By Josh Darby @joshdarbyfishing
I‘ve had the great fortune of fishing many of New Zealand’s premium soft-baiting destinations – places such as the Surville Cliffs, Whangaroa and the Bay of Islands, the Hen and Chicks, the Mokohinau Islands, and Little Barrier. While all of these places hold special memories for me, a recent two-day trip to Great Barrier Island reminded me why this place is one of the top soft-baiting destinations in Aotearoa.
Being roughly 40 kilometres long, the name Great Barrier is a nod to the protection the island gives the Hauraki Gulf from the weather events of the Pacific Ocean. Though, the island provides much more than a buffer from undesirable seas; it also provides a stunning, diverse landscape and fishery that has afforded me many of my greatest fishing and adventure memories. From a young age, I have camped on the island and overnighted in the many bays that provide shelter. I can attest to the undeniable magic you experience as you find yourself emersed in the tranquillity, the greenery, and the incredible fishery this island has to offer. A recent two-day soft-baiting trip, which would end up going down as one of the best fishing sessions I’ve ever experienced, further solidified just how special this place is.

Day One

With a two-day weather window that offered an opportunity to fish and stay on the island, I rounded up a small crew that included my two best fishing buddies, Eli and Joe. We launched my FC535 centre console boat from Omaha with a plan to target the NE side of the island, given the predicted SW winds. Typically, on a flat day, the journey to the western side of the island takes us little more than an hour. However, on this day brisk winds and a half-metre swell led to us fishing on the lee-side of Little Barrier before the conditions improved and we could safely cross the Cradock Channel. After crossing the channel, we made our way to a location on the northernmost aspect of the island known as The Needles, where we began casting an array of Z-Man soft-baits around the protruding rocks.
While the half-metre swell didn’t make for the smoothest trip over, it certainly provided for excellent wash fishing conditions. This was evidenced by the hooting and hollering coming from the boys as their soft-baits were picked up aggressively only moments after landing in the white wash. As tempting as it would have been to continue working this one area of wash, I find one of the keys to this type of lure fishing is to keep tracking along the coastline. If you’ve got an electric trolling motor then you’re set, otherwise it can pay to identify a piece of coastline where the wind/ tide will ensure your drift moves you along the coast (rather than pushing you in or out from it). Alternatively, you can keep your outboard running and bring it in and out of gear as you slowly move along your target piece of coastline. Under these conditions, I like to keep a distance between myself and the rocks that’s about three-quarters my maximum casting distance. This keeps any disturbance created by the outboard and boat to a minimum, and it also ensures my casts are reasonably accurate.
As we rounded The Needles we were greeted by Arid Island and the exposed and beautiful eastern coastline of the island. We moved our way along the coast, peppering it with casts and enjoying consistent takes from snapper in the 3-10lb range. I then identified a large bay where the drift would take us almost perfectly along a rockface. All three of us cast out our soft-baits, with each cast landing within a metre or two of land and in only a couple of metres of water. Almost immediately the three of us were hooked up (a triple hook-up while wash fishing is somewhat of a rarity!). For the next 45 minutes or so this piece of coastline offered incredibly consistent wash fishing, with a take every second or third cast. As the fishing began to slow, we made the call to head back around to the western side of the island to set up camp before losing daylight. As we headed to our destination, we couldn’t help but have ‘one last cast’ in an area of slightly deeper water where we’d enjoyed great success before. Eli was the first to hook up. His reel began to scream and mine followed shortly after. Soon the red glow of two very respectable fish appeared from the inky blue depths below and we couldn’t help but continue to cast, accepting the reality that we would be setting up camp in the dark. It wasn’t all bad though. After setting up the tent we were able to warm up around the campfire, enjoy a few cold beverages, and partake in some banter with a lively bunch of fellow campers.
1) Eli, casting out and hooking up in the shallows.
2) This one was destined for the dinner table.
3) Josh with a feisty snapper that took a liking to the Z-Man DarterZ in the Purple Death colour.
4) Sometimes the last cast call really produces.
A magical Great Barrier Island morning.

Day Two

After a somewhat restless night’s sleep thanks to a combination of a hole in my air mattress and the not-so-melodic snoring of my fellow crew members, we packed down the tent and loaded up the boat. With the sun still rising we made our way to the seaward side of one of the many smaller islands that border the main island. Conditions were perfect. We had overcast skies, a gentle breeze pushing us in the right direction, and there were signs of baitfish on the water’s surface. We started the day off by each choosing different colours and styles of soft-baits. That way we could identify if there was a particular colour/style that was working (it also provides an excellent excuse if you don’t happen to be the one catching – “It’s only because you’re using the Atomic Sunrise!”). In this instance, there was no need for excuses as the fish were taking a range of soft-baits in paddle tail, jerkshad, and DarterZ designs; and in Bruised Banana, Shiner, Motor Oil, and Atomic Sunrise colours.
Right: The boys are less competitive these days and do what they can to help each other land fish.
Above: Released to fight another day.
Above: Eli going toe to toe with an early morning snapper.
It started as a frantic session, with multiple double hook-ups and even a triple at one stage. The fish were all solid, ranging in size from around 40-60cm. I decided to cast out into some slightly deeper water on the other side of the boat in the hope of enticing a bite near some baitfish that had momentarily surfaced. Sure enough, about two-thirds of the way down my soft-bait was picked up. My rod loaded up and this was followed by the sound of rapidly-exiting braid that brought with it immediate excitement and nerves. 
Thankfully, despite our competitive nature, we really do get a buzz out of seeing each other catch big fish. Eli quickly wound in and jumped on the helm, and Joe followed suit, picking up his iPhone to capture the action. As we were in shallow water Eli manoeuvred the boat so that the line angle was reduced, which minimised the risk of a bust-off. Despite this, the fish managed to bury itself in some weed. After some further manoeuvring, we found an angle that allowed us to free the fish (combined with some considerable pressure). Thinking we had gained the upper hand, I began to relax. The fish must have sensed this and it took off again, pulling the hook in the process. Feeling rather deflated, I took a seat as the boys offered some condolences.
After some time spent recovering from the defeat, I decided to drift a piece of the coast that was new to me but looked incredibly promising. There were clumps of weed and boulders littering the entire coastline and to my mind it looked like the perfect habitat for big snapper. With the sounder showing large arches coming up off the bottom, we once again set about making long casts into the shallow waters that surrounded us. The fishing continued to be exceptional as we went for periods where every cast resulted in a hook-up. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be my day, as twice more I hooked fish that took off with such force that Joe and Eli immediately dropped tools to assist. Though, on both occasions, despite getting one close enough to the boat to note they were well in excess of 20lbs, the snapper secured their freedom.
Fortunately for us, Eli’s big fish mojo remained intact and he hooked into an absolute screamer. Wanting to repay the many times he had helmed the boat for me, I wound in quickly to assist, only to find that I was also hooked up to a sizeable snapper that had jumped onto my hastily retrieved soft-bait. Luckily, I was able to tame mine pretty quickly before grabbing the net and assisting Eli to land his snapper that, at 19.7lb, fell just short of the magic trophy mark. With the snapper successfully released, there were high fives all around. With that, we aimed our bow back to the mainland, grateful for another trip to that truly magical destination.
You can see the adventure in reel form on Instagram by following @joshdarbyfishing.