January 17, 2006

I'd like to be under the sea *

Angling virgin Kimberley Rothwell visits a fishing lodge on the Coromandel Peninsula, and falls for the pastime hook, line and sinker.

A sunny day out fishing can quickly turn into a splatter movie.

There is as much blood, guts, death, and brains as an early Peter Jackson film. Not only are you hauling something out of its habitat with a hook lodged in its mouth, there's the killing, the gutting, the filleting. It's gory.

But there is nothing like eating fresh fish, straight out of the sea. So when I had the chance to go fishing off the Coromandel Peninsula, I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

I am a fishing virgin, a landlubber. I get sick on the Interislander. So before going up to stay at the Anglers' Lodge, at Amodeo Bay just north of Coromandel, I did a bit of research.

I pored over New Zealand Fishing News, which sported photographs of anglers with grotesquely huge fish, advertisements for plastic lures that attract various species, and tall stories of battles with fish twice the size of the fisherman.

Fishing, I came to think, must be difficult. It must require oodles of skill, knowledge of the right gear. To be at one with the fish. I prepared myself for a long day of waiting, of pulling up nothing but old boots and toilet seat covers.

But I was wrong. A short boat ride into Amodeo Bay and north of a smattering of islands called the Motukawao group, our captain and co-owner of the lodge, Dave Butler, settled on a spot near Colville Bay. He used sonar fish-finding equipment to locate a school of snapper loitering about 18m below and, as a light drizzle fell, he taught me to fish.

When I first put my line in, all I could feel was the weight of the sinker and the sea. But they have a handy tip at the Anglers' Lodge: you've got a fish if you can feel your rod nod.

Every time I thought something was nibbling at my bait, I hoisted the rod as much as a puny-armed landlubber can. If the rod nods, something is tugging at the other end. If it's straight, try again.

When my rod nodded, I scrambled to pull up whatever glorious prize was at the other end. I could feel it bash around down there like something crazy.

On seeing the pinky-golden body of the snapper emerge from the depths, I felt unbelievably powerful. Like I'd fought nature, and won.

I half expected the sun to peer out behind the clouds and light me up as choirs of angels sang. There's nothing like catching your first fish. Like driving for the first time. Or even a first kiss.

However, my first fish was about half the size of a keeper, which for snapper is anything over 27cm in the regulations. Dave insists on keeping only fish over 30cm.

My snapper was tossed back without ceremony. Others on the boat pulled up gigantic snapper which leapt on to their hooks like kamikazes. Within minutes, the pile of snapper we had caught became a heap.

Glistening, beautiful fish with scales like sequins came out of the sea and into our boat.

"We've had everyone from a two-year-old to a 90-year-old catch fish off this boat," Dave said.

Once they were off the hook, Dave quickly stabbed them through the brain with a spike, in a process known by the Japanese word iki. It kills the fish instantly, rather than have it suffocate slowly. But it seems pretty gory when seeing it for the first time.

During the height of the holiday season, there can be up to 300 boats all looking for snapper around the Motukawao group, but on the day I visit, we are the only ones out. The lodge campground is packed following Christmas, Dave's wife Donella tells me.

"On Boxing Day, there's a queue of campers waiting to get in. We get up before everyone else, and don't get to bed till after midnight sometimes."

Snuggled into bushclad hills on Colville Rd, the Anglers' Lodge has accommodation priced from $65 for a one-bedroom cabin to $180 for a penthouse with a view of the bay, as well as camp sites for $12.50 a person. The closest food shop is 17km away in Coromandel, though the lodge has some of the basics. And there's plenty to eat in the sea if you can catch it.

There was a lot of non-human company at the lodge. Eels in the nearby creek nibbled at my feet and fish-eating ducks followed me, hoping for a bite. It's an idyllic spot, with pohutukawa trees lining the road and islands dotting the bay.

Out on the water, a shearwater joined us for a while, lured in by the pilchards and squid we baited our hooks with. As it dived to get the bait, the water separated around its elegant dark grey body, and it came back up dry.

Unfortunately, it got one bait, and the hook. Dave reeled in the squawking bird as it tried to flap its wings, and let it off the hook. It flew away, almost as if it was embarrassed.

Gannets occasionally plummeted into nearby water, making little splashes on the surface.

As evening came on, the drizzle lifted and we quickly approached our quota of snapper. On the east coast from North Cape to Cape Runaway east of Opotiki, recreational fishers can take home nine snapper each.

Towards the end of our trip, I battled it out for minutes with some monster on my line. I thought of The Old Man and The Sea, Hemingway's epic story of a man who hauls in a marlin after days of fight, only to have it eaten by sharks as he heads home.

Whatever it was down there (a taniwha, whale, marlin, mermaid?) it was It or Me. Dave directed my technique: lift the rod, then reel in the line while lowering the tip back to the water. Then hoist again, and reel down. My hands struggled to grip the reel, my shoulders burned.

"Keep going!" Dave instructed.

Finally the fish emerged. Pink with iridescent blue scales, it thrashed about trying to wriggle off the hook. Dave unhooked it, iki-ed it, and gave it to me like a proud mother being handed a baby.

My biggest fish – all four pounds (1.8kg) of it. It was nothing like the 20lb-plus (9kg) giants I had seen in the magazines, but it was all mine.

1kg white fish
1 medium onion, chopped thick
3 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1 cup grated cheddar
teaspoon salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 tsp dry mustard
6 tbsp butter

Preheat oven to 180
Season fillets with salt and pepper. Place fillets in the baking dish.
Melt butter over low-medium heat. Add the chopped onion and stir for about five minutes until tender.
Take off the heat, add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Spread the topping over the fillets.
Bake for about 20-25 minutes until the fish is opaque and flakes easily. The topping should be lightly golden brown.

* Octopus' Garden - The Beatles

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