Species #57 — Northern Kahawai

Look at this beautiful beast! It wasn’t big, but it was all that it took for an ID.

Species:Northern Kahawai (Arripis xylabion)
Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand
Date: February 25, 2014

Fishing in New Zealand is all about trout. At least, that’s what we’re told.

In reality, throughout most of the North Island, saltwater fishing is king. Snapper, Kingfish, and Kahawai are the big three for anglers in the brine, and everything else plays second fiddle.

While this saltwater trinity reigns supreme on the water, there is relative little information posted or printed about fishing for them.

The saltwater fishermen keep tight lips, and for that reason, I had no idea that the term “Kahawai” was actually comprised of four separate species until this year — five years after I returned from catching them.

***

While we’re dispelling rumors about this place, let’s start with kiwis, Kiwis, and Kiwis. Two aren’t native to the island; one is.

The first kiwi, also called Chinese gooseberry, is the fruit. It’s not native and comes from Asia.

The second Kiwi is term New Zealanders use to describe themselves. They are not native, either.

The warrior Maori arrived in the 1400s in large sea canoes and proceeded to kill and eat the actual natives of the island.

The other (predominantly white) Kiwis arrived about 200 years later and set a singular precedent among white settlers of that era by making peace with the Maori and affording them (almost) all of the same people privileges as Captain James Cook’s people.

No massive wars. No forced relocations en masse. No genocide. It was so unlike the settlement of North America, South America, Australia, and Africa it restores hope in humanity — however small that hope may be.

The third Kiwi is the native bird that gave the other two their names. The bird looks like a large kiwi fruit with legs and a long bill.

The renown of the bird ultimately led to then people taking the name, too.

I’d hoped to learn that Kiwis eat kiwis like an apple — skin on — as I do, but alas, they mostly used spoons to scoop out the delicious green or yellow (golden kiwis were way more popular there) flesh. So I’m a weirdo everywhere, apparently. Cool cool.

***

Rumors dispelled, let’s talk fish. I caught a juvenile Kahawai in the lower, brackish reaches of a river using the small beef scraps I’d used in hopes of catching an eel.

It was beautiful: somewhat like a trout in shape and canvas but with vibrant purple and yellow stripes and markings. I took a few quick photos, thinking it was a juvenile Kahawai, and left it at that.

The Kahawai I caught later on the trip were adults, much larger and more memorable, so the juvenile slipped my mind.

Then, in a frenzy to identify the Estuarine Triplefin, Species #56, and get the blog post done in time without having to list “Species #56 — Unidentified,” I stumbled across a research paper discussing the four species of Kahawai:

Arripis georgianus (Called Ruff or Australian Herring)
Arripis trutta 
(Called Kahawai)
Arripis truttaceus (Called Western Australian Salmon)
Arripis xylabion (Called Giant or Northern Kahawai)

All four species live around Australia and New Zealand. All four species spend most of their lives in saltwater, migrating up rivers and streams to spawn. All four species are notorious for fighting incredibly hard per pound.

Only A. trutta and A. xylabion are routinely found in Kiwi waters, but Kahawai are more common and more widespread than their Northern counterparts and apart from size, they are almost identical.

The main difference is the upper lobe of the caudal (tail) fin. Northern Kahawai have longer tails, typically representing more than 30% of the overall body length (not including the tail) while Kahawai’s are shorter. Using software, I measured my fish from the old picture and found it to be roughly 34% of the tail-excluded body length.

Ignore my alien eyes. This is a cool fish.

It was a Northern, a Giant, an A. xylabion, a new species.

I owe my math teacher an apology. Math had come in handy.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #58 — Shortfin Eel.

Species #56 — Estuarine Triplefin

This mystery fish took five years to identify.

Species: Estuarine Triplefin (Forsterygion nigripenne)
Location: Kuaotunu River, Kuaotunu, Coromandel, New Zealand
Date: February 25, 2014

Mystery is a genre I love to read but fail to write much of. Even investigative journalism is a reach for me, and I’ve spent five years as a journalist.

The investigative process of which coffee shop makes the best breakfast sandwich in Klamath Falls (it’s the Gathering Grounds Pesto English Muffin Sandwich with bacon and prosciutto, for the record) or something equally trivial pales in comparison to the latest Dean Koontz novel anyway, so sticking to what I know is out of the question if I want to be successful in the Mystery genre.

***

This mystery begins as all stories do, in a sleepy town you’ve probably never heard of with an everyman and his ordinary life.

The man, of course, was me.

The sleepy town was Kuaotunu, a coastal village in New Zealand’s Coromandel where tranquility and paradise are locked in an eternal struggle to determine which makes the better adjective for the subtitle under
“Kuaotunu” under the town’s quaint wooden sign.

A small river which bears the same name as the town itself wends lazily through the floodplain and into the Tasman Sea along grassy slopes so strangely manicured and unlike the coastline in most places that it invokes a surreality reminiscent of Super Mario’s Mushroom Kingdom.

Seriously. It was a magical place.

A massive, gnarled tree with alien-looking branches stands watch over the mouth of the river. From it’s largest branch hangs a tire swing swaying like a pendulum in the waning light of the afternoon, inviting the small children frolicking around the area to sit and play.

Along one bank of the river, a campground complete with small cabins hugged the shore while further from the water, at the base of a small hillock, the town’s lone restaurant, Luke’s Kitchen, cast an unassuming shadow over the cars parked out front.

Luke’s Kitchen was, in fact, its name. My name is Luke, and while that small similarity was not lost on me, neither was the connection it drew to Gilmore Girls’ flagship diner, I’m ashamed to admit.

Jandals (that’s Kiwi for flip-flops), guitars, beach bums joined me at every meal here.

Incongruities of Mystery and Rom-Com aside, the diner served a wonderful Green Mussel Special that I gorged myself upon at least twice while spending time there before returning to the river to fish for any number of species found in its intertidal zone.

My target species was Longfin Eels, endemic to New Zealand, but I had no such luck. I managed half a dozen species and even hooked two species of eel (Shortfin and Australian Mottled) but never got my Longfin.

Since fishing for those eels was sightfishing, I noticed a lot. With my eyes intent and fixed on the water below, I noticed a lot of little fish darting around on the bottom. They looked like sculpins, so I figured I’d be able to catch a few with the tiny jigs I used Stateside.

My instincts were correct. The tiny fish barely longer than my finger devoured the small jig. I caught a lot of them in short order before trying to for something else.

This fish was both totes adorbs and an uggo.

Unfortunately, I had no idea what they were. Not that day, not that week, not when I left New Zealand.

***

I bought a few books about fish identification, including Vic Dunaway’s Sport Fish of the Pacific later in 2013. Nothing.

I read countless papers, species lists, and forums. Nothing.

2014 came and went without an answer.

Years passed, and I revisited “Unknown New Zealand Species” again because in writing the story of each and every species I’ve caught, I knew “Unknown New Zealand Species” was fast-approaching, and I refused to have an unidentified species on my list.

Since it was neither a game fish nor a freshwater fish (New Zealand has a relatively short list of native freshwater fishes), it continued to elude me.

Then, on a whim, I decided to read an article about New Zealand’s Marine Reserves. It included a contact email for questions, and I decided to give it a try.

Within 48 hours, I got a reply:

“Hi Luke,

Your fish is the estuarine triplefin, Forsterygion nigripenne. Note the three dorsal fins from which it gets its name (bullies only have 1 or 2). The triplefins are mostly a marine group but this species penetrates into estuaries and the lower reaches of rives that are a bit brackish.

Regards,

Malcolm Francis”

I had an ID! After five years of searching, my #SpeciesQuest within a #SpeciesQuest had come to an end.

***

Crazily, in the research process, I actually found a bonus species. That’s the next story: a Sci-Fi tale about cloning gone wrong, how one fish became two.

#SpeciesQuest #CaughtOvgard

Read the next entry in #SpeciesQuest here: Species #57 — Northern Kahawai.