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Livebaiting for kingfish 101 + catching kings with Dan Carter

December 19, 2019
Livebaiting for kingfish 101 + catching kings with Dan Carter

When it comes to fishing for kingfish there has been much talk about mechanical jigging and stick baits, but most are still caught by the tried and true live baits.

This is probably because the majority of anglers will be chasing kings around reefs and rocks close to the coast.

Jigs have certainly earned their place in the tackle box and the stick baits are exciting and effective, but are best suited to using where there is a concentration of fish like a workup or known kingfish hot spots like White Island or Bird Rock, or under channel markers in a harbour.

However, for the weekend angler it is always smart to carry a live bait outfit in the boat or on the rocks for you never know when an opportunity will arise. That opportunity might take the form of a surprise catch of ideal livies like small kahawai or slimy mackerel. If a rig is ready to go, it is simply a question of hooking up the livie and putting it back under a balloon.

But during summer it is not hard to target kingfish at known spots. In Auckland it is surprisingly easy to catch kingfish, provided bronze whalers don’t steal your catch and turn it into their dinner.

The tackle

As virtually all kings are played standing up, a rod and reel that is easy to handle with a gimbal belt is important. In other words a 24kg stand-up outfit is about as heavy as you will need in the majority of situations, and a 15kg outfit is better. It can always be spooled or top-shotted with 24kg line if big fish are expected. A short rod with plenty of backbone is ideal, as a long rod disadvantages the angler.

Lever drag reels are easier to use than star drags, and will have a better drag system. Like all fishing, if you go cheap on the gear it will cost you in the long run. Kings are tough and unforgiving, so quality tackle is important.

Some people will opt for braid line, but as kings react to pressure the stretch in monofilament is a definite advantage.

Trace does not have to be expensive fluorocarbon, but abrasion-resistant tough trace is a definite advantage as you will be fishing close to a reef. A metre and a half of 45kg or 50kg mono is usually fine, connected with a quality swivel (either ball bearing or clip) and a live bait hook.

The hook size should match the size of the bait, not the fish being targeted, and you can catch very big kings on small live bait hooks which are made for that purpose. They have short shanks and are super strong. Too large a hook can kill a live bait.

When fishing waters regarded as premier big fish territory like the Ranfurly Banks, White Island, North Cape or the Three Kings then everything goes up a notch. A standard outfit here will be a 24kg stand-up combo spooled with 37kg line.

The amount of weight needed varies from nothing for a surface bait, to maybe 4oz for a yellowtail set on the bottom in eight metres of water to something like 10oz when dropping a livie into 100 metres.

The sinker can be a ball sitting above the swivel on the main line or a teardrop connected to the swivel with dental floss so it can break free. The main thing is to not have the sinker on the trace between the hook and swivel, so if a kingfish breaks the line it is not dragging a weight around with it until the hook rusts out.

When Dan smiles

When Dan Carter wanted to catch his first kingfish and first good-sized snapper the wheels started to roll. A couple of phone calls soon had a helicopter lined up for a hop across the Hauraki Gulf to Great Barrier Island where Peter ‘The Penguin’ Blackwell was waiting on his 65-foot launch. Now Penguin grew up on the Barrier and has built a lovely holiday home on the beach at Tryphena.
“You can land the chopper in the paddock behind the house. Just follow the stream up the valley, turn and come in,” he instructed. It sounds like a chopper landing there is not an uncommon occurrence.

The snapper were in deep water in late January, and the first stop in 60 metres yielded a handful of pannies. Then another reef saw Dan’s first 4-kilo snapper bend the rod. He was all smiles.
Then it was around the corner to Cape Barrier where the currents swirl in a whirl of racing white water. This is top king country! The first yellowtail was scoffed immediately, but no hook up. First points to the kings. The next one stuck, and Dan was on. He worked the short Fin-Nor rod beautifully, and was not shy on taking instruction. The 14-kilo king was soon at the gaff and Dan was posing for the camera. He was all smiles.

The bait

Yellowtail or jack mackerel are the most common bait fish around the coast and the easiest to catch, so they are used a lot. Aaron Covavich on the Leigh charter vessel Thor calls them ‘kingfish candy’ and loves dropping them on to the deep reefs around the Mokohinau Islands.

But they do not make the best kingfish bait. Top of the list is probably the blue koheru, found offshore in Northland. These chunky little dudes are like miniature tuna. They are fully of energy and their tails rattle on the deck just like a skippie or yellowfin. It is this incredibly fast tail action that makes them such good live bait, and the charter boys up north are quite happy to drop one in front of a marlin as well.

But for those who don’t have access to koheru, slimy mackerel are the next best thing and they are not far behind for the same reason. Then comes kahawai, then piper then, finally, yellowtails.

Sometimes the kings will eat anything and have been known to take a live maomao or snapper, but usually they are frustratingly choosy and even though you see them swimming round the bait they will often ignore it. In fact the kings you usually catch are the ones you don’t see.

Catching your livies usually entails a berley bag on the surface in shallow water close to an island or reef, and a sabiki rig.

Rigging baits

How the live bait is hooked varies, depending on where it is being fished.

Deep water

For dropping into deep water, like at the Mokes or White Island, it is hooked through the nose so the sinker pulls the bait down head first. The last thing you want to do is hook it on the back so it sinks sideways through the water. This is not only slow and inefficient – and it is important to get the bait down quickly before the boat drifts off the spot – but can also kill the bait.

Shallow water

For fishing on the bottom in water only a few metres deep, for example at Crusoe Rock, it is also hooked through the nose or the tail.

When fishing under a balloon the hook goes through the back just ahead of the dorsal fin. Note the hook is angled backwards as the king swallows the bait head first.


If presenting your bait under a balloon it should be hooked through the back just ahead of the dorsal fin. Do not penetrate the backbone or you will kill it, and always clear any scales off the point of the hook.

Slow trolling

For trolling a bait it can be hooked through the nose, but going through the point of the upper jaw behind the lip.

Kahawai in a work-up like this one off Rangitoto often ignore the traditional green or white plastic trolling lures because they are feeding on small bait. So a small silver spinner or trout smelt fly is needed, trolled or cast on a spin rod with a ball sinker above the sinker to add weight.

Where to fish

Kings like to hang around structures. This could be a channel marker, a post or wharf pile, the rocky shoreline or a reef or pinnacle. They can be found from inside harbours to offshore reefs 200 metres deep, and it is this widespread distribution that makes them so popular and easy to catch.

Some places are well know kingfish haunts while others could be classed as opportunistic locations, like when coming across a work-up. The majority of work-ups will involve kahawai, mackerel or small tuna but there are usually kingfish hanging around the edges. Sometimes the action will involve mainly kingfish, and for the fisherman, such concentrations are like winning Lotto.

They will take whole pilchards floated or cast out, jigs, lures like rapalas, poppers and stick baits and, of course, live baits are quickly snapped up. A balloon will not be needed in this situation; just drift and let out a couple of livies

On large reefs like the Penguin Shoals in the Bay of Plenty or Horn Rock in the Hauraki Gulf, baits can be fished under a balloon, or slow trolled over the reef. Slow trolling also works well along a rocky shoreline or around an island.

Kingfish like current, and headlands or the channel between islands are places to target. The boat can be anchored and baits presented on the surface under a float.
Or with reefs like Crusoe Rock where kings cruise along the edge of the reef, this is the place to target. By fishing the sand right on the edge of the reef, baits can be fished on the bottom as well as on the surface.


Baits can be offered to your quarry in several different ways, depending on where you are fishing.

If fishing from the rocks or an anchored boat close to a reef, it usually involves a float to tether the bait and stop it getting into the weed. This can be a balloon tied to the top of the swivel joining the trace and line, or a makeshift float like a plastic drink bottle.

Dental floss is ideal for tying on a balloon or float, but light monofilament line can be used also. The bait is fished with the reel in free spool with the clicker on to signal a strike and just enough drag to stop the bait pulling off line. Then when a fish strikes, let it take line before pushing up the drag, winding in line until it goes tight and lifting the rod. Winding in is more important than a savage strike on the rod.

Some fishermen like to also drop a bait on the bottom when fishing close to a reef, and a heavy sinker will stop the bait swimming around and tangling other lines. Sinkers can be attached to the bottom eye on the swivel with dental floss so they break off.

When fishing on the surface, the reel will be set on a light drag so fish can take line, but on the seabed it is fished with the drag hard on strike.

When slow trolling, the livie is set about 30 metres behind the boat at about two knots, with the drag set just enough to stop it pulling out line but still light enough so that a fish can take line when it strikes. It is very exciting when a king slashes at the bait, and it is usually preceded by the bait jumping out of the water. They often miss the bait, so just keep trolling slowly and wait for the fish to come back and have another go, and let it swim away before setting the hook.

Kingfish swallow their quarry head first, which is why it is important to let them swim away for some distance, giving them time to turn the bait prior to swallowing it.

The same applies when dropping a bait into deep water, although there are two schools of thought on whether to fish with the reel in freespool and the thumb on the spool ready to react to the slightest pressure and let line slip out, or fish it with a hard drag. Both systems will work and it is a matter of personal preference.

Sammy Tuitupou hooked his first kingfish on a slow-trolled kahawai at the Noises.

Fighting your fish

Once firmly connected there is never any doubt as the fish react quickly to the pressure of the tackle. Kings are without doubt one of the toughest fish that swims, and veteran Whakatane skipper Rick Pollock calls them street fighters. “They fight deep and dirty and will head straight for any weed or rocks - and they never give up,” he says.

So when hooking kings near the bottom it is a question of ratcheting up the drag and hanging on, trying to horse them up away from the rocks.

When fishing close to a shallow reef or rocks a popular technique is to keep a light drag and slowly ease the boat out into deep water, leading the fish away from the hazard. Once in deep water the fight can begin in earnest. In this situation, having the anchor connected to a float so it can be quickly released and picked up later will save time.

During the fight the fish will gain more from a rest than the angler will, so it is important not to ease up on the pressure, and to work the rod to its maximum.

Stand-up tackle is designed for fast short strokes, and the key is short strokes. A skilful stand-up angler will work the rod quickly, dropping it only a few degrees each time and working the reel with short cranks; rather than taking long strokes and dropping the rod all the way down to the water each time.

At the boat a crewman can grab the trace if it is too long to reach the fish, and in this situation the angler should easy off the drag in case the fish breaks away and it can take line. A short line will snap easily if the drag is too tight.

If the fish is going to be kept for eating, it should be gaffed somewhere around the head, so that its energy when it reacts to the gaff shot actually helps drive it upward and into the boat. A big fish is hard to lift sideways if it has been gaffed in the middle of the body, and by the tail is even worse.

If it is to be released and is not a big fish, it can be grasped with the thumb and forefinger by the point of the lower lip and lifted so the hook can be removed. Otherwise use a long-handled net with a wide mouth and net the fish head first.

Another technique used by charter boats, which are usually big boats with high gunwales, is a long-handled gaff which is carefully placed through the skin behind the lip on the lower jaw. It takes practise to perfect the shot, but will not damage the fish and it can be lifted, photographed and released.

The fishery

Kingfish in this country are in good shape in terms of the fishery and as they are large fish, one is sufficient to feed a family or group. While the limit is a generously set at three fish per day, such a quantity is not needed and charter skippers have an unwritten agreement to limit the number of kings they will allow punters to take. They recognise the value of these magnificent fish and what a unique and valuable resource we have in a world where fisheries are coming under immense pressure. So should we all.

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