EARLY MORNING MAYHEM ON THE FLATS

Words Alan Bulmer , Photo’s & Video Mark Hoffman

Mark Hoffman and I have been planning for weeks to fly fish a shallow flat we’d discovered on Google Earth close to central Auckland. Our plan was to hit the spot when the weather was settled and a high tide next coincided with dawn.

All the stars aligned this Saturday. The weather was perfect. Fine and sunny with a westerly breeze so lacking puff it struggled to ruffle the surface in the shallows. It was mirror calm and it was easy to see every piscatorial indiscretion across a huge expanse of estuarine flat.

We rendezvoused at the car park just as the sun rays were starting to warm the shallows and walked down the the water accompanied to the lyrical warbling of a pair of amorous Tui. Even their heavy breathing didn’t disturb the mirror like serenity of the flats. As we neared the estuary we thought we saw a fish move in close and flung a fly over it, just in case, as you do. The fish turned out to be a rock over which wavelets only occasionally broached but it certainly got the blood flowing and primed us well for the session ahead.

We ambled slowly along the sandy foreshore scanning the crystal clear shallows for signs of life. Progress was pedestrian as every few steps was accompanied by a similar period of reconnaissance. After we’d travelled about 150 metres I spotted a fin and a tentative swirl near an object floating on the surface within casting distance.  I urged Mark to get a cast over it as I deposited my spare rod and vest pack next to a patch of scrub and driftwood. He covered it perfectly and the snapper rose again, ignoring his offering and moving elsewhere. It was still hunting and definitely not spooked.

The minutes ticked by and nothing further happened so I aimlessly sent out a cast directly out from where I was standing watching. What happened next astounded both of us. First a series of bubbles began to pock mark the surface about 10 metres out and the water started to slowly form the shape of a big predator as it headed directly for me. When it was about three rod lengths from the shore the snapper stopped, swirled, showed its dorsal and then upended, flashing its broad tail at us as it headed down to gorge itself on something on the bottom. The water was only knee deep and tail was around 16 – 18″ from tip to tip. It was a massive fish, oblivious to our presence. The tail continued to appear, wave about like a dive flag, and then disappear for several minutes as it focussed on breakfast. I, meanwhile, was bent double peppering the area with short casts hoping that the fish would snaffle my fly in amongst the silt cloud it was generating. I was using a small nondescript natural coloured shrimp / smelt Clouser (EZ tube and badger fur) and I suspect that the snapper could not see it in amongst the silt haze or that I may have been casting marginally too short. Either way my offerings were given the one finned salute.

This game of “cat and mouse” continued for at least five minutes. Me crouched like a heron, dropping cast after cast all around the swirls, and the leviathan feeding voraciously, oblivious to our presence. Mark managed to catch some of it on video and it shows just how close the snapper was. Flats sight fishing at its finest. Heart stopping action. Epic!

Next a stringray got involved in the action, broaching in the shallows about 10 metres from me. One wingtip was in the water and the other was patting the sand as it hoovered something that was hiding, no doubt trembling, where the tiny wavelets were lapping. I got distracted by this commotion and when I glanced back the snapper had gone again. There was so much going on that you didn’t know where to look.

Meanwhile Mark had spotted a huge splashy commotion in the water about 100 metres away that just screamed kingfish and set off at a brisk canter to intercept. He got about halfway there and the kingfish turned and headed directly at him, turbos engaged. It was pushing a huge arrowhead of water and there was no mistaking what it was doing or where it was going. Unfazed Mark shot of a couple of mint casts in front of it and had the rod under his armpits double hauling the line in as fast as his hands would go. Line and hands came together in a seemingly endless blur. On the second cast the fish veered towards the fly and Mark felt resistance, struck and came up short. He spun at me and asked whether I saw that. By now I was punch drunk and just nodded repeatedly like a toy dog on the parcel tray of a ’70’s Vauxhall. The kingfish then swirled and headed out into the deeper water. Afterwards Mark said that he suspected that the heavy fly actually nudged the bottom in the calf deep water but it was tremendously exciting, nonetheless.

I glanced briefly at my watch. 30 minutes of mayhem just after high tide and then the estuary went quiet. We suspect that the predators moved out as the tide started to ebb and drain the flat. The baitfish, ranging in size from 2.5 – 7 cm, were still there but soon they too headed out into deeper water. No doubt into more trouble well out of our casting range.

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It is obviously important to have glass calm, crystal clear water for this sort of action and the window of opportunity is small, often only 45 minutes. For some reason carnage often occurs as the sun starts to warm the shallows. I think the bait fish schools may start to coalesce and this makes them easy targets. The big predators attack with the sun at their backs and the low sun angle makes it hard for the victims to see them coming, especially when they are moving at high speed. Not the ideal start to the morning if you are a quivering baitfish with your mind locked on carnal thoughts.

This sort of fishing is highly addictive. Every minute of action pure gold. You really need to try it!

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