Andy Macleod sings the praises of ‘rat’ kings, and suggests ways of hooking more of them using the appropriate tackle to provide some memorable and enjoyable fights!
New Zealand is envied the world over for its yellowtail kingfish fishery. Australia has them too, but not in the abundance or size we can boast this side of the Tasman. However, while much of the talk concerning kingfish is about taming monster-sized fish that fry reels, shred line and break angler’s hearts, I’d like to talk about the smaller ‘rat’ kingfish (in my mind ‘rats’ refer to kingfish less than about 10 or 12 kilos) often found in good numbers around our coast at certain times of the year. Saltwater fiy anglers are already well aware of this world-class light-tackle fishery, but these fish can be just as much fun on light spinning or soft-baiting outfits.
I’ve recently returned from a short trip to Opotiki, where I again tangled with some spirited rats that ran out plenty of line from my light spin set and, upon finally being netted by my fishing buddy, gave me a huge sense of satisfaction.
Rat kingfish are a staple in the rock fishermen’s berley trails around the North Island and northern parts of the South Island. Attracted by the berley and feeding baitfish, these rat kingfish are typically more common, less wary and more willing to bite that their bigger cousins. Over the years I’ve seen dozens and dozens of rats landed on the rocks, whereas bigger kingfish (over 13kg say) only come around now and again. In my opinion, the very best way to catch these rats is on light spinning or stray-lining gear, as this tackle allows them to display their full fighting qualities (by comparison, catching them on heavy LBG gear selected for big kingfish offers a short and one-sided tug of war that doesn’t do a lot for my sporting sensibilities).
As I’ve already mentioned, rats commonly turn up in berley trails, harassing the smaller baitfish and sucking in juicy morsels of berley, with pilchard cubes also often deployed to keep them in the area. Naturally they are also attracted by live baits; there is nothing like a live piper, jack mackerel or juvenile kahawai to earn a hook-up on rat kingfish. However, the problem with livebaiting gear is that it generally pays to be prepared for ‘the biggest kingfish in the neighbourhood and, as already mentioned, this is hardly sporting when rats are involved. Nevertheless, live baits – even bigger live baits they have no hope of swallowing – do help to bring them into your area, and when this happens the opportunity to flick a lure or stray-line bait right in front of their noses is on offer.
My preferred method is the stray-line bait, as this maximises the chances of a hook-up (there is a lot of focus on live baiting and popper fishing for kingies, but from the rocks I’ve seen many more caught on stray-lined baits).
I’ve written previously about catching big fish off the rocks with my 6kg spinning set, and this includes rat kingfish up to about 10kg. Not only that, but I actively target such fish with this setup, and I genuinely try and keep it light, using 6kg mono line with a 1.5m length of 40lb (18kg) trace on the end. This line configuration works in three ways: allowing small baits to be cast with ease; providing some protection from abrasion at the ‘business end’; and for the stretching qualities of mono to work in my favour.
Some people call me mad, considering this massively underequipped for landing any sort of fish over about 5kg in rugged territory. Certainly my approach goes against conventional wisdom, but I’ve learned a few tricks that see me leaving very few kingfish trailing lengths of mono around the sea, and my light gear gets me more bites than heavier line ever would.
An observation I’ve made over the years is that the harder you strike kingfish, the harder they pull back, especially at the start of the fight. I believe a hard strike startles them into action, and whilst this is alright when you have the gear to stop them, this is not the case with light gear. For this reason I prefer a firm but gentle strike and a moderate drag at the fight’s start. At its best, this approach allows us to slowly fatigue an almost unsuspecting fish and completely avoid the truly scorching runs that kingfish are known for. But all things being equal, you probably will experience that bulldozing run at some stage, and it’s important not to panic. Any kingfish worth its salt will make for the nearest rock and weed upon discovering it’s hooked, and when fishing from the shore there is always plenty of this about! The trick here is to apply only a moderate drag, serving two main purposes. First, it reduces pressure on the line as it runs over underwater rocks, and two, it helps to bring the fish back up in the water column, helping the line to clear the rocks and weed. Unlike big snapper and trevally, I find kingfish do come back up the water column after that first run towards the bottom. Notwithstanding, it is surprising just how much punishment 6kg line can take if you keep your drag settings light.
Upon tiring, rats tend to stay up in the water column, or at least struggle to scorch down deep again as they did early on in the fight. Once you feel the fight’s turned in your favour, tighten up the drag and take every turn on the reel possible. Even now your light rod will be bent over double and the mainline stretched like a guitar string, but it’s critical to place all your faith in your knots and equipment and take your time. In my experience fights on kingfish of 6-7kg can last a good 10-15 minutes, rising a few minutes with every extra kilo. True to form as stubborn fighters, you must be prepared for determined runs all the way through the fight, and be ready to loosen that drag back again should the fish reach rock and weed. You also need to be light on your feet so the line is kept clear of dry rocks at all times – 6kg line will survive a few scrapes across wet, weed-covered rocks, but not dry, barnacle-covered rocks above the waterline.
For this type of fishing I recommend a decent landing net rather than a gaff. The legal size for kingfish is 75cm (which is a pretty decent fish when you think about it), with a net maximising your chances of securing the fish and safely releasing it to fight another day.
As I’ve touched on before, coastal rock platforms provide a great place to target rats, but harbour wharves can be very productive, too; those that put you out over a sandy bottom offer particularly good options.
While I don’t favour the use of braid in rugged rock fishing environments, as it lacks the abrasion resistance of nylon, resulting in the loss of more fish, in this instance it’s a much better option. Being light and thin in diameter, it allows baits to be presented very well and attracts plenty of bites, while the lack of stretch means it’s excellent for setting the hook and feeling every pulse of the fight. That’s a lot of good qualities.
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