Fisherman's joy when tranquillity is shattered by scream of spinning reel

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 February, 1999, 12:00am

If you want to go fishing for snapper, that glorious, robust and tasty fish which is daily pride of the Kiwi kitchen, it makes sense to venture out on a vessel named after the fish.

It helps, too, if the charter skipper is nicknamed Snapper. It seems to put both the fish and the fishermen in the correct frame of mind.

Local legend around the tiny port and mussel-packing town of Havelock insists there are plenty of big snapper in the Marlborough Sounds.

These steep valleys sunk millions of years ago and the intruding ocean created a labyrinth of waterways snaking like strands of turquoise towards the waters of Cook Strait.

How could a visitor get out into this enticing wonderland to catch fish? 'You'd better see Snapper Anderson,' a fellow told me in the pub.

The next day, the three-metre steel fishing boat, Tamure, lay motionless on the placid deep waters of Kenepuru Sound.

The South Pacific sky was even bluer than the waters of this jagged inlet.

The dark green of the native bush on the nearby cliff face provided perches for a chorus of bell birds, tuis and other vocal inhabitants of New Zealand's Marlborough Sounds to hail a perfect day.

Scott Anderson, the young skipper of the Tamure - the name means 'snapper' in Maori - had put up four rods, each baited with a plump sardine-like pilchard.

The bait itself would be an envied catch for the Hong Kong angler. The lines lay slack in the water. Fish? What fish? 'Don't worry,' said the king of the snappers. 'You'll know when you get a bite.' Who was hassled? In this setting the tension and stress of Hong Kong life oozed away.

The skipper chatted about his favourite fish, their eating habits, breeding patterns, travel plans - there's a lot more to the elusive snapper than you suppose.

Other charter boats in the small ports that line this wonderland of waterways set their baits for blue cod or the big grouper that lurk deep under the Outer Sounds.

'Snapper' Anderson, a former rugby player and builder, prefers his namesake. We're talking about recipes - the entire fish cleaned, rubbed with a little olive oil, put into an oven stuffed with a slice of onion and lemon - when one of the rods begins to bend.

'Don't yank,' Scott warns. 'Let him take it softly and give some line. Then when it's tight, give a good pull.' The tranquillity of the afternoon comes to a sudden end; the reel screams as an enraged fish makes its run. On a light tackle, this is gigantic fun. Unseen 15 metres down, the fish is dodging and weaving for its life. You pump the rod, reel in line, gradually bring it towards the surface where Scott is ready with the net. There's another burst for freedom, the reel screams again as more line is whipped off.

Gradually, you ease the fish beside the boat. It's a beauty; all of four kilograms, the silver and scarlet scales flash in the sun.

What am I going to do with it? All that talk of cooking has made me ravenous, but there's nowhere to cook my prize of the Sounds. We snap a couple of pictures of Snapper with the snapper and ease the fish over the side.

With a disgusted flick of its powerful tail, it is off in search of dinner that does not have a hook attached.

Sometimes, Scott grins, the fish are not so lucky. He caters increasingly for Asians. When Japanese come aboard, they usually bring sharp knives and wasabi mustard.

After the catch has spent two hours in the ice bucket, it is instant sashimi.

Hong Kongers, Singaporeans and Taiwanese, who have discovered New Zealand's gourmet province, are also going out with Scott after the plump snapper.

For the inexperienced, it is an ideal introduction to angling, especially if they have children with them.

Scott packs for five people, and while the adults do some serious snapper hunting and relax amid nature's rest home, he throws edibles into the water that attract small fish for the kids to catch.

There are dolphins, cormorants and seagulls of all persuasions as part of the scenic background.

If you live in an apartment on the 27th floor and have only been to sea on the Star Ferry, this is the ideal way to go fishing.

It is a slow, lazy day for Scott Anderson and I. There is a splash as a cormorant hits the still water like a dive bomber, to flap away after its deep dive with a fish in its beak. That is about all the excitement I need.

Then another rod bends stiffly and I go back to work to fight another snapper, this one a bit bigger, into Scott's net.

Hong Kongers who catch fish do not have to put them back. He explains that many Asian visitors can take their cleaned fish back to their hotels or to local Chinese restaurants where the chefs will cook them.

He charges $1,250 for a five- hour trip or $2,000 for a full day's fishing, and that's for up to five people. It includes being picked up at the wharf at Havelock, all equipment and bait, and tea and coffee out on the water.

I worked out that for Scott's charter fees for a half-day adventure, your entire family can go fishing, catch a boat load of fish and get a big snapper cooked perfectly in a Cantonese restaurant in Blenheim for less than it would cost to buy a fish in Hong Kong - and you know it is a fresh fish.