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FIORDLAND FANTASYWords & Images by Etoile SmuldersAs most of you know, summer up north was just a huge disappointment. La Niña brought non-stop howling easterlies, severely limiting the days we were able to get out to sea to go for a dive. We were only able to get out for a dive mission a handful of times before we ended up selling our boat at the end of January. Without our own boat and the fish itch not yet scratched, we were fanging for a proper dive mission by the time March came through.Unlike what we were enduring up in the North Island, the dive conditions on the South Island were all-time this summer. All summer, we had been seeing the insane content and hearing stories of the bluefin tuna running off the coast of Fiordland coast in large numbers – a dream fish of ours.The return of the southern bluefin tuna has to be one of the most successful stories in international fisheries management. A population once on the verge of complete collapse, successful collaborative management from countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, and Korea, amongst others, has meant that over the past ten years, the international population of this highly migratory species has boomed back to extremely healthy levels. In New Zealand, the numbers seen and caught off the coast of the South Island in summer and the North Island in winter have been increasing exponentially over the past few years. It is such an amazing fishery, and fishers in NZ should feel truly blessed that this species is once again harvestable off our coasts.Shooting a bluefin tuna has been on our bucket list for a long time. Spearing one would certainly make up for the lack of fish and diving over the past few months. We were eagerly waiting for a gap where conditions and timing with work trips all lined up so we could make a strike mission from Auckland and head down south and try and get one for ourselves (easier said than done). Our friend Nate, who runs Gravity Fishing charters, gave us a call towards the end of February saying he had a couple of days off and we should come down for a bluefin mission. The timing was ideal as my partner David had a work trip scheduled for the South Island around the same time, so we planned to leave a few days earlier to squeeze this mission in.“ All summer long we had been seeing the insane content and hearing stories of the southern bluefin tuna running off the coast of Fiordland.”We were frothing – finally, a proper dive mission. However, our dreams were soon crushed due to the Wellington-Picton ferry debacle. All ferry sailings for the rest of February were completely sold out. The next available ferry was only in the first week of March, and those dates didn’t align with our mate Nate who has the boat – the ultimate buzzkill! In early March, David left Auckland to drive to the South Island for his work trip, while I stayed in the city. About three days after he left, he gave me a ring and said it’s looking like we might get another chance to jump on the Gravity with Nate and head out of Milford in a few days. The weather looked touch and go, but you have to risk it to get the biscuit, right? I booked a flight, and the next morning David picked me up in Queenstown. We met up with a couple of mates and drove to Milford Sound, and jumped on the Gravity that evening.Luckily, David had packed all our bluewater spearing gear and drove it down south with him ‘just in case’. Packing for a bluewater spearing trip is not an easy feat. Proper bluewater spearguns, bungees, and floats are needed if there is any hope of landing a decent bluefin tuna on the spear. We left Milford Sound early that next morning, heading south in search of the bluedogs. Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side. Gusts of up to 30 knots and a decent swell made conditions less than ideal for diving. We put out some handlines attached to bungees to see if we could catch one with a lure, but after a few hours of bobbing and swaying in the rough sea conditions, the only fish on the deck were a couple of skipjack tuna. We decided to leave the rough weather behind and head into a fiord for some protection from the wind. We might not have had the chance to jump into the blue today, but we were still frothing for a dive along the coast: to grab some crays, p ua, and other fish species we don’t get up north. As we made our way back to the coast, the water went from blue to mud brown. I looked at David, “Yup, we won’t be diving.”By this time, it was still early afternoon, so we had a whole day of ahead of us. We only needed to be back at the docks in Milford by late afternoon the following day. The weather for the next day looked mint, so we decided to hang out inside the Fiord away from the wind for the rest of the day and head out in search of bluefin again early the next morning.If you want to feel small and insignificant, go to Fiordland. The landscape is completely out of this world. Hands down, it’s one of the wildest and most beautiful places I have ever been. It’s hard to be bummed about not getting a bluefin when you are surrounded by such magnificent natural beauty and good mates.We spent the rest of the day exploring up and down the fiord and cooked lunch next to a waterfall that fell straight into the ocean. We took the dinghy up the river and went for a walk along the banks in search of some deer, then threw some lines off the back of the boat at sunset, catching a myriad of fun sea critters while a delicious leg of lamb was roasting on the COBB Grill.“ If you want to feel small and insignificant, go to Fiordland. The landscape is completely out of this world. Hands down, it’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.”Many beers were downed. It was the most epic day.The next morning we headed out wide again for another chance to jump in a shoot a bluefin. It was a glass-off day, and hopes were high. We trawled around for a couple of hours, hooking into some decent-sized albacore, constantly searching the horizon for any sign of concentrated action so we could jump in. The action was pretty slow that day, not much was seen, and like the day before, we never got our chance to jump in. After plenty of hours of spent trawling and a couple of albacore on deck, we decided to call it quits and head back to the docks at Milford. We gave it a fair shot. Then, just as we had called it quits and were pulling in the lines, two lures were snatched – bluefin! They were small ones, but bluefin nonetheless. How good! Stoke levels were high as we cruised back into Milford Sound to end the trip.Even though we didn’t get a chance to dive or shoot a bluefin tuna on the spear, this trip still ticked all of the boxes. Good mates, good yarns, epic food, wild places. As cheesy as it may sound, this trip embodied the saying that fishing isn’t just about the fish; in the end, it’s about the journey that takes you there.