Royalty of the Reefs – How to Target Monster Kingfish
In this blog Dan recounts one of his more memorable captures, a monster Kingfish, and gives you the low down on how to apply the same technique and join in on the action.
As I lowered the fat and frisky Bonito through the water column I said to Vik `whatever hits this, it’s gonna be big!’ It was a fortuitous statement and finally, after countless hours spent on the water, I was hooked up to a Kingfish big enough to drag me out of the boat. It was without a doubt the strongest fish I’d ever been connected to and this blog aims to help would be gladiators hook onto one of these top predators – though landing it will be up to you!
To set the scene, we were slow trolling big baits over a patch of rubble where 30kg Yellow Tail Kingfish (Seriola Lalandi – if we are going to be scientific) had been caught the previous summer and I was confident that by putting in the hours we would eventually meet one of these leviathans. The hours ticked by and the sun (which always sets faster when you are fishing) was casting long shadows from behind the towering cliffs that shelter Jervis Bay in New South Wales. Then it happened. One of the rods buckled and let out a squeal as line was ripped from the reel. This creature ignored the 7-8 kg of drag pressure and my first thought was I’d hooked a seal. You don’t want to hook seals but more on that later.
It was a hoodlum Kingfisfish or ‘Kingy’ – A solid, sleek predator that hunts schools of bait in shallow bays, offshore reefs and almost everything in-between. Kingys have a habit of heading straight back to their reefy lair as soon as they are hooked. Fishing in only 15m of water I had to go hard from the outset to have a chance of holding this fish off the bottom. I screwed the drag as far as it would go and palmed the spool for extra leverage. I was using 60lb (30kg) braid and a short jigging rod – an outfit I once considered overkill, but without which I would have had no chance of turning the fish and winning back some line.
Kingys are hard to beat if you are looking to target a species that is abundant, pulls incredibly hard and also tastes great. After catching my first Kingy around three years ago I pretty much stopped chasing any other species so I could concentrate on landing one of these dirty fighters over the magical 1m mark.
My journey may have taken two years, countless hours and a wad of cash but I was finally hooked up to my trophy fish. After an intense but short fight the striking colours of this lit up fish came into view. I was in awe of her size and it was then that I was reminded that I had no idea how to get a fish this big into the boat without injuring it – or me! I went for the tail grab and getting a grip was a two handed job. It wasn’t pretty. As the fish came aboard she kicked and slid out of my hands, thumped onto the floor and wedged her head into Vik’s handbag. Eventually a bear hug subdued the writhing fish long enough for a few quick snaps and a victory cry before releasing it. Wrestling with this splendid creature made the dollars spent, the seasickness and the research all worthwhile.
She measured 120cm and I guessed the weight at around 25kg which is still my best Kingy to date. There is no way I could kill such a magnificent fish (not to mention it would feed a whole caravan park!) so I put the boat in gear and swam her alongside until she was biting hard on my hand and I released her to swim away strongly. On the way home I dedicated the experience to Malcolm Douglas, an Australian legend who had passed away just a few days earlier, it was a day I won’t forget.
So how can you get a piece of this action?
In my mind slow trolling ridiculously oversized live baits around structure is the approach most likely to get your arms stretched. There are plenty of other ways to join the fray but I will give you a run-down of my favourite technique here:
Kingys can be tempted to take a range of options that most people would already have in their tackle boxes like bibbed lures, poppers and soft plastics. An outfit that can fish 20/30lb line will get you started and I’ve caught Kingys up to 80cm on a $50 outfit from Aldi. That said, tackle shops love Kingys because it only takes a few monumental bust offs from these un-stoppables and you will be ready to upgrade your battle kit. If you take this path you’ll probably emerge from the experience clutching a jigging setup with a short stiff rod, a strong reel spooled with 60-80lb braid and a whole sack of explaining to do to the better half. Once you get your relationship back on track you’ll be the happy owner of a rig suitable for trolling, jigging, live baiting and even bottom bouncing. A good quality combo will cost you anything between $300 – $1500 depending on how deep your pockets are.
Having a sweet combo means jack if you don’t put the effort into tying strong knots and using quality hooks and leader. As a rule, I generally use 60-80lb leader but it doesn’t hurt to go lighter if the fish are timid or you are in deep water away from structure. If I’m tying on a supersized bait I’ll go for 150lb – yep its like gamefishing from a trailer boat! Fluorocarbon leader is supposedly invisible in the water and has good abrasion resistance but its stiffness makes it harder to tie knots in anything above 50lb. Once you settle on the leader type there are heaps of options for connecting it to your braid including a Uni Knot, Slim Beauty or an Improved Albright. If it’s the monsters I’m chasing though, I can’t go past the Bimini Twist to create a double in the braid and then an Improved Albright to connect the double to the leader. The Bimini looks like it was invented by an Orb Weaver Spider in that it appears really complicated, includes dozens of twists and you need to use both hands and even a couple of toes to tie it right. Still, it’s super strong and that’s what it’s all about when you are chasing a fish that won’t give you any second chances.
Finally, we come to hook selection. It’s at this point that a lot of us fail by baulking at paying good coin for something that will probably rust away in the tackle box. What you really want here is a high tensile, chemically sharpened hook with a point that could replace a scalpel in surgery. You can test if a hook is sharp enough by dragging it along your fingernail. If it doesn’t try to dig in and puncture you, but merely makes a scratch, then it’s not up to the task. We don’t generally talk about brands on here but I’ve found that Black Magic and Wasabi are two manufacturers that make fine gauge yet strong, sharp hooks that do a great job (and no they don’t sponsor us! – but we are open to offers 😉
Finally, a key point to remember with hook selection if you plan on slow trolling, is that they can’t be offset. If they are then you will have a bait that spins and is likely to die from dizziness well before a Kingy can work out that this fish with the strange swimming technique is actually food.
As I mentioned, big healthy baits are the key to convincing an old, wise Kingy to come off its throne and play the game. There are many lures that attempt to imitate a baitfish but nothing beats the real thing. I must admit I don’t feel entirely comfortable advocating the use of livebaits due to the barbaric nature of the process and this article has been sitting in my drafts folder for a long time due to this conflict. A big benefit with lures is avoiding having to torment small fish and the cruelty that it involves. Live baiting certainly isn’t for everyone and I only attempt it when I’m specifically targeting big fish and have the gear to (hopefully) handle whatever decides to swallow the unlucky offering. For instance, I think it’s pretty pointless, and disrespectful even, to bridle a 40cm Bonito onto a 15lb outfit and hope for the best. Anyway, people can make their own choices about this issue, just remember that bad fish karma is a fishers worst enemy!
Yellowtail (Yakkas) and Slimy Mackerel are probably the mainstay of livebaiters because they are prolific and easy to catch by creating a berley trail and sending out small, lightly weighted baits. The only problem is they just aren’t big enough to avoid the swarms of Kings that haven’t quite reached hoodlum status. We are talking about big fish here so there’s no point mucking around with small baits. Sure, you can still get lucky and hook a monster but I’d suggest you up your chances and only deploy a bait over 30cm or so. This means you should start your day by throwing slugs into the wash off headlands, or fast trolling bibbed lures, to hopefully pick up a of Salmon, Bonito or Mack Tuna. You only need a couple of these guys because they won’t be pestered by small predators and unless you have a huge live bait tank you won’t be able to keep a large number alive.
Generally I just pin the hook through the centre of the bait’s nose while taking care to ensure there is plenty of hook exposed. You can get all technical with a bridle rig which may give better results but I’ve been happy with this simple technique so far.
The other bait species that will produce results is Squid. These guys are tricky to troll slow enough and I can’t seem to keep them alive for long. Squid are so tasty that everything loves them and small fish will often take chunks out of even the biggest cephalopod. I’d rather be the one taking the chunks and most squid I catch for bait end up on the plate at home or doused in soy sauce (sashimi style) on the boat. It’s all about priorities I guess!
So now we have the rig sorted and the bait ready, where do we actually find these elusive royals? It really comes down to two words – structure and food. Find one and you are in with a chance. Find both interacting with each other and you can start to let your imagination draw pictures of you brawling with a beast of the deep. Well hopefully that’s what will happen anyway!
A good quality sounder, and an understanding of how to read it, is key to finding the bait/structure combo. Useful structures to focus your efforts on include drop offs, pinnacles, bombies and boulder fields. At times these places become fish holding magnets while the next day there may be no life showing on the sounder at all. One of the strengths with slow trolling is the ability to cover a lot of ground until you find where the fish are holding. After that it’s often just a matter of setting a waypoint on your GPS and going over the same spot multiple times until you hit the jackpot.
Reefs in the 20-30m depth zone appeal to this style of fishing because you can troll a bait without the risk of getting snagged on the bottom. The depth also increases your chances once you hook up. If you want to go deeper then there are ways and we will discuss these here.
Slow trolling is like driving an old Kombi – you’ve gotta be patient! This certainly isn’t Marlin fishing where you hit the throttle with the aim to create a pop, fizz and splutter from your lures. All you speed trollers out there may want to pack the vallium, or a pillow, if attempting this technique because it’s all about going as slow as possible. My theory is that while Kingys can easily take a bait that swims by at speed, it won’t be long before your hard earned livey is just another dead bait being skull dragged through the water. I usually aim to sit on 2-3 knots which for my boat is as slow as it will go while in gear. If it’s windy, or the current is flowing hard, then you may need to speed up a little in order to cover some ground.
Getting you baits down to where the fish are holding is an important, yet tricky, exercise. One option is to go out and buy an expensive downrigger and mount it to the side of your boat. Downriggers are really just a fancy winch onto which you can attach a lead weight and release clip, and while they are an effective way to put you bait at a set depth, I’ve found them to involve a lot of effort. I shipped one of these out from America and soon found that downriggers can also be bloody dangerous! For instance, while working a jagged reef I trolled over a rise and managed to snare the lead ball in a crevice. The ball is suspended by stainless steel cable and I learnt real fast that that stuff is strong! In no time at all the side of the boat was being invited to join the ball in the watery depths and I was sure the rail I used as a mount was about to be torn from the vessel. Thankfully the ball pulled free before things got really hectic but I now only work the upper half of the water column and there’s always a quality pair of pliers ready to cut us free if that happens again.
An easier, cheaper, and for me more successful option, is to simply buy a couple of the biggest barrel sinkers you can find and secure them above your leader. This adds around 100-200 grams to your line and you can adjust how deep the bait sits by taking the boat out of gear when you need some extra depth. I really wish I found this approach before I spent nearly $500 on the downrigger! You may be thinking that the extra weight of the barrel sinkers will dampen the fight but when you are being dragged across the boat while having your hips bruised by the rod it’s a thought that really doesn’t cross your mind.
There are plenty of other ways to tangle with big Kings around inshore reefs but as I said, this is the technique that produces the best results for me. I’m a lazy fisherman and countless hours spent slowly cresting the swells, watching the sounder and pondering what’s below is about as good a way to wait for retirement as I can think of. If, on the other hand, you like to combine exercise with fishing then jigging might be more suitable for you. This is a part of our sport where fishing bling, bulging biceps and adrenaline seekers unite. The other contributors to this blog have already described how you can jig up a storm and even prepare your catch into eden/japanese style delights.
Now for a word on seals…
These playful thieves will happily munch on your bait right next to the boat but thankfully they seem to understand the theory behind fishing and will often bite a livey off just behind the hook. It’s not uncommon when fishing the busy reefs in Jervis Bay that a seal or two will patrol the flotilla of hopeful Kingfishers and pick off baits and hooked Kingys – it’s the lazy way of hunting and these guys have it down pat.
In my opinion you should only use one hook rigs (ie no stinger hooks) when live baiting in areas with you might interact with seals. I say this because I’ve seen a seal get hooked on a two hook rig. While the seal freed itself with minimal damage, it was still an experience that made me deeply question the morals of our passion. Seals are amazing mammals and the ocean is theirs, with us as visitors. I won’t give up fishing over it but I avoid live baiting near seals and do everything I can to minimise the risk by using one hook rigs.
So there you go, plenty to get you started. Kingfish are a sustainable target, they are dirty, hard fighters and on the plate they taste amazing (click here to view our suggested Kingfish recipies http://fishinginsoutheastaustralia.com/category/recipes/). It’s for all these reasons that I think they should be crowned Australia’s best sportfish.
Enjoy the bruises!