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That Time I Hooked a Whale

October 08, 2015
That Time I Hooked a Whale

I think I need you to get the knife…

The Maori tell a story that every child growing up on the shores of Aotearoa learns at a young age. It goes something like this…

A long time ago, there was a powerful demi-god – half man, half god – called Maui who lived in Hawaiiki. Before the Maori settled in Aotearoa, they lived in Hawaiiki their spiritual homeland; the place that it is said their ancestors reside and where they will return when they die.

On a day like any other day when Maui was just a boy, Maui stowed away in his brothers’ Waka (canoe) so that he could join them at sea and go fishing. When Maori surprised his brothers they tried to take him back to shore, but Maui (being a demi-god) used his magical powers and made the shore seem so far away that they decided it was futile to resist and let him fish.

Maui dropped his magic fish hook and soon he felt a pull on the end, but it was stronger than any fish he had felt before. He called for help from his brothers to fight the fish. They fought it together eventually pulling it to the surface. It was bigger than any fish they had seen and would come to be known as ‘Te Ika a Maui’ (the fish of Maui) which today we know as the North Island of New Zealand. At the centre lies Lake Taupo, and in some versions of this story, they say Taupo is where Maui’s fish hook pierced the fish.

But Maui feared the gods would punish them for his catch and so he left to go and try and reason with them in Hawaiiki.

Soon after Maui had gone, his brothers began to fight over ownership of the land and its many beautiful features. The blows from their weapons on the surface of the catch forged the mountains and valleys of the North Island.

The South Island is Maui’s great Waka, Te Waka a Maui. Stewart Island, which lies at the southern tip of Te Waka a Maui was his anchor.

See also: Dean's super-sized snapper

Man…it’s just stripping out line…

For many kids growing up in New Zealand, fishing is not just a fun thing to do with Mum and Dad, but an integral part of our culture. Kiwis fish for food, we are particularly lucky in that we are surrounded by some of the freshest and most beautiful kai moana (seafood) in the world. In that way I was like any other kiwi kid. We would often go out as a family and try to bring home dinner. Dad would get home just as they sun was rising from the river, with a freshly caught rainbow trout hanging from two fingers on his right hand, his fly rod in his left.

We had a boat for a while and would fish in the sea for Blue Cod (in my opinion the most delicious fish in the world) and Terakihi. When Dad sold the boat, we didn’t go fishing as often, but I learned how to surfcast and instead we would catch dinner from the shores of the East Coast near Wellington instead.

Are you sure it isn’t just a fish…?

This is a story of ‘the one that got away’. But, in this case, I was glad that it did. Like Maui, you might say, I feared the wrath of the gods.

I was studying in Wellington at the time and was home for the weekend. Mum and Dad live an hour or so North up the coast in a place called Greytown in the Wairarapa. The Wairarapa is a wide valley surrounded by rolling hills and mountains. It has its own little microclimate which makes wines from the area particularly good. You can drive over the Rimutakas from Wellington to the Wairarapa and find it’s a completely new day there; sunny and fine.

This weekend I was keen to go fishing. I would often go with Dad; Mum didn’t mind fishing, but she preferred to just watch and enjoy the fresh sea air. On this weekend Dad had to work, so I asked Mum if she wanted to come with me to Castlepoint.

Castlepoint landscape lighthouse

See also: 11 helpful hints for catching fish on fly

So we packed up the car with our rods and a cooler, picked up bait and fuel for the drive along the way and made it to Castlepoint at the turn of the tide.

Castlepoint is beautiful when there isn’t a harsh westerly blowing. The lighthouse sits on top of a reef that is now exposed to the air, jutting out over the ocean. Some hundreds of thousands of years ago the sea levels were higher; the little fossilised shells and sea creatures in the rock all that’s left of that time.

It’s a great spot for fishing. Once you have climbed up to the cliffs, it drops straight into deep water, and many fast moving fish like to feed on the organisms that are crashed off the rocks by the ocean swell.

We use long surfcasting rods to throw our baits out into deep water. The hard part is landing your catch. In some places you can be standing three or four metres above the ocean, so the best time to fish is when you can get down close to the water’s edge.

Where do I cut it...?

...There, just anywhere — it’s going to take me with it!

Castelpoint lagoon surfcasting

See also: You don't need a boat to catch fish

We weren’t having much luck. I hadn’t caught a thing – a few taps on the end of my line was all that signalled there may have been fish around, but they were having none of my bait.

Mum had even worse luck, well that depends on your opinion of sea slugs. She had pulled one of the slimy creatures up with a chunk of sea weed, and by this stage was probably regretting her decision to come with me to the coast.

But our day would was soon to turn.

As we were beginning to pack it in, Mum said, “Oh, Pete, look!”

She pointed out further north up the reef to a disturbance in the water. The whale broke free, spouting seawater as it took a deep breath. More backs broke the water and we watched as the pod came slowly closer toward us, only a few metres from the base of the cliffs.

I realised I still had my line out so I started to reel it in a bit wanting to sit down and just watch the whales as they passed in front of us and then wham! my rod tip bent over like it had just finished the performance of its life, but things were only just getting started.

Line started to run off my reel so I tightened the drag and started winding, but line kept streaming faster and faster – so fast that little droplets of water were flung into the air to rain on my hands.

“Wow, this isn’t budging…” I said over my shoulder to Mum who was focused on the whales and hadn’t yet realised that I was into something serious.

And then it occurred to me. Perhaps it should have occurred to me sooner: my line was directly out in front, and the whales were right above it. Surely not…I thought to myself.

“Mum, I think I need you to get the knife…”

“Really, it’s that big?”

“I think it’s that big…I think it’s the whale.”

“Are you sure it isn’t just a fish?”

“No fish I’ve ever hooked took line like this…”

So Mum ran to get the knife as I walked away from the edge of the cliff, conscious now that more than half the line on my reel was out there in the ocean.

“Where do I cut it?”

“There, just anywhere, it’s going to take me with it!”

She snicked the line and I fell back as the tension gave way. We sat there as I breathed heavily and we watched the pod of whales slowly rise and fall with the sea until they were so far along the shore that they could have been a part of it.

We learned later that it was a pod of Wright Whales migrating south and that many other people had also seen them. I always wondered whether I had actually hooked the whale, or if it had been a coincidence – maybe they were chasing something big and I had thrown away the catch of a lifetime. I always wondered if that whale still carried my line and I hoped not. I am happy to just wonder and leave this one down in the deep with the gods and the fishes where it belongs.

castlepoint reef

Thanks to Paddy McDermott for the great shots of Castlepoint

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