Deon Muir, once a high-flying professional rugby player and captain of the Waikato Chiefs and Māori All Blacks, is in a different game these days, operating a fishing, diving and culinary experience in Maketu, a small seaside village in the Bay of Plenty.

“My special place is fishing and diving out the coast of Maketu because my whānau are from here,” Muir tells Broadsheet. “In my spare time throughout my rugby career I’ve always come here with mates to dive and fish.”

After one particular outing on the water, followed by filleting fish and eating freshly shucked mussels, a friend remarked “I’d pay a lot of money to do what I experienced today.” It sparked something in Muir.

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Launched in 2020, Muirs Tours is different from what you might expect of a fishing charter; it operates according to the philosophy of kaitiakitanga, which means protection and guardianship. “I’m not about going out and catching trophies and putting them on the wall,” he says. Instead, expect to learn about “releasing a big snapper” and “taking what we need,” Muir explains. “We look after it, we respect it and we eat it. It’s not commercial; it’s what we do. It’s our culture.”

Every charter aboard Muir’s custom-built Extreme Game King 645 boat promises to be special, as the weather and catch of the day comes down to nature. “We do different things every time we go out,” he says. “Whatever is working on that day we’ll be doing. Sometimes you hit, and sometimes you don’t.”

For those in the know, that could be fishing in shallow or deep water with light or heavy gear, jigging in the one spot, or putting out the long line for the day. Taking only five people out at a time provides an intimate opportunity to try new techniques, too.

Muir takes the opportunity to introduce his guests to species rarely seen on menus. “Snapper’s probably our main fish in New Zealand but there’s a lot of other fish in the sea really good for eating if you look after them, prep them well, chuck them on ice and cook them,” he says. He’s referring to maomao, kingfish (although this is more common) and kahawai – Muir’s favourite. “It’s often overlooked and chucked back in the sea,” he says of the latter, best enjoyed raw.

The deluxe tour will see guests on the water for around six-and-a-half hours. Muir will show you how to fillet your catch and wrap it for you to take home. Or you can add on a cookout at Muir’s rural property, just five minutes away from the Maketu boat ramp, where you’ll eat grilled crayfish lathered with garlic and butter, mānuka-smoked fish, and Muir’s mum’s secret curried chowder with mussels “the size of your hand,”’ he says. “Ours are five times bigger than what you’d get in a restaurant – you need a knife and fork to eat it with.”

Learning how to prepare the kai you catch is another aspect of the tour’s point of difference. “Whether it’s filleting a fish, learning how to shell a mussel properly, or eating a kina for the first time,” he says. “A lot of people don’t even know what part of the kina you eat.”

Muir also wants to share his love of sashimi after spending seven years playing rugby in Japan. “That culture gave me even more of an appreciation of the culinary space,” he says. “The way they treat their kai is next level.”

The premium tour includes a kai hākari (feast) with local sisters Karena and Kasey Bird, Masterchef New Zealand 2014 winners. Alongside the cookout, the Birds pre-prepare a hāngi to be unearthed, with a selection of beef or lamb and chicken, stuffing, kūmara and traditional fried bread. You also arrive in style, taking a scenic helicopter flight from Tauranga Airport around Mauao (Mount Maunganui) before landing in Maketu, the historically significant landing place of the Te Arawa waka that voyaged here 800 years ago.

Before you count yourself out, no fishing skills are required: all the gear, bait and rods are provided, and you can be as hands on or off as you want. “It’s giving [people] that experience that we have as hunters and gatherers,” he says. “Going out onto our coastal paradise, catching the kai, coming back in, being involved in the process and eating the kai together.”

Because for Muir, it’s equally about whanaungatanga, which means kinship and a sense of family connection, and manaakitanga (manaaki), which means showing respect, generosity and hospitality to others. “The star of the show is the manaaki back onshore,” he says.