Snapper are the bread and butter target for most, but for sheer sport the kahawai are still my favourite with their speed and frequent leaps. I never get tired of admiring their sleek, streamlined form and silver flanks. As many overseas anglers would testify, we don't know how lucky we are to have such a wonderful sport fish so prevalent around our coasts. Some angling literature would suggest kahawai, encountered in a harbour/estuary setting, are most likely to be finicky, shy, or just plain difficult compared to their open water brethren.
As I live in Auckland, where it's often hard to find solitude, I enjoy getting down to a sandy beach early in the morning before all the joggers and dog walkers are out, wading along tossing a spinner. Or at least I used to until it dawned upon me that my success rate was pathetic. Yes, I want more from fishing than just fish, but believe me: sometimes just one fish makes a world of difference to one's enjoyment! My best success has come using smaller baits and lighter lines than generally used by those targeting snapper. Anchoring a huge slap of flesh on the harbour bottom is not a very productive approach in these days of reduced fish populations.
So, here are three tips for the landbased harbour anglers this summer.
The Baited Jig
This tactic was born out of frustrated attempts to use soft plastic jigs off the beach. I tried all the usual slow crawls along the bottom and sink and draw retrieves with no success. If I saw a fish veering away at the last moment I at least knew they were out there, but even speeding things up just made for faster follows, without the high speeds U turns as the retrieve finished. The answer came by adding a sliver of bonito - then I had hits before the jig had a chance to sink to the bottom. If I then tried a bait-less jig, it was totally ignored. The moment some bait went back on I had strikes on virtually every cast. After a while I cottoned on to the fact that the plastic body was a non factor and just used the bare jig head and hook with a strip of bonito. Also, the plastic body made the bait bunch up and mask the point of the hook. The answer had to be the aroma of the bait, plus the fact that it was moving.
With a light trout spin rod, 2-3 kilo line, and 7-gram jigs, this is a fun way to catch kahawai. You can wander along the beach with a small container of bait for cut strips because all you need is a sliver to give the fish the vitally important smell. I've used bonito, pilchards, and saury, so what you use does not seem to be critical. Best of all, there is no need for kilo bags of bait - this is as close to lure slinging as you can get with bait.
This one was a bit of an accidental discovery. Kiwi anglers do not seem to use floats except for piper and sprats. Otherwise it is a balloon for suspending kingfish livebaits. I took my four-year-old son James out fishing at low tide off some rocks. Without much hope I set up with a large sprat hook and chunk of pilchard under a bobber-style float. He hooked a two-pound kahawai before I was ready! Since then I have repeated the tactic with some success and it is fun: there are few things so exciting in fishing as watching a float bobbing about and then suddenly diving at high speed. Sort of like the fun all those fly fishing guys rave about when watching a dry fly getting downed by a trout.
You can use the trusty 1.8m (6ft) spin rod, but with float fishing, a longer rod is better to control the line and faster on the strike. My favourite is a 2.7m (9ft) highly modified (cut down from 11ft) 'sort of' spin rod. It has a stiff-ish action but still works well with 3 kilo string - it makes the most of the smaller fish while having enough grunt in the butt to deal with any larger customers who may gatecrash the party. Remember to keep the line between the rod tip and the float reasonably taut. Otherwise the line itself can end up tangling in drifting seaweed and a big belly makes a quick strike almost impossible.
There are two problems with float fishing. I've found a depth of two metres is good. However, with a 1.85m (6ft) rod and a fixed float, this makes for difficult casting and handling as the float jams at the rod tip while the bait dangles about awkwardly near the ground. When you cast, the float and bait gyrate against each other, causing. One counter measure is feathering the line to put some tension on it, which helps smooth out the tumbling flight of the float and bait. This also reduces the amount of loose line on the water. Using a running float helps in that the float and bait are closer together for casting and you can reel the rig in closer for easier handling.
This one is a bit like Craig Worthington's beach tactic (NZF - October 1999) of stray lining from the shore. It works best in water with a bit of movement or current, but not so much that an unweighted bait will never get a chance to sink to the bottom. This is not a good method to use in a crowded spot, especially if the current is going across in front of a group of anglers, so pick a possie where you can let the current waft your offering straight out away from you, such as off the end of a wharf or where there are no other anglers!
I tend to think in terms of a bait like half a pilchard for size, but use a whole one if that is what you feel confident with. The idea is to cast the bait out, unweighted if conditions allow, and let it drift as naturally as possible. This works easily with a spinning or fixed spool type reel, but the well-tuned baitcaster will do the job, too. Just a light touch of the thumb to prevent overruns will keep the drift under control. For spin reels, the line feed can be regulated by 'feathering the spool': that is, keeping the index finger lightly on the lip of the spool. This means slack is kept to a minimum so bites can be detected earlier and the strike can be made faster. Occasionally I'll hold the line taut to lift the bait up in the water column, straighten the line, and give it a bit of life then let it drift a bit more. And when you've let it go as far as you want, slowly reel it in as if it was a lure. Kahawai love movement, so give them something to get interested in.
Berley is a good investment. Despite knowing for years that one ought to use berley, I've only recently begun to take it more seriously than tossing in stale bread or dinner scraps. Remember, the golden rule is that berley is to draw fish to where your bait is - make sure the trail is going in the right direction and at the depth that you'll be presenting your bait. Berley is not just for boaties or rock fishing types, yet you never see anyone on a wharf or on a beach or sea wall using it. Maybe that's one of the reasons why so many people say that harbour fishing in Auckland is so hard. If it's good enough to take bread for the sprats, then how much more worthwhile is the effort to get a berley trail set up for a decent sized fish?
Notice that all these methods are moderately active - you've got to be holding the rod continuously and keeping the finger on the line. It would make you weep the number of times I've seen a guy cast out his line, prop up the rod and walk off for a smoke, then miss a savage strike or two while his back is turned. Then, twenty minutes later, he reels in his line to find he's been robbed and mutters something about the 'bloody sprats' as he stomps off to bait up again. Moral of the story: If you don't pay attention, you'll miss out - it's as simple as that. If you're out fishing just for relaxation, by all means go have a snooze, but don't blame the sprats or the depleted fish stocks for the empty fish box at the end of the day!