certainly big enough to present a very formidable challenge if hooked on rod and reel. Several were in excess of 500kg. John noticed that certain areas seemed to consistently hold swordfish, and that they seemed to be present for much of the year. Committed at the time to his trawling, he filed the information away for future reference.
When he quit commercial fishing in the year 2000, John had a plan which he had put a lot of thought and money into. He had 22 years at sea behind him, and 146,000 hours as a commercial fisherman to his credit. Well aware of the prestige associated with landing a swordfish by anglers world-wide, he knew that he had a unique opportunity: to promote a sports fishery for swordfish in an area that had enormous potential. It was relatively unfished, largely because of it's remoteness. None of the existing charter vessels were surveyed for the places he intended to go, so that was one problem to be overcome. But he knew the area well, was familiar with it's difficulties, and furthermore he knew it had a lot of swordfish of world-class size. He worked with Salthouse and the Maritime Safety Authority on the design for the type of boat he wanted, and this all came to fruition on September 30, 2000, when Primetime was launched.
He now had a suitable boat, specifically designed to cruise offshore for extended periods. He already had all the marine qualifications that were required to operate out to the limits of the EEZ. He had researched the existing fishing techniques and had gone to the trouble of attending a gamefishing deckhand course in Australia, where he had sought out as many knowledgeable skippers and anglers as he could. All that was needed now was to prove the potential of the fishery, and then to convince clients to come fishing.
Through the summer of 2000-01, John fished for marlin off the east Northland coast with considerable success, especially for a new boy on the block. However, fishing commitments close to home meant that the serious campaign to open up the broadbill fishery kept getting postponed. While this was frustrating, John knew that the broadbill would still be there after most of the marlin had left. Accordingly, he had arranged a couple of trips for May and June. The aim was to revisit some of the spots he had discovered while trawling, to see if he could catch the fish on sportfishing gear. And luckily for me, I was invited along.
Diary of a swordfish trip
It was mid-May, and at last the weather was looking good. A big high pressure zone was drifting onto the Tasman Sea and promised several days of fine weather. Where we were headed, there was no shelter for many miles, and the anchor was unlikely to be used for the entire trip. We would be fishing twenty four hours a day for the duration. John had a point to prove, and he is, as I found out, a man of rare determination and stamina.
We departed Whangaroa intending to get a good supply of fresh bait, then head north on the long journey to the spots john wanted to try out. If the weather remained favourable, we would be fishing places that no recreational fishers had tried before. The prospects were most exciting, though we were a little short on crew. The second deckhand had cried off with illness at short notice, so it was just the five of us: John; John's father Tom and Mathew Gilligan, who would be the anglers; deckie Matthew Watson, and myself.
It was decided to fish close to home the first night, basically to work out a few systems and test the gear. We would catch bait, then troll up to a proven local broadbill spot off Cape Karikari known as the Garden Patch; put the night in there, then troll up to the Three Kings Islands the following morning. The night was superbly calm but uneventful. At first light we set the marlin lures and headed off towards the Middlesex Bank, 70 miles away. Arriving there at three in the afternoon, we were disgusted to receive a completely unexpected change in the weather forecast. The new version predicted rising easterly winds. Fishing would become impossible within 24 hours. Our lovely big high had sped up, and was passing south of us. There was only one decision to make, and John made it. We had to head for home. By midnight we were abeam of North Cape, and the sea conditions were still not too bad. John thought we might as well put in a few hours on the Garden Patch, then head in after first light. The sea was sloppy enough to suggest that trolling lures might be the best idea, so Matt set about rigging a couple to try. He had given the subject a lot of thought, and came up with something he reckoned should work. It was a soft, almost transparent imitation squid used by tuna longliners as a bait substitute. Inside this he placed a red cyalume light stick, with another green one attached to the trace about a metre above the lure. The red light stick made the lure glow a reddish-brown. The whole thing looked mighty interesting. The question was, would the fish think so? The lure was run off a down-rigger at around thirty metres, while a second lure was run on the surface, from the outrigger, and away we went at three knots, working the canyon on the edge of the Garden Patch.
At 0250, the deep lure was taken by a strong fish. Tom was in the chair, on 60kg tackle. After an hour and ten minutes, the fish showed itself for the first time, and to our delight proved to be a substantial broadbill of around 200kg. This would be the first for the boat, and as we were a deckhand short, I had the gaff. The photographs would have to wait. Alas, a metre short of the gaff, the hooks pulled and the fish swam away. Matt, tracing his first broadbill, was devastated, but these things happen. The wind was rising, and we had no more strikes. At first light we headed into the harbour, disappointed but encouraged that the lure had attracted a strike after a mere couple of hours on its first try.
It was several days before the weather eased enough to try again. Mathew had work commitments so was unable to stay on, but Tutukaka charter skipper Mal Pitt joined us instead, so we had some extra experience at our disposal for the new attempt. We left Whangaroa at 1000 on Saturday, May 12. Again we spent the first night at the Garden Patch, without success. The following afternoon, having caught a good supply of bait at the Three Kings Islands en route, we arrived at the Middlesex Bank at 1500 and put out some lures. The water temperature was 20.5oC, and the colour quite blue. Within half an hour we had a double of striped marlin up and hooked one of them, which fell off after ten minutes. Then they told me it was the thirteenth billfish in a row Tom had lost, including the broadie from a few nights earlier. This must have been the charm, for shortly afterwards we had another double up, and this time hooked them both. Tom's fish, a nice stripie of 100kg, was tagged and released, while Mal unluckily lost his after playing it on stand-up for 30 minutes. By this time it was almost dark, so we settled down to drift for the night. We managed to catch a couple of nice big squid which we kept alive, and rigged up a couple of skipjack as well. At 2000 we set the first bait, a skipjack. As Matt was setting the second - one of the live squid - it was taken, with the double line scarcely off the reel. Our hopes were high, since we could see the shape of a billfish in the lights as it ate the bait. However, when the weight came on it proved to be a striped marlin of 80kg, which was rapidly brought to the boat and released. Tom's jinx seemed to be well and truly broken, and with massive bait marks on the colour sounder, we were extremely optimistic. We hooked up again just after 0100. This was a very strong fish which Tom played for an hour and fifty minutes, at which time it came up and jumped only 30 metres from the stern - a nice swordfish of around 150kg - and then sounded again. After another hour and twenty minutes of slogging away we got colour on the fish. Matt, ultra cautious after the last episode, traced the fish with the softest of hands, and as it came almost to within gaff range, you guessed it - the hook pulled. Unbelievable! But that was that.
By this time the wind had increased to a solid 25 knots from the south east, with rain. Beautiful. In a smaller boat, fishing would have been impossible, but I was astounded how stable "Primetime" was on the drift. She lay nicely beam-on and the only real problem was getting the deep bait down where we wanted it due to the rate of drift. However, as far as comfort was concerned there was no problem whatsoever. We fished until dawn - tagging one mako - and shortly after that began trolling in slowly improving conditions.
The forecast was for 15 knots, and the outlook the same, which was encouraging. At 1100 Tom tagged a 130kg stripie on the top end of the Middlesex Bank, but that was it for the day. At 1700 we stopped again and began to drift. At 2208 Tom hooked up on a live squid bait. This was another powerful fish, and we were all fairly confident we had another broadbill on. Sure enough, three hours later, we had colour once more. After three hours and ten minutes, Primetime's first broadbill was in the boat. It was no monster, but it was still the first, and we were all very happy to have achieved what we set out to do. The first objective of John's plan had been accomplished. As for Tom, he had been in the chair for seven and a half hours over three nights. He had well and truly earned this fish, and being a true gentleman, he offered the next broadbill to Mal. We did get another shot just before first light, at 0600, but no hook up.
I thought we might be heading home, but the skipper had other ideas. He wanted another fish, and as the weather was getting better we might be able to try a deep drift during the day. This technique is used both in Venezuela and South Africa with success, but in the end we never got around to it.
We trolled around and caught a good supply of fresh skipjack for bait, and Tom tagged another stripie, this one estimated at 130kg. That night, in much improved conditions, we tried again at a new spot. While drifting we hooked a decent mako of 200kg, which Mal tagged, but the place looked pretty quiet and there were few bait marks. John decided to troll, using a big fresh squid on the down-rigger. At 0530 we had a tremendous strike on the squid, but it came unstuck shortly afterwards. On inspecting the bait we discovered that a broadbill had struck the light stick above the bait and become tangled in the trace instead of getting hooked. That was our lot. We trolled on the Middlesex before heading for home. By now the weather was perfect, and the marlin fishing was also on the improve. We tagged two very nice stripies, of 140kg and 150kg, and caught a pair of large mahimahi for dinner. We headed for North Cape, then towed lures on the Garden Patch from 2300 until 0600 the following morning. By 1000 we were back in Whangaroa to weigh tom's broadbill. Though we had only boated the one, we had nine shots that we were sure were broadbill, and got three of those to the boat. In addition, we had tagged six striped marlin and eight mako sharks. All in all, a very satisfactory result. The fish were definitely there. The question was, how to improve the hook-up rate and translate that into landed or tagged fish?
We had covered an amazing 1,131 sea miles and used 6,800 litres of fuel, running up 135 engine hours. True to prediction, the anchor had remained on the foredeck the entire trip, except for an hour while we were catching bait in North West Bay at the Three Kings. For me it was a memorable trip, in a most impressive boat that was designed to do exactly what we had done.
John and Primetime have made quite a name for themselves in a very short time. It is not often - and I can speak from experience - that a charter skipper can make such an impression in their first year, without any previous charter experience. It's not easy to get acceptance among your peers until you prove yourself, and that usually takes time. In this case it has happened very fast. There are reasons for this success, though. John did have vast sea-going experience from his days in the fishing industry. He also came into charter boating with vision and a plan. Specialising as he has in long-range broadbill trips, he has caught more of these prized fish in just three months than most skippers do in a lifetime. He is dedicated and obviously a fast learner. He also has two very keen guys - Matt Watson and Jonathon Clarke - working the deck for him. Together they have landed or tagged 13 broadbill in just 6 trips between May and July, 2001. They figured out ways of improving the hook-up rate. And so far, they have only explored a small number of the places John has on his list of potential hot spots. There are certainly some very large fish to be caught on these grounds. The largest officially weighed, at 286.8kg, was not by any means the biggest hooked. At 135kg, the fish we caught is the smallest so far of 13, and at least two fish have been encountered that were 400kg or better. On the next trip after our one, the crew landed three broadbill weighing 187kg, 256kg, and 292.6kg, and tagged another. There remains a great deal to learn about fishing techniques. Daytime fishing has produced several strikes, and lures trolled from down riggers seem to produce more strikes than drifting, although it may be the case that trolling results in more tangled fish and possibly less secure hook-ups. The world record claim 332.4kg broadbill caught in the same general area from the Bay of Islands vessel "Striker" in April, was taken on a deep-trolled lure. More epic tales are bound to result, like the big fish Tom played for a mammoth 17 hours with the line half hitched around its pectoral fin, only to have a small mako bite the tail as the fish was brought to the boat, disqualifying it. Or the one Whangaroa publican Laurie hooked while drifting during the day. After playing the fish for two hours on stand-up, the rod snapped near the tip, but the angler battled on for a further two hours before the line parted. The length of the season also remains to be established. As this year has progressed, the broadbill have got bigger, but there have also been increasing numbers of sharks. In fact, some of the makos themselves have been of world record size. Only time will tell how the rest of the season pans out, but Primetime will certainly continue to explore this exciting fishery.
Primetime Charters & Gamefishing
Conifer Lane, RD 1 Kerikeri, New Zealand
PH/Fax: 0064 09 407 1299
Mobile: 0064 025 870 344
Primetime the boat
Launched in September, 2000, Primetime is a superbly crafted charter launch designed and built by Salthouse Marine Group in Auckland. 18m in length, with a beam of 5m and a draft of 1m, the boat is powered by twin 690hp Scania diesels that give a cruising speed of 22 knots. Designed with the offshore broadbill grounds in mind, Primetime is capable of lengthy self-sufficient cruises, and has the highest possible Maritime Safety Authority survey rating for a New Zealand charter boat - out to 200 nautical miles. Displacing 23 tonnes, this is a powerful, seaworthy and stable vessel.
The interior is tastefully furnished and spacious. Accommodation is provided in four cabins, including two queen size and five single berths. There are two bathrooms with toilets and showers, one forward and another aft; and the 3,600 litre/day water maker means there are no water shortages on this boat. The saloon has a large seating, dining and entertainment area with TV, video and CD stereo. The galley is similarly well appointed, with 240v fridge/freezer, dishwasher, microwave and oven, and gas hobs.
Outside, the cockpit is designed for fishing. Complementing the big Reelax fighting chair there is a full range of new Shimano fishing gear right up to 60kg class. There is concealed stowage on each side of the cockpit for gaffs, tag poles and ropes. A full transom door makes access to fish - or the water - easy. Divers are catered for too, with an on-board dive compressor. Under the teak cockpit sole there is sufficient room to hold a whole marlin or broadbill in chilled storage.
The flying bridge features a large seating area in front of the steering station, which has a full array of the latest Furuno electronics: full computer navigation, weather fax, colour sounder, VHF and SSB radios, digital sea temp gauges, 2 GPS units, autopilot and a 64-mile radar. The bridge also has its own fridge/freezer and CD player.
|PRIMETIME CHARTERS & GAMEFISHING LTD.|
|Conifer Lane, R.D.1, Kerikeri, New Zealand|
|Phone/Fax ++64 9 407 1299, Mobile ++64 27 487 0344|
|Email : firstname.lastname@example.org|
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