Live baiting for kings

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Al McGlashen

When it comes to catching kingfish live bait is undoubtedly the best way to get the biggest fish. Al McGlashan lets us in on a few tricks of the trade to connect you to a big king.

We watched the sounder intently as the reef edge suddenly dropped away. At first the screen was empty but then suddenly it ignited with a series of huge red lines appearing across the screen – kings and big ones at that!

Pulling the Honda out of gear we drifted over the fish. Mick Woods monitored the deep bait while Jim held onto the surface bait. At first the baits were quiet but then suddenly they came to life, transmitting their terror up through the braided lines. Mick’s bait went off first and before he had a chance to cranking the handle the spool was spinning. In an effort to stop the fish he jammed his thumb on the spool but it did nothing and before he knew it he had been bricked!

Jim, who had found the whole thing extremely funny, suddenly found himself in all sorts of trouble when a second king crunched his livey. Luckily his bait was on the surface so by slamming the drag straight up to sunset he slowed it up just enough to keep it off the bottom. At the same time I accelerated away from the ledge dragging the fish into deeper water.

Mick and Jim make Hookem Gaffs and had come out with me for a few days to test their products, so when Jim’s fish reached the surface it was quickly pinned in the head and hauled aboard – product testing at its best!

Having marked the spot on the GPS we wasted little time to race back to the spot for another drift. Since the fish were down deep we ran two deep baits and a third on the surface at the back. The action was instantaneous and the moment we hit the waypoint the Furuno lit up with fish and all three rods doubled over. With some heavy handed fishing I quickly got my fish up while Jim scored a second and Mick pulled the hooks on the third.

Unfortunately the fish quickly woke up to our game and shut down. Not to be deterred we slow trolled the baits across to another spot and sure enough found another school of eager kings. This time it was Mick who hooked up and after a torrid but brief battle another solid king came to the boat. The action continued all morning until we ran out of livies.

The key to catching kings is to get your live baits right in tight against the structure for the best results.

Baiting Up

When it comes to catching kings, especially big ones, live bait is undoubtedly the most effective technique. In Australia the most common baits are slimy mackerel, yellowtail, squid, garfish and small tuna, while in New Zealand waters blue koheru, slimy mackerel, kahawai and piper are the best offerings. Having said that, kings are opportunistic feeders and at the end of the day they will eat just about anything. In fact I have heard of some blokes doing really well with small snapper and bream!

Size is important and from my experience the size of the bait varies according to the species you use. For example I have never done well with big live squid, instead it is the smaller ones that have always produced the most bites for me. It is a similar situation with yellowtail, the smaller ones get nailed like lollies while the larger ones are usually ignored.

Yellowtail or Jack Mackerel
Slimey Mackerel

Slimies, on the other hand, get scoffed irrespective of size. While filming the latest in the Strikezone series - Yellowtail Kingfish -  I caught a number of fish that were barely a couple of kilos in weight and yet they ate baits almost a third of their size without hesitation. Slimies are definitely on the special board!

Naturally big baits like tuna and kahawai are best used to target mega kings. A classic example of this happened when a mate, Vic Levitt, was fishing one of his favourite kingfish haunts. He was catching some nice fish to about 8kg on slimies, but convinced there were bigger fish around he went in search of larger baits. Seeing some tuna blowing up nearby he raced over and caught two on Halco slices, then raced back and dropped them on the spot. Two tuna equaled two 24kg kings – big baits equal big fish, you bet!

I should also add if you can get your hands on frigate mackerel (a small tuna similar to mackerel tuna) then towing that around known kingy haunts will always pull the biggest king in the area. Kings love them and will swim a mile to eat one.

Slow troll to success

Live baiting is deadly but you still need to cover the ground to find the kings, and slow trolling the livies is the best approach. The bigger the bait the faster it can be trolled, however some baits like piper simply won’t survive.

Living in Sydney the best baits for trolling are undoubtedly slimies, however the problem is that they can be extremely difficult to find at times. Yellowtail, on the other hand, are extremely common and easy to catch, but unlike slimies they tire relatively quickly. As a result they need to be replaced regularly so you need to stock up on more baits.

Squid are another common bait but they die very quickly when trolled, however unlike the other baits they still work well when freshly dead. Tuna troll really well but won’t survive in a live bait tank so unless you have purpose built tuna tubes you will have to catch them on the grounds.

Kings traverse the water column and can be caught anywhere from the surface to the bottom, especially in coastal waters. When fishing in water less than 30 metres I like to run two rigs which allow me to cover a majority of the water column.

When slow trolling livies always fish with the bail arm open and your finger on the line so the moment you get a bite you can free spool the fish.

The surface bait is unweighted and is run well back. The second bait is the same except for the addition of a barrel sinker which helps to take the rig down. The size of the sinker depends on the depth you are working, but as a general rule I like to run 6 to 8 ounces.

The technique I employ is to troll with the Honda four stroke just in gear, working strategically over known kingy haunts. At the same time I play close attention to the Furuno sounder intently looking for signs of bait or more importantly schools of kings. Kings have big swim bladders so they show up really well on the sounder when the unit is tuned correctly.  

Bait isn’t just food sources but can also be species like maomao. I don’t think kings naturally predate on them but since employing Strikecam I have discovered they both seem to like the same conditions. The best news is that maomao show up very distinctly, making them easy to detect on the sounder.

The moment I pick up kings on the sounder I pull the Honda out of gear, allowing the deep bait to sink down into the strike zone. I also like to get my anglers to hold the rods while trolling, with their fingers on the line. This way it is possible to feel the bait panicking the moment a king appears on the scene, and the fact I use braid line only makes it easier.

Even if I don’t mark any fish, if the anglers start feeling their baits panicking then I always pull the boat out of gear allowing the baits to stay in the strike zone for as long as possible. As we have seen through using Strikecam a lot of fish like to follow the baits for a while before striking, so the trick is to pull up the moment your baits get nervous.

A solid kingy that ignored the deep bait and nailed a flat line off the surface.

Using downriggers

The downrigger is another essential tool for the serious kingy fisher.  Personally I like to use it in deeper water generally between 30 and 70 metres where I have accounted for some solid fish. In fact some of my biggest kings around Sydney have been picked up on the downrigger.

The important thing to remember with the downrigger is that it is a tool for locating the fish and can only be used effectively when moving. The problem with the downrigger is that if given the chance the bait will swim past the bomb when a predator approaches. This usually results in the bait tangling around the cable, which obviously spells disaster. As a result you simply can’t pull up if you mark fish and instead you have to keep moving which can take you away from the strike zone.

Therefore the best place to use downriggers is around areas when the kings tend to be a bit more spread out. A classic example of this is an area known as the Peak. Reaching up to within 65 metres of the surface it is a large area and as a result you often have to search for the kings.

Drop-offs are a number of great places to employ the downrigger. Off Sydney there are numerous spots that have extensive drop-offs like the cliffs south past Botany Bay. Extending for several hundred metres the kings can be any-where which makes the downrigger the ideal tool to work along the drop-off. When I locate the fish I often put the downrigger away and resort to drifting.

Big baits means big fish and that can require heavy tackle and locked drags, especially when fishing very close to the foul.

Drift fishing

Slow trolling or downrigging livies will certainly help you find fish but once you locate a concentration then the best option is to drift. Drifting allows you to stay right over the fish and thus keep your baits in the strike zone for as long as possible, and that really is the key to catching kings. Even if the fish aren’t really hungry the fact that the bait is sitting right under their nose is simply too tempting.

The key to successful drifting is to position the boat so that it goes directly over the school, and for this to happen you need to play close attention to the sounder and GPS. After marking the fish I often pull the boat out of gear and drift over them, allowing the deep bait to sink down. Continuing the drift, I monitor the sounder to see when I am off the school. Once I am off the fish I then slow troll the baits back up and reposition the boat so I drift exactly over the same area again. At this point I zoom in on the plotter page of the GPS so I can see what my precise line of drift is so I go directly over the school again. I continue repeating the process until the fish shut down or I run out of livies.

Drifting is also the best way to fish isolated structure in deep water such as a wreck. A good understanding of the wreck’s shape is paramount and it should be marked up with a series of waypoints outlining it. Before I even start fishing I always pull up nearby and determine my line of drift and speed. In deeper water current can play a bigger role than the wind in your drift so it is important to work it all before you start fishing.

With everything set up I position the boat to drift directly over the wreck and then reverse up to hold over the strike zone for as long as possible. Once the current pushes us off we simply repeat the process. Of course constant monitoring of the sounder is also paramount and often you will see the fish holding at a particular end of the structure. It can be frustrating fishing but the rewards are still high if you do it right.

Live baiting is deadly but you have to focus around the structure. So use your electronics, find the fish and then drop a livey on their nose – I guarantee the responses will be explosive!

A good sounder is an essential tool for live baiting kings – just check out all these kingfish showing on the screen.

Underwater camera

Since developing Strikecam three years ago I have been amazed at what we have learnt. In particular it has been very interesting with what we have discovered with kingfish. In past issues of NZ Fishing World I have highlighted many of the amazing things we have discovered about kingy behaviour but there are a couple of particular interests to this feature.

Firstly, the baits - even though they can’t see the approaching predators they certainly know when danger is approaching. They transmit their fear by shaking which is transmitted up the line, particularly braid. By keeping your finger on the line you will be able pick up any changes in the bait’s behaviour. This can be vital because you don’t always see the fish on the sounder and sometimes it is the bait that will inform you of impending action. Keeping in touch with your live bait will pay dividends!

The other thing that Strikecam highlighted was how hesitant kings are when it actually comes to striking the bait. Having seen this repeatedly we now always allow the fish ample time to swallow the bait before striking. On the same note we always use smaller J hooks and pin the bait through the nose. The reason behind this is because, as Strikecam has shown, the fish nearly always eat the bait head first so the hook is the first thing down the throat.

Slow trolling livies over shallow coastal reefs is deadly on kings.

Strikezone DVD

The latest in the Strikezone series, Yellowtail Kingfish, is set to be a classic with some amazing action of kings everywhere from deepwater reefs to right under the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Most importantly there is a whole chapter dedicated to catching kings on live bait. Covering all the techniques mentioned in this article it is sure to help you improve your kingy fishing.

For your copy check out

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