The 19/20 flats season here in Tauranga was a script so well written no one really saw the twists and turns right up until the final act.
We started out as any season does with some nice warm water pushing down from the tropics and things kicking off nicely, with the last of the blustery spring westerlies abating to a more manageable breeze in time for the pre Christmas rush. By the time the Pohutukawas were flowering we had ticked off a number of kingfish firsts for clients and seen the first waves of repeat customers. Some of these fish were a class above the previous year and things were shaping up quite nicely, albeit with a few tears from snapped leaders after tangling with some big resident fish around structure. These fish know the harbour better than anybody and it’s as if sometimes the eats were just to mess with you as they promptly destroyed lines on the nearest object. It’s this attitude that I love about them, the take no shit, hold no prisoners approach. Something you need to throw straight back at them in spades to have some kind of dominance over their physicality.
We tend to leave the Christmas period alone on the harbour, it’s not for the fact it fishes hard, it’s the commotion and general mayhem that I prefer to do without, plus a welcome break with our busy family is a must. Once that’s all out of the way we were back to full swing. The long days with optimum sunlight are what flats fisherman dream of, throw in a warm westerly to put a ripple on the water and you have some of the best factors going for you.
This season the flats fired nicely, with some areas far more productive than others. Bigger groups of fish, some of which were well over the magic meter mark (that’s to the inside of the fork for all you Aussies reading). For a few short weeks we followed one group of kingfish around that were hounding mullet in the shallows. The pack so big and black it was hard to miss them and the shadows of tightly packed mullet schools.
Another hot favorite of mine (purely for the chaos that goes down after getting an eat) was the nav marker fishing. With the bow mounted Humminbird Solix 12 MEGA+ Side Imaging providing some inspiration to those upfront fishing a little deeper. Seeing a gang on screen then rocket out of the depths after your fly is sure to get the heart rate up, even for those not on the other end of the line. Split second judgements on how to handle the fish after hook up will either be your undoing or result in a nice new profile picture so it pays to have a battle plan. If fish are rejecting your offering mix up the retrieve on the following cast before changing to a fly with a totally different profile. Think big to small, natural to bright, quiet to loud and if using a popper don’t be afraid to let it sit for a few seconds between big chugs. I find a lot of time it’s not what you’re feeding them it’s HOW you are feeding it to them. If you keep them guessing you may just turn a curious fish into a stupid fish.
With the peak of the season just starting to taper off the unseen announcement of a full blown lockdown loomed rather suddenly. This was a bitter pill to swallow especially for the fact the fish are very obliging and rather active around this time, plus the pristine autumnal conditions that presented themselves were looking very glamour while on our local daily wander with the kids. This was made slightly better knowing I could walk 150m from my front door and watch kingfish do their thing uninterrupted, believe me the temptation sure was there after 40 years of taking any opportunity to go fishing whenever I wanted.
Prior to lockdown I threw local guru Dick Marquand onboard for a bash at the local reefs, we felt it might have been our last fish for a while so armed ourselves to the teeth with all manor of fly gear. After what felt like a few thousand casts I gave up on the kingfish playing friendly. The session that transpired afterward was pure class as Dick and I used a 3wt glass rod with 3lb test on big kahawai, koheru and blue maomao, I didn’t anticipate putting the 12wt away to replace it with a #3 but it was well worth it. Trying to put some hurt on a deep diving fish with a bit of swell makes for some entertainment, especially when you can feel the light line bouncing off the tightly packed school below. It was part luck, a shit load of skill and something Dick has fine tuned to make a fine alternative to hustling kingfish.
After what now seems like a short lockdown we had a few weeks of harbour fishing that saw plenty of kahawai caught on 4-6wt set ups, often with tiny anchovy flies or size 2 poppers – the excited school and consequent detonation on the surface ensures a lot of yelling and cheering. We had good shots at ray riders but as with late season flats fishing the sun was often low and spotting conditions tricky. A few adaptations to approaching each situation will give an upper hand but it sure pays to slow right down and hang around in hot spot areas for longer than you think possible. Be super prepared for a quick shot at something that probably isn’t a fish but you wish was and you might just come tight.
I’m not sure what next season holds as far as international guests go, fingers crossed New Zealand is still Covid free and our borders are holding it at bay. This gives a lot of opportunity for domestic guests to line up some of the best dates and tides over the season. One thing I am certain of is that the fish will be there and I’ll be making the most of every opportunity to get into them. Perhaps I might get a few more shots at them for myself this coming season, that’s provided my son doesn’t develop into a full blown kingfish fiend as he’s starting to demonstrate a bit of a knack to them!