Wish You Were Here: Long, Fishless, Surfless Days in 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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All quiet on the Tindori bow. As a Hawaiian fisherman once told me after one fruitless day of chasing marlin off Maui, “Da sea gotta win sometimes, too, bruddah!” Photo: Satoshi Fukase.

Sometimes you zig when you should have zagged. According to the surf report from the night before, 9am was the time to be at the rivermouth. When I woke up at 8, the air was as still and warm as it’d been all winter (it’s late winter “down under”) and the skies were clear. Who knows, we might even have paddled out without our heads bound in neoprene.

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The end of a long, fish-less, surf-less day with Raw Paua. Yes, I have sheep for neighbors. Photo: Owen James Burke.

I climbed into the wheelhouse of Raw Paua at 8:30 and, looking at my fuel gauges (I have two tanks), remembered that one was reading empty, and the other had been stuck at a half a tank for over a week. In summation, I was clueless as to whether I had enough fuel to make the 5 mile drive to the rivermouth and back.

Slapping together a cursory morning meal, I decided to chance the 10-12 mile trip up State Highway 1 to the next town, which happens to be the only place within something like 50 miles, I’m discovering, where I can get my fuel (propane) tanks filled.

And yes, running your vehicle on propane (called “gas” or “LPG” here) in 2015 is about as convenient as it would be to operate on velociraptor urine. (Propane was, however, all the rage during the gasoline crisis of the 1970s.) Sure, you can swap an empty propane tank for a full one at just about any service station, but propane refueling pumps are becoming fewer and farther between, which means I should be carefully plotting my travels, keeping in mind when and where I can and can’t obtain my precious fuel.


(Running out of fuel when your engine runs on propane is another, but equally trying predicament–you can’t exactly hitch a ride down the road with a jerrycan.) Photo: Owen James Burke.

After a 25-mile round trip for propane, I pulled up to the beach, late, to meet Satoshi, a friend from Japan. We hopped out of our cars to find beautiful, clean lines gently crumbling over a sandbar that had just recently been groomed almost to perfection after a barrage of winter storms (and ensuing floods) had passed through. The only issue was that the waves were peaking at about knee-high, and a full “spring tide” (an extreme tide after a full or new moon) was flooding the beach and buffering the swell’s power. The tide would have to go out for at least a few hours before the sand bar would be exposed for the waves to break with enough force to be ridden.

I checked the surf forecast again (in retrospect, I should’ve turned on the marine radio, too) and it was calling for light winds and steady swell all day.

“Let’s go get the boat, pull up a few cod and by the time we’re back, the tide’ll have dropped, and we’ll have dinner,” I suggested. This was wishful thinking at best.

After hitching up my boat, we drove an hour into a secluded bay on Queen Charlotte Sound. We zipped around to a point where I’d had some luck with blue cod the week before. Three hours went by without so much as a bite, apart from some small bait stealers, I decided it was time for a quick swim to fetch up something to eat.

I hooked up a “spotty”–one of the spiny little fish we’d been catching–in the top of the tail and set it out as live bait, more out of curiosity than anything else, figuring it’d swim around for about half an hour while I dove and then we’d set it free, only a little worse for wear.

I had one arm into my wetsuit when I heard a welcomed high-pitch scream coming from my Shimano Baitrunner reel. Satoshi, whose English is fine, could not make sense of my excited, probably unintelligible commands to set the reel into gear and bear down on the fish. He just stared at me in consternation. I reclaimed my arm just in time to grab the rod, put it in gear and set the hook—right as the fish dove into the razor sharp rocks and the line went slack.

I rigged up another hook and had Satoshi bring up another spotty.

No sooner had I finished stretching into my wetsuit did I hear the reel sing her monochromatic tune once again–music to my ears, at least. This fish was also trying to find refuge in the rocks, and although I got a head start on this one, it spat the bait. Upon retrieval, I discovered that our little spotty had been crushed almost flat by the jaws of a yellowtail kingfish, no doubt. It was mangled, colorless and dead, and the hook had turned inside of the fish so that it was in no position to lodge into the kingfish’s mouth–a common and unfortunate occurrence when fishing live baits on single hooks. (A side note: a better-prepared fisherman might employ a rubber band, or needle and thread to hold their hooks in place.)

Growing frustrated, I rigged up one more spotty, jumped over the side and left Satoshi with the boat.


Kina or “sea urchins,” a sea snail and some scallops, all quick shots of protein to keep us going for our glassy afternoon surf which we thought lay ahead. Photo: Satoshi Fukase.

I returned to the boat after a quick glide around, and things had been quiet aboard since I left, Satoshi reported. We cracked open a few sea urchins and scallops, which we drizzled in lemon and paired with a local blanc beer for lunch.

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Photo: Satoshi Fukase.

Somewhat satiated, we packed up and headed back for the beach to see if the tide had dropped enough to produce a few ripples worth sharing.

Drop it had, along with the barometer. By the time we returned to the rivermouth at eastward-facing Cloudy Bay, a heavy southeasterly had whipped around from the Southern Ocean. This meant rain, clouds and onshore winds, which turned the sea into a frothing pit of whitewater and erased any trace of the 3-5-foot, 19-second interval swell we’d been promised.

Surfing was now out of the question. Instead, the wools came out, the teapot went on.

I had a few fillets of kahawai left over in the chilly bin (that’s Kiwi for cooler) and invited Satoshi aboard Raw Paua for a gringo-fied, South Pacific variation on Mexican ceviche. We retreated inside, and as I pulled my wetsuit off (I’d left it on after diving, expecting a surf session to follow) we discussed our respective future plans–his to return to Japan to work and then continue his travels; mine to build a B&B in Panama where I’d run surfing and fishing charters with a fair maiden at my side. We went silent for a moment, gazing into the shorebreak, both of us, I think, making a plea to the wind to turn back around.

Several miles down the road, we would later come to learn, was a protected, secretive cove where there had been very surfable waves breaking all day long.

But, alas, we hadn’t a clue, and the sun was now setting anyhow. We took turns spinning fanciful yarns of empty waves breaking in clear tropical waters as I set the ceviche to bathe in lime, salt and chilies and the heat from the stove began to relieve our frozen fingers and toes. He promised to visit me in Panama. I promised to travel to Japan. The water boiled. We sipped on jasmine tea. Carpe noctem. -OJB

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