Wish You Were Here: Kahawai on the Fly, South Island Rivermouth, New Zealand

by Owen James Burke

Scuttlefish writer Owen James Burke is currently rambling around New Zealand, living in a house truck with a camera, surfboard and speargun in search of stories, waves and fish. We’re putting together a waterperson’s guide to the island nation, but meanwhile, we’ll be publishing stories and photographs, short updates along the way from the Yankee in Kiwiland. -CD

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A South Island, New Zealand Kahawai, which, roughly translated from Māori means “strong in the water.” Photo: Owen James Burke.

Spring torrents are underway as waters warm here in New Zealand, and that means small trout-like minnows known as whitebait are starting to congregate around rivermouths as they begin their upriver journey to shallow culverts where, like salmon, they’ll mate and die.

The arrival of these hardy little fish (delicious morsels in their own right, but more on this later) also signals the return of large schools of kahawai (Arripis trutta), robust pelagic fish not unlike the Atlantic Ocean’s bluefish or Spanish mackerel, also known as eastern Australian salmon for their aerial acrobatics. The broad-shouldered brutes, as their indigenous name would suggest, are a fly-fisherman’s dream.

While kahawai aren’t generally considered to be the most desirable food fish, I, being from the school of thought that any fish can taste good if prepared with care, have done some experimenting with smoke, open flame, wok, lime (as ceviche)–even sashimi–and have yet to file (or receive) any grievances.

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

I pulled up 42 of these guys ranging from 2-6 pounds while standing right here (okay, I got my toes a little wet–and numb) during the last two hours of sunset, and decided to take a few home for dinner, with a couple extra for the neighbors.

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Raw Paua‘s flyfishing shakedown, and the shape of things to come, if fortuna decides to spin my way. (Moreover, I’m elated to be able to report that no tow truck was required on this outing.) Photo: Owen James Burke.

If you find yourself dragging a kahawai up the beach while in Australia or New Zealand, I highly recommend taking it home for dinner. These fish, thanks to a lack of commercial value, are highly plentiful, and an extremely sustainable recreational fish.

But–as always–be thankful, grateful, and responsible. Stick a good, sharp knife (a fillet knife will do, or even a bait knife with a decent blade) in behind the gills and cut down and back to dispatch the animal as humanely as possible, then soak it in salt water. This will remove a lot of the blood, which can lend an undesirably “gamey” or “fishy” flavor to the fish. If you’re planning to fillet it, or any other oily fish with dark meat (e.g., bluefish, mackerel, tuna), follow these instructions to remove the dark meat, or “bloodline.” –OJB

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