King of the shallows
December 19, 2019
When you talk to people about fishing for kingfish, most will get excited about methods of chasing them by jigging, trolling, livebaiting and the now popular stickbaiting. What they don’t expect is to have someone talk about sight fishing for them with fly rod in hand.
Sight fishing for kingfish in shallow water can be tough, frustrating and absolutely nerve racking but the rewards when it all comes together have few equals.
The food-rich harbours around the North Island are world-class fisheries for this method. Many fishos will automatically think that it must be difficult to target 10-15kg fish on the fly rod but, in reality, hooking the fish is the easy part.
Many people don’t realise that kingfish prefer flat water to hunt their prey in as they are silhouette hunters. This is why, when people throw poppers at marker buoys, the kingfish will often come up 10-20 metres out of the depths to attack their prey in the right conditions.
Make it irresistible
When the fly is presented well to the fish, it is very rare for there to be a refusal but finding consistent numbers of kingfish so that you can get a few shots at them every time you head out can be frustrating.
The next problem faced is once they’re hooked up, being able to keep your gear away from potential hazards for half an hour while you fight the fish makes the sport all the more exciting.
Like game fishing for marlin, landing kingfish on the fly rod that aren’t rats is a team effort and the rewards shared between all involved.
We generally only work with two onboard the boat, because you are fishing in shallow water. Once a kingfish is hooked it will generally only ever run sideways as it can’t dive deep.
Quality reels, such as Hardy, are vital for saltwater flyfishing.
Head for the shallows
The boat can then be used to follow the fish hopefully out into the channel and out of harms way before it is once again led and landed back in the shallows, if all goes well.
Beaching or netting the fish in the shallows places less stress on the gear and makes it harder to point load the rod when really leaning into the fish.
When trying to lift large fish up to a boat, longer rods such as fly rods can point load as many people that softbait have discovered when the rod is used incorrectly.
Keeping side strain on the fish as they are led into the shallows will generally make the job of netting the fish a little easier than trying to lift them on to a boat. With these larger fish it would be much harder to try to land them on the fly rod if we stayed stationary so it makes sense to follow them where possible and, as most fishos know, the kingfish is not the fastest fish around but its strength and cunning is unparalleled.
When drifting the flats in boats things have to work a little differently when trying to spot fish. Once a king is spotted the caster must be ready to deliver the cast to the fish quickly.If we were to just drift along trying to spot and find the olive-coloured kingfish we would get very few shots at the fish because they move too quickly.
Also, unless the sandy bottom is white and the water crystal-clear you will spot the fish far too late to ever get a cast at them before they see you.
Follow the rays
Sometimes there are gear failures and you have to fight fish by hand!
To combat this we chase and try to find stingrays. The common brown-coloured eagle ray is of no use to those chasing kingfish as they are either found sitting stationary on the bottom or are seen swimming through the midwater not disturbing anything, therefore having no use to the kingfish.
The black stingrays, on the other hand, move at a constant speed and travel right on the bottom over sand.
As the black stingrays travel they move and push baitfish such as piper, herring, mackerel, mullet and flounder up in front of them. The kingfish sit just off the tail of the stingray and as the baitfish move forward the kingfish ambush and smash them. There are times when a black stingray, if it is large, will hold up to six kingies who will all be activity hunting off the back of it.
The greatest thing about black stingrays is they can grow up to a couple of hundred kilograms so they are easily seen by the drifting fisher.
Casting from the right angle and having your fly move away from the stingray is imperative because it is supposed to imitate a fleeing baitfish. For obvious reasons baitfish never travel towards their predators.
When more than one kingfish is sitting on the stingray it is a race to see who can smash the fly and when you get your system down pat a kingfish will be attached to your fly rod within seconds – that’s when all hell brakes loose.
The single biggest reason for success or failure once the cast is made, is simply that the fly must be stripped, as soon as it hits the water. Many people fail to strip the fly immediately as it lands on the water so when the kingfish jumps forward to investigate the fly, it is sitting motionless and therefore the fish turns the offering down.
When the fly is stripped and moves as it enters the water it appears to act just like a fleeing baitfish exiting the scene.
We have all seen jumping baitfish getting beaten up by kingfish so make sure the fly is moving. You won’t outstrip the kingfish if it wants the fly.
If you can’t find stingrays then you need to look for telltale signs such as disturbed water or birds working to locate where the kingfish may be but these are a last resort.
With kingfish being so strong, it is really important that you don’t undertake the mission of landing a solid kingfish with substandard gear as they will blow it to bits.
American flyfishing companies Scott and Sage make wonderful strong, smooth saltwater fly rods and for most of my harbour work I use an 8# which also doubles up as my salmon rod, but for most parts a 9# or 10# will serve most anglers perfectly well and will give the angler extra lifting power which will come in handy when trying to turn or lift big fish.
Saltwater fly rods are designed to be fast but full in action. This means that they don’t just flex through the tip like many freshwater rods and this gives them more lifting power for fighting large, strong fish.
It allows the angler to turn over and cast heavier flies and a wider range of heavier lines when needed.
Saltwater fly reels must be of the best quality as the drag gets a really tough workout. Good quality saltwater fly reels tend to have heavy but smooth drags with no bite when they engage.
They must be made of bar stock aluminium and many will be anodised which will help negate the corrosive nature of the saltwater. The reels must be sealed because they will get wet, many will be submerged and they will be rested down in the sand at some stage.
With this in mind be prepared to spend a minimum of $500 and up to a $1000 for a good quality saltwater reel but the investment will pay for itself in the long run when you are not replacing parts or dealing with corrosion.
The entry-level rod, reel and line packages will set you back around $600 and they are a good place to start. One word of warning: Saltwater flyfishing is very addictive and it won’t be long before you are upgrading your gear to the best quality.
The right line
The flylines used in the harbour will largely be floating lines but some like using an intermediate sink so the line stays straight when cast and so there is tension on the line when the kingfish hit.
Just make sure that the line you choose loads the rod quickly so fast casts can be made when a fish is sighted.
When striking the fish be sure to strip strike, (strip the line hard when you lift the rod to strike) on the kingfish so the hooks are set deep as they have a hard mouth. If you strike by just lifting the rod like many trout fishers do most of the fish will be lost because the hooks won’t be set deep enough.
Saltwater fly enthusiast Jeff Strang preparing for (hopefully) an estuary kingfish
All about presentation
Flies don’t have to be small like many of the freshwater patterns and most of my kingfish flies vary between 15-20cm in length and tied on 4/0 and 6/0 hooks.
Most will have an epoxy head so they sink quickly and will be full in the body so when they’re stripped they will push water and leave a bubble trail like that of a scared baitfish.
Most of my patterns are green and blue in colour and similar in size and shape to piper and mackerel but success largely comes down to presentation and less about fly pattern.
The secret is to make sure that your cast lands just in front of the stingray, strip immediately and the kingfish will do the rest. On the right day the flats fishing in our North Island harbours produces some of the best saltwater fly fishing on the planet.
Many of you out there have fought and landed kingfish on conventional gear and many of you have flyfished for trout in our lakes and rivers but for the ultimate experience in sight fishing why don’t you try to tackle the mighty kingfish on the fly rod? It’s a blast!
This estuary location can only be fished effectively at low tide, so time a low tide with an early morning for optimum chances
Quick tip - Work the tides
Working the tides correctly and utilising them at the right time of the day will help to increase your chances and consistency in spotting kingfish up on the flats.
Working the incoming tides early in the morning or late in the day will help you greatly.
The greatest advantage for the angler when working a high tide early in the morning is generally this is the best opportunity to drift the water before the wind gets up.
An incoming tide through to the end of slack water throws clean water into the harbour and when there is no wind it will produce spotting conditions that are near perfect.
On an outgoing tide the water dirties up as water and sand get sucked out of the harbour, which makes spotting conditions really poor.