Kahawai are a common kingfish live bait choice, but delicate piper can sometimes be the winning option. Find out how to better fish these fragile little live baits.
The rigid inflatable boat (RIB) was carefully packed and pointing into the light swell, while I started to warm up the outboard via the rip cord. It was almost kicking into life when suddenly the cord hung limp and wouldn’t retract. Despite repair attempts, it soon became obvious the day’s fishing trip was turning into a walk-in fishing mission instead.
We repacked and drove off down the road, looking for a ledge to swim some live baits and cast strip baits. A grunty 30-minute up-and-down hike, including bush bashing and negotiation of rocky inclines, saw us finally descend on a promising piece of Coromandel rock-fishing real estate.
With the berley deployed I was facing a bit of a conundrum. Should set up my 24 kg outfit for a piper live bait or a kingfish live bait? Since we were fishing a calm inshore platform and Aaron Dodds had his gear set up for a kahawai live bait, I chose the piper set up.
It’s difficult sometimes because you don’t always know which live bait you will be able to secure on the day. If you have a live bait pool available (either natural or artificial), it is possible to switch set ups while the live bait is recovering in the pool.
Using a good quality leader that is not too large in diameter for its strength can be key in keeping a piper alive longer. Overall I believe piper have the advantage as the preferred kingfish prize, however they are more difficult to catch and delicate to handle. Kahawai on the other hand can take more abuse in the handling stage and are certainly easier to hook when they turn up.
Setting up your rig for catching piper as live bait is easy. Either 15 kg or 24 kg main line is workable with a 27 kg or 37 kg leader. Strong wind or swell will sometimes discount using a piper as they will quickly get swept onto the rocks.
Small, stout jigging hooks are great hooks to use at the business end. There are other patterns, such as 5/0 octopus-style hooks, however the strength-to-weight ratio is a crucial point to consider as piper are fish that tire quickly with a hook in their tails.
I have found using a shorter leader around 2 m in length, tied with an Albright knot to a Bimini twist loop in the mainline, is a good set up. Avoid using swivels for piper if you can, as the weight reduces their life span. Likewise the shorter leader will prolong their lives.
A small polystyrene float secured just before the joining knot (on the hook side of the leader) is held in place with a stopper knot. After some experimenting, I have found small polystyrene floats are OK to slide up and down the leader, but medium-sized ones are best secured with a stopper knot to help the piper stay alive longer.
A stopper knot can just be a short piece of 10 kg monofilament tied with a uni knot onto the mainline. It can still slide up and down when pressure is applied, for example when line is wound onto the reel and the float can’t fit through the rings. Having a stopper knot may also mean getting your float back if a good fish breaks the leader between the float and the hook.
The how to's of catching piper
Catching piper can sometimes be harder than landing the kingfish, so here are a few tips to help catch these small fish: Use a light 2-3 kg leader with a size 12-14 trout hook. Use a float and swivel, and cut slivers of bait that cover the bend in the hook and a part of the shank.
Fresh kahawai is an excellent bait and pilchards are OK, but I find that the piper will often reject a piece of pilchard bait that doesn’t have white flesh attached to it. Don’t cut blocks or squares of bait as they are more difficult for the piper to fit into its mouth.
It is always best to sight fish for piper. This means casting the bait into a position where you can see the bait and watch to see when a piper will draw the bait into its mouth. As soon as you see the bait disappear, strike to set the hook. If you wait too long there is a chance it will swallow the hook and die shortly after.
Sometimes the piper will expel and draw the bait back in more than once. Patience and timing is key to set the hook and not just pull it out of its mouth.
On this occasion it didn’t take too long before small, blue, snake-like fish could be seen drifting into the berley trail and then moving off. I struck into a medium sized piper and had it shaking in the wet towel shortly after. The trick is to handle the fish as little as possible and quickly as possible. The hook was unfortunately down the fish’s throat but clear of its gills, so I bit off the line and pinned the piper in the anal fin with a small jigging hook.
SMALL JIGGING HOOKS ARE PERFECT FOR LIVE BAITING PIPER AS THEY ARE STRONG ENOUGH TO STAY ATTACHED TO YOUR CATCH WHILE INHIBITING THE PIPER AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE.
Float aid for the piper
I find it best to have the double knot clear of the guides before putting the live bait back in the water, so the piper doesn’t have to pull it through the guides. I also have 3-4 polystyrene balls (about 3-4 cm in diameter) cut in the middle to fit onto the line every 10 or 15 m. This means if the piper stops swimming, the 24 kg mono won’t sink into the kelp.
The piper swam out about 30 m and concentrated on living while I secured the rod in the rocks. Aaron was having trouble with catching a kahawai despite the berley wafting around the ledge.
It wasn’t long before the reel started ticking over.
I struck, however the resistance wasn’t strong and I soon had a kahawai bleeding from the gills on the rocks. I caught another piper and let it swim off. About two hours later, Aaron saw a flash of something resembling a kingfish in the water while casting his stick bait and yelled his suspicions to us. Almost instantaneously, my reel again chattered away as line peeled off and I flicked the clicker off to let the line unwind with as little resistance as possible.
A subsequent strike culminated in a rat king putting a bend in the rod but without pulling line. We pulled him up and released him after a quick photo. Aaron managed a strike from a larger model king on his stick bait while I was playing my fish, however it didn’t stick for long.
Back to catching piper and I soon had another one pulling my float after it. This fish I positioned off the ledge in another location, as I discovered a bit of current on a different face of the ledge. This piper was a bit larger and managed to pull 40-50 m of line out with some help from the current and light wind. It was in a prime location for a good-sized predator to discover it.
Aaron on the other hand had given up trying to catch a kahawai and was lying down with his stray line rod in hand. We had only seen the one fish earlier that morning and nothing since then.
A PIPER CAUGHT RAT KINGFISH ABOUT TO BE RELEASED.
Perseverance pays off
I have to admit, I had wanted to spend more time stray lining for snapper and other table species, however catching piper and continually monitoring their location and health soaked up most of my time. I was standing beside my live bait rod when the TLD25 again started to give off the unmistakable ‘zzzzzzz’ of a fish running with the live bait.
Flicking off the clicker I let it take another 20 meters of line before striking into the fish. This time the kingfish pulled line against the 8 kg of drag I had set on the reel and I felt the weight of what was obviously a bigger fish.
I ran along the rocks to get a better angle but also tried to lead it away from the point where there was an underhanging section of rock that would prove fatal to my mainline if a kingfish got close to it. I gained some line but shortly lost it again. I was fairly confident that there wasn’t much foul out wider so I backed off the drag in the hope of tiring the fish further away from the rocks.
The kingfish, however, didn’t want to run and even in free spool it sat in close to the bottom. I started the home run leg of pulling in the fish but it played its last ace and ran for the point. I felt the line on the kelp but managed to stay connected.
As soon as the fish’s head was turned I applied the pressure and short stroked it up to the surface. A beautiful green and gold fish glided beside the kelp and after one more short run I had it in gaffing range for Aaron to finally pin and pull up onto the rocks. This fish had been a while coming, as it had been a matter of years between decent kingfish encounters off the rocks.
While not a personal best or fish of great note, it was a perfect eating-sized fish of 13 kg. Kingfish battered slabs placed in tortillas, accompanied by kingfish sashimi, was a fitting end to the day with still more kingfish expertly smoked for consumption at a later date.
That fish had been the product of constant piper catching, live bait monitoring and sacrifice of other fishing opportunities, however it was satisfying to see my perseverance pay off. If I had known I was to land a 30 kg+ fish the next day I may have released it, but that’s another story.