Fishing the sand flats for kingfish is a relatively new and very exciting salt-fly opportunity that’s quickly gaining traction; Mike Davis explains the basics of this method and why he finds it so appealing.
The kingfish is commonly regarded as our most revered inshore sport fish – the biggest, toughest, schoolyard bully there is and a formidable opponent on any tackle.
During the last decade, a few hardy fly-fishers looking for a different challenge from chasing trout have been working diligently to try and find ways to tackle these fantastic fish with the humble fly rod. Using the many days spent stalking over the years, these guys have begun to unlock some of the intricate secrets to catching the kingfish in the shallows. The result is that several of them have started to consistently hook and land these great fish most days in recent seasons.
New Zealand is blessed with food-rich harbours throughout the North Island, and thanks to the new-found flats fishery of Golden Bay, we actually have a true world-class saltwater fly fishery right on our doorstep that very few people take advantage of.
Once a kingfish is spotted, the sight-fishing on the flats is absolutely nerve wracking – and often very frustrating, too. Most of the fish encountered are in the 5-15 kilo bracket, so while not the biggest specimens, they are still formidable on the fly rod.
The visual aspect of chasing kings on the fly is spectacular, and when it all unfolds, the emotional roller-coaster experienced is similar to the one game fishers experience, where things may go from serenely calm to absolute pandemonium in just a few seconds.
A boat can be useful to drift the flats, but is not a necessity. After all, it’s possible to explore all the harbours with shallow flats that fill up over the high-tide period on foot, and you can often drive to easy-access points. Most of the water is only a metre or so in depth, and often you are walking around in knee-deep water looking for a fin or tail movement.
It is a trade-off: the boat gives you more freedom to explore bigger areas and a higher viewpoint to spot kingfish, but means you’re easier to see as well. There’s also the danger that the water tends to get covered too quickly.
In our region of the Central North Island, covering the area from Coromandel through to the greater Bay of Plenty, kingfish generally enter harbours around late October-early November and stay there in good numbers till the end of May. They feed on the baitfish that fill the harbours once the water temperatures rise.
Most anglers on foot or drifting in boats will target the kingies on the incoming tide; the water flooding in during this tidal stage provides fresh, clear water from the open ocean. This clean water makes it easier to spot the fish on the flats and gives the angler more water to explore.
Baitfish will come up out of the channels onto the flats as the tide pushes into the mangroves and areas of eel grass. Piper, in particular, use the eel grass as cover. Piper is the staple diet for harbour kings, with the former peaking in numbers when the water temperature reaches 18 degrees. As the relationship between piper and eel grass is so important, we now look at Google Earth for areas of eel grass to explore; if we can find the piper then we will often find the kingfish.
By utilising the deeper sandy channels running up along the eel grass beds, you will often see baitfish fleeing from one patch to another, attempting to outrun the kingies. Consequently, if you are prepared to patiently stake out a patch of eel grass, you are likely to encounter kingfish at some stage during the tide.
Don’t just restrict yourself to fishing the incoming high tide. We have caught many kings on a dropping tide, too – when the current is running, there is always a chance.
The biggest benefit of exploring the flats on the outgoing tide is that you learn where all the sand flats’ subtle channels and undulations are. Study where these channels are, especially where they ramp up to structure with patches of grass. When you find current and structure, the kingfish won’t be far away.
Many anglers looking at the flats at full tide just see an expanse of water, so learn about and study the seabed in the area you want to fish. The kings and the baitfish generally show up fairly consistently during each tidal phase, with the current strength determining their presence, so take note of the times and conditions you see them.
Many people may have heard about ‘ray riders’, when kingfish accompany the large black short-tail stingrays. When the stingrays are on the move, they travel at a consistent speed just off the sandy bottom. As the stingrays move forward, they disturb the baitfish and when the baitfish flee, the ever-waiting kingies ambush them with ferocity.
Before we understood the eel grass relationship, all we did was chase the ray riders in the harbour, which made for some long days with no casting if we couldn’t locate the stingrays. The stingrays are vital to success and, once located, they can often have up to four kingies accompanying them.
Due to their large size and black colouration, stingrays can be seen from a fair distance away. However, don’t confuse the black stingray with the more common eagle ray, as these guys very
rarely hold kings. We believe this is largely due to the fact they’re either found sitting stationary on the sea floor or are swimming in the mid-depths, so don’t actually disturb the baitfish.
The hardest part to the equation is locating the kingfish. Once found, provided you have the ability to present a fly quickly and accurately, the kings will generally bite. After all, they’re up on the flats feeding.
Cast directly at the fish or stingray. As soon as the fly hits the water, strip it back as fast as possible. The kingfish, if it takes, will generally be all over the fly within two seconds of casting. When this happens, don’t ‘trout strike’! Instead, STRIP STRIKE by pulling the fly line through your hand, and once the line is tight with the rod bending right through to the butt, hit the fish hard. This will set the hook properly.
Hold on tight, because kingfish run hard – and be prepared to lose 100m of line in the first run. Keep your fingers clear of the reel handle, as the spinning spool will hurt your fingers if the handles hit them.
If a fish is hooked from a boat, draw the king out towards deeper water, but if wading in the shallows , land the fish back on the beach. It is hard to control the kingfish with a fly rod in deep water from the boat – the resulting rod angles are not ideal – but from the shallows the fly rod becomes much more effective and the fish is more easily subdued in the shallows.
I prefer an 8-weight outfit in the harbour, but many use a #10; in this instance the reel is more important than the rod, so never compromise on quality there. These fish will truly test how strong your reel is – if there is any weakness, heartbreak will follow, because gear failure is inevitable. In particular, make sure you use a sealed reel with a great drag.
A floating flyline can be used, but I prefer to fish with an intermediate line. The big difference is that the intermediate starts sinking straight away. This enables your line, leader and fly to track along the same straight line, keeping you in better touch with your fly and any striking fish.
Side winds can often cause a bow to form in a floating line, meaning the angler has little direct contact with the fly if a fish strikes.
Nowadays there are a few saltwater-fly fishing guides who specialise in stalking kingfish. Both Lucas Allen and Julian Danby have become very successful in this field. If limited for time, you will learn plenty by employing these guys to help you out. Hiring a guide will help bypass that frustrating apprenticeship stage. Guides also supply top quality gear and educate clients with useful information such as the most productive tides and sea conditions, as well as the size and colour of effective flies.
We use fairly large flies in 2/0 to 4/0 size. The popper or creasestyle surface flies are becoming very popular: they can be very good when cast at marker poles like a popper lure.
I like to fish piper imitations and keep the colours fairly natural in the harbours. Many of my flies are olive in colour. The fly used is fairly substantial in length and will be anything from 4- to 6-inches long.
Chasing the kingfish has been a fantastic new distraction with the fly rod. But it is a sport where, if you expect to land 20 fish a day, you should go and do something else because you will end up disappointed. I go out with the goal to land one fish a day. Once the fish is landed, I usually head home with a huge smile because it doesn’t get any better.
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