Toby Manhire spends a day chasing kingis – and PM-adjacent yarns – with Fish of the Day host Clarke Gayford.
Mid-week, mid-morning under a muddy grey January sky. We’re skimming into the Hauraki Gulf on a stupidly expensive boat, stacks of fishing rods wobbling away, and Clarke Gayford is getting technical. “So on the handle, as it comes up around, there’s a little black lip, which sits on the sleeve, if you run your hand up to where you grip it.”
He’s on the phone, talking to his mum.
The nation’s best-known fisherman has left the nation’s best-known baby with her grandmother. (The child’s well-known mother is in Davos discussing budget metrics.) But he’s failed to leave instructions on how to collapse the pushchair.
The last 18 months have been one hell of a ride for Gayford. His partner, Jacinda Ardern, became the leader of the Labour Party with what felt like minutes to go before the election. That went quite well for them. If a Labour-led government seemed like something of a miracle, so, just about, did the news that Ardern and Gayford were to become parents – they’d begun wondering whether it would ever happen. Neve duly arrived, and set about stealing the show everywhere she went, from Morrinsville to New York. Gayford, already a media favourite, became a media fixation, the target even of a nasty smear campaign. And now, the kid who grew up in Gisborne making lures out of anything he could find is back doing his dream job, filming the third series of Fish of the Day.
If all of that, not to mention the minor task of being primary caregiver to a seven-month-old, has soaked him in stress, it doesn’t show. Gayford appears unreasonably relaxed. As he steers the $600,000 loaner boat north past Motutapu Island, he looks every bit the part, with the possible exception of the shitty cheap blue-framed sunglasses. “They were the only ones I could find,” he says with a rascal grin.
It sounds like his mum has cracked it. “Yeah. Pull those towards you and push it down,” he says, pausing for confirmation. “Perfect!”
We’re heading for Shearer Rock (no relation to another recent Labour leader), where Gayford reckons there might be a few kingfish in the mix. There might also be, he tells us – us being me, his old friend Scotty and my colleague Simon – a shark or two. The gulf has seen a big influx of bronze whalers in the last few years. A reduction in the numbers of gillnetters, who “took out all the pregnant females that would come up harbour each summer” is probably part of the reason, along with the fact that many of the bigger, predatory sharks “have been taken out by foreign long-liners”. “For whatever reason there’s a lot of sharks around. I won’t spearfish around here any more.”
Spearfishing is mostly Gayford’s thing these days. “For the show we do a lot more on the rod, but if I’m going out, typically I’m spearing now. It’s so much more fun… You’re not the apex predator by any stretch of the imagination. You give yourself a big fright every time you get in the water, whether it’s a big stingray or a bit of seaweed.”
It’s “strangely meditative”, he says. “Because the more you relax the longer you can hold your breath… The deeper you can go without the demons getting in.”
Sure, but the sharks. “You’ve got to relax, know how to hold your ground. At the same time, it’s pretty awesome when you see a mako come in. Stunning. It’s a hard feeling to describe when something comes in, physically looking you up and down, looking for your weakness, testing you, coming around behind you to see how you will react.”
Spearfishing is also better for your surroundings. “You’re not leaving anything behind in the water, you’re not using any baits, and you only pull the trigger on what you want.
“The other problem you’re having out here,” he says, as we close in on Shearer Rock, “is you cannot even get the kingfish on to the boat with a rod, because the sharks have learned that there’s a lot of wounded fish around.”
Within minutes he’s proved right. We’re drifting not far from the rock. Almost as soon as the line is cast, five or six kingfish dart around the stickbait. One bites and hooks and Gayford starts reeling it swiftly in. A shadow swoops up behind the kingfish and the line lurches. He’s suddenly in a tug of war with a shark who quite fancies kingfish for lunch. Eventually the kingfish, snared in a shark’s jaw, nears the surface. A second later, it’s just the head, swinging like a pendulum from the rod. “Ooosh,” says Gayford.
It’s not the only unlikely thing he fishes out of the ocean. A few minutes later, one of our party – who bears an uncanny resemblance to the author of this piece – hooks a kingfish, only to twist inelegantly as it darts under the hull. A breath of wind sends his cap into the sea. Gayford grabs the rod and reels the kingfish in, while nonchalantly rescuing the hat with the tip of the rod. As if he could be any more gallant, the next day he swings past the office, with his seven-month-old assistant in tow, and guts and skins the kingfish for us, demonstrating the “Gizzy method”, which basically involves leaning down, going jaw-to-jaw, then peeling back the skin with your teeth. Do try this at home.
All that and his baby sleeps through. “Six-thirty till quarter to seven she slept last night,” he says. “Neve is such a cruisy kid. We’re lucky.” They’re lucky, too, to have support from both their mothers. “I couldn’t do my TV show without the grandmothers. They are amazing … You will never hear me going on about how good it is, because, one, it’s tough for people for whom it is not good, and, two, in three weeks everything could go upside down. That dice doesn’t stop rolling.”
Another time Gayford got a bit lucky: when he was “brought back to life by a large Niuean man, screaming someone else’s name in my face”. He was spearfishing off the Pacific island, and while pursuing a dogfish tuna he miscalculated how long he could stay down. The local guide dragged his unconscious client back to the surface. Having earlier misheard his name, “he started shouting ‘Mark!’ at me. That was a good way to come around. “It actually took a month or so to go, ‘Bloody hell, that could have been that.’”
He takes a breath. “It made me realise that drowning can be pretty peaceful. You just sort of shut down. It’s quite a chill way to go.”
“Chill” may be Gayford’s favourite adjective, and Fish of the Day is at the chill edge of fishing television. There are some impressive catches, for sure, but it’s also a showcase of a destination, with a local, expert host. Then the catch, just about every bit of it, gets cooked up to a traditional recipe. It smuggles in a sustainability message, whether that’s encouraging people to think beyond the usual hauls of snapper or tarakihi, or emphasising the importance of conservation and fish management.
A trio of kingis on ice, Gayford steers the boat towards a more sheltered spot just off Rakino Island. The sun is out. We anchor and drop a few lines but the snapper aren’t much interested. Simon jumps into the sea, and climbs back aboard covered in tiny jellyfish. “We’re pretty lucky here in New Zealand,” says Gayford, surveying the gulf around him. “We’re right in the Goldilocks zone of temperate waters. So we’re like a big agar jelly dish. The plankton and stuff that floats around us is an absolute magnet for life.”
But? “You start seeing all the degradation and thinking, there’s got to be a better way to look after it. Fishing is full of those stories ‘back in the day’” – back in the day, he repeats with added Kiwi accent emphasis – “and we have this real dangerous shifting of baselines where we can go out and think that we’ve had a great day’s fishing, but it’s such a drop in the stock compared to how it used to be.”
Just look at crayfish, he says, before launching into a highly detailed account of the different numbers cited by industry and scientists, and the dramatic changes in technology to hoover up what’s left. “You see things like that and it can get pretty depressing,” he says. “Not only are we facing overfishing pressures, we’ve got things like huge fluctuation in ocean temperatures that are affecting us. We are going to see different species moving into different areas. So many things going on.”
The trouble, he says, is that there are “very few fish species that have proper science done on them. Unfortunately the stock management that they have done on some of them are just returning terrible result after terrible result. It’s alarming, just how bad some of these things have got.”
He stops himself. “I just don’t want to dive into all the politics of it.” He reels off statistics like a marine biology encyclopedia, but pulls up over and over. “I try to stay out of the politics, I don’t want to get tripped up,” he says later on. And another time: “I just don’t want to pick that fight.”
Who can blame him. Even in laidback New Zealand, online sharks are circling for a hooked spouse. And if there’s no real blood, they’ll just feast on bullshit – as they did with the rumours that surfaced last year in blog threads and social media, attempting to smear Gayford by linking him to increasingly outlandish scenarios.
“It was pretty harrowing at the start,” he says. “Particularly when someone like Fisher” – the Herald journalist who first wrote about the campaign against Gayford was, appositely enough, David Fisher – “got me on the phone, because I thought he was a painter I was trying to line up to finish the fence. And he was pretty honest that he’d had a bloody good rat around in my past and hadn’t really come up with anything. And you sit there and think, God, that’s a pretty grubby feeling. But at the start, with all that crap going on, you start second-guessing everything.”
It was around that time he realised that “everything you’re doing is being scrutinised. There is another side … and they’re looking for whatever they can.” He counts himself fortunate that he already had experience in the media – as a radio and TV host across the years. “It makes you aware of when someone is trying to fish-hook you with a question in an interview, or they start to skew your words. You have to go through that experience to know if someone’s having a go.”
Gayford grew up near Gisborne, family of five, two sisters. “Good rural upbringing,” he says. He killed the time “mucking around in small dinghies, fishing off wharves”.
He was sent to boarding school, after “surfing a bit too much”, and when his parents insisted he head to university he chose the furthest from home: Otago. He enjoyed the student life, paid almost no attention to his study, and ultimately cashed in every student loan possibility and pissed off to Indonesia, surfing. If his parents called, fine. “I Durasealed a thing next to the phone on where I should be.”
They found out two years later.
“It was a great family dinner. Mum had seen my tattoo while I was mowing the lawns. And then she found my passport with my Indonesian stamps in it. Her timing was so precise. She just waited until the family dinner that night, and we sat down for this roast chicken. And my poor dad, he just didn’t see it coming. She just double-whammied it. She said, ‘Clarke I don’t know where you’re going with your life, with your tattoo.’ And Dad just” – Gayford makes the sound of a man choking on a mouthful of food – “‘You what? Tattoo?’ Then Mum said, ‘Between that and your trip to Indonesia’.” Even more violent choking. “‘You went where?’ It was brutal.”
He’s on a confessional roll now.
“So my parents, they also thought that I did a second year at uni. And it was terrible. It was the first year that the results were given out over the phone, automated. And I had two mates that came home and worked for the summer on the neighbours’ farm, but they were boarding with us, and they’d worked really hard at uni and they were really excited. I just said, ‘Oh, just wait till they send it out’, and they said, ‘Nah, you can call this number.’ So my parents made us all sit in the room on the landline, and my friends rang first and they were writing down, like, A, B. And they said, ‘Are you going to ring?’ And I said, ‘Oh, no, I’m just happy to wait.’ ‘Ring!’ they said. So I rang up and it was ‘Did not sit’, ‘Did not sit’, and I had a piece of paper, and I’m writing B, B, C.
“And I let myself fail one, and the whole conversation that night was about failing that paper, and how disappointed they were. So I told them when I went to broadcasting school I’d cross-credited everything and it had knocked six months off the course, and they were like, ‘Oh that’s fantastic.’”
He aced broadcasting school – “really dived into it” – and created Cow TV, a now cult-status Otago student television chronicle. Then came radio and TV gigs in Auckland, and he and a bunch of friends created a small social empire at their Ponsonby flat – where he and friends like Scotty got “all the stupid, fun side out of your system. And then you come out the other side and you lick your wounds and you think, right, what am I going to do?”
On the eve of the 2017 election, Gayford was asked, should Ardern prevail, what kind of partner to the premier he might be.
“Aiming for Michelle Obama,” he said. “Probably going to be closer to Prince Philip.”
How would he rate his performance on that scale so far? “I dunno,” he laughs. “I guess one of the more important roles I can play is to not turn up for all the wrong reasons. It’s always a dance with doing your own projects and not tripping over your face at some point. Which will probably happen. You know?”
He keeps laughing. “You know what’s hilarious, is I got asked to MC the Labour conference down in Dunedin. And the Labour team can be pretty risk averse when it comes to events, they always want things to run really well. So I enjoyed immensely, a few days before, going up to [the PM’s media boss] Andrew Campbell and a few others, and just saying, ‘So I’ve got a couple of jokes.’ And by the end Andrew was just saying, ‘Now, Clarke. Maybe, ah, maybe if you and I could just have a dry run, a rehearsal in a side-room.’ I had him so tweaking about what I was going to say. So it’s good to keep them slightly on edge.”
He won’t spill the content of the dummy jokes, but it’s pretty clear that Gayford will soon have plenty of material should he wish to release a book, or a TV show, called something like Confessions of a Prime Minister’s Partner. At the very least a standup routine: over the course of several hours in the gulf there are stories about apologising to the prime minister of Guinea-Bissau for stealing his meeting room to change Neve, who had just “exploded – at the wrong end”. Of yarning away with a cheerful man and his glamorous wife in the queue to meet Donald Trump, only later realising it was the King of Jordan and Queen Rania. Of creating minor mayhem in a New York store when trying to buy a fried chicken snack while surrounded by overbearing security officers.
And his motorcade material is second to none. “The Trump motorcade – if you saw it in a movie you’d think it was overcooked – 20, 30 motorbikes at the start, then the security cars, then two ambulances, then those Osprey gunship things, flying over, they’d shut off two streets over from the the street they were travelling on, then two gunships fanging up the river as well, for one person.”
His fascination with motorcades began during an earlier trip with the PM to Europe. “I discovered that the motorcades were a reflection on the personality of the country you’re in. The French are amazing. The French motorbike riders, their hand signals are incredible. Everything they do, they flare their hands,” he says, gesticulating like a Lucozade Marcel Marceau. “Oh, it’s so French.”
“The Australians have a different technique, where the motorbikes leapfrog past each other. And they’re like two-stroke motorbikes, they’re just loud, so loud, like a swarm of bees. And I just thought, shit that’s Australian.
“The English! No one sits as upright as the English cop on his motorbike. Very, very English. And it’s all very orderly. But the Germans made me laugh the most. They literally ride their motorbikes in this V formation, with one at the front, like a precision flying V. And we had this flying V of German cops, and we’re in this incredible Mercedes with these luxurious reclining seats, and we go all the way to the airport, everything’s immaculate. Until we pull up in the special stopping zone at the airport, and the lead guy puts his kick stand down and goes to get off his motorbike, and it falls, and it knocks over the three bikes behind him like a set of dominoes. He was so embarrassed. It all went from very orderly to chaos. And they all stood there with serious looks on their faces – the guy looked like he’d broken his arm but he was just standing to order, pain on his face.”
Those 18 months, that ride: how do you even begin to process it all? “Regardless of whether Jacinda was the prime minister or not, our lives have changed massively in the last couple of years,” he says. “From buying a house together to moving in and having a child – those things are all-encompassing enough. And so it’s hard to know how much of how life has changed is because of that and how much it’s the new circumstances.”
It’s fair to say, though, that his partner has, well, a demanding job. “Her diary is managed to a point where, if you want to create some space for yourself, you can put your own executive time in or figure something else out, but she has about four or five people putting into her diary. Everything is managed. And then you have security guys following you all the time, they rent a house next door, set up cameras, watching you. It can be – ah – it is something you have to adjust to. But it’s a small price you pay for being able to push forward the ideas that you believe in, and that you think are going to make the place better.”
That sounds like a practised line, I say. “Nah. I don’t think I’ve ever said that before.”
Life, Gayford says, “is really normal for us at home”. Yes, he has a partner who works from 6am to after 10pm most days. But, “you still argue about who’s loading the dishwasher, and how your life’s all going to come together, it’s just those other, external, public moments that are slightly different.
“It can be full on. It definitely has its moments. I’ve always been interested in media. So when you get to go into a room and meet someone like Donald and Melania. Or you have a one-on-one with the Queen. Or you end up cracking jokes with Charles and Camilla – who are hilarious – you have these moments where you think: this is just bizarre. How did I end up here? So that aspect, from an observational media point of view, it is fascinating.”
Gayford is very obliging with the questions about his Jacinda-adjacent role – he’s clearly smitten, and seems largely to enjoy the circus. But he mostly wants to talk about the world of water.
“I think the most important thing is to keep trying to connect people to the ocean. Most people don’t understand that you’ve got a cool resident population of stingrays down in Auckland harbour, just by where that motorway goes past,” he says, shaking his arm in the direction of the shore. “I always think about how all those cars that go scooting past in the morning have no idea that there are kingfish and stingrays, there’s all sorts, literally at their doorstep. If you can create that connection between people and the sea, maybe they’ll think twice before throwing that crap out their car window, or think about what type of fish they’re buying.
“Because I think what has happened is for a long, long time we have either turned a blind eye or not been aware. You’d never, for example, go and drag a big net with a huge chain across the bottom through New Zealand native bush, yet we do it out here every day. And what is happening under the water has been for so long out of sight and out of mind, and I think people are starting to become more aware of it, and think: what is the best way to change things?”