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Posted 09th June 2023

How to Catch Kingfish: a complete guide

How to Catch Kingfish: a complete guide
How to Catch Kingfish: a complete guide

By Robert Thornton

When we think of tough fish, our imagination usually drifts northwards to the tropics, where big speedsters like giant trevally and other toothy predators prowl along reef edges looking for their next victim. It might surprise you, then, that arguably one of the toughest fish can be found along the bottom of our vast continent.

Yellowtail kingfish hold a legendary status in the angling world, not least for their dirty and dogged fighting abilities. Kingies seem to attract a masochistic brand of anglers who enjoy the challenge of duelling with one of the strongest fish for their size in the world, but winning the physical battle is only part of it. These fish are also known for their cunning, and tendency to frustrate and confuse some of the most skilled anglers.

A Royal Welcome

Yellowtail kingfish, usually referred to kingfish or simply ‘kingies’, are part of a large world-wide family that includes trevallies, darts and scads. In Australia, kingies inhabit southern waters from Central Queensland in the east to about Perth in the west, including in Tasmania and southern islands. They are also found in New Zealand and parts of the Asian North Pacific, however this northern variety is said to be a separate species. 

Kingies are known to migrate huge distances, and Daiwa Australia’s Joshua Davey from Adelaide, who also has a background in fisheries research, has witness the extent of this firsthand.

“We’ve had fish originally tagged in South Australia get recaptured along the Mid-North Coast of NSW,” he says, “And it’s not just one or two – there’s been quite a few fish recorded doing big runs like this.”

Very little is understood about kingfish migration and reproductive behaviour, and it’s anglers like Joshua and others with a vested interest that have started to fill in the blanks about this enigmatic species.

Where is the King?

If you want to know how to catch kingfish, you first need to be able to find them. Finding a patch of kingies can sometimes be the easy part, as Joshua can attest.

“A lot of the time they’re not hard to find,” he says “but I can sometimes do weeklong trips and not turn a reel, despite actually seeing them in the water.”

There are a few key ingredients when looking for kingies, and the first one is structure. Structure can be anything, including old jetties, rocky headlands, offshore pinnacle in deep water, and marker beacons. The second is good water clarity, as kingfish are sight hunters with speed on their side. Coffs Harbour-based Daiwa Pro-Team member Sam Gilchrist looks for “nice bluey green water with about 15m of visibility” around the offshore islands where he targets them. The third is bait, and as with a lot of fishing for large predators, finding where the bait is will always help to narrow down your search. The fourth ingredient, and probably the most important, is current. As Joshua puts it, you want “as much current as you can find.”

“I once tested this theory and targeted them in a few unfamiliar places with lots and lots of current,” Joshua explains, “and I caught them!”

Applying this theory interstate, it’s clear that kingfish follow these principals in most places. The Rip (the opening of Port Phillip Bay in Victoria), so named for of its fiercely strong current, is an area reputed for kingfish, and it’s a similar story for other main ocean entrances, headlands, coastal bars and straits. 

Chokepoints like these that smaller fish, cephalopods and crustaceans need travel through, are therefore great areas to find kingfish, and always worth closer inspection if you’re looking for your own little patch.

Kingfish on Lures

Kingies respond to a variety of lures, with lure choice usually depending on the location, average size, food source and behaviour of the local kingfish population.

Casting large lures like stickbaits and poppers, and jigging with either slow-pitch or high-speed knife jigs are probably the most popular luring techniques for big kings. Smaller kings can also be targeted using less specialised techniques, such as working soft plastics and smaller topwater lures on lighter spin gear. They will also eat saltwater flies!

Kingfish can be landed on all sorts of tackle, however when going after the oversized models, some tackle just won’t cut it. Split rings and swivels rated to 150lb are considered the minimum when battling with these green barrels.

“If there’s a weakness in your set up, they will find it,” Josh stresses, “Nothing prepares you for how hard a big king fights.”

Jigging for kingfish is a popular technique in offshore areas, and for this brutal style of fishing, Joshua doesn’t skimp on quality.

“For jigging I use a Spartan S55 PE 4-6, and that’s got a 10000 Certate SW with 65lb J-Braid Grand on it.” Joshua explains, “The reason I use that is because it’s a lot more comfortable to use than a PE 8 outfit, and far more forgiving when I’m using 300g jigs, but it still has power to land a big king.”

Sam on the other hand doesn’t like to leave anything up to chance, and given the jagged topography of the ground he fishes, it’s not surprising.

“For heavy jigging I have a Spartan S54 PE 6-8 with a Saltiga 18000,” Sam explains,  “On this I have 100lb braid and generally run a 170lb leader.”

Sam also runs a PE 4-6 Spartan and 14000 Saltiga as his “lighter” set up.

Casting stickbaits and poppers is another incredibly brutal and exhilarating style of luring for this species, and Sam uses different rod series for stickbaits and poppers. He likes to use the Spartan S80 and S85 for smaller and larger stickbaits respectively, as the slightly softer tips on the Spartans give the stickbaits more action.

“I use a Demon Blood S85 PE 6-8 for poppers because while it’s not a genuine popping rod, I find the firmer tip is much better for really jabbing that popper and making a big sound,” Sam explains.

Kingfish on Bait

It’s no secret that the biggest kings are almost always taken on live baits. Live baiting for big kings isn’t any less challenging than lure fishing, in fact, many seasoned king chasers will tell it’s just as hard, if not harder! Once again, your terminals need to be up to scratch, with 7/0-12/0 circle or live bait style hooks (depending on the size of the bait) the go-to for both Joshua and Sam.

Large kingfish will often come in and examine a bait, but if they see anything even slightly unnatural about it, they can turn their nose up at even the most meticulously rigged livey. That’s why it’s important to pin your livies so they have as much freedom of movement as possible.

Many different live baits will work for kings, with classic live baits like garfish, slimy mackerel and yakkas rigged unweighted, downrigged or ballooned accounting for lots of kings. When chasing the monstrous 20kg-plus models though, critters that are themselves sporting targets for light tackle anglers are on the menu for kings. Legal Australian salmon and tailor, calamari and bonito are commonly called on to ring the dinner bell for giant kingfish. Rigging these livies up, keeping them alive on board, and only deploying them once a concentration of big kings is found, is how most of the biggest kingfish are caught. Some anglers will also either slow troll or drift an unweighted livey while they prospect with a casting rig.

“I like to fish heavier when live baiting,” Josh says, “My go-to live bait rig is a Demon Blood S56 PE 6-8 and 14000 Saltiga.”

“I’ve got that spooled with PE 8 Saltiga 12,” he continues, “and with this rig I know I can put as much hurt on the fish as I’m physically able and I’m not gonna break anything.”

Sam also likes to use shorter rods for bait fishing, opting to use his two jigging set ups as live baiting outfits.

“Quite often these days I’ll set up a drift with a bait on a downrigger release clip fixed to the boat,” Sam says, “I do this so I can keep the reel in free spool or with a light drag, and a when king eats it, the line will pop off the clip and the king can pull line and swallow the bait.”

“At the same time,” he continues, “I’ll be throwing topwaters around, and I’ve found that if I have kingies following my lures but not eating them, the baits drifting just behind the boat are a good back up.”

Fit for a King

Kingfish really are the gangsters of the south and have a well-deserved reputation for brutality and toughness much like dogtooth tuna and giant trevally in the north. Every part of the kingfish experience is challenging, but when you finally wrestle a big green behemoth to the boat, ledge or platform you’re standing on, those hours rigging, collecting live baits or casting heavy lures will be forgotten.

Both anglers clearly have a deep reverence for these fish and agree that there’s nothing else out there quite like a big kingy.

“I’ve caught 100kg southern bluefin tuna, and a big kingie would pull them backwards,” Joshua says.

“There’s a mystique about them,” Sam adds, “and they pull harder than anything else.”







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