On Saturday I had the pleasure to meet up with John Lennan on the southern side of Great Barrier Island, where he was competing for the Black Jug Fishing Haggle. This biannual competition, or as the locals say comp, attracts local and mainland fishing enthusiasts and is usually hosted at Tipi and Bobs Waterfront Lodge in Tryphena.
There are four main fishing comps on the Island per year and, independent of individual general opinions about such competitions, they do attract mainlanders to the island, which affects our micro-economy positively, creates casual employment opportunities, promotes the Island and allows for a comfortable get-together and of course the chance to win the big prize, which shouldn’t be sneezed at either.
About 130 fishos competed in this Black Jug comp. All entry fees of 70 NZD per head go towards the grand prize. Biggest snapper takes all, there are spot prizes but no other cash prizes. Fishing times were from midday Friday with the final weigh in at 5 o’clock on Saturday.
Please allow me one remark. Yes, big snapper get killed that would not have been caught or would have been released if it wasn’t for the comp, but the damage to the fisheries is done by those who BUY fish, not by individuals who fish recreationally!
John Lennan is a great guy. He is probably the best known and one of the most reputed land-based fishermen on the Island. He is entertaining and always has interesting and humorous stories to tell. There is a map of the Island hanging from the wall in his home, where different coloured pins indicate the size and location of big snapper he caught since moving to the Great Barrier Island back in 1986.
Without going into detail, John, it is about time you digitalised your map, there is hardly space left for pins! In addition, John is a kind and modest (fisher)man with huge insight and empirical knowledge about land-based fishing.
I met up with John on midday Friday, about an hour before the high tide mark on a difficult to fish, rocky beach on the southern part of the Island. His strategy for the comp was to have a big, juicy bait out at all times; meaning that he’d sleep by his rod on the beach, fishing through the night and early morning. One must appreciate the amount of planning that went into the comp, the reel was spooled with fresh, quality line, dozens of traces were pre-rigged with brand new hooks, bait fish were netted and frozen down, lots of gear, from lighting to cooking facilities was carried down to the spot, and the list goes on.
This is extreme, land-based-sport fishing. Imagine fishing throughout the night, hardly getting any sleep on a rocky beach, at all times being prepared for that big hookup, which could fill your pockets with almost 10000 NZD. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? However, it is quite exhausting and not the most comfortable thing one can do.
John is an old-school surfcaster. He uses a two-piece surfcasting rod, an Alvey reel, 15 kg main line, no sinker and about a meter of 50 kg trace rigged with 10/0 and 8/0 hooks. Big and oily yellow-eyed mullet (netted a few days before the comp) are used as bait. Check out the flawless bait-presentation.
He cuts the tail off, rendering the bait more aerodynamic and yielding a longer cast. I will definitely adopt cutting the tail off, this will also allow for easier bait retrieval, especially when you are skipping dead baits to raise kingfish. He also cuts open the gut cavity and scores the fish on the sides, to allow the juices to flow out more easily and thus to attract big fish. The baits create their own berley trail.
Further, John impressively casts the bait as far as he can (60-80 m) and leaves it out there until the rod tip bends over. “Put a good sized, oily bait on and leave it out there. If you start playing with it all the time, you just increase the likelihood of getting snagged. Leave it there, small fish can’t take a fresh bait off easily, and keep an eye on the rod. If it doesn’t bend hard, your bait is still out there and attracting fish. So leave it!”
This is a crucial tip when you are fishing land-based spots that boast large kelp-beds and rocky, underwater terrain. When retrieving, do it fast and keep the rod tip high and if you really have to check your bait every 5 minutes, then just fish two rods, leaving the big bait out there untouched until it goes WHAAAAM.
After about an hour, John lands a 33 cm sized snapper. “Nice, this is dinner for you Ben.” I happily accepted the snapper and enjoyed it later that night by the fireplace thinking of John, and of how he is waiting for that big snapper, enduring the not so comfortable and rainy conditions on the rocks.
WHAAAAM, at about 1500, his rod bends over hard. John rushes over, but there is no hook-up, so he retrieves the line. The bait has been stripped off by something strong enough to do so in one go, but unfortunately no hook-up.
It suddenly occurres to me, my timing is not good at all. The best chances for John to land a big fish are at night and early morning. Actually, I am so sure to get a picture of him with a big snapper that I intend to cancel my plans for Saturday and to show up again.
Since John prepares a new bait, I decide, however, to stay for another half an hour. After all, John Lennan doesn’t have the reputation he has if he couldn’t land a good fish under pressure.
WHAAAAM, it is just after 1600 when the rod tip bends over again. This time there is a hookup and John skilfully turns the head of the fish as soon as possible and fights it hard from an elevated position. His mate Steve has the net ready. 3-4 minutes after hookup, John lands the first big fish of the day.
“Did you see that, he didn’t want to come in at all. He went for a couple of runs and tried to bust me off in the weeds.” Yeah John, I saw it mate, great effort and well done!
This was a good time for me to leave. John is more than just enthusiastic, “there are bigger fish out there Ben. I have a feeling.”, and I wish him good luck.
Unfortunately, John didn’t land the prize-winning fish and after more than 24 hours of extreme and exhausting fishing (I also believe quite wet, it rained a lot over night), I didn’t see him at the final weigh in.
I know that John isn’t the only skilled local who prepares well for the Black Jug and that most competitors deserve to win, but he is one of the few land-based anglers. Yes, he has first prize titles under his belt, but he also missed out on big cash prizes being unable to physically make it to the final weigh in time.
He is a grandiose sportsman and I wish him only the best for future comps. Hopefully he can out-fish the professionals who target the Black Jug and other anglers on large and comfortable boats with high-tech fish finding and attracting devices again.
When I left Tipi and Bobs, the scoreboard boasted about two dozen 20 pound snapper, with the biggest weighing in at 11.78 kg (26 pound).