Following Connie Simons’s legacy at the Mercury Bay Game Fishing Club

27 Jul 2021

When he eventually steps down from his role as president, John Neighbours intends turning his talents to writing a history of the Mercury Bay Game Fishing Club in time for its centenary in a few years’ time.

And he will have lots to write about – numerous New Zealand records and a few world records, the club’s triumphs and tragedies, and famous celebrity associations, such as American western writer, Zane Grey.

His book will also look at how the art of game fishing has evolved from a relatively unsophisticated method of catching fish into a genuine tussle between angler and prey, and reflect the club’s palpable pride that the sport has matured from what was once considered a macho male pastime into a sport for everyone to enjoy.

Indeed, Connie Simons, a club member from the 1940s, was the first woman in New Zealand to skipper a deep-sea game fishing vessel, winning the club prize for most game fish caught in the 1949/50 season. While Connie is no longer around, her cup remains with the club and is awarded each year to the lady angler with the most points in the open tournament. It is currently held by Penny Murray, who became the club’s first female president, and also a life member.

John, a committee member for 32 years and president for the past nine, first started writing the club history 30 years ago. The club was set up in 1925 by enthusiasts Ernie Chadban, the proprietor of the Whitianga Hotel and the local policeman Tom Cannon, who were respectively responsible for catching the first striped marlin and mako shark on rod and reel in the club’s history.

Initially called the Mercury Bay Swordfish and Mako Shark Club, the name later changed to the Mercury Bay Game Fishing Club. Before 1925, according to the MBGFC website, boats towed baits tied to hupaka lines and, when a fish struck, the fishers tied the line to a four-gallon drum and left the fish until it became tired, before hauling in their catch by hand. But with the arrival of American author and fishing legend Zane Grey in 1928, proper game-fishing techniques with rod and line were introduced. New Zealand’s reputation as a game-fishing mecca took off internationally, with Whitianga one of its centres.

Grey set up his fishing camp at Sandy Bay, just inside Devil’s Point, where his crew erected tents and gantries to weigh his catches

John says that the club ceased to function during the Depression when there was no money to pursue a relatively expensive sport. After World War II, the club was revived in 1947 after angler Bill Clark caught a gigantic black marlin, weighing 924 pounds. At the time, the members met in a cargo shed at the corner of the wharf where the passenger shelter now sits before building clubrooms in that location and eventually moving across the road to the present home.

As well as focusing on the workings of the club over the years, John hopes his book will have a human touch with details about some of the personalities who played their part in the story, but he acknowledges this could be difficult. With Connie Simons, for instance, he knows a lot about her from a fishing perspective but relatively little about her personal life. “At some point she went into the Miss New Zealand contest and won a trophy for the Most Beautiful Eyes. Somehow, as life went on, she got herself into game fishing,” John said. Connie’s Miss NZ award has been repurposed as the top lady angler’s cup at the club in tribute to the lady who was a pioneer for women in the sport.

John describes Connie’s vessel, Ngaire, as a long, slim boat, quite unlike the game fishing launches of today with their elevated fly bridges. He knows Connie won the title for the most fish caught on her vessel for at least one season.

“I know her boatman was a Maori guy whose name was Koni Tamahana. But that is where I come up against a brick wall. I don’t know much more than that.”

 “Connie came when the town was a bit bigger and more established after World War II. I first came here in 1970. It was pretty small then and, boy oh boy, it was a bit of a frontier town then, so you can imagine what it would have been like in the 1940s.” But if being a woman meant Connie had to work harder to prove how good she was, things have now changed completely.

“We have lots of incredible lady anglers in this club and we have had women in senior positions, including Evelyn Johnson, the first woman vice president and Penny Murray the first woman president,” John said. Penny Murray, currently top lady angler for the fourth time, said her game fishing inspiration came from her husband, Peter, and mother, Kath Hopper, a previous president of the Tairua-Pauanui Sports Fishing Club which she represented on the New Zealand Sports Fishing Council.

“As far as Connie Simons is concerned, she was a remarkable woman to be able to do what she did in a man’s world at that time. These days Penny says women are well respected within the club and the wider fishing community. “Game fishing is generally a man’s world, but the men take us women very seriously as well. They see us as equals who can get in and do the job just as good as they can.”

Pictured: Connie Simons, a Mercury Bay Game Fishing Club member from the 1940s, was the first
woman in New Zealand to skipper a deep-sea game fishing vessel.