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Curiosity killed the kingfish

By Scott CushmanNZ Fishing World
Curiosity killed the kingfish

There are tried and true methods for targeting kingfish but every once in a while it’s worth throwing out the rulebook.

Kingfish are curious creatures, they often check out activity that is out of the norm. I don’t know if it is because they are hungry or if they simply like to see what’s going on in their environment.
The fact they can be found with such unusual items in their stomach suggests anglers shouldn’t be surprised by their ability to turn up anytime, anywhere and have a crack at anything.

Bird-eating sessions

To learn more about New Zealand’s most accessible gamefish I spoke to Rick Pollock, arguably New Zealand's most experienced charter operator routinely targeting kingfish. He noted recently that his deckie had inspected the stomach contents of a kingfish to discover three sea birds in various states of decay.

This isn’t the first time a kingfish has been found with birds inside. Clinton Duffy, the shark scientist, has also detailed instances of this phenomenon. In every case three birds were found being digested, inferring the kingfish had targeted them in a single feeding session.

In the beginning

Rick started his charter business, primarily targeting kingfish, when he first arrived in New Zealand in 1978.

In those days methods for catching kingfish didn’t involve live baits or lures, instead albacore or skipjack tuna, caught on the way to the grounds, were used.Split into three baits and rigged on 10/0 hooks with 300 to 400-lb piano wire leader, these cut baits were a rudimentary but effective way to catch the White Island kings.

The biggest kingfish were invariably hooked on the skeleton section, rather than the head or the tail. Eventually the fish wised up and the switch to livebait was needed to continue getting results.

Livebaits and jigs are the most common methods used to target kingfish but they occasionally throw the rule book out and prefer something else.

Throwing out the book

Kingfish can be surprisingly fussy. For example, sometimes a flying fish offering will only be accepted when one or both of the wings are clipped.

I remember witnessing an 18kg fish captured at Ohiwa Harbour wharf some years ago on a 200lb hand-line. The fish had been attracted by a bread and skipjack tuna berley trail, finally taking a slab of tuna on a  big hook. It was hard to believe the fish would prefer this crude offering to the live mackerel I had swimming in the same vicinity.   

It pays to be a curious

On a trip to Cape Kari Kari this summer we tried a number of traditional methods to target kings. We mechanically jigged pinnacles and live-baited the rocks yet the two best fish ate a whole pilchard drifted on a flat sea floor.

We were trolling in 100 metres of water and would occasionally pass over distinctive sign on the bottom. I was curious as to what these mystery fish could be. In that depth would they be terakihi or hapuka? Inquisitiveness got the better of me and I dropped a jig to the bottom.

The first drift yielded nothing. A second drop on stronger sign saw the rod bend over and line ripped from the reel. A healthy kingfish popped up next to the boat and the mystery fish was revealed.

Interestingly there was nothing on the sea floor, like a pinnacle or rock, to suggest a reason for it being there.  The only element I could link to the appearance of fish was some squiggles on the contour line suggesting broken foul.

It wasn’t a hard rule but there did seem to be a pattern to seeing marks near the bottom on the sounder when a bend in the contour mark was nearby. It made me wonder; was there a secret kingfish highway beneath us?Almost certainly not.

The likely explanation was that the broken foul was holding baitfish, which we were marking on the sounder and which the kingfish were feeding on.
We tried stopping a few times more times when we saw sign on the sounder, sometimes we got nothing but did manage to hook a couple of frost fish.

Changing it up

Targeting pinnacles is a tried and true method for catching kingfish. However, I think the lesson for the fisherman is to be curious enough yourself to experiment with where, when and how you fish for them.

Jigging is a well-established and proven technique but it has not remained static. Speed jigging was at the forefront and then mechanical jigging became more popular.

I have noticed more fishers adorning their favourite jigs with squid skirts to entice bites. Squid skirts are nothing new but they are on jigs and the extra flash no doubt gets the better of kingfish that bite these hooks.

I recently enjoyed a trip to the Mokohinau Islands with a few fishing friends. John Perez, a first timer, suggested cutting off the head off a kahawai and using it for bait. Not wanting to dent his enthusiasm, I agreed that a large snapper may like to such an offering.

Because I was too lazy to change his flasher rig to a stray line to theoretically optimise its effectiveness, John just attached the head to the top hook on his flasher rig and sent it down to the bottom, only 15-metres below.

Literally seconds later he was being pulled all over the boat by a large mystery fish. In the latter stages of the fight I loaned a hand to boat the fish. Underestimating the clarity of the water I thought I could see a relatively small kingfish struggling below the boat. I was quickly screaming for the gaff when a fish twice that size was thrashing on the surface.

 Kingfish don’t always follow the rules. This 30kg+ kingfish took a bait rigged for a marlin.

A lesson on the rocks

Fishing from the bricks, I often observe kingfish ignore a livebait only to pounce on the offering intended for a snapper.

Nothing particularly surprising about that, accept that on several occasions recently, including with a 13kg plus specimen a couple of weeks ago, the normally voracious fish have been grabbing the kahawai slabs straylined for the snapper, peeling line briefly then spitting out the bait.  

It is standard practice to let a fish run with a bait but on these instances I have been far too slow and have routinely missed the fish. On my next kingfish encounter, I’m going to strike on the bite and not wait for it to swallow the hook.

Summary

The moral of the stories above is that sometimes kingfish ignore the usual patterns of engagement and completely change their expected behaviour. It might be simple case of preferring be a huge piece of meat instead of the normally irresistible livebait.

Often they will investigate something out of the ordinary so it is worth exploring your options if a fish is hanging about refusing all the usual offerings. As anglers, we too need to be curious and vary our approach for consistent success.

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