Fishing in the Bay of Islands – Target Species

Recognised as a world class fishing destination, the Bay of Islands marine habitat continues to provide both local and international fishers with memorable fishing experiences.

In addition, the bay is sheltered from most weather by the extensive Cape Brett peninsula and countless islands. The result is an all-seasons playground for boaties with options aplenty in all but the most severe of northerly gales.

Fishing through the seasons

  • A world renowned striped marlin fishery takes up residence offshore late summer through to autumn.
  • At the same time, a tuna fishery, especially albacore and skipjack tuna can be accessed even by small boats and kayaks.
  • An all year round inshore snapper fishery peaks during spring and early summer.
  • Deeper water fish including hapuka and terakihi can be targeted from mid-winter until high summer.
  • Kingfish and kahawai fishing on and off for much of the year but peaking late summer through autumn.
  • Apart from a seasonal restriction on scallops they are at their very best during spring, while both oysters and mussels are available all year.


One of New Zealand’s most popular species for recreational fishing is the snapper. Many of our clients succeed in catching snapper on our charter trips and enjoy their catches back on shore, cooked to perfection.

Snapper belong to the sea bream family and the average fish measures between 30 – 60cm in length. However, snapper fishing in the spawning season (November to January) off the Bay of Islands has resulted in catches each weighing up to 14kg.

The maori name for snapper ‘tamure’ is still in use along Northland coasts and smaller snapper are commonly called bream.

Snapper is the most commercially caught species in New Zealand and are easily identified by their steep head profile, large grasping, crushing teeth and their golden-red colour, and blue spotted upper sides.

Snapper Feeding & Breeding

Snapper survive on shellfish and rock-bound chitinous creatures, sea eggs (kina), crabs such as estuarine mud crabs, worms, molluscs, crustaceans and plankton, jellyfish, and small fish species such as anchovies, pilchards and sprats.

They are a fast breeding species; fertilized eggs float near the surface and hatch three to four days later. After hatching, snapper try to hide where they can. They feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton, marine worms and small crustaceans and grow to about four inches in their first six months. Snapper are believed to reach maturity after three years, at which point they average 12 to 14 inches long. In their first winter, the young snapper migrates to deeper water, although tagging studies indicate that migration tendencies are individually variable.

Snapper fishing or ‘bottom fishing’

The term ‘bottom fishing’ derives from species such as snapper as they remain just above the seabed, between depths of 10 – 100 metres in New Zealand’s warmer coastal waters.

They are our nation’s most popular recreational and table fish, and can be caught using bait or by jigging small lures. The key reason for snapper fishing’s popularity is that snapper are strong swimmers and hence a challenging sport fish to catch-they are also one of the best tasting fish in the world (well, probably!)

Fishing for Snapper

There are certain theories regarding the impact of seasons and tides on New Zealand snapper fishing:

  • Snapper move to shallower water in spring and summer
  • Snapper move to deeper water in winter
  • Snapper seem to prefer the ‘edges’ of underwater tidal streams
  • For offshore areas, fishing the turn of the tide may be best; among other reasons, the turning tide may reduce current speed and aid sinking a bait. For inshore areas, the incoming tide is preferred, because it provides snapper with better access to surf-edge shellfish beds on beaches

Snapper Bait

Shellfish are the obvious bait choice for surf fishing. If shellfish can’t be collected, packaged frozen bait, such as trevally, squid, or pilchards are fine. These baits are usable for boat fishing, too, but bonito, with its potent, oily smell, is the preferred bait for many New Zealand snapper fishermen. Hook size, hook type, line strength, sinker weight, and sinker style are best adjusted for the bait used and for the region being fished.


Also known as yellowtail kingfish, this species grows to world-record size in New Zealand. They are the species that gave the initial momentum to New Zealand Game Fishing. Kingfish prompted the first recreational sports fishing charters back in 1911 and the creation of New Zealand’s first (and the world’s second oldest) game fishing club in the Bay of Islands.

Encounters with Marlin and Mako sharks led to a switch of interest years later, but kingfish have always remained a valued sport fish.

Kingfish can grow up to two metres in length and over 60 kg and are the same as the so-called Californian kingfish. Its colour is variable in shades of grey-green to blue-green with yellow fins, particularly the tail fin, and they have a yellowish-brown stripe along their sides.

The largest population of kingfish is found in northern waters. They move south in summer months to the vicinity of the Banks Peninsula on New Zealand’s South Island.

Kingfish Feeding & Breeding

The diet of kingfish is mostly other fishes, either bottom or surface kinds such as pilchards, mullet, herring and garfish. They also consume big meals of squid and octopus found in their customary habitat among reefs and rocky shores. There seems to be both seasonal movement between deep and shallow habitats and an offshore movement of kingfish in early to mid-summer for spawning.

Fishing for Kingfish

This fantastic sport fish is caught with a variety of techniques including trolling, jigging, live baiting from shore or boat and fly fishing. Kingfish are also a very popular target fish for land-based game fishing.


Tuna may be regarded as the ‘glamour’ species of big game fishing – big, beautiful and fast. A great challenge for experienced anglers or novices!

Yellow-fin tuna is the most abundant fish in the tuna family to be found in the Bay of Islands, although big-eye tuna and blue-fin tuna are occasionally caught. Yellow-fin tuna tend to average around the 20 kg mark, but can reach up to 70 kg and two metres in length.

They are beautifully-coloured fish with a dark-blue back, iridescent golden band running along the body, a line which divides the silver belly and the blue back.

As the name suggests, all the fins on this tuna are yellow, and another distinguishing feature is that the dorsal and anal fins lengthen considerably in tuna in excess of 30kg. On yellow-fin tuna weighing more than 50kg, these fins become long and sabre-like and protrude almost at right angles before curving back to the tail.

Tuna Feeding & Speeding!

The swimming speed and stamina of tuna is legendary. Every external feature of the tuna’s body is designed to lessen resistance as the fish cuts through the water.

Scientists have estimated that tuna can attain speeds in excess of 30mph (50kph) with ease, and are second only to marlin for speed. An unusual characteristic is their warm bloodedness. The body temperature of tuna is several degrees warmer than the water they swim in, whereas most fish equal the temperature.

Tuna have to consume a lot of food to fuel the energy necessary for their quick propulsion, and remembering that they have only a small stomach capacity, the fuel must be burnt quickly resulting in a high body temperature. Tuna eat just about any bait fish such as squid, pilchards and small mackerel.

Tuna Fishing – Ideal Conditions

Tuna is one of the glamour fish of game fishing. Ideal conditions would include crystal clear water with a deep blue, almost purple hue; temperatures of between 18 to 21 degrees Celsius; a current and the presence of feeding birds, which tend to indicate that tuna are about. Sunny days also seem to be the best-for the tuna and the fishermen!

Tuna Bait

Tuna can be caught on both lures and live bait. When fishing the blue waters off the Bay of Islands, cubing and live baiting is popular. When a yellow-fin tuna takes the bait, the strike is often hard and fast and the fish will run a fair distance at a rate of knots, maintaining a constant high speed. They adopt a deep, lugging action and tend to fight in a long series of arcs, testing both the angler and his tackle.


The world record for the largest marlin catch was achieved off the shores of New Zealand, so when you go marlin fishing with Bigfish, there’s some competition to live up to.

The Bigfish crew will use all their experience, techniques and local knowledge to help you to success – perhaps even record-breaking success!

There are three marlin species in New Zealand waters – striped marlin, blue marlin and black marlin.

Blue Marlin

The most widespread marlin species in equatorial Pacific waters, blue marlin is a sought-after summer visitor in the Bay of Island’s primarily striped marlin fishery.

The easiest way to differentiate between New Zealand’s large striped marlin and blue marlin is their dorsal fin; a blue has one which is half to two-thirds the length of its body depth, where the striped marlin has a dorsal fin height about the same as its body depth.

In addition, the under jaw of a blue marlin is not as long as that of a stripy. Blue marlins have a wide tail almost identical to black marlin, and their pectorals fold in alongside the body unlike the blacks’ which are rigid. Blue marlins are a brilliant deep metallic blue above, changing abruptly on the sides to bright silver.

Experts believe New Zealand to be the extreme limit of the blue marlin’s range and blue marlin are primarily caught around the north eastern New Zealand coasts in high summer (February-March). These fish average around 200kg, with the largest rod-and-reel capture listed at 461.3kg. Captures of these powerful and dynamic fish have increased in recent seasons, with more boats working further offshore in the blue marlin’s favoured deep water habitat.

Blue Marlin Feeding & Breeding

The diet of a blue marlin is the same as its cousins, and it is particularly keen on large striped bonito. The breeding season of blue marlin has not been firmly fixed and there is evidence of males spending much of the year segregated from females.

Blue Marlin Fishing

Trolling large skirted lures is the usual fishing technique.

Striped Marlin

The striped marlin is the most prevalent and the most common of the largest game fish. Striped marlin are brilliantly coloured with vertical pale blue stripes across the body, dark metallic blue on the back fading to silvery white underneath. The high dorsal fin is marked with blue spots. Its slender bill, high dorsal lobe and straight rear edge of the pectoral fin distinguish the striped marlin from its bulkier relatives.

New Zealand striped marlins are the largest in the world and most world records are held in this country, with the Bay of Islands boasting many of them. The weight range of these fish is between 70 and 220 kg and they can grow to a length of four metres. The heaviest striped marlin caught to date is 224.1 kg – the current New Zealand and world record.

Striped Marlin Feeding & Breeding

Striped marlin’s food source is mostly other fishes, large and small, and includes bottom as well as surface fishes. It is thought that the striped marlin of New Zealand spawns in the central South Pacific between Tonga and the Taumotu Archipelago.

Adults arrive in New Zealand waters in summer when the sea temperatures are 19 to 20 degrees Celsius (December to early January for the Northland coast); the prime season for striped marlin begins in January and ends in May when waters have cooled to about 17 to 18 Celsius.

Current fronts can generate a fair bit of action for striped marlin, particularly if the water temperature is to their liking on one side of the current. These current fronts create the right food chain reaction which in turn attracts the bigger predators.

Striped Marlin Fishing

Because striped marlins are smaller than their blue and black cousins, some fishermen may be fooled into thinking they’re an easy catch. Fast and spectacular, they can be the most difficult of opponents.

Since the introduction of a moratorium on the commercial catch and sale of marlin, numbers have dramatically increased. Over the last five years, recreational captures are the highest on record, although at least seventy-five percent of marlin are tagged and released.

As with all sports, there are various techniques that bring success, which when marlin fishing will vary according to the skipper and his boat. Blue water anglers generally troll. Switch baiting is one method used, where skirted lures are run as teasers on the outriggers and a large attractor can be run close to the boat in the wake. This may be complimented by additional lines of plastic squid on outriggers which also act as teasers. When a striped marlin comes up, it is common practice for live bait such as small tuna to be slipped back and the lures pulled from the water. Hopefully, the marlin then takes the bait.

An obvious reason for marlin being such a popular game fish, is the spectacular way in which it fights. Even the strike is impressive. Once focused on its target the marlin chases, lifts its bill and shoulder out of the water and swings down overpowering its prey. Realizing the restraint, the fish soars vertically out of the water shaking its head in an effort to toss the bait. Its physical prowess and stamina enables it to repeat this distinguishing manoeuvre, often followed by an escape to the deep.

Black Marlin

The black marlin is a heavy, thick set marlin species found mainly in the warm Indian and Pacific Oceans, reaching New Zealand’s northern coasts in summer months, before wandering south to the East Cape. The black marlin has always been regarded as a most prized game fish because of its great fighting qualities and its bulky build.

The short, thick spear, low dorsal lobe and fixed pectoral fin are features which immediately distinguish this species from the more abundant striped marlin and the humped shoulder from the blue marlin. The black marlin has limited colour bands on the body, is blue-black above, greyish-white below – an overall bronze flush is sometimes present.

Black Marlin Feeding & Breeding

Black marlins are most regularly encountered around shallow reef structures. Catches of this species have dwindled in recent years, largely because of the swing towards lure fishing. Specialists targeting black marlin with large live-baits continue to have success as they are carnivorous, feeding on whatever fish are available, favouring large tuna and squid. The warmer summer months are the spawning season for black marlin.

Black Marlin Fishing

Usually fighting down deep, black marlins do not often jump when hooked, or at least not for some time afterwards. Some do not jump at all, but may come to the surface and thrash about at the trace with their bill.

Seasonal Guide to Game Fishing, Sports Fishing
and Light Tackle Fishing in the Bay of Islands, New Zealand

Inshore Fisheries

Traditional inshore fisheries are based on about 30 species. Their habitat extends from the shore out to depths of about 200 metres, at the edge of the continental shelf. Inshore species prevalent in the Bay of Islands include snapper, grouper, kingfish, kahawai and trevally.

Deep Water Fisheries

The main concentration of deep water species in New Zealand’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are between about 40-55 S and deep water fish are harvested at depths ranging from 200-1500 metres.

Several oceanic pelagic species migrate south to feed in the Bay of Islands’ waters each year, mainly in summer and autumn. These include billfish such as marlin (striped, blue and black) and various tuna species. Their exact distribution is mainly determined by climatic factors such as sea temperature.