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Yellowtail kingfish on Surface Lures

Yellowtail kingfish aren’t anything new as a premium sportfish, and for southerners they have been at the top of the target list for a long time. What has changed, however, are the target methods. A growing number of anglers are now dedicated to chasing kingfish on topwater presentations, mainly stickbaits and poppers.  Your first topwater king is a massive achievement, and once you have experienced it, you will want to catch them that way at all costs. You have been warned: it is addictive.
Fussy Fighter

Kingfish are particularly susceptible to a topwater presentation but it’s also quite a difficult target method.  Sounds like a contradiction? Well, it is and it isn’t – let me explain.  Whilst kings are incredibly curious and are very likely to inspect a stickbait or popper in their zone, convincing them to strike is a whole other matter.  Yes, they can be extremely careless at times (enjoy those) but more often than not they will carefully examine the lure’s retrieve without committing till the last moment or perhaps not at all.  If you don’t get the strike in the first few casts, your chances go down with each cast that follows until they move on. They are certainly curious but, unfortunately, with a relatively short attention span.  You don’t get a lot of shots at visible fish as a rule.

Searching The Surface

The great news is that anywhere you caught kings on other techniques is a good place to start hunting them on topwater. Sure, fish hanging 70m down may not be the ones I would ideally pin my hopes on, but if they rise to midwater you are definitely in with a chance.  While kings in shallower water may seem easier to pursue, it’s not necessarily true – I’ve taken fish this summer in depths to 45 metres on top.  One aspect of topwater kings is that you can throw to the whitewater edges that are otherwise unfishable with any other conventional method.  This flexibility makes topwater more than a Gucci way to fish – it can also be the only way in some circumstances.  The one thing I would hasten to add is that you will miss opportunities if you don’t keep your eyes peeled.  Kings don’t seem to attract birds to the extent that tuna will, so actually being observant of the signs of kingfish is essential, and the first cast into a school of fish tailing a metre under the surface is likely to get crushed.

You will catch more than 10 fish to 1 from a boat to land-based, but the challenge of land-based topwater kings is at the extreme end of the sport and one you may graduate to.  Many fine fish patrol the edges, effectively out of the reach of boaters, so remember that.

Techniques Of The Rising Sun

The pioneers of this corner of the sport are unquestionably the Japanese, who almost exclusively developed the techniques and specialised tackle.  In the Japanese way, they have refined it and have never stopped perfecting it.  This is where we Aussie anglers can fast-track our learning by going to school on their considerable expertise. This is not a call to arms to purchase a ton of premium Japanese tackle to catch kings on a lure – far from it – but understanding the tackle, rigging and techniques is a smart approach to take.

Remember the bit about kings being very curious but reluctant to commit? There is a basic formula to get those lips unlocked and the Japanese pioneers have mastered it – and that is to excite them so the fish’s natural curiosity turns into a commitment to strike.  There are a few ways to achieve this with a cast lure.  In my order of preference, let’s run through them.

Floating Stickbaits

Floating stickbaits are the most consistent performers.  You are looking for lures that swim and slash before gripping and swimming and most certainly create bubble trails.  Whether it’s highly buoyant timber or plastic doesn’t matter but it must have irregular action and life.  The exact opposite of this style of lure would be a bibbed minnow retrieved at the same speed with limited rod work. It’s the unpredictability that seems to work, creating a situation where that baitfish is getting away, making them feel they need to catch it. Floating stickbaits are usually worked at a medium pace with some variance but can be burnt across the surface reasonably fast.


I generally stay away from big, deep-cupped GT-style poppers (I think it raises them, but the fish then get cautious) but smaller-mouthed poppers or especially diving poppers can create a lot of excitement by long sweeps, short stabs and erratic stop-starts.  The best bit is you can have a bit less topwater experience and still get a great result.  Work these with a slow to medium retrieve and mix up the length of the pause.


These can take a variety of forms from what are basically elongated thin poppers to more gar and needlefish imitations.  These are relatively straight runners but the action is imparted by the rod tip and usually they are worked about as fast as you can wind – and the takes can be explosive.  If kings are proving hard to get fired up, tie one on and burn it.

Sinking Stickbaits

I put these last in my lure guide for a reason but they must be included. Sinking sticks generally lack a bit of life and this plays against a king’s inquisitiveness, but when they are ‘on’ they will be all over them.  Sinking sticks have a definite place when seas are very rough and when land-based, when you might be elevated above sea level, making floating sticks hard to keep in the water – so they certainly have a place.

Before we move on from this, please note that lure size is a factor to consider. Aside from the general premise of matching the hatch, smaller lures will certainly catch you more kingfish over the journey, but big lures will 100% weed out fish to give you a much better average size – 240mm is not too large.

The Tackle System

High-geared (at a minimum of a metre of line retrieved per rotation) premium spin reels are pretty important; they will be working hard and gears need to be strong and drags smooth. I use Shimano Stellas by choice and use sizes 6000 through to 14000 depending on fish size I’m targeting or expecting.  PE line (braid) is the only way to go and will vary from PE3 through to PE8 in line with the reels and leaders, which vary from 60 lbs right through to 200! Yes, it also depends on fish, terrain and pressure.

Now it would be remiss not to mention rods.  For the most part, tuna casting and kingfish casting rods share the same characteristics.  A lightish and active tip is essential to get the life you need from your sticks; too stiff and you will pull lures out of the water too often, too soft and you will have a dull swim.  The rod needs to bend in an almost parabolic curve to help you fight powerful fish but lock up for some solid extraction power when they want to get down and dirty with the reef.  I can’t over-emphasise to choose carefully, as it makes a massive difference.

The final word is persistence: you might get lucky and score one early, but if not, keep presenting lures in the places where you have caught kings before and have faith. If you haven’t scored kings before, topwater is probably not the place where I would recommend starting.

Good luck guys, you will love it when you finally get to watch that green back rise to smash your lure!

Words and Images: John Cahill

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