WAIHEKE ISLAND – SALT FLY NIRVANA?

Waiheke Island is located in Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf. A short ferry ride from downtown Auckland it is arguably the jewel in the crown when it comes to saltwater fly fishing around Auckland. If you want a better idea of how good it can be click on the following video from Paul Smith to  see local fishing legends, Adam Clancey and Tom Lusk, getting up close and personal with the resident snapper and kahawai.

https://activeanglingnz.com/2015/10/05/video-the-assignment/

I was recently fortunate enough to spend a day on the water around Waiheke on a Saltflyfish charter (www.saltflyfish.co.nz) with Matt von Sturmer and another up and coming young angler, Max Lichtenstein. Matt lives on the island and runs his guiding business year round. His knowledge of the Waiheke coast line is immense and he is without peer when it comes to knowing where to find fish that can be targeted with a fly. If you are looking to target kingfish, snapper or kahawai on the fly then Matt is the man to contact.

What follows is my account of our day on the water.

“After several weeks of planning we finally settled on Tuesday as the day when our ferrules would align. Matt and I were keen to start as early as possible as high tide was at 9.15 am and we wanted to stalk the flooding flats in the early morning light when the sun angle was low.

To make this happen I had to catch the 6.00 am ferry from downtown Auckland. This arrived into Matiatia harbour on Waiheke Island around 6.35 am which was close to sunrise. Perfect. Matt and Max were just launching his 20′ bespoke centre console fly fishing skiff as I arrived on the ferry and within 20 minutes we had donned life jackets, undertaken a comprehensive safety briefing and were off on our adventure.

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The day had dawned overcast and cool. A steady 15 knot northerly breeze was buffeting the exposed side of Waiheke so we had no option but to head to the sheltered lee of the island. Sergeants channel had a nasty short chop which made it too uncomfortable to target the marker buoys so we headed into a popular bay to drift the shallows in search of snapper.

The bay was only 2 metres deep at high tide and we carefully motored in and cut the outboard 50 metres from the shore. Matt then set up the drift perfectly and kept us on track using small spurts of power from the Minnkota electric motor. He had pre-rigged two Sage rods up with floating fly lines and one with an intermediate. Onto each line he tied small Clousers with Lefty’s loop knots. Each Clouser was weighted differently so that we fished the water column thoroughly.

Max was first onto the casting platform and, fuelled with the enthusiasm of youth, had fired of two casts and retrieved them before I got organised and rotated into the casting sequence. My first cast on the #7 weight Sage Salt went long and precisely where it was directed. Exactly what you’d expect from a high end tool. Nice.

Meanwhile the tiny nondescript Clouser percolated through the water column and settled gently on the sandy bottom in amongst the patches of eelgrass. I started a very slow retrieve primarily to keep in contact with the fly as Matt has suggested that a “do nothing” retrieve would work best, the movement of the boat gently twitching the fly along the bottom in seductive spurts. Suddenly I felt a gentle pluck on the fly and immediately strip struck. The line came up solid on a fish so I handed the rod to Max to play and land the first fish of the day. He did this expertly and in short order a feisty little snapper of around 25 cm was brought boat side and quickly released.

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The drift was very successful with a steady procession of snapper snaffling the Clousers, probably 10 in total. Nothing legal but some very close. Max probably hooked the most and quickly mastered the casting and retrieving routine. It was interesting that the intermediate line got the most strikes probably because it spent more time hugging the bottom.

We opted not to keep drifting but to head to another shallow bay which had some really interesting sand bars and channels. A favourite haunt of stingrays and seemingly symbiotic kingfish who often ride on the backs of the rays and use this subterfuge to target unsuspecting flounder and piper. Unfortunately the water clarity was affected by the breeze which made spotting challenging. We cast blind at the likely spots but of “his highness” there was no sign.

Matt who was constantly reviewing options decided that the best thing to do was to head to a sheltered bay at the eastern end of the island and try and find some large kahawai harassing the anchovy schools. This as it turns out was a stroke of genius.

It took around 20 minutes to motor to the bay Matt had selected and on the way we passed many small inlets that would no doubt be holding predators at some stage of the tide. Waiheke island is simply awash with opportunity.

As we turned into past the headland into the bay Matt had selected the water colour changed slightly from cloudy green to a darker clearer blue. A large congregation of fairy terns were ducking and diving in the distance, splashing into the water occasionally to secure a slender strip of silver. Under them kahawai were slashing through balls of trembling anchovy with the measured precision of shearing comb through fleece. In short it was going off. We slowed down and motored carefully to intercept the fast moving entourage. Matt picked the direction of travel from the lead gulls and expertly positioned the boat well ahead so that the fish came to us.

Out went three fly lines in quick succession. Max opted for a rod rigged with a crease fly, Matt the intermediate with a Clouser and me a slow sink anchovy fly on a floating line.  Nothing happened for several minutes and we repositioned. Again fly lines deposited flies around the now rapidly dispersing bait ball. Suddenly Matt yelled that he was in and the rod immediately assumed a tight working curve as line was ripped from the whirring spool by a big kahawai. First it went long and deep then, as Matt gained control, it headed for the surface jumping repeatedly and shaking it’s head like an angry tarpon. The constant jumping seemed to wear the kahawai down quickly and within minutes it was drawn to the boat to be carefully netted and released.

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I realised that in the relatively shallow bay the fish were probably hanging under the school so I let my fly sink to the bottom before beginning a slow, jerky retrieve. This was a great call as within two strips my anchovy fly got absolutely slaughtered by a heavy fish. The kahawai took off like it had been poked with a cattle prod. The fly line hissed off the spool in seconds as did 50 metres of braided backing, crackling as it was brutally dragged across the guides. I made the mistake of trying to slow the spool early and got rapped knuckles and a line burn for my trouble. The fish eventually slowed and I was able to seize the initiative. In no time at all, with some fast reel work and pumping, I was able to get the fly line back on the spool only for it to disappear again as the kahawai took off on another withering burst. Again in came the fly line and again, just as quickly, it disappeared. This went on for several minutes until I got the fish about 2.5 metres under the boat. It would not budge and started to circle. Around the coamings we went. Two complete  circuits. Then as I got to the bow it took off back under the boat. Sensing the danger I plunged the fly rod deep into the water almost up to the handle. The reel screamed as backing disappeared after the kahawai. This was to be the last burst as once I got the fly line back it never left the spool again. Slowly the fish yielded and allowed itself to be drawn boat side for netting, photography and release. Over 7 lbs of fast twitch muscle fibre. What a fish and what a fight on a #7 weight.

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The next few hours passed in a blur. The bay was pockmarked with anchovy schools (which looked for all the world like cloud shadows) and we used the electric motor to move from one to another. If we let our lines sink we picked up snapper up to 32 cm. If the lines got intercepted on the drop then it was inevitably a kahawai of 5 – 7 lb. All fought long and hard. Many went aerial but others slugged it out deep. Any fly that looked like an anchovy eventually got hammered.

Matt and Max were determined to catch kahawai on crease flies and eventually succeeded. I can see why. Watching a crease fly splutter and gurgle across the surface followed by three ravenous kahawai fighting to nail it is exhilarating stuff. Epic!

One of the interesting things I noticed was how the kahawai schools seemed to be herding the anchovy towards the shore forcing them to coalesce. However, unbeknownst to the anchovy there were almost always kahawai patrolling the shore line and these fish attacked outwards once the anchovy mass wiggled close. You could see where every kahawai was as the anchovies seemed to part to let them through. A clear track through a solid dark mass is easily visible, just like a fire break in a forest.

All to soon it was time to head back to Matiatia to catch the ferry home. We were all riding the crest of an emotional wave after such a stunning day of flats fishing. Matt had done an outstanding job and he didn’t miss a trick all day. Great company to boot. The boat was a joy to fish from and the tackle top notch and well maintained. Max had come a long way during the day and his casting was beginning to look sharp. The kahawai certainly thought so as he hooked three fish in a handful of casts just before we headed for home. Well done that man.

I have no idea of how many fish we caught in total during the session but the needle would have been well into the “Plenty” zone. If you are an Auckland based fly fisherman then you’d be mad not to grab a mate and check Matt’s operation out. Sight fishing at its finest on your back door step. As Arnie famously said “I’ll be back”!

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