100 years of Marlin

In February 1915, Major A D Campbell caught the first marlin on rod and line in the Bay of Islands

Kingfish started it all. A group of hardy pioneers found that tremendous sport was to be had off the craggy cliffs and surf lashed Islands at the mouth of the Bay of Islands. The pioneers found that catching them was a grand and adventurous sport and from 1911 the vessels Waiomo and Phyllis were the two main charter boats fishing for them. Benzene boxes on the floor of the cockpit made do for fighting chairs. Harness to hold the rod and allow the fisherman to use his back and legs in fighting a fish had not been heard of. It was man against fish and the only aid a man had was a crude socket to hold the rod butt, that and the muscles of his hands and arms. Rods were long and slender, probably a development of the English Salmon Rod and certainly quite unsuitable for the job.

The reels used were narrow wooden Nottingham’s mounted underneath the rod; no geared actions to allow line to be recovered fast, no slipping clutches, no adjustable drag. You wound the fish or the fish wound you, it was as simple as that. A leather strap was bound underneath the rod so that it could be pulled against the drum to provide some braking action, but it was a hazardous process. When a kingfish struck and ran, the rod went down in a bucking curve, the line ran out and the reel spun, as did its handle. The fisherman, with one hand gripping the rod for dear life, had to face the added hazard of those spinning handles as he groped under the rod for the brake strap. Knuckles generally suffered. He had to grope for the brake fast because those pioneer reels held only about 250 yards of line and thin line at that. Kingfishing under these conditions demanded great skill and a good slice of luck.

Fun it certainly was, exhilarating, maddening but always entertaining, a far cry from the game fishing of today. When a shark or marlin struck – as they often did off Cape Brett – it seemed to be hopeless, especially as they were often foul hooked as a result of the baiting then used.

The boat would be drifting and the boatman could not just press a button to start the engine and follow the fish. You had to prime the carburettor, fiddle with spark settings and then spin the flywheel by hand until the engine started, if it did.

By then fish, line, trace and hook were often in the next bay and the fisherman was reeling in the broken end of the line, cursing at his rotten luck and bleeding knuckles. Many magnificent game fish were lost this way and often the fisherman did not know what they had hooked. But those who did dreamed of landing one. One of those men was a Scotsman, Major A.D. Campbell, who came to New Zealand every year to fish for trout and kingfish. During the summer 1914 he was trolling for kingfish around Bird Rock from Waiomo, but was troubled by kahawai, which grab the lure every time and did not give the kingfish time to get near it.

The launch headed away from the rocks to look elsewhere, but Major Campbell left a kahawai on the hook in the hope it would entice a really big kingfish. Instead it was a marlin that struck the moving bait. There was no chance of holding it on the gear being used and it soon snapped the light line, but Major Campbell vowed there and then that he would be better equipped to catch one the following year. Back in England, Major Campbell told the story to the Hardy brothers, famous tackle makers, and they made him a special rod, reel and line.

He returned to the Bay of Islands the following year with the new gear in great excitement. They soon had kahawai for bait and rigged one to troll behind the launch. A marlin struck, but Major Campbell was too excited and failed to hook it.

But the second bait went over and suddenly he saw the water hump up into a v-shaped wave behind the skipping kahawai and for an instant before the strike he had a chilling glimpse of a massive blue and silver fish, its lone slender bill weaving gently from side to side as it charged the bait, its sickle tail fin cutting the water like a knife and its sides glowing with phosphorescent fire. Then the water exploded in a white boil, the rod smashed down into a deep curve and the reel screamed. Smoke rose from the brake strap as Major Campbell thumbed it desperately on to the spinning drum. Somehow he stopped that racing fish and won back some line as the launch ran toward it.

He put the pressure on and turned it, but he could not hold it and they had to follow as it made it’s run, holding their breath several times when it hurled itself high out of the sea and smashing back in a shower of foam. On and on this went for an hour until the fish was beaten. He led it in to the launch and it was gaffed and made secure. The fish was a striped marlin of 233lb, nine feet four inches long and three feet ten inches in girth. The first ever caught on rod and line in New Zealand waters.

The excitement was tremendous when the fish was brought in to Russell and weighed.

Earlier in that same week, sometime between 5 and 12 February the Sydney angler Harry Andreas caught the first mako shark.

*Extracts from ‘Fighting Fins: Big game fishing in New Zealand waters’ by Neil Illingworth (1961).