Few fish require as much dedication and determination as heavyweight kingfish. By Al McGlashan
I was meant to be on the computer writing, but after hearing that a mate had just been smashed up several times on heavy tackle, my resistance evaporated and I was soon loading the boat for a session with Sydney’s big kingfish. My friend hadn’t said exactly where he’d had his encounter with these great sport fish, but that didn’t matter – I knew exactly where to look for the kings.
The next day I was out early and after baiting up was searching for kings. It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for and it is a sight neither I, nor my fishing buddy, Mike Brown will ever forget. There were birds everywhere wheeling about excitedly and as we closed in we saw what had them so fired up. There were masses of metre-long kings boiling and swirling on the surface. It is one of the most spectacular sights I have ever witnessed, but what was more amazing was that it was just off the Sydney coastline.
To say we were excited would be an understatement. Hastily, we deployed two livies and entered the strike zone. There were fish all around us and I would have almost guaranteed a bite on one of the big, fat slimies, but they appeared totally uninterested. While it was awesome to watch these huge greenbacks swirling around us, it was infuriating not to get a bite. On reflection, I am pretty sure the kings were actually spawning, which explains the complete lack of interest.
Two hours later, when everything had died down, Browny finally got a bite. Hooking up, he suddenly found himself hanging on for dear life as a big king tried to drag him over the side. Luckily, we were in deep water and well off the reef edge, so it was simply a matter of wearing the big brute down. Before long Browny had his personal best kingy at the boat. Measuring out at 1.1m and 12kg, it was a great fish, but it turned out the best was yet to come …
It was at this point that we spotted a green mass off to the left. Now, I had heard about a similar thing in New Zealand and, thinking it might be a huge school of kings, grabbed a stickbait rod and fired a cast in. The moment the lure landed, the green mass literally erupted as dozens of huge fish charged after it. Before I knew it, one of the bigger fish hooked up. Fifteen minutes later, I had a huge kingy at the boat. At 1.25m long, it was my personal best Sydney king.
Normally fishing of this spectacular nature is a once-off event, with either fishing pressure or a change in currents pushing the fish on. However, a few days later we were back out there with mate, Roddy Findlay and Club Marine NSW State Manager, Corey Yeung. Corey had succumbed to the lure of big kingies, made all the more potent because he had never hooked up to a sizeable ‘hoodlum’ before.
Fishing in less than desirable sea conditions, we hit pay dirt again, but this time surface lures proved fruitless. Instead, it was live baits that produced the goods. In the space of a few hours, we enjoyed non-stop action on fish from 10 to 15kg, as well as getting busted up more times than I care to admit. Now when you consider the fact that we were running 70kg leaders and 50kg braid line, these were serious fish. By the end of the day, we managed a heap of fish to 1.2m, which were personal bests for both Roddy and Corey. Again though, what was really amazing is that we were just off Sydney, barely a few kms from the CBD as the crow flies.
KINGS OF THE REEF
Kingfish have made an outstanding comeback over the last decade. This isn’t because of the introduction of marine parks or good management by fisheries departments, but rather thanks to the efforts of dedicated recreational anglers. NSW is the stronghold for the species and commercial fishermen decimated stocks, almost to the point of no return, with their devastating floating fish traps.
Ironically, despite the species being driven almost to the brink, the usually vocal environmental groups did nothing. It was left to recreational anglers to take up the fight. Luckily, the NSW Government had no option but to listen to the pressure from a million-odd anglers and banned the destructive traps.
Almost a decade later, kingy numbers have made an impressive comeback. An increase in the size limit from 60 to 65cm has only helped further and it is hoped that another increase in size limits at the next bag and size review will see the length limit increased.
It’s not just NSW that is benefiting, either. The spill-over effect from the population comeback has seen a dramatic increase in kingy encounters in Victoria and Queensland, as well. And it’s all thanks to environmentally-conscious recreational anglers.
CREATURES OF HABIT
Kingfish are creatures of habit and every season they return to their favourite haunts. This is particularly so for the big ones and the key to success is not only identifying these spots, but knowing when to fish them.
The biggest mistake most anglers make is to fish too deep. It is a common misconception that you need to fish deep to get the biggest fish. However, when it comes to kings, the bigger fish are often in the shallower waters. Looking back through all my records, all the big kings I have caught have been from surprisingly shallow water; in fact, rarely more than 25 metres deep and in some cases it’s less than ten metres. Sydney spearfishing guru, Paul Miller regularly spears kings from 10-25kg and they are all in water less than 10 metres.
The best way to find big kings is to keep moving, checking out each hot spot. Since I’m on the water nearly every day around Sydney, I have worked out pretty well where to go kingy hunting. But for anglers who are unfamiliar with their local kingy grounds, rest assured it’s not hard to find them. What you need to look for is serious structure that deflects the current, such as islands, bommies, reef ledges and pinnacles. These are normally well marked on electronic charts, like Cmap.
Once you have the good spots mapped, it is simply a matter of going from spot to spot looking for signs. This is where the fish-finder plays a huge role and when I am running over each location I remain transfixed to the sounder. Kings stand out well on a decent fish-finder, which makes them easy to detect. But it’s not just the kings, it is also concentrations of bait fish that I want to see, as opposed to a barren, featureless reef.
Another new tool that I have been using is a Towcam. While its primary use is for filming the action, I have also discovered that it is a great tool for checking out water clarity and what fish are around. It really is amazing how many fish you can see on the camera.
Current is also critical, not only to find concentrations of kings, but it also seems to play an important role in getting them into feeding mode. Kingfish like a bit of current and love to hold up on the pressure wave in front of structure. On the east coast, the ideal situation is a south-bound current. Off Sydney I have never caught a big king when the current is running ‘uphill’.
Water temperature is less important than current, but I have to admit I do favour clean, bluish-coloured water. From what I’ve seen, this nearly always sets the fish off into a feeding frenzy.
Catching big kings is becoming more common every season as the fishing continues to improve. But landing one is never guaranteed and typically requires dedication and persistence. The blokes you see back at the ramp with huge kings are generally targeting them with the right tackle.
Big kings are easy to hook, but can be infinitely harder to land. There is only one way to beat them and that is with heavy tackle. I cannot stress this point enough. If you’re not fishing heavy tackle, you’re not even in the running. I have watched countless anglers fishing with inappropriate tackle, only to get smashed up time and time again. This is not only dumb, it’s also not good practice to leave tackle attached to the fish.
When I go out in search of big kings, I always fish heavy because you never know when a monster hoodlum may turn up. Gear such as Saltigas and Stellas, loaded with 50kg braid and 50-75kg leaders, are my choice, but at times I’ve found that even this heavy artillery isn’t enough.
It is generally agreed that live bait catches the majority of big fish. My records certainly back this, with a vast majority of my catches falling to livies. The great thing about live baiting is that the bait does the work – the angler just has to get it in front of the fish.
However, as effective as live baiting is, it isn’t simply a matter of flicking a few baits out the back and then trucking about hoping to bump into something half decent. Big kings are surprisingly fussy when it comes to lunch so you really need to use the best livies. Over the years I have caught a lot of big kings on live yakkas, but they don’t even compare to a slimy mackerel or, even better, a big, juicy squid. But if you are really lucky, having a frigate mackerel on your hook is irresistible for a big kingy.
Ultimately it’s not simply a matter of getting a few livies and then heading off and hoping somehow to bump into something. It’s really all about getting the right bait and then fishing the locations at the right time.
When it comes to techniques, there is very little difference between fishing deeper or shallower water with livies. When fishing inside the 20m line, I like to slow-troll two baits; one on a flat line and the other with a small sinker to get it down. Working the boat in and out of gear, I slowly work tight in against the structure and whenever the baits get nervous or I mark fish, I pull it out of gear and let the baits sink.
When fishing deeper water, I much prefer to drift the baits over the hotspots. Employing a simple paternoster rig, I simply drop it to the bottom, then wind it up a few metres right into the strike zone. With the sinker at the bottom, the chance of snagging is minimal. The amount of lead used is not just determined by the depth, but also by the size of the baits. A big slimy is going to need a substantial amount of lead to be ‘persuaded’ down into the depths.
One clever trick Scotty Thorrington, from Haven Charters, utilises is to replace the lead with a jig. The jig acts as an attractor drawing in more fish and also reduces the chance of snagging the bait on the bottom. Just remember to take the hook off the jig, otherwise you might end up with a double hook-up on big fish!
There is no doubt that live baiting is the number one technique, but I am now catching more and more kings on poppers these days. The ever-faithful Halco Roosta popper is dynamite, as are some of the new wave of stickbaits, although I believe they are ridiculously overpriced.
The best time to fish surface lures is when there is something happening. This sounds obvious, but most anglers only cast when they see fish actually feeding, whereas a patch of bait breezing or a few birds working is more than enough for me to fire out an exploratory cast. Even blind casting around structure, be it a wash or drop off, can work at times.
The great thing about fishing surface lures is that it can be done in conjunction with live baits. I think in some cases it actually wakes the fish up and gets them interested. Plus, it keeps the crew alert and working.
One of the best times to fish surface lures is when there are sauris around. Big kings love sauris for breakfast and will crawl over broken glass (well, maybe broken coral) to get to them. Often they will ignore livies when the sauris are around and the best way to get a bite is by casting surface lures whenever the sauris explode. It gives a new meaning to exciting fishing.
FOR THE RECORD
A temperate water species, kingfish are common throughout the Indo-Pacific, from Mexico to South Africa, however it is Australia and New Zealand that are reputed to have the biggest kings in the world. At present, NZ holds the record, with a pair of 52kg monsters and is widely regarded as the home of the biggest kings. But Australia’s relatively new fishery in South Australia is close on its heels, with fish to almost 50kg being landed.
Incidentally, the species is known as kingfish in the South Pacific, but as yellowtail everywhere else in the world, a fact that often sparks confusion because a kingfish in the US is a type of mackerel, not unlike a Spanish mackerel.
But whatever you call them, there has been a welcome resurgence in kingy fishing, both in New Zealand and Australia in the last few years. They are a spectacular sports fish and will continue to give anglers a run for their money – and tackle – for many seasons to come.