Words & Images: Mark Gercovich
Perhaps more so than any other species, kingfish require you to specifically target them. The techniques and tackle suitable for most other species rarely cuts it with kings. Incidental hook-ups usually end in disaster as the rig/gear just isn’t up to the task of handling a king, particularly if it is a decent size. While kings can at times be voracious and aggressive feeders, at other times they show great caution. This is when the thinking angler needs to have a few tricks up their sleeve, with multiple rods rigged ready to go for whatever situation may arise. Kingies do love a live bait, but there are times when kings will not touch a livey but will eat a lure. Other times the fish might swim past a live bait and eat a fresh squid strip or, even worse, swim past all of the above on the heavy gear and eat a small piece of squid on a whiting rod. It is this unpredictability that – while at times driving you mad – only adds to the mystique of pursuing kingfish. Let’s look at a few highly effective techniques and rigs, and the situations when to use them, to help you increase your success when chasing kingfish.
Skirt & Squid Strip
As with most species of pelagic fish, trolling is a popular way of targeting kingfish. The major advantage of trolling is that you cover lots of ground. Like any pelagic fish, kingfish – particularly in large numbers – can turn on a frenetic bite where just about anything thrown at them will draw a response. Most times, however, they can be pretty choosy about what they eat and how they go about eating it. You hear of the odd fish being taken on all manner of trolling lures but small skirted lures, in combination with strip baits, are the most popular way of enticing a king to bite when trolling. The skirt helps keep the strip bait from spinning as well as providing a bit of extra flash and bubble. The smell of the fresh strip bait behind the bubble and flash of the skirt is the icing on the cake. Squid is the usual bait of choice but a fresh strip of pike or salmon will also do the job. Whatever bait, make sure the strip is cut long and slim. Always ensure the hooks you use are straight and not offset, and make sure the rig doesn’t spin when trolled.
There is definitely something about an offering skipping along the surface that kings love, but there are times when they won’t come up (in heavy boat traffic) or need drawing up. In this case we add a ‘dredge’ to our trolling set-up. This involves using a bibbed trolling lure more akin to tuna fishing, like an X-Rap Magnum 30. The rear treble is removed and the skirt/squid strip rig or a white soft plastic or tinselly large fly is attached to a short 30-50cm leader behind it. The rig is based on an idea we use for trout fishing, where a hookless cod lure is used to get a smaller trout size lure down to the depths. Mostly they eat the trailing offering but occasionally they hook up on the treble you leave on the bibbed lure.
Poppers can be a great searching tool as the significant splash they provide can help draw unseen kings to the surface. Surface fishing for any species is addictive, doubly so when it comes to kingfish. Having a metre-plus king engulf a popper off the surface is always worth the many casts it can take to happen. The combination of bubble and splash usually gathers the attention of the cruising kings and triggers an aggressive response. Poppers work when cast to sighted schools but have the added ability to draw unseen fish from a distance or the depths, as opposed to other surface lure techniques. Poppers can also work when trolled behind the boat as long as the lure is worked by the angler and not just left in the holder. Good options for this are poppers with large cupped faces that throw a decent amount of water.
The Humble Slug
Another productive trolling technique is to troll Slug-Go-style soft plastics. Trolled at a speed where the lures are skipping on the surface, it can be a deadly technique that doesn’t need fresh bait. Pre-rigged Slug-Gos are a great advantage as they track well in the water, reducing the need for fastidiously straight hook placement. Another key is to make sure you have a swivel attached to the slug to avoid line twist – not just any swivel, but a quality ball bearing swivel that can be attached with a solid split ring. Not only do these lures work well on the troll, but they are also an effective lure when cast. They are best worked quickly across the surface to mimic a fleeing garfish. The cast slug sits between the popper and stick bait, offering a combination of drawing power with its splash, but a bit more subtlety than a popper. When casting soft plastic slug-style lures, there is definitely not the same surface disturbance as a popper. It can be hard work as it requires a fast retrieve to get the lure to skip along the surface imitating a fleeing garfish. If fish have been sighted, a soft plastic slug can be cast over, then cranked through the school, often resulting in the awesome sight of multiple fish climbing over the top of each other to eat it.
Gar-style Stick Bait
Like the plastic Slug-Go, there are also many good garfish imitation stick baits that imitate this favourite kingfish prey. The advantage such lures have over the cast slug is that they are more aerodynamic and cast further. They are also a little bit more resistant to wear and tear than the plastic Slug-Go. Once again, they are best worked quickly across the surface to mimic a fleeing garfish, though a pause or two during the retrieve is sometimes required to get the hook-up. Some effective gar mimic stick baits are the Duo Hydra 175 and 220 and the Jack Fin Stylo.
Fish-style Stick Bait
Some days, if they don’t want the commotion of a popper, or the blinding speed of a surface slug, kings will succumb to the allure of a stick bait slowly doing a seductive side-to-side dance in front of the their nose. Sometimes a big stick bait like the Daiwa Saltiga Dive Star, Jack Fin Pelagus 165-S or Jack Fin Lara 135-S does the trick. Small stick baits can be surprisingly effective, too. The Jackfin Pelagus 90-S has been an excellent producer over the past two seasons. Once again, these lures cast a mile, which can be important in covering the distance to a school you’ve spotted without spooking them by getting too close. Longer rods like the Daiwa Demon Blood S83-2/4 are great for throwing these stick baits a mile.
Pitch Livebait Rig
There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a metre-plus king (or ten) swim all the way to the boat with its nose behind the lure then turn away. Sometimes this happens after one or two fish have already been caught from the school, which is fair enough – big fish don’t get big by being dumb. Sometimes, however, this happens as soon as you come across a school, and the quick-thinking or well-prepared angler who can quickly present a live bait into the mix before the fish departs the scene can often be rewarded. When casting lures at kings, a much shorter leader makes life easier but the longer leader is required when pitching as the fish has more time to assess the offering. At the end of the leader is a live bait hook like a Mustad Hoodlum in 8/0 or a Gamakatsu Big Bait in 6/0. Pin this quickly through the live bait’s nose area – no time for fancy rigging – and send him on his way in the direction of where the kings are, or where you last saw them. Try to keep feeding some line out to keep the bait swimming naturally and not being dragged by the drift of the boat.
Balloon Live Bait /Unweighted Bait
This involves anchoring in a likely area, usually just off the drop-off of a reef or pinnacle. A large, live or fresh bait is then drifted out under a balloon or float, usually in conjunction with a light berley trail. Many kings are taken this way and it provides the opportunity to fill your bag with other desirable species such as snapper, King George whiting or trevally while you wait for a kingfish to come along.A similar technique that works well on smaller kings is to use a cube-style bait/berley combination. A block of pilchards is a perfect and easily accessible bait that can be cubed up and fished as both bait and berley. Make sure you fish light enough to allow the baited hook to sink naturally through the trail but use heavy enough leader/line to manage any king you encounter. A plentiful supply of fresh squid also works well like this, with a couple of decent-sized strips fed out among a steady stream of small pieces. This technique usually works well on smaller kings.
Slow-Trolled Live Bait
Slow-trolling live baits is a bit of a compromise between the trolling and anchor/bait fishing techniques, and best done from a small electric boat. This, of course, has the disadvantage of requiring excellent conditions to be effectively undertaken. It’s also important not to stray too far from a nearby ramp should things go bad. You do cover more ground than being at anchor but are still fairly location-specific, as you can’t cover the ground a normal trolling boat under outboard power will cover. The benefits are you can present baits such as live fish and squid in a very natural manner as well as being able to cast lures around the boat. Baits can be fished unweighted, placed on a downrigger in deeper water or behind a couple of glitter floats in shallow water.
Usually I like to use big lures like the aforementioned popper, slugs and stick baits for kings, but sometimes a smaller jig head-style soft plastic has its time in the sun. I usually like to use this technique on smaller kings that may have been already located and refused bigger offerings. The soft plastic/jig head offering allows you to fish the same lure in a variety of ways. They can be sunk down like a dying baitfish or burnt quickly back across the top all in the same retrieve, depending on what the fish seem to want at the time. Daiwa Bait Junkie Jerk Shads in 5in and 7in, as well as the 4.2 minnow in white pearl, have proven effective with their side-to-side swimming action proving very alluring to the inquisitive kingfish.
So, as you can see, it always pays to be well set-up and have a few options rigged up when targeting kings – and I haven’t even mentioned jigging, a popular king technique but one we usually don’t focus on. Make sure you use quality rods and reels, have your knots tied well, your hooks sharp and robust, and you might come out on top of such a tough but intriguing adversary.