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November Rain's Last Dance in the NZ Nationals (for a while)

November Rain is back on the water, just in time for the annual NZ Nationals fishing comp. Kudos to the team at SIMRAD who stayed late into the last night, to finish the installation of the new 360 Omni-scan sonar, as well as the craftsmen at Harkin Boatbuilding, the sparkys at Pine Harbour Electrical and the painters at Pine Harbour Boat Painters.

Sportfishing boat at fuel jetty
November Rain at the fuel dock in Pine Harbour

Garry and his mate, Red, raced up from Auckland at a brisk 17 knots, arriving in the late afternoon, the day before the start of the contest. They were looking pretty seedy, having driven half the night after a long day of work. The rest of our crew, Swishy and Paul, arrived by cars, just as Garry finished topping up on fuel at the Clansman wharf.

November Rain was still a mess from the haul-out, dirt and greasy grime over the paint work, dead bugs puddled up against the windscreen, hatches opened, beds pulled apart, greasy rags strewn about. Worse, no one had remembered to empty the fridge during the 4-week shut-down. The boys and I spent a couple hours tidying up and lading on provisions for the upcoming week, then we treated ourselves to a steak dinner and a yaw-yaw with members of the Whangaroa Sport Fishing club.

Word has gotten out about our new Omni-Scan sonar, and while some captains were asking inquisitive questions about the technology, there are a few haters out there as well, which we expected. It is pricey piece of gear, out of reach from most and a stretch for us. Is it an unfair advantage to be able to spot a single marlin, up to 2 kilometres away? Probably so, and in the interest of fairness, a handful of local game clubs have already begun banning Omni-Scans from their fishing comps. But over time, as the technology becomes cheaper and more readily available, and as more boats adopt it, it’ll become the norm, not the exception. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, so they say.

Hopefully, the Omni-Scan sonar it will give us the edge we need to do well in the Striped Marlin Division of the NZ Nationals, a comp that Garry has fished almost every year for the past quarter of a century. However, we can’t really justify spending heaps of dollars for bragging rights, the only “prize” for the NZ Nationals.  There are no shining trophies, nor giant cardboard checks, no boozy awards ceremonies, only dubious bragging rights and hopefully, a few crazy fishing stories, to be told and re-told for years forth. November Rain has come close a couple of times, landing in the #2 and #3 spot and usually in the top 10, but as they say, always a bridesmaid, never a bride. The past couple of years were dismal for us in the Striped Marlin section, but we somehow made up for it in the Tuna Section. This will be our last National tournament for a while, as we will be heading off-shore for the next five years or so. All we can hope for is that we don’t come dead last.... that would be a real embarrassment, especially now that we have "the sonar". But no matter where we place in the pack, we are sure to hear either, “Well, of course they did well, they have the sonar” or worse yet, “Bloody waste of money if you ask me”.

Our decision to incorporate the SIMRAD sonar in our arsenal has been a long debate in our household. It’s costly and requires considerable modification to the boat, including a 200 mm hole in the hull. Last year, while in Hawaii, we watch the Kona charter fleet adopt the technology, one by one, like dominos falling. There is big money in the U.S. marlin tournaments, and a single winning fish will certainly pay for the installation of a Omni-Scan system and then a couple of new engines. Not so much money in New Zealand’s humble competitions but that seems to be changing with comps like the Kubota Classic. We have decided to bite the bullet, in preparation for our upcoming world tour. We will be a fish out of water, so to speak, trolling in unknown grounds without local knowledge in foreign lands. Hopefully, this will allow us to spend more time fighting fish than aimlessly dragging lures through the water.

After dinner at the club, we made a last minute decision to leave immediately, rather than wait until the following morning as previously planned. After consulting Fish Tracker, three different weather apps, other captains, tea leaves and astrology, Garry settled on fishing the west coast of the Far North. We traveled at 9 knots by dark towards Cape Reinga, rotating crew on two-hour watches. The auto pilot hasn’t worked since November Rain left Auckland, so we are having to steer manually. This is a chore, requiring constant attention to the plotted line on the chart plotter, adjusting the rudder, using the joy stick steering, about 1-2 degrees to the left/right every 30 seconds or so. The new dash for our ginormous 24’ screen now obstructs my forward view and I need to stand up from the helm chair every few minutes just to see the front of the boat. Garry finally got the night vision camera operational on his early morning shift, just as the sun peeked over the horizon. This will be a big advantage going forward.

Sport fishing Catamaran
November Rain

Garry’s been flittering around all morning, fixing all sorts of problems. One outrigger has a wonky pulley, the 10 lb lead weight from our dredge has disappeared, the tag pole has gone AWOL, the diesel fuel additive is missing. The Starlink wouldn’t connect to the satellites until we upgraded to a more expensive off-shore subscription. The ampere usage monitor was miscalculating our usage and needed calibration. We were terrified to start the water maker, lest there be a critical issue to deal with.

The Omni-Scan sonar is up and operational, and Garry’s going through the tried and true learning method of randomly pushing buttons. He hasn’t had any proper training yet on how to optimise the images, but he’s avoided collision with a sunfish and spotting dolphins has given him a sense of what to look for on the screen.

About 8 am, we had our first strike from an unknown assailant, which fell off rather quickly.  I bolted up to the fly bridge to see if Garry had spotted the target on the new sonar screen, but he had been so busy tearing apart the boat for tag pole, he hadn’t been looking at the screen. When the tag pole failed to appear, he surmised it had must have been blown out of the rocket launcher while the boat was on the hard in Auckland during a recent gale.  A secondary pole, originally rigged to accept a GoPro camera, was quickly re-fashioned with Number 8 wire, a split nail and a wooden dowel.

At 10:20 a.m., we had an opportunity to test the new tag pole on an estimated 80 kg Mako Shark that Paul had dragged in. While Swish held the leader, Red aimed to deliver the tag through the shark’s thick hide with the improvised tag pole. He shanked hard but the tag failed to release from the rubber band, so he kept stabbing, another three or four times, each time the tag staying stubbornly mounted on the pole’s nail. Meanwhile, the mako is getting a bit upset at the acupuncture treatments. Upon investigation, the nail at the end of the tag pole kept sinking further and further into the soft wooden dowel with each thrust against the shark. Garry made a total of three attempts to repair the pole before finally succeeding in deploying the tag. All the while, we were conscious that at any moment, the docile Mako might wake up and turn into a flying chainsaw. The funny business with the tag pole was all very reminiscent of last year’s Nationals, where we had so many tag pole mishaps, it became a running joke and a learning experience, which obviously, we had already forgotten.

Shark next to side of boat
Mako Shark

We got a chance to try out the new StarLink system, emailing the photo of the shark, along with tag card and weigh sheet to the fishing club’s secretary within minutes of the catch, avoiding the 36 hour cutoff rule. We were well outside of cellular range and this new technology means we can stay away and fish longer in remote areas.

Later that day, the missing tag pole magically appeared, cradled in a rod holder, high above our heads in the atrium, discovered by Red while laying in the saloon.  Now we are armed with two pokers. Garry stumbled upon the dredge weight under the bathroom sink, (a place already search twice), and the fuel additive was discovered in a locker on the fly bridge, all while looking for other missing items.  Now if we could only find some marlin.

Another hit and a miss in the late afternoon, we ended the first day of the comp at 3-1-1, which wouldn't have been so bad except for the fact that they were all most likely, sharks, a category we don’t normally fish in.

We dragged lures around until dark, about 8:45, making for a fruitless 15 hour day. Miles from land, we made camp on the Pandora bank. We turned on the anchor light, AIS and radar alarm, shut off the engines for the first time in 24 hours and slept like babies on the flat calm seas.   

In the morning, our track showed that we had drifted 6 miles in a straight line. The drift was much straighter than our zig-zag track using manual steering. We really need that auto-pilot fixed.

Image of navigation screen on boat
Our drift track

The only sea life spotted that second morning was a seal lying on the surface, a flipper pointing to the sky, like a sail, which we almost jagged with one of the lures as we cruised past. No targets have appeared on the sonar. No birds in the sky and no bait on the sounder. The other boats fishing alongside us yesterday have abandoned us for other grounds.  At least the weather is mint with glasslike seas.

The third most exciting thing that happened on day two was that Garry decided to go for a swim. The recently applied Prop-Speed antifoul on our propellers was causing a high-pitched “singing” as we moved through the water. This is a known annoyance and the solution is to lightly sand off the paint on the leading edges of the props. Fishing was halted for ten minutes while Garry went overboard with mask, fins and 80 grit paper. He refused to shut down the engine, despite my pleas, confident that the gears were and would stay in neutral. If I ever wanted to dispatch him, here was the perfect opportunity to “accidentally” bump the gear shift.  Fortunately for him, we are a happy couple.

About 5ish, Garry spotted a small marlin, tailing on the surface in the direction of the boat.  A quick turn and three minutes later, we finally had a real strike. Paul buckled into his gear and got the rod out of the holder, while the rest of the crew cleared the gear. There was a lot of windscreen wiper action with the bill, and seconds later, the fish dropped off.

On the board, Miss Ford!!! Red hooked into a small but lively stripey at 7:04 pm, delightfully delaying our dinner by half an hour. The first marlin under our belt for the trip. Maybe we will hang around here another day.  Stats for the day; 2-1-1, and presumably all marlin.

Man fishing on a boat
Red on a marlin

The second night on the bank was a bit rough with a swell coming through. Sleep was patchy with the rolling and banging of unsecured items. Red and Garry were up half the night, on the hunt for the offending noise makers.

In the morning, a swarm of tiny crickets invaded the boat, keeping our wee dog, Pipi, quite amused. She’s turning into a real member of the crew as she’s taking to barking and alerting us if a reel goes off. She's also assigned herself the job of keeping any birds off the boat.

marlin at side of boat
Cute papillon dog looking at camera

To keep up morale, the boys got busy catching a near a dozen skipjack tuna for a future snapper session. There were four marlin strikes that day, with two to the fish sticking. Echoes of last night, just as the dinner bell was rung, the chair rod went screaming off. There was a bit of confusion as to who was up next in the rotation and by the time we sorted it out and I got my gear on, my reel was 2/3 empty. The fish didn’t put up much of a fight, and as I winched it up, Garry called it as tail-wrapped, which it was. Swish wired and Red tagged. Despite being tail wrapped, it was in pretty good condition and we released it for another day. Thank goodness, I wasn’t in the mood to harvest a marlin. Red suggested we have four dinners a day from now on, to increase our odds on catching more fish.

Woman fishing on a boat
Lori on a marlin

striped marlin on leader at side of boat

Fifteen minutes later, and we had another one tagged, and Swish has now clocked out of the angler rotation.  Paul is up on deck, where he’ll stay until he has his own marlin under his belt. Once everyone has caught a marlin, we’ll resume all four anglers back into half-hour slots for the lottery. Being the solo angler at bat is hard work, as you don’t really get any downtime from watching lures all day and you must being ready to gear up at any moment. It's always funny when a reel goes off and the designated angler stumbles out of the toilet with their pants half way down.

Man fishing on boat
Swish doing the swishy

We drifted nine miles north overnight, towards Cape Reinga, which meant an hour backtracking to yesterday’s fishing grounds. About mid-morning, Garry spotted a lone marlin, tailing on the surface, but it wasn’t interested in what we were offering. Later, after our second “dinner” of the day, we had a strike on the short corner, but a rod wrap put an end to that… RIP dear Blue Breakfast, one of oldest, biggest and most productive soldiers. Fortunately, Garry had a spare, which was quickly deputised and drafted into service. There was a second hit on the chair rod, five minutes later but it didn’t stick. After our forth dinner for the day, we still saw nothing.  A big fat 2-0-0 for the day.  We commiserated over banana creme pie at anchorage in Spirits Bay.

The next morning, Garry gave us a reprieve from the endless hours of trolling, by slotting in an early morning snapper session at Spirits Bay. While we caught enough snapper for a feed, the shark to snapper ration was at least 2:1, leading to a lot of lost hooks, sinkers and trace. We also wasted a lot of time playing with kingfish although Paul was happy to catch his PB. Sadly, I lost a trophy sized snapper to a shark, not two meters from the boat. A tasty blue cod went into the bin and Garry caught the biggest snapper of the morning, which was released.

We traveled south the rest of the day, trolling off Cape Karikari, where we caught f**k all.  Reports coming in over the radio showed we have a lot of catching up to do with only three marlin under our belts. The leading boat has tagged seven fish so far. A lot of marlin being caught today and we haven’t had a single strike.

Paul’s still on deck after two full days and Swish has warned him that if he doesn’t get a marlin by tonight, the rest of us are going to slot back in the rotation tomorrow. This new two-day rule was instigated just in case the person on point is “snake bit”, which literally means that he is so unlucky, that he is the only reason the fish have stopped hooking up.

Two Dolphins swimming
Dolphins on the bow

We didn’t eat supper until well after 9 pm that night, after we anchored up. No one was man enough to fry the fish in hot oil while in pitching seas and Pipi’s dog bed is soaked in beer from an accidental spill. The sonar hasn’t really helping us yet, we haven’t figured out the optimal settings. We couldn’t even ping a small island as we cruised past within 200 meters. If we can’t see a big stationary rock, we are surely not going to spot a swimming marlin. Reminder to self: read the instruction manual.

Day Five was spent mowing up and down the same patch of ocean off Cape Karikari.  Reports coming in on the VHF as well as the secret squirrel network (cell-to-cell) spoke of numerous strikes, but dismal hookup ratios, i.e, one boat reportedly went 0 from 9 hits. Garry had decided earlier to swap out our standard lures to light-gauge double hook rigs. These lighter hooks are super-sharp, making it easier to pierce into flesh (human as well as fish), but on the downside, more prone to straightening out under weight. Since the fish have been reported to be on the smaller size, this strategy makes sense.

The seas were the roughest we’d encountered yet, 15 knots winds with chop and a bit of a swell. Bathroom and coffee breaks could only be managed when the boat was heading down sea. As soon as you've recovered your equilibrium, Garry would spin the boat around again, face on, into the oncoming waves. Around noon, we had a pack attack by 3-4 marlin but the fish were non-committal and we failed to hook any of them. We are losing hope of being in it to win it, which ironically, takes the pressure off. Garry’s even promised that we’ll have an early night into anchor, although no one actually believes him. Red suggested I get Garry to sign a contract, with financial penalties for every hour after 5 pm. As it is now past 8 pm, Garry's put the hammers down and Nov Rain raced at 17 knots into anchorage. He's already into me for three nights at the Fairmont's Cordis Hotel and Spa and he's trying to avoid a fourth.

scenery of Western Arm of Whangaroa Harbour
Western Arm of Whangaroa Harbour

We overnighted in the western arm of Whangaroa Harbour, a really special place for me, which seems to be lifted right out of a Jurassic Park movie and where Garry seduced me to the incredible beauty of New Zealand on our first date, almost nine years ago.

Day Six was spent trolling in our own backyard, right in front of the harbour, playing dodge-ems with a flotilla of other boats. We've spotted a couple of free jumpers, so we know they are around, they're just don't want to know us. Not a single hit that day, and not much action for the rest of the fleet either. This is starting to look dismal and we won't even finish in the top ten if something doesn't happen soon. Not the results we were hoping for with our last dance. The bartender has just called "last call" and we still haven't found someone to go home with.

sunset on ocean with boat in foreground
Anchoring at the Cavellis

Our last day of the comp, one last chance to dance. Garry spotted a small marlin feeding on the surface, but he couldn't convince it to leave fresh bait for our shiny plastic, even with 10 minutes of driving donuts around it.

Meanwhile, Swish is in the galley, on his knees, doing his annual clean of the ship's oven. Year after year, his signature dish of delicious beef stroganoff is inevitably reheated on the roughest sea day of the trip in our un-gimbaled oven. The donut manoeuvres aren't helping his efforts.

Around 10:30, We had a bit more excitement with gannets diving on a meatball, free feeding marlin on the surface and 3 strikes on our lures. A dozen other boats in a 2 mile radius decided to join us in the action. The port outrigger lure was lost, cut off at the nylon, and the Swish reckoned another marlin had jumped over the line while under tow. Garry desperately worked the area for a good couple of hours, playing chicken with a trailer boat that didn't want to give way, avoiding another one that decided to live bait in the middle of the pack. Red quipped that it was almost like fishing at the Wanganellas, but instead of one boat working 17 meatballs, it was 17 boats on one meatball.

The 4:00 stop-fishing time is here, and now we will have to race back to the harbour to turn in our catch cards by 6 pm. Seven days of fishing, almost 15 hours a day, netted us only 3 marlin and a stinking shark, not our best showing. You already know what the peanut gallery is saying.... Maybe it's time we learned a new dance.

What do you call someone who is good at fishing?

A profishional

What do you call someone who can't catch fish?


Postlogue: All our fish were disqualified as our leaders were too long!! What a F**k up!!! A rookie mistake!

boats returning to Whangaroa Harbour
The fleet returns home

small dog sitting on lap of captain at the helm.
Capt. Garry and his mate, Pipi

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