Neil Rothery explains the history and secrets why his regular Bluewater Maori Fishing Charts work so well.
Man has come a long way since he first stood on his hind legs and tentatively wandered the face of the Earth. Back then, he was armed only with a short heavy stick and a single minded purpose to convert some hapless animal into a substantial meal.
Today, we still gaze up into the night sky, as our forebears and wonder with awe and humility, at just how something so enormous and seemingly unchanging as the universe could possibly exist.
Despite all our technical sophistication modern man is still theorizing and guessing, albeit with a more educated approach, the how and why of our existence.
But there are many myths, some dating back thousands of years, relating to this subject, that have been part of the heritage of various cultures throughout the world since time immemorial.
The New Zealand Maori natives have a myth in which Rangi (the sky) loved Papa (the Earth). The story goes that Rangi and Papa gave birth to many children (gods), who became crushed in the embrace of their parents, and to survive, the gods separated the earth and sky so that life could exist between them.
The closest of these gods (the Moon) had a profound influence on the hunting and fishing habits of the Polynesian race.
The Maoris are believed to have first arrived on the shores of New Zealand from Polynesian islands to the northeast around 750 AD, and by necessity they became more skilled at fishing than hunting. New Zealand at this time only sported only two indigenous species of land mammals, both bats. The land was also inhabited by a few species of reptiles, one of which was the prehistoric and lizard-like Tuatara (there were no snakes) and a variety of native bird life, of which several species were flightless. One of the latter, the giant ostrich-like Moa, was hunted relentlessly by the Maoris, and by about the 14th century, it was all but extinct, thus forcing the people to rely on their fishing skills to keep the larder stocked.
Over countless generations, the Polynesian naturally became superb fishermen, because their very existence depended almost entirely on what they could harvest from the sea. Even their legends are testimony to the pride they had in plying their craft. According to one legend, the hero Maui created the north island of New Zealand by fishing it up from the sea.
Legends, superstition and jokes aside, these people were great mariners, and used the stellar constellations used for accurate navigation.
The Polynesians concluded that all forms of life were instinctively synchronized with the two main gears of Earth's “Natural Clock” - the Sun (seasons) and the Moon.
They subsequently gave the phase changes of the Moon 28 different names - one for each day of the lunar month. Then, through generations of trial and error, developed a fishing calendar by associating the name they had given to a particular lunar day with the results of their fishing expeditions.
What we know as the first quarter of the Moon the Maoris named Tamatea-Aio, and from experience they predicted it to be a fairly good day to fish.
Interestingly, the last day of the first quarter was called Ohua and must have been marked as a day to do something more rewarding than paddle around in a heavy canoe.
The secret of the Maori success was not just knowing the phase of the Moon, but also its position in relation to the locality they intended to fish.
They knew the fish were most likely to begin feeding up to an hour or so either side of two predetermined periods - one during the day and the other at night.
These people were also aware that these “peak” periods did not necessarily coincide with either dawn or dusk (even though these are usually reasonable times) or high and low tide. What these ancient fishos learned, through centuries of observation and experience, was that the major peak activity periods were triggered around the upper and lower transits of the Moon.
A minor peak period also occurs around Moon rise and Moon set, but usually for a much shorter period of time. These major and minor times are still recognized by many of today's successful fishermen and hunters, as the prime times for fish and game to be out and about.
Many salt-water anglers may argue that the tides have a greater influence on fish feeding habits than the Moon itself, and this is certainly true of shallow water areas where the higher tides allow fish to feed in places that are not always accessible to them, or in areas where the tide induced current is very strong.
However, it should be noted that the daily tides are governed by the transits of the Moon and Sun, and the majority of ocean fish habitat is well below the surface, even during the lowest neap tides, and would, according to the above logic, have little effect on the foraging fish.
It’s now a matter of scientific record that certain marine phenomena occur with precise regularity during the lunar month and solar/lunar cycle. Prawns for instance, will migrate from estuaries and rivers at night during the ‘Dark’ of the Moon (around the New Moon). Losses due to predation during this period are obviously far less than they would be if the migration was attempted around the Full Moon.
The combination of darkness and migrating prawns also drops the guard of the normally cautious bream and other smaller species who will stray further from cover and bite more aggressively during this period.
There are many other well documented occurrences such as the Samoan Palolo Worm, which reproduces by shedding its egg bearing tail during the night at the beginning of the Last Quarter of the Moon in October and November. Literally countless millions of tails wiggle to the surface creating a veritable feast for other marine life, while the dispensers of these appendages return to their safe havens in the crevices of the coral reefs.
Male Parrot fish duel for supremacy leading up to the full Moon, and the females spawn two to four days after it, thus creating a reaction in the food chain from the smallest to the largest fish species.
Another example – the Grunion are famous for their midnight spawning runs onto sandy southern Californian beaches during the New and Full Moon periods from March to August. These are just a few of the more commonly known examples among the numerous others that are still being researched.
THE MARINE BIO CLOCK
All marine life existing in our oceans, freshwater streams and impoundments have learned to survive in an extremely predacious environment. They hunt, feed and breed according to a highly developed biological clock that in some instances has ensured their existence for millions of years.
It’s also fairly obvious that without some form of order in such a hostile environment, very little would survive. This simply means that if all marine life fed at the same time, and in the same weather conditions etc, the oceans and streams would have been as barren as a desert eons ago.
The subtleties that make up the bio clock of just one species of fish would fill volumes, but a good example of how a certain species of fish favors a particular Moon phase to forage was demonstrated to me several years ago by professional fisherman, Ross Tisdell.
After showing him the Maori almanac, he decided to go back through four years worth of catch records that he had on file for bass groper, which were at that stage just a profitable by-catch for him.
The result of Ross’s research was astonishing to say the least, because he found that of the seven tons caught during that period, five tons were taken during the first four days of the first quarter of the Moon. The majority of these catches were late at night or early hours of the morning.
I don’t profess to fully understand why bass groper are most active during this period, however if you consider the physical attributes of this fish, its size and shape would hardly make it an agile predator capable of running down a feed. Instead, nature seems to have endowed this slow goliath with eyes as big as saucers to compensate for its lack of speed.
So, when the Moon starts to set around midnight or later during the afore mentioned phase, the bass groper comes out of hibernation and using its powerful vision, slowly stalks and devours all the unwary fish that are dozy enough to reside in its territory. Then, when morning twilight begins to appear and its superior sight is no longer an advantage, the night stalker heads back to its lair, and like a bear, hibernates for most of the rest of the lunar month.
PELAGICS ON THE GO
In total contrast to the habits of the bass groper, pelagics such as the sleek black marlin can never be truly motionless. This is why they inhabit areas where there are deep trenches and drop-offs surrounded by, or near reefs that support an abundance of marine life.
After marlin have hunted for sustenance on these reefs, they move back to the deep water to rest. They do this the same way a pilot trims an aircraft before landing - marlin trim their pectoral fins for a very slow decent into the abyss and when nature next rings the dinner bell, they ascend from the deep and head back to the reef to feed again.
A good example of the pelagics feeding patterns is depicted in an accompanying graph, drawn from the logs of two game fishing boats of strikes/catches recorded during one of the Kona Tournaments in Hawaii. From the graph it can be seen that most of the solid hookups were made according to lunar time - in other words, around the upper transit of the Moon (for that locality), and as discussed earlier, approximately an hour later each day.
The graph also shows that the early bird DOESN’T NECESSARILY always catch the worm - or in this case - fish. You can see from the graph that if you had risen at around 4 am each morning, and fished from 7 am until 10 am on each of the 13 fishing days in question, you would have caught one or two fish.
By contrast, if you fished for just three hours each day using solar/lunar time as a reference, you would have stayed with the feeding pattern, caught more fish and reduced your fuel bill substantially.
This is golden knowledge for fishermen. It means less time wasted on the water and better results. You might even find you’ll even have time for a round of golf, or get a few brownie points for not waking the rest of the household at an unseemly hour!
THE GRAVITY PULL
Now you may think this is all lot of mumbo-jumbo, but many marine biologists now believe that the gravitational pull exerted by the Sun and Moon plus very small changes in barometric pressure, are sensed by the fish through their highly sensitive lateral lines and built-in sensory systems.
These, in turn, affect the fish’s feeding habits.
As an example, many fish species feed with greater fervor during a spring tide than during a neap tide.
A spring tide is the extra high tide that occurs around the new and full Moons when, relative to earth, the Sun and Moon are approximately in a straight line and their gravitational fields pull in the same direction.
The smaller neap tides occur during the first and third quarters, when the gravitational pull of the Sun is at right angles to that of the Moon (Earth being the vertex).
This varying gravitational force, which causes the tide bulge to form and move around the earth with the transit of the Moon, acts equally on freshwater streams, lakes and impoundments. And even though there is little or no perceptible tide in these places due to the relatively small water mass (compared with that of the ocean) freshwater fish are triggered to feed in the same manner as their salt water cousins.
Unlike our Calendar month, a Synodic month is the time taken for the Moon to complete one orbit of the Earth from west to east to the same phase reference point (e.g. from Full Moon to Full Moon). This duration is 29 days 12 hours and 44 minutes when measured in Solar Time.
A Sidereal month is the time taken for the Moon to complete one orbit of the Earth and return to the same position in the sky. The elapsed solar time for this to occur is 27 days 7 hours and 43 minutes, and is the basis of the 28 day Polynesian fishing calendar.
The simplified Moon/tide diagram shows the eight distinct phases of the Moon which occur in a lunar month as seen from Earth in the southern hemisphere.
Also shown with this article (exaggerated for the purpose of explanation) is the effect gravitational pull has on the oceans during the New and Full Moon and the First and Last Quarter.
As mentioned earlier, barometric pressure also has a considerable influence on the way fish behave and generally speaking, most fish respond more favorably to high or rising barometric pressure.
However, some large predators such as jew, barra and many pelagic species often become more aggressive as the glass begins to fall, and the ferocity of their bite can sometimes be almost proportional to the rate at which the pressure is falling.
A rapid change in pressure also forewarns of imminent foul weather and treacherous seas and so it’s no surprise that many fishermen over the centuries have paid the penalty for not recognizing the signs.
People take the risk because we don’t have the same well-endowed sense of pressure change as our quarry.
Fair warning that bad weather is brewing is when the “reefies” go off the bite and the pelagic predators like spanish mack go ballistic. What browsers know and many fishermen don’t, is that the sudden change in pressure is about to cause a feeding frenzy, and the browsers head for the cover of the reefs before they become the main ingredient of a mackerel picnic.
The mackerel still do what they do simply because they know if they don’t get in for their chop now, they may go hunger till the bad weather has past - and that may take several days.
What catches many fishermen out in this situation is they’re so busy dropping spaniards headfirst into plastic bins, they don’t notice the barometer is diving and they’ll soon be in trouble. Hence, the wild ride home to the boat ramp!
LIVING WITH NATURE
While our lives are still governed to some extent by these natural forces the vast majority of us are no longer in synch with nature by virtue of our modern lifestyles.
People such as farmers, professional fishermen and guides, whose lives and livelihood are governed by the natural environment, are much more aware of the natural world than the city dweller. The average person is locked into an artificial time routine for years on end.
Our day is governed by solar time, which is the time it takes for the Earth to make one complete revolution with respect to the Sun (24 hours or one day).
Research and observation through the centuries has shown that the natural day for fish and many other animal species, differs significantly from our own. Their biological clocks appear to synchronize with lunar time, which is the time taken for the Moon to reappear at a given reference point during one complete rotation of the Earth - an average of 24 hours and 53 minutes.
This is also the Tidal day and explains why our ocean tides are approximately one hour later each day. Consequently, most fish, fresh water species included, will feed up to an hour later each day, and unlike us, their biological clocks do not have the further complication of having to compensate for daylight saving!
When planning a fishing trip, bear in mind that other factors should also be considered. Such as local wind conditions, water temperature, pH levels and so on.
Even phosphorous impregnated water is just one other natural anomaly that will change the feeding habits of fish. Many fishermen will pack up and go home if there is phosphorous in the water because they know that most fish will go off the bite during these conditions.
Fish go quiet at this time for a very good reason - they know that if they move, they are going to light up like neon lights on a roadside diner!
So, the next time the water lights up like a green computer screen, instead of going home, go bigger gear. There won’t be as many bites, but what you get will be good ones!
The Rothery Charts, which are based on the ancient Maori fishing almanac, are published bi-monthly in this magazine and are a valuable tool when planning a fishing trip - particularly if it is to unfamiliar territory.
even if you are a skeptic, whatever your piscatorial interest, start a fishing diary and record the aforementioned information along with your fishing results, and you will see some patterns begin to emerge for your targeted species.
Although using the chart is a bit more time consuming than the good old hit and miss method, it’s a fair bet that it will be more successful than your last.
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