new zealand striped marlin
Wham! The wind shot up from less than 5 knots to more than 25 in an instant, funneling and accelerating through the valleys that line the coast south of Whangaroa Harbour, New Zealand. The boat leaned just enough to launch my cup of coffee across the helm of the 46-foot catamaran. It made me pull the throttles back to settle things down. Since we were in no hurry to get to the Kingfish Lodge, we dropped the anchor off the northwest corner of Motukawanui Island for a lunch of local oysters and scallops. Aside from an aluminum skiff pulling snapper, we had the area to ourselves.
After that good feed, we entered Whangaroa Harbour at dusk and picked up a mooring at the Kingfish Lodge (www.kingfishlodge.co.nz) — our home for the next 24 hours. As if on a director’s cue, a local angler boated a huge yellowtail kingfish off the harbor’s rocky shore as we settled into the cockpit with a frosty beer. The harbor overflows with a variety of species, including mackerel, trevally, kahawai (a favorite among local fly-fishermen) and snapper.
Towering green peaks lined with evergreens and the occasional palm define this stunning landscape that is the lodge’s front yard. This deep, protected harbor attracted the U.S. Navy during World War II, and in 1954 the former military base began hosting anglers from around the world. Today the Kingfish Lodge is a popular destination for offshore anglers and weekend warriors. Rooms are comfortable and intimate, and the service is superb. Several packages are available with rooms and charter combos, including a fish-and-golf combo to nearby Kauri Cliffs (see “Surf and Turf”). We headed to the bar, where owner Roger Cairns shared tales of the lodge’s rough-and-tumble past. The lodge was built when the town was still a hamlet for traveling commercial fishermen — it’s my kind of place.
“Not that long ago, the former owner tried to get too exclusive,” Cairns said with a roll of the eyes. “My wife and I have found that middle ground.” Indeed they have. The Kingfish Lodge mirrors New Zealand in its contrasts and contradictions. A musty old-summer-cottage odor clings to the walls and threadbare carpet. The dog, Bucky, lounges on the sofa next to the fireplace, while the pool table waits for an all-night session. The slightly shabby atmosphere fails to prepare guests for the incredible food concocted by chef Paul. Our four-course meal was far better fare than that which my buddy Graeme Mellor and I had encountered on board our charter boat, where we’d subsisted on a diet of chips and dip during the preceding few days. Anglers are also encouraged to bring their daily catch to the chef.
Whangaroa Harbour lies on the east coast of the northern tip of New Zealand’s Northland. It’s an easy run by boat from the Bay of Islands — a popular jumping-off point for those wanting to target the area’s huge striped marlin. If you’re looking to arrive in style, Cairns will arrange for helicopter service directly from Auckland. The quaint settlement of Whangaroa sits at the western end of the harbor about a mile from the Kingfish Lodge and offers several restaurants and even a few casual bars to toss back a few pints. It’s also home to the Whangaroa Sport Fishing Club — a complete resource for offshore charters, fishing reports and local flavor (www.whangaroasportfishingclub.co.nz).
In the morning we met Cairns, chef Paul and mate Austin. Paul applies the same fluid, agile motion to his work in the cockpit that he uses in the kitchen. It was time to head out to New Zealand’s famed marlin fishing grounds. Our April visit placed us at the tail end of New Zealand’s blue marlin season. Here in the Southern Hemisphere, the summer marlin season runs from January through March, with striped, blue and black marlin populating local seas. Stripes make up the bulk of the catches here, but they aren’t the 100- and 200-pound scrappers most U.S. fishermen encounter in Central America; these are big cold-water fish that frequently top the 300-pound mark.
New Zealand experienced a wetter, cooler summer this year, which put the bite off quite a bit and kept boats from heading out as often as they would have liked. During our six-hour offshore slog, the foul weather smacked us around a bit, and the fish gave us the finger. However, the day before we arrived, I checked out the fishing reports and they were off the charts. Our experience in these world-renowned fishing grounds was not typical and was most likely a byproduct of the horrendous run of bad luck I was having that particular week. We hooked a few fish, but the action was abnormally slow.
“Well, I guess we should head down to Whangaroa before it gets dark,” I suggested to Graeme after we returned to Kingfish Lodge somewhat defeated. Graeme possesses a no-nonsense pragmatism, which I attribute to his Kiwi DNA. “We could, or we could just stay here for the night and go in for another dinner,” he replied. “I love this place.” Although we were skunked that day, I was in full agreement.
The best way to get to New Zealand is by flying Air New Zealand’s business premier class (www.airnewzealand.com). I actually looked forward to getting aboard the plane. The experience begins with a visit to Air New Zealand’s Business Class Lounge at LAX, which features good food and wine. On board the new 777, you have a number of movies to choose from before you turn in on the sleeper bed. Outstanding service makes the entire experience memorable. You’ll arrive in Auckland feeling well rested and ready to take in New Zealand. Nonstop flights operate from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Once you arrive in Auckland, I suggest you acclimate yourself with a few days in the city. You can drive north to Whangaroa, where Cairns meets guests for the cruise up to the Kingfish Lodge. Although it takes slightly less than four hours, set aside the entire day and enjoy the ride. It’s awesome! Or, to make more of a statement, take the helicopter service that’s offered directly from Auckland to the lodge.