The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 6 (October 1, 1928)
The Thrills of Swordfishing — In New Zealand's Northern Waters
Lord grant that I may catch a fish
So big that even I
When talking of it afterwards
Shall never need to lie.
—An angler's prayer.
When Captain Cook, the famous navigator, sailed round the northern coast of New Zealand, he did not think, perhaps, that in years to come Cape Brett and Piercy Island (which he named after Sir Piercy Brett, one time Lord of the Admiralty) would be acclaimed as the finest deep-sea fishing grounds in the world. Such indeed is the distinction enjoyed by these sea areas to-day. Having, in my article in the last issue of the Magazine, briefly described the scenic attractions and quiet charm of the Bay of islands (named by Thomas Bracken the “Bay of Beauty”) and of Urupukapuka Island (named by Zane Grey the “Camp of the Larks”—these two places being famous for the sport of deep-sea fishing), I shall endeavour to deal more fully here with the art of swordfishing.
It is the ambition of most people who go to the Bay of Islands to land a swordfish with rod and line. In the first place let me ask: What are swordfish? The swordfish (xiphias gladius) is a fish allied to the mackerel, and is distinguished by having its upper jaw elongated into a sword-shaped projection.
I may state that there are several kinds of swordfish, of which in our Northern East Coast waters, we have the striped marlin, the black marlin and the broadbill. These strange fish travel a long distance, and it is not exactly known to this day whence they come and whither they go. Experts tell us that they travel as far as the Mediterranean Sea and Japan Sea, returning to New Zealand waters only when the warm currents strike the northern coast. Some people may not believe this, but when I say that the godwits leave the north of New Zealand, to a day, and fly away as far as Siberia, they will perhaps be inclined to the opinion that the swordfish do travel as far north as the places I have mentioned. However, be that as it may, it is safe to predict that these fish, which have been the means of attracting a large number of fishermen to New Zealand, will continue to visit our shores, and anglers and others need have no fear of the waters becoming depleted of these sporting monsters of the deep. Their breeding grounds lie many hundreds of miles away, and they come here to feed. It is, however, most essential that indiscriminate netting in the feeding grounds on our northern coast line be prohibited.
Where do Swordfish Spawn?
The greatest interest is taken, not only by deep sea anglers, but by students of marine page 49 life, in the spawning places of swordfish. The spawning places have never been definitely determined, though the fish are found in many places in both hemispheres, and were referred to in the works of the earliest historians. Mr. Zane Grey, during his recent visit to the Bay of Islands, noticed that, in several cases the swordfish caught by him appeared to have spawned compartively recently. During his coming visit to New Zeland in December, it is his intention to devote more time to noting facts which may help to elucidate the secret so far as the spawning places of the swordfish are concerned. (Captain Mitchell, who is accompanying Zane Grey, has written from Tahiti to the Publicity Department in Wellington saying that it is the intention of the Zane Grey party to fish through the Pacific Island waters in the hope of establishing the locality of the breeding grounds of swordfish. It is thereby hoped to ascertain whether in the winter period they leave New Zealand for the warmer waters of the Pacific, and whether in the course of the next few weeks they will be moving south from the islands about Tahiti.)
Incidentally, it may be mentioned that the mako shark, hammer-head shark, thresher shark and kingfish, remain in close proximity to our coastline up north. These fish are all classed as “game” by the New Zealand Deep-sea Angling Clubs and may be caught at any period of the year.
It is a proud day for the angler who lands successfully a black marlin, a broadbill, or a striped marlin.
We have heard so much about Captain L. D. Mitchell (I believe one of the greastest fisher-men New Zealand has ever seen) and his capture of the 9761b black marlin, that I feel it must make one just long for the time when he may be able to visit the fishing grounds and try his “‘prentice hand” at similar captures. (It was only the other day I had sent me an overseas paper containing a photo depicting Captain Mitchell's grand swordfish hanging from the tripod which was erected on Urupukapuka Island. The great fish was caught in 1926, and is thus serving as an advertisement in making this remote portion of our Empire known.)
The vast expanse of the northern fishing grounds, with their acres and acres of fish—fish so tame that you can touch them as you pass through the shoals on your way to spend happy moments after the huge denizens of the deep—provide the angler with untold opportunities for the pursuit of his sport. (While feeding, the shoals of kahawai and travalli make a rushing noise like a brook running over boulders. At such times the swordfish and other big game fish are after them.)
The best times to hunt the swordfish are during the months of December, January, February, March, April, and at the beginning of May, after which they suddenly take their departure.
How to catch a Swordfish.
Now, how is a swordfish caoght with rod and line? The bait used is a kahawai or a young kingfish. The angler, of course, fishes from a launch which is fitted up with every conceivable contrivance for the capture of the big fish. The launchmen, who are experts at the game, always show considerable skill with their boats, especially when once a fish is hooked. Here, it is interesting to note that a swordfish, after being hooked, invariably heads off in a northerly direction.
This is where an angler has to exercise his patience as he may have to play his prize for one hour, or even up to four or five hours, as the case may be.
The angler sits in a comfortable swivelled chair in the cockpit of the launch, and it is here page 50 that he experiences thrills which he is never likely to forget. The following is just one such experience of an angler who had hooked a swordfish:—
The swordfish was one of the long slim ones of the marlin kind, and was so swift in his leaps that it was found impossible to train the camera on him. And the fish was so strong that the angler could just barely stay with him by running the launch at full speed.
It was bright sunlight at the time, with just a ripple on the dark blue sea. The marlin, green on the back and striped across his silver-white sides, blazed in the air. He cracked the water like pistol shots in his frantic splashes. Truly, the beauty and wonder of such acrobatics on the part of the swordfish must be seen to be believed and appreciated. Especially must the magnificent fury or fright of this tigerspecies be seen. It cannot be adequately described.
It may be of interest here to refer briefly to the world “tarporina,” which seems to be puzzling a great number of enquires from many quarters.
A tarporina is made from a piece of wood about 1ft long and 1 1/2ft in diameter, and is painted with very bright colours. It is so made that when it is let out over the stern of the launch (a distance of from forty to fifty feet), it jumps about in and out of the water just like a frolicking fish. A tarporina is used to entice the big game fish, and certainly it does so. The launch moves at the rate of about four knots an hour, and there is no mistaking it when a swordfish sees a tarporina. The fish darts at it with his sword, rushes the tarporina, and in fact becomes quite furious becuase the “teasers” still keep on their way. The sword-fish goes for it in a fearful frenzy. At the right moment the tarporina is drawn in and the live bait, well hooked and attached to rod and line (which is in the angler's possion), is let over the stern of the launch. After a moment's intense suspense the sport begins in earnest. The swordfish takes the live bait and the angler allows the fish to run away with it for a distance of say 100 yards or 150 yeards. This is where the skill comes in and the angler must be ready to strike, and strike hard.
The swordfish, in its endeavour to extricate itself, rushes to the top of the sea, and leaps high in the air. This is done many times, and the antics this great sporting fish gets up to requires to be actually seen to be believed.
The fisherman, by winding in his line (a few yards at a time) goes through the process of what is known as “pumping,” and the strain on rod and line is so great that the tip of the rod is frequently touching the water.
After palying the fish for some hours (assuming the angler is successful in bringing the swordfish alongside the launch) the joy of landing his prize is beyond compare. When such a capture has been secured the flag is hoisted to the mast of the launch to signify the victory.
According to the Rules of the New Zealand Deep-Sea Angling Clubs, it is permissible to harpoon a shark, but sword-fish may only be gaffed. This is a very wise regulation.
Most Fascinating of Sports.
I cannot too strongly emphasise the fact that the hunting and capture of the swordfish is not, as some sentimentalists have alleged, a “brutal sport.” It is one of the healthiest and most fascinating of all sports. This fact was brought home to tow Wellington gentlemen during the last fishing season, when they engaged in the sport of deep-sea angling for the first time.
After catching their bait at Bird Rock they cast their lines over the side of the launch, and a striped marlin was hooked. Almost simiultaneously a huge mako was hooked, but unfortunately the mako evaded capture; meantime the swordfish made off in a northerly direction, taking with it over 200 yeards of line. The page 51 swordfish leaped clear of the water no fewer than seven times, and put up a remarkable fight for over two and a half hours. During the fierce struggle the rod snapped in two and the angler had to fight the fish with the remaining portion of the rod.
The striped marlin, when brought in to Otehei Bay to be officially weighed, turned the scales at 312lb. (The anglers were loud in their praise of the skilful manner in which the launch was handled by the launchman). Although exhausted after their thrilling fight with the swordfish they could not keep away from the fishing grounds, and next day the same anglers landed another swordfish (262lb), also a fine kingfish weighing 72lb.
These gentlemen have already made arrangements to visit the Bay of Islands next season. During the same season another party from overseas landed successfully no fewer than three swordfish from a launch in the one day, and needless to say they told the world of their splendid achievement! They have also endorsed Lord Grimthorpe's description of the Bay of Islands as an “ideal spot.”
As mentioned in my last article, the railway facilities for reaching the Bay of Islands are excellent, there being a daily express service from the City of Auckland to Opua, from which place the fishing grounds are easily reached.
(Launches meet the trains at Opua and anglers are conveyed direct to the rendezvous at Urupukapuka Islans.)
After spending a hoilday in the beautiful Bay of Islands in pursuit of the swrodfish and his brothers of the vasty deep, the reader will surely sing with the poet:
“O! The fisher's life,
It is the best of any:
‘Tis full of pleasure, void of strife,
And ‘tis beloved by many.
… Other joys
Are but toys…”
“The pleasantest angling is to see the fish cut with her golden oars the silver stream, and greedily devour the treacherous bait.”—Shake-speare.