New Zealand is home to some o spectacular big game fishing and the Bay of Islands is no exception. If you want the thrill, the chase, and adrenaline pumping excitement that comes with big game fishing, the Bay of Islands is the place for you.
As early as 1926, American writer Zane Grey enthusiastically described the Bay of Islands as the “Angler’s El Dorado,” and the east coast of Northland remains a fisherman’s paradise to this day.
The History of Big Game Fishing In The Bay Of Islands
So how and why did this American writer proclaim the greatness of game fishing in the Bay of Islands to the rest of the world? Pearl Zane Grey was born in Zanesville, Ohio in 1872. He followed in his father’s footsteps to a point. He graduated in dentistry like his old man, but instead of going into the family business he decided he’d rather put his hand to writing, and not teeth.
Zane Grey became one of the most famous novelists of his day. His books have spawned more than 100 movies, and it was said sales of all his written works were exceeded only by the Bible and the Boy Scouts Handbook. He wrote so much that even after he died in 1939, his publisher was able to release a new title every year for the following 24 years.
As well as Westerns, Zane Grey loved telling stories of legendary battles with giant fish, preferably based on his own experience as a member of the Tuna Club of Catalina Island, the world’s oldest game fishing association.
It was on California’s Catalina Island Zane Grey met Otago-born Charles Baker. A fellow member of the Tuna Club and a millionaire rubber baron who was living out his retirement in the world’s greatest fishing spots. After two eventful weeks in the Bay of Islands in 1925, he pitched his idea to the New Zealand Government’s Department of Tourist and Health Resorts that they should be capitalising on the Bay of Islands’ big game fishing scene.
Charles Baker passed on to Zane Grey a personal invitation from Prime Minister William Massey to investigate our fishing grounds, along with some photos of the catch of the day. Zane Grey made two fishing trips to the Bay of Islands in the summers of 1926 and 1927. On the first voyage out he caught the first broadbill ever on rod and reel in New Zealand waters, and his friend landed a world record 976 pound (442kg) black marlin. While the Bay of Islands is proudly part of the Winterless North, New Zealand is no stranger to unpredictable weather and the 1927 trip was plagued by squally seas.
In a bid to earn his favour, Bay of Island locals built the Zane Grey Sporting Club in his honour on Urupukapuka Island. It’s since been renamed the Otehei Bay Resort, as sadly most of the original buildings were destroyed by fire in 1972. Today, as it was back then, it’s a stunning place to relax with a meal and a few drinks after a hard day’s fishing.
Big game fish in the Bay of Islands
While snapper and kahawai are delicious, reeling one of these in simply doesn’t compare to hauling in an 80kg monstrosity over the side of your boat. So if you’re coming to the Bay of Islands for a big game fishing adventure, what can you expect to catch?
Possibly the most popular big game fish in New Zealand. Most of the world record striped marlin in almost every line class have been caught right here. Marlin are a predator that hunt bait fish during the day in the top 100m or so of the ocean. Striped marlin make up 90 per cent of the big game fish caught in New Zealand.
The best months for striped marlin fishing are between February through to late May in the Bay of Islands. The changing seasons cause a current upwelling which attracts massive numbers of bait fish. An average striped marlin weighs between 80 and 120kg.
More aggressive than their striped cousins, Blue Marlin are becoming more common in Northland waters. The window for catching them is a lot shorter, with February generally considered the best time.
The largest Blue Marlin caught in New Zealand was in 1998 at North Cape, towards the top of Northland, weighing in at 456kg. An average Blue Marlin weighs 200kg, but you’re likely to encounter bigger ones too.
It’s believed New Zealand is at the furthest Pacific edge of this marlin’s territory, which is why we find some of the largest specimens. They’re the ones with the strength and stamina to swim this far to feast on the baitfish that hug our coastline. Black marlin are more frequently found closer to the coastline than their relatives and have been known to catch anglers on the rocks by surprise as they cast for kingfish.
Back in 2017 Kiwi Olympic swimmer Moss Burmester took a 163.4kg black marlin in Northland while spearfishing. Some have even landed black marlin as heavy as 350kg, but that’s towards the top of the scales.
More commonly known as broadbills, they gain their name from their long, flattened noses which can reach half the length of their body. Marlin on the other hand have more rounded noses, like a spear. Few broadbills were caught in the Bay of Islands until the 1980s when new techniques like lightsticks and drift fishing were used to target them.
To catch broadbill swordfish you need to head to deeper waters. They have ‘heaters’ in their head that keep their brain and eye warm, which allows the billfish to hunt accurately in much deeper, colder waters.
Heavy fishing in the Pacific Ocean mean the once common yellowfin tuna are very rare in New Zealand waters. They were known to herd schools of baitfish into ‘meatballs’ making for an excellent day fishing.
Bigger yellowfin would arrive in Northland waters around December and January, with the larger herding groups taking place later in February and March. Weights between 50kg and 60kg were fairly common, but today an average of 35kg is more likely.
Another fish that put New Zealand and the Bay of Islands on the map. Kingfish or kingies reach their full potential in Northland waters, with world records being set here with catches of 52kg. These powerful fish are fairly common and easy to target, but catching them is another matter. When your reel starts screaming, be prepared for a battle.
Kingfish can be caught in the Bay of Islands all year round. While summer offers better fishing conditions, kingfish caught in winter are less common but often larger. Look for places with a decent tidal current like rocky headlands and reefs.
More of a tropical species, you can catch mahimahi in the Bay of Islands during the peak of a hot summer. Mahi loosely translates to ‘work’ or ‘strong’ and catching one is certainly hard work, as they’re very strong. In the northern hemisphere they’re known as dorado for their golden colour.
In the Bay of Islands, an adult mahimahi weighing 10kg is considered pretty good. In other parts of the Pacific where the water is warmer, mahimahi can reach 20kg. While not the biggest of game fish, as their name suggests, they are very powerful for their size and put up a good fight.
Where to fish for big game
If you’re heading out with a local Bay of Islands fishing charter, you can be sure they’ll have a few spots off the beaten track where you can try your luck. A few of the more popular spots for big game fishing in the Bay of Islands are between the coast of Piercy Island or Motukokako and Bird Rock. You can also go further north towards the Cavalli Islands, off the coast of Matauri Bay, or try your hand near Ninepin Rock.
Out here at the entrance to the Bay of Islands, warm water sweeps down the east coast of the North Island from the East Australian Current. It’s a degree or two warmer than the water closer to the coast. It carries the baitfish, with the larger marlin and broadbills in hot pursuit.
When to fish in the Bay of Islands
In general, the fishing season across the Bay of Islands runs from October through to May. The best fishing however is when the water is warmest, which is normally in January and February. The only downside to fishing in these peak summer months, is this is when the Bay of Islands is busiest. More boats, more people in accommodation and more anglers out on the water.
Fishing during January and February is fine if you don’t mind a bit of competition. If you can stretch your fishing trip out to late February and early March, you may be rewarded with quieter seas while still making the most of the warmer weather.
Big game fishing charters in the Bay of Islands
If you’re coming to the Bay of Islands without rod, reel or boat, you can still enjoy a day or two of big game fishing. You’re spoilt for choice from Haruru, around to Paihia and across to Russell for your choice of big game fishing charters.
SpotX Fishing Charters
20B York St, Bay of Islands, Russell
With two boats available, you can choose to go for snapper and kingfish on board the Wairerer, or take it up a notch on the Screaming Reels as you chase marlin, kingfish and swordfish. Half day fishing trips from 4-5 hours, or full day 6-7 hour trips. With private charters or shared seating, SpotX can pick you up from Russell Wharf, Paihia Wharf or Waitangi Wharf.
Earl Grey Fishing Charters
Marsden Rd, Bay of Islands, Paihia
Aboard the Earl Grey II, your captain Steve Butler can guide you through the waters to the best fishing spots. Just tell them what you want to catch and how long to head out for. With full day or half day excursions, choose from reef fishing charters for kingfish, bottom fishing charters for snapper, or a specialty marlin charter in season. Choose from a private fishing trip, or shared group. Families welcome and all levels of fishing experience are catered for. Pick up from Russell Wharf, Paihia Wharf or Waitangi Wharf.
Paihia Wharf, Bay of Islands
At Wildblue Charters you’re encouraged to choose your own fishing adventure. Half day packages range up to four hours, while a full day gives you up to nine hours on the water. The Wildblue is also fully kitted out for multiple days on the water. Choose from big game fishing charters in the deeper parts of the Pacific Ocean, kingfish charters around drop offs and reefs, or snapper fishing charters in shallower waters around the islands and bays.
Blue Sea Charters
Wharf 101, Marsden Rd, Paihia, Bay of Islands
With two boats in their fleet, Blue Sea Charters cater for private and group fishing tours, on a range of full day or half day options. Aboard Skipper Jimyou can fish the inner reefs for snapper and kingfish, while the Splash is better suited for bigger game like marlin, hapuka or grouper. Whether you’re a novice who wants to land your first snapper, or an experienced angler after the big game, Blue Sea Fishing Charters can cater to you.
Bay of Islands Swordfish Club
The oldest big game club in the Bay of Islands, you can find their clubhouses in both Russell and Paihia. The walls are covered in local history, memorabilia, photos of big marlin hoisted on tripods, and the original catch boards where you can trace the names of Zane Grey and Charles Baker.
Both clubhouses have bar and restaurant facilities open to the public. They are fantastic places to enjoy the stunning Bay of Island vistas, while retelling a tall tale or two about the ones that got away.
Conservation and fishing rules
For saltwater fishing in the Bay of Islands you are not required to have a fishing license. However, Fisheries New Zealand, as part of New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries does have strict rules about how fish sizes and catch limits. If you’re heading out on a fishing charter, your captain will be able to advise you on the rules for whatever species of fish you catch. The rules do change occasionally, so if you’re heading out on your own, you’re encouraged to check ahead of time to make sure you stay on the right side of the law.
All anglers are also encouraged to catch and release, leaving more fish in the Bay of Islands for future generations. In the past, some fishermen used a treble or gang hooks for big game fishing, which can be harder to remove without injuring the fish . Most anglers today use lures with a single J shaped hook that increases the chances of your fish being released alive after the all-important photo.
Come fishing with us
The Bay of Islands is the home of big game fishing in New Zealand. It’s where it all started, and is still a favourite among Kiwis from around the country, as well as visitors from overseas. Whether you’re travelling up towing your own boat, or want an experienced captain to take you out to the best spots, the Bay of Islands has everything to offer anglers wanting to take on big game. If you want more information about fishing, don’t hesitate to read our complete guide on fishing in the Bay Of Islands!