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Kayak fishing for big kingfish

By Jason WalkerNZ Fishing World
Kayak fishing for big kingfish

Kingfish are a challenge to catch in and of themselves, add a kayak to the equation and the fun doubles.

One of the most highly-rated sportfish in New Zealand is the kingfish.

A fish that is prized not only for its flesh, which can be eaten so many different ways, but also for the strong fight it puts up when hooked.

These fish are pure muscle and can bring the biggest of anglers to their knees by their powerful runs. Holding on to your rod once hooked up to a monster kingfish will quickly test your stamina.

We have all seen the photos and articles written about landing these beasts off boats but can they be caught from kayaks too? Oh yes they can!

The lack of a huge motor strapped to the back of your vessel means that you won’t be heading way out over the horizon to sit on one of those kingfish holding pins we all read about but the humble kayak is still a very capable fishing craft to land yourself a legal kingy from.

Where are they?

Well before we can attempt to catch our prized fish, we need to understand how the kingfish lives, what it lives on and where it hunts its food.

There are several ingredients that make up the ideal place to find kingfish, the most critical two are current and food.

Kingfish are most commonly found sitting in current. This may be current formed by a reef or other underwater structure, pins and rocky shoreline, or may simply be straight tidal flow such as an estuary.

Food for kingfish, like many creatures, is a driver to make them stay in an area. They feed mainly on small fish.

The structure creating the currents the kingfish love so much will also hold smaller fish, which creates a perfect larder for them.

Varied diet

Their diet is varied but some of the favourites are slimy mackerel, kahawai, pilchards, squid and other common fish on the menu depending on your location including octopus, flying fish, piper, mullet, koheru, anchovies and sauries.

There are also reports of many other fish being found in the stomachs of captured kingies such as snapper, terakihi, flounder, seahorses, crayfish, shrimp, frost fish and other weird and wonderful deep sea creatures.

With such a varied diet it can make targeting the kingfish appear very easy but unfortunately even though we have a fish that looks like it will eat anything you put in front of it, the old kingy can be a fussy fish at times.

Even if presented with its favourite dish, if that’s not what it’s looking for today, you can be wasting your time.

Hunting out kingies

Rocky shorelines, headlands, pinnacles, islands and reef structures are the best places to head.

Once there look to see where the current is flowing. There’s no fixed rule as to whether you should be sitting up or down current when fishing for kingfish. 

Your approach doesn’t require so much stealth, you’re not trying to silently cast a small bait or lure into the spot you think the fish will be sitting.

Kingfish tend to be on the move most of the time, either swimming in the current or chasing a meal, so before you start fishing for them you need to find them first and thankfully they are normally found in medium to large schools so using your electronics makes this part easy.

You are looking for something different on your sounder than you would when looking for most other fish.

Kingfish normally show up as a simple dash rather than an arch as they move quicker than most other species.

They also tend to sit midwater rather then at the top or bottom of the water column.

Baits and lures

Once you find the school it’s time to park your paddle, grab your rod and drop your line in the water to tempt those fish to jump on your hook. The question is, what do you put on that hook?

There are plenty of options available to the modern kingfish hunter, from the classic dead and livebaits to the more modern offerings.

The classic kingfish bait is nothing simpler than real bait itself. They can be presented both live and dead but the preference would always be a livebait as it will give off the tell-tale vibrations of an injured fish and the kingfish will quickly home in.

Dead baits are best fished unweighted and left to naturally fall through the water column whereas the live baits are normally fished at the top or the bottom of the water.

The top is easily achieved by using a balloon tied to your line. This acts as a float and stops the livebait from swimming too far down to escape the kingfish.

To fish the bottom, hook your livebait on to a dropper rig with a sinker on the bottom this will keep your bait fixed in one area.

A danger with this rig is snagging your sinker on the bottom so make sure you use a short length of lightweight mono to attach your sinker to the dropper rig. That way if you get snagged all you’ll lose is the sinker.

Using lures

Whilst kingfish love fish candies, they are also huge suckers for anything that moves fast through the water, in fact the faster the better sometimes. There are both topwater and deepwater options available.

For topwater you can make use of bibbed trolling lures such as those from Rapala. These are designed to be cast out of the back or side of your kayak and towed around as you paddle, the bib on the lure causes them to dive under the surface and they are designed to wriggle as they are towed.

Some even have rattles built in to give off those vibrations of a dying fish, which kingfish take as a free meal signal.

Other topwater options are poppers and stickbaits. These are both cast and retrieved, as they are wound back to the kayak they dart across the water’s surface creating vibrations and splashes to attract the target.

Whilst both of these can be used from the kayak, casting great distances can be more difficult than in a boat so you may find these a little harder to use effectively.

Deepwater options

If your targets are sitting midwater or deeper and they can’t be drawn to the surface with the topwater options, then jigs will be your friend.

Some of the first jigs on the market in New Zealand were the Grim Reaper lures, actually made and designed here, introduced to the market in the mid 1980s and still available today.

These are shorter jigs and normally come fitted with a treble hook, changing these trebles to a single hook won’t drop your catch rate much and are a lot kinder on the fish, not to mention yourself too if you bring an angry kingfish on board your kayak.

Those  treble hooks are great at hooking everything on the kayak as well as the fish!

Not long after this we started to see knife jigs from Japan turn up on our shelves with Zest being some of the first courtesy of Chris Wong. 

These proved even more deadly on our local kingfish population and quickly gained a huge following.

The knife jigs are rigged with a single assist hook, this set up consists of a single hook attached to a short length of cord, normally Kevlar, which in turn is attached to the jig by the use of solid split rings at the same point as you attach you leader.

Hook-up time

Given the power of these beasts, the first advice is simply to hold on and enjoy the ride!

There are a few differences between fishing from a boat and a kayak when it comes to fighting and landing a kingfish.

Leverage is the biggest loss. There’s no gunwales on a kayak that you can brace yourself against so, rather than fishing out the side of the kayak like you would on a boat, you want to fish out the front.

This gives you the entire length of the kayak as leverage plus the added bonus of not having to test the stability of your kayak to its limit.

You want to keep the rod pointing forward and as close to the side of the kayak but the line is not touching (otherwise you’ll end up with a bust-off).

Time to fight

Now the fish is directly under the kayak, the fight begins. The kingfish is really going to test your strength and it’s all down to you to get that fish up.

Lift and wind down, lift and wind down. It’s a matter of wearing that fish out before it wears you out!

Try to keep the fish out the front of the kayak so you don’t give it the opportunity to roll you out of your kayak.

Prepare for landing

So you’ve hooked it, been for the ride, slogged out the fight and now you have the fish up to the kayak, so now what?

Kingfish have an incredible knack of finding that last fight when you least expect it so make sure you are ready.

Firstly back off your drag, if the fish makes a run for it again, you don’t want to be dragged overboard with it.

Secondly get a grip, either gaff the fish or slide it up the side of the kayak and on to your lap.

It’s normally at this point the fish will go mental and start thrashing around the top of your kayak and they are strong.

They’re experts at destroying things on your kayak, including fishfinders!

Be prepared to keep a firm grip on the fish and don’t be afraid to use your legs by sliding it under them to hold it in place until you’ve released it.

Get jiggy with it

Jigs work because of the flutter and wobble but it’s also from the way the jig is retrieved.

There are several variations but they break down to two different methods, speed jigging and mechanical jigging.

Speed jigging came along with the first wave of jigs and is done by dropping your jig to the bottom then quickly (as fast as you can) winding the reel handle for around five turns to quickly bring the jig up.

Pausing for up to second, and repeating - five turns, pause, five turns, pause - until you have retrieved the jig back to the surface or at least far away from the school at which point you drop it down and start again.

Mechanical jigging sees the jig heading to the bottom again but once there you are now going to both lift and drop the rod whilst winding the reel at the same time.

It’s a technique that needs a little practice but once mastered is very effective.

On a kayak, with practice, you can carry out both techniques but the speed jigging method is much easier and has been proven to work well.

Gear to use

Rods and reels for kingfish on a kayak do not differ from boat gear and are really only limited by your budget.

There are a few guides though that are worth following to help keep you out of trouble if nothing else.

Rod

Buy yourself a good quality jigging rod but keep to 250g or less. This will mean you won’t have too stiff a rod and enable you to put pressure on the fish and hopefully stay in the kayak.

Reel

You can use both overhead and spin gear on the kayak but overhead reels are advised.

If you catch a donkey of a kingfish then the runs are going to be hard and fast.

A spin reel hanging under the rod gets pulled down to the kayak or your legs making it impossible to wind any line until you lift the rod but an overhead, even if pulled hard down on to the kayak, can still be retrieved.

Line

Braid is the way to go as it gives you much better contact with the fish.

Rating really should be limited to a max of 80lb on the kayak, as in the worst case scenario and you get hooked up on the bottom, you want to be able to bust off.

Kayaks offer very little resistance to kingfish, like a boat does, so don’t be surprised if you end up getting towed around by that horse of a fish.

It’s a great feeling but be very aware of your environment. That fish is swimming for freedom, it’s trying its best to bust you off on the bottom or reef and it’s going to keep running so you need to get control as quickly as you can.

You will get the fish under your control once you have removed the angle in the line and have the fish directly under the kayak.

Motherships

If you want to venture to those pinnacles way over the horizon that the guys in boats target then one option is to use a mothership.

There aren’t many dedicated kayak mothership charter operators in New Zealand but if you head down to the marina or hit the internet you’ll soon find that there are a few operators who have boats big enough to take one or two kayaks out.

They take you to the fishing grounds, drop you and your kayak off then, while the rest of the clients fish from the boat, you are free to paddle around and go fishing.

If you hook that big one you can soon paddle it back to the mothership to drop it off.

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