Golden Bay Kingfish

I first experienced the thrill of kingfish on fly with Justin Duggan in Sydney Harbour. I was thrown into a fast-paced world of strong fights, exciting hook-ups and tenacious fish. It was on this day with Justin that saltwater fly fishing began to run deep into my freshwater veins. I wanted more. 

New Zealand’s South Island — famous for its rugged beauty, clear mountain streams and large healthy trout — is not known for its saltwater fly fishing. That is, until now… 

As Matt Jones and I prepared our trip for 2016, we decided to venture beyond our usual backcountry haunts. After hours of discussion and debate, we finally landed on our goal for the trip. We were going to catch a kingfish from the beach.

Upon arrival, we packed the car and set off up the east coast. Leaving Christchurch we headed towards Blenheim and filled the hours with incessant predictions about what we might find. Despite our enthusiasm, the first few days on the coast produced nothing but dead ends. While promising for the boat-based angler, it wasn’t the right territory for our beach-fishing dream. 

We’d seen a few photos leaked the previous year by local trout guide Anton Donaldson, but only had a vague idea of where the fish might be. By day four a call to the local caravan park in Collingwood confirmed our suspicions.

“Hi, I’d like to book a cabin for the next three nights please…” 

“No problem, we will see you soon.”

“Oh, and one last question,” I said, as casually as I could. “Have you by any chance seen any kingfish on the beach?” 

It was only a short pause, but it felt like an eternity as we waited for the answer. “Yes, there are heaps of them here at the moment,” said the lady, as if it was a normal thing. “My husband caught one on spin gear yesterday.” 

With her voice on loudspeaker, Matt almost drove the car off the road. We were thrown into a fit of excitement, and knew exactly where we needed to go. We pulled out Google Maps and typed in our destination. We were headed to the northern most tip of the South Island — Golden Bay. 

BEGINNINGS

Collingwood is the central town of the Golden Bay region and soon became our base. Almost as though by divine intervention, we managed to run into Anton on our first night in the local pub. He was joined by Tore Nilsen and (even more random) by our mate Alex Waller from the North Island. Alex just happened to be on holidays in the area at the same time. So there we were, five fly fishermen, sitting amidst our beers and schnitzels, planning the next day’s kingfish expedition. 

That planning session spilled over to the next morning in the cosy Courthouse Café as expectation began to peak — it was time to go fishing. Full of questions for Anton, we finally made our way to the beach.

Anton Donaldson is an extremely humble guy who spends most of the summer guiding on trout. When he simply stumbled across this fishery, almost by accident, he wasn’t sure of its potential. He wasn’t looking for great saltwater locations, but after witnessing a number of good sessions,  Anton soon realised that this was more than just a one-off.

 

DAY ONE

Our impromptu fly-fishing group was soon rigging-up beachside, to the north of Collingwood, and chatting excitedly about the day ahead. 

Unlike in other parts of New Zealand, this gathering drew plenty of attention from tourists and locals at the beach. We even got a last minute addition, as Ben Harris, another avid fly fisherman, saw us as he drove past and decided to join in the fun. 

Anton explained what he had seen on previous trips. The kingfish often follow stingrays and will come in over the flats as the tide moves in. The task was simple: locate a stingray, cast towards it, and you were in with a good chance. 

I happened to be fishing close to Tore when the first kingfish were spotted — a free-swimming school of fish moving in with the tide. I managed the first cast and within seconds a kingfish exploded onto my fly. A big run followed, but the fly popped free from its mouth.

With barely a chance to curse, Tore was onto the school and connected to a fish. I quickly made my way over as he landed it, and so began the most spectacular day’s fishing I have ever experienced. 

The stingrays appeared and, as Anton had predicted, each cast to-wards them delivered action. There were explosions and animated yells across the water as we all got on board with stunning fish.

Things began to cool off as the tide peaked. Tore was the first to venture further up the beach and shouts of his success soon followed. As we made our way towards him it was clear he had stumbled upon several more schools of free swimming and ‘ray-riding’ kingfish. We focused on the moving bow waves, where fish were cruising in as little as 20 cm
of water. 

Tore hooked into another fish and called out towards me: “Josh, there’s another one coming your way.”

One throw of the surface popper, several pops, and I was connected too! In the midst of the excitement we suddenly realised that all five of us were connected at once. Those earlier double and triple hook-ups now seemed less impressive than this five-way landing of fish. To our bewildered delight, it happened more than once!

As the day inevitably came to a close I am not sure we could fully grasp what we had just experienced. Standing on the beach at Golden Bay, we could barely reconcile that this had actually happened in the South Island. With hard fighting encounters, clear-water sight fishing, and a plethora of kingfish, it was saltwater flats heaven.  

But things changed dramatically the next day as north-easterly winds pushed through and made the whole area murky and unfishable. Even after exploring several new locations it was clear that this was one wind you didn’t want in Golden Bay.

ROUND TWO

Our first kingfish trip came to an end all too fast, and our second trip was planned before we even got back. Having a good idea of what to expect, we checked the weather and hoped for the best. Golden Bay is protected from the south by the mountain range behind the coast, and from the west by the sandy Farewell Spit reaching out from the northernmost point of the South Island. 

Meeting up with Anton and Alex again, Matt and I joined in and prepared for a new adventure. This time we decided to start where we’d left off, then to gradually make our way north. We planned to fish new areas of the flats and to see just how late in the day the fish would hang around. 

Almost like a welcome home gift, Alex soon connected with a good kingfish, no more than five metres out from the beach. But we quickly realised that the stingrays weren’t as plentiful as on our first trip. With a few fish on the board we made our way around to the next bay, coined ‘Tore’s Bay’ from his previous success. Once again, we found an unbelievable array of cruising stingrays with many kingfish behind them, and several free-swimming schools. 

As Anton had predicted, the larger fish had now moved in over the flats. We saw copious amounts of fish in the 80–90 cm range, with Matt’s best taking the lead at one metre in length.

Amazed by another day of incredible action, we decided to head towards the northern end of the beach. By this time the tide was well out, requiring a walk of more than a kilometre to get to the water’s edge. Even so, the kingfish were there, cruising off the back of stingrays, some tailing in only 15 cm of water. It didn’t seem to matter what point the tide was at, the action continued late into the afternoon. 

Our decision to only fish surface poppers this time provided unbelievable fun, with around 40 fish connected over the course of that day. 

Once again, the following days became very windy, this time from the west and south-west. There was often cover on high tide as the water hugged the edges, but as the tide made its way out, the wind would go wild. On these days we landed fish, but the stingrays were fewer and so were the available kingfish. Even so, those we encountered were all eager to eat a popper from the surface.

We agreed that every fishery needs those tough days to make the great ones great. And even on the windy days we felt satisfied with what we caught. 

GOLDEN BAY

Retreating to the pub where it all began, we caught up with Anton one last time before heading home, keen to hear his thoughts after the fishing mayhem of the past month. “I think I will be guiding much less trout, and much more kingfish in coming seasons,” he said, knowing this place was too good to keep secret.

“Cheers to that,” we agreed with a deep sense of satisfaction after our adventures on this new frontier.

Golden Bay has a huge expanse of sandy flats, of which we only explored a small portion. It will be exciting to see how this fishery expands in the coming years. With the opportunity of sight fishing a surface popper to kingfish in clear, shallow water, my hunch is that it has a bright future.

A huge thanks to Anton for so generously sharing his time and knowledge. For more information or to enjoy this beautiful fishery visit: 

www.nztroutadventures.com

From FlyLife Issue 84