What to do when livebaits are hard to catch

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Scott Cushman
January 2007

When fishing for kingfish from the rocks or in the boat, fresh live baits are always welcomed as the best offering for the kings. But the kahawai, piper or mackerel that are favoured do not always play ball and can prove frustrating to catch. There are some tricks that will help put the livie on the end of your kingfish tackle.

The dorsal and tail fin of the kingfish cut the water five metres away from the bright red balloon, but of course it wasn’t the balloon it was stalking but the kahawai under it. The live bait suddenly saw what Gregg and I saw and looked extremely uncomfortable, swimming in many different directions but not going any where. Gregg ran to his rod and started yelling at me to get my live kahawai out of the way, but in the interests of historical documentation I kept my eye glued to the camcorder, recording the action and anticipating Mother Nature to take its course hopefully in spectacular fashion.

Gregg’s yelling became more frantic as the king closed in. When I sensed my friendship was probably on the line, I ran down to relieve the anxiety in Gregg’s voice and move my kahawai away from the unraveling action. Secretly I think Gregg was afraid the king would pick up my kahawai’s distress signals and take my livie instead. The large yellowtail made a half-hearted attempt to get the kahawai’s head between its jaws’s, failed and disappeared.

Survival instincts - Kahawai can easily shake a heavy lure out of their mouths and occasionally baited hooks will also become dislodged.

Another king appeared, this time eyeing my live kahawai. The kahawai correctly interpreted the king’s attention as hunger and realized it wasn’t safe in the water any more. Strangely though it followed some ancestral urge to experience life on land and splashed onto the seaweed away from the king. Perhaps that’s how evolution started – with a small fish escaping a big fish on to dry land. The only thing that evolved in this case was the kahawai’s re-introduction to the kingfish and he joined his ancestors. Unfortunately the 30kg trace snapped on the strike (I’d rather blame Black Magic than an oversight in my knot tying ability of course) and that was that.


Live baiting for kingfish and other sport or table fish starts with live bait. Many, if not most of us were introduced to catching sprats and similar game by family members, either on sunny weekends or while on holiday at a local wharf. With the aid of berley and bread it’s usually not too hard to attract a swarm of small scaly friends to your location. Kahawai also respond well to a berley trail and are probably the most widely used live bait when targeting kings off the rocks.

They are usually fairly easy to catch, however sometimes conditions don’t favour the fisherman and we are empty handed before a kingfish turns up and the opportunity is missed. Success in part depends on having a live bait in the water for as long as possible (and as soon as possible) in the fishiest looking location. This could be the eddy on the edge of a strong current or simply a clear part of the ledge you are fishing away from obstructions.

Many fishermen like to spin up a live bait or two as soon as they hit their preferred rock spot. Don’t forget to set up your kingfish rig first though – unless you have a rock pool or kids’ swimming pool ready to release your kahawai into when you land it. Several times in my zeal I have started spinning only to realize I still had to set up my kingie outfit before I could get the live bait out! A gasping kahawai on the rocks does little to help your rigging technique when you know a hungry kingfish is lurking nearby.

The sliding lure rig – note the two strands of nylon attached to the swivel. One goes to the lure and one independently goes to the hook. If the kahawai jumps, the lure slides harmlessly out of the way.

When compared to bait fishing spinning has the advantage of being able to cover a larger area of water, and it’s uncommon for a kahawai not to strike at a lure if it sees it. A disadvantage is that unless you are using a light (10-30g) lure it can be easy for the kahawai to flick the lure out of its mouth on a head-shaking jump.

When I am fishing some of the more exposed, deeper ledges where bigger game lurk, I tend to spin with heavier gear (12kg) so that I can subdue and deploy my live baits quickly. It also means where there may be a greater risk of being caught by a wave if I am close to the edge, I can usually swing my kahawai up onto the rocks in one move. I have been able to do this with fish of up to 3kg. This can put extra strain on the gear but it is safer for the angler. Heavier line means a heavier lure (80-100g) to get good distance and balance with the rest of the outfit.

The down side is that unless the kahawai are extremely well hooked, you will lose more than you land. While live baiting at Spirits Bay a few years ago we found ourselves in the middle of a howling five-day easterly storm with 40 knot winds raking the coast. Sporadically 30 knot gusts would blow down toward rod holders’ ledge and cause us to lean forward just to stay on our feet. I counted the number of hits I got that day from the gangs of kahawai that cruised past our ledge. After 24 hits, I had landed 11 fish, and lost the rest on a 70g lure.

A kahawai being played on light gear on a shallow east cost ledge. When the swell is a threat, a longer rod with heavier gear may be needed to ensure safety and a quicker capture.


I had a worse experience at a similar kind of ledge in Doubtless Bay. We had kingfish following our hooked kahawai so of course we were extremely anxious to land one. Yet after 12 hits I had landed only one fish. Then I couldn’t use it because it had taken the lure down deep and damaged the gills.

It was very disheartening as it was obvious the kingfish wanted to play but the lures were just not working. This led me to re-think my set up. I tried a 60g lure but found it caused more bird’s nests as I was fishing with a Penn 535 overhead reel, and only got two-thirds the distance.

I remembered reading about a set up that had a lure sliding along the line so that once a fish was hooked, any head shaking would mean the lure slid out of the way.

I contemplated this concept then rigged up again, this time I ran two lines from my swivel, one to the ring at the head of the lure then a separate line that went from the same swivel and down through the tail ring. I then took the hook off the split ring at the tail and tied it to the line that was threaded through the ring. This way, when a kahawai hit the lure the hook would stick but the lure would slide back up the line and not swing with the fish’s head shakes. My hook up rate was the same, but my landing rate went from 8% to 90%.

This is useful in situations that call for heavier lures and I would recommend trying this set up as getting a live bait into the water as soon as possible can mean the difference between a very heavy sack and an empty one.

How to fish for your livies can be a hard decision. Do you spin and cover more water, or do you go with berley and bait to get that first livie into the kingfish zone?

If the water you are fishing is nice and clear and it is a deep ledge with lots of current then spinning may yield more immediate results.

However, brackish water or shallow terrain with a lazy current may favour the berley and floating bait approach as the kahawai will smell a trail better than seeing a lure unless the lure passes very close by them.

The advantage of using cut bait for kahawai is that it doesn’t present the same danger of the fish throwing the hook. But on the down side unless you are using a circle style hook the chances of hooking the fish deeply in the gills can increase.


I have also found that the sweep, maomao and small reef fish in the berley trail will demolish the bait before a cruising kahawai can have a decent go. This is more the case when fishing shallower ledges and the berley scent may have to drift into deeper water further out to attract passing kahawai. In these situations I may attach a small or medium float two feet above my bait and cast it out as far as I can. This can put my bait over deeper water where the smaller fish may not be searching for food, and is more likely to be available when a passing kahawai mooches by.

When catching smaller fish like mackerel, yellow-eyed mullet and piper, I discard the popular suicide or O’Shaughnessy style of hook and instead use trout hooks. These hooks penetrate a lot better and although they rust more quickly, increase my success rate considerably over the other thicker styles of hook.

Small trout hooks have needle points to easily penetrate a bait fish’s mouth.

Usually I will use a 4kg outfit with a loop in the 4kg attached to a swivel then 50cm of 2.7kg line before attaching a size 12 standard trout hook. I prefer pipis or maybe kahawai for bait. Pilchard comes off more quickly and dough can be effective for piper if you attract them first with berley. When fishing for piper I will often attach a float and watch carefully for movement.

With a bit of practice and careful observation you will be able to discern the difference between simple wave action moving the float and when a piper is mouthing the bait. I find if I strike too late the piper has often swallowed the hook and becomes useless as a live bait. Seeing the piper approach the bait is even better, as you can usually gauge the best time
to strike – as soon as the bait is sucked
and disappears. A swift (but not vicious) flick of the rod and constant pressure (i.e. don’t drop the rod after the strike) should see a wriggling translucent kingfish delicacy in your possession. And they love live piper.


If you do happen to be in the unfortunate situation of finally landing a live bait after much frustration and it has swallowed the hook, carefully cut the line and put it on any way. It may last long enough to get eaten, and in the meantime you can keep trying. One day on a Sydney rock ledge I had finally landed a mackerel after ten undesirable reef fish, only

to find it had the hook embedded in its throat near the gills. I chewed the trace and hooked it through the back before gently tossing it out. Ten minutes later a boil and scattering of small fish near my float signaled some kind of predator in the vicinity and then my reel screamed. Striking a few seconds later I was into a fish and soon after I swung a silvery cobalt 4kg bonito onto the rocks. The guy spinning beside me had landed a few smaller bonito, and exclaimed with a little surprise it was one of biggest he had seen landed from that ledge.


A few words on catching squid are also pertinent as these rubbery little creatures are worth trying for live bait, particularly in areas where there may not be too much current. They are not strong swimmers with a hook in their backside but kingfish can’t help themselves when they see one struggling. They are often caught on squid jigs fashioned to look like a prawn but I prefer to catch them with a squid pin instead. These have the same evil looking, needle like spikes in two rows at one end, and at the other end of the thin metal rod there is a hole to attach your line.

If you look at the squid photo, you will see how it works – you take a pilchard, push the whole end first into the mouth of the pilchard and up through the tail. Then attach your line. You can then either cast and slowly retrieve, or set it under a float and wait for Mr. Squid to find your bait.

A squid pin baited with pilchard is deadly when squid are present. Either cast and slowly retrieve, or set under a float.

Squid pins aren’t common in every tackle shop but are worth carrying for when you want to target them. They are difficult to keep in your tackle bag without spiking your fingers on retrieval, or generally catching everything in sight. To store safely, cut out the bottom of a film canister, then attach the cap back on. Push the squid pin in spiky end first, then when you want to use it pop the cap and push through. This helps store it safely and removes the threat of pricking valuable live bait balloons and avoiding rock rage when every balloon bursts or won’t stay inflated.

Catching large predators like kingfish can be hard without the aid of live bait and sometimes catching live bait can be the hard part! When you are challenged with tough conditions think your way through them as there are often solutions at hand. When you are able to adapt and capture the fish you are targeting it gives you that little bit extra satisfaction.

An important ingredient for success is which choice of live bait will bring the quickest results. When we find ourselves in the happy situation of being able to choose from a variety of live baits, there will often be one bait that a predator will choose while ignoring the others. If you are fishing with mates, choosing the best live bait will mean you get hit first. Even when you start to set up your gear you may be wondering what to target first – kahawai, piper or squid? It is often trial and error, but you will see patterns emerging if you spend the time at a location in a variety of situations. For example being able to fish two sets of live bait has its advantages, however if everything goes off at once you may be in a spot of bother. Make sure your rods are tied down securely if you want to try this.

Guide To Live Baits

Here is a rough guide to get you started and experimenting with your own live baits.

LOCATION TYPE A – Rocky headlands that have deep water in close and are hit with ocean currents (i.e. Places like Spirits Bay, Cape Reinga, Bergahns Point). I would also include most west coast ledges in this category.

Live Bait: Kahawai will be the easiest to catch and are a strong live bait that will not get swept away with the current or swells. This means you will have a bait in the strike zone longer. There may be an eddy of quiet water on the down current side that kingfish or sharks may frequent looking for an easy meal, in which case a mackerel (slimy, jack or blue) sitting quietly could also be used. However they usually cannot tow a long heavy leader (100kg+) around for too long like a kahawai can if that is the kind of equipment you need to be using. If you are in a situation where the universe is aligned in such a way that blue water currents are pushing schools of bait fish in to your ledge and predators like yellowfin tuna are around, I would try a small kahawai (if you can catch one!!) or large mackerel on 50-60kg leader, preferably fluorocarbon. To get a decent drift, a reel full of 24-37kg braid and a short (50 metre) length of mono would give the livie a good chance of swimming out into the action. If a striped marlin grabbed it you would still be in with a chance of landing it.

Rock pools make great live bait tanks if your baits need to be kept alive for any length of time. Children’s inflatable paddling pools also make good live bait tanks.

LOCATION TYPE B – Shallow rocky areas that have kelp beds close in, or ledges that receive gentle current. (i.e. A lot of ledges at Coromandel, Leisure Island / Mt Maunganui, the inside ledges at Doubtless Bay).

Live Bait: A mackerel is a good choice or fresh live squid, as these places may still need a heavy trace to prevent a kingfish from cutting you off on the rocks (75kg+). If the immediate area is fairly clean, then a live piper on a lighter trace (24-30kg) would then be my number one choice. A kahawai is also fine, but if you had a choice the piper would be the better bet. I have yet to witness a kingfish swim past a live piper.

LOCATION TYPE C – Harbours or quiet bays (i.e. Manukau Harbour, Rodney district / Kawau area). Wharves in harbours are often visited by kingfish, or have john dory hanging around them. Piper again are a top choice, however a mackerel would be a good second choice with a small kahawai ahead of a yellow-eyed mullet (sprat) if the other two were not available.

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