Fish from the foam
For five days each summer, 1000 fisherman fling themselves into the surf of New Zealand’s longest beach in the hope of landing the grandaddy snapper that will win them $50,000. This year’s contest was the most successful ever.
From a distance, the scene was that of any busy summer afternoon at a popular surf beach: a swarm of vehicles congregated at the top of the beach, hundreds of tiny figures milling about at the water’s edge, a brace of bobbing specks out in the breakers.
But all was not as it seemed. The time was wrong, for a start. It was only a whisker past 8 A.M., and a sullen grey day at that, not beach weather at all. Most of the vehicles were workhorses—utes and Landrovers—not the family sedan. The beachgoers were all in parkas and wetsuits, and the surfers had no boards. Indeed, the rubberclad ranks slow-marching into the surf all carried long poles. While wave-vaulting could well be the latest adrenalin boost for jaded bungy jumpers, the location—the remote northern tip of New Zealand—seemed unlikely.
Yet the truth was equally implausible: start time on day three of the annual Ninety Mile Beach fishing contest. I had never seen surfcasters in wetsuits before, yet here the neoprene penguins extended beyond sight. And I had never seen surfcasters take to the ocean like this.
Typically, this species of fisher is seen dozing on deck chairs far from the water’s edge, lines vaguely seaward, positioned to entangle unsuspecting joggers and children. But the guy in the yellow PVC parka I was watching had spent at least two of the previous four minutes entirely submerged. The top metre or so of his rod projecting from the foam marked his unsteady progress towards Australia.
At length, with head briefly exposed by a trough between dumpers, the merman abandoned spearfishing and made a waterlogged cast. It is one of life’s enduring mysteries why those who fish from land try to launch their hooks as far across the continental shelf as possible, while those in boats all but beach their craft before dropping a line.
While only a few of the Ninety Mile horde believed in fishing by total immersion, a big majority were in there above their thighs or waists. Most ventured further during the cast, but withdrew to more prudent depths for the waiting. To retrieve the incautious, a pair of inflatable surf rescue boats with trained crews were on hand. (Last year, rough seas resulted in 47 rescues.) Also to hand was a heart surgeon—a regular contestant.
Fishing contests have been held on Ninety Mile Beach since 1957, according to the Far North Regional Museum. Twenty years ago, competitors lined their vehicles up at the start, then took off on the gun in a wild race for favoured possies up the beach. Concerns for the welfare of competitors (not to mention other beachgoers in the path of the stampede) led to alternative starting arrangements, and over the years the management of the whole contest has become more professional.
Now the Ninety Mile Beach Snapper Classic lures anglers with the biggest prizes in the country. Only snapper count, and the loot for the largest caught over the five days of the contest is a mesmerising $50,000. Other prizes include a six-night trip to Tonga (winner drawn from a hat), and an all-expenses-paid trip for four to Queensland’s Stradbroke Island Fishing Contest for the winner of the teams event.
The Classic is limited to 1000 New Zealand contestants, with extra slots for overseas entrants. Demand is high; all places are sold before the contest starts—for a hefty $150 per ticket.
Fishermen, of course, are well known for their fastidious regard for truth. Given the impecunious nature of the times, couldn’t cheating prove a temptation for some down-at-heel orthodontist or car salesman?
This is where the organisation comes in. Every competitor must wear a large sealed-in-plastic ID card around their neck at all times. Vehicles have to be parked at the top of the beach (at low tide, a couple of hundred metres from their owners.) When a fish is caught, you take it to the water’s edge and flag down a passing official, who unhooks and tags it with a numbered and specially stamped sheep tag through the gill. Your identity and the fish’s tag number are recorded. No ID card, no tag (and no excuses).
From there, it’s your responsibility to get the fish weighed in before the daily deadline at Waipapakauri base. (People have missed out on prizes because they were 50 yards from the weigh-in when the whistle blew.) There the fish are examined, to check there are no ball bearings up the vent, or other such tampering.
Each day a 20 km section of beach is fished. Although 20 km may sound a lot, it means fishers would be a mere 20 metres apart if they were evenly spaced. In fact, they may end up closer. Since nobody is that keen on seeing their neighbour win the $50,000—especially dishonestly—proximity helps deter cheating. Jean Brljevich, who helps organise the contest with husband Tony and sons, says the 999 not catching the big one are all policemen!
Fishing, like the search for subatomic particles, is an unpredictable exercise. On the first day of this year’s contest—fishing the section of beach near Waipapakauri—just three snapper were caught. (The 1993 contest was worse: no fish at all were caught on two days.)
On day two, the contest moved to the top third of the beach, from a kilometre short of Scott Point to just south of The Bluff. A whopping 583 fish were tagged. It’s a good hour’s drive to this part of the beach. Most vehicles start out in pre-dawn gloom at around six o’clock, though the really keen leave as early as 2 A.M. to secure a favourite spot. The rules say that you can get in position any time, but no line can hit the water before 8.00 A.M.
Even in February, six in the morning can be pretty bleak. On day three, damp, cool gusts from the east were herding an endless procession of scowling grey fleeces to that great corral beyond the western horizon when I joined the masses on the beach. Bundled up and scurrying, they were grabbing a few last-minute supplies from the row of tents behind the dunes: a drink, takeaways for breakfast, spare tackle and, in accordance with the Law of Optimism by which all fishermen abide, lots of bait.
Every vehicle was fuller than Noah’s Ark. Chilly bins, rugs, rods, boxes of food and crates of beer, wetsuits and parkas, chairs, barbecues, picnic tables—yes, picnic tables—and lots of people. With headlights fingering the gloom, the convoy headed north.
I hitched a ride with Mike McCormick, overseer of patrols. He’s been coming to the contest for nine years, most of them in an official capacity. A former possum hunter and deer culler, Mike teaches at Panguru, on the Hokianga Harbour. He stipulated when taking the job that he was unavailable for the week of the Snapper Classic.
Ninety Mile Beach is an official road (at low tide, anyway), and undoubtedly the country’s smoothest, widest and longest straight run. Police periodically patrol it to ensure traffic rules are observed. Splattered possum and hedgehog rarely litter this freeway, but traffic exacts a different toll. Beneath the unyielding wheels a myriad of young tuatua are cracked into gull and fish food.
Purple-brown jellyfish the size of dinner plates go “whump” under the tyres. Some think toheroa—rare, prized, and now protected shellfish—do too. But the beach takes its revenge on the careless, flinging out corroding, white-gloved arms to seize or scar a vehicle.
Hidden in the smoothness of the sand are incised stream beds, escaping across the beach from the dunes. Hitting one at speed can mean big trouble. Apart from the drop-10-30 cm into the bed—the sand is often softer, and you can easily become bogged. There used to be many more such streams, said Mike, but the adjacent Aupouri forest is absorbing the water as it takes over the sand.
Somewhere between Waipapakauri and the fishing zone, dawn broke, turning the sky imperceptibly from charcoal to flannel. I made a less than enthusiastic comment about the weather, but Mike assured me it was good for fishing.
“The offshore wind keeps the sea as calm as it gets up here, and dull overcast encourages the fish to come into shallow water. It couldn’t be better. Some years have been pretty wild, with a strong onshore wind taking waves right up the beach. I’ve seen people fishing from amongst the marram grass on top of the dunes. Catching fish, too.”
A prominent red flag marked the southern limit for the day’s fishing, and immediately vehicles started to make their appearance along the drift line. Some, like pioneer wagons, were clustered together in makeshift encampments. Others were on the move, their drivers changing possie, looking for the spot where the big fish were biting. We rolled on past, stopping at the northern flag, near Scott Point.
I exchanged a few words with a member of team 84, which caught yesterday’s largest total of 38 fish, and which is again fishing beside the top marker on the beach. Clad in a faded green wetsuit with purple sun cream smeared over his face, he told me he reckoned the top end always fished best. Last year this team, from Dargaville, won the trip to Stradbroke Island. “Some Aussies have come back here with us this year. They are a bit nervous about going out as far as we do. Worried about sharks and things.”
He tore the remains of a bait off his hook with his teeth and casually spat it out. “Nothing to worry about out here—only a few rays and flounder,” he said, galloping back into the surf.
Team 84 was doing pretty well today, too: more than 20 fish in the first few hours. Up to four people can register as a team, and the team which catches the most snapper wins, regardless of fish size.
Ambling along the beach, chewing the fat with contestants, I was left with several impressions. First, this is overwhelmingly a men’s event. Certainly, there are a few female contestants and supporters, but 95 per cent of those on the beach are male. For most it is a great escape. No wives, girlfriends, kids. Just fishing, the beach, mates, and a lot of “product” (as the contest’s major sponsors, Lion Red, describe it). Al Bundy would be ecstatic here.
The women cheerfully acknowledge that they are a small minority, but are at ease and happy to be there. Most have been in fishing contests before.
The contest is also a great social leveller. People in parkas and wetsuits look much alike, although the vehi‑cles often give their owners away. New Pajeros rub shoulders with rusted out Corollas. Elderly Landrovers outnumber modern family saloons. Yet all the owners are equal supplicants at Neptune’s throne, and the invisible distribution of fish along the beach, rather than skill, probably determines the winner.
In 1989, and again in 1991, complete novices won. Indeed, the 1991 winner, using borrowed gear (he’d tried surfcasting for the first time six weeks before the contest), caught both largest and second largest fish. For bait he used a dead kingfish that he found on the beach being devoured by a seagull!
Yet Lady Luck doesn’t have the whole say. Despite the examples just quoted and plenty of others like them, some names crop up repeatedly in lists of prizewinners over the years. For instance, the members of this year’s team 84 didn’t merely win last year, but had featured among the winners on numerous occasions back at least as far as 1982. They weren’t the only ones. Surely this kind of success isn’t just chance.
Most of the fishermen are regulars at the Snapper Classic, Several I spoke to had entered 10 or more contests, and most had fished five or six. All said that they’d be back. That $50,000 first prize was a potent drawcard, as were the other prizes.
Many see the contest as a lottery with a big prize and only 1000 tickets. But it is better than a straight lottery. Here everyone thinks that, by virtue of skill, experience or local knowledge, they can swing the odds in their direction. And if they don’t succeed? A member of a team from Ahipara put it this way: “For us locals $150 is a lot of money, but the contest is great fun. There are two teams from Ahipara. Between the eight of us we have only caught eight fish, so we are not even bothering to get them all tagged now. Another snapper or two and I’ll be happy. That’ll make a decent feed.
“I’ve been in fishing contests on this beach for 15 years now. Won a few minor prizes, but nothing big. Mind you,” he chuckled, “first prize in the earliest contest I remember was a transistor radio!”
Just north of The Bluff (a point with an island off it about three-quarters of the way up the beach), a big fight was in progress. When I arrived, it had been under way for an hour: a solid, middle-aged Maori leaning hard back against the weight on his rod, then relaxing the pressure and frantically reeling in a bit of nylon. Because whatever he’d hooked was swinging around on the end of a few hundred metres of line, its movements were barely perceptible. At times, I was sure he had just snagged some weed. Someone muttered, “Doesn’t this guy do this every year?”
After 25 minutes, I left him to it. Mike was convinced he had a large ray. “Snapper fight hard, but tire,” he said. “A shark would have bitten through his trace. Rays are a real nuisance. They can tie up your gear for hours, stop you catching real fish. It’s best to cut your line and be rid of them.”
Probably half of the fish being caught were not snapper. Kahawai, trevally, parore, rays, gurnard and dogfish were the main by-catch. Some were kept for eating, others for bait. Many were thrown back.
Typically, as the day progresses fewer fish are caught. The rising tide forces the fishermen back up the beach, and further away from the best fishing grounds. Fatigue displaces urgency, and tomorrow morning is now the time for the big one. By 3 P.M. the beach evacuation has started.
I rode back with Preston Dixon, a mate of MikeMcCormick’s who lives all of 200 metres from the beach at Waipapakauri. He belongs to the Ninety Mile Beach Surfcasting Club, and fishes the beach regularly. “A few years back I was an alcoholic,” he confides. “I used to talk a lot about fishing, but after my sessions in the pub I never had the time or energy to actually do any. The year before I got off the bottle, I think I scored 38 points in the club competition. The year after, I got about 750!
“A few years back I had a pretty near miss. It was an autumn evening, and I was working off a bank separated from the beach by a deep gut. The tide was rising, and I was just about to call it quits when I landed a worthwhile snapper, so I thought I’d see if there were any more. I tried to get across the gut back out to the bank, but a wave carried me out. It was pretty scary. I tried to stay calm by telling myself that most things get washed back in sooner or later. After getting carried down the beach for two or three kms, I was able to get back to shore. I’m a diabetic, and was pretty tired by the time I got back to the beach. It was really difficult walking up the beach to my VW, but it would have been ridiculous to survive the sea only to collapse on the beach! Waves were lapping around the wheels of my car by the time I made it back.”
Did he jettison his gear, I asked.
“Hell, no, I hung on to that. It was worth $600! But I did drop my sinker off.”
Back beside the beach entrance, competitors throngedaround a stage made from a semi-trailer while sponsors distributed prizes. Most attention focused on the largest snapper of the day, which enriched its owner by $3000. Worthwhile prizes went to the next four fish also. Two large snapper—both over 6 kg and only 150 gm apart—vied for first prize. To my eye, the winning fish looked smaller than the runner up. A rumour (subsequently quashed) suggested that the second fish had been left sitting on the back of a ute all day, while the heavier fish had been soaking in a container of water. “They reckon that snapper dry out quickly and lose 100-200 grams an hour,” a bystander explained.
Judging from the amount of “product” being consumed, fishermen suffer from the same problem.
Dawn on day four saw the cavalcade heading up the beach again, but to the middle section this time. Bleary-eyed after an evening of fishing-speak, I eased myself into Mike McCormick’s 1962 Landrover—a classic even by Northland’s standards. In the front, a range of spare parts jostled for space with ammunition, bits of fishing paraphernalia, cigarettes, assorted nuts and bolts and contest stuff. Way beyond the mobile office, this was more the travelling general store. In the back, life was re-evolving in the form of moss flourishing in the drip channels along the bottoms of the windows.
Mike was looking less than chipper this morning. Toothache. One of his molars was giving him murder. (Next day, he told me he’d had the tooth extracted.
“Dentist wanted to give me some pills, but said I’d have to stay off the booze for a few days. I told him to keep his pills. A fishing contest without beer would be like a wedding without a bride.”)
Up the beach, contestants were attacking the surf with renewed enthusiasm. Could this be the day they won fish lotto?
A couple of guys from Pawarenga, brimming with hope, told me an 11 kg snapper had been caught on the beach on Monday, before the contest started. Anything over 10 kg has magic significance: caught during the contest, such a fish instantly reels in a new 4WD ute worth $40,000.
“Well, I’ll just go and get one now!” With a shout of laughter, one of them dashed back into the sea, a fat lump of bait jiggling from the trace.
Bait is a constant talking point in the fishing fraternity. Most vehicles seemed to be carrying a prodigious amount, but was it the right type? I watched one local tie on a disgusting looking mess of mullet guts, while another told me that octopus was far superior to anything else. “Snapper like it, but kahawai and trevally leave it, so you’re targeting the fish you want.” He caught a 4 kg snapper to prove it. Kahawai and bonito were popular, too, and even the tuatua underfoot were not to be ignored. One fisherman told me he had seen snapper feeding on the tuatua beds. “Yesterday we could see their tails in the surf as they were feeding, but we didn’t have any tuatua.” They weren’t about to be caught out today, judging by their great bin of shellfish.
This section of the beach didn’t seem to be yielding as many fish as the upper part, and people were changing spots frequently. Most seemed to be guided by patterns of waves indicating holes, banks or other underwater anomalies. One competitor from Waiheke Island was using an alternative approach: following the winners—though it wasn’t working too well. “Yesterday this couple were up by Te Paki stream and caught a lot, though I didn’t get much. Today they are doing pretty well, too, but I haven’t got anything. I can’t figure out how they do it.”
Friday’s fishing finished mid-afternoon, and Saturday, the final day of competition, saw another early start. Mihaka Morgan, a probation officer from Kaikohe who had arrived only the day before, talked tackle with me as he went through the ritual of gearing up. First, he tied on a chemically sharpened Gamakatsu hook—”sharper than a gossip’s tongue” he assured me. Next, the sinker—a heavy weight surrounded by long spikes. “Without the spikes, surf and current will whisk your gear down the beach, and you’ll entangle other lines”—a barely forgivable sin, by all accounts.
“A reel with ball and roller bearings, not bushes—a decent Penn, Mitchell, or Daiwa—is essential, and will set you back by $300 minimum,” Mihaka continued. “With a spiked sinker, every retrieve is putting the reel to hard work. It’s actually easier if you have a fish on, because it’ll lift the sinker off the bottom. To make a worthwhile cast your rod has to be at least 13.5 feet long, and the carbon fibre ones are best.”
His rod looked pretty flimsy, I thought, and said so. He invited me to try and break the skinny end. I couldn’t. “Fish never break these things, although they do get broken. Birds usually.” Birds? “When you are roaring up the beach with your rod held upright in a holder and you hit a black-backed gull, the rod will snap every time.”
What about the line? “Surfcasting is the opposite of rockfishing. Here your main line should be light-7 or 8 kg breaking strain—so that you can cast a long way and fit plenty of line on your reel, while the trace and leader will be 24 kg to stand the strain of the cast.”
As the minutes ticked down to the 8 A.M. start time, wetsuits went on and contestants took up their positions in the foam. Towards the top of the day’s fishing zone I found John and Bette Tinsley, residents of Scotland and probably the competitors who had travelled furthest to fish the beach. This was their third visit to New Zealand and their second time in the Snapper Classic.
John loves bowling and fishing competitions, “although I don’t much care for eating fish, and let most of them go” he confided. Bette doesn’t fish, but prefers being with John to sitting in a hotel room. John has participated in fishing contests all over the world, but considers the Ninety Mile Beach event unique. “The fact that you are interested in only one species of fish”—this as he throws back a kahawai—”the length of the beach, very fine organisation, plus the fact that the fish are goers. Hook into a big cod in Ireland and it will say, ‘I’m going back to mum,’ and just burrow straight down into the bottom. The North Sea fish are all the same. Here the fish are built for swimming and take off. It’s much more exciting.
“There’s also a great spirit in the contest here. Last year’s winner foul-hooked the fish and then jumped on it to retrieve it as it escaped in the shallows. In the UK there would have been a terrible outcry—letters to the Times and all. Here there wasn’t a murmur. People are so relaxed.”
Along the sands, mid-afternoon malaise was setting in. A few snapper were being caught, but not enough to buoy hope in the face of ebbing time and flooding tide. Vehicles started to trickle back down the beach to Waipapakauri, and the pool of people lapping the foot of the stage swelled for the final prizegiving.
There were few surprises. No new contenders arose to challenge Peter Bryant of New Plymouth’s 6.9 kg beauty, and Dave Duder’s Dargaville team took out the teams event for the second year in a row with a whopping 69 fish. The 4WD ute for a fish over 10 kg stayed with the sponsor, though next year it will be a spot prize.
At the microphone, Tony Brljevich announced that this year had been the most successful contest ever: fishing conditions close to ideal, 1131 snapper tagged (and many more taken), as well as that massive 583 tagged in a single day—both records for the contest.
Back on the beach, it was another world. The tide, its work of refreshing the beach part done, was on the turn. Beneath its surface, fish were no doubt browsing among the shellfish beds. Although their ranks were somewhat depleted, they hadn’t fared too badly. The Brljevich’s bait selling operation at Waipapakauri had sold close to 1000 kg, and plenty more had been purchased elsewhere. I suspected far more kilos of bait had been devoured than kilos of fish taken.
Wrapped in its own mantle of mist, the beach, cleansed of people, curved away beyond the edge of the world, timeless and infinite. A gull retrieved an exposed shellfish, struggled for height and deliberately dropped it. Patiently, it repeated the process again and again, trying vainly to crack the shell.
Fishermen would empathise; meals (and prizes) are not wrested easily from the beach.