I’d been having a pretty good summer when it came kingfish. Most trips we were catching them and finally I was starting to feel like I was making headway. We’d sussed out the bait, the tackle and the territory they were swimming and it was really paying off. But such successes were all seen on our home turf – the mighty Manukau Harbour. It population of kings play by different rules to their East coast cousins. So when I found myself hooked up to them in the Bay of Islands, it should have been no surprise that they were giving me a fair hiding. Just about everything was different up here. The live baits, the terrain and the tackle we were using were all foreign to me and the fish were taking full advantage of my naivety. Time and time again they were smoking me into the reef and I was suddenly not feeling like the experienced fisherman I thought I was.
I’d been invited to fish up North with the team at Composite Developments, Tom, Nick and Bryce. These are the guys who develop and built some of the best rods in the world – and also import a myriad of tackle brands into NZ such as Okuma, Savage Gear and Flambeau to name but a few. They had asked me along to photograph an exciting new product that they were developing in-house. It was all very cloak and dagger stuff, but the aim was to garner some images for marketing, as well as putting the new product through its paces in a real world situation – and see if it was the game changer they hoped it would be! There were also a few new prototype rods and reels from their suppliers which w e could also put through the wringer. Lets face it, if any item of tackle can stand up to the punishment a New Zealand kingfish delivers, then it’ll pretty much stand up to anything, anywhere!
The guys from Okuma had rented a batch at Oakura for the duration of their stay ( which was a few days longer than mine ). Alongside them, Scott, Mig and the film crew of Fishing and Adventure fame, were bunking next door. Composite Developments are a principal sponsor of the show and had brought along with them a truck load of rods, reels and associated paraphernalia to play with. The large shed out back became a storage and prep room and soon resembled a tackle shop, such was the amount of kit therein. Sending a crew of fisherman inside was much like setting kids loose in a candy store. Eyes were wide, voices chattering excitedly and greedy hands were immediately outstretched. Most of the tackle was made up of familiar models that are currently on the market, but also were a few choice, new gems that instantly caught everyones attention. They were handed around and weighed in the hands. Studied up close, handles spun and drags tested. Then opinions shared on which we found favour with. Okuma in particular have a couple of new reels which although small in size and weight, had immensely capable drag that was silky smooth under-load. I couldn’t wait to give them a work-out on the water the following day!
It was a 5:30am roll call to hit the beach by sunrise the following morning. A short drive over the hill and we launched the big Surtees 7.5m off the beach at Wangaruru. A huge swell that had been pounding the East coast had noticeably subsided and just a gentle roll pushed in across an otherwise flat sea as we motored North around Cape Brett.
As is usual when chasing kingfish, we first had to catch the live-bait. But unlike the West coast where mullet are the holy grail of liveys, we were instead going to use koheru, or ‘koheys’ as everyone was calling them. Just like mullet these fish can be difficult to catch. – and just maybe that’s what makes them so irresistible to predators. We had some good local knowledge on where they might be found, and first up was a spot that had proved successful the previous day. The koheys are apparently wary of direct sun, but this mark was tucked in close below a towering cliff, whilst still offering deepwater below. 30 mins later with not a kohey to be seen, we opted to try elsewhere. Again it was a local knowledge that gave us the tip on where to fish. Another site similar to the first: Deep water tight to the rocks and shaded from the direct sun. Hopefully our luck would improve this time around.
We set the anchor and stirred up the berley bomb from the stern. As a trail of fishy particles descended down with the tide, a school koheys began feeding ravenously beneath us. Using tiny metal Psycho Sprat jigs it was a rapid fire assault on the shoal. Whipping out one precious fish after another and placing them carefully in the live-bait tank. There’s no knowing how long these wee fellas would stay around and it was a frantic 30 minutes of action before the tank was literally full to bursting. Now that we had our bait we could set-off to target our real quarry – kingfish.
The plan was to slow troll our live-baits around an inshore reef. This method was new to me and I was excited at the prospect of trying it out. With 2 oz leads on a running rigs, the baits were bridle rigged and set to swim a few metres off the sea bed. The terrain was steep and swept up steeply to the top of the reef which broke the surface. The skipper set-off at a slow 3 – 4 knot troll with 2 sets off gear deployed from the stern. Initially I was intending to concentrate on the photos, and leave the other guys to man the tackle, but that wasn’t quite how things worked out. Less than 5 minutes had passed before we got our first nibble. Well actually it was more of a smash and grab than a nibble. The starboard side rod was wrenched over and singing line as a kingfish tore off below. I was the closest person to it and instinctively grabbed hold to try and control the fish’s run. This was literally the first time I had handled this particular outfit and had no idea that the drag had been dialled right down. With little resistance, the kingfish had hooked up on the first bite and was now gunning it full speed for the safety of the reef. The reel was a brand new overhead model and I frantically wound down the drag to slow down the run. But it made no difference and I could see that this big angry fish would undoubtedly smoke me unless I could halt its blistering sprint for freedom. I cranked the drag down even further and made the fatal error of hitting the sunset point, where the whole reel locked and the line parted with a loud crack. Lesson 1 for the day . . . . don’t over-tighten the drag.
Ironically the next time I was into a fish the exact opposite happened. It was a similar scenario. A big hit on the trolled koheru and a rod wrenching run from a fiery kingy. This time however, I was determined to go easy on the drag. Unfortunately that was my downfall as the fish was soon into the rocks and the line sheared, once again. It was a simple error made all the possible because I was totally unfamiliar with the tackle I was using.
I took some solace in the fact that I wasn’t the only suffering from a run of bad luck. It was proving to be one of those days when the fish definitely had the upper-hand. Opting to fish with fixed spool reels, rather than overheads seemed to be the principal failing. When live-baiting you need to be able to feed the fish line when it first mouths the bait. Especially so when the boat is trolling as the bait is being towed away from the fish. The ideal set-up for this is an overhead, lever drag model reel. The drag can be set so the reel wont give line on the troll, but any extra pressure from a kingy will release line from the spool. So why, you may wonder, were we using fixed spool reels, where switching between light drag and heavy is a relatively slow process? It was all in the aim of testing and photographing the new products. And as when trying out anything new, it can take some fieldwork and experimentation to refine the best techniques. – And we did eventually get it right:
Bryce came up with the idea of releasing the bail-arm whilst trolling, but holding the line with his finger ( as if casting ). This meant that as soon as he got a bite he could feed line easily from the spool. Then as soon as the fish had swallowed the bait, flip-over the bail arm and be connected to the kingfish at full drag. We also learned that gunning the engines as soon as the weight came on, to drag the fish off into deeper water was the best way to avoid more line breakages. So long as you were quick enough to move into safe water, before a fish could turn tail, then you were in with a fighting chance.
So now we had caught, our bait, found the fish and fought them away from the reef, we might reasonably assumed our catch right would improve somewhat. But we hadn’t taken into account the sharks! Now that the fish were on the hooks longer, the sharks were in on the action and as soon as a kingfish neared the boat, – just at that very point where you thought the battle was won – the dogs of the deep came racing in and decapitated the catch. It was pretty gut-wrenching to watch. We did manage to speed-haul a few of the smaller fish up fast enough to avoid the bronzies, but I lost count of how many fish we lost to either the rocks below of the taxmen above.
Despite the perils and pitfalls it was a spectacular day out. Gin clear seas below and blue skies above. Spectacular scenery and the challenge of tackling kingfish using brand-new gear over unfamiliar terrain – and mastering the right techniques to getting them in the boat. Fishing is always a learning experience – and this trip more so than most.