Yellowtail kingfish cruising the flats behind stingrays, smashing baitfish and generally pretending to be GTs? This is not a fever dream or a piscatorial acid trip, but a common day’s fly fishing in Tauranga on New Zealand’s North Island. We chat to local fly-fishing guide and trained marine biologist, Gian Booysen of Kings To Be Found (kingstobefound.com), about what to expect from this special fishery.
If you saw the name Gian Booysen and surmised that A) not only is he probably not of Māori or any other Pacific Islander origin, and B) he is most likely to have come from South Africa originally, you, Sherlock, would be right. Gian’s family emigrated to New Zealand when he was 11. There are hints of an accent there (especially when talking about fishing) and he still says, “braai” instead of “BBQ”, but we imagine he passes for a Kiwi in most instances.
Gian lives and guides fly anglers on the flats of Tauranga in the appropriately named Bay of Plenty region. There are many reasons it sounds like a special fishery, but the biggest one has to be the way yellowtail (“kingies” in New Zealand) behave there. Whereas we’re used to targeting this pelagic fish on fly off pitching boats at Cape Point, Robben Island or 12 Mile Bank, catching them from the shore in South Africa is nigh on impossible. In fact, it’s one of our Holy Grail fly-fishing challenges, because we have very few places along our coastline where you can realistically get a decent cast out and have the fish close enough to the shore.
In Tauranga, the kingies behave very differently, coming in to extremely shallow water and riding on the back of rays looking for food. Gian breaks down this fishery for us.
The Mission (TM): Describe the area that you operate in.
Gian: Tauranga is a harbour system with two entrances. We’ve got a few deep channels, but the majority of it is just flats. On the southern side there’s a big port. It’s actually one of the busiest ports in New Zealand, so not something you’d expect alongside world-class flats. All of our estuarine and harbour systems on the east coast of New Zealand are flats systems. Lined by mangroves and sea-grass dominant, they are proper flats systems. It’s only on the western side that they are really deep and channel dominant, and we don’t really have shallows there. Where we are, you can walk four or five kilometres on a flat no problem. Water temperatures normally range from about 16 to 23. It’s definitely not tropical, probably somewhere in that semi-zone.
TM: Is there one specific season for the kings or is it kind of year-round?
Gian: For the kings it’s pretty much October to May. You can find them all year round, though. There are some larger models that stick around through winter but they are not really on the flats and it’s not something one can guide for because you have to be really crazy if you want to put in those hours and try track them down. However, in winter we have silver trevally and snapper and their numbers are quite good. We find the trevally riding on the stingrays as well, like the kingfish and the snapper. There’s probably about a month-and-a-half window where we can find them on the flats, but they are so flighty and the person on the bow has to be prepared for that.
TM: Is there a very specific tide, between October and May, when you know that the fish will be moving? Or is it a little hit and miss?
Gian: Water temperature is probably more important than the tide. Regardless of the tide, because of how strong the kings’ relationship is here with the southern stingray, you can find them generally riding the stingrays even if the moons are at a quarter. So you don’t need a super-push. The exceptions are the big free swimmers. These guys travel alone or in small packs, and these bigger kings like bigger tides when the baitfish are uncomfortable.
TM: Tell us a bit about the relationship between the southern stingrays and the kings?
Gian: The rays belong to a class of animals called the Chondrichthyes, and this is the same class that sharks fall into. What the sharks and rays have in common is that they have these small pores around their mouths called the ampullae of Lorenzini. This is pretty much just a pore filled with a conductive gel. Anything that scutters, breathes or gives off a heartbeat or pulse releases a small voltage. The rays and the sharks pick up on this. For example, we’ve got flounders buried under the sand. Rays pick up on the pulse, track the flounders down and head on over to them. The kings don’t have these receptors so they sit on the back of the rays because the rays take them to the food. We also see them on the backs of bronze whalers, big sharks, any of the ray species. There are even cool ones that we see shag, you know, the diving birds? They swim with the stingrays as well, dive down and feed, then come up and just keep following the ray in the shallows. It’s incredible.
TM: It’s interesting about the electric pulse that the baitfish give off and that the rays get attracted to. When we fish for sand sharks on fly in the Western Cape, guys work copper wire into their flies.
Gian: That’s really interesting. If you could sample sand shark prey and have a look at the exact average voltage that they emit and then emulate that, you guys will be on the money. I’ve been trying to catch a bronze whaler on the flats, but have been refused. These are like 2.5-3 metre sharks and they will come up to these big articulated bucktail flies and open their mouths. At the last minute, they seem to sense that there’s something not quite right about them and just turn away.
TM: You just casually dropped “ampullae of Lorenzini” in conversation. We understand you’ve got a background in marine biology?
Gian: I’ve been ocean-besotted since I can remember. As a little kid we would travel around South Africa to wherever the marine biologists were speaking. My grandparents would come with us… everyone. I have the most supportive family. I studied marine biology at Victoria University, which is in Wellington at the bottom of the North Island. The aim was always to guide people onto fish, but also to have a solid understanding of the ecosystem and being able to explain it to people, talk about the food sources, what we look for in the flats from the bait to the health of the grasses. I really enjoy that and I think people enjoy that too.
Read the full Kings story in Issue 38. As always, it’s free.
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