Times have changed. No longer are we cursing a hungry kahawai that nails a hook destined for some other species but rather enjoying the fight against one of our old mates from the sea. In the case of the kahawai the saying 'we don't know how good we have it until it's gone' is right on the money and only now, after years of poor numbers, small fish and minimal catches are we realising the value of this wonderful species.
Kahawai are a surface schooling fish and were an easy target for the large commercial fishing boats that swooped in during the 1970's and wreaked havoc on the population. The kahawai population never had a chance as huge purse seiners who, with the help of spotter planes, found and caught a staggering amount of fish that were sent offshore for a horrifically low price where they were used as crayfish bait and fish meal. At one stage in the late 1980's, the amount of kahawai being caught by commercial fishing peaked to 9,610,000kg in one year. This number dropped off slightly over time before kahawai were put into the Quota Management System (QMS) in 2004 which introduced some protection for the species, although sport fishing advocates argue that the quota has been set too high and a protracted court battle has ensued.
Unfortunately it was clear that the damage had been done and the fish that was once considered a nuisance through its abundance was becoming harder and harder to find. So bad was the problem that in 2007 NIWA scientist Bruce Hartill launched a large-scale programme to investigate the health of New Zealand's kahawai population. The stock assessment conducted by Bruce used 32 scenarios across New Zealand to calculate kahawai numbers in various areas of the country.
Fortunately for both kahawai and New Zealand recreation fishermen, Bruce felt every factor was pointing towards a slow increase in the species' population. He said the quick-growing nature of the fish (reaching sexual maturity in around three years) means they can increase their population much faster than other species and have been able to bounce back to more sustainable numbers. Bruce also sees kahawai as an 'iconic New Zealand species' and was happy to hear that recreational fishermen are coming across more and more fish.
Although current factors look positive, Bruce said "people should be careful when comparing the numbers of kahawai they are seeing to previous years, as they enjoy colder water and may become scarce during a warmer season."
When looking at the figures it is plain to see the big change in kahawai numbers being allocated to commercial fishing boats. In 2009, commercial fishing claimed a total of 2,305,000 kg in New Zealand, just a little less than the Total Allowable Commercial Catch (TACC) of 2,728,000 kg set by the Ministry of Fisheries that year. This is nearly seven million kilos less than the amount being caught 20 years ago.
Fortunately for anglers, the Ministry of Fisheries allows recreational fishermen to catch even more than this with 3,073,000kg allocated each year. Another 912,000 kg is also set aside for customary use.
All these figures are put in contrast when looking at the annual allocation for snapper being caught in New Zealand. In 2009, 6,357,300kg of snapper were allocated to commercial fishing, and they actually caught 44,577kg more than they should have. Less than half this amount (3,092,000kg) was set aside for recreational fishing with 73,000kg allowed for customary use.
The rationale behind this difference is clear when the export values of the species are compared. In 2008 960,000kg of kahawai were exported at a measly $1.30 per kilo and brought in just $1.34 million that year. This is small fry when put up against the massive 3,460,000kg of snapper that was exported the same year at $9.36 per kilo, bringing in $32.36 million from exports alone!
A valuable species
So to the government kahawai are clearly of no real commercial value, but it's a much different story when it comes to Kiwis sitting out on their boats with rods in the water. The little fighters are a gift to fisho's as they are often prolific, are easily caught and put up one of the toughest pound-for-pound scraps around. They are one of the few local fish to get airborne when trying to spit out a lure or bait and are a great species to target when teaching children the finer techniques of tackling a fighting fish. They also don't carry the disappointment following a bust-off. As they say - 'there are plenty more fish in the sea', and with the recent surge in kahawai numbers, if one gets away there is little to worry about.
New Zealand Recreational Fishing Council's President, Geoff Rowling, still feels there is a long way to go before we start seeing the kahawai numbers of 20 or 30 years ago. Geoff, now in his 50's, remembers a time when there was not a day that went past without him seeing a school of kahawai.
"Now days if there is a school of kahawai seen it's a real event," he said. 'And the children of today think this is normal!"
Geoff feels it is this complacent attitude that is leading New Zealand down a dangerous path.
"It's not just about a few greedy fishermen sitting out in boats but the way we access and best utilise our natural resources. People have to remember that although things may be looking a little better at the moment, they will not stay that way unless we constantly fight and protect our fishing." Due to the poor returns that kahawai offer commercially, Geoff wants more focus to be put on 'flyfishing tourism' with kahawai one of the main targets.
"We're not about reducing economic activity, but rather trying to change the way we look at fishing.People come from all over the world and pay to go flyfishing for trout. Why can't the same be done for kahawai? Kilo for kilo they are much better fighters than trout and people will be able to catch and release them all day long. Surely that's a better way to make money from them than selling them for crayfish bait!"
So they're back, and with winter now upon us it seems that kahawai are an excellent source of exciting fishing and a tasty meal if prepared properly. Most people have their favoured methods of catching kahawai but the guess-and-check theory should always be kept in mind. If trolling alongside a boil-up the kahawai will generally only strike if the lure is a close resemblance of the bait fish they are chasing. The best way to check if you are on the money is to inspect the stomach contents of the first catch and then change the lure to suit. If the kahawai has clearly been feeding on anchovies then it is going to be best if you use your best resembling lure to an anchovy as you can bet that all his mates in the school will be chasing the same thing.
But it is not usually this hard and fishermen often connect to a kahawai while their rig, destined for the bottom, is snatched mid-water and taken for a run. This can be a soft bait, lure or cut bait that is meant for snapper but is always a keen target for a hungry kahawai. My preferred method of catching a kahawai is on the lightest gear possible and casting a soft bait into a work-up. The thump and run of a big kahawai gets the blood pumping when the light line is peeling off and the little reel is screaming. It is also an especially impressive sight when their sleek form breaks through the surface and puts on a bit of a show.
Finding kahawai is really simple - just look for a work-up and they're bound to be there in abundance. By drifting near the work-up you should see sign in mid-water on your fish finder, this is a clear indication that you are in the money and a landed fish shouldn't be too far away. Chances are that if you are fishing close in to shore or around rocks there will also be kahawai in the area. As it goes in fishing however, nothing is guaranteed and you may be in the perfect spot and not catch anything. In this situation, experiment with different lures.
What we must make sure of is that we don't repeat the mistakes we have made in the past and that we hold on to some respect for this species. Just because they are found everywhere doesn't mean they are any less of a fish. Fishermen in Asia and the United States would give anything to have a species such as the kahawai in their waters. Even though they make great bait, kahawai deserve more than this and there is no reason why they shouldn't appear more as a table fish as the fillets are extremely good if the fish has been handled and prepared properly.
The bleeding truth!
When asking most fisherman if and why they bleed a kahawai the usual response is, "yeah, of course I do". And when asked why it is usually always one of two answers, the first being the classic, "because if I don't the blood gets into the meat and spoils it", or, "I do it because I was told to and have done it ever since". For most people, bleeding a kahawai is done merely because it's what is commonly accepted as "the right thing to do", but how many people have tested out whether it actually makes any difference? And have you noticed when you walk into a fishmonger or supermarket that the whole kahawai on display have not actually been bled?
A classic example on the New Zealand psyche when it comes to bleeding comes from highly-regarded New Zealand seafood chef Al Brown who himself bleeds kahawai on capture.
"I've always done it,' he said. "Both through the gills and tail and then putting it in a separate slurry of ice for 30 minutes before being placed in clean ice. "But I can't really comment whether or not this is the right way though because I've never done a direct taste comparison on a bled and un-bled kahawai."
There is evidence to suggest that a certain method should be used in relation to the time between catch and table. If the kahawai is to be eaten the day it is caught, and was immediately put on ice or in a slurry, then the un-bled flesh is usually fine and tasty after the red sections of the fillet have been removed. However, if the fish isn't to be eaten immediately, the flesh from an un-bled kahawai takes on a brownish colour and is nowhere near as good to eat. Although the same will happen with a bled kahawai, it will take longer and should be better to eat.
Kahawai have been a staple catch for Maori throughout history and the clever way they used to catch the species is testament to the fishing skills they possessed. Most fishermen these days know that kahawai will chase and bite virtually anything if they are hungry and Maori recognised this centuries ago. They often fished with a lure known as Pa Kahawai which was expertly crafted from either a wooden or whalebone shank that has been cleverly covered with shimmering paua shell and then attached to a bone hook. These lures were trolled behind waka around the mouths of estuaries and closer to shore where they caught copious amounts of the fish that were attracted to the movement and colour of the lure.
Kahawai Fast Facts
Name: Kahawai (Arripis trutta)
Location: Found throughout New Zealand and also found in southern parts of Australia where they are known as Australasian salmon, due to its close resemblance to salmon and trout hence the scientific name trutta.
Appearance: A long, slender fish with a powerful forked tail. It has a greenish-blue body above with irregular dark markings and spots and silver to white colourings on the underside.
Size: Average size is 40-50cm and weight between 1-2kg but can reach over 75cm and weigh up to 9kg. There is no minimum catch size in New Zealand.
Daily bag limit: 20 per day.
Fishing method: Kahawai can be caught by all methods from lures to cut baits
Best time: Kahawai are caught throughout the year.
Fighting ability: Kahawai are respected for their fighting ability and are a popular target on light tackle and trout gear.
Eating ability: Traditionally spurned, kahawai is now respected as table fish both raw, cooked and smoked
New Zealand record: 8.46kg
Kahawai are important in our sport fisheries as the ideal entry-level species for those starting out and many a youngster’s first meritorious catch is a pugnacious kahawai which stretches the cheap tackle usually employed.
But kahawai are not always easy to catch. The common plastic lure with two hooks, the Smiths jig in either white, green or chrome, can still be found on most boats – usually attached to a stout handline.
And trolling this old favourite through a school of kahawai as they splash and dart after bait fish while delicate terns wheel and dive overhead is the time-honoured approach to kahawai fishing.
But it doesn’t always work. The kahawai can be frustrating, ignoring the offerings as they continue to feed in full view. The reason is that their quarry is much smaller than the lures. It is all about size.
Sometimes the kahawai will be chasing whitebait-sized fish; at others they will be eating tiny organisms like plankton or krill.
The answer is to change the approach and employ tactics used by trout fishermen.This is often done purely for the sport, with expert fly casters working their magic from a boat as it drifts through the surface action. And when they hook a fish they marvel at its strength, for a kahawai would drag a trout backwards through the water if they were attached end-to-end.
Angling for trout involves different values. It is a delicate business, as much about admiration for the quarry, the challenge and the environment in which it is found as it is about catching fish.
By contrast, saltwater fly fishing is far more brutal where the dynamics are tougher and the tackle is tested to the limit.
But the small flies used by trout anglers are well received by the sea fish. The silver smelt flies are perfect imitations of the bait commonly on the menu, and a nymph makes a very effective plankton simulator.
So when the kahawai ignore the usual silver spinners and plastic jigs take a leaf out of the trout angler’s book and reach for a size #6 Grey Ghost. The delicate fly can be fished on a salt water rod. Just tie it to a two-metre trace of 4kg breaking strain mono, and connect this to a swivel. But add a small ball sinker above the swivel to take the fly down under the surface. Then troll through the feeding kahawai and see what happens. A fly rod with a sinking line can also be used for trolling as well as casting.
Another trout tactic which really fills the bin with kahawai is the lead-core line used for deep trolling on lakes. This is colour-coded in 10-metre increments and two or three colours are sufficient, with a longer trace than is used for the fly. The trace should also be a little stronger, as the tackle is not as sensitive and forgiving as fly gear. The lure can be a smelt fly, but the popular trout trolling lures like a silver toby or cobra in clown colour (white with spots) work far better on this gear.
The reels commonly used for lake trolling are single-action, bakelite reels with a large drum. They have two knobs for winding, and a screw-type drag and optional clicker.
This tackle is perfect for slow trolling and because the line gets down several metres it will catch kahawai even when there is no surface activity. But be prepared for a reel which is spinning wildly, turning the knobs into an old-fashioned knuckle-duster on the strike. The drag should be set so the line does not run out while trolling, with the clicker on to signal a strike, but not too tight or the line may break. Then, when playing a fish extra pressure can be applied by palming the edge of the reel, avoiding the spinning knobs.
Fishing for kahawai on this tackle improves angling skills as the fish can not be forced into submission but must be handled carefully, keeping an even pressure on the line at all time, with the rod held high to absorb sudden surges.
When at the boat kahawai should be netted as the hooks and tackle may not hold together if they are hoisted into the boat. As with trout, the fish should be netted head first only when lying on its side on the surface.
This article is reproduced with express permission of
Geoff Thomas & Alex Wallace
Written by Geoff Thomas & Alex Wallace - 2011
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited
Originally published in New Zealand Fishing World