Mercury Bay’s big fish have been reeling in the visitors for almost a century

06 Apr 2021

The long Easter weekend once again signalled the arrival of a steady stream of boat trailers negotiating their way patiently via the narrow, winding roads and one-way bridges to reach the prize of the fishing paradise that is Mercury Bay. It’s a path well-travelled even in times when getting here presented an even loftier challenge, as described in Neil Illingworth’s “Fighting Fins - Big Game Fishing in New Zealand Waters.”

The book, published in 1961, devotes separate chapters to five of New Zealand’s prime fishing destinations and the section on Mercury Bay opens as follows, “The road over the Coromandel Range is steep narrow and tortuous, climbing 1,400 feet quickly in just a few miles from the Thames coast and dropping just as quickly at the other side. It seems a little fearsome on first acquaintance, but it has never stopped a fisherman from reaching Whitianga.”

Some who now regularly negotiate the holiday traffic for the privilege of getting out on the water here might argue little has changed. Those who have been long since connected with the town will recognise many of the great names that Illingworth refers to. His narrative of the town, the fishing and people is a whose who of the stalwarts of the local fishing scene.

“The Whitianga charter fleet, like those elsewhere, has its share of colourful and interesting characters, but it has one distinguishing feature that no other centre can match - the only known woman game fishing skipper in the world,” Illingworth writes. “She is Mrs Connie Simmons, of the Ngaire, a 36-foot launch that she handles with complete skill and confidence. Connie knows plenty about fishing too, in the 1949/50 season she boated 36 fish to become the top Whitianga boat for the season.”

However, the trawl through the post-colonial history of fishing in the area and in particular the origins of the first game fishing club, the Mercury Bay Swordfish and Mako Shark Club, goes back to the 1920s. “EE Chadban, the ‘Chad’ of Mayor Island fame, was responsible for getting game fishing going in Whitianga,” the book says. “He began fishing at Mayor Island in 1922 but left after two years to run the hotel at Whitianga. One day in the winter of 1924 Harry Chapman, an old Norwegian cray fisherman who lived on Mercury Island, saw a marlin alongside his boat and the next time he was ashore he went to the hotel and told Chad about it. He (Chad) went out with local launch-owner, Bob White, on the Vanita and saw marlin himself, so he made up a party of three boards for the following weekend to try and catch them.

“Chad and his party did not have any game fishing gear, but they trolled kahawai baits tied to stout hapuku lines and when they had a strike they tied the end of the line to a four-gallon drum and left the fish to fight the drum until it was tired and then hauled it in, using felt hats to prevent their hands from being cut on the line. They came back that first day with a striped marlin and a mako shark, and Chad immediately decided to get the sport going for the following season. He sent to Auckland for hooks, lines and a couple of Nottingham reels, and then went to the bush and cut a pair of tanekaha poles for rods. These were stripped of their bark, smoothed, seasoned in a stream and then allowed to soak in linseed oil to make them supple.

“Whitianga was agog at the prospect of the new sport and it was no trouble to find enough enthusiasts to form a game-fishing club ready for the opening of the 1925 season. At a meeting held in an old fish shed on the town wharf, Chad was elected president of the Mercury Bay Swordfish and Mako Shark Club, a post he held until he left Whitianga 10 years later, and Archie Wells (owner of the Dart, one of the boats used in Chad’s experiment) became secretary-treasurer. The first committee consisted of Harry Gordon, Norman Gordon, Snowy Bilyeald, Albert Bowman, Bill King, Jack Hovell, Roly Sewell and the local policeman, Tom Cannon. That winter, members built gallows on the beach between the town wharf and the wharf at the hotel for the fish to be weighed on.

“By 1926, news of the new fishing grounds had spread and there were more visitors. Some of the early launches - the Renown, the Dauntless and the Maybelle - were offering for charter at a rate of £3 a day. But even in the second season it was mostly weekend fishing in fair weather only, with the boats leaving Whitianga at three or four o’clock in the morning for the fishing ground.”

The chapter goes on to chronicle the demise of the game fishing club during the war years and the Great Depression in between until the revival in 1947 with Roy Dale, the hotel proprietor, calling the first meeting and being elected president. “Since then there has been no holding the club. Membership has sprung up to almost 1,000 in the 14 years since the club was re-formed and the game fleet has grown to eight charter launches and more than half a dozen regular private launches,” Illingworth writes.

Well-known personalities continue to make an appearance in the Mercury Bay section of the book. “One man has been responsible for much of the club’s growth,” the book says. “He is Jack Crawford, the secretary, who took over the job in 1949 and has since devoted thousands of hours to the interests of game fishing in Whitianga. Jack is a sort of organised chaos, always on the go and apparently managing to do about 10 things at once.”

Illingworth goes on to share numerous anecdotes clearly acquired through conversations with those who were immersed in the area’s game fishing activity at the time. “One of the most amusing stories from this centre is about a big fish in a small boat,” one of these stories begins. “Keen as mustard, Boy Smooth goes game fishing by himself in a 15-foot open boat, the Wanda, with an outboard motor and an old sprung seat from an agricultural tractor as a makeshift fighting chair. Boy had brought in quite a few fish by himself when some of the professional skippers began to tease him about not boating the fish. The following weekend, Boy returned to the wharf with a stiped marlin of 280lb in the boat. Some wise Whitianga heads are still being scratched about how he got it there without assistance.”

Also featured is Don Ross’s tale of the English tourist who excitedly fought for 10 minutes after what he believed was his first ever gamefish strike having fished all over world. So sure was he that his luck had changed, he did not even mind that his catch got away. Despite his suspicions, Don said nothing when the bait was reeled in untouched and never had the opportunity to tell the man what he later discovered, that what he had hooked and battled with was a rubber car tyre.

Commenting on the new fascination for tuna which he describes as “the new glamour story for Whitianga,” Illingworth writes, “Local skippers and anglers foresee a great future for tuna fishing as knowledge of tackle and technique develops and the seasons when the fish can be found become more clear.”

How far the story of game fishing in Mercury Bay has travelled fishing over the past 100 years. Hopefully, our weekend visitors have left with plenty more good stories to tell.

Pictured: A photo from Neil Illingworth’s book, “Fighting Fins - Big Game Fishing in New Zealand Waters.” Connie Simmons is pictured next to Koni Tamahana at the Whitianga Wharf. At the time the book was written, Connie was the only known female game fishing skipper in the world.