Barker’s Grand Slam
“This tournament has too many rules. When I go away spearing for a weekend I want to spear what I want, where I want, and with whom I want. We should organise a tournament with just two rules: we’ll spear fish and party!” The words just rolled off my tongue. How hard could it be?
And so began the legend of Barker’s Grand Slam Spearfishing Tournament - a ‘boys only’weekend about mates and fun. It’s a tournament, so by its very nature it involves competition, but it’s more than that.
The structure of the Grand Slam encourages competitors to have fun and win in many ways – you can win a section by spearing the biggest fish, and you can also win a section by telling the best joke, a section for the fastest beer sculling, and a section aptly titled ‘the midnight balloon blow’. The rules change annually to add to the mystique. The competitor with the greatest overall score in the combined sections of the tournament is decreed the overall winner, hence the name ‘Grand Slam’
Over the years, some spearos have been disheartened that their monster fish scored them fewer points than another competitor’s ability to tell a joke, drink beer quickly, or pop a balloon. Those spearos typically don’t come the following year. We are a select bunch and not offended by those that think our tournament rulebook needs a rework. Harsh but true.
However, before I give an account on this year’s event, a brief soul-searching introspective retrospective on past winners is in order.
In 2004 my mate Dave made it a memorable competition when his boat took on water and ended up sinking 3km offshore on the way to the Grand Slam safety briefing. There was a mayday call, some real danger, a dramatic rescue, some soul searching for all those involved, and we lost a boat forever. Despite spending tournament day moping around lamenting that his boat, appropriately named ‘Bugger’, had drowned, he perked up on tournament night with spectacular jokes and beer sculling, taking out the overall prize. Not a bad result for a guy that didn’t even get wet on tournament day!
In 2005 Bryn had not consumed alcohol for six months as he was training for the NZ underwater hockey team. Bryn came out of libation hibernation with a beer inhaling display that saw him crowned “King Sculler” and overall tournament winner. My view is that his body’s beer cells were simply rehydrating and he had a medical advantage.
However, my favourite win is that of Kento the dentist. He drilled my teeth on the Monday, and hearing about the fun of spearfishing purchased a full set of gear on Wednesday, and won the tournament on the Saturday! Beginners luck? Maybe.
So with some nostalgic reminiscing complete, what has the fishery got to offer?
The event is held at the d’Urville Island Wilderness Resort in the Marlborough Sounds, at the top of New Zealand’s South Island. This is a fairly inhospitable place, remote from most of civilisation. The island is surrounded by many hidden reefs and the currents are unpredictable and varied. The variety of fish life is excellent and many areas are rarely targeted by spearo’s, creating unique opportunities for those who venture to this briny wilderness.
The main species targeted at d’Urville during summer are kingfish, kahawai, butterfish, moki, terakihi, blue cod, trumpeter, snapper, crayfish and paua. On good days spearo’s see most of these species, so there’s typically plenty of fish to choose from. Visibility ranges from 3 to 10+ metres and temperatures sit around 17-19C. Most South Island spearo’s get few opportunities to spear kingfish in their home waters, so this is the most targeted species, along with butterfish and crays, for the table.
The top and bottom reaches of d’Urville have passages characterised by swift, strong currents and violent whirlpools, with French Pass at the southern end the most notorious. This 150 metre wide stretch of water rips at 9 knots when in full swing with a visible one metre of fall as the water slides over a partially submerged reef and quickly drops away to 120 metres of depth. This causes massive turbulence, whirlpools that gulp down air and, on the positive side, attracts healthy fish life. The local Maori believed that dragons lived in French Pass and according to local history, 14 ships have been wrecked on its reef. This makes it quite a place to visit, and an interesting swim for the adventurous!
This year, on a warm night at the end of January, my troupe headed north from Christchurch with two boats in tow. After staying in Havelock overnight and collecting Mike Smith of Ocean Hunter fame the following morning, we departed from Havelock up the inner channels of Pelorus Sound. Havelock is located at the top end of a glacial fiord that has a huge amount of mud at its end, leaving a shallow and narrow channel for escaping boats to navigate for several miles before getting into clearer water. From there another twenty five miles of highly fishable water takes you to the heads of the sound, and another twenty or so miles to the best part of the fishery. Along the way we stopped at several rocks known for attracting kingfish, blindfolding our Auckland guest to preserve the secret! At the first rock Mike shot a 15kg kingi while the rest of us pondered the failed blindfold, marvelled at the poor visibility, and enjoyed an abundance of spotties and jellyfish.
The second stop was at a bird colony. While diving I noticed the local mail boat bearing down upon us, heading to the bird colony to show the tourists what stinking old shags look and smell like. Shagadelic - not! As I dived I could hear the mail boat’s engine getting louder and clearer. I waited and waited on the bottom, assuming the worst that the skipper had made a beeline directly over the top of me, despite the blue and white dive flag, abundance of ronstat floats, and my buddy looking out for my well being. As I swam up to the surface, spent of air, I could see the gigantic hull of the mail boat, all 50-odd foot long of it, powering over me. Unbelievable! A barrage of expletives squirted out my snorkel.
Fortunately, my float line didn’t tangle. Fortunately, I didn’t get mangled by the propeller. Fortunately, I’m one of life’s lucky fellas! The skipper seemed oblivious and went about his business without so much as a response to the abuse from my fellow spearo’s. Go figure. That skipper won’t be invited to a Grand Slam!
Further out of the sound, Mike speared another bigger kingi, estimated at 30kg. The fish ripped off and tangled the trailing speargun in the rocks, allowing purchase on the shaft and ripping it out of the fish. Meanwhile the rest of us marvelled at the strong currents and abundance of spotties, wondering where all the jellyfish had gone.
Our next stop was d’Urville Island where we planned to get a huge feed of fresh butterfish for dinner with South Island butterfish being much firmer and sweeter than the North Island equivalents. Butterfish live in the weed in shallow water, are brown to black coloured and have long flowing fins that allow them to slide through the water like a pulled ribbon. Legal size for butterfish is 35cm, with each side providing an adult-sized portion of subtly flavoured, very sweet fillet. They are vegetarian fish with unusual green bones, and are called ‘greenbone’ in some fisheries.
Butterfish are a great target for novice spearo’s to hone their skills on as those not familiar with the human species are slow to swim away. There are few pastimes more enjoyable than quietly sauntering along a weedy bank, resting amongst the verdant growth of green and mustard coloured leafy weeds, and picking off butterfish and processing them onto a float line. As butterfish tend to school, an area that has one good butterfish may hold ten or more keepers that are hidden in the weeds. The old-bull spearo who hides and waits for the next butterfish to poke its nose up out of the weed will fill his float line faster than the young-stud spearo who processes his fish as he swims off looking for the next fish out in the open.
Our next night, spent at a farmhouse on the waterfront of d’Urville with hosts Gus and Bex, was a fine introduction to the island. The view from their place is spectacular. Gus is a past Grand Slam winner and skilled spearo and his partner Bex has a fantastic sense of humour and loves eating crayfish – prerequisites for success in these regions. They both party hard and look forward to this weekend as much as anyone. My kind of people!
On Friday we headed to a popular reef underneath an old Maori pa. Maori used to eat a lot of fish and typically built their villages close to good fisheries, which is the case with this spot. Our target species was terakihi. We all shot terries while Mike marvelled at the dentures of a ten foot thresher shark which scoped him. The shark caused no grief but reminded us to keep the rear eye open.
Later we moved to a variety of kingfish rocks, landing a couple but letting plenty go. No point spooking all the friendly schools prior to competition day. Given that there are limited schools of kingi’s this far south, we need to protect this resource or risk losing it. Previous schools that became well known to fisho’s have been decimated and will probably never return.
The rocks that kingi’s like either break the surface or are just submerged, and usually sit in a lot of current. We swim each rock for around fifteen minutes, each taking turns to hang off the front of the rocks riding the pressure wave. Within this timeframe the schools will turn up if they’re going to, coming into the rocks from any angle. If there’s a pattern to their entry I haven’t worked it out. Waiting longer in the water is rarely rewarded with kingfish schools, and due to the current it becomes very tiring.
It seems to me that these kingi’s prowl between various reefs during the day beating up the locals like a gang of bullies. They never seem to eat any of the baitfish on the rocks, despite their abundance, hence I reckon that food is not the reason for their visit. The stomachs of speared kingfish in this area usually have remnants of squid in them, which I think they eat as they circle between rocks.
Early in the season (late November) when the schools are fresh and have not been hunted, it’s easier to pick their patterns, with particular rocks having up to four clearly identified schools passing them. During January they are hunted by spearo’s, fisho’s and large female bronze whalers that come in to feed and spawn. At this time kingfish behaviour becomes less friendly, more easily spooked and less predictable. Sometimes the schools appear to split up into mixed age groups, and more single fish are seen. They stay that way until they depart in March.
Friday night we were back with Gus and Bex for an early night after a lengthy session of knife action on the filleting table.
After a great breakfast feed we packed up and headed out to sea, each with our own views on what species and which fish would win the tournament. (Of course it’s a Grand Slam and the winner of the biggest fish rarely wins overall, but we had first-timers onboard who had not ‘played this game’ before so we talked up the importance of the fish section). The weather was gorgeous, the viz excellent, and the crew all in good spirits. Everyone targeted fewer bigger fish so as to be competitive without having bins of fish to split.
We collected Bex and the kids at about 3pm, and headed for the d’Urville Island Wilderness Resort for the tournament function.
Every year our competition is hosted by Bob and George who manage the d’Urville Island Wilderness Resort. These two are top blokes and had turned away many other punters as a ‘private function of international importance’ was taking place.
They always recruit at least one new, foreign bar girl to help out for the night, mainly by assisting the chief judge Bex to judge the beer sculling and joke competition. Speaking English is not a pre-requisite of the assistant judge, just good looks and a good sense of humour. ( I’m sure she was laughing with us… not at us…yeah right!)
The tournament began after a brief opening address and welcome and a few mandatory beers. Richard Cameron, a first timer to the tournament took out the highest scoring fish with a kingi weighing 12.5kg gutted and gilled. This was Ritchy’s first South Island kingi and was slightly larger than three others weighed in, making it a clear winner. It’s not a big kingi and Ritchie helps make it appear small.
The drinking races were spectacular with this event having many secrets that only those who attend will be aware of. Much fun was had and the night got off to a flowing start.
Bob arranged a magnificent spread for dinner, themed “Bob’s Burnt BBQ”. There were mountains of food and plenty to nibble on as the night progressed.
The joke telling added another dimension to the night and paved the way for the final event - ‘the balloon blow’.
Mike was the overall winner, with good scores in all aspects of the Grand Slam. Mike challenged the decision and risked being taken to the tribal council and voted off the island. It was midnight. He succumbed and was duly awarded the Andy Ritchie memorial trophy along with some cash from Aotea Fisheries. Others won spearfishing prizes donated by Ocean Hunter, including two spearguns, gear bags, gun bags and lots of branded product.
With a competition that costs $30 to enter and includes a $40 meal – any prizes are a real bonus and some previous years there haven’t been any!
Barker’s Grand Slam is about a fun weekend away at a place that most people don’t visit very often. The competitors are all good fellas and we have a lot of laughs. It’s not a serious spearfishing tournament, but, as with all Kiwi males, it includes a competitive element.
Barker’s Grand Slam is on the last weekend of January 2010. It is an invitation only tournament. If this kind of event sounds like you then please treat this as your official and personalised invitation. If you are keen to enter please contact Bob at d’Urville Island Wilderness Resort, +64-3-576-5268.