When Captain Cook sailed into our golden shores in 1769, he wrote, “I have named it the Bay of Islands because of the great number which line its shores, these helping to form several safe and commodious harbours wherein is room and depth of water for any number of shipping.”
If he were a details man, he may have added, “and the fishing is choice!”.
The sheltered waters of this world-class fishing destination have healthy fisheries all year round. Thanks to it’s rugged volcanic shore and seabed, the shelter from the large number of islands and the efficient estuary systems, the area remains a breeding ground for many species, a safe haven for juveniles and a perfect feeding ground for the bigger game species.
Quite often the fish are right in on the shore and around the rocky headlands, so if you have a small boat you could easily get some bites. Ideally though, if you’re still on your learner plates, you should book a charter adventure where you’re more likely to get a decent catch!
Fishing off the beach
Sometimes the bay is just too calm and clear for fish to hang out comfortably (perhaps they can hear your stomach grumbling!) So early morning and evening are best times for rock or beach-fishing, especially on a rising tide high about 9am or 9pm.
Please do not take unnecessary risks, especially when near rocks.
The Bay of Islands is known for its calm waters, but we urge you to never take the weather at face value – it can change and change quickly.
Salt Water Fishing
Salt-water fishing is what the area is famous for. As in, world famous!
For those of us who crave the thrill of the bite, or the satisfaction of a successful fight and the hunt for a catch photo of a lifetime – this is the place to nail it.
In New Zealand there is no requirement for a license for recreational salt-water fishing, although daily limits and minimum sizes do apply (more on this below). It’s really important to stick to the rules.
You can divide salt-water fishing into two distinct categories:
Traditional inshore fishing is based on about 30 main species. Their habitat extends from the shore out to depths of about 200 metres (650 feet), at the edge of the continental shelf.
The most common inshore species in the Bay are snapper, grouper, kingfish, kahawai and trevally.
Salt-water fly and light tackle fishing is great all year round.
Deep Water Fish
Traditional deep-water sports or “game” fishing occurs between depths ranging from 200-1500 metres.
Several species migrate to feed in the warm waters of the Bay of Islands annually, mainly in summer and autumn. These include billfish such as marlin (striped, blue and black) and various tuna species.
Each species has a different migration time depending on water temperature.
Species of fish in the Bay of Islands
Most famous for its handsome snapper, other thriving fish species live here including tuna, trevally, hapuku, tarakihi and kahawai. And of course there’s the abundant shellfish; scallops, oysters and mussels.
A focus on Snapper
This is New Zealand’s most popular fish. It’s not difficult to catch in the scheme of things, and boy is it good to eat!
Most of their time is spent near the sea floor, yet they can also be found right up in the shallows of the bay and estuaries and on the sand banks inside the islands.
The average size of snapper is around 1-2kg, but can get bigger or smaller in certain areas or in some seasons. Really big specimens reach 15kg and at that size, can put up an impressive fight.
Fight a Kingfish
Kingfish or “Kingi” are renowned for being battlers, so make sure you’ve done some bench-press training recently if you’re out hunting for one.
They can grow to 50kg plus and nearly 2 metres in length. You’ll hear the reel scream as you hook one, and they’re known to get fishermen and fisherwomen all wrapped up in a line, or pull you this way and that.
Marlin – trophy of the Bay
The Bay of Islands is a world-renowned marlin hunting ground – with three species in the deep; blue marlin, striped marlin, and black marlin. These are spectacular game fish and their huge, sharp bills look iconic in photos.
Charter boat trips are equipped with everything needed to catch these sea giants, and their local knowledge will save you time (and shoulder strain).
Other big game action
When Big Game Season is in full swing there are also plenty of yellow fin tuna, short-billed spearfish, mahimahi and broadbill swordfish.
The best methods to catch these is stray lining, soft baits or skutes, saltwater fly, light tackle, live baiting and jig fishing.
Top fishing spots in the Bay of Islands
Charter fishing tours usually operate around Poor Knights Islands, Urupukapuka Island (the largest of all the islands) Cape Brett and Rawhiti.
Here are some insider tips from locals. Mention them to your skipper, it’s sure to impress:
- Nine Pin
- Cape Brett
- Middle Reef
- Bird Rock
- The Capstan
- Black Rocks Whale Rock
- Red Head
- Hapuku Rock
- Waiwiri Rock
Charters in the Bay of Islands
When it comes to saltwater charters, you can hire a vessel for a few hours or a full day, charter a boat with skipper and guide, and the good companies will cater to all sorts of fishing needs, including stops for swimming, sightseeing, snorkelling and diving.
You can choose to do private charters if you have a bunch of people, or you can jump on a shared vessel, which can be a great way to be social and meet tourists from around the world. Some charters even offer evening outings, or over night stays.
Whether you’re staying in Paihia, Russell, Opua, Waitangi, or anywhere in between, most charter boats will offer pick you up and drop you safely back on a wharf nearby.
There are so many charter options, it may seem overwhelming! We recommend doing your research. Make sure to check out authentic reviews and company websites before booking.
And most importantly, says a salty sea dog I spoke to, “make sure your skipper is legit”.
Find the very best skipper
Skippers should be experienced, come across as seasoned professionals, and put safety and sustainability first. Beware of cowboys (often the extremely cheap option)! Someone who is passionate about the area and teaching their skills is key too.
So don’t be afraid to ask questions and delve deep, before you invest your money and precious time.
Skippers will know the best spots (which are changeable) and understand the tides and therefore “bite time”. When fish aren’t feeding they will be holding somewhere, and experienced skippers can often find these fish, entice them to feed, if you present your line / fly well.
It’s also not just about timing and location but also about depth. You need to work out how deep the fish are and fish with the correct line to the correct depth.
As you can see it’s all a bit technical and if you don’t plan it can be a bit like trying to throw a ball through a hoop while blindfolded. Even though there are plenty of fish around the coast.
Top charters in the Bay of Islands
Here are some top local picks after chatting to tourists, researching feedback, and speaking to locals:
What to with you take on a charter
Fishing gear and essential tools will be supplied, including tackle and bait.
Make sure to bring a big bottle of water, a warm wet weather jacket, togs (bathing suit), towel and very importantly, a hat and sunscreen (although a responsible outfit should have some on board).
They will usually fillet the fish for you too, which is awesome! Ask if you want to watch and learn. Some local restaurants will even take it and cook up a storm for you – it always seems to taste more satisfying knowing you’re the hunter. And if it looks like this:
Sustainability and legal fishing regulations
Everyone who fishes recreationally in New Zealand has a legal requirement to follow the rules. The rules change often and cover things like how many fish / shellfish you’re allowed to take, how big they’re allowed to be, and certain area restrictions.
So check the Ministry of Primary Industries website before you head off (note they do have a free App you can download from their website). The Bay of Islands is under the Auckland and Kermadec region:
The most responsible charters will encourage you to only keep a feed, or maximum 3 fish per person. They will also encourage ‘Tag and Release’ fishing, on all species both on big and small game.
They should also do ‘Game Pitch Baiting’, which is towing hookless lures to tease marlin, and when they are attracted, switch the bait. This technique does not injure the fish as much.
Check that cleaning product on your charter or private vessel are environmentally friendly, and that soft bait is organic instead of the normal plastic that will pollute the sea if you lose it (or the fish gets it).
Bay of Islands Fishing reports
Try these fishing websites for the most up to date info such as weather updates, top spots right now, and what’s biting – all from experienced local skippers:
Marine forecasts, Bay of Islands
For the experienced angler – here are some “must check” resources: